April 27, 2006

Welcome to Our Grand Tour of Europe

On June 11, 2004, our family of three embarked on a 14-month adventure that we called "Our Grand Tour of Europe."

At ages 59 and 48-- and after several vacation trips to Europe-- Charley and I found ourselves wanting a different kind of experience. We wanted to see much more of Europe and also wanted the opportunity to "live" somewhere in Europe. At one time we thought we would pursue this dream at retirement. But following a two week trip to France in the summer of 2003, we decided to accelerate our plans. We especially wanted our daughter Kelly-- age 10-- to be part of this experience.

Much to the surprise of family and friends, we announced a family sabbatical. After 27 years in corporate America, I resigned my job as a VP of Human Resources. Charley put his home renovation business on hold. We took Kelly out of school for her 6th grade year. We rented our house and put most of our personal possessions in storage.

Our 14 month trip involved 11 weeks in England and Scotland, 33 weeks in France, 11 weeks in Italy, and 6 weeks in the German/Austrian/Swiss Alps. We lived in a farmhouse in Provence France for 6-1/2 months during the off-season, and Kelly attended the local village school. Most of our trip involved one and two week rentals. We also completed two substantial walking trips: the 190 mile Coast-to-Coast walk across England and the 100-mile Alpine Pass walk in Switzerland. We stayed in big cities, small villages and in the countryside. It was an absolutely amazing experience, significantly enhanced by the people we met and the many friends we made along the way.

This blog/website tells the story of our trip, most of it written and posted during our travels. The website was designed primarily as a way to update our family and friends about our experiences. I also wanted to create a permanent record of our trip. Part of the website is a day-to-day reporting of our family's activities during the trip: what we did and saw, the people we met, the many wonderful meals. I've also tried to share the realities of our family's experience together, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

During the time we lived in Provence, I didn't keep a day-to-day journal. Instead I wrote and posted several "essays" about our experiences. (There are also a few contributions from Charley and Kelly in this part of the website.)

Right now this site is organized in reverse chronological order of our trip. Here are a couple of links that might be helpful if you are visiting Our Grand Tour for the first time:

Some background information about our trip (a letter to friends)

A list of all the entries, by week (start at the bottom and work up)

Photo albums from our trip (this is still a work-in-progress)

Much to our surprise, over the past two years many other people from all over the world have somehow found their way to this website. Several of them have even taken the time to write us, and we are always glad to answer questions or provide help to others who may be considering a similar trip. You can contact us at woodfamily@ourgrandtour.com.

We especially want to recognize the support of Pauline Kenny, the founder of www.slowtrav.com. Pauline set up this website and hosts it on Slow Travel. She has become a good friend. We also want to recognize the support and friendship of so many others in the truly remarkable Slow Travel community, many of whom we met during our trip and since we've been home.

We have been so encouraged by the interest in our family's adventure. We hope our story is an inspiration to others to follow their dreams, whatever they may be.

April 21, 2006

Week 61 - Alpine Pass Walk, Part II (and the end of Our Grand Tour)

Photos from the second week of our two-week Alpine Pass walk in Switzerland are posted beginning here.

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Although bad weather altered our plans in the early part of the week, we finished the 100-mile Alpine Pass Walk in beautiful weather, enjoying the spectacular alpine scenery.

We spent the last night of the walk in the small village of Saanen, and then took the Golden Pass scenic train to Lake Geneva for one final night in the international city of Geneva. And then it was home to the USA after 14 months.

Saturday, August 6 (Rest day in Kandersteg)

Today is a rest day and we like having another day at the Hotel Bernerhof. It’s the third rest day of the trip, but the first one that we haven’t had to do part of the walk. We didn’t set the alarm, but still made it down in time for breakfast. We sat with Al, as usual. We decided to have a very laid-back day—especially Charley, who had such a long, hard day yesterday. I think I made the right decision yesterday, since my knee didn’t really hurt today at all.

We saw the German couple in the restaurant at breakfast... they had ended up at this hotel too. It has been fun running into the same people at various places along the route, just as we had on the Coast-to-Coast walk in England last summer. The German couple had checked the weather and heard that bad weather was coming in. They were thinking about ending their walk now and heading back to Germany a day early. We decided not to worry too much about the weather—one of our mottos on this trip is “it is what it is.” We’ll worry about the weather—and potentially an alternate plan—tomorrow morning.

We poked around in our room and then went for a walk around Kandersteg. We looked in all the various shops and bought a couple of things. I found a reasonably-priced book on the wildflowers of Switzerland, something I’d been looking for. We had lunch and a couple of big beers at an outdoor restaurant. A big tabby cat joined us, and Kelly fed it some bread. We passed Al—also enjoying lunch on an outdoor terrace, listening to his music and reading a book—when we walked back to the hotel. He was also taking a day off.

Continue reading "Week 61 - Alpine Pass Walk, Part II (and the end of Our Grand Tour)" »

Week 60 - Alpine Pass Walk, Part I

Photos from our two-week Alpine Pass walk in Switzerland are posted here.

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We planned our long trip to include two long distance walks. In July/August 2004 we completed the 190 mile Coast-to-Coast walk across England. During our second summer we planned to do the 100 mile Alpine Pass walk in the Swiss Alps. The Alpine Pass walk became the “grand finale” of our Grand Tour… the very last chapter of this long family adventure.

The Alpine Pass route is actually a complete trek across Switzerland, from the east on the border with Liechtenstein to Montreux on the shores of Lake Geneva. The entire walk covers about 202 miles and crosses 16 mountain passes. Our walk (our third self-guided walk with Sherpa Walking Holidays) was the central portion of the route: about 100 miles and eight passes through absolutely beautiful countryside. Although we had hiked extensively in England and France, we had never experienced the elevation-gain that was involved in this particular walk. Like our walk across England, this walk in Switzerland was one of the highlights of our trip.

Thursday, July 28 (Lucerne to Engelberg)

Our train left the Lucerne station this afternoon at 1:41 pm, a one-hour trip to Engelberg where our walk begins tomorrow morning. Charley and Kelly bought some lunch at the station while I stood with the bags. Our fourteen months of luggage is now condensed down to one big rolling duffel bag (that’s not completely full), two standard rolling suitcases, three backpacks, and a rolling computer bag. Kelly and I both have our hiking boots hanging off our luggage. It still seems like we have a lot of stuff. After today we won’t have the computer bag any more. And for the next two weeks we’ll be wearing those hiking boots.

We ate our lunch as soon as we got on the train and were probably done before the train even left the station.

This train must make the trip between Lucerne and Engelberg several times a day, as there’s a train scheduled every hour and even every half-hour in the morning and late afternoon. Engelberg is the starting point for a couple of mountain-top day-trips from Lucerne, including the ride up to the glaciers at Mount Titlis (10,626 feet). The cable car to Mount Titlis is called the Rotair and somehow rotates so passengers get a 360 degree view while traveling up the mountain.

Our train traveled around Lake Lucerne (the Vierwaldstättersee), stopping at several small villages and towns. We passed along the base of Mount Pilatus (6,995 feet). We had done a day-trip to the top of Pilatus in 1997, long before we would have considered ourselves hikers. I mainly remember how rattled Charley was by the steep train ride up to the very top of the mountain.

A lot of the passengers on the train today seemed to be hikers. The Swiss train system is considered one of the best in the world, known for being very clean and very punctual. When we arrived in Zurich a few days ago, we bought special train passes that give us a 50% discount on trains, buses and mountain railways while we are in Switzerland. We also have a card for Kelly where she rides for free. We’ve almost paid for our tickets in our ticket savings just the last couple of days.

It had seemed like we were in a normal train, but about 15 minutes before we reached Engelberg, the train attached to some kind of rack and began to ascend the mountain on a very steep track, moving much more slowly. Engelberg is at 3287 feet, so we’re glad that the train got us up this high before we start our long hike. Tomorrow we will climb further up in the mountains beyond Engelberg. Engelberg is a town of about 3500 people, a center for winter and summer mountain activities. The village is also famous for a large Benedictine monastery founded in 1120

Our hotel tonight is the Hotel Banklialp, which sits on a slope on the outskirts of Engelberg—right on the path where we begin our walk in the morning. The manager of the hotel met us at the station. (We had asked Maria to call for us and set this up.) He spoke very good English and was very friendly. It was nice to get the ride instead of having to walk with our luggage—especially since the hotel is up a hill.

We like this hotel a lot… a good place for a relaxing afternoon and hopefully a good night’s sleep before we begin our walk. We have a big room with a separate area for Kelly. We were al happy to have our own personal toilet again! The hotel is modern, but has a very traditional décor. Best of all, we have a little balcony with a table and three chairs that overlooks the village with mountains seemingly all around us. I can peer over the edge of the balcony, and there’s our path for tomorrow… heading up the mountain behind us. We enjoyed the beautiful view and a couple of hours on the balcony. Kelly and I used the time to study the maps and our Alpine Pass guidebook. She has asked to carry the map and guidebook each day and be our navigator on this walk. Although I like doing this too, I’m happy to turn over this job. Our little girl is growing up!

Our dinner is included in our package on nine of the fourteen nights of this walking tour. We had a similar arrangement on our walking tour in Alsace, France a few years ago. When the dinner is included, normally there is a set meal (kind of a daily special with several courses) that we found was quite good. This forced us to eat some unfamiliar food (good food!) that we probably wouldn’t have ordered. Tonight the meal was included. Charley and I both enjoyed our dinner, but it wasn’t really to Kelly’s liking. We had a big salad with vinaigrette dressing; a noodle soup (clear broth with very fine noodles); a main dish of cold beef with a dressing, boiled potatoes and more salad; and a good dessert with vanilla and strawberry ice cream and meringue. (Meringue was invented in the Swiss town of Meiringen where we will stay in two nights.) Kelly really only liked the noodle soup. We both gave her part of our soup and ended up ordering her a plate of French fries, which were really good. We also asked if she could have just plain ice cream without the meringue. In the future we will plan to ask about a children’s menu. Compared to a lot of European children, we have found that Kelly—just turned 12—is often taken for much older… perhaps 15. Unfortunately, her eating preferences aren’t quite at that maturity level. I do want to be sure that she gets a good meal during the walk.

We took showers, worked on our packing (again!), and read out on our balcony. We’re excited to see what tomorrow will bring as we head up further into the Swiss Alps.

Friday, July 29 (Engelberg to Englesnalp)

Today was a tough day, especially for our first day. We only walked 8.7 miles, but we climbed up 2730 feet to the highest point of our day. the Jochpass. And although we began the day in beautiful weather, we encountered an unexpected thunder-and-lightening storm in the last hour, an hour which will go down as one of our scariest hiking experiences.

We’re doing our walk once more with Sherpa Expeditions, a walking company based in Britain. The Alpine Pass Walk is our third Sherpa tour; we’ve actually done a walking every summer now for the past four summers. We like the approach of a self-guided tour. We’re supplied with a packet of maps and directions. We’re given alternatives for a more scenic or bad weather route. Our hotels are picked and reserved for us. Our luggage is moved each day. (Thank goodness, because we absolutely could not backpack for 14 days!) But we walk on our own and have a fair amount of flexibility in our walking. On this trip our walking notes offer many alternatives in the event of bad weather—alternate trails, cable cars, even buses. On a couple of days the notes even say that we need to check on conditions and not hike up over a mountain pass if there is snow. The Alpine Pass walk is only available July to September due to weather, but even in summer there could be snow at the highest elevations. This is a new experience for us—the first time we’ve hiked in Switzerland.

Continue reading "Week 60 - Alpine Pass Walk, Part I" »

February 11, 2006

Week 59 - Munich and Lucerne

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Other photos for Munich and Lucerne are posted here.

Our trip was nearing its end as we left St. Gilgen, Austria for two shorter stays in Munich, Germany and Lucerne, Switzerland. We were building our energy for the grand finale of our grand tour-- a 100 mile walk in the Swiss Alps.

Saturday, July 23 - St. Gilgen to Munich

We were up early to finish our final packing in our St. Gilgen apartment. Charley had spoken to Theo the caretaker, and we left behind food and some clothes that he will get to a needy family. We also doubled the size of the apartment library with a great supply of books and left behind the Rummikub game that we’ve enjoyed since Provence. Our luggage continues to shrink as we get closer to our Swiss walk.

We left the keys in the apartment and drove down to the village for breakfast. We’ve really enjoyed staying in St. Gilgen and definitely will come back here again. We picked a café for breakfast (juice, coffee, rolls, meat and cheese), had a leisurely meal and then one last look at the village. Charley and Kelly stopped in a drugstore looking for shampoo. While I waited outside the shop, a woman walked by with her little dog. The dog was trotting along carrying a rolled up newspaper in its mouth. The paper was about the size of the dog!

We took a different route to the autobahn (by Fuschl) and then headed toward Munich. This was the last journey of our 14-month trip that we made by car.

About an hour from Salzburg we exited the autobahn for a brief detour at Bad Aibling. My parents lived in this village when I was born, and I lived here for a few months when I was a baby. (I was actually born at a military hospital in Munich.) My dad was in the army, stationed in Bad Aibling, and my parents lived in the village—not on the base. I think they actually rented a room in a woman’s house—they were just 22 and 20 when I was born, so very young and having their first of many European experiences. We returned to the USA before I was a year old, but I grew up knowing about Bad Aibling and Bavaria and perhaps that is one reason I feel such a strong connection there.

Continue reading "Week 59 - Munich and Lucerne" »

December 13, 2005

Week 58 - St. Gilgen (Austria)

Photos from our two weeks in St. Gilgen are posted here.

Our second week in St. Gilgen was also so special. We spent two more days in Salzburg, hiked around the lake to the village of St. Wolfgang (seen above), hiked twice at a high plateau called the Postalm, and visited the Königssee outside Berchtesgaden. Kelly celebrated her 12th birthday this week-- her second birthday away from home on this trip-- and we had two days of activities in her honor. Kelly and and I did have a major misadventure riding double on a summer toboggan ride, though fortunately neither of us were too seriously hurt.

At the end of the week we did some major repacking, leaving a suitcase and a variety of books, clothes and food behind us in St. Gilgen. This was our last of 20 rentals during our 14 month trip. For the next three weeks we will travel by train and on foot in Germany and Switzerland.

Saturday, July 16

We were up early again today for our second Salzburg day. We started our day just outside the city at Hellbrunn Palace. We’ve just been to the edge of the grounds before (on the Sound of Music tour to see the famous “gazebo” from the movie), and I’ve always wanted to see the palace, especially the trick fountains. This is another place that was free because of our Salzburg cards.

We paused briefly at the Sound of Music gazebo. It was moved here after the movie, and is probably a major tourist destination in Salzburg. Charley and Kelly acted silly and I took pictures. (“I’m eleven, going on twelve….)

Hellbrunn Palace was built as a summer palace—a pleasure palace—for Archbishop Markus Sittkus who lived here from 1612 – 1619. Back then the Archbishops were more royalty than any kind of “spiritual” leader it seems. The palace has beautiful grounds and all the buildings are a vibrant mustard-yellow color. The style seems almost Italian. It’s hard to believe that the buildings are almost 500 years old.

The most famous part of the palace is the trick water gardens. I had read about the gardens, but didn’t tell Charley and Kelly anything because I wanted them to enjoy the surprises in store. We were in a group of about 30 people, and toured the gardens with a guide. She conducted the hour-long tour in both German and English.

The Archbishop constructed the gardens to play practical jokes on his friends and visitors. We must have seen ten different water jokes—from a table that squirts water up from the seats (no one accepted the offer to sit at the table—this one is well known) to a statue that squirted water on unsuspecting passersby. We went into a grotto and were squirted from hidden sprinklers on the way out.

Kelly and I really enjoyed the gardens, but Charley didn’t like it at all. He was quite disgusted that a supposed man of God would have been so silly. Plus I don’t think Charley was at all interested in getting wet. Some of the children in our tour group got quite wet, but then of course they wanted to get wet and always stood right where the water was coming out.

We walked through the beautiful gardens and then did a self-tour through the palace. This was all interesting, but the trick water garden was the show-stopper.

After the palace, we drove over to the Stiegl brewery (called Stiegl’s Brauwelt - World of Beer), another destination included in our Salzburg card. This is supposed to be the largest exhibition on beer in all of Europe. The brewery was also on the outskirts of the city and a little hard to find, but worth our efforts. We did a fun self-tour of the brewery. There was a computer quiz about beer which Kelly took and she was very proud to get a certificate as a “beermeister”. My incredible eleven-year old kid—now a beer expert! At the end of the tour we got to go to a tavern and we each got two free beers and a big soft pretzel. Our nice waiter recommended an Austrian soft drink for Kelly called Almdudler, which she enjoyed. Our admission also included a special gift, and we selected beer glasses that we’ll ship home. There was a big gift shop full of Stiegl logo items, and Kelly bought herself a round plastic tray so she can serve drinks, something she says she’s always wanted.

It started raining while we were in the brewery, and we decided not to go back into Salzburg, which had been our original plan. We had talked about going up to the massive Hohensalzburg Fortress that sits above the city and is really the symbol of Salzburg. The fortress was built in the 11th century and the largest, completely-preserved fortress in central Europe. We had just been there in December 2003 (actually on Christmas Day), and because of the rain we decided to just head back to St. Gilgen. Even though we didn’t do anything else in Salzburg, we still think we got a good deal with our Salzburg cards—probably got 150% value for what we paid for the cards.

The woman at the Stiegl shop suggested a place to stop for lunch, but it was closed and then we couldn’t find another place nearby, so we headed back to the Salzkammergut. We stopped at the big grocery store outside Mondsee and bought a roast chicken from a man in a little truck outside, then took that home for lunch.

We spent the rest of the afternoon reading in our little apartment. We’ve been on-the-go pretty aggressively the last couple of days and were happy to just have a lazy afternoon. For dinner we went into St. Gilgen and had dinner again at the Fischer Wirt restaurant on the waterfront. We had another really good meal outside on the terrace. This time I had salmon. We watched the dancers again, most of them the same couples from last Saturday night... some terrific dancers.

Continue reading "Week 58 - St. Gilgen (Austria)" »

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