17-25 July – Stockholm (Sweden)

I wanted to start this post and call it “long-awaited”, but since only a couple of aficionados read these notes, I’ll just say it was late. We arrived in Stockholm with the usual thoughts of someone from Southern Europe, which sees Scandinavia as a model of efficiency, tidiness and smart solutions for everyday’s life. We weren’t disappointed of course, but what we did not expect was … it’s even better that we think, and looking and a myriad of big and small details made us wonder how these are not adopted everywhere else in the world. Perhaps having the citizen’s wellbeing at the center of politicians and city planners isn’t so easy… Pictures we post below speak for themselves. Bike lanes everywhere, not just for show, but actually to push people to leave their car behind and enjoy riding a bike. Digital payments are the norm and cash is frowned upon, even in small shops or market stalls. Public buildings, such as schools, town halls, libraries etc. are impeccable and actually better maintained than private property. The level of food, in casual or upscale restaurants, is outstanding: you pay for what you get of course, but the quality is always there. A 4,5 EUR cappuccino comes with a place to sit that is always a pleasure to enjoy, no noise (the horrific clatter of cups and saucers being loaded/unloaded rom the dishwasher which is omnipresent in Italian bars and sometimes covers conversation is completely absent here. How do they wash things?), nice materials around you. There is an obvious obsession for personal care, considering the hundreds of hairdressers/barbershops you see around, and that’s a bit disconcerting.

Overall, it is a very pleasant city to spend a week, it does not have the archeological wonders of Rome or Athens, but the whole experience is so much more valuable. We visited the Nordiska museum, which had an exhibition on the Arctic and on British influence on Nordic fashion. Both very interesting. Then we biked to Hagaparken and the Drottningholm Royal palace. And Lövo island.

Staying in Årsta (thanks again to Home Exchange!), a residential neighbourhood south of Södermalm, was perfect. Our Swedish host Sara was very kind and even allowed us to stay one extra night before boarding the ferry to Tallinn. Yes, that one.

Continue reading “17-25 July – Stockholm (Sweden)”

15-16 July – Lyåsa (Sweden)

After a short visit of Lund, lovely city near Malmö, two days in the middle of nowhere in Sweden, in a wooden summer house that has seen better times and is very basic. Not finding bed sheets and towels was a bit of a surprise… Luckily Valeria was in the scouts, and is very adaptable 🙂 Walking/cycling here makes you think of what it means really being isolated, and we wonder what this place will look like in winter. Idyllic spots on a lake and a lovely cafe 13 km from our home (the only available place) made up for the relatively boring uniformity of woods, trees and more trees.

14 July – Eskilstrup (Denmark)

After a 4-hour journey, including the ferry from Puttgarden to Rødby, a wonderful stop in the Danish countryside. Sometimes there are surprises along the road and this farm in the middle of nowhere provided us with a lovely apartment to have dinner and spend the night. The gargantuan breakfast was the cherry on the cake. Highly recommended.

11-12-13 July – Hamburg (Germany)

3 nights in Hamburg, the second city in Germany. After Berlin, we were expecting a vibrant, multicultural, fascinating metropolis with the added charm of the North, the Baltic Sea and all that. I must say we were a bit disappointed: despite the great architecture, old warehouses and entire areas of town restored to their severe and impressive bulk, to host offices and private homes on canals, and the occasional super-modern glass tower, the residential areas of Hamburg are built around boring blocks, with parks and large roads, and nothing really unique about them. I am sure we missed a lot by being there only 3 days, so this may be the wrong impression.

We visited the Elbphilarmonie, which is a gem on its own, and the city’s main attraction, St. Michael’s church. This is featured in the Lucky and Zorba film (La gabbianella e il gatto, in Italian) from the book written by Luis Sepulveda.

Our home (thanks to HomeExchange!) was in the Portuguese neighbourhood, a perfect location near the centre and very lively. Many thanks to Alex and Bettina, our perfect hosts.

Our best meal was at a typical Breton crêperie, where we killed a bottle of cider and had the opportunity to show off our French to the owners…

9-10 July – Westensee (Germany)

A delightful village in Schleswig-Holstein, Westensee is on a lake, and a paradise for biking. All flat, not like in Tuscany, and bike lanes everywhere, on every minor or major road. Our home was an apartment in a house owned by a local lady, furnished with a lot of taste (Valeria liked the blue bathroom tiles) and with direct access to the lake. The robot was keeping the grass immaculate, and we enjoyed our dinners (more matjes!).

We did a 36km tour to Nortorf, nothing special but a good way to test our biking after so much time. It was impossible to bike in 35 degrees at home, so we like being able to bike with a sweater and a wind jacket on.

8 July – Lübeck (Germany)

We came to Lübeck with some expectations (the capital of the historic Hanseatic League, a port on the Baltic Sea, birthplace of Thomas Mann, Gunther Grass lived her…) but I must say we weren’t impressed. The city center is the usual row of soulless chain shops, the same as in other German city (or European nowadays). The port is nice but it extend for many kilometers away from the historical part of town, so you only see a small bit, with not so many ships. Even the old buildings are a bit weird in their choice of materials and the way they are arranged in space. Perhaps we are spoiled with Italian art and architecture, so here simply does not compare. Nice dinner at Fangfrisch though, which helped saving the day. We stayed at an oldish hotel, which had the charm of tired interiors maintained spotlessly, a bit East-Germany-like.

The following day we travelled a short 20 minutes to Travemunde, a beach town full of tourists, all of them from Germany. Thanks to the nice weather, the huge beach and the nice matjes we had for lunch, we enjoyed the few hours we spent there. Valeria even managed to exercise on the beach, while I was happy with the 10,000 steps I managed despite the pain in my leg.

6-7 July – Berlin (Germany)

Always great to be in this lovely city, but many surprises for someone who is not a regular visitor: you can really see how sustainability is embraced in all aspects of life, and how the city drives the future in a way that its citizens like and make their own.

Mobility options are many, from e-scooters, S-bahn, trams and buses, taxis and car sharing, mostly with electric cars. Most of all, people bike everywhere and there is a cycling path on every street.

Despite the grim weather, we had a wonderful time: Valeria had never been so we started from the basics (Brandenburger Tor, Potsdamerplatz, Unter den Linden, Museuminsel and Tiergarten, where was our hotel). The Holocaust Memorial has an immediate and very direct impact on the visitor, no audioguide or brochure needed. We visited the very good DDR museum, which proved surprisingly engaging for us: perhaps life in the 70s in the DDR wasn’t so different, at least visually, from the one we experienced back then. We recognised many daily life objects and learned a lot on the life of an East German family, even by visiting a reconstruction of a typical apartment.

Topping our visit was a refined dinner at the vegetarian bistro Bonvivant, which was well worth the price and filled our senses with new flavours.

Both breakfasts were enjoyed at the Café am Neuen See, a hip place on a lake, which had about 3000 seats, all empty in the morning, but it gives an idea how popular the place is on weekends and on sunny summer evenings.

5 July – Leipzig (Germany)

You don’t expect much from former East Germany, but it’s a mistake: Leipzig is lovely and an example of how liveable and sustainable cities should be. Not much traffic, bikes everywhere, a huge pedestrian area, young people are the majority and everything is well kept, particularly public spaces and buildings.

We had a quick dinner on Marktplatz, enjoying wine and food from Alto Adige (!) while listening to some jazz music and then went to visit the largest dead-end train station in the world. I know our friend Giovanni would have liked it a lot. The following morning we visited the very modern university, and both thought it would be nice to restart our studies here…

And now, off to Berlin, only 90 minutes away.

1-2-3-4 July – Virgen (Austria)

We spent 4 nights at Hotel Bergbock, a mountain hotel near Matrei in Osttirol and Lienz. weather was OK but our plans to hike and bike were somewhat limited by some trouble with my hip, which is painful and really annoying. We managed to do some hikes and Valeria took the gondola lift to 2,300 meters on the Hohe Tauern mountains, near the Grossglöckner. On Monday, I tried to get some medical attention in Lienz first and then succeeded in Innichen (Sudtirol, in Italy) where after 3 hours wait and an x-ray I got prescribed some heavy medicines that will hopefully alleviate the issue. Thank God to Italian healthcare that was more accommodating than the Austrian one.

30 June – Udine (Italy)

A good first day of our journey spent in this relatively unknown small town in Northern Italy, near the border with Austria. It is still very hot, so as soon as we arrive we retreat in the shop/lab of our friend Francesca, who creates the most tasteful objects with Japanese cloths and other unique textiles. Take a look at her website to have an idea. Dinner at Osteria Alla Ghiacciaia follows. I must confess I ordered the least summery dish on the menu, frico, which is a local delicacy I love, but also fairly heavy.

Our longest holiday begins on 30th June

In a couple of days, Valeria and I will start our travel through Austria, Germany, Denmark, Sweden, Estonia, Lithuania, Latvia, Poland, Slovakia and then back to Austria and Italy.

It is the first time we leave for two months, and we hope we will be able to deal with being away from our family for so long.

Here is the map. We will post regular updates and pictures, in case you want to follow our adventure.

Hidden Belgium: The romantic beach town

Our favourite spot on the Belgian coast the rare times we ventured there. The kids loved the large beach, the quistax and the ice cream. I loved the boule de Berlin delivered on the beach by some bakery boy…

Read the article from the Brussels Times:

Every Belgian has a favourite beach town. Some like Ostend for its urban buzz. Others go for Knokke for its chic art galleries and restaurants. But De Haan has an authentic charm that is hard to beat.

Le Coq (as it was originally called) was built in the dunes in 1889 by the German urban planner Hermann-Josef Stübben.

He shaped the resort with winding lanes, quaint white villas in English country house style and large gardens. The houses have romantic names like Little Red Riding Hood and look like drawings in a German fairy story.

While other resorts on the Belgian coast have become overdeveloped, De Haan has hardly changed.

The strict planning laws laid down at the time have prevented the construction of modern apartment buildings, and you still find small family-run hotels, unique B&Bs and friendly restaurants.