Saturday, April 17, 2010

3 days and counting

Our bags are getting heavier (souvenirs), our feet are sore and blistered, we've hiked mountains, trekked through rainforest, and swam in oceans and seas. We visited islands, war monuments, ruins and palaces from thousands of years ago and the list goes on. We've indulged in great food and excellent wine, we've slept in good beds, bad beds and down right awful beds. We've traveled by ferry, bus, train, and plane and cannot begin to count the mileage. Our clothes could use a good washing machine instead of a bathroom sink. We've met people from all over the world and made new friends from different walks of life and most importantly we've made memories to last a life time. Joe and I have been gone for nearly seven months now and have exactly 4 days remaining until we head home (unless the volcano says otherwise). Our time away has passed seemingly in a blink of an eye, but will stay with us forever.

No matter what anyone tells you 5 months living abroad and eight weeks of truly backpacking takes its toll on the body. Don't get us wrong, we have soaked in every minute of each country and that is probably why our feet are so sore. As we finish up the last days of our trip we are having mixed emotions about getting back home. On one side we are thrilled to see our friends and family, to have a place to live with more than just a backpack of clothes to choose from, to cook our own food, to sit back and relax without having an itinerary of where we are to be next, to begin working again with the Mercy Home kids, and to just feel at home. On the other hand, we are sad to see our time coming to an end. Being together on our travels around the world, to have a new adventure each day, to be exposed to so many different cultures, to meet such wonderful people, to have a new challenge to conquer will truly be missed.

We continue to count our blessings as we have traveled safe and especially for the support from friends and family. The road doesn't end here, just takes a turn and one day we hope to jump back on the travelers highway!

Wednesday, April 14, 2010


We have departed Germany and are heading towards Paris as this post comes together. Our weekend in Munich was a blast as we enjoyed a night at the infamous Hofbrau Haus, a walking tour and a trip to the concentration camp at Dachau on Sunday.

Heading to the Augustiner Beer House on Friday night seemed like an appropriate way to kick off our time in Germany. 5 liters of beer, a few shots, 3 different kinds of meat (for Joe) and a huge plate of Spatzle later we were in good spirits. The brauhouse is setup for two things, drinking and eating. The singing, conversation with strangers and a giggling walk home were just a bonus for us. We met fellow travelers and a number of locals that night. Most of it was spent in conversation with two German guys who had been given a reprieve from their wives to have a night out on the town. They were most definitely taking advantage of this and gladly welcomed us to join them. Its a bit hard to recollect all that we talked about, but we found each of their business cards in our jackets the next morning and the pictures in our camera filled in a few of the blank spots. There was a brass band playing and Deb even got to chat with the trombone player who was more interested in sipping out of everyone's beer than he was playing his instrument. We got back to our hotel around 10:30 and it felt like 2 in the morning for us. The lesson we learned; our college years and the “abilities” we had then are long gone...

Saturday was spent nursing a headache and enjoying the many sites that Munich has to offer. We toured a number of churches, marketplaces and shops for a better part of the day. Joe finally got his wiener schnitzel as Deb enjoyed potato salad for dinner. A couple of pretzels and sweet treats fueled us as well for what turned out to be a day of serious city walking. Sunday morning we went to Dachau and took a sobering tour of the first concentration camp organized in Germany during WWII. It is hard to describe what one feels while walking around a place that's only purpose was to kill people. Germany has done a very good job of turning the camp into a place of remembrance and education. The memorial's to the victims are beautiful and we are very glad to have spent the better part of a day there.

We headed to a small town outside of Stuttgart on Sunday evening, where Joe's dad grew up, to visit his cousins. Uncle Helmuth and Aunt Marianne showed us around the area for two days. Stops included the old cities of Rothenburg, Esslingen, Ludwigsburg and Linden. It was good to meet more Wronka's and even a bit entertaining to listen to Joe try his best to speak German. His ability to order beer and pretzels is good, but it goes down hill from there...Anyway. We had a great time with the family and enjoyed some very good meals and sharing of stories. They wanted to see our pictures and may have regretted asking as we dropped about 4 megabytes of photos on them!

Germany was good to us and the best part was visiting with family that we rarely get to see. We want to get back to the northern part of the country at some point, but what we saw these past few days will be pretty hard to beat. The travel itinerary is getting short now, only Paris and London remain. One week from today we will be back in Chicago, hopefully we can find a way to slow time down!

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Cinque Terre to Interlachen

The Easter Bunny was able to find us in Italy and the present we received was great weather for our two days in Cinque Terre. Our time was short and we made every effort to explore this famously beautiful spot on the Italian Riviera. Cinque Terre or 5 Towns is a testament to human ingenuity as the local people have cultivated land, literally hanging over the sea, to grow some of the best wine grapes in the world. As a UNESCO World Heritage site the area receives many visitors, some making the 9km walk between the towns as we did and others using the train to venture into each of the 5 towns. Our hike was one of the best we have ever taken. If we were not admiring the postcardesque views of the Mediterranean from a cliff we were enjoying the tiered vineyards that rise straight up the mountainside. The trail is rugged in most parts and we were grateful that our blisters are now callouses and our lung capacity rivals that of Olympians. Even though the hike was fairly strenuous the views you are rewarded with are incomparable to anything we have seen. Lush, green vineyards rise up the mountainside and the ledge where the trail runs hangs precariously over the ultra-clear, aqua green sea below.

The first two legs of the walk are fairly easy and the trail was crowded in parts. Walking through the famed “Amore Alley” was interesting as the tradition is for two lovers to place a lock with their initials onto a fence looking over the sea, thus ensuring their love will never be broken. We decided an entrepreneur with a bolt cutter could have a steady stream of business as we witnessed a disenchanted “ex” trying to pry a lock off the fence. Having no lock and being pretty sure a marriage certificate stamped with blood (remember the fight) covered us for a few years we moved on.

A stroll through each of the towns helped disperse the crowds as people ducked into souvenir, wine or snack shops. Of course, we stopped into a Gelato shop to replenish our electrolytes. The next 3 legs got the lungs burning and the sweat pouring down. It was in the 4th town of Vernazza that we made “the purchase.” Throughout our stay in Italy we had enjoyed a glass or bottle of red wine with every meal, except breakfast, and were set on taking a few bottles home to enjoy on special occasions. Well, we found a “mom and pop” operation that welcomed us and our credit card warmly. A lengthy discussion and sample of the local wines led to “the purchase” of 12 bottles that will meet us home in about two weeks.

The day ended with an incredible dinner that included award winning stuffed mussels for Joe and pesto pasta for Deb, wine as well. Cinque Terrre was a great way to end our stay in Italy and the hike rewarded is with great pictures, laughs, wine, sore legs and most importantly, unforgettable memories.


A day long train ride from Cinque Terre got us to Interlachen, Switzerland and the heart of the Swiss Alps. We had just one and half days, but squeezed in a fair amount in the that time. Set between 2 lakes, hence the name, the city is cleanest of clean (pretty sure they comb the fringes of the grass) and the people are damn friendly. We wandered the town after arriving in the afternoon, stopping for coffee and watching the numerous adrenaline junkies jump out of airplanes and off the sides of hills only to land in the huge green field in the middle of town. Our dinner of fine wine, bread, cheese and Swiss chocolate at the lakeside will always be remembered. The full day we had was dedicated to tackling the 567 meter Harder Klum mountain. It was the hardest hike we have taken on this trip and our thighs will not soon let us forget it. The views from the top were awesome as the whole valley is spread before you like a miniature model. The fresh mountain air and a delicious picnic lunch was a fine way to celebrate our summit. Walking through town in the afternoon we were stocked up on and sampled the fine Swiss chocolate made locally. If you visit us in Chicago, you might just be privy to our stash if any remains by the time we get home. Our only regret from Switzerland is that we did not have more time there. Alas, we will just have to travel back again for some skiing and maybe even a skydive! We are on the way to Munich, Germany right now. Speeding through the Swiss countryside on a fast train is fine by us as our legs are in much need of a days rest.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Italy Part II - Florence

Happy Easter!

Leaving Rome on Friday and traveling by a very fast, efficient train to Florence left us wondering why the US has not invested more in high speed trains. We digress...Florence is a jewel and we were more than happy to spend Easter weekend in the city that is home to the Duomo, David, the Uffizi and much more.

Florence is also the final resting place for 4,202 American soldiers, including mAdd Imagey grandfather, who were killed in World War II. On April 21st, 1945 my grandpa was shot down and killed outside the city. He is buried at the American Military Cemetery in Florence. Deb and I had the honor to visit his grave on April 2nd which marked the 67th anniversary of his marriage to my grandmother. The cemetery is just outside the city and sits on the side of a beautiful wooded hill that overlooks a small river. It is quiet, incredibly well kept and run by a very friendly expatriate named Angelo. He was very interested in my grandfather's life and was helpful in our family's attempt to find the actual site of my grandpa's plane crash. American Military Cemetery's seem to be overlooked in many guidebooks (except Normandy), but in reality they are a really great place to visit as you are able to gain insight into history of a place, pay respect to those who defended our freedom and are Visiting his grave has been on my list of the things to do for many years and it will go down as one of the highlights of our trip.

Saturday was spent wandering aimlessly through the ancient streets of Florence, with a stop to see David completed by Michelangelo in 1504. Hands down the most impressive piece of art we have ever seen. Fueled by another delicious Italian pizza and red wine we continued on our way around the Duomo, up to Fort Belvieder (which is no longer open but is not marked anywhere to inform travelers of this), over the Ponte Vecchio and back again. Every corner brings a different church, a new alley to explore, a new gelato shop that is just waiting for Deb to taste test.

Sunday morning began with a lovely parade outside our hotel with Italians in traditional clothes, trumpets and drums galore. Next came fireworkers, a dove rocketed down the aisle, clapping and more fireworks were not a show we attended but the beginning of the Easter Sunday mass. It was quite the spectacle and unlike any other mass we have ever attended. The mass itself was beautiful inside the green and red marbled Cathedral. Unfortunately brunch is not a meal over here in Italy so we sat down to a traditional Italian meal for our Easter dinner together, which happened to be the best meal of our trip. Delicious homemade fettuccine for Deb and Spaghetti with mussels and a veal loin for Joe. Of course there was a stop at yet another Gelato shop to top of the delicious meal and to make-up for the lack of Easter candy. An Easter Sunday that will not soon be forgotten.

Tomorrow we head to Cinque Terre for a hike through the five villages before forging ahead to Switzerland on Wednesday. Our days are quickly dwindling before our eyes and although we are looking forward to being home, visiting with friends and family, and not living out of a backpack we are sad to see our time abroad coming to an end. Italy has been a magnificent stop along the road, one that has quickly won our hearts, and a place we hope to return to because seven days is not nearly enough.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Part I - Rome

From fountains to fettuccine and everything between, we tried our best to do Rome and all that it has to offer. The city is amazing and should be added to your list of places to visit if you never have. We arrived on Monday and visited our first church (Catholic that is) since leaving home in October. St. John's in Laterno was beautiful and the history of the church is incredibly interesting. Of course we indulged in pasta, wine and the always delicious Gelato!

Tuesday was dedicated to all things Roman. Colisseum, the Forum, Palatine Hills, Circus Maximus, etc. The simple fact is that Rome dictated for a very long time how the world ran and the influence of this city is felt to this day in most everywhere. We enjoyed the cool spring weather as we tramped around, through and over all sorts of ancient sites. What we enjoyed most about Rome is that the city has found a harmony between its past and the future. Its not uncommon to find anicent ruins next door to a Apple Store or sitting on the Spanish steps watching people shop at Gucci.

Wednesday was spent at the Vatican and touring the many museum's and galleries that are housed on the grounds. A little known fact is that Vatican City is the world's smallest commonwealth. One would think that such a title means the place can be walked in total in a short time. That is not the case at all. We spent nearly 5 hours in the various museums, enjoying sculptures, paintings and religious relics and maybe saw ½ of all there is to see. St. Peter's Square and St. Peter's Cathedral awe inspiring and we spent a few hours just enjoying the two places. Finishing our tour in the Sistine Chapel was the proverbial icing on the cake.

Our one goal for Thursday was to secure tickets to mass that evening with the Pope. We arrived at the US Bishops office for visitors to the Vatican around 9am to try and garner tickets from the friendly nun who was in charge of distribution. We were prepared to pull our all of our “Catholic Cards” (eg. Lifelong Catholics, graduates of Catholic Universities, employees of a Catholic organization, Catholic Sunday school teachers) in order to get tickets that were in short supply. The simple act of opening a door for a stranger as we entered the office was all we really needed to do. As Joe began the “we are Catholic and need tickets” sales pitch, the woman we opened the door for turned and offered us two extra tickets she had. Tickets acquired! We are pretty sure we could have got tickets without the stranger's kindness as it turned out the nun was from Minnesota!

Anyway, with tickets in hand we enjoyed a morning coffee at the Trevi Fountain (a coin was thrown into it to ensure our return to Rome), gelatto on the Spanish Steps and an afternoon snack at the Pantheon as well as a stroll around the Piazza Novanna. Around 2pm we headed to St. Peter's to get in line for mass, but quickly found out that mass as at St. John's in Laterno and raced to get in line there. As the mass hour drew near the crowds got bigger and we soon found ourselves in a sea of people. When the gates opened it was impossible for us to even walk, we just got carried by the current of bodies to the door. Thankfully, we got into the church, no seat, but we were able to enjoy the beautiful Holy Thursday mass with the Pope. Another delicious dinner ended a near perfect day in Rome.

We departed Rome on Friday morning for Florence. Rome was spectacular and our sore feet can attest to all there is to do and see in the city.