In our most recent blog, I wrote about returning to Europe after four months exploring Africa, The Middle East, and Central Asia. After all that, we were definitely ready to return to a part of the world where things were more familiar.
It was during our last week on Safari in the Serengeti that Michael had a vision of what our Summer travel could look like. It came to him during a particularly hot night after we'd finished our bucket showers and were tucked in our little tent under a very necessary mosquito net. He proposed a two-week car trip through the exact opposite landscape from our current location - the Swiss Alps! So that's how we ended up in Munich, Germany on our way to Strasbourg, France where our road trip began.
Kudos to anyone who blithely rents a car in a foreign country. We do not take getting behind the wheel lightly - in fact in the entire four years we've been traveling we've only rented a car a handful of times. Mostly because it is expensive, and public transportation in Europe works so well, but also because it causes marital strife around navigation. (Can anyone relate?) But now, with help from the implacable travel Goddess who speaks to us through Google Maps and guides us all the way until she says the magical words "your destination is on the right", that is less of a problem.
But even with her calm, sometimes hilarious phonetic driving directions, you still have to keep a sharp eye on the speed limits, carefully count the exits on each round-a-bout (wait, was that the exit? - go around again!) follow roads that often look like tangled spaghetti on a map, decipher the parking rules in each city, and navigate in a foreign language! All while keeping one eye on the Google Maps App on your phone and the other on the road ahead. So again, hats off to all of you who are so very brave!
Our adventure began at the Thrifty car rental desk in Strasbourg. First Michael had to do the "insurance" dance with the representative before we chose a brand-new zippy blue Citroen. So, with our bags stowed (one in the trunk, one in the back seat), a nice selection of car snacks, and a trusty paper map just in case Gretta got it wrong, we set off for our first stop - Eigeltingen, Germany. The good news - we got out of the city without a problem and onto the motorway. The bad news - we got up to full speed at 100km an hour, but heading in the wrong direction. Oops!
Before I go any further, let me take a moment to explain the original vision for this trip. What struck Michael about the idea of a spontaneous jaunt through the Bavarian countryside was the idea of setting out with no firm plan. Definitely not the usual Senior Nomad operating procedure. We'd just meander, with the help of a guidebook we'd picked up in Dubai aptly named "20 Perfect Road Trips in Germany, Switzerland, and Austria." We'd find a hamlet nestled in a verdant valley, pull up to a postcard-perfect guest house and be welcomed for the night. As it turns out, even though we pride ourselves on being flexible and even a little free-spirited about our next home as Senior Nomads - we found ourselves feeling differently once we really thought it through. First, it was the beginning of August, the peak holiday season for all of Europe. Second, if there was no room at the inn(s), so to speak, and even though we travel with our pillows... well, let's not go there. To avoid marital mishaps we decided we should book at least few nights ahead. So, we did what we always do and fired up the Airbnb app.
And that's how we ended up in an Airbnb in Eigeltingen, Germany on a large estate where the owner breeds dogs, rare cattle, and deer. It was a challenge to find, but another Godsend is that Airbnb drops a pin directly on the listing in Google Maps. So when we turned onto a narrow, unmarked road that wound through a dense patch of forest we trusted our instruments. After about five minutes of uncertainty, we broke through the trees and just ahead was the butter yellow manor house framed in a swell of wheat fields. Our host, Gabi was a ball of energy. She is an internationally renowned breeder of Labradors and Chihuahuas, as well as ancient breeds of cattle, including sheep with long, spiral horns that would sit nicely on a Unicorn, and indigenous deer. She also serves an excellent breakfast, made with heritage breed chicken eggs, of course.
After two nights we were off to picturesque Neuhausen-am-Rheinfall in Switzerland for an overnight stay. On the way, we stopped in the beautiful medieval town of Stien-am-Rhein for lunch. While we were there Michael received a local news alert that a terrible crime had taken place right near where we were staying. A man attacked several people in a small insurance office in the town center with a chain saw - and he was on the loose! In Switzerland? Really? We made our way to our Airbnb where we had booked "a room in the house" rather than our usual "entire house." Our host, determined we could safely go into town for dinner, but this event really shook the locals and it was the talk of the restaurant.
Our single night with Monika was a treat. It was our first shared bathroom situation, but our hall-mates were two young girls who stayed out late and slept late. Monika's company specializes in selling high-end bedding, so our bed felt like a bowl of cream. And again, we enjoyed a beautiful breakfast.
The town is famous for its waterfalls, so we stopped to take a look on our way to our next stop, an Airbnb in Thal, Switzerland where we would spend another single night. This time we enjoyed a nice bedroom with an ensuite bathroom and our host was at home in the apartment. All this was something we hadn't experienced before, but with short notice and short stays it was actually enjoyable. The apartment sat right on the shore of Lake Constance, practically on the water. But for most of the trip, the weather was cool with overcast skies and lots of rain - even some rather spectacular thunder and lightening storms at night. We arrived during a downpour that never really let up so we couldn't enjoy the lake. However, our host Amer was good company and we had writing to catch up on, so we were fine.
Onward Senior Nomads! We were off to Innsbruck, Austria high in the Alps where surely we would enjoy vistas of mountain peaks iced with glaciers, and deep valleys dotted with flower specked cottages while listening for the sound of cow bells gently clanging in the distance. But the weather had other ideas so we didn't see much of anything but low clouds and wet roads. The highlight of this leg was the swing through Lichtenstein, a minuscule municipality, and the only Europe country we hadn't visited. We stayed long enough to use our last Swiss Francs to buy ice-cream bars so we'd have a receipt as proof we'd been there.
We continued to wind our way upward through the mountain pass. The low-hanging clouds snagged on the peaks were actually quite beautiful, but with low visibility, winding roads, frequent tunnels, driving took our full concentration. We rolled into Innsbruck dead tired. This time our Airbnb nest was on the top floor of a four-story building without an elevator. So we emptied half of the contents of our suitcases into shopping bags on the lobby floor and made two trips. We would be spending three nights here, so we didn't do much that night except get to the grocery before it closed for frozen pizza and breakfast needs before we collapsed in bed. Maybe the sun would come out tomorrow.
Or not. Innsbruck was a delightful town and if you are the hiking, mountain biking, snow sporting type, a great year-round destination. But we are none of the above, so we enjoyed the city at ground level until the last day when the sun finally came out. We took two breath-taking gondola rides up 6,500 feet to Nordkette, the famous ski-resort at the top of the mountain. We were able to see for miles, but before long, a chilly cloud bank settled down on top of us, so we reluctantly descended back to town.
Sadly, we determined our "Sound of Music" dream of alpine adventure was not going to come true. So instead, we would hightail it south to Italy! Not a bad choice in any given situation! And we knew that if nothing else, the food would be fabulous and the rain would be warmer. That's the joy of Europe, there's always a new country and a new cuisine to explore just a border away. And of course, having the car gave us the flexibility we needed.
We settled on San Pellegrino in the Lombardy region north of Milan as our destination because it wasn't too far over the Austrian border, and even though we've been to 33 cities in Italy, we haven't spent much time in the northern part.
Unaware of what was ahead, we set out early on the last Saturday in July and immediately joined the slow exodus of thousands of other holiday-makers heading south over Brenner Pass. We stopped for one night in the tiny village of Ostiglia. It was just a spec on the map but a welcome a respite from a long day on the road. Our Airbnb host, Elizabetta has just one room available to weary travelers but she treats them like royalty. She made us breakfast that included a platter of warm homemade pastries, earthy espresso and fresh-pressed orange juice. And best of all there were three adorable kittens to play with.
On our way to San Pellegrino, we could have stopped in the beautiful city of Verona and stood beneath what locals say is Juliet's balcony with hundreds of other tourists, but we chose the more sedate, but equally stunning city of Mantua, where Romeo learned of her death. This rich merchant city has charm and history beyond anything we'd seen outside Florence. And it wasn't overcrowded so we got a real sense of the place. A highlight was the Basilica di Sant'Andrea, where the trompe d' oil carvings painted on the walls and ceilings in the late 1400's were so realistic you had to put your nose an inch away to be convinced they weren't actually carved in stone. It was one of the most amazing things I've ever seen.
We enjoyed traditional pizza for lunch and came to realize we were in the region known for creamy polenta and risotto dishes sparked with lemon, and also an addictive seasonal pastry called sbrisolona. Who cared if it rained? Which it didn't!
Our three nights in San Pellegrino turned out to be the perfect antidote to the dreary weather we'd left in Austria. The days were sunny and our absolutely perfect Airbnb overlooked the river that feeds the famous mineral water bottling plant. The small city itself is a quiet, almost sleepy place. It's glory days as a health destination with a must stay at the Grande Hotel peaked in the early 1900's, but there are some lovely remnants of Belle Epoche architecture, and the hotel is slowly being renovated. San Pellegrino is also creating new facilities with an interactive visitors center and a restaurant. I spent a full day at the TQ Terme Spa where you can experience 36 different rooms including a hay sauna, a fizz pool, a salt room (where you lay on slabs of warm salt), a dark "sensory" room where you contemplate life on a waterbed, all types of pools both indoors and out, a restaurant, and a full range of body treatments. I spent an entire day there!
On our way back to Strasbourg, we had one final stop at an Airbnb in Freiburg, Germany. We stayed in a private apartment attached to a farmhouse that was part of a small family winery. It was a tranquil setting and I enjoyed using bounty from the garden to make dinner the first night, and then enjoyed a homey Italian dinner in a family-run restaurant in the village the next night.
We returned our trusty blue Citroen in once piece and happily handed in the keys! Our next stop was a few days in Paris exploring a new neighborhood since our daughter and her family recently moved from Montmartre. We ended up in the 11th arrisdismont in Oberkampf in a cute Airbnb apartment on the 6th floor with no elevator (some Nomad parts are starting to wear out!) We enjoyed great walks and a few museums - and I tried my hand at painting outdoors in the Luxembourg Gardens during an Airbnb Experience.
Mary's new home is in the village of Samois-Sur-Seine, about an hour south of Paris where we would spend three blissful weeks together!
Thanks for following along!
Debbie and Michael Campbell
The Senior Nomads