Not in my defense, but I started this post before the attacks occurred over the weekend in Paris. I include this, only because it seems so frivolous to write about my travels and my experiences. That said, being in Europe, even though I don’t “live” here, I feel more connected to or maybe more aware of issues that concern European countries. I do think that, yes, we should grieve for France, but we should also grieve for the world.
Another bonus to this adventure is that we’ve explored beyond the boundaries of Switzerland a few times, heading to Annecy, France in October and last week to Venice, neither one a place that I had visited before (and, in the case of Annecy, I hadn’t even known about the city). For both trips, we traveled as a group which can be fun at times but also tiring, however, for most of the time, the students spent a good part exploring the cities and other stops, such as Lausanne and Padua, on their own.
Annecy is a small city in eastern France, close to the Swiss border, and it felt, in some ways, as though we were still in Switzerland – in terms of the cheese and bread, at least. It is known as “the Venice of France” because there are a few canals that run through the old part of the city, but the lake is what really defines the city – and the Alps that are in the distance. We spent our time in the old part of the city, but Annecy offers more than just good food (although that was a bonus for us). Because it is so close to the mountains, apparently there are some wonderful trails worth exploring that aren’t too far from Annecy. Before arriving in Annecy, we stopped to explore Chillon Castle which is a medieval fortress and became quite famous thanks to Byron who wrote a poem about a prisoner (titled “The Prisoner of Chillon” – I have yet to read it).
After some time exploring the castle, we headed to Lausanne which felt like the big city after a few weeks in Zermatt! Lausanne is in the French-speaking part of Switzerland (unlike Zermatt which is German-speaking), and it felt quite different culturally. My camera battery died in Lausanne (I was so sad!), so I didn’t capture what that city is like, but it was beautiful! Our last stop there was the Olympic Museum which was, if you enjoy the Olympics as I do, so interesting!
From Lausanne, we traveled on to Annecy, arriving around 7:00 pm Friday night. We were able to explore the city’s food options before going to bed, waking up, and then exploring more food options all day Saturday, pretty much. Our trip coincided with the Alpenage festival, when the animals (mainly cows but goats and other beasts too) return from the mountains to villages, so there were tons of vendors set up throughout the old town, which was one giant festival – consisting mainly of food, particularly bread and cheese! The animals were fun too – there were lots of goats, sheep and cows around town.
The trip to Annecy was a change from Zermatt, but it was a very quick trip – leaving Friday and returning Sunday – giving us just a taste (literally and figuratively) of what Lausanne and Annecy offered. We did not wander too far afoot, and while there were plenty of activities, Annecy, in many ways, was a relaxing experience.
Quite different was our Venice trip last week which felt like ‘real’ travel, if that makes sense. And we certainly visited a ‘real’ city! I had never felt much of a draw to Venice, and if someone had asked me where I would have ranked on my list of places to visit, I might have lumped it into the top 20, only if it were included with other Italian cities. Perhaps because of my low expectations, perhaps because of the amazing weather we enjoyed, or maybe there really IS something magical about Venice, but it totally surprised and enchanted me. We arrived late Tuesday, traveling by bus and feeling quite hungry, confused and tired by the time we settled into our hotel around 7:00 pm (and then headed out for dinner). I woke up early-ish on Wednesday and set out to see some of the city before breakfast, and I couldn’t get over it. I mean, this was just a few feet from our hotel:
Venice is a wonderful city to walk, wander and get lost in – it’s medieval, in that labryinthic way of older cities, ones that don’t have a plan – and the water and bridges are everywhere! People talk about it and often refer to the light, and there is something magical, especially in the early morning and late afternoon, about the light that touches the city. I spent the first day just wandering around the city, sticking close to Piazza San Marcos, but also touring the Doge’s Palace and San Marcos Basilica.
Thursday was a bit more “focused” in terms of sight-seeing, and so worth it since Venice offers a rich cultural history that deserves for people to venture beyond the main square. We first took the vaporetto (the water bus system that is SO amazing) to the Basilica Santa Maria della Salute which was a quick and easy ride that offered up some nice views:
After wandering around the streets and stopping for not one but two cappucinos at a cafe, we then split up. I headed to the Peggy Guggenheim Collection which may have been my favorite touristy spot – if you like 20th century art, it’s an incredible museum and worth every euro. From there, I spent a few hours in the Accademia learning quite a bit about Venetian painting of the Renaissance. We had a wonderful guide who made the experience so much more interesting because of her knowledge of art and history. It was later than I expected when we finished the Accademia tour, so I was soon back on the vaporetto heading to San Giorgio Maggiore, an island across the lagoon from Venice, upon which sits a church which is the best place to be around sunset.
In addition to a rich cultural history, Venice offers quite a bit for the shopping-minded among us and the foodies. I thought that the food was pretty amazing, even the so-so meal I ate right by the Rialto Bridge, tourist central! As much as I’ve enjoyed Zermatt, Swiss food doesn’t compare to Italian, so we all appreciated the change to our diet. The students may have eaten their weight in gelato, and I admit that I sampled a few flavors when I was there!
We left Venice on Friday, stopping by Vicenza and then spending the night in Sirmione, a resort town in the lake district of Lombardy. Again, we arrived late and couldn’t fully appreciate the scenery until the next day, when we were treated to another day in a beautiful part of the world, exploring Roman ruins and taking in some great views:
From Sirmione, we drove on to Bergamo where stopped for a fabulous lunch and then back to Zermatt. It was a wonderful trip, offering me the chance to explore (even briefly) new areas and take in some of the art, history, culture and food that the eastern part of Italy claim. I can’t help but wonder if visiting some of the places at a different time of year, the summer, for instance, would affect my perception of these places. If they were hot and crowded, how much would I have been able to take in or appreciate what I was seeing? Or if we had “aqua alta” in Venice – the ‘high water season’ – would I have enjoyed my days, walking around the streets? I suppose I don’t know, and an experience, especially travel, is always tied to place and time. While in Italy, I did remember my first time traveling to Italy – over 20 years ago! And I couldn’t help but reflect a bit on my life – where I am now, as I will soon confront many unknowns about life, where I was then, a pretty confused 21-year-old. Life hasn’t come full circle, fortunately, but there are points that connect as I think back on that time.
But, back to present-day, and the experiences that I’ve had and continue to enjoy, and I try to remind myself to appreciate these moments. It isn’t hard to do so when we are in Italy and enjoying a second gelato of the day, but there can be a daily grind of school work, dealing with students and colleagues and being away from the comforts of home. The trade-off, obviously, is an amazing experience – seeing new places, trying new foods, learning the more about the history and culture of a region, experiencing the gift of travel.