Thursday, August 30, 2007

14 June: The Many Faces of Rome

We enjoyed a nice breakfast in Residenza Canali’s bright and cheerful dining room: a traditional buffet of sliced meat and cheese, croissants, fruit tart and several other pastries, cereal, yogurt, fresh fruit, juice, coffee and tea. It was above par for a European breakfast and I’ve decided that the Residenza Canali is a real find – quiet, charming, and a good value given its perfect location right next to Piazza Navona. (Our room was listed at 205 Euro but we saved 20 Euro per night by paying cash.)

One of the reasons I chose Residenza Canali was its location just off of Via dei Coronari, which I discovered – and fell in love with – on my last trip to Rome. This narrow cobblestoned street is lined with countless antique shops, art galleries, jewelry stores, and artisans’ workshops. On any given day you can peek in an open doorway and see someone restoring an ornate carpet or mending a Renaissance armchair – or even watch a man rolling an ancient marble bust down the street on a trolley, as we did (photo, right). Only local traffic is allowed, so aside from the occasional screaming scooter, it is a peaceful place to wander and window-shop. Mom and I set off around 10 a.m. with the intention of making our way down Via dei Coronari towards the Vatican, but we were immediately waylaid by a tiny jewelry shop that tempted us with a wide selection of Murano glass beads. We ended up browsing for over an hour; I came out with enough beads to make two necklaces and two pairs of earrings for a whopping 25 Euro. I think Mom and I both began to realize at this point that there are some serious advantages to traveling without our husbands…

We finally tore ourselves away from the beads and baubles and made our way down to the Tiber River, passing under the blind gaze of the angels lining the lovely Ponte Sant’ Angelo. We strolled past the street artists hawking their wares in front of Castel Sant’ Angelo and then headed down Via de Conciliazione to Piazza San Pietro. The line to get through security and into St. Peter’s Basilica was actually shorter than it had been at Christmastime and moved quickly. I had heard many stories about the summertime “clothes police”, who are on the lookout for women with bared shoulders or showing too much leg. Sure enough, there were two young men dressed all in black (poor dears, they must have been sweltering) who were picking women out of line and sending them away if they couldn’t come up with a shirt or sweater to cover their shoulders.

Mom and I were, of course, appropriately attired and followed the throngs into the welcoming coolness of St. Peter’s. We spent a long time admiring the vast interior and spectacular works of art, including Michelangelo’s Pieta. We decided to go into the crypt beneath St. Peter’s, since I had never been inside and figured I might regret it if I missed this opportunity. En route to the crypt, we drank from a fountain in the courtyard – holy water or not, it was certainly cold and refreshing! I love the fact that Rome is full of fountains offering a free drink when you need it. In the crypt we saw the tombs of countless popes, including that of John Paul II, where many visitors were stopping to pay their respects.

Back outside, we stopped in the piazza for more pictures (a nice American woman offered to take ours) and then made our way along the Tiber towards Trastevere. This was a long walk in the heat but fortunately we could keep to the shade of the trees lining the river. We took a dead-end street by accident and asked a couple of American kids (who looked to be college students) for directions. We quickly discovered why so many people love this neighborhood – Trastevere is a bit off the beaten track, but it gives you a glimpse of the “real Rome” that most tourists never see. We left the busy summer crowds far behind and got lost for a while on the narrow cobblestone streets, lined with scooters and framed by laundry drying on lines strung high between the houses (photo, right). We stopped at a jewelry store, whose young proprietor (actually the owner’s son), kept up a charming but insistent sales pitch. We found out he was a former judo champion and his sister owns an antique store on Via dei Coronari. I ended up buying a moonstone pendant from him, then we visited another bead shop but decided to hold off on any further purchases as we were anxious to find a good spot to have lunch.

We found our way to Piazza di Santa Maria in Trastevere, dominated by the tall, square bell tower of Trastevere’s most famous church. We wanted to have lunch before we visited the church, as it was getting on in the afternoon. The piazza was gorgeous and relatively quiet, but none of the cafés looked appealing to us. We went in search of a restaurant called Lucia, which was recommended in one of Mom’s Italian cookbooks, but when we finally found it (with the help of a young man whom we stopped for directions), we discovered that it was already closed for the afternoon. A man standing outside the restaurant saw us peering in the window, so we asked him for another suggestion. He pointed us back towards Piazza della Scala, which we had walked through already, and we ended up eating at a lovely little place called Taverna della Scala (photo, right). We both had the ensalata mista (mixed greens, radicchio, corn, tomatoes, and olives with oil-and-vinegar dressing), shared a perfect pizza Cappriciosa (prosciutto, mushrooms, egg, olives), and drank down two entire bottles of mineral water and a half-caraf of white wine.

We lingered as long as we could under our umbrella, looking out at the charming little piazza, but it was so hot just sitting still that we had to get moving again. We retraced our steps to visit Santa Maria in Trastevere, which is considered the first official Christian place of worship in Rome, founded in the 3rd century. The church you see today dates mostly from the 12th century and boasts the most unbelievable mosaics by Pietro Cavallini, as well as twenty-two granite columns taken from the ruins of ancient Roman buildings. You can put a few coins in a machine to light up the mosaics for several minutes, but no one could make it work. An elderly gentleman sitting in a pew a few feet away said something to me in Italian, and I slowly realized that he was telling me to put in 50 cents (the sign on the machine was confusing, as it made it look like you could put in less money for less time). I dropped in the correct coins and suddenly the entire nave was bathed in golden light, reflecting spectacularly off the gold mosaic tiles (photo, right).

By now it was getting on towards evening, so we headed back to the river and crossed over the ancient Ponte Cestio to Tiber Island. Once the site of a temple to Aesculapius, the god of healing, the island has always been associated with the sick and is still home to a hospital, along with several old mills and the 10th-century church of San Bartolomeo all’Isola. As we approached the island we spotted the single remaining arch of the Ponte Rotto (“broken bridge”), which dates from the 2nd century B.C. and now stands forelornly in the middle of the river. We crossed the Tiber on the other side of the island via the graceful triple-arched Ponte Fabricio, the oldest Tiber bridge still in use (for foot traffic only), built in 62 B.C. (photo, right).

We stumbled on the Jewish Ghetto pretty much by accident, as we spotted the imposing Synagogue, constructed in 1904, looming across the street. There has been a Jewish community in Rome since the 2nd century B.C.; their persecution began in the year 1556, when all of Rome’s Jews were crammed inside a highly unsanitary, walled-in neighborhood that came to be known as the Ghetto. The practice of driving the Ghetto’s Jews to the nearby church of Sant’ Angelo in Pescheria to listen to Christian sermons was not abolished until 1848. Thousands of the Ghetto’s inhabitants were rounded up and deported to concentration camps during World War II. Many Jews still live in the Ghetto today, and it is now a pleasant neighborhood of quiet alleys, secluded piazzas, small shops, and family-run restaurants, not to mention several of Rome’s most impressive, but lesser-known, ancient monuments.

We found two of these monuments within a few minutes – the first being the Portico d’Ottavia, all that remains of the massive rectangular portico that once enclosed the temples of Jupiter and Juno. Built by Augustus in honor of his sister Ottavia, the portion that stands today is the grand central atrium, once faced with marble. The dome of Sant’ Angelo in Pescheria rises above and behind the portico; the church was built on the ruins of the temples. If you approach the portico from the Tiber, as we did, and turn right, you cannot miss the massive curved wall of the Teatro di Marcello, the Theater of Marcellus, also built by Augustus and dedicated to his beloved nephew and son-in-law (and hoped-for heir), who died in 23 B.C. at the age of 19. (These ruins were particularly significant to me as I was reading the new biography of Augustus by Anthony Everett, which I highly recommend.) All that is visible of the original amphitheater are two levels of imposing stone arches. Over the centuries countless buildings have been constructed within and on top of the ruins of the theater, including the 13th-century fortress of the Savelli family and the 16th-century Orsini palace, so the structure now displays an amazing patchwork of architectural history.

We walked around the theater ruins for a while and came across some workers setting up a stage and chairs for what looked to be a private concert, with the ancient arches of the theater as a backdrop. A young woman with long black hair was sitting in one of the chairs, watching the proceedings with great interest. When Mom and I stopped to watch a black grand piano being rolled out onto the stage, I saw the woman smile, but thought nothing of it at the time. A little while later, we made our way to a higher vantage point with the intention of taking some pictures of the theater. Imagine our surprise when the very same young woman took a seat at the piano and began to play. She was obviously warming up for a concert later that evening, and we stood there for a long time watching and listening as strains of Chopin floated up to us, echoing off the imposing arches, the whole scene bathed in an ethereal golden light. We felt incredibly lucky to have happened upon that spot at the right time to witness such a special treat. I would give anything to know the pianist's name (and what piece she is playing)! (Watch and listen below.)

We wandered through the quiet streets of the Ghetto, stopping to peek into a gorgeous courtyard at what was clearly an important building, its stuccoed walls lined with sculptures and friezes. We made our way back to Campo de’ Fiori, lined with ancient, crooked houses – all glowing in the evening sun in shades of peach, pink, and yellow – and decided to eat dinner at La Carbonara. Unfortunately we ended up being disappointed with our meal. I had heard about the famous “Jewish-style” fried Roman artichokes called carciofi alla giudia and saw many people eating them on this trip, but we were not impressed; we found them very prickly and rather bland. Mom ordered a fried sampler platter, which she thought was going to include fried shrimp and calamari, but it ended up being only vegetables and what we later determined to be fried lamb’s brains! The taste we could live with, but the texture was, well, rather unappetizing. I had fried zucchini flowers with mozzarella and anchovies, another Roman specialty, but they were too thickly battered and not very flavorful. To top it all off, the service was slow and the waiters very brusque. Despite this disappointment, we enjoyed the people-watching while downing a full liter of the house white wine, which only set us back 8 Euro!

After dinner we walked back to Piazza Navona and watched the street performers. The same opera singer was still captivating his audience and we watched a lengthy magician’s show which, if I described it, would sound extremely silly, but we were laughing hysterically the whole time. Let’s just say you had to be there.

We went back to our room to wash up and unload our handbags, but despite the fact that we had been on our feet for 12 solid hours, we weren’t quite ready to call it a night yet. So, in a totally spontaneous girls'-night-out frame of mind, we decided to return to Piazza Navona for some drinks and entertainment. The piazza had quieted down a bit (it was 11:30 on a Thursday night, after all) but a group of guys that we had heard having a guitar jam session last night looked like they were getting ready to play another set, so we snatched front-row seats at the neighboring restaurant. I ordered a Bacardi cocktail and Mom got something with secco and Campari from the extravagant drink menu. The guys played rock ‘n roll classics, including “Hotel California” and “Sultans of Swing” (Dire Straits), which happens to be a favorite of John’s, so I filmed a short clip of them on my little digital camera (see below). When we asked for our bill I was dismayed to discover that it came to 21 Euro, including a 3 Euro cover charge, because we had left our wallets at the hotel and I had only brought a 20 Euro note! Now I was really grateful for just how close the Residenza Canali is to Piazza Navona, because I left Mom at our table and literally ran the 200 yards or so back to our hotel to get some more money. I think the guy at the front desk got a good laugh out of my antics as I raced up and down the stairs.

Suffice it to say that this was an incredible first day in Rome and, despite the heat, Mom was having a great time and I couldn't wait to show her more of my favorite city!

Here are short video clips of our private piano concert in front of the Theater of Marcellus and the late-night Piazza Navona jam session:

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

13 June: Tragedy Strikes as We Depart for Rome

I had seen very little of Frau Dörr over the past two weeks, but I did know that as of sometime last week, Endor had fallen mysteriously ill. Frau Dörr said he wasn’t eating and the last time John saw him, a day or two ago, he looked very thin and weak. At that time Frau Dörr told John that she was taking Endor to the vet for exploratory surgery the next day.

Mom and I were still packing right down to the wire this morning, so Endor was not at the top of my mind. I was taking Cody out in the final minutes before our departure when I spotted Frau Dörr working in the backyard. Cody ran up to her first and when I caught up, I realized that she was digging in the dirt with a shovel. My heart literally sank like a stone. She waved to the hole she was digging and said something about Endor, but I didn’t hear her. I said, “Er ist…?” not wanting to finish the sentence, hoping against hope that I had misunderstood. She nodded sadly and said, “Er ist tot.”

I am the kind of person who wears my emotions on my sleeve, and naturally I was devastated. Dear, sweet, Endor, the boxer with a face only a mother could love, was dead at the tender age of nine years – a good life, certainly, but all too short for a dog of his breed. I gave Frau Dörr a spontaneous hug (to hell with conservative Schwäbisch tradition) and called to Cody, who was dancing around as usual, no doubt looking for his buddy Endor in the garden below. Cody’s naïve cheerfulness only made things worse, and I couldn’t keep the tears back as I told Frau Dörr how terribly sorry I was (my German pretty much failed me at this point, but I think she understood). I literally had to tear myself away, as we were already running late.

I quickly called John and left him a message, telling him to hurry home and help Frau Dörr dig Endor’s grave if he could. By the time he got home from work, Endor was already buried. We later found out that he had died from liver failure, but he fell ill so suddenly that we have to wonder what exactly happened. We were afraid it might have been poisoned food, having recently heard about the massive pet food recall in the U.S., but we will never know for sure what ended Endor’s life so unexpectedly. I just cannot believe that he is gone. Cody has lost his favorite playmate, and the Dörrs have lost their much-adored companion. I was always planning to take some video of Cody and Endor playing in the backyard, but I never got around to it, so all I have are a couple of quick snapshots of Endor in his beloved garden. His was a sweet soul, and he will be missed.

Suffice it to say that this was not how I expected to begin our mother-daughter get-away to Rome. Mom and I arrived at the airport early enough to grab a bite to eat in a café and I just sat there in shock, munching on a dry sandwich. I had to make a very concerted effort to stop thinking about Endor because I was worried I might just cry my way through the whole trip. Fortunately we had other things to occupy us…Mom was traveling carryon and her bag turned out to be 2 kilos overweight (I didn’t realize that German Wings has an 8 kilo weight limit), but the man at the ticket counter was nice and let her take it on board anyway. We took a bus out to our small plane and our flight left promptly at 2:20 p.m.

After an easy 1 hour-20 minute flight over the Alps and down the western Mediterranean coast of Italy, we landed at Rome’s Fiumicino airport. As we deplaned the flight attendants handed us cold drinks; I understood why when we stepped out into to the stagnant heat of a midsummer day in Rome. We had a rather long wait for my suitcase (during which time Mom espoused the advantages of traveling carryon), then found our driver Luca waiting for us with my name on a sign, just like last time (once again I had arranged for transportation through our hotel, which cost 45 Euro plus tip). Luca was very friendly and navigated his little minivan quickly – but not terrifyingly quickly – through the streets of Rome, taking the same route as in December, so I was able to point out some of the major sites to Mom en route.

I had booked us a twin room at Residenza Canali, located on Via dei tre Archi near Piazza Navona. The street is in fact a tiny alleyway, too narrow for even a single car, so Luca parked as close as he could get, grabbed our bags out of the back, and escorted us down the street. We didn’t find the hotel immediately, so Luca asked for the number again. I pulled our reservation out of my bag and confirmed the address. We walked the entire length of the street, which turns at a right angle at one end around a tall palazzo the exact shade of a weathered terra cotta flower pot, before finally discovering the unassuming entrance to number 13. It was a tall, dual-paneled wooden door in the aforementioned terra cotta palazzo, with a tiny white label next to the doorbell that read RESIDENZA CANALI in block print. Luca rang the bell, the lock clicked, and we let ourselves in. We found ourselves in a tiny entryway and the only way to go was up – a curving flight of stairs with an arched ceiling painted the color of a ripe apricot. We found the reception area on the second floor and Luca left us in the hands of the nice young man at the desk. I had read a few negative reviews about the service at Residenza Canali, especially with regard to female guests, so I was on the lookout for anything amiss. The only problem with our check-in was that the man did not offer to carry Mom’s bag, which she had to lug up two more flights of stairs to our room on the fourth floor (there is one more floor above ours with two rooms that have private rooftop balconies).

Our room was European in scale – which means small – with two of the narrowest twin beds I’ve ever seen, and about six inches of space between them. But we had a nice roomy wardrobe with space for our bags inside, a dressing table, and a small but very clean aqua-and-white tiled bathroom. There was only one overhead light in the bedroom, which made it a little dim, and a tall window with heavy green curtains. We realized that the outer shutters were closed and by opening these we could let a little more light in. Our view over the alley to the neighboring tangarine-orange house was not anything like the Albergo del Senato of course, but it was charming and quiet. The bathroom also had a shuttered window, so we had plenty of fresh air. Best of all, our room had an air conditioner, for which we ended up being quite grateful! I have to say I was a tad disappointed at the smallness of the room, based upon the photos on their website, but given how little time we ended up spending there, it really was not a problem.

We cleaned up and set out to explore our neighborhood. It was about 7 p.m. by this time and the sun had dropped low enough to give us some relief from the heat. We discovered that we were literally a stone’s throw from Piazza Navona (and I can’t throw a stone very far). Sadly, Bernini’s Four Rivers fountain in the middle of the piazza was still covered up for restoration; I guess they don’t do anything very quickly in Rome. We made a big circle of the piazza, which was full of happy tourists enjoying their dinners al fresco. Street performers were everywhere, including a handsome opera singer who had Mom totally fooled – she thought one of the restaurants was playing a famous recording!

We made our way to Il Bacaro, a restaurant recommended in my DK Eyewitness guidebook, which John and I had tried unsuccessfully to get into back in December. I had decided we should make a reservation for dinner there on our last night (a Saturday) so we wouldn’t get stuck without a nice place to eat. We continued on to Piazza della Rotunda and viewed the Pantheon from the outside (it was closed for the night), then decided to try Fortunato al Pantheon for dinner (also listed in DK), just around the corner. We couldn’t get a seat outside but it was actually quite cool and quiet inside - a welcome respite from the craziness of a hot summer’s eve in Rome. Our dinner at Fortunato was just about perfect. Mom had gnocchi with gorgonzola sauce, followed by veal with lemon; I had spaghetti alla vongole (with clams) and an absolutely perfect (and quite generous) plate of carpaccio. We shared a bottle of Soave and while it wasn’t cheap (87 Euro), it was heavenly enough to be worth every cent!

We walked back to Piazza Navona via the Piazza della Rotunda again (I just can’t get enough of the Pantheon, and it is equally spectacular at night), where we stopped to watch a hilarious mime performing his heart out in front of the fountain. He kept following unsuspecting passersby as they walked across the square, mimicking their movements and acting surprised when they noticed him. One woman stopped to pose for a photo with him, and while her male companion snapped their picture, the mime picked up the woman and ran off with her! We ended up making another loop around Piazza Navona (which is apparently the place to be on a summer night in Rome) before returning to our hotel and literally collapsing into bed.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

12 June: Mainau - A Garden Lover's Paradise

We took yesterday (Monday) off to recover from the weekend and do some housework, plus I had to finish a photo collage for the IWC fundraiser coming up this weekend. I promised Anne, the club president, nearly three months ago that I would make the collage (in my capacity as unofficial club photographer), but of course I procrastinated and only started working on it last week. I finally got some black posterboard from my friend Shannon (who got it on base - her husband is a military contractor) and printed out all the photos over the last few days, so on Monday I just had to glue all the pictures on the board, print out the captions, and finagle a sort of stand out of cardboard (also supplied by Shannon) so the boards would stand up. It took longer than expected (naturally) because I had to trim all the photos with an exacto knife, but I had to get it done today, as Anne is picking it up tomorrow morning and Mom and I are leaving for Rome tomorrow afternoon! I actually think it turned out quite nicely, in a 6th-grade science project sort of way. (What became quite obvious as I printed out the photos is that in 90% of our activities, we are eating! I guess you know where our priorities lie...)

With that task out of the way, we were ready for today's adventure. Mom is an avid gardener and I’ve been looking forward to taking her to the garden island of Mainau in the Bodensee (Lake Constance) ever since we began planning her visit several months ago. John, on the other hand, is not a big garden fan, so it made sense to make this trip on a weekday while he was at work and the crowds would hopefully be thinner. Originally I thought we would make the 90-minute drive to Meersburg on the north shore of the Bodensee and take the ferry from there to Mainau, but upon closer examination of the route I determined that it would take just about the same amount of time to drive straight to Mainau. This meant missing Meersburg, but our time was limited and our main goal was the gardens, so we decided to skip the ferry trip.

We made the pleasant drive in the SLK in just over an hour and a half, aided by a clear stretch of Autobahn where I was able to demonstrate for Mom what it feels like to drive 210 kph (130 mph). We didn’t have the benefit of a navi today, but once we approached the island, well-marked signs directed us to the visitor parking lot on the mainland (the island is connected to the mainland by a long causeway, pictured at right). We parked and walked along a shaded pathway, passed by the occasional cyclist, to the ticket kiosks (the entrance fee is 9,50 Euro per person), eyed the gift shop where plants apparently make popular souvenirs, and passed through the turnstiles. Mom noted that most of the visitors on this lovely Tuesday morning were of an “older generation”; a man watching the turnstiles gave us a big smile, probably recognizing our mother-daughter outing for what it was, and wished us a nice day.

We headed across the causeway under blue skies dotted with fluffy clouds, a vast expanse of aquamarine stretching away to rolling green hills on either side of us. Looking down through the crystal-clear water, we could see silver fish swimming above the sandy bottom. A variety of shorebirds were paddling in the shallow water and foraging in the reeds along the shoreline.

As we approach the island, allow me to share some of Mainau’s fascinating history with you. Evidence of human settlement here dates back to 3000 B.C.; Mainau became a Roman holding, then an Alemannic dukedom and later a Frankish royal property before being given to the powerful monastery of Reichenau in 724 A.D. The Reichenau presented the island to the Teutonic Order of Knights in 1272. The House of the Teutonic Order, originally located in Switzerland, was transferred to Mainau, and at this time the island’s existing castle was enlarged. The Teutonic Knights were defeated by the Swedes in the Thirty Years’ War of the mid-17th century, at which time the island fell under Swedish control for the first time. The Swedes withdrew from the island in 1649; one hundred years later, the Teutonic architect Johann Caspar Bagnato started work on a new church and castle, which were completed in 1746.

The Teutonic Order was dissolved in 1806 and the island went to the newly founded Grand Duchy of Baden. Prince Nikolaus von Esterházy purchased the island in 1827 and was the first to cultivate rare plants there. Grand Duke Friedrich I acquired Mainau in 1853 and improved the arboretum, the Italian rose garden, and the orangery, bringing back many valuable trees and exotic plants from his travels, which form the basis of the gardens as we see them today. In 1856, Friedrich I married Princess Louise, daughter of the Emperor Willhelm I of Prussia, and the island was inherited by their son, Grand Duke Friedrich II, in 1907. Upon his death, he passed the island to his sister Viktoria, Queen of Sweden, who in turn left it to her son Prince Wilhelm of Sweden. Finally, in 1932, Prince Wilhelm handed over the administration of the island to his 23-year-old son, Prince Lennart, who made Mainau his new home, having renounced his title and possible succession to the Swedish throne by marrying a commoner. Prince Lennart was responsible for opening Mainau to the public. The island remains a possession of the Swedish royal family today; it is now operated as a foundation and has become one of the biggest tourist attractions of the Bodensee.

We soon reached the shaded borders of the island, where we were welcomed by a giant topiary-like sculpture of a flower in a flowerpot (2nd picture from top). (There were several of these fanciful creations scattered across the island – one in the form of a peacock, another a reclining gnome.) A meandering path led us first to the herb garden, where dozens of culinary and medicinal plants are cultivated in rings surrounding a whimsical rooster fountain. Our route took us along the south side of the island, past the petting zoo, which includes a special breed of tiny cattle, and on to the magnificent Rose Promenade (pictured above), where we enjoyed the spectacle of more than 800 varieties of rose, primarily wild and bush varieties, along with other gorgeous landscape flowers (see photo of Mom under a rose arbor, above). The hot weather in May had disrupted the normal blooming cycle, as many of the roses were already past their prime. (At the ticket kiosk we picked up forms to vote for the most beautiful rose and I noted that the selection is normally made in July, but they had obviously moved the contest up due to the unusually warm weather.) Along the Promenade, we found a spectacular rosebush in the height of bloom, a veritable symphony of tiny magenta-and white blossoms, fittingly called “Mozart,” which ended up being Mom’s favorite (photo, above). Higher up on the hill above the roses we could see grapevines and apple orchards; the weeds were being kept down between them by grazing goats.

Our next stop was the Italian Water Staircase, which features a stunning waterfall cascading down stone steps, flanked on either side by lush flower beds (photo, above). This year the entire island has been embellished with artwork by the artist Stefan Szczesny, and his colorful globe-shaped pots added a touch of whimsy to the postcard-perfect scene. From here we strolled through the fuschia garden, which has some spectacular ten-foot-high specimens, and stopped to take in the view of the Bodensee looking out towards Meersburg. Complete with a few palm trees, Szcesny’s exotic sculptures, and the intense blue-green waters of the lake scattered with crisp white sails, we felt like we had been transported to the Mediterranean (photo, above). I couldn’t help notice two elderly ladies sitting on a bench together, enjoying the view from the shade of a huge tree – they were both dressed from head to toe in shades of pink, from their airy sunhats to their handbags. We were about ready for a rest ourselves, so we took a short break to lounge in one of the curious wicker “cabana chairs” that I have seen before in pictures of northern German seaside resorts, complete with blue-and-white striped cushions, pull-out footrests, and folding drink trays (photo, right).

We were starting to get hungry as we rounded the east side of the island, so we climbed up a path to the palace – a creamy stuccoed building with red trim and white shutters, laid out in a U-shape alongside the Renaissance-style church (photo, right) – and looked for one of the restaurants labeled on our map. The café in the palace only serves sweets, so we went back outside and found the Schwedenschenke (Swedish Tavern), where we snagged one of the last tables on the shaded terrace. We both ordered mixed salads and the house drink, a tropical concoction mixed with sparkling wine (the waiter actually grinned when I ordered it).

After our energy boost, we were ready to take on the Italian rose garden on the south side of the palace (photo, right). (At this point my camera battery died and I discovered that the spare battery I had brought was not charged, so I had to commandeer Mom’s camera and used it for the rest of the day!) Planned in the 19th century on a strict geometric design, this vast rectangular garden is surrounded by a pergola of climbing roses and other creeping plants (photo, below) and features three circular fountains down its center. A curving grand staircase leads into the garden proper, which is laid out in long rectangles of lawn bordered by every variety of floribunda and polyantha rose under the sun. It was a feast for the eyes – rich swaths of red, pink, peach, yellow, cream, and white – and the nose, as the fragrance of thousands of blossoms wafted through the warm summer air. We spent a considerable amount of time strolling the gravel walkways, trying to decide which rose variety was the most beautiful. Past years’ winners took pride of place in the beds bordering the fountains (photo, right).

After dragging ourselves away from the roses, we found ourselves on the Mediterranean Terraces at the top of the Italian Water Staircase. There were very few people in this area and we lingered for a while, taking in the spectacular lake views and the display of fascinating tropical plants – birds of paradise, trumpet vines, passion flowers, agaves, palm trees, and bougainvilleas. In a secluded corner we came across a gorgeous fountain featuring a metal sculpture of two graceful swans standing in a shallow circular pool (photo, below). Mom just couldn’t resist the opportunity to take off her sandals and cool off her feet!

We headed back along the spine of the island, strolling along a pleasant tree-lined esplanade through the arboretum (photo, below), where some of Friedrich I’s specimens still thrive.Our last stop was the famous Schmetterlinghaus, Germany’s largest butterfly conservatory, where a winding path leads you through a tropical landscape full of hundreds of fluttering butterflies. A rushing stream, cascading waterfall, and misting water add to the tropical effect. Many of the butterflies stop to sample the nectar of the exotic blooms (photo below), but plates of fruit are also set out so you can see some of the insects up close. It was, not surprisingly, incredibly steamy in there, so we didn’t linger as long as we might have liked.

By this point we were way past our intended departure time so we had to skedaddle. We didn’t get to see everything – there is a frangrance garden near the butterfly house, a greenhouse off the palace, and various exhibitions in the visitor center – so I wouldn’t mind going back someday. (Apparently the gardens are spectacular in springtime when all the bulbs are in bloom.) We did stop at the gift shop to buy magnets and, on a whim, I bought an ornamental pomegranate plant for our balcony. Suffice it to say that Mainau more than exceeded our expectations – Mom said it was the most spectacular botanic garden she had seen in Europe. We couldn’t have asked for a more perfect day (except perhaps to turn down the heat a few notches!).

10 June: A Sunny Sunday in Bad Wimpfen

Leaving John behind to enjoy a quiet day alone, Mom and I headed to Bad Wimpfen, one of my favorite villages in Baden-Württemberg. Set dramatically on a hilltop overlooking the Neckar River (photo, right), Bad Wimpfen’s most distinguishing feature is its turreted Blauer Turm (Blue Tower - see last photo), the most significant remaining feature of what was once the 12th-century residence of the Staufen emperor Barbarossa. Originally called Wimpfen am Berg, the town thrived as a Free Imperial City for over 500 years. Its more recent claim to fame is the local saltworks and accompanying medicinal saline baths, which gave the town its new name of Bad Wimpfen in 1930.

We parked just below town in a visitor lot and walked up a narrow street past various shops and restaurants and through two imposing stone gate towers (the second is pictured at right, with Mom in front). A steep cobblestoned street led us further upwards, past flower-bedecked half-timbered houses, into the heart of the medieval town. You may recall that our first visit to Bad Wimpfen was made memorable by our ascent of the Blauer Turm, where the resident towerkeeper kindly allowed me into her home to use her bathroom. Mom doesn’t like heights so we didn’t climb the Blue Tower this time. We walked first to the south end of town, where I paid 2 Euro to climb the immense square Roter Turm (Red Tower), which afforded me an excellent bird’s-eye view of the town and its awesome panorama over a broad bend in the Neckar River (photo below).

Back down on solid ground, we continued to explore the narrow streets lined with lush gardens and half-timbered houses – many of which lean haphazardly at odd angles after many centuries of settling (photo, right). Bad Wimpfen is known for its fine 15th- and 16th-century homes, which have been painstakingly restored and are often painted in bright colors. Seeing them in summer with their window boxes overflowing with flowers is quite a treat (photo below).

We stopped for a while at a very cool clothing and knickknack store where Mom bought a glass owl, then went in search of a light lunch. Unfortunately the quaint café near the market square that I had been visualizing from our last visit had apparently gone out of business. It was getting on in the afternoon so we finally decided to stop for a snack at a restaurant right on the cliff’s edge (it had some fitting name like Neckarblick – Neckar view”). Mom had a slice of cherry cake and I had a bowl of vanilla ice cream with hot cherry sauce and whipped cream. (The waiter was very nice but this was one of those odd occasions where Mom was served her cake while I waited another fifteen minutes for my ice cream. This seems to happen to us a lot. I’m not sure why they can’t time things to bring out everyone’s food simultaneously.) We enjoyed the view and the breeze from the shaded terrace before calling it a day and heading back to Stuttgart.

9 June: Market Day in Tübingen

My mom loves outdoor markets, so today we decided to check out the big Saturday market in Tübingen, a mid-sized university town about 25 miles south of Stuttgart. The day started out sunny and warm, but by the time we arrived in town the sky was beginning to cloud up. As usual, parking was a major pain. We eventually found a spot on a surface street a few minutes’ walk from the medieval center.

With its winding streets, half-timbered houses, and eclectic mix of shops, Tübingen is one of my favorite cities in the region and a perfect day trip from Stuttgart.
We walked into the Altstadt and made our way to the sloping, cobblestoned Marktplatz (top photo). The market was in full swing and we spent some time checking out the bountiful fresh produce and flowers. The 15th century Rathaus, covered with Renaissance murals, provided a particularly stunning backdrop, its window boxes dripping with bright purple petunias (photo at right and below).

As we browsed the market stalls, dark storm clouds were forming to the north and we decided we had better find a place to take cover for lunch. We wandered down to the riverfront, where I showed Mom the string of pastel-hued off-kilter houses that look like something straight out of a fairytale (photo, right). We didn’t see any restaurants that looked appealing so we walked back through town, at which point it started to rain. We took shelter inside a high-end kitchen store where we admired the sterling silver and various cooking gadgets.

When the rain had lessened to a drizzle, we headed back to the market square and explored a couple of side streets, finally stumbling on a cozy-looking place called Weinstube Forelle (bottom photo).
We were shown to a comfortable wood-panelled booth in the back of the restaurant, the walls of which were decorated with antique fishing baskets, flies, and rods (Forelle is German for “trout”). John and Mom both tried one of the Schwäbischkartoffelsalat. sampler plates, which was cleverly presented in four little porcelain bowls lined up in a boat-shaped platter, accompanied by a big bowl of Each bowl contained a different speciality – maultaschen, lentils and wurst, käsespätzle, and an unidentified meat in a red sauce, which was probably tripe. I had the homemade maultaschen, which was served piping hot in a wrought iron pan with kartoffelsalat and a mixed salad. Add three beers and we enjoyed this yummy feast for the bargain price of about 40 Euro!