train Posts

Hello, Dali

One of the perks of being retired in Europe is having the time and easy, cheap access to some pretty amazing places.

“How about Spain?” I asked Jessica one morning as we savored our cappuccino.  “We could leave on the 28th and travel around for a couple of weeks.”

“Spain sounds great,” she said, “but we can’t go then.  “You have to present yourself to the immigration office in Bari on the 30th for your permesso di soggiorno renewal so we can keep living in Italy.  And we have a cookout planned with Henrik and Sharon before they go home to London and don’t forget that Cher is coming to stay with us for a few days that week.”

“Right.  I forgot.” I said and then immediately forgot again and booked our flight to Barcelona for the 28th.

Jessica had spent a month in Spain as a high school exchange student but it was a country in which I had never set foot.  Our two-week itinerary would begin and end in Barcelona with stops in Madrid, Sevilla and Bilbao and a few side trips thrown in.

Vueling Airlines deposited us unceremoniously, but without incident, at the Barcelona airport and we took the airport shuttle into the center of the city.  It was then that I made my first mistake.  Armed with an inadequately detailed map the deficiencies of which were enhanced by a lack of street signs, we set off on foot from the shuttle stop to the hotel in precisely the wrong direction.  At the outset, the large backpack strapped over my shoulders didn’t seem so heavy but it contained two week’s worth of clothing for the both of us and, after an hour or so of wandering about the streets of Barcelona in 100+ degrees, I was becoming cranky.  Fortunately, a kind, English-speaking soul approached us and offered to help us find our way.  The young man was in Spain on an internship in furtherance of his degree from Carlow University, a school in, of all places, Pittsburgh, our home town in the US.  It’s a small world after all.

We spent the next day strolling the streets of Barcelona, staying out of the direct sun whenever possible as the temperatures again breached triple digits.  The heat begged for a large pitcher of sangria and we obliged, sitting at a large square just off The Ramblas, Barcelona’s pedestrian-only boulevard lined with shops, restaurants, hotels and markets.  Jessica’s lunch started with a gazpacho that was herb-laced and just spicy enough to bring out the richness of the thick soup.  After a full and completely satisfying lunch in a very touristy area for which we paid only €30, we went back to our street walking.  Had I known what awaited us the next day, I may have chosen to spend less time on my feet that first day.

The alarm was set for 5:30 am so that we could catch the three subway trains that would get us to the train from Barcelona to Figueres, site of the Salvador Dali Museum.  Before visiting the museum that Dali himself designed, however, we would be taking a bus from Figueres to the seaside town of Cadaques.  From here, we planned to take a leisurely walk to Portlligat where Salvador Dali and his muse/wife, Gala, lived for most of 50 years.  The walk was necessary because, despite the major tourist draw of the Dali residence, no train, bus or taxi serves the Portlligat Bay.  Rick Steves, our travel guru in all things Europe, advised us to take the walking route across the peninsula, a 20-minute stroll.  Unfortunately, doing so required that we find the beginning of the path, something that we were never quite able to do.

We had given ourselves a full hour to make the trek to Portlligat, a luxurious amount of time we thought, so it should be no problem to get to the artist’s house in time for our 12:10 tour reservation.  Having taken note of the warning that failure to report for tourist duty 30 minutes ahead of our appointed time could result in forfeiture of our tickets, we gave ourselves some extra time but it soon became evident, even to us, that following the “Casa di Dali” signs in Cadaques was ill-advised.  Our leisurely stroll became a 4-mile mad dash in triple-digit temperatures up well-endowed hills, along crowded, verge-free highways, through forests and fields.  From time to time, I would spot a building off in the distance.

“That must be it,” I would say.

“No,” said Jessica who had actually done some research on the place and seen photos.  “It isn’t.”

Our power walk, interrupted by a few stints of jogging, lasted about ninety minutes.  By the time we finally arrived at the house-now-museum, breathless and drenched with sweat, we had used all of our grace time so we rushed panting and soaked to the ticket window, fully prepared to beg forgiveness and mercy for having appeared just moments before our tour was scheduled to begin.  The woman at the window looked at our tickets, told us to wait for our tour guide at the bottom of a set of steps, and smiled pleasantly as if to say, “Go away now.”  We obliged her.

The mature gentleman who guided our tour of the artist’s home spoke little but gave us the allotted 10 minutes in each of the rooms of the house.  Dali’s studio, complete with an easel that held a room-sized canvas, was my favorite stop on the tour.  His actual paint brushes and other tools of his trade were placed about the room, as were sundry objects of inspiration that included a stuffed polar bear wearing necklaces and holding a lamp.  Seeing this, I began to understand Dali’s work.

Salvador Dali's studio

Salvador Dali’s studio

In the house of Salvador Dali, this was not particularly wierd

In the house of Salvador Dali, this was not particularly weird

Words fail me

Words fail me

The artist’s bedroom bore the mark of consistency with Dali’s persona: Gaudy, eclectic and garish.  I thought I noticed a tongue hanging on the wall but convinced myself that it was not, for my own sake.  Gala’s boudoir, on the other hand, looked more like an homage to her husband.  I concluded that Dali had decorated both of these rooms himself.

The artist's bedroom

The artist’s bedroom

The interior of the home was incredibly interesting but no more so than the grounds.  Pieces of the artist’s work were scattered about the property and we wandered around for as long as our tight schedule would allow.  Having gotten directions to the “shortcut” back to Cadaques, we headed off and soon became lost again, a state which is normally not a problem for us but we had a bus to catch back to Figueres, a museum to check out and a train back to Barcelona booked.  Back into power walk mode, we made our circuitous way back to the bus station just in time for our bus.

Just popped in for a four minute egg visit

Just popped in for a four minute egg visit

The Salvador Dali Museum was designed by the artist himself, a fact that is abundantly clear the instant one enters this mind-bending fantasy world.  While the museum contained less of the iconic Dali works that I had hoped for, it was, nonetheless, a fitting tribute from Dali to himself.

Welcome to the Salvador Dali Museum

Welcome to the Salvador Dali Museum

Odd facade

Odd facade

A quick cab ride to the train station got us there in time to have a relaxing glass of wine which turned in three glasses of wine since the train turned out to be an hour late in leaving.  No harm, no foul.


Photos, as always, by the lovely and talented Jessica Coup.  Visit her work at




















Of Pigs’ Knees, Duck Liver and Chocolate: Part 1

Among the reasons that Jessica and I moved to Italy is the relative ease with which we could travel to other parts of Europe.  Since settling in Puglia, we have visited such places as Amsterdam, Malta, Munich, Salzburg, Croatia and many parts of Italy and done so without investing a great deal of time or money.  With the exception of Amsterdam and Malta, however, all of these excursions were done by car (or CRAMPER) or ferry.  We often spoke of doing a trip by train and availing ourselves of the rail system for which the Continent is renowned.  Recently, we stopped just talking about it and began to seriously plan the journey.  Arranging the logistics for the 15-day, 10-city tour seemed daunting at first but, after the route was plotted, the Interrail tickets bought, the train reservations made, the flights booked, and the hotel rooms reserved, the real anxiety set in.  We were well-familiar with navigating airports, but train stations were another animal.  We entered our first train terminal confident only in the fact that we would learn much in the coming two weeks.

The first leg was a two-hour flight from Brindisi to Geneva, Switzerland, and a quick (and free) train ride from the airport to the center of this incredibly expensive city on an alpine lake.  After checking into our painfully-expensive (though quite austere) hotel and dropping off the small backpacks that represented our only bits of luggage, we took a stroll along the lakefront, noting the number of Bentleys, Porsches and big Beamers, and past expensive hotels.

“We’re not in Puglia anymore, Toto,” I said, but to Jessica, not Toto.

Geneva where beauty comes at a price

Geneva where beauty comes at a price

We had an incredibly expensive dinner at an amazingly mediocre Indian restaurant all while listening to a husband and wife full-throatedly talking about women’s breasts (Husband: “I never realized how many different kinds of tits there were.”  Wife: “Neither did I and I have tits.”) as their two teenage sons sipped on their Coca Colas.  We went back to our hotel.  We arose early the next morning so that we could stop at the first Starbucks we had seen in many months before catching the train to Lausanne.  We had to wait for the Starbucks to open that morning, inexplicably since it was nearly 7:00 when we arrived but we would learn that Switzerland is a late-rising culture.  We savored each drop of the two grande cappuccini we ordered and Jessica scraped the bottom of the little plastic cup of yogurt she bought, our having spent the equivalent of $24 for the three items.

A view of Lake Geneva from Lausanne

A view of Lake Geneva from Lausanne

It is only a half-hour trip from Geneva to Lausanne so it was much too early to check into our next over-valued hotel room.  We checked our backpacks at the hotel before heading out to catch a bus to the Chateau de Chillon, which made all the more perplexing the question we got from a fellow bus-waiter.

Chateau de Chillon, a little place on the lake

Chateau de Chillon, a little place on the lake

“Are you guys going to the hostel?” the young stranger asked.

“No.  Are you saying that we look like we’re going to a hostel?”  I responded.  He didn’t react.

I should note here that Soul of the Heel is not a travel blog so please don’t expect to read boring descriptions here of museums, castles, forts, government buildings, blah, blah, blah. If you want that, google Rick Steves who was our constant guide throughout the trip and from whom you can learn such things as the fact that the hot dog is called a wiener throughout most of Europe because it was “invented” in Vienna (Wien, in the German language) by a guy from Frankfurt except that in Vienna itself, it’s called a frankfurter.  Got it?  Anyway, we found Lausanne to be like Geneva in the respect that, at the slightest provocation, businesses extracted large amounts of money from us.

The next morning, Jessica passed on the Starbucks yogurt so our cappuccini bill was only $20.  The train we caught that morning took us to Bern, Switzerland’s capital city.  The town center boasts six miles of shopping but we could afford none of it.  Bern was, like the rest of Switzerland, it seems, expensive.

The Bern streetscapes are charming

The Bern streetscapes are charming

Our fourth day on the road started with a train ride to Zurich, a city where things are very expensive.  In this northern Switzerland city, we stayed in a hotel called an Ibis Budget Hotel.  Our room had a bunkbed, the shower was right next to the bed, and the stall where the toilet was had a swinging door.  The mattress felt like something manufactured by Weyerhauser and there was no thermostat.  The place would make a Spartan uncomfortable and was just a tiny step up from camping.  But, at least it was right next to train tracks and just across from an open-all-night bar.  (I just don’t know how people can afford to drink all night here.)  I guess this is why we only had to pay $130 for the night.

We roamed the streets of Zurich, passing stores with familiar names and high prices, and came upon a restaurant that announced Mexican fare.  Since Mexican cuisine is not readily available in Puglia and, despite the fact that I had never heard anything about the quality of Mexican food in Switzerland, we stopped.  The lack of authenticity in what was set before us was obvious when we tasted the “Hot Sauce.”  Instead of being spicy, the red sauce was simply warmed ketchup.  Oh well.  At least the meal was expensive.

A stroll along the river in Zurich is a must-do

A stroll along the river in Zurich is a must-do

Zurich's version of a parking lot

Zurich’s version of a parking lot

We left Switzerland and it left us with some indelible impressions:

1.  It’s expensive.

2.  It has a natural beauty that few places possess with stunning mountain views, quaint architectural elements and dramatic lakescapes.

3.  The country’s renowned neutrality extends beyond its politics and characterizes its food, wine and, in many respects, its culture.  There just isn’t much there to distinguish them.

4.  The trains run perfectly on time, a function, I suppose, of there being so many clocks around.

After a day in Zurich, we strapped on our backpacks, jumped on yet another train, and, without having had a single morsel of chocolate during our 4 days in Switzerland, headed to our next stop: Heidlberg, Germany.

Next:  Pigs’ Knees, Duck Liver and Chocolate:  Part 2