Monday, November 26, 2012

Snow arrives early in Arogno.

The shock of the mid-October snow storm hit all of us, including the dogs that simply couldn't understand why they had to be cooped up inside the hotel for most of the day. The snow settled on the hills surrounding us, but melted away from the permitter of the house as quickly as it fell. Owners of the dogs were in distress as they picked up and dropped off their pets after driving up the steep winding driveway. The dogs were restless inside and too cold outside, but I on the other hand, was loving this glimpse of winter and wishing for more even as it continued to look like a blizzard outside. Bundled up in as many layers as I could scrounge up for taking the dogs outside, I frolicked around with them and was disappointed when they weren't enjoying the storm as much as me. Taking them back inside, I sat upstairs with the small dogs, watching the winter wonderland happening from the window. The snow fall only lasted one day, and the dogs were happy to be outside again the following morning, and we all sat on the highest point of the property to enjoy the view of the snow covered mountains in the distance. 

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Arogno, Switzerland.

On a quiet Sunday afternoon, well rested from a day off, I decided to trek down the hillside trails and wander into the small town of Arogno. The tiny village of less than a thousand residents sits high up in the hills, surrounded by tree-covered mountains full of trails to discover and creatures to meet along the way. Walking down the trail from the house into the village I found black, slimy, orange-spotted salamanders wiggling their way slowly across the path, and tiny lizards scampering under the rocks along the side as they heard me coming. The first fuzzy faced friends I made were two curious donkeys roaming through the field that came over to greet me as I passed by their property. Continuing down into town I found a pasture of cows, each with a large bell tied around their neck in case one strays from the group, which means you can hear the group clanking around from miles away. I also passed a group of sheep, llamas, and goats all along the way to the center of town. The most visited spot of Arogno is the beautiful church that sits up on one of the highest points. Climbing up there I passed through a well kept cemetery full of large colorful tombs and vibrant flowers growing along the edges before entering into the church. After spending some time looking down over the quite village and watching the sun disappear behind the hills along the border of the small town I wandered back up along the road to Doggy Days. 

Welcome to Doggy Days.

"My roommate will pick you up. He is a tall shaved head Spanish man. He doesn't speak English, but I think you will be fine."  

This was the final piece of information I was given before arriving in the city of Lugano to await a pick-up to then be taken to the final destination of Arogno, Switzerland. Lot, the Spanish roommate, met me in front of the train station that evening, and my new boss could not have been more accurate with her description. He was kind to me as we tried to make exchanges before quickly realizing that our ability to communicate stopped after the basic "how are you?" dialog, but we managed some how to learn a few things about each other as we pulled together some Spanglish phrases using gestures and pictures from his phone. The drive from the city up to the village of Arogno was entertaining to say the least, and after winding up the narrow roads we arrived at my new home on the top of the hill, the Doggy Days hotel. 

Greeted at the house by Carla, the owner, and her gang of canine's I was welcomed quickly and shown to my room where I chose my bed by the window with the view of the village and the mountains surrounding. I was introduced to her two live-in employees, Alvaro and Marcela. Marcela, is from Argentina originally, but spent many years in Spain before coming to Switzerland, and lucky for me her English is very good. She speaks softly with an extreme kindness, as she is always checking in with me to see if I am comfortable and taken care of. She is often shooing me away from assisting her with household tasks as her work ethic won't allow her to sit still and let anyone help her. Alvaro is quiet at first and I learned later that is because his English is limited, but with his attempts to communicate with me I learn quickly that he is a bit sarcastic and has a dry sense of humor that assures me that we are going to have some fun together over the next few weeks. My first night was spent at the dinner table enjoying a delicious meal cooked by Marcela, and shared with her, Lot and Alvaro. As the chatter flew back and forth across the table in Spanish I sat there thinking to myself how much I wished I had payed more attention in my high school Spanish courses. Marcela translated the relevant information to me, but any conversation we had left Lot and Alvaro behind. 

Carla welcomes new helpers by explaining some of the general rules and things to know about Doggy Days, and also about how to live in the house with the others, including the five dogs of her own. With each of the dogs being a rescue, "they all have issues" she put it bluntly. I was told to give the two street dogs rescued from Romania, Viola and Betty, a chance to warm up to me since they have been known to bite new helpers within the first couple days. They act like sisters even though they aren't, deciding as a unit if you are worthy of their affection. The tiniest of the crew, Bocio, jumps and barks and jumps and barks as he makes sure you know he is there and that he is obviously not a afraid of you (except when he is). Moca, another small dog, that is mostly blind and partially deaf,  knows the in's and out's of the house better than even the people living in it and is clearly the leader of the pack since no one messes with her. And finally, the sweet mellow golden named Abby, that doesn't bother anyone until there is food being dished out, then she wants in. 

The day's work is long but enjoyable, spent with the dogs of all breeds and sizes, each having such an individual personality. The groups change daily as new dogs arrive and others return to their homes, and the dynamic can alter in one afternoon depending on who is present. The work hours are spent hanging out with the dogs by walking, feeding, playing, and cleaning up after them, and generally keeping them as happy as we can. I've been told that the first week will be calm and allow for me to become adjusted with the routine before the chaos of the school holidays begins and the hotel occupancy triples. 

My love for dogs has always been strong, but I underestimated how much I would enjoy having this many furry friends around at one time. They are constantly interested in you, and watching them all together is absolutely wonderful and of course extremely entertaining. The greatest part about these four legged friends is their unconditional love of you. After scolding them to be quiet, or breaking up a quarrel and having to yell sharply to be heard I am certain that they will hate me forever for being cross with them, but it is simply only a matter of minutes before they come trotting back to me looking for more love and affection, as if nothing ever happened. Crawling all over me, trying to gain the best piece of my lap and the most affection from me as possible, there are sometimes three or four small ones on me while the large dogs lean up next to me, looking back as if to say "well, why aren't you petting me yet?" and I wish for extra hands because how can you say no to those faces? Basically, this is a dog lovers dream place.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Bern, Switzerland.

With the intention of getting some useful information from the US Embassy located in Bern, I took off on the train from Zurich one morning to see what the city had in store for me. After a more than unsuccessful visit to the Embassy and feeling very discouraged, I was welcomed warmly by the quaint little city of Bern. The buildings in the centre are all built with the same design, varying only in color, each one decorated with vibrant shingles and blooming flower boxes that frame the windows perfectly. As the streets wind through the center they are lined with fountains that are topped with statues of bears, which is the symbol of the city, and other significant figures, each completely radiant from head to toe. The clock towns that hover over the streets are vibrantly colored with large clock faces. In one square old men enjoy a game of life sizes chess or checkers while people passing by stop to watch or shout out strategic advise. The shops are busy with people hustling in and out with their purchases and jumping on the bright red tram that takes them through the city. At the end of the town is the famous bear park, where one large mama brown bear can be found romping around with her two cubs, and all are welcome to stop and watch the bears play and splash in the moat surrounding their personalized habitat. 

Zurich, Switzerland.

After a long over night train from Prague, I was reunited at the train station in Zurich with my friend Marcel from Napoli, and we began planning an eventful afternoon right away. A local Zurich ice hockey match and a fondue dinner with his family were both on the agenda. Joined soon after by Edith, my couch surfing friend from Vienna, we all took off into the city of Zurich to see what could be seen on a quiet Sunday afternoon. With my tour guides on either side, both pointing out different aspects of the city and even teaching each other a few things along the way, we ended up down at the waterfront where the best views of the city can be found. On this foggy day, they both carried on about how disappointing the view was in comparison to a typical day, but I was impressed none the less. With plans to meet up later, Edith left us to be on our way to the ice hockey match. Sitting high up in the bleachers, we cheered right along with the die hard fans of Zurich. Full of excitement in our hearts, and the traditional Swiss sausages in our stomachs, we watched Zurich take a strong lead over the small town rivals from outside of Bern and soon they had clinched a victory and the stadium erupted in praise. As we joined the people streaming out of the stadium afterwards we discussed the game, laughing at each other as we tried to make sense of the many rules of ice hockey that we don't actually know anything about. 

Collecting our supplies for a night of fondue festivities we headed off to Marcel's parents house where we were greeted by his father, brother, and friend that were excited for their first fondue night of the season. Joining them in the kitchen I asked how I could help, and his dad turned to me and said, "you can learn to make the fondue!" and quickly I was faced with pressure of not ruining the meal for everyone as they explained each step to me carefully, and I learned the importance of stirring the melting cheese in a figure "8" form as to prevent it from burning at the bottom. Seasons of all kinds were added to the fondue pan, while home made bread was sliced for dipping. When it was ready we gathered around the table to enjoy the results of the deliciously rich melted cheese, while I had the chance to get to know this gracious family that had welcomed me into their home. 

The nights in Zurich were spent with my new friends exploring their favorite pubs and restaurants, while getting to know them more and having a chance to see more parts of the city. On the day of my departure I caught up with Edith for breakfast at her favorite cafe where we chatted the morning away and made plans to hopefully see each other again soon. She soon had to be off to work, leaving me to discover the daily street market down by the water on a beautiful sunny morning and wander slowly back through the main streets of the city centre to the train station where I was off to my next destination. 

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Kunta Hora, the bone church

On a final day in Czech Republic, I decided to take a train ride with my hostel mates to the small town of Kunta Hora, famous for its "bone church." Historically this church became famous as a result of the hundred years war, were thousands of lives were lost in masses. The gravesite surrounding the small church was quickly full and overwhelmed with the amount of human remains that still existed. The construction of the bone church was said to have begun with one single Monk who began carrying the bones of the deceased into the church one by one, stacking them in a pyramid form. This display of human causalities continued and today the church holds the remains of over 40,000 people.  

Arriving at the church on the far end of town, we entered into the cemetery of the church before heading inside to see what exactly a "bone church" truly was. Stepping inside I was shocked instantly by the amount of human remains that were staring back at me within the first few feet of the church. Along the walls of the corridor leading into the center alter, there were dozens of skulls stacked one on top of another, lining the arches of the doorways. Other human bone parts had been arranged in an artistic manor to display letters, or symbols relating to the the beliefs within the church. Stepping down into the main room the first thing that draws your attention is the giant chandelier hanging in the center of the room, made entirely of human bones. The chandelier, both eerie and magnificent, consists of ever single bone in the human body for it's construction. Turning the the side chambers, there is a mountain of bones with more skulls lining the front rows all sides of the church. The skulls are turned slightly upwards, towards a large golden crown hanging about the pile of bones. This display is to represent the lives lost looking up to God for the salvation that will come to them in the afterlife. 

The magical city of Prague.

Everyone talks about Prague as the magical European city where the streets are full of unique architecture and lined in cobblestones, but until you actually set eyes on this city you can't understand how magnificent it truly is. The Czech people are welcoming, even with their dry sense of humor, and accommodating to foreigners roaming their streets, frequently getting lost in the large city that has so much to offer. Street corners are filled with hand made crafts, like wooded toys and puppets or with with tiny hole in the wall restaurants with traditional Czech cuisine that will warm you up as the temperature lingers around eight degrees. 

Arriving in the evening, the city quickly accommodated my desires for something unique and exciting, beginning with the hostel atmosphere. Wandering into the basement with its brick walls and cozy feeling I was greeted by friendly faces and an invitation to join others heading out to the nearby bar. Prague being  known for it's vibrant night life I couldn't refuse the offer. Stepping foot into the bar I was amazed by the layout and design of the rooms filled with artist metal scraps all bent into the walls and lining the stair cases leading you between the different levels, with neon lights cast onto the metallic sculptures high lighting the skills of the artist. I learned later that these pieces of unusual artwork were the remains of old city buses, even the seats for patrons had been taken from the old buses no longer in use. The night carried on with entertainment, supplied by good company and the beer that is cheaper than water. 

On my first day of exploration into the city, I first survived a desperately disappointing tour that seemed to take us further away from the city rather than into the heart of it, and through this experience bonded with a few other travelers that had similar feelings. So together we took off into the historical centre, on a particularly rainy day, to see what could be found. Our exploration began by passing through the Prague Castle, one of the largest in the world. Constructed over a thousand years ago it has seen many rulers in it's time. It's uniquely dark exterior, built in the Gothic style is one of the most attractive attributes, as well as the perfectly crafted stained glass windows towering high on the side panels of the entrance way. There are several well trained guards in uniform that surround the outside, rigidly guarding the entrance, flinching not even a little bit despite the efforts of the tourists. 

Crossing over the famous Charles Bridge, one of Prague's most visited spots, we passed by the replicas of the 30 statues that were added to the bridge through out the 17th-19th centuries but later were removed due to the consistent weather damage. At the base of one of these statues there is a two sided plaque where history says that if you touch the picture of the woman on the right she will bring you good luck, but the dog on the left should not be touched because he will bring you nothing but bad fortune. At the end of the bridge is the Old Town Bridge Tower which signifies the the beginning of the historical district of Prague.

Beneath the Charles Bridge is John Lennon wall which displays a variety of work from street artists, locals, tourists, and anyone that wants to contribute to the art wall. During the Communists times, all Western songs were outlawed, so when an unidentified artist painted the face of the iconic John Legend on this wall after he was shot it was was small yet significant act of rebellion from the Czech people. Today the wall displays a variety of designs that are ever changing, but you can still always find John Lennon's words and portrait amongst the artwork. 

In the main square of the historical district we find the Astronomical Clock on the Old Town Hall building. This clock was constructed over 600 years ago and keeps track of not only the time but also the sun, moon and various pieces of astrology. The creative design and craftsmanship of the architect is famous through out all of Europe. It is said that the Czech ruler who hired him to construct the clock waited until it was complete and once he was satisfied with having the most elegant clock in all of Europe he then proceeded to gouged out the architect's eyes and chop off his tongue. This was done to insure that the artist would never work again, thus guaranteeing that he would remain the only ruler throughout Europe with such a unique design within his kingdom.  At the top of every hour the street is packed with tourists all looking up for the famous show that the clock puts on as the chimes begin. Twelve apostles poke their heads out from the clock, a roster crows, a skeleton rings his bell, and a trumpet player serenades everyone from the highest point of the tower, all as the clock chimes away and entertains those passing by on the street below. 

A full Prague experience would not have been complete without a tour of the famous night life, so I joined in on the parade of guests leaving the hostel one night,  joined by our enthusiastic guide for the evening who was guaranteeing a night a fun before we headed out the door. Sticking close to the familiar faces from the hostel while being joined by dozens of others excited to have a good time, we hopped around all evening trying new places, each with their own unique charm, and eventually finding our way to the final stop of Prague's most visited night club. A five story building with a different theme and music on every floor, we climbed our way up and down and through the crowds of guests enjoying every minute of it until returning back to the hostel at the early hours of the morning.