Swapping Homes Anybody?


Sunday, September 14, 2014

Season 4: a Great Success

All good things must come to an end. We had 8 home swaps all together now.
I'm going to miss a lot of good stuff about my home country like bread, ice cream in Italian Gelaterias, beer gardens. Certain dishes even tasted nice out of season - prepared by my aunt for me knowing I would love the white asparagus, which is not available after 21 June. She also had a winter specialty, kale, prepared and frozen for me in a manner only available in the north of Germany.
Like every year I'd like to conclude this season with some general tips for home swapping:
Sign up with a reputable agency which has numerous members in as many countries as possible. There is also an agency for seniors only. This means you're dealing with couples, not families with children. Maybe that will take your angst away about the safety of your home. By the same token they are likely to have smaller homes. Many have downsized. If you fall into that category, that company is ideal for you. I found out that many of them are looking for long-term stays as they have no job obligations and time constraints anymore.
Start to make contact early with prospective exchange partners, especially when you want to go to Europe. Many know a year in advance when their vacation will be and will plan ahead accordingly. Also, many people will look for flights early in the hope of getting cheaper flights.
On the other hand, invitations make come in at the last minute also as happened this year with our Dutch partners. Don't hesitate to be proactive. Contact exchanges that you wold fancy instead of waiting around. Allow me to compare it again to dating on line. You're not committed until you have a contract with them.
Set up an owner's closet, even a separate room with a lock to safeguard your valuables or personal belongings; just for your own peace of mind in case you still have reservations. An umbrella insurance is also a good idea to cover yourself against possible liabilities.
If you have the time, line up two or even more swaps. Once you're overseas, it's easy to move around in Europe with all these cheap air carriers or by train. A flight from London, Dublin or Paris to Berlin for example will only set you back by about $100.

You save a lot of money by home swapping. Especially the costs of rental cars overseas are higher than in the US and can burn a hole in your pockets. Not so if you get an exchange partner who is willing to swap cars with you.
Once you've tried home swapping, you'll want to repeat this great experience. We can't wait to start the selection process for next year. While waiting for our connection flight in Atlanta, a very tempting offer came in from Sweden. With home swapping the world is your oyster! Good luck and happy travels!

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Vacationing on a Train Station

Ever heard of a vacation train station? Me neither, but this little town where we were staying has one.
Ideal for families with children, it looks idyllic and fun! Holiday makers stay and sleep on a train in the passenger cars. They are located next to the old train station of F. which houses kitchens and bathrooms. Your family will easily make friends with the other vacationers. Parents can take it easy as it is a safe environment where their kids can run around with others. It reminded me a bit of the old-fashioned horse-drawn wagons in Ireland, but of course, they moved around and this is stationary.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

The mighty "Father Rhine"

It's a must to go and see the biggest waterfalls in Europe when you're on Lake Constance. They are located near Schaffhausen in Switzerland. (You need a passport to cross the border as CH is not a member of the EU).
The waterfall is 23 m high and 150m wide.Scientists reckon it's between 14,000-17,000 years old!  You park your car at the top and descend lots of stairs to get magnificent views on several platforms. I was grateful for the lift to take me up again! You can also approach it by boat.What a spectacle! This video can give you a way better impression than all my words. It makes you believe you're actually there yourself.

At the top is a real castle, Schloss Laufen, that's also a restaurant.Switzerland being Switzerland you may expect steep prices. We paid EUR 6,80 for a Bratwurst with a slice of bread. One with a portion of chips would have been EUR 12,80. (The equivalent of $16). Then again the tickets were not costly at EUR 7,50. Parking and toilet use were even for free.
                                                                Schloss Laufen
The mighty Father Rhine as it is often called has its headwaters for the most part in the Swiss canton of Grisons. Its biggest part runs through Germany until it reaches the North Sea in the Netherlands. Rhine Cruises are very popular.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Visiting a Ruin: Hohentwiel

How much fun is it to visit a ruin? Probably not much you think.We saw this one in passing on our way to Switzerland one day near the town of Singen. (More about the Rheinfall  next). It sits on top of a mountain,  a lava cone. After some exploring on the Internet, we found it was worth a trip although some strenuous climbing and walking would be involved.

Once you're up there after about 30 minutes of hiking, your view sweeps over hills and valleys, the Bodensee, into Switzerland (Thurgau) and the mountain range of Swiss Alpine.
Through the centuries it was a noble residence, first mentioned in a document dated 914, later it inspired, served as a defense fortress for the dukes of Swabenia until Napoleon ordered it to be destroyed.
View of another across the valley that is just like it
 There is one tower that is best preserved and looks strange with its satellite receivers.
but not preserved in the same way.
The garrison usually housed around 80 soldiers who had families.Sometimes up to 250 people. In times of war or danger, 1000 people would find refuge up there.

Monday, September 1, 2014

Another Gem on the Lake

After a fricking cold weekend (52 F) the sun tried very hard to get through the clouds and we went on another little trip- but with a brollie! The traffic around the lake is heavy most of the time and today was no different. So instead of going to Bregenz in Austria we stopped in Langenargen; a gem we had overlooked so far. It's located between Friedrichshafen and Lindau, two major bustling towns  which we had visited on a previous trip.
It has the typical picturesque old part of town, a museum, plus a little yacht harbor and  a castle of course.
The first mention of Langenargen in a document was in 970. In Roman times there were two watch towers on a little island in the lake just off the mainland. Overall, it is typical for many towns around Lake Constance but not as busy and smaller. Or it had to do with the fact that in most parts of Germany the summer holidays are over now and there are less tourists around.

Saturday, August 30, 2014

A perfect Day on Mainau

We picked the only day of the week where it was not supposed to rain to go to Mainau, the so-called "Island of Flowers" in Lake Constance.The main picture here at the top of the page gives you an aerial view and now I'll give you more impressions of this beautiful piece of the world.You walk over to it from the mainland via  a bridge.
An endless sea of flowers, rare trees like Sequoias, a real farm where children can pet goats etc, a conservatory with rare plants like orchids, an Italian style formal garden, over 100 varieties of roses, a castle with a restaurant and church where a wedding had just taken place, cacti, modern sculptures among woodlands and lots of entertainment for children.
The Bodensee reminds me of some of the Italian lakes like Maggiore or Como which we love as well.
You can buy tickets online and after 5 p.m. they are half price: EUR 9 only instead of EUR 18 which leaves you enough money for refreshments.
The island is owned by the family Bernadotte who are avid environmentalists. Their endeavors even go beyond  government regulations. Yes and sheep mow the lawns here.
Overall, Mainau is right at the top of public gardens for me.I prefer it to Kew Gardens; even Butchert Gardens in Canada doesn't come close.
And I even got my ice-cream! A Tiramisu- Cup!

For more pictures of Konstanz, the city that is connected to Mainau via a bridge, go to  https://www.facebook.com/SiggyBuckley

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Built on Pillars like Venice- but 6,000 years ago

An impressive construction site right on the lake: pile dwellings in Uhldingen.  The first go  back to almost almost 4,000BC. What you see here now is a collection and reconstruction of numerous pile dwellings that were found around the lake in several places at the turn of the last century.

In 2011 , the UNESCO declared it a World Heritage site and it is truly humbling and impressing.
It's museum explains how they were built and actually demonstrate the process.
When we returned to the entrance, a Zeppelin went overhead. The contrast was surreal. The Zeppelin Museum is only 20 ml away, but what are the chances to take a picture of both?

Built from wood and reeds, the houses then were clad with clay to give them shelter from the elements. Some houses were equipped with what the archaeologists think people had in those days:  a weavers cottage, a tinker's, a fisherman's. All had the same fireplace in common. It was marvelous to see how clear the lake was. In places it was so shallow you could see the ground among he reeds, elsewhere they were put into deeper water.
You'll find more information here in this video.

Monday, August 25, 2014

Winefest at Schloss Salem

Last weekend, Schloss Salem (4km form our house and about 12km from the Lake) held its annual wine fest.The grounds and buildings alone are worth a visit and if you can taste wine, have a Bratwurst, flat-bread or ice-cream, and listen to Bavarian brass music- you got it all in one. No beer for thirsty throats, however!

Salem also is the home to Germany's prestigious (and expensive) boarding school. The students, of course, were on holidays. After a hearty meal we wandered the grounds and visited its many craft-shops: a glass blower, gifts made out of wood, a shoemaker and jeweler.

The Schloss is surrounded by beautiful rolling fields and right on cue a Zeppelin went over our head.The Zeppelin Museum in Friedrichshafen is only another 30 km away.We visited it the last time we were here. Highly recommended! At the time the price was to high for us but if you know what a helicopter ride on Maui costs, it might just be worth it too!

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Our new "Home"

After Heidelberg, we headed straight to the Bodensee, Lake Constance, the place this year's second home swap.  Here's a rough map where you can see how it is nestled between Switzerland, Austria and Germany.
And this gives you an impression of the elevations around it.
For a glimpse of its real beauty just scroll up to the masthead.. That's the island of Mainau in the lake. More about our trip there later.
Lake Constance is one of the most frequented places as far as tourism in Germany goes and in the summer you walk should to shoulder at times. We were here before, stayed in a converted, refurnished castle and were rightly ripped off although the flat didn't even have curtains;neither in the bedroom nor the bathroom. Highway robbery! This experience gave me the idea of looking into home swapping and we haven't regretted it.

In fact, we are on our 8th swap now and this could easily one of the nicest we have had. The home is very cosy, practical, close to the sites we want to see and has a gorgeous garden. Alas, the weather gods are not with us. While our home swappers are sweating it out bravely in Florida, we light the open fire in the evenings. And this village has several stork nests.When did you last see storks? I was a child when...they all but disappeared.
Tomorrow, we're going to meet our exchange partners of last year. We're all very excited.

Friday, August 22, 2014

Practical tip : your Money

When traveling to Europe you want to make sure you have the right cards on you. (and tell your bank where you're going to avoid fraud alert calls!).
We always take bank cards as well as credit cards. This year we found out that European issued cards all have a chip, Americans mostly don't. At least ours haven't. Don't be surprised if they are rejected then.
ATM machines will give you money at an exorbitant fee- up to $12 per transaction. In order to avoid these fees, you may want to find out the corresponding European bank of your US bank.
Some restaurants and most supermarkets -at least in Holland and Germany- also refuse your cards when they are chip less.
Be advised that American Express while highly popular in the US and widely accepted here,  is not loved very much in Europe. Only German hotels and gas stations take them as I found out the hard way (because of the exorbitant merchant's fees). You're better off to have a Visa or MasterCard on hand.

There are other security measures in play in Europe if you want to transfer money, as I recently found out. In order to move money from one account to another or just pay a bill online, you need a so-called TAN- generator, an ID card that has a chip in it. While filling in online the addressee's name and account number, this gadget generates a TAN that also has to be included in your transaction. Not that you will have much to do with this.Just a thought why security is of such a high standard here and not in the US?
 Europeans, especially Germans are almost paranoid about their privacy. No online information about you if you don't want it.No Google street photos if a neighborhood objects.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Dutch Feats of Engineering

As our last outing in Holland we wanted to go for a drive up north and see two dams over the sea.
These Dutch feats of engineering were finished in 1932.
The outer dam is called Houtribdijk Dam that separates the Inner Markermeer from the outer Ijsselmeer. (A7).The outer dam is called Afsluit Dijk and goes south from Lelystad back to Amsterdam.
Did you  know that the thermometer was invented in Amsterdam in 1714?

Our house in Amsterdam had an interesting, stylish hydrometer. It bore the name of its maker, Jan van Agteren. He lives in Lelystad, at the tip of the second dam on our way back to Amsterdam. So our round trip would come full circle.

Why not look him up and visit his workshop.He is on Facebook. Unfortunately, he didn't get my message and was totally surprised seeing these two strangers outside his door. He had to give up making thermometers because some countries, including the Netherlands, outlawed the use of mercury. Now he is only allowed to repair them.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Hortus Botanicus & Elizabeth Gilbert

Hubby and I had just finished reading Elizabeth Gilbert's book : The Signature of all Things from from the # 1 New York Times bestselling author of Eat, Pray, Love and Committed.
Not a book I would typically read but he convinced me and I found it unputdownable in its archaic language and old-fashioned ways. The material matter can be a bit lengthy at times, but that serves a purpose and we both found ourselves totally enthralled. The next day, last Sunday in Amsterdam we made our way downtown via several trams in lashing rain to the Hortus Botanicus where the story starts and ends. We even persuaded the lady who sold the tickets who hadn't read it to stick to it and persevere...
The horticultural aspect of the 375 year old institution that once played a major role in the botanical world, competing with Kew Gardens, was underwhelming, to say the least.. Maybe it just wasn't the best time of years for abundant flowers.Lots of beds were overgrown, however, or flattened by the persisting rain of the previous week.
The Orangery or Palm House was a gem of a coffee shop where a jazz band entertained the punters. Another gem we found outside was this lily. Well worth the trip if you bring a brollie and wellies!
And...read the book!

Saturday, August 16, 2014

The Iceman Cometh...

Spent the last 3 days meandering down to Bodensee (See big picture on top of this page). Meeting friends and having a glimpse at Heidelberg where many a person "lost their heart".

The weather is so unstable, wet & cold and our woollies were hidden deep in one of the 4 suitcases. It's a long drive down south. The thermometer on the car showed the outside temperature between 10-14 degrees Celsius.It feels lore like late fall than summer; forecast not convincing either.
We lit wood burning stove in our "new home", a god-sent.
After this morning's heavy rain had stopped we heard a chime of a van. Neighbors kids told me: The Ice cream man. How appropriate: The Iceman Cometh...!
A neighboring old farmhouse has a stork's nest on its roof.Something I haven't seen since my child hood.
There are two more blogposts about Holland I'd like to post when I get a breather. Our Dutch exchangers posted the most wonderful photos from Florida, pool, sea, sun...generally having a good time.I'm glad they liked it!

Thursday, August 14, 2014

On the Road Again

As our stay in Amsterdam comes to an end, we had to pick up a rental car at Schiphol, Amsterdam Airport.We passed a memorial chapel for victims of light MH17, unexpectedly which send shivers down our spines.

Monday, August 11, 2014

Van Gogh Museum

A must - you would say when in Amsterdam. I'm not the most motivated museum goer and Van Gogh is not my most revered painter. Having said that, we felt it was de rigeuer...
The first hurdle of getting tickets is easily overcome by buying them online. You can even choose a specific hour of the day you'd like to be admitted. How whole families with little children queue outside, rain or shine, beats me if there is an easier way.
Spoiler alert: Most of his hardhitters, the most famous pictures were not there!
Sunflowers yes, Starry nights, THE self-portrait: NO! They are in NY or in another museum in a different part of the world.
Every hour they let in about 100 people who then move slowly past the pictures on 3 floors. The audio guide, however, only comments on about 9 pictures out of the 30 or more on the ground floor. We saw 3 other self-portraits by the master himself which were not honored by any explanation. How many did he draw?
If you're interested more in his artistic development and have techniques explained, then you won't be disappointed.
Friday night, unfortunately, was also the time for musical entertainment for the visitors.The group was substandard- sorry, but loud. So loud in fact, we had to give up on our audio guide system.
I liked the museum shop best. A very tasteful collection of many different touristy, even useful gifts arranged according to the predominant colors Van Gogh used: yellow bags, red purses, blue ipad cased for example.
Another area for improvement is the locker room / hand in your coats etc.. Two lonely if busy bees tried to efficiently handle the crowds. From one line to the next: Security check point afterwards. If some bad guy wanted to do harm, he can easily hand in his bomb with his backpack in the locker room and not try to bring it through the scanners.
As the whole outing cost a bomb, I admit we were disappointed.
This picture was obviously taken on another day as it has practically no visitors and photography is forbidden!

Saturday, August 9, 2014

You've got Mail!

What do you do with your mail when you leave the country for a number of weeks? USPS offers a hold your mail service which you can organize online.
But what if you are expecting important communications and would like to get them? USPS will forward it temporarily anywhere on US territory. But what do  you do if you venture further afield?
As we found out, there is a private service which will expedite it to you anywhere in the world--for a fee.
It may be essential if you go away for 2-3 months as we do. That company is reliable if not cheap.
We did have problems, however, with USPS. Our neighbors informed us in previous years that our mail box was overflowing. We had to call the sorting office to remind them of our request which they should have on file. Yes, they were going to remind the mail carrier...
This year, we handed a copy of our request over to thepost lady personally. In spite of this, things have gone terribly wrong for almost 3 weeks.We had fallen victim to a spammer instead of the Texas based company we have been dealing with for a couple for years. As of today, everything looks good!One thing less to worry about....
A local statue. She looks like a farmer's wife, doesn't she? Or just a woman in old-fashioned garb?

Friday, August 8, 2014

Live Like the Locals

Home swappings gives you a taste of what it is really like to live in a country. You can live like the locals, go to their markets, eat the local food, enjoy restaurants your swapping partners recommend, walk in their parks and drive around in their cars. We almost zip around on our bicycles like the Dutch although we don't enjoy it in the rain.
You get the best feel for a country if you travel this way. Here are some pics from our neighborhood which offers a wild life reserve  and several parks.
                                                                         A Dutch duplex!
There are also curios like this.(De gustibus non est disputandum). Probably not politically correct for most people, but tolerated here:
Some community art project came up with this beauty.

And another really nice nature shot that hubby took in one of the parks: