Thursday, August 29, 2013

Interlude Post 7 from Venice, Italy

Greetings from Italy.  We just arrived here after a couple weeks of working our way south via the Alps of Austria, Switzerland and France. 

After departing Berlin, we spent a few days in Prague, which is a great city.  Although the sky threatened rain for us, we managed to do all our touring in relatively dry conditions.  
The castle was amazing, but our favorite part was the Old Town square.  First of all, there is an astronomical clock, so that wins bonus points right there…but additionally, there was a full food festival going on, so we sampled potato and sauerkraut casserole, fried potato chips, local sausage and ham, but our favorite was Trdelink: it’s a bread dough that is rolled out into a cylinder, then roasted over a coal fire, then covered in cinnamon and sugar.  Think of a donut the size of a can of soda but really thin: delicious!  There were also these really crazy dancer/bagpipe-type-instrument-players going nuts in the square, and they had full-on wooden shoes, which made them a joy to watch.

Moving south, we headed to Austria and spent a couple days in Vienna, which was a very nice surprise city…we hadn’t heard too much about it, but it’s amazing architecture (plus the gorgeous day we had) quickly moved it to number 2 city on my list, and number 1 on Kellee’s.  For some reason I don’t recall ever learning about Austrian history in school, so it was neat to see how long their empire lasted and how much influence they had in Europe for hundreds of years – basically right up until the Prince was assassinated and World War One erupted.  Despite all the awesome things we saw, the winner was a cafĂ© downtown, with delicious Apple Strudel and a window into the chocolate maker’s domain, right next to our table…we were able to watch the chefs work their magic while shoving some of their hard work down our throats. 

Austria is also famous for it’s Alps, and we spent a few days in Innsbruck, a former Olympic city and hiking capital of Austria.  We had awesome weather and the best part was that we were able to take the Gondola to the top of the mountains and walk down – no climbing involved!  Lazy, but fun.  Austria also had a crazy mountain road through a pass in the Alps with amazing views – but lots of switchbacks, and a 30 Euro toll, but it was worth it for the pictures. 

Our strudel fix complete – we were in search of Swiss chocolate, so we headed to Interlaken area of Switzerland and set up camp for a few days.  The area is famous for it’s Swiss chalet style houses and skiing, but also for its summer hiking. This time, we took Europe’s highest train to the town of Wengel, then a super-steep cable car to the top of a local peak, and had a nice 5 hour hike down…again, lazy, but awesome!  We were a bit clouded in, but were able to steal views of the highest peaks in the region, towering at over 4000m. 

With our legs sore from hiking, we visited the cities of Bern and Geneva, the latter of which is home to CERN and the Large Hadron Collider, the largest science experiment in the history of humanity.  I bought a t-shirt, but we were also able to re-create Thompson and Rutherford’s famous experiments on replica equipment.  Oh what, you haven’t heard of them?  Thompson discovered the electron, and Rutherford unlocked the secrets of the atomic nucleus, among other things. Consider yourself informed! 

Finally, after a delicious baguette sandwich in Geneva (about 2 km from France), we passed through Mt. Blanc, the highest mountain in Europe, and arrived in Italy.  Passed through, you say?  Yes – there is an 11km tunnel right through the mountain…no claustrophobia allowed! 

Once in Italy we visited Milan and just arrived in Venice, to begin our next 3 or so weeks in Italy.  The sun is setting earlier, and the leaves are starting to change, but we still have a bit of summer in us yet!  Navigator remains drydocked in Trinidad and so far hasn’t been hit by any hurricanes…we’ll keep our fingers crossed!  

Saturday, August 17, 2013

Interlude Post 6 from Berlin, Germany

Guten Tag from Berlin!
After a couple of weeks of indescribably beautiful scenery, cold and rainy weather and steep cliffs, we are back in flatlander country, back on the continent and back in the beautiful sunshine.  The last two weeks have been a whirlwind adventure, working our way south in Norway through several national parks, along the fjord-lined coast and putting quite a few miles on our feet on Norway's excellent trekking system.  Above the Arctic Circle we found a truck stop all-you-can-eat buffet that was really good, served several local specialties including fresh salmon.  It was also our realization that Norway is indeed a very expensive country and lives to the standard of being the wealthiest nation in the world.  That didn't stop us from enjoying what it had to offer though, it just meant a lot more ramen noodles for dinner the rest of the trip.

Our first long hike took us 4 hours into the arctic tundra and we came across a family of reindeer.  The indigenous people have a semi-domistication program, so a couple of the animals had collars, but as with the sheep here, they have free reign over the wilderness.  We also did a short trip on the coast road, which is comprised of ferries and roads along the coast and Chris described one rest-stop as the "most beautiful place I have ever been."

We took a passenger ferry over to Svartisen Glacier, which has a tongue that almost reaches water level, and we hiked right up to the edge of it and got to see the sapphire blue underbelly.  A storm caught up with us there and we spent a damp night wild camping and caught the ferry back in the morning.  Norway allows for camping pretty much anywhere you want, as long as you are 150m from any habitation, so we took advantage of that law a few nights to experience the wild and save some camping fees.

Another hike took us 7 or so miles into a valley in Dovrefjell National Park, where we happened upon a herd of muskox.  It looked like several adults and a couple of kids, munching away on the hillside.  There are signs warning against them rushing at you, so we stayed a respectable distance and used the telephoto lens.  The muskoxen went extinct in Norway, but were re-introduced a few decades ago and are now thriving.

After a few days in the interior, we moved toward the coast where again the road is punctuated by numerous tunnels and ferries...most are only a few minutes, but we hit one delay and ended up cooking dinner on our campstove while waiting in line.  Chris struck up a conversation with a family of Italians behind us and got some suggestions for our Italy adventure.  Norway was definitely a melting pot of languages, but thankfully the locals all spoke some english.  The ability of the ferry operator to approach us in French (because our license plate is from France), switch to English, then speak German to the guy behind us left us feeling slightly embarrassed for our failure to grasp even simple pleasantries in other languages.

I could attempt to wax poetic all day about the caliber of the landscape of Norway, but even the pictures don't do it justice.  Trollveggen was a valley we drove through with our jaws dropped as our necks craned up to see the tops of the cliffs on either side, with huge waterfalls and ice caps. Chris did an excellent job white knuckling the steering wheel through dozens of hairpin turns on roads really only wide enough for one vehicle.  Meeting a bus was always interesting and involved backing the car up (down) the hills until safe passage could be had.  The rainy weather didn't stop us, although one cliff ascent was made entirely in the fog and we had to buy the postcard to see what it was we had missed while driving.

One fjord, the famed Geirangerfjord, we actually arrived in by ferry, allowing us to see the fjord from the water and admire the steep walls from the water.  Later, after we docked, we hiked up the side of the cliff and viewed the fjord from the top of the walls.  Each perspective, though quite different, was breathtaking.  Along the hike, we came across a field of friendly goats, some more curious than others, but all full of personality; their antics cracked us up, and their cowbells announced their presence well ahead of time.  Cruise ships were in and out of here but the vast areas of hiking and exploring allowed plenty of room for all.  The mountain top at the head of the valley looked all the way down to our tent nestled in the valley, 1400 meters below, then further to the water of the fjord; the view was amazing.

Norway folklore is obsessed with mythical creatures, and exploring the fjords and valleys where you really can't see much beyond the next bend made it quite easy to believe that a troll could be hiding in the valley.  Lots of the public visitors centers embraced their troll culture and had statues of them large and small by the entrances.  The best part of our daily adventures, however, was coming back to camp after a long cold day of hiking, taking a hot shower and cooking up a stew of chili or chicken soup and eating it hot while admiring the view from the tent.

The city of Bergen was once the center of trading for the Hanseatic League, but today is a fishing center, with a large outdoor market comprised of stalls with fishermen cooking up the catch for you to pick and choose from.  The smells and colors were overwhelming and we throughly enjoyed our fish kebabs with shrimp, salmon, cod and halibut grilled to perfection. In southern Norway, the garden of the country, roadside stands selling berries and cherries were hard to pass up, and on our last hike, we found a bunch of rasberry bushes ripe for the plucking, miles from human habitation.

We bid adieu to Norway from the town of Stavanger after seeing their very impressive Petroleum Museum (oil exploration in the North Sea is what as rocketed Norway's economy to the top) and boarded our overnight ferry back to Hirtshals, Denmark.  The cabin was nice, and with the stormy weather of the crossing, being tucked up in bed and watching a movie on the computer was a great way to spend the evening.  Our morning arrival had us back in the car for a long day's drive along Germany's autobahns to Berlin, with a lunch stop in the town of Lubeck and yes, the bratwurst really is better here.  Over the next couple of weeks we'll be moving south, stopping at several places along our way to Italy, so until next time!

Sunday, August 4, 2013

Interlude Post 5 from Svartisen, Norway

We've been off the grid for a bit - sorry for the delay in posting.

After leaving Ireland, we spent about a week crossing through Wales and England to get to our next ferry.  Along the way, we saw Snowdonia National Park and the White Cliffs of Dover. Very neat to think of all the people who began or ended their journeys with the sight of those cliffs.

After arriving to the mainland in France, we quickly crossed the border into Belgium, and spent the next week moving north to Norway.

Along the way, we stopped in Brugge, Gent, and Brussels in Belgium, but Brugge was our favorite, because of it's beautiful cityscape, the central square, and the delicious hand-made chocolates and dessert waffles.  Yes, we think with our stomachs.

After 3 days in Belgium, we took a quick detour to visit the enormous cathedral in Cologne, Germany, before crossing another border and spending a few days in the Netherlands.  Seeing the old-school windmills and the sights of Amsterdam (including the Van Gogh Museum) was really fun, but the best part had to be the miles and miles of dedicated bike paths - we were able to ride without fear for our lives!

Continuing our northward migration, we crossed back into Germany, and then into Denmark for a short visit to Copenhagen, which was also beautiful and bike-friendly.  The coolest part of Denmark had to be the huge bridges they have between islands, including the bridge to Sweden.

We passed through western Sweden and arrived in Norway a few days ago.  After a visit to Oslo and an awesome stop at the museum of the Fram (a Polar oceanographic research vessel), we drove 15 hours north, to the Arctic Circle, where we did some backpacking and glacier watching.  That brings us up to date - our next couple weeks will be spent hiking in Norway as we move our way back south, and begin the trek to Italy!

PS. The best part of the drive to the Arctic Circle was a brief stop at Lillehammer, Norway (home of the 1994 Winter Olympics).  They still use their bobsled run for winter training, but in the summer, one of the athletes will take you on a bobsled run in a special wheeled-sled.  It was the most ridiculous experience of my life - 100km/hour down a bobsled run, pulling 3.5 G forces.  You have to wear a helmet and a back brace to avoid throwing your spine out of alignment.  We made the run in 67 seconds.  In the olympics, the 15th place finisher made the run in 53 seconds.  I don't know how they managed to live through the experience!  Here's a video showing about half the run, before the motion got too violent for me to record without being killed.