Monday, August 6, 2007

Rennes Without Reservations and the Mountain Monkery

For best results, kindly begin reading at the post immediately previous to this one, just below this one. That'll get you from Amsterdam to...well, just plain "Damn!", to "Damn fine, thank you." Er, that'll all make sense once you read it. I promise...~ed.

Rennes without Reservations(cont.)
...access by unknown and conceivably unfriendly strangers. We had our McGuyver moment when we took a length of black string and ran it between the necks of two empty water bottles which we cached in the shadows flanking the bottom of the escalator. Balancing a few coins on the cap of each bottle we ensured ourselves a bit of warning and an unpleasant surprise for anyone approaching unheralded.

We were roused early by a sudden grinding that marked the furling of the security grate that was our back door all night. Teeth chattering and more than a little grumpy from a night of only snatches of sleep on a hard, cold tile floor, we broke camp, dismantled the alarm system, climbed aboard the train and soaked in the magnificent luxury of a heated, upholstered train car. The sudden improvement in circumstances combined with the certainty that we were finally on our
way--and the brilliant sunrise over the French countryside--combined to lift our spirits dramatically. We arrived in St. Malo and decided that we were tired of public transportation; since we'd already slept on the ground and gone through the ritual of breaking camp we figured we'd just stay in backpacking mode and walk the 3 kilometers to the hostel. The walk helped not only to unwind knotted muscles but also gave us a wonderful view of St. Malo as it, too, roused itself for the morning. We passed a boulangerie just as its pretty young boulangere was opening the doors and grabbed the first baguette we saw, munching it contemplatively as we walked.

Once at the hostel we found that the room was not ready, as we'd hoped. Instead, something better: we hadn't been charged for it! Of course, this meant that we didn't have a place to crash and catch up on that sleep of which we'd been so cruelly deprived. It took only a minute of pondering, however, to realize that we were nearly standing on miles of nice warm bed; after all, St. Malo is known througout France for its wonderful beaches. We ditched the receptionist and our traveling clothes with an alacrity that bordered on insulting and fled for the sunny sand where we showed our appreciation for the scenery by prompltly passing out cold. Cold tiles and a dark train station were nothing but a fading memory and our time in St. Malo was of to a decidedly agreeable start (only slightly marred by the matching pair of brilliant red, totally lopsided sunburns we awoke to).

Monkery on the Mountain
Mont St. Michel was one of the places I'd been to before but I wanted to take Patrick there and visit it again for myself. It's probably Normandy's best known feature and, as far as I'm concerned, one of the jewels of France. The whole of the town is as fantastic as it is
improbable. The mountain rises out of the ocean itself, a steep jutting peak contrasting with a landscape of rolling hills. The massive tide fluxations of the Normandy coast mean that at times the ocean moat becomes instead a surreal expanse of tidal plains; a strange, reflective desert of shifting, sucking mud stretching for miles from the base of the mountain. Add to this strange scene the massive gothic abbey perched at the apex of the mountain, courtyards and chapel appearing to hang in space supported by no natural formation. Even from afar you can make out the golden figure of the Archangel Michael rising high above the tallest spire. The whole
structure appears to be straining heavenward. It has to be experienced to be understood and I was looking forward to being there again and sharing it with Patrick.

We caught the bus out of town, sharing it with all the other tourists and just following the crowd to make the correspondence in Pontorson, just a few miles from St. Michel. When the bus disgorged its scuttling mass of human cargo we vaguely remembered that there was a secondary, less-used entrance to the town but we demurred and decided to again follow the crowd. And what a crowd it was. St. Michel is a huge tourist spot, and so linearly designed that every inch of the switchbacking main street is peopled like a metro station at commute
time. It's a shame that so many people see it this way; I sense that in the silence of the early morning and late night the city reveals much more of its dignified and storied thousand year history.

Being in a crowd of tourists is always a bit of an affront to the sensibilities and we soon found a narrow, unmarked stairway rising steeply of the street level that caught our interest. It was heading up, which was approximately the right direction, and it was being used by exactly no one. These were all the selling points it needed; we took it. As we practically licked the stairs in front of us we gained ground enough to put us even with the rooftops along the street and wondered, as we wound through narrow alleys and MC Escher-like passages, if the joke was on us and we'd end up having to backtrack down to the madding crowd with our heads hung low. Just around the next corner, however, the stairs deposited us onto the cobblestone main street...right below the entrance to the abbey! We rejoined the crowd, having essentially cut in line ahead of 500 people, and wended our way up to get tickets, all the while joking in polyglot with our fellow line-standers that we might be smarter to gang up and call ourselves a "group" for the privelege of using the fast lane. We took our lunch on the vast terrasse of the abbey while we enjoyed the expansive view of French countryside and tidal plains from a sheer 100 meters above sea level.

A French docent warned us in conspiritorial tones that the English guided tours were hell at this time of the summer (and that, despite our clever plan, the French tours were "double hell") and so we opted for audioguides and our own pace to experience the abbey. I say "experience" because "see" does not encompass the feeling of grandeur, history, and spirituality of the place.

I was happy to hear confirmed my understanding of the legend of the founding of the abbey. In the late 10th century a local bishop had a dream in which St. Michael the archangel, commander of the armies of heaven, appeared to him and commanded him to build a monastery on the spot. This bishop, being a reasonable and prudent man, did pretty much nothing. After all, he knew that the devil could speak in dreams as well as the angels, and the point of a mountain seemed a dodgy place to build anything. Soon enough, though, the dream was repeated, with St. Michael appearing in heavenly glory to issue his command. The bishop was shaken but still sat tight, unwilling to stake his reputation or perhaps even his mortal soul on some nocturnal smoke and mirrors. This probably would have been the end of discussion, but, as the story goes, St. Michael wouldn't take no for an answer. Returning a 3rd time to the sleeping bishop, the archangel extended a flaming finger and punched a hole in the bishop's forhead. This was apparently all the proof that the bishop needed, for he jumped to work on the abbey immediately and personally supervised a great deal of the construction of what became one of the holiest pilgramage sites in France. (Amusing side note: the stained glass window that commerates this event takes slight liberties with the story, depicting the archangel merely laying his finger upon the bishop's head, as if by way of blessing. Apparently cranial puncture by angelic digit is not appropriate material for church windows.)

We finished our tour with still time left before the busses arrived and wandered what to do. We tried the boisson regional, a refreshing but filling apple cider that the Norman farmers produce with as much care and fierce dedication as any french vinter. Wandering down to the alternate entrance from earlier in the morning we confirmed that we could have dodged the crowd even better by entering through the gate ominously marked "Police Nationale". Apparently that's mostly to scare away the tourists. It apparently works. We chatted with several groups of French scouts in their very rugged and European-style uniforms; we were wearing the neckerchiefs we'd bought at Kandersteg in hopes of striking up conversations with other scouts on this 100th anniversary of the Baden Powell's founding of the scouting movement.

Finally we descended to the very base of the rocky mountain, where it disappears into the muddy tidal flats. Last time I was here, with a tour group and a chartered bus, there was no way I could have gotten all the way back into this out of the way spot, and I certainly wouldn't have had time to go OUT there. This time, however, we were on our own time and our own dime, lending a wonderful freedom. It looked like fun. It looked like a mostly good idea. It looked...amazingly muddy. Stripping down to pants only, we left everything of value just around the bend, safely out of sight and safely out of the morass. Tentatively we squished barefoot out onto the flats, sliding in the gooey mud as it alternatey slid out from under us or squirted between our toes. With an ungainly shuffle/skate we moved out past the dangerous rocks and found a ford across the delta the separated the "beach" from the plain proper. Once out there it was simply incredible. To be at eye level with the tidal plain allowed you to realize how vast it was, and walking out from the base of the mont we realized that we had a priveleged view that few tourists can ever get. No cars, no busses, no throngs of people...this is probably as close to what it really looked like in its heyday as you can see. We certainly took photos and gamboled around on the surreal landscape, sometimes sliding around, sometimes singing to an ankle, knee, or further.

That ought to get us up to speed. There are still 2 more days of St. Malo and 3 more days of Paris to share, but I'll do those once we're stateside.

Sunday, August 5, 2007

Where am I going and why am I in this handbasket?

Yes, we're alive! I feel compelled to apologize for the dearth of updates (I'm sorry!) but I shan't dwell explaining it and instead I'll do my best to rectify it. At the very lest I'll provide some thumbnail sketches that you can ask for stories about later.

Last we spoke we were leaving Amsterdam via a day train, with no reservations. This fairly casual, off the cuff style had served us quite well to this point. Crowded Cinque Terre made room for us at Mama's pensione, Nicole and Olivier opened their arms to strangers in Fribourg, and Hili appeared as if divinely summoned to welcome us to Klosterneuberg. Even Budapest somehow guided us to the right place through a series of happy chances. We did well and perhaps were even a bit spoiled. So much the better. All the while we knew we were trading certainty for freedom and as we worked our way back west we started trading the other way. You want on the train, you reserve ahead of time and pay for the privelege. Same for hostels in the big tourist cities.

{They know the backstory, cut to the chase. Yessir!}

Let this diagram represent our intended route:
A) Amsterdam-->Paris-->St. Malo

Let this dog turd represent our actual route:

B) Amsterdam-->Brussels Nord-->Brussels Midi-->Brussels Centraal-->Paris Nort-->Paris Montparnasse-->Rennes--> NIGHT -->St. Malo.

Yup, thats right; after more than 11 hours of traveling we arrived 60km short of our goal and missed the last train by 30 minutes. Ouch. And we thought we had already paid for the hostel in St. Malo, so we didn't relish finding and paying for yet another room, in Rennes, at 10:00 at night. We elected to stay the night in the station and catch the first train in the morning. Whereupon the local yokels informed us that the station closes at night. I had some choice words, but we had no choice. It's really quite perspective-broadening to be put face to face with how little circumstances care if you are pissed at them; pretty soon I had to just let it go as getting mad was utterly not going to accomplish anything. Instead we turned our attention to something that I had never considered before: where's a good spot to sleep outside in an urban area? Alongside my newfound respect for homeless of all stripes I also recalled all my camping experience. Where's a good spot to sleep ANYWHERE? Well, I thought as we surveyed our concrete landscape, might as well start with the 5 W's of any survival campside: Weather, Wood, Water, Wigglies, and Widowmakers. Wood and water weren't a concern as we weren't planning on building a fire and boy scouts always bring extra water, but we still wanted a place out of the weather, away from any wigglies, and clear of any dangers that might make for unpleasant rousings, in this case other indigents, trains, and cops, in about that order. Fortunately, in a "you can only get better from here" turn of events, we found the escalator down to the entrance of the closed metro station. Stopped for the night, the escalator formed a narrow staircase down to a cave-like burrow that ended at the drawn security door that led to the station. Out of sight, out of the weather, and with a natural choke point to limit...

Continued in next post for reasons of readability and because this box in the Heathrow airport is crippled by the protective features they've installed on it.

Sunday, July 29, 2007

Putting the Blue Clouds and Green Fairy behind us

Amsterdam has been another surprise of the trip. It truly is a beautiful city; a sort of Prague dropped on top of Venice, with Seattle and Boston influence (although, strictly speaking, the influence of course goes the other direction).

As is our habit we caught a bike tour first thing in the morning. Fortunately, the reigning champion of bike tours, Mike's Bikes, operates an Amsterdam branch. We made haste to join them and partook of the sheer joy that is biking in Amsterdam. The old city has just over 300,000 people and even more bikes. Many people don't own cars and many more haven't bought petrol in so long they don't know the price of it. The effect on the interior of the city is dramatic. Many roads are de-facto pedestrian routes that grudgingly part to allow cars through. Bike lanes abound and the canals make cars routes maddeningly circuitous while bikes can sail across old town in minutes. We soaked up, as always, a great deal of the history of the country, and learned a lot about how its past makes it the way it is today: The historically religiously open country that was rolled over by inquisitive Spanish Catholics, kicked them out and swung back to social liberalism, got rich on trade while the rest of the world squabbled over religous wars and imperialism, got rolled by fascists in the Second World war and responded with a defiant swell of tolerance and progressive social ideas once the Nazis were routed. Most of the famous (or infamous) social policies of the Netherlands amount to a constructive "piss-off" to the departing Nazi ideals. (Not just the well-known legalized cannabis and prostitution, but also women's suffarage, gay rights, and broad social support systems like a universal guarantee of housing.)

In our short stay here we had to brutally prioritize our sightseeing agenda, and after the bike tour the Anne Frank house was the natural next stop. It's kind of a pity that so much of European history is overshadowed by the relatively brief but recent events of the second world war. On the other hand, the wealth of records and the unimaginable horror at the heart of the war make it a very accessible, very compelling cautionary tale. The Anne Frank house and attached museum did their best to tap into this, though in a somewhat more storybook way (take the kids here when they're 10, wait till they're at least 13 for a concentration camp.). To me, the part that was the most truly interesting was an interactive exhibit set up near the exit of the museum. Called "Free2Choose" it showcased situations that called for a personal value judgement as to the limits of free speech, tolerance, liberties, and laws. It presented brief synopses of real-world events or controversies (like flag burning, head scarves for French school girls, holocaust denial, etc.) and asked the audience to vote using buttons placed around the room. It was quite interesting to see the groups reaction rendered in real time and compared to the average of all previous groups who had seen the presentation. The underlying theme of the exhibit was clearly emphasizing that tolerance and knowledge are the only true security against terror and tyranny; a good lesson for any age.

After paying our respects to Anne and her family we headed back to Zeedijk street, the main drag in the old part of town. Zeedijk is known for many things, including its ubiquitous roving bands of young anglo males, part of the rising tradition of holding stag party weekends in Amsterdam for British bachelors. It's also home to a confusion of Asian restaurants, Chinese, Japanse, Thai, the aromas of which mercifully cover the everpresent BO smell of pot smoke. We found a Thai restaurant (The Thai Bird) and had a pretty decent, if slightly overpriced meal. And no Thai Iced Tea, darn it!

No visit to Amsterdam would be complete without a stroll down Oudezjids Achterburgwal, a street that needs no introduction nor, in fact, any city-installed lighting. Paris has its Eiffel Tower, a monument to innovation and human ingenuity, Luzern has its wounded lion, a reminder of sacrifice and resistance to tyranny. And Amsterdam has Oudezjids Achterburgwal, the red light district, a testament to the spirit of live-and-let-live tolerance that has helped the Netherlands endure and thrive over the centuries despite the turmoil that engulfed the rest of Europe. Legalized since the 1980's, prostitution in Amsterdam is a strange blend of the profane and the mundane. Prostitues rent window space (and the accompanying rooms) for a set rate, and accept clients as they wish. Their "offices" have to meet hygiene standards, likewise themselves. The whole thing is legislated, regulated, inspected, and, naturally, taxed. Unlike the seedy image one pictures when thinking of the sterotypical red light district, Oudezjids Achterburgwal is surprisingly family-friendly. The window displays are, for the most part, nothing you wouldn't see in a Victoria's Secret store window (except the mannequins may wink suggestively at you) and the sidewalk traffic doesn't look too different from the average crowd emerging from a PG-13 movie. A large portion of the passers-by are, predictably, 25-40 something males, but women, teens, and grey-haired couples round out the mix. Life goes on, unfazed, on the streets on both sides of the district and the Dutch are happy to let tourist dollars come flowing in long after the novelty has worn off.

Leaving Oudezjids Achterburgwal bound for home we also decided to poke our heads into one of the many coffeeshops that abound in the area. They're pretty informal joints (no pun intended), most of them nothing more than a small, low room with comfortable chairs, dim lighting, and a bartender more likely to philosophically explain the paradox of a "victimless crime" than to separate drunken brawlers. More than a little self-conscious (I'll admit!) I strolled among the tables, just taking in the atmosphere (once again, no pun intended) and seeing what the culture was. It was, surprisingly, a little more akward going into the coffeehouse than it was walking down the street of the redlight district. Perhaps it's that going inside is an deliberate act, with less psychological deniabilty. I borrowed a menu from a serene girl in the corner and browsed the neatly laminated sheet which looked for all the world like the inventory of a drug bust. I figured since I was there, and feeling akward already, I might as well ask the girl at the bar to explain to me what I was looking at. The menu was divided up into different styles and strenghts of cannabis, and she explained why some patrons would prefer one versus another. Listening to her I began to see why the Dutch believe they have achieved civilization while much of the rest of the world are still locked into the self-imposed contortortions of moral and legal paradoxes.

Amsterdam has truly been one of the surprises of the trip. While the depth of history and culture alone are enough to keep you fascinated, the city is quaint and beautiful to boot. As much as we'd like to stay longer the end of our journey is rapidly approaching and we have, as they say, miles to go before we sleep. After touring the Van Gogh museum tomorrow morning we'll be making our way to Saint Malo tomorrow afternoon. Saint Malo (say it like the French; /San Mal-oh/) is a lovely ancient village on the rocky coast North coast of France, the historical home of fisherman and the secret base of the dashing French corsairs. The weather report for St. Malo is high of 68, low of 48, partly cloudy with showers--just like our Northern California coast. From St. Malo there we'll be daytripping to Mont St. Michel, that amazing monkery in an island castle you've no doubt seen in pictures. With only 6 days remaining of our trip we're both realizing that it has come to pass exactly as we knew it would: this trip has flown by. Much as both of us would gladly head back out if some eccentric millionaire offered us the means, at this point we're both warming to the idea of trading our worn backpacks for familiar beds and seeing old friends and family again.

Saturday, July 28, 2007

Yeah, it smells just like you might expect

We've arrived in Amsterdam! Which is in the Netherlands. Or is it Noord Holland? And they speak Dutch. Yeah, I'm still haven't figured it all out yet, either. Of course, that's what this whole excursion is for, anyway.

This third night train, from Prague, was by far the most interesting yet, the telling of which I will leave to Patrick to fill in since it's really his story.

More commentary on the city and the production that we're going to when we get back this evening.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Go West, young man!

Yesterday's first westward train journey marks the official beginning of our return trip!

Our accomadations on this trip weren't quite as idyllic as our previous night train. Though the company was just as good, there was quite a bit more of it; our six bed couchette was packed to the gills with two girls from Yorkshire, us, and a couple from DC traveling to Poland to introduce him to her parents. Patrick managed to find us and a fellow traveller sub sandwiches by way of a late dinner, but the compartment crowded with sleepers and the tiny hallway gave us no place to sit and enjoy them. Eventually the hallway traffic thinned out and we decided just to plunk down in the narrow hall, hoping it wasn't verboten. We had just begun our furtive supper when the conductor poked his head from his compartment and said something in Czech. Summoning my hard won international communication skills I raised my sandwich and gestured to the seated group, "Ist OK?" He nodded dismissively then repeated his question; it ended in "...bier?" Wait...did he say beer? To emphasive, he pantomimed the approximate dimensions of a generous bottle and said "Czech bier, ein Euro." We wasted no time in rewarding our man's entrepreneurial spirit and settled down again to enjoy what was shaping up to be an enjoyable evening. The night was, as always, punctuated by jarring station stops and passport controls, but we managed some sleep and arrived in Prague to sunrise and, once again, few tourists.

Now that we've been here for a day, I can confirm: Prague is as they say. Miles and miles of narrow, cobbled streets wind through the old town. No mere exhibit or token, like many of the vielles villes in European capitals, Prague's old town is large enough to pass for a city in its own right. Even after having seen so many quaint old streets thus far we had to marvel at the sheer scale. It just keeps going! Here there isn't the underlying worry of taking a wrong turn and stumbling out of Disneyland into mundane modernity waiting just beyond.

As is our habit we hooked up with a bike tour to orient ourselves. The bikes they provided were no granny-style fat tire cruisers. They were well maintained middle of the line mountain bikes with thick treads and better shocks. We found out soon enough why: the cobblestones nearly rattled our teeth loose. Among the notable sites on the tour, the tallest structure in Pague particularly amused me. This TV tower, built in the late 80's as a last gasp of Eastern European communism, only ever carried 3 stations: It was built primarly to block Western transmissions. After a helpful but somewhat uninspiring tour we crossed joined the crush of tourists and followed Karlova Street to the famous Charles Bridge. By the time we arrived at the gates of Prague Castle the combined effects of a short night, long day, hot sun, and surfeit of tourists combined to leave us uninterested in further culture for the day. Instead we found a grassy patch on the hill and napped for a few hours, finally waking to 6:00 tolling from the nearby church, which we took for our dinner bell.

Edit: Patrick notes that we are now carrying 7 currencies. They are, in order

  • US Dollars
  • British Pounds
  • European Union Euros
  • Swiss Suissefrancs
  • Hungarian Forints
  • Polish Zloty (/zwah-tee/)
  • Czech Koruna

and the bonus round, the piece-de-la-resistance...

  • Austrian Schillings (discontinued in 1993, found in the gutter!)

Edit: I just viewed the blog using Internet Explorer and I note that the pictures seem to load strangely or not at all. Probably the legacy of my amateur html skills. If you're using IE (and oh God why?) you might have better luck with something else.

Monday, July 23, 2007

If the left don't get ya then the right one will...

Poor Poland. It's whole history it's been battered about, perpetually caught between expansionist and warlike neighbors, most notably Prussia/Germany on the left and Russia on the right. If it weren't for the language (and what a language!) and the unshakable Catholicism Poland would be undefinable as a country, so many times has it been annexed, taken over, carved up, and generally abused by its neighbors. Fortunately, this willingness to ride out the bad times with stoic dignity has paid dividends for Poland in at least one way: architectural heritage.

Many of the other major cities of Europe display a subtle charade to tourists, which our Munich guide Adam referred to as the "Bombed Style" of architecture. In short, many MANY of these old buildings in the center of town simply *aren't* old. They're cleverly crafted copies done in the style of the demolished original. So great was the destruction in some places that cities like Frankfurt and Munich held town votes to decide how to go about rebuilding the city; bulldoze and start over or rebuild it like it was (We have the technology...). In Frankfurt they decided that the Etch-a-Sketch had been shaken beyond saving; they literally redrew the city map and filled in with whole new buildings. Munich, by a close vote, went the other way, opting to preserve their historic feel and rebuild the city to look like it did ante-bellum (before it got it's bell rung). This gave birth, somewhat unceremoniously, to the "Neo-" style of architecture. You had a Gothic city hall that got asploded? The replacement is the "Neo-Gothic" Rathaus. Lost your government building dating back to the Renaissance? How about a good-as-old "Neo-Renaissance" copy on the same spot? (Plus a nice little modernist touch: Large glass and steel sides on the office, facing the public park so that the citizens can look in and watch their government at work. Methinks the architect was making a statement...)

Only 2 of you ever read these things anyway, do ya?

Krakow, by contrast, doesn't have this. In fact, compared to the others, Krakow is at times a bewildering architectural kaleidescope. With no B-17s to simplify matters the city has retained its natural strata of styles from the different fits and spurts of building throughout its history. Nowhere is this more apparent than the almost comically embellished Wawel Cathedral. If you think it looks like a half-dozen or more rulers all tacked on their pet project using the current fashion in architecture, then you're right. My friend Rick tells me that the tote board here reflects 14th-century Gothic, 12th-century Romanesque, 17th-century Baroque, 16th-century Renaissance, and 18th- and 19th-century Neoclassical (In the sense of based-on-classical, not based-on-a-bombed-original-that-was-based-on-classical).

Prague made its tourist reputation on its similar fortune of not having been rubbled during the war, and I hear that, as much as Krakow touts itself as "the next Prague", the real thing is still king. All in all, Krakow has had its charms but for me it will remain firmly in Budapest's shadow. I'm ready for the train; old Praha has promised a lot and I really want to see it deliver.

Bonus feature: Scavenger Hunt!
So wait, it you can see THAT from THERE, then he would't have had to have been...

We all want to be Sherlock Holmes, Indiana Jones, and Gil Grissom, to look at the elements everyone else sees and put them together in a new way. We like the challenge, and we like the hunt for its own sake. Walking along an outdoor display of reproductions from Krakow artist Stanislaw Wyspianski we noticed one that was clearly a scene painted from within the city itself. If you can recognize one church anywhere in the world by its towers alone, it's gonna be St. Mary's and its famous mismatched pair. Well, we got to thinking, in a very grassy-knoll, Raiders-of-the-Lost-Ark kind of way, that it should be a simple matter to figure out where this guy's perch was.
To this day some people maintain that there were in fact TWO painters atop the Cloth Hall

Patrick took a picture of it for reference and, after Chinese for dinner (no sushi yet, Patrick insists, we're still 400 miles from the ocean) we headed back into town to get to the bottom of this. Naturally we stuck out like sore thumbs wandering around the main square alternately looking from the cathedral to our camera to the surrounding buildings. With some good inferences and a sharp eye we spotted the dome in the mid-foreground of the photo. A few moments later it all fell into place: The Princess-Leia ionic columns, the bronze ball, the low wall...He had to have been atop the Cloth Hall! Here, see for yourself!

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Can't go wrong with Mama

As we travel we make a conscious effort to stay close to the ground; hostels instead of hotels, small locally-owned eateries off the beaten path, and word of mouth recommendations as much as possible. This tends to give us a more colorful, cultural and local experience. The hostel guests and proprietors are more talkative and interesting and the guy behind the counter at the restaurant seems a little less burned out on tourists. This general policy however, has led us to an even more specific traveler's axiom: you can't go wrong with Mama.

In Corniglia, you remember that our under-the-table pensione (/pen-see-ohn-ay/) was secured by the Godfather-channeling "Mama" Angela. In Budapest, we found our authentic local Hungarian at Zsoka Mama's, a 6 table restaurant wedged into a small storefront a couple blocks off the main drag. Finally, tonight and last night we stuffed ourselves to bursting on rich, earthy polish food at an eatery that feels like you've walked into a Polish granny's living room -- for about $5 (US) per person. The place is "Kuchnia U Babci Maliny", and if you guessed that the translation includes "Grandma's" you win the prize.

The prototypical "Mama's" isn't ritzy or flashy; in fact, it's usually humble and often downright hard to find. Mama isn't trying to impress you, and you certainly can't impress mama; she's been at this since you were in diapers. Mama hasn't changed with the times or the tourists either; she's still using her mama's recipe.

Mama has seen us through so far and you can bet your bottom zloty that we'll keep coming back to her, wherever we find her.

Saturday, July 21, 2007

The pictures, they MOVE!

Yes indeed, we have another special treat for you. Grab yourself a beverage and enjoy the third production of Rambling Rovers Motion Picture Studios, "Tunnel Vision"

Also, (as Krystal so perceptively pointed out) we have new photos up on the flickr site, from the end of Budapest through today. In lieu of a blog post today I have gone through and added my two zlotkys worth to the captions.

Whatchu gonna do when they come for you?

We caught our first night train last night, leaving Budapest behind just as the clouds began to gather. As a send-off the city even managed to muster 20 minutes of sprinkling rain, almost as if in apology for the record-breaking heat wave.

We settled into our couchette and awaited the bad news...who were we going to have for roommates? Afterall, there are 6 bunks in the 8x8x8 2nd class couchettes and they don't see anything inhumane about allowing snorers and stinkers and amorous couples onto these trains. Much to our relief, we instead got Miwa, come all the way from Japan on a solitary jaunt around eastern Europe. She was doing Croatia, Slovenia, Bosnia, Herzegovina, as well as Hungary and Poland. As I mentioned in the last post, 3 weeks ago I really wouldn't have considered those to be tourist destinations; I've heard too much about them in the news and not enough in the travel guides. Well, now I know better. I don't speak Croatian any better than I speak Hungarian, but you can't get any worse than totally illiterate, and yet I managed fine in Hungary. It's all the same, really, once you know how to play the game. (This doesn't mean I'm planning a trip to, say, Iraq anytime soon. I prefer to see AK-47s on TV.)

The night train looks to be as good an idea as the 3 day mercy rule. Traveling at night turns a 3 night stay into 4 useful days instead of 2 and 2 halves. Only problem are the border crossings and the ensuing passport checks. Stamp out at the Hungarian border. Then for entering Slovenia. Then for leaving Slovenia. Then for entering Poland. I just don't think I'll ever get used to being rousted out of a sound sleep by stern looking officers armed with guns and scowls, speaking brusquely in a language I utterly don't comprehend. I've watched enough COPS to know that talking to police while barechested and bleary eyed requires deliberate dignity and slow, obvious movements. While I could do without the hourly passport parade at least I now know how to thank them for their troubles. In Hungary kursunum did the job, and for the Polish cop my mind was somehow able to dredge up dziekuje in a close enough approximation that he responded with what I can only assume to be the Polish equivalent of "you're welcome."

We arrived in Krakow at 5:30am, probably our earliest morning so far. We hooked through the old town on the way to our hostel and entered through the Florian Gate, the best preserved remains of the old city wall. We made our way to the main market square just as the sun rose over Saint Mary's cathedral, enjoying the empty plaza populated by many pigeons but few tourists. We even managed to arrive right on the hour to hear the bugler play his hourly call from the watchtower attached to Saint Mary's. The bugler is always a fireman, part of the city's best loved tradition that evokes the legend of a town watchman in the tower that spotted a Tartar army approaching and sounded the alarm. Before he could finish his tune an arrow pierced his throat, cutting him short. To this day the call stops short of the end of the song.

We're now at the Deco Hostel, having managed a much delayed and much needed shower after the sauna like heat of the city and the cramped train car. We're going to head back out on the town, probably catch a bike tour by way of orientation, then, hopefully, return to the hostel later tonight and upload some photos which we kinda owe you all for all the wordy posts. Na zdrowie and czesc,*!

(*Cheers and goodbye, naturally!)

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Here there be Dragons!

Well, I'll be honest. I was a little hinkey about Budapest when we first added it to the itinerary. It seemed like it was on the other side of some imaginary line that divided the world into "within" my comfort zone and "Here there be Dragons". Of course one of the primary purposes of this trip was to expand my horizons and see places I hadn't seen, but lets be REASONABLE, right? Well, I need not have feared. Budapest will love you whether you know a thing about it or not, and you will love Budapest.

First order of business was to get money, since Hungary hasn't quite got up the economic speed to hop aboard the Euro train. The hassle of needing a different type of curreny is somewhat offset by the novelty of a very advantageous exchange rate: about 200 Hungarian Forints to the dollar. So....I withdrew 25,000 in cash. Yeah, it feels just as swell as it sounds. Add to that the fact that I am now carrying 4 different currencies and you'd feel pretty spry, too. How to celebrate that "citizen of the world" feeling and fight the broiling Budapest summer at the same time? The baths, of course!

Budapest is famous for its geothermal baths and has a long tradition going back to the Roman days when they found that this whole area (the "Carpathian Basin", thanks Rick!) is basically a big kettle of hot water with a little dirt on top. The Roman settlement at the site of present day Budapest was even called "Aquincum", or Abundant Waters. Many years later the conquering Ottomans say that the Romans had a good thing going and just expanded on it (hence all the rounded domes and yellow paint).

We hooked up with Shira and Jenna who knew what they were doing and headed for the Szechenyi Baths in the middle of Pest. While others have their claim to fame, Szechenyi is the acknowledged best. A little unsure of what to expect I paid my 2400 forint, changed into a suit (this would be one of the progressive yes-to-bathing-suits-and-women bathhouses) and stepped into the tile-floored baths. Fortunately, as cultural experiences go, this one was no more difficult than a trip to the waterpark, but with all the payoff. We got the full frigidarium (64 degrees!!!), tepidarium, caldarium sequence, plus saunas, large outdoor pools with fountains and jets, even a pool with concentric rings, one for bobbing, one with a circular current, and one giant spa/whirlpool in the middle.

We saw many dignified old Hungarian men bobbing in the warm water contemplating chess moves across a board propped on the intervening wall, and many examples of the fearsome Inverse Speedo Law: The bigger the belly, the smaller the Speedo. As Patrick noted, though, the ratio of attractive bathers to look-the-other-ways was significantly higher here than on either the beaches of Nice or Cinque Terre.

We were actually in the water by 10am, which sounds early until you realize that it was almost 94 degrees by then, humidity about 70%. Though we didn't know it until we got back this evening, today was actually a record breaking high temperature.

After the baths we went to the grand market hunting lunch. The Hungarians don't exaggerate; it's like a train station (it might even have been, considering the turn of the century chic, I-beam and decorative wrought iron architecture) but instead of trains it has dozens upon dozens of food vendors. Produce grocers, butchers, fishmongers with great tanks of live fish ("I want that one. No, not, the other one. The one that's swimming in circles...") and a whole mess of hot food stands are stacked 3 levels high in the cavernous hall. We browsed for awhile, following rumors of Chinese food (lies, LIES!) and eventually settled upon a Hungarian stand offering...*nothing* we recognized. We led with our noses and what looked good, literally just pointing and indicating relative portions ("YES! Gimme more of that. Um..can I try ,I just a smidge of that?) I also managed to order a Coke when I thought I was asking for a fork. With gusto and no small amount of curiosity we dug in. Patrick got what can best be described as a pseudo chile relleno. It was a delightfully spicy stuffed pepper (though "Stuffed with what" is still a matter of conjecture) I made off with an herb crusted chicken leg (Hungarian chickens have MASSIVE legs) that had some sort of ultra-dense bread/pastry stuffing on the INSIDE. The Coke was tasty, too.

Thus sated and also filled up on water we set out to cross the Danube west from flat, business-like Pest to hilly, historical Buda. We climbed Gellert Hill (named in honor of Bishop Gellert, the patron saint of the city, who was offed by his political opponents by being nailed into a beer keg and unceremoniously booted down said hill. End effect: Martyrdom by barrelroll and a new patron saint.) Gellert Hill is topped by the Citidel and a massive statue of Peace personified as a woman (ostensibly) holding a palm branch. The locals call her "The woman with the fish" but to us she will always be "Our Lady of Perpetual Ascent" because DAMN that hill is tall. Getting off the hill and out of the sun we poked around Castle Hill which doesn't quite seem to live up to its exciting name. Fortunately, our penchant for seeking our perches and ditches steered us right once again. We found the Castle Hill Caves and Labyrinth.

No museum, this; it's its just what it sounds like. An a la carte cave and labyrinth experience for those of us who still play Dungeons and Dragons in our head while we tour medieval castles. Climbing down three stories into the rock and foundation of Castle Hill we left the sun and the oppressive heat (106 degrees at 3:45pm) behind, trading it for darkened passages, dripping ceilings, and frosty breath. The cave system was wonderful; no point, just caves, and every BIT as cool as it sounds. They even worked in various themes. At the entrance stood a carved Theseus, stoically peering into the darkness with a ball of yarn in his cupped hand. Elsewhere you stumbled upon him crouched in the shadows while you heard strange, hoofbeat like rhythms. Very environmental, very creepy, VERY cool. Another part featured stacked stone pillars with capstones positioned to give them a clear head and shoulders. Spears leaning against them or thrust in the ground in front of them completed the uncanny impression of soldiers guarding a passageway in the flickering torchlight. For anyone who ever wanted to try to sneak into a castle in a daring nighttime raid, this is the place. The strangest room of the labyrinth was actually the most well lit. Coming around a corner Patrick and I heard cheerful but still oddly minor key *music* echoing from a bright cave up ahead. A few steps further and we both stopped in our tracks at the pungent odor of...blood? Ammonia? No, vinegar! Entering the cave we met a very strange sight indeed. A square pillar of rock in the middle of the room, reaching to the ceiling, covered in bright green ivy growing thick and lively even despite the gloom and total absence of sunlight. Protruding from the rock were 4 bronze fountains, rusted to a turquoise patina, forming mouths spouting down into basins. And from the mouths poured a constant, blood-red stream of vinegar. It was fascinating, utterly mysterious, and vaguely unsettling for reasons I still can't quite put my finger on.

Leaving the caves was sad, and returning to the heat was unpleasant, but it did dry our clothes from the dank subterranean air. Hustling over to the train station before it closed I pictographically reserved us two couchettes (sleeper car berths) on the night train to Krakow in two days. I drew it up ahead of time for maximum comprehensibility and total coverage. The date for the tickets hung over 2 stick figures standing on the word Budapest, which was connected with an arrow to Krakow. Rising over the arrow was a crescent moon and sleeping soundly beneath the arrow were our two travellers, each in a bunk. I was more than a little nervous about what reception my little masterpiece would receive. The last think I want to do is insult and upset the poor woman. I might wake up Friday morning in Siberia! Fortunately, she loved it, gibbering excitedly in Hungarian before declaring "You make so easy!" Don't think I didn't double check the tickets even so, but all is in order, much to my relief.

We finished the night by grabbing dinner at a local Hungarian hole in the wall. I practiced "Thank You" on the waitress ("Kursunum", with umlauts over all the vowels. And it's basically not pronounced one bit the way it looks.) I also had a chance to finally take a crack at "cheers" in Hungarian (phonetically "eh-gesh-eh-ge-druh", still working out where the emPHAsis goes. Easy pneumonic for remembering it, though: "Eggs should get drunk".) I had a bacon wrapped chicken in a white (perhaps cheese-based?) cream sauce, Patrick had the fried pork chops. Annn, NOW I see why those great old Hungarian men are overhanging their Speedos. If that's the price for eating Hungarian cooking I'll gladly pay it.

So Budapest is my buddy now. Tomorrow Patrick and I are planning on catching the bicycle tour tomorrow morning and then heading to Statue Park (1980's, Budapest: OY! Loads of Communist era statues, no longer communist. Historical value. Can't just cleverly paint over them Ooh, eeh, um, what to do? I know! Statue park outside the city!) or maybe trying our another of the bathhouses. Maybe see if we can bait some crotchety Hungarian guy into whooping us at chess.

(Ps: I apologize if all the talk of food is making you Hungary., sorry. I ought to get the country name puns in Czech before I drive my brother to distraction.)

[EDIT: Holy CRAP that was a long post. Er...sorry? Can someone or some several of you nominate yourselves vox populi and tell me if the long ones like the above are too long and should be kept somewhat more bite size? This ok? Crickets?]

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Locals say "Pescht"

We have arrived in Hungary, more or less intact. Before leaving Austria and Klosterneuburg, we decided that we had to actually visit the Cloister and the Neu Burg (new castle), a stunning baroque church strapped to a royal palace, sitting on top of a roman fort. The tour was mostly in German but our granmotherly tour guide threw in as many tidbits in English as she could, all the while complaining that her "English as not so good" (a standard line for many modest Germans and Austrians, who generally have excellent English).

Arriving in Budapest (with a Hungarian "s".. /buda-pescht/) at 8 last night (several hours after we intended, a long story for another time), we found that every hostel we knew about was full and all the Tourist Infos were closed. Bummer dude. So, what did we do? Start talking to people of course! A fellow on the train mentioned a hostel, so we got directions to his hostel, but they were full. However, the guy at that front desk said he was online with a friend of his who worked at another hostel across town. They chatted it up, and he turned back to us and said, "she's got two beds for you. Here's the address." Schwing! We hiked over there, and behind a ratty door, up a rickety flight of stairs we find a great little hostel that's two parts college dorm, 1 part slumber party and a pinch of Anne Frank. Great place, nice people, and we met some folks who want to go to the Baths tomorrow (Budapest hot springs are world famous), so we're going to go with. Good travelers make their own luck.

Monday, July 16, 2007

Flickr Difficulties

Some have metioned to us that they are having trouble viewing pictures on Flickr that we link to from the blog. I haven't been able to pin down the exact issue, but in the interest mitigating it, you can always access our photos directly from our Flickr home page: So, if you've tried to access photos in the past and not been able to get in, there's your best bet. You don't need an account to view them, but if you feel like commenting, it's a simple process to get one.

Saturday, July 14, 2007

Wait, I thought *you* were driving...

Leaving München for Wien this morning we turned our eye to a much neglected part of our trip, namely, our itinerary. Today, Saturday, marks the conclusion of the 3rd week of our journey and our halfway point, at least in time. Because of our extension in Kandersteg and our good fortune in Fribourg we stayed longer in Switzerland than we had originally planned and so are now about 3 days behind "schedule." The schedule itself isn´t really a concern; afterall, we are our own tour guides and we have´t any reservations (Yeah, yeah, "But I´m having SERIOUS reservations..." Shush, you.) but the schedule is a reasonable division of our time and to fall behind it means that we have to rethink our ports of call somewhat to ensure that we get in those places that are important to us and still end up in Paris on the right date. Fortunately, we´re a lot better at planning Europe trips now (funny how that works) so I place a little bit more trust in our ability to create a maintainable itinerary for the balance of the trip.

One principle that we´ve adopted is the 3-nights-in-one-place mercy rule (Also known as 3 Day's Grace). As Gepat, one of the Austrian scoutmasters, explained to me, you can see train stations anywhere in the world and they look the same anywhere in the world. I agree him wholeheartedly, getting there is actually only about 6.25% of the fun. Travel less, experience more and keep your sanity in the bargain. We realized that only two nights in a city left but a single day to explore and a single day off the train. Much better to treat the tour as a series of weekends in which you arrive "Friday" evening, get oriented and settled in, see the sights on "Saturday and Sunday", and leave early "Monday" morning....of course with the benefit that "Monday" morning leads right into "Friday" night!

Another problem we revisted was the state of rail in Eastern Europe. While Austria is still a part of Eurail, and even Hungary beyond that, the Czech Republic, Slovakia (which we may travel through en route), and Poland are not. This means that our magic go-anywhere-do-anything Eurail Passes won´t work and we´ll have to buy tickets for those legs separately. Though we knew this was going to be a bit of a sticky spot when we were planning the trip we figured we´d just deal with it when we got there. Here. Er, now. The nice thing is that we´re working on solutions now so that we still have almost a week before we´ll be needing those tickets.

Our evolving solution for the next two weeks, at least til we´re back in western Europe,looks something like this: (Details, as always, still being worked out.)

July City
14 Wien
15 Wien
16 Wien
17 Budapest
18 Budapest
19 Budapest (Night train)
20 Krakow
21 Krakow
22 Krakow (Night train)
23 Praha
24 Praha
25 Praha (Night train)
26 Amsterdam
27 Amsterdam/Helmond(?)
28 Amsterdam/Helmond(?)

Notice the use of night trains to help pick up a few days and do something productive over those long hauls. Also note that Berlin found its way to the chopping block. As Frankie put it, "Somethin´s Gotta Give."

Friday, July 13, 2007

Photos are SO last year

You all have responded with such vigor, such enthusiasm, to our posts that we want to go just that one step further. We present, in association with RamblingRovers Pictures, a RamblingRovers Studio Production... RamblingRovers in Europe.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Laptops and Leiderhosen

And we´re in München! Munich is referred to by cheeky bilingual natives as "the land of laptops and leiderhosen" because it is at once a very forward-looking center of technology and industry and a stubbornly traditional area steeped in the old ways. Fortunately for us travelers, we´re equally delighted by local beer and oompah as by cutting edge engineering and technology.

We arrived late last night to crash at the A&O Hostel, which was approximately a cross between a dorm and a tenement. (It´s sole redeeming feature was a wistful view of the distinctive Mercedes HQ above the skyline.) Would that we had actually bothered to read our guidebook for ideas before booking, apparently there is a Wombat Hostel in Munich; somehow I think that´s the place for me. Fortunately we´re booked into a much better one for tonight and tomorrow, the EasyPalace hostel.

Today was given over to tours, both vehicular and autolocomotive. We caught a quick doubledecker bus tour as orientation, then had time for a VERY brief "South Americanische" lunch (that´s what it said on the door). Though it was tasty, if over priced, we got endless kicks out of the liberties taken with the menu. Instead of chips and salsa they served bread with yogurt with chives. The salsa evoked hazy recollections of some similar sauce, and the fajitas were also accompanied with something that I was delighted to recognize as islandless thousand island. Seeing "Steaksausse" on the table I took a whiff, and handed it to Patrick with a quiz: " If you didn´t know this was steak sauce, what would you say it was?" He agreed with me; shrimp cocktail sauce.

The Mike´s Bikes tour was, predictably, fantastic. They screen their guides for enthusiasm and charisma so you can´t help but enjoying yourself. Patrick noted that he wished he could send his Engineering Ambassadors on one so they could see how it CAN be done, and we both agreed that we´d love to do something like this some time....whenever THAT would be. Adam, our guide, was an exuberent South African with a 100 mph (161 kph) delivery and wide-eyed excitement you just couldn´t help but love. The accent never hurts, of course. Among the interesting bits he related was that München´s famous Hofbraü Hauss beer hall was the site of one of Hitler´s first public speeches. During the period of Nazi ascendency swasticas were painted on the ceiling in honor of this occasion; years later the proprietors had a difficult decision to make. Swasticas were emphatically out of fashion, but the paintings had historical value. Solution? They worked the Bavarian flag into the swastica design, so enfolding it that its no longer visible if you weren´t looking for it, which we most certianly were. The bike tour paused for a good hour in München´s most famous beer garden, the Chinese Tower Garden, while we sampled some of the famous local product. München is where I first found a liking for beer so it was only fitting that I revisit this revelation in style. Plus, some of you remember that I owe Patrick a beer from Fribourg (when he declined it due to being under the weather). I paid in full, believe me. In the Hofbrau beer garden they sell beer BY THE LITER. If you wonder how much a liter stein is, make a circle with the thumb and middle fingers of your two hands and hold it nine inches off the table. (And then we got back on the bikes after that...) Speaking of hands and fingers, a note on tecnique: steins are very large, often glass, sometimes metal drinking vessels. For beer. Not for other liquids. They had large, manly handles on them. For drinking beer. Not for other liquids. Therefore they must be held appropriately. The "handle," as it was explained, it not for fingers, like you might think. No wrapping your fingers around it like a teacup. NO! Shove your whole meaty, manly hand into it and let the STEIN hold on to YOU! NOW you may swing it, pound it, and chug with impunity! PROST!

Tomorrow we´re headed to the Deutsche Museum, Germany´s answer to the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum, the National Science and Technology Museum, and the Exploratorium all in one place. Legend has it that there are 10 miles of exhibits criss-crossing the campus, and that if you spend 1 minute at each exhibit youd be there 10 days. I certainly intend to give it a run for its money. Guten nacht and love to all!'

Edit:(And yes, to anyone who was wondering about my taking FULL advantage of a keyboard that has a an umlaüt "u" ("ü") on it. Power corrupts, what can I say?)

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Up is a destination, not a direction

Score another one for Patrick's preternatural sense of opportunity. Most tourists only see the seilpark as a point of interest on the gondola ride to the top. We were doubly lucky today because the clouds menaced off a good many potential climbers. The place is basically and Ewok village straight off of Endor, it's the treehouse you would build if you had miles of high tension cable and cranes instead of scavenged two-by-fours and a few nails.

We had lunch on the train to Zurich, leftover spaghetti from last night. Yes, we put it in a bag last night and we took it with us on the train. It seemed like a good idea at the time... No one is sick yet, and the look from the conductor as we squeezed spaghetti and meat sauce from a ziplock bag was priceless. (Also, cooking last night did more than just give us lunch tody. A Swiss kid observing our culinary escapades asked with great interest if we were Americans, because he heard people didn't cook in the United States. I assured him they did, even if he only ever saw them eating in restaurants over here. I also assured him that most americans agreed that McDonald's only met the loosest definition of "food")

Leaving Luzerne

We rose early this morning and made our way to the base of Mount Pilatus, the local mystic mountain and tourist attraction. Most visitors ride the gondola all the way up to the summit and soak in the view (of dubious quality given the low-hanging clouds), but we had a lead on a much more interesting option: Seilpark. The Seilpark is an alpine ropes course hanging off the side of Pilatus. Those of you who know us know *exactly* the odds of us bypassing a network of tightwires, rickety rope bridges, and zip lines hung high in the trees. After two hours of scrabling around (with a few spills, caught by the omnipresent safety line) we relaxed into a final cup of Swiss cappuccino and a nutty Haselnussstang, pastry which we know nothing about except for the waitress's cheery "has nuts", and watched a rainstorm roll in against the alps. Fantastic. Now, off to Munich!

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

And on the 16th day they rested

Wanting to take full advamtage of Nicole and Olivier's knowledge and excellent hospitality we packed as much as we couild into our 4 days in Fribourg. Today? We did nothing. Blessed noting. Emerging from my room barechested, yawning, stretching at 2:30 in the afternoon I even felt compelled to explain myself to a Seattle family that I passed in the hall. Of yesterday there isn't much to tell except for trains and rains, which been the unofficial theme of Switzerland so far. The two notable items were the mildly interesting revelation that we had in fact been here before; 5 years ago with our whole family. Though I recognized some of the sights (particularly Luzerns famous covered wooden bridge) it was all very delayed and very vague, as if from a dream or from pictures of someone elses trip. Not surprising, really, considering how dead tired we were on the "EF 1000MPH European Sampler Whirlwind." A perfect reason to start with a guided tour to find out what you like, then come back and fire for effect.

Lastly, after being in Europe for more than two weeks, our impulse to "eat local" entered a waning phase, replaced by an urgent need for...Thai! Now some of you are probably asking yourselves "Where the heck are you going to find a Thai restaurant in Luzern, Switzerland?" And after nearly an hour chasing geese around old town Luzern, we were asking ourselves the same question. Eventually we stumbled onto (into) a Korean restaurant (Korean Town, naturally) that was warm, dry, smelled delectable and appeared to be patronized astoundingly (and encouragingly!) primarily by Koreans. The menu was mercifully subtitled in English so we helped courselves to hot green team, dumplings, a beef and glassnoodles house special, and a spicy chicken dish. We declined the waitresses offer of forks or even wooden chopsticks, instead opting to try the traditional Korean chopsticks: flat and metal. Despite some hand cramps we had an excellent meal and were mostly dry by the time we headed back out into the storm.

Tonight we cooked here at "home" (the Luzern Backpackers Hotel) and plan to turn in early, post-prandial cappucinos notwithstanding. Depending on whether we hear from Veit and Hilly (two of the Austrian scout leaders) we'll either head for Vienna or Munich on the morrow.

[Editor's note: What do tech savvy budet travelers to do to get around extortionate net fees and still make lengthy blog posts? Why, they type the whole blog post into the URL bar of the kiosks browser windows, 400 characters at a time, in 5 separate windows, then pay the money and past the whole thing together in 20 seconds. (Then they spend another 2 minutes being smug about it...)

Sunday, July 8, 2007

The view from cloud nine

My back-of-the-envelope figuring puts travel at about 20% planning, 70% going with the flow, and 10% luck. (And sometimes I wonder about how much value there is in planning.) Yesterdays events are a perfect example of this.

Meeting up with Nicole and Olivier was a long shot that amazingly worked out (and how!) and things continued lining up frm there. After enjoying their hospitality in our amazing home away from home in Fribourg, Nicole's sister Caroline invited us on a flight around the countryside. Caroline trained as a pilot in the Swiss army (compulsory service for men, optional for women) and now has to fly occasionally to maintain her certs. She was kind enough to take us up in her Cessna for a splendid aerial tour of the canton of Fribourg. We were delighted to come along for the ride, cameras most certainly at hand. (Nice thing about a photo flight is that you can have your tourist moments in the privacy of your own Cessna.)

Taking off from Ecuvilliens a small airfield just outside Fribourg, we got a full tour around of the Kanton of Fribourg. Our hosts explained to us that Switzerland is divided into Kantons, administrative districts very similar to states, but much stronger and more self-directed. (Incidentally, Switzerland is properly called the Confederation Helvetique, which explains the .ch extension in Swiss web addresses, like The city of Fribourg is the capitol of the Kanton in a "New York, New York" sort of way. The mountains are to the south of Fribourg, starting with the green "Pre-Alps" and proceding higher, colder, and snowier to the imposing Alps in the background.

The Swiss military is, like most things Swiss, amazingly clever. In addition to having many citizen pilots they also maintain a host of small air bases scattered about. Many Swiss highways also have sections that can be converted into runways at a moment's notice. Interestingly, because Switzerland is such a multilingual country (3 to 5, depending on how you count) all military air traffic radio in Switzerland must be in English.

In the above picture you can see the large lush summer pastures called, creatively, Alpage. It was these sorts of pastures that the cows in Patrick's photos were headed for. At left is the Lac Noir, the Black Lake that actually looks fairly greenish from the minerals that the water collects as it runs down through the sandstone like molasse rocks of the pre-Alps. The large Cathedral St. Nicholas in Fribourg is made mostly of this rock, except for the foundation, due to its tendancy to run down hill with the prevailing current.

I made sure to include the plane in part of these shots so that it was clear that we are actually taking them and not just raiding google. Here you can see a good progression of the pre-Alps into the Alps. To orient you, and myelf, this is a view due south toward the border with Italian countryside, good seafood, and bad public transit beyond.

Finally, a portrait of Fribourg from the northwest. The city was first constructed as literally a "frei burg", or a free city to ensure that area merchants could continue to trade regardless of political winds. The location was chosen with that goal in mind, in the photo you can clearly see that it's built on a river, as good medieval cities should be. Right there you've got your transportation and your defense. You can also see the Cathedral St. Nicholas, which Patrick and I climbed, with great relish, all 368 steps of.

Friday, July 6, 2007

In which Preston buys Patrick a drink, Olivier some sweets, and Nicole a begonia

Well, he did it. I'm amazed, but it worked. Patrick made a friend through some online bulletin boards and, several months ago, she invited Patrick to come stay with her and her husband should he ever be traveling through Switzerland. Well, 2 days ago he sent her an email saying essentially "We're here; is the offer still good?" and incredibly it was! More details on that at the end of this post. Let's get to Fribourg, first.

Leaving Kandersteg was honestly a sad experience. We were forced to check out of the Scout Centere itself after only two nights because that's all we had requested, we thought we were just going to pass through but we met so many friends and felt so at home that we stayed two additional nights. It amused me greatly that we partied harder with the Scouts than with the college kids and hostel crowd; plus, we learned a great deal and truly had our eyes opened to the way other cultures do things. The BSA seem pretty uptight compared to scouting in the rest of the world. It's not evident until you bring them face to face, but once you see the way in which other scouting organizations are run you can see how out of touch BSA is on some of the larger principles of scouting. Some of them pity us (the Scots, for example) and many of them just hope its not coming their way. I'm also embarassed to admit that I'm still a little unclear on the Netherlands/Holland/Dutch heirarchy, but I'm relieved to NOT be the American tourist in the bar in Kandersteg who required 5 minutes of patient explanation to comprehend why the Austrian scouts didn't know much about kangaroos and boomerangs.

After 4 nights in Kandersteg it was a bit of a haul to get back on the road again Thursday morning, but we're getting good at it. We stocked up on our usual traveling food--bread, cheese, sausage, fruit, chocolate--and caught the train north to Bern, completely unsure of where we were going to sleep that night. Though we're also getting used to the idea, it continues to be a source of discomfort for me to spend large parts of my day homeless-in-fact. Fortunately, with our packs light and portable and our food already bought we're pretty flexible. As a consequence of our somewhat cavalier approach to planning we find ourselves constantly stepping off trains into the middle of the cities with NO idea whats there. We're getting it down to a science: When's the next train, where's the tourist office, how can we get a map, whats a reasonable price for internet? Patrick and his nose for bandwidth save us a lot of time on this front. It was an interesting experience, as we moved north from Kandersteg to Bern, to hear the change in the language around us. Kandersteg is clearly in the German-speaking portion of the country, but Bern is both a large city and closer to the French section, so most signs and announcements are bilingual. It's a pretty cool feeling to be as delighted to hear French as English. Any port in a storm!

Once in Bern and properly lunched we were confronted with the unappealing prospect of another night in an HI hostel which, as we'd learned in Genova, are clean, well maintained, predictable, and as depressing as a cafeteria lunch. Into this glum mood shown a single ray of light: Patrick's longshot friend in Fribourg. And believe it or not, she came through, inviting us to come join them that very night. We were overjoyed and, not forgetting our manners, asked if there was anything we could bring. She said no, it's not necessary (adding that in Switzerland, unlike in France, no actually means no) but we, being American and not Swiss, insisted. After some prodding she admitted that her husband was quite fond of Läckerli [leck-early, but you have to gargle the "ck"] a hard, dense ginger spice bread somewhere between ginger coffee cake and graham crackers. (That's a terrible description, but I can be forgiven, when *I* asked what it was the woman simply offered me a taste rather than trying to explain.) We found a whole bag Läckerli and a nice potted begonia and caught our train looking rather silly but proud of ourselves. It's hard to look manly holding a yellow begonia and a bag of sweets, particularly when you're standing next to a stocky Swiss soldier in fatigues.

Stepping off the train we met Nicole (aka Midori) and caught the bus to the flat in the newer section of Fribourg that she shares with her husband Olivier. Nicole and Olivier are both lifelong Swiss citizens; Nicole speaks beautifully tinted English, mindblowingly rapid French, and ein kleine deutsch, probably much more than she lets on. Olivier speaks only French, with merciful enunciation and sympathetic pauses when I glaze over halfway through what he's telling me. Olivier is a masterful modelmaker and tabletop games enthusiast who works for the nationalized Swiss Telcom; Nicole is a student finishing her (equivalent) Master's in English Philology who also finds time to play what appears to be every console RPG ever published. Geeks in the best sense of the word, both of them, and it's a delight to benefit from their knowledge of local and Swiss culture, not to mention their cooking. We ended Thursday night in fine style with a hearty local meal of fondue and white wine, whereupon Patrick and I crashed, mindful of having run ourselves down in the rain and mud at Kandersteg. I'll leave off here and continue Friday in its own post.

[Edit 1: In answer to Scott's question about petanque, it's the Southern France/Northern Italy game that is bocce's more sophisticated big brother. Each player has 3 solid steel bocce, which is merely Italian for ball. There is also a small, brightly painted cork ball about the size of a fishing bobber, called (at least in France) the bouchon. The bouchon is thrown out some disance onto a flat, crushed aggregate court (in Italy this court was spiked with strategically placed rocks to make it more difficult.) The goal is to get as many as possible of your bocce closer to the bouchon than the closest of your opponent's bocce.

Strategically, you can either pointe or chute. To pointe is to toss a gentle, high arc with a slight backspin, hoping to get it to land as close as possible to the bouchon. A riskier throw is to chute, a flat, low arc aimed at actually hitting the opponents ball in an aggressive play intended to blast the opposition's pointe ball(s) billiards style across the court. Though unpracticed American students (even former waiters instructed by a French chef) should stick to pointing, grey-haired Italian sharks can lob the bocce with such pinpoint accuracy that you can see sparks on impact.....and kiss your winning pointe goodbye.]

Thursday, July 5, 2007

Follow the bouncing ball

We've arrived in Fribourg and there's MUCH to tell, but first I want to take a few minutes to update our route thus far.

Corniglia/Riomaggiore to Genova to Kandersteg to Fribourg

Though that gives the driving directions it does a fair job of showing the relative locations of each of our destinations.

Also, we've posted several new photos on flickr. We'll have more time tomorrow to update on the rest of the Kandersteg stories and how we came to be in

Wednesday, July 4, 2007

More eggs, more snow and Swiss cows

Early this morning Preston set off with the Colorado scouts to visit a cheeserie (where they make cheese... duh) and chocolate factory. I took a more leisurely morning, and when the insessent rain let up I took advantage of the window of blue sky to dash for the gondola that we had seen on our hike two days ago. Aboard the gondola I met a brother and sister team who work their days jobs most of the year and fund their travel habit by leading tours to Switzerland. Apparently I'd stumbled onto an excellent trail, and I took up with them for the rest of the hike. They proved to be a font of information about the area, and solid hiking companions. The blue sky lasted long enough for a few pictures of the valley, then the clouds rolled back and began to let down snow.

Our hike took us across the girdle of the mountains that surround the Kandersteg valley and through the alpine meadows that keep swiss cows fat and happy. Late June to early July is wildflower season in the Alps, and there were flowers everywhere. As we began to descend, we heard a commotion of bells behind us. Herd after herd of enormous cows, each with a traditional bell at its neck, was being moved along the trail. We learned later from an old farmer that this is the traditional day that the cows in the low pastures are moved to the first of the high pastures. There is enough grass at the first high pasture for two weeks, after which they are moved successively to others. We dropped in at a tiny resturant (a hut really) tucked up between a small house and barn. While an old farmer cleaned out the cow stalls, his wife served us hot chocolate ("shokolade warm", with a German 'w') and the traditional rancher's dish "Rösti" (/rosch-tee/), an enormous pie-shaped mound of fresh hash browns with two fried eggs on top. This is the type of food that will get you through an alpine winter.

Cows continued to go by as we ate, and when they were finished we resumed our descent. The trail took us down the Kander gorge, where the river is seething with nearly a week of continuous rain. It was a magificent descent, with mountains, clouds and meadows-- quintessential Switzerland. Tonight is the Swiss cultural exchange, so we'll get to see leiderhosen and yodelling (how can we pass that up?)

Tuesday, July 3, 2007

Egg Snow and how not to see Switzerland

2 days in Kandersteg wasn't enough! We've moved out of the chalet and up the street to the Hotel Gemmi (/Gammy/), a fairly inexpensive but nicely furnished backpackers hotel for two more nights. It has been raining more or less since that picture below was taken, so we're quite thankful to be indoors. We've taken to making nightly rounds of the campsites, and have met tremendous people. We spent Monday night with a group of Austrian scouts. I had gone looking for the recipe of a dessert that they brought to the international exchange. Our host Veit did a lovely job of translating it for us, but the translation produced a concept that we have no word for in English. Egg whites, beaten for 10 to 15 minutes until they are the consistency of ice cream. Their word is "eischnee" (/eye shnee/), which translated comes to "Egg Snow". New word? I'll take it.
Today we tried to get to a cheese factory for a tour, but a failure of train timing led us on a 6 hour goose chase. Pretty scenery, but we spent the whole day on the train. By that point the cheesery seemed much less interesting so we just packed it in early and attended a multi-country campfire and song night. Groups from the US, Holland and Denmark all shared campfire songs, chants and yells. Classic scout fun.

Monday, July 2, 2007

Great Scot!

A quick post to bring us up to date. Soon as we got into town yesterday a huge thunderstorm broke loose, just deluging the camp. It was a proper mountain storm with thunder rolling down the valleys and "great wicked forkin' lightning," so said Joe, on of the scoutmasters from the Glasgow contingent. We have housing inside, but not everyone in camp does. After dinner we decided that with so many cool people around we should go a-visiting and just meet people, especially those brave folks who were out in the campsites, weathering the rain. Patrick, in a stroke of genius, decided to go grab an armload of Toberlone to sweeten our reception. Thus equipped we headed out into the stormy night, going from campfire to campfire meeting people and learning little bits of languages (Goodbye in Dutch is "Doo-ee", but most kids say "How-doo", they play a card game called "Hghricken", at least I think that's what it's called.) On the way back to the chalet we ran into the Scots scoutmasters again and were even invited in "fahr ah wee dram o'th Scotch." How could we refuse?

We're setting off hiking this morning and we have plans to go abseilling ("rappelling" for silly Americans who just have to be different) later this afternoon. Auf wiedersehen!!

Remember: We can't fit all the photos we upload into the blog. Be sure to pop over the Rambling Rovers flickr site for the whole selection.

Edit: James, I have you to thank. We were having a discussion of the history and mystery o' the Scotch and he mentioned that there was a great song about the excise man and the moonshiners. I asked "Gather up the pots and the old tin cans?" and was met by uproarious agreement. Sir, I raised a glass to you.

Sunday, July 1, 2007

June 27th, 28th, 29th: Veni Vedi Vino

Let's get the obvious out of the way first: We skipped Genova. We didn't miss it, we just looked at eachother as we were pulling into the station and said "How excited are you about Genova?" Sometimes the best decisions are made that way, and this certianly was one of them. By the time we pulled into Monterosso, the northmost of the five cities, the train was so swamped with tourists that we decided to just wait on the train and get off where they didn't. So what did we do? Rode the train one more stop to Vernazza and said "Huh, I really want to see what Vernazza looks like, let's get off here." And that we did, joining the 5:00 running of the tourists. *sigh* Moooooooooooo. Might as well just admit it, dig out your camera and go along. Vernazza is beautiful, there's no denying it. The Cinque Terre have a sort of otherworldly charm to them.

It kinda feels like Disneyland. They're old, but remarkably well taken care of (especially for Italy! [Jab at Italy #1]) and they represent so much of what's lacking in American city design. The cities really do have a character and liveliness that comes from more than just the vibrant paint and fluttering laundry. Perhaps that's why the American tourists come here in droves, to get what they've been missing in the subdivisions and strip malls. I certianly enjoyed it.

After strolling somewhat confusedly through Vernazza, soaking in the warm salt air,the cool smell of old stones, and the thoroughly Italian ambiance, we set to finding housing armed with one of the few Italian words we knew: "Pensione?"[/Pen-see-oh-nay/], meaning, roughly, a place to sleep for the night. Well, soon enough we learned another one: "Complete!" [/Com-PLET-ay/] meaning, roughly, "I've got enough darn tourists for tonight, go bug someone else." Some people would be discouraged by this. Some people would be smart, go back to the train, and find lodging in another city. Then there's us. We thought "Why wait for the next train? The Cinque Terre are walkable, we've got our house on our back, let's do it!" So we headed into the hills south of Vernazza, bound for Corniglia. Sure, people thought we were crazy. One well meaning Canadian told us "You're nuts. If you knew, you'd turn back." .

Well, we are nuts. But you'd have to be nuts to backpack through the New Mexico high desert in July or to climb all 14,492 feet of Mount Whitney, too. We could have taken the train and saved a lot of sweat and time but I'll tell you this: When we pulled into Corniglia at 6:30 to a bell chorus from the chapel, streaming sweat and caked in trail dust, we felt like conquerers.

But where to stay? We wandered a bit, soaking in the sights but increasingly anxious as the sun sat ever lower over the tiled roofs. Well, confusion is an international expression and soon enough a woman came up to us rattling away in Italian. Seeing our blank looks she sighed and said "Pensione." Well, to be sure, we followed her. Simone (for that was her name) and Angelo, her young son, led us all over the small town, when finally she guessed it: Mama. Well, she presented us to mama with that one magic word and we were off the the races again, Mama in her flowered mumu dragging us down an alley to a nondescript door. Inside was a pleasant one room flat with a single bed and a lovely, all tile shit/shower/shave bathroom. We were planning on going for a nice dinner but between the anxiety of using the railpass for the first time, finding trains, making connections, and the exertion of the overland route to Cornigla, we just passed out. Not even the cacaphony of church bells, the gelato shops loud grinding, or the drunken italians signing late into the night could do much more than cause me to roll over and fall asleep again. The church bells mark the hour and half hour all night, sleeping tourists be damned. It's fine taste of what the area was like long ago.

With plenty of sleep I rose early the next morning for a great constitutional; it felt kind of like camping, when you come into the campsite late in the evening and it's all a blur, then you finally have a chance to explore it by daylight the next morning. Corniglia is my favorite of the five cities, perched aloof on a hill, small and beachless, almost seeming to say "Move along tourists, there's nothing to see here." After packing our things and paying Mama, who came by promptly at 10:00 to collect, we stepped across the street to a cafe for breakfast. Some of you have heard the crack about an Italian breakfast being "A cup of coffe, a cigarette, and the view." Well, that's not far off, but Patrick and I wanted something a bit more filling and a bit less carcinigenic. Not knowing what the local breakfast of choice was, we let the menu be our guide: Orange juice? Bacon and eggs? An outrageous 2.50 Euros and 5.50 Euros, respectively. (About $11) Cappucino and brioche (croissant) were more like it, and with it we enjoyed the view as the sun rose over Cinque Terre.

From Corniglia we moved to the southmost of the five, Riomaggiore. After securing housing we turned our attention to an early lunch; Italian breakfasts don't stick to your ribs. (I gloss over the details of "securing housing" because I'm getting a bit tired of the process. Both Patrick and I are interested in lengthening the time at each place to give us a little more "at home" time and to reduce the amount of time dedicated to finding housing.) We found a pizza place and took our pizza with us, looking for a suitable spot to eat. 10 minutes later we ran out of stairs, found a bench, and muched. The bench we found just so happened to be at the beginning of the "Via del Amore," right by the church of something something del Amore. (Probably Notre Dame de l'Amore. They're all Notre Dame de Something.) According to local legend, the cities of Cinque Terre were so isolated that intermarriage became a problem. In response, the villagers cut a road between Riomaggiore and Manarola, the next town. They called it the "Via del Amore" and placed a chapel conveniently on it. As far as I can tell this is the first example of a drive-through wedding chapel. [As to that story, the Italians would say "Se non e vero, e ben trabato." Even if it isn't true, it's a good story.] Reading signs and placards was a delight. Italian is close enough to English, French, and Spanish that attentive reading can decipher a great deal. Since I know so little I treasure every word that I pick up, applying it immediately and squeezing maximum value out of each new phrase.
By way of symmetry we climbed a second hill that afternoon, this one much higher and to the south of town, to see what was once the Madonna de Monte Nero. After two long hikes in the midday sun we headed for a swim on the very rocky Riomaggiore beach and returned to the room in time to get ready for the big event: Dinner at the Ristorante Belvedere in Monterosso. Patrick heard about the Belvedere in epic prose from a couple on the train who RAVED about the house special. Call it cioppino, bouillibaise italiano, or bucket of boat trash it all adds up to the same thing, and we WANTED some.

Dressing for the occasion we suaved our way into town and felt like consumate gentlemen of the world when we strolled in without reservations (neat trick; come early), ordered in (halting) Italian and sat sipping Sicilian syrah wating for the culinary parade to begin. And what a parade. I tell you, Italian food is a beautiful thing, but on their home court it's incredible. We stood in bliss at the crossroads of Pesto street and Avenue Frutti di Mare. When the main event finally arrived it was everything we'd hoped for: a tureen-come-bucket filled to the brim with all manner of fish, shellfish, octopus, and a few things I couldn't name..

Messy work, and my shirt still shows it, but a few stains weren't going to dent our gusto. By the time we finished the sun had gone down, the moon had come up, and long ago somebody left with the cup. Nothing like being on vactation time on Italian time. A gigantic Italian feast calls for gelato, and a full moon over an Italian city calls for a stroll. We had both, and managed to catch a concert of Gregorian chant in the bargain. Man, what a *day*. (If you didn't get the "Going the Distance" quip of 2 lines ago, don't worry about it.)

We left Cinque Terre the next morning as the weekend tourists arrived, deciding to seek out "Dullsdorf"; a concept we learned from our friend Rick. Dullsdorf is that town that no one goes to, where there are few tourists, plenty of open rooms, and a chance to take a breather. We found dullsdorf in Genova, which we wisely skipped the first time. It couldn't have been duller. I won't give it any time here because it is thoroughly forgettable, other than to say that we got our first taste of a Hosteling International hostel, which matched perfectly the character of the city. The hostel was adequately clean, orderly, and about as inspiring as a high school cafeteria. Bah. It did what was needful. The one bright spot of Genova was the happy outcome of getting purposefully lost in a strange city. In a back alley of Genova we stumbled upon a knot of grey-haired old Italians playing petanque! After watching for awhile we were noticed and, much to my delighted, invited in. I did my best to make it known that I knew how to play and even managed to score a set of balls for Patrick and I. We played and watched for an hour or more, awash in rapidfire Italian as these good old boys laughed, fought, swore, and threw solid metal bocce with stunning accuracy. Salute and ciao, Lucciano, Giorgio, Luigi, Bruno etc! (Those were actually their names, I kid you not.)

Eager to get out of Genova, in case whatever it had was catching, we headed for the train station early and caught the train here to Kandersteg. Just about the time I was getting a pile of useful words in Italian we crossed the border into Switzerland and had to start all over. Robert, we coulda used you a few times today, among other things to calm down the Swiss border cops with the German accents and German Shepard who were trying to figure out if there was monkey business with the two nearly identical passports.

Switzerland has greeted us with a terrific and terrible mountain storm, complete with thunder rolling through the alps and occasional lightning. I'm planning on nosing around, talking to other scouts, and getting a nice night in bed, listening to the rain and enjoying the sight of mountains through my window. You've probably heard enough from me for one night, but I would love to hear from you. And don't worry, we're calling Mom tonight.