Thursday, January 20, 2011


We had a pretty easy time of it this time with airport security.  We both agree that Schipol is the nicest airport we've been in.  It's a vast place that has a huge indoor shopping mall and train station.  The signage is clearly marked and after just a bit of window shopping we found the checkin counter...decided to use the self serve option and headed to security.  No big deal here, no special procedures or being on American sovereign soil. Just remove metal from person, empty bag of laptop and liquids and pass through the metal detector. After passing through security and meeting up with Liz, we found a quiet corner, grabbed a beer and some chocolate and sat down to relax.

Next stop Norway.

Day 0: Flight.

View from Train
We landed late at Gardermoen airport 46km outside of Oslo, at midnight. The airport was mostly closed. We found information, figured out which bus we were to take and headed to the platform.  Late night comic moment: the driver of bus 44 told us to take 55, and then  the 55 driver told us to take 44. We got to the motel, through a combination of bussing and walking, only to find that we got two single unmade beds.  We made both and slept in one.  Brings att back to the days he spent in college dorms when in highschool. (I'm sure your parents really want to know - Liz.)

Day 1: Travel.
We woke up at 0830h hopped the bus and headed back to the airport. It doubles as the train station.  Grabbed a croissant and a coffee and hopped on the train to Lillehammer. The scenery on the 2 hour train ride was amazing. The tracks pace this long lake, on either side are tall hills covered in evergreens that are caked with snow.  Small outcroppings of houses dot the horizon.  For the most part the lake is frozen over, undisturbed but for tracks in snow (animal, ski, fishing).  One place had what looked like a race track cleared out, more research needs to be done about this...snow racing anyone?

House/Apartment/Ski Route
We arrived in Lillehammer and had just missed the bus to the hill. This seems to be Norwegian scheduling stupidity.  No big deal:  coffee and a hotdog wrapped with bacon wasted time. The bus ride was cheap and comfortable. We found our hotel in town... well we found the hotel, we apparently had booked a place on the skihill.   After checking in, we said thanks and that we'd be walking there. The receptionist flat out refused this: the hotel manager got his coat on, put us in his car and drove us the 10min, Liz sandwiched in the back between 2 car seats.  We were driven because it was -25C - ridiculously cold even for Norway (which is generally mild and precipitous, but that's another story). We had to walk the last bit of the trip as a van had blocked the roadway.  No problem as it was only 200m or so.

We found the apartment that we'd rented. One enters the apartment via a "snowroom" (complete with boot heater), from there into the living room through a door.  The living room is modest with a small couch and gas fire.  Attached is the kitchen/dining area.  The kitchen is superb, while it cannot be more than 5x6' it packs integrated dishwasher, fridge and freezer, microwave/convection oven, oven, gas stove, invisible range fan and ample counter and cupboard space.  Next is the "kids" room with bunkbeds.  Across the way is the bathroom, complete with sauna.  The master bedroom is a bit small but it does the job with 2 small closests and a double bed.

After settling in, we headed down the hill (at a running pace).  Off to find the grocery store. This took us ironically far past the hotel office we were at before.   Groceries done, we headed to the Hafjell Alpinesenter to see about rentals.  With the light failing already (at 1530h) and finding out that rentals and lift tickets for the remainder of the day weren't worth it, we headed back to the apartment.  Liz had a nap, Matt had a couple beers, made dinner and relaxed. Our first night at the hill was finished up with a sauna and some handball. On the telly.

Day 2: Beginner.
So we're a lazy bunch, and got up at about 0900h. That's ok as the hill doesn't open until 0930h. We grabbed our lift tickets, which were cheaper than the equivalent tickets in Canada regardless of resort. Then went into the sport store because finally Matt realized that he needed long johns. Also got his helmet a goggle holder for cheap. After, we headed across the road to the cheaper ski rental and got two sets of snowboard/boots. Basically, we spent less on our flight, rental, tix and accommodations here than we would have for Canada or the Alps. And we get to go to an Olympic venue in Norway.

So now we've got our RFID tickets (very cool) and we're in line for the gondola. Up we go. Stupidly (or smartly) we got out of the gondola at the halfway point and took a smooth route down. Matt is improving greatly. Even his first run after away for a year was good. A few spills and a lot of swearing got him to the bottom of the hill. The next run we took the gondola to it's end, which wasnt even the top of the mountain. Down we went, and then we skied into homebase. Had a lunch of tomato soup and coffee. Cleared our goggles from the fog, and our helmets of the snow and damp. Headed back out for another couple runs. Matty sat on his butt a bit hard, and on ice, so he was sent in at 1445h. Liz took one more run before the lift closed (1515h). We chilled: watching extremely fit people ski and shoot (and puke). Matt is complaining about his bottom.

My arse hurts.

Day 3: Intermediate.
The following day was much of the same. The weather was cloudy (at the top), foggy (at the bottom) and snowing (pretty much everywhere). This was great, as the slopes became covered in fresh, clean powder snow. Many of the runs had "Closed" signs - which the previous skiers/riders had dutifully ignored. Matt got his first taste of calf burn from trying to surf over the powder. Unfortunately, he has now been spoiled for Ontario.

Day 4: Advanced.
This day was glorious. Liz switched up the snowboard for skis. This meant that both of us were at the same skill level. Matt was now making it down the hill without falling at all. We made it to the top of the last chair, and were greeted with a beautiful view of the interior mountains of Norway, as the weather had finally cleared. The wonderful thing was that the last night's snow was untouched. The day was filled with both of us happily falling into layers of powder: up to 3 feet deep on the edges, deeperin the wooded sections....Liz face planted a few times, or "yard sale" as she called it. She blames the too large boots. Matt made a few snow clouds too. He blames inattention.

Way up high
Day 5: Exhaustion.
Who were we kidding, 4 days straight of snow activities. Owie.  The day started like all the others:  strap into snow device on feet, slide down from the cottage to chair lift, go up chair lift.  After the first full-length run, we were pooched.  We made it 2 hours, falling all over the place, and decided to take a break for lunch.  Lunch turned into 1500h, we raced back to chairlift.  Luckily we caught the last lifts to the top and started our way down.  We decided to try some wooded runs.... Matt was not exactly ready for it, he faceplanted and spent a bunch of time on his arse. Liz tried turning in the powder, instead of using speed, and fell on her butt.  With the runs getting busier by the minute (it was open past 1515h that day) we made our way down to the bottom of the hill.  Liz ran back to the cottage to get our boots and we went to return out was closed.  So exhausted and feet killing, we made the hike all the way back up the hill to the cottage.

Day 6: Home.
Read Day 1 and 0 and reverse.  Walked to hotel to check out. We hopped on a bus to Lillehammer,  walked through the town for a while. Made our way back to the bus satiation and caught the train. We arrived at the airport 5 hours early for our flight.  Hungry and irritated we ordered a deep dish pizza. 2 hours later we breezed through customs... Matt later remarked that nobody had asked to see a boarding pass or passport. Went on a "small" duty free spree (dirty flea).  Flew home. Ate bad food. Slept.

More on Hafjell:

Hafjell was the site of the 1994 Lillehammer Alpine events. It now hosts World Cup events in both skiing, snowboarding and downhill cycling. The resort has 4 types of runs: green, blue, red, black. There are variety of slopes: groomed, moguled, wooded, park, etc. The usual ski school, rental facilities, spa, store and crap food abound.

Ski Patrol Hut after My Heart. 

Toroundo Trip

After being in Toronto for a brief time (and seeing the Graham Patriarch, the Uniac/Schnaar Clan and some of our buddies), we headed back to Amsterdam on December 30. Spent New Years Eve in the presence of thousands of Dutch, watching a spectacle that was ended by awesome fireworks. Fireworks here are "regulated", in that one can 'only' set them off from December 30th until January 2nd. Other than that, it's a free-for-all. I swear, we were watching a citizens bombing of Amsterdam.

The next morning, there were a few tired, ill-feeling people in the house. Everyone recovered in time, and Matt and I started planning our next trip out. Something active this time: skiing. But Where.

Monday, January 10, 2011

To Bordeaux ... and beyond!

So we basically drove half-way across southern France to see the city of Bordeaux. After running into a curb with the front wheels, we decided to stop. We stayed on the outskirts, and drove in the next morning to Bordeaux central. There was some drama finding a parking spot, as the signage (or listening skill) is lax.

Bordeaux is a large, sprawling city. This is due to the soft ground underneath. Bordeaux is situated near the Atlantic, and beside a bend in a large river (the Garonne). Soft, wet soil coupled with an old city and a huge population means the city goes outwards, and not upward. Like many older towns, it is interesting to be in a place where I don't have to crane my neck to see the roof.

Miroir d'eau
After heading out of the parking garage, we ended up in a square with two recruitment buses: one for the military, one for perfume. Funny little juxtaposition. We wandered around and found the Grand Theatre, the Palace and the riverfront. In front of the Palace was a mirror pool - the shallow water acts as a reflective surface. Under ideal circumstances, the mirror image is nearly perfect. There was slight wind on our day there, so it had surface ripples. There was also a great deal of construction. On the way to the Palace, we saw a monument to Lady Liberty breaking free of her chains during the Revolution.  There is an ugly, concrete open space near the monument - could be much nicer as a park. Afterwards, we headed back to the Grand Theatre and into a few wine shops. Bordeaux is known for its wine, but the time of year and our exhaustion level did not allow for much "wine n' dine". Instead, we headed back to the car through the main shopping drag. Apparently, Matt and I have a knack of unwittingly finding the busiest street at the busiest time. We had walked along Rue Sainte-Catherine earlier that day, admiring the 1.2 km stretch of generic shops. At 1600h, it was a ruddy zoo. We left Bordeaux, and headed outwards. Eventually we stopped in Bergerac, useful because it is 70 km from Sarlat-la-Caneda (this is in the travel literature). And useful because we noticed the missing front, right, hubcap.

Leaving Bergerac, we entered the Vézère Valley. I cannot (at the moment) express the importance of the area. The Vézère Valley is the site of European Prehistoric Cave Art. The famous Lascaux cave is here, as are many other caves with ancient (up to 32 000 years old) art. Lascaux itself is closed to the public, as the opening of the cave to the public has caused massive amounts of damage. Instead, visitors can go to Lascaux II - a detailed copy. There is one other polychromatic cave open to the public, and one generally has to make reservations. It is situated just outside Les-Eyzies-de-Tayac-Sireuil. And we happened upon it by accident! The cave, Font de Gaume, is astonishing. Our tour was in French (with the occasional "you understand me?" in English), and was fantastic. I got 90% of the info (and passed it on to Matty when required). The cave has been used for the past 20 000 years: for survival, for art, for culture. There are images of bison, horses, reindeer and mammoths. The images are painted to seem 3-dimensional: rock formations and etchings are used as representations for physical aspects. The images are black (charcoal) and red (iron oxide) and best seen with flickering, low light (like a candle). There are expressions, meaning and life imbued in the animals. We have no pictures of the inside as (rightly) photography is prohibited. Instead, we bought a book. And a postcard. And the place has stuck in both our minds.

Inside the Sarlat Church. 
Since we couldn't top that experience, we headed out to Sarlat-la-Caneda. On a Sunday. In a small town. Nothing was open. We went to a small Christmas market. Matt bought beer, made by a drunk Irish guy, living in wine producing region of France. I bought foie-gras (unconsumed as of this date) and a bottle of wine.  Not from an Irish guy, but from a little old French lady. We headed out of the tiny, shut down town to Clermont-Ferrand. At one point during the night, we had to turn around, as the mountain pass over the volcano was closed. That's okay. We found an equally terrifying route to our destination.

Map, Tire.
Clermont-Ferrand is a city of French industry. This is where the Michelin Man was born. It being Monday and France, the Michelin factory tour was unavailable. Instead, we toured the city by car as we got lost trying to escape. I did get a picture of our Michelin Map Book on the "World's Largest Tire" (another Michelin product). The other interest of Clermont-Ferrand is the volcano (Puy de Dome) nearby. This was the location of a 1975 Tour de France stage, where Eddy Merckx was punched in the gut by a spectator. That's pretty niche interest though.

Half a half-timber
We made our way towards Lyon, along the smaller roads. At one point, I screeched at Matt to turn around. Why? Because I saw a Guy Degrenne factory outlet. I bought my cutlery! It's only cheap, daily-use cutlery, but I'd been desiring it for a while. One day, I shall go to the Guy Degrenne factory and buy the expensive stuff... ooooh. One day. The reason why the cutlery factory was there is because of the town of Thiers. This is the "birthplace" of French cutlery and knives. Matt got for his birthday/xmas gift a self-selected folding knife with a "stag wood" (antler) handle. We left Thiers and the half-timber houses and knife workshops, heading towards Lyon.

Friday, January 7, 2011

Back in the Saddle

Right, well. The brief haitus from writing stuff down must now end. Basically, Matt and I are lazy good-for-nothings and just couldn't be bothered. Since it has been so long since the last post, this and the following are going to be a doozy. You have been warned.

Orange Theatre
We last left off in Provence, headed towards Orange. Orange was small, and interestingly the historical location of part of the Dutch Royal House of Oranje-Nassau. Orange has a gorgeous Roman theatre - that is still used today in its full glory. It was windy and bitterly cold. Especially at the top. Some of the pieces were carved out of the rock face.  Across the street was an unheated museum full of diagrams of Roman and Greek theaters around the Eurasifrica area. After freezing our butts off walking through a market (I think the same guys we saw in Arles) we went into a pub. Coffee was served by a non-ironic mullet wearing girl.

Anti-Papal Palace
Orange is also fairly close to Avignon and other sites that show Roman influence. Avignon was a larger town - and one we didn't spend a huge amount of time in. An Anti-Papal Palace is the main draw, as is a truncated bridge that dates from when Jebus-was-in-diapers. We took the free tour around the Anti-Pope house, as neither of of felt like spending the €20 to go in (we were anti-pay-pals). Basically, it's a big fortification, built buy a variety of opposing Roman Catholic Popes in the 13th Century. There was an upside elephant. At the site, there was a grotto that had been inhabited by Gallic people since the 2nd Century BCE. Matt stepped in poop. There was also a vinyard, assumingly for the sole use of the church. In town,  we headed into a small museum (housed in an ex-church), which had a wonderful variety of Roman, Greek and Egyptian funereal items.

After Avignon, we threw ourselves back in the car to try and get to the Pont du Gard before nightfall. We made it there just as the light was thinking of failing. Oh my. It was bloody glorious. It is part of a 50km aquaduct that feeds Nîmes, and winds through the countryside. The bridge only drops 2.5 cm over its 456 metre length. Over the full aquaduct length, the drop is only 17 meters. There were graffiti marks from the 1800s, especially interesting ones were up on the inside of arches - only reachable by climbing up the remaining protruding scaffolding blocks. As the sun set, we left. Stayed outside Nîmes after a quiet drive through the countryside.

Pont du Gard

Nîmes' most interesting locations were the coliseum, fountains, temple and guard tower. The current tower was built on a site of a previous pre-Roman tower. During the years, it has diminished in height due to poor maintenance and a dash of idiocy. At one point, some moron "interpreted" Nostradamus' prophecies to mean that there was a stash of gold hidden in the tower base. The king allowed him to excavate (as long as he got paid enough), and in the end, the idiot damaged the pre-Roman site, caused the tower to shorten by 1/3 of its original height, and forced a preservation effort to make sure the tower remained standing. What a twit.

The Nîmes temple is stunning. It is beautifully preserved on the outside, but apparently the inside only has a "movie showing". So, we decided not to go in, but admire it from the outside. The detail is shocking - and really gives a sense of the difficulty of artisan stone masonry.

We left Nîmes around noon, and spent the next 5 hours driving along back roads. Here:

View Larger Map

The terrain was insane. Roads would be perfect for a summer time motorcycle travel. As it was, Matt had his work cut out for him, as the roads were steep, curved, narrow and iced over in places. I had to navigate along minute roads in a national park. It was an exhausting drive for both of us. The reward in the end was the Millau viaduct - at sunset.

The Millau viaduct is an "engineering marvel". It was opened in 2004, and had been built by the Eiffage firm. It is huge! Hammond (from Top Gear) featured the Viaduct on one of his "Engineering Connections" shows.

After Millau, we decided to drive towards Bordeaux... until midnight.