Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Hoboventure: Netherlands

Nieuwegein to S'Hertogenbosch

Certain Hurtin', Boss.

Getting back to the LF7 was a cinch, the next day. There was a brief run in with an ambulance driver, telling us we weren't allowed on that particular road. It didn't really matter, as he told us at our turn off, and traffic was light. Besides, some of the signs are do not follow logic or convention.

We pushed and plodded along for about an hour, until I had to eat. Breakfast was a nutritious variety of dried fruit and bread with jam. The view was of twee houses and canals and parkland. We'd already gone through a petting zoo, seen frolicking animals and children in harmony - or something. The next destination was a river-crossing. Earlier, Ww had been overtaken by a older couple out for a day trip. At one point, we saw them stop and read a sign and proceed to turn around. Moments before we reached the pathway to the ferry, they passed us in the opposite direction. We sat down at the ferry dock, and finally figured out it wouldn't run on Sundays until a week later. Poor Dutch and poor luck. Helpfully, a gentleman with a stroller told us to just head over the bridge. Ha! Bridge! my legs were not ready. It was a bit tough going - especially when the roadies blew by. There was a bit of a wrong turn (on the flats at least) and then a straight shot along the LF7 again. 

We were truly in Dutch countryside by now. There were picturesque family farms moated by small canals. Bridges were driveways, and some of the fancier (read: older) places had full moats and fortifications. We passed  through fresh spring fields with bare trees and perfectly parallel canals flanking. Geese of "canadian" variety having a laze. Home brewed coffee stop. As the after noon wore on, I had to play "find the lost item". We planned a brief shortcut which ended when we made it to a functional vehicle ferry. 

Across the river, we rode along a raised dike roadway with mills below. This turned into a canalside road with perfect villages. There was one more ferry to our campsite, but it was at a tiny dock with no operating boats. This being late Sunday afternoon, still in the "winter" season, there were no visitors to cater. This meant we made our own route into 's Hertogenbosch, and the campsite was not 2 km away, but another 20. Villages less perfect as we approached civilisation - that could have been the crack in the rosy lens though. 

Arriving in 's Hertogenbosch we were tired. Started to followed Naggy who got annoyed with our one way roads. Again, the amount of urbanisation made finding a campground impossible. We did try by going further south, but the LF7 route was blocked by a construction zone - and honestly, the exhaustion of the day did not allow for more map navigation. We found a hippy hotel, run by a sweet family. Matt broke out our cooker, and made our first stovetop meal: traditional Dutch rookwurst and kale-potato mash. Of course there was first the scramble to find food in the deserted environment. Then sleep. 

Just outside of the train station is a statue of a gold gilt dragon. At 6 o'clock in the evening, it shimmers particularly prettily, as it does in the morning. There are quiet treed canal streets that follow the bike routes of the Netherlands. Our escape from 's Hertogenboch complete, we traversed more dutch country roads, with inhabited buildings dating form the early 1600s. Today was proving to be another lovely spring day, with a short hop to Eindhoven Centraal. Coffee, windmills, country lanes - glorious repetition. In suburbia, managed to muck away inward through some weird route.  Hobby farmland in the middle of the city,  then straight into a pedestrian core in the downtown, followed by a small Centraal. 

S'Hertogenbosch to Eindhoven
Tickets for ourselves and our bikes to Maastrict lead to our first encounter with a train and the following lostnss out of stations. Then, an ethereal voice booked us into the B&B. The room was on the top floor - with a sunset view of a gilded bell tower spire. The B&B itself faced the side of Sint Servaas Basilica. The early arrival let us have a late afternoon sunny square side snack. Sometimes there is nothing nicer than perfect atmosphere and decent food. A quick wander both before and after our actual window-sill dinner let us see other sights of Maastrict, nothing substantial though. We were to leave the next morning, with a full schedule of train travel ahead. 

We'll have to figure this travelling out eventually. Getting from town to town needs to get easier so we can enjoy and learn about what is around us. The fields of the Netherlands are a great place to start cycling. The weather is perfectly mild and the terrain is flatter than pannekoeken. Cycling is easy along planned routes, with adequate signage and wide clearances. Having understanding and accepting vehicle drivers  helps tremendously when routes are not fully separate. Cycling itself is enjoyable and the going is easy enough to stop and look at things. So far, we've just been happy with looking outward onto the given scene. 

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Hoboventure....er I mean bicycle eurotrip....with Sissy

One day I'll have a better explanation for this event happening, until then, here is the current answer:

Funny story...Sissy and I had been talking about how we were feeling restless. Renting the apartment in Amsterdam was great, but we were falling back into old habits. Talking together lead to the idea of going on a bicycle adventure. "Think of how amazing it would be to slow travel Europe at our own pace.  We can see what we want, sleep where we want, and relax doing it". With phrasing like that Sissy couldn't refuse.  The planning started.  Well "started". I knew a few things; one was we had to be in Spain for early May; we had no rides; and we wanted to tour Italy.

A very loose plan laid out, we began looking for ways to get our bikes over. Unfortunately for us, it is rather expensive to air freight 2 bicycles over from Canada, so we settled on purchasing a couple for the job. We both knew what we wanted immediately. I had decided that I would get a single-speed bike made locally (an engineers dream: Van Moof No. 3) and Sissy was shopping for a traditional Dutch granny bike (BSP, handmade in Holland). 

That's about as far as we got for a while. With our friends coming to visit and 3 weeks with them traveling France and Germany, there wasn't much more planning. The real fun began after we arrived back in Amsterdam. I picked up my new bike as soon as we were back in the city, and started to ride it (with Sissy on the back) around town. Good training. Then, I was browsing the interwebs one afternoon and saw an ad for an outdoor adventure show at the Amsterdam RAI. We cleared our exceptionally busy schedule and headed there the next day.

The show, as you'll have read earlier, was a wealth of information. We were able to find 2 sets of panniers and a cycling map of the Netherlands. We also joined the "Vrieden op de Feits" club, that has a huge listing of cheap houses you can ring up and rent a room for the night.

Matty kept researching at night, coming across the Eurovelo cycling routes. These are routes that follow olde tyme pilgrimage routes. Some go to Bangladesh, some to Santiago de Compostela and Lourdes, some to Rome. We sat around the house, working on the specifics of the first few days' travels. We also bought me an orange (for the Dutch!) BSP omafietsen. Fitting the panniers was more of a problem. Mine fit fine on the granny bike, but Matty had to find a bike shop to switch over his rack for one with smaller diameter tubing. Eventually, with a second-butt, barely used Brooks saddle for me (for which I am grateful still) our bikes were as ready as they could be. 

On Saturday,  March 19th, we left Amsterdam. We packed the bikes and said our goodbyes to our roomates (Katya and Gabor, if you're reading this were alive and well, sitting in a hotel in Crema, Italy). Hopped on the bikes and attempted to pedal down the street.  This didn't go so well, within a few minutes we needed to raise Sissy's seat re-adjust our packs and stop a few times. It quickly dawned on us we were overloaded and one of us may have picked the wrong bike.  Oh well, I guess this is just how things go with us. There was giggling and laughter. We'll make do. We eventually made it to the point we had found earlier in the week to join the fietsnetwork, albeit slowly.

The Feitsnetwork is run by the ANVB. It is, from what I understand, it is like the CAA in Canada. They charge a small fee for a map book consisting of 20 weather and tear proof maps. The book covers the majority of the routes around the Netherlands, and lists everything a traveling cyclist would need. We had selected the LF7 to follow from Amsterdam to Maastrict. We weren't planning on going the entire way, as the Netherlands was just a warm up for the real touring.

Once on the route all we had to do was fallow the signs. It is not that easy. The signs are small and white, they are easy to miss seeing and occasionally non-existent. Only about 30 minutes into the ride and we had missed a few and ended up several kilometers out of our way. Funnily enough, we had passed by a gas station visited with Vicki and Matt on the drive to Schiphol. The reality of our situation was starting to dawn on us. We pressed on anyway and slowly got the hang of the system. We were having a blast, only one goal for the day, find someplace to pitch up a tent around Utrecht. 

We made great time, passing through towns and villages lining the canals. There are so many canals! In Amsterdam, the canals are like streets, and used to be the main transportation method. Out here, there are still canals, but they range in size from large industrial monsters to tiny little midget canals in backyards. There were rowers out in the river, having a regatta; fisher people cooking their catch. It was a gorgeous sunny day.  I think the highlight for me was what was to be our first river crossing. We had been following a small canal for awhile when we saw a person on what looked to be a raft in the middle of the canal. As we got closer all became clear: the raft was a hand operated ferry and we would need to cross over on it to continue  on our way.  What a blast, Sissy and I giggled the entire way across, mainly because we'd be cracking jokes about the villages being like Hobbiton of the Shire, and now we were escaping the Black Riders.

We toodles along canals, big and small until hitting the outskirts of Utrecht. The bike network routes go by the central train station, and since we had lost the LF7 at some point we headed there. The train station led us to bike signs (yes, there are specific signs with distances and directions for cycling) that took us to the LF7 again. We had to go over a large bridge - our first uphills on the bikes. We made it though, slightly out of breath and wishing for gears! We kept waiting for the urbanization to die down, but it seemed that the countryside was too far away. The light was low, and we were exhausted. The decision to find a hotel soon was made, and the iPhone Nagivator ("Naggy" from now on) came out. The only thing available in the area was a Mercure in Nieuwegein, south of Utrecht. 

What a pain to get to! After the LF7, Naggy told us to take an overpass. That just ended. We either had to portage the bikes down 3 flights of stairs (have you ever tried holding back 60 pounds of bike?) or ride these beasts down a grassy hill after lifting them over a railing. We went for option 2.  That was not to be the end of our hotel finding trouble. We next got lost in the shopping mall parking lot for a good half an hour. We fired Naggy for the moment, and used our brains. We made it to the hotel eventually and booked ourselves in. Matt's cheap streak had caused him to be a part of the loyalty program, which means we got a super discount on the room. The hotel had a restaurant, pool and sauna, all of which we planned to use. In the end, we only ate. Everything else was just too difficult. Especially after we had to clean up one of the panniers. Why you ask? Because at some point, the glass bottle of Glauwijn had exploded, soaking two pairs of  shoes, my one souvenir from Paris (along with our maps!), and our cheeses. One of the water bladders also got ruined, as the millions of glass shards punctured it. How did this happen? Somebody of the male sex was being all goofy and going off curbs with his bike. He says it's because he laid it down improperly. Everything worked out though. The shoes went through a period of dampness and repair. The souvenir is slowly still drying. The water bladder is awaiting some form of sealant. And the cheeses are in my belly!

What a day. We went 69 kilometers (and only planned on 50)... what have we gotten ourselves into?

Third Time Lucky: Paris

Surprise! "We leave for Paris tomorrow" was the battle cry; or that's how I recall it — even if thats not entirely true, or even remotely for that matter. We left the apartment at 6 P.M. sometime in late February. We picked up our train tickets and jumped on the slow train . I attempted to use some new software that would map the train route on a map, but … the map "got" deleted.  

Anyway, we arrived in Antwerp after 9 P.M. It's a huge station, 4 floors of trains high, and easily a 300 m long.  We exited up into the main hall. As soon as you enter the main hall you're hit by the vast size and the grandness of the hall.  Everything is marble: the floors, walls, stairs, columns, etc.  Where there isn't enough marble there is gold. It was late, there were men with german shepherds and funny hats, so we left.  But first we had to stopped to take photos quickly.

Immediately as you exit the  station you find the zoo and chinatown.  It's amazing how things can look different and sinister in the dark, even though we had been here before. Liz had a firm grasp of the direction of the hotel, so we followed it.  Again, like usually happens in these cases, Liz's sense of direction failed us (again, this may or may not be what happens, but hence for this is how I shall remember it.)  We tried to then use the iPhone and that failed due to the number of one way streets we had walked down.  Eventually after walking circles around the Cathedral (the only thing that we knew was close by) we found out hotel.  Right next to the side of the cathedral. I was woken up several times by the bells and the view was 'wall of church in drab'. In reality it was pleasant and the lady at the desk was very happy that we were Canadian.

We spent most of the next day seeing the city, shopping for chocolate and sorting the banking things (finally!) A small city with many things to see.  Instead of really taking in anything of culture, we wandered as we usually do, and debated about the "idea of going back to the land".

We left the Antwerp Central train station, which was beautiful. The station was built in 1903 and is an old Industrial revolution building.  Full of vast open steel arches and glass.  Inside the station was all marble and gold,  more of a palace than a train station. We then headed for Brussels on the slow train. Liz and I were stared down by a group of young girls, quite awkward (especially after I waved.)  Anyway, we missed our stop and then had to wait at some old broken down station that looked like something out of the Soviet bloc. We looked around and waited.  30 minutes later and we were on the next train back to Brussels.  

We arrived at the station and got tickets for the Thalys high speed train to Paris (with 7 minutes to spare).  I tried tracking the speed of the train, but my iPone can't read above 231km/h.  The intranet told us we were going at 303 km/h. Extremely smooth,  with hardly any wind noise. It puts most luxury cars to shame.  All travel should be like this. 

We arrived in Paris as the sun was setting,  We got on the subway to our stop and exited. Completely lost we wandered randomly until Liz, being fed up with the iPoop, stopped and asked where our hotel was to be found. A few minutes later we found the place,  right across from St. Severin church. We ran upstairs (all the way upstairs), dropped our stuff and went out for dinner. Liz picked the place, she was very hungry and tired.  A swiss styled "chalet".  It was hands down the WORST meal of my life.  Liz foolishly ordered mussels as an appetizer, we're still surprised she didn't get sick. She then ordered coq au vin: it was dry and could have passed for cajun by how burnt the skin was.  I ordered lamb,  it was a thin flank folded in half and disguised to look like whatever it was supposed to be.  Neither of us could finish our meals and rushed out of there as fast as we could, feeling worse than hungry.

The morning brought sunshine and warmth. We did our usual search for coffee and croissants and then headed out on a walk.  Soon enough we were standing in front  of Notre Dame de Paris. This time we went inside. It is really quite large, surprising from how it looks on the outside.  Similar to the Bayeux Cathedral. We sat for a while in a park by the Louvre, around a small pond.  There was a vendor renting little sailboats to children to "sail" in the pond, the kids used some sort of stick to aim the sail and off the boats  went, children in tow. After having our fill of the cold, we walked a bit further to a cafe in the middle of the park. Liz ordered us deux cafes to warm us up.

We walked parallel to the river. there is this long straight road, kilometres long. Closest is a park: flanked by some of the most expensive residences in Paris building, then grass, manicured trees and bushes, cars and people. Further in the distance you can see the Eiffel tower to the left, in the centre is the Arc with a giant French flag flying in it's centre, and just in front of it is a massive obelisk.  This is the really neat object. It was stolen from Egypt and brought to France and is a complete oddity with it's hieroglyphs. Very stark compared to the decadent french architecture. This is the Place de Concorde: where a few people lost their heads over a revolutionary idea.

The next morning we headed out on a mission to find the catacombs of Paris. With Liz leading the way, we arrived shortly after noon.  Ate lunch in the line (there are only a  small amount of people allowed in at a time), scammed our way in as students to save money and headed down a winding staircase.  83 steps later we hit the bottom. From what Liz tells me, the catacombs were originally a stone quarry that was taken over as a burial area years later.  The passage we were in was around 2 kilometres long, although the greater area contains many more kilometres of similar structure. Although no where else in the system has the mass graves. Almost the entirety of this section is "decorated" with skeletons. Bones were moved here in 1773??? after plagues caused by decomposing bodies sickened the Parisian population. The corridors had been consecrated, and there are plaques detailing the original location of sections of bones.

After what seemed like an endless walk we exited into fresh air. Our day went downhill from here, Liz's back was giving her trouble. But she wanted me to see Napoleon's tomb, and I the Eiffel tower, so we kept on.  This would prove to be a very bad idea.  By the time we reached the Musee d'Armee that Napoleon tomb is located in, Liz could barely walk. We skipped it, but she insisted she would be fine.  We headed to the Eiffel tower, got to the top and then had to descend,  She was in rough shape.  A cab back to the hotel and an early night in was in order.

Our last day in Paris was yet another sunny day.  We walked to the Musee d'Orsay. It is housed in a converted train station.  It houses impressionist paintings, some that come to memory are; van Gogh, Monet, Manet, Cezanne, Renoir, Chagall and many others.  Again, Liz's back was bothering her, so after 2 hours we left.  We headed back to the hotel, grabbed our things and headed back to Amsterdam.

I'm really beginning to like France. Out of all the countries we've been to so far,  it's by far my favourite.  I look forward to the end of April when we should be in Provence again. 

Friday, March 25, 2011

Road Trip: Part Seven: Germany

The day before was Switzerlandian, Liechtensteinian, and Austrian. This day was Germanian. Specifically Bavarian. 

The car journey to our main attraction for the day was swift and stress-free. The roads were twisty and well-signed, which helped with the fun and the navigation. Once at the main village roundabout, I got out of the car to go to the ticket office, as we had pre-arranged a tour time. After trudging around, sorting out directions and tickets, I headed back to the car. Or where I had told them to "stay". I had wanted Stinky, Binky and Winky to drive up to the closer parking lot, but I couldn't find them! A little miffed that they had moved, paid for parking in the furthest, puddliest lot they could find and left me to the wolves I flounced to the car to make the required clothing changes for a trudge up a hill. Stinky was miffed at my being miffed; Binky and Winky were probably just rolling their eyes in agitation at the ensuing kerfuffle.

Hohenschwangau from below
We had to walk up a forested hillside to reach the tourist attraction. What tourist attraction? The most visited site in Germany. The form on which Disney based his ideal fairy-tale castle. The embodiment in stone of the sweeping romance of Wagner's operas. The one left unfinished by a "crazy" prince, due to his deposition and  his (likely) murder. Neuschwanstein. Ludwig II signed away the sovereignty of Bavaria, ignored the plight of his people, and generally behaved in a spoiled rich-boy manner: all to build pristine domiciles in his image of perfection. Neuschwanstein was basically built because he didn't like Schwanstein (now called Hohenschwangau) as a residence, and saw it only as a summer cottage. 

I'd let the pictures speak for Neuschwanstein - but I can't. Photography was disallowed. Probably so people would buy books at the shop. Matt used his breast pocket and the iPhone to capture some illicit video. And instead of describing it, I've found pictures online to show the interior http://www.neuschwanstein.de/englisch/palace/schlaf.htm

Neuschwanstein from the bridge
After our half-hour tour (that was nowhere near as good as the Mont Saint Michel tour), we walked around some of the grounds. There is a bridge spanning a crevasse, that gives an unimpeded view of the castle. We crossed over it, ostensibly to see the castle (but actually to see the fog. All of us then walked a little further along a wooded hiking trail. Until Matt decided that it was too slow and uninteresting, and he headed up a goat path. I followed, you know, to be immediately available as a rescue crew when needed. Other Matt also  followed, and Vicki (again with the intelligence and forethought) waited. After Matt had reached the top (and had been told to "get down from there! There is a memorial cross  for a REASON!"), he and I headed back down a path - away from the cliffside. Other Matt was still hanging around, about 20 meters down from us. Last I checked, he'd curled into the fetal posish, and was scrambling down the way he'd come up, but backwards. I don't think he liked the sight of a crumbling pathway and a several hundred meter fall into rocks and water.  

Neuschwanstein was followed by a car ride along the Romantic Road. Which was a bit crap in winter as most things were closed for the season. Eventually, the car found it's way onto a highway, in the direction of Munich. 

In the car we had decided to stay two nights in Munich, as everyone was a bit tired of the driving. There was no hotel booked, and no map to follow, so the annoying iPhone Nagivator came out. A combination of signs and directions led us to a hotel - which we blew right past in the car. No worries, as the area was chock-a-block of hotels. The first one actually stopped as was right behind the Sankt Paul Church. Since it had an agreeable price, location and room, it was taken. We unloaded the car - which was becoming harder and harder the more crap (sorry! "stuff") acquired - and trudged to the hotel rooms. 

Lucian and Matt
Later that night, Matt and I met up with Lucian, a relative of Matt's through Grandma Joan. Matt is making noises about secondary removed cousins twice again something something. I don't know familial relation terms like that - I don't have double first cousins :-P. Lucian gave us info on the subway, then took us to dinner in a packed brewery/restaurant. The food was excellent and included duck, deer, pork and chicken (from what I remember). The beer was also great - even I managed to drink ¾ of a pint. It was housed in the cellar of a building, with copper stills and biersteins serving as functional decoration (the place was making and serving bier!).  

After dinner, Lucian took us around to see some of the sights of Munich. He took us by the Neues Rathaus with its dancing clock (the Glockenspiel); showed us the uneven towers of the Frauenkirche - of which no building is to be taller than; took us past the Opera building and the ex-Royal Residenz (which was covered in scaffolding which themselves were covered with silk-screened sheets of the facade); through the drunkard-packed Hofbrauhaus with it's locked up personal biersteins; past one of the three city-gates (I want to say Sendlinger Tor, but I could be wrong); and generally around and about the central district. Lucian helpfully explained much about Munich, some of which I think I remember even now.  

Neues Rathaus
Matt and I remembered enough thought to take Vicki and Matt around ourselves. We got a bit lost, but found the recommended shops (such as Manufactum and the neighbouring food emporium) and saw the Glockenspiel dance at noon. Later that night, Lucian collected all four of us, and took us out again! This time for Chinese. Another, different tour ensued. When he took us through the Hofbrauhaus, it was packed with tourists, a band, and the regulars (in traditional Bavarian garb). Somehow, Lucian, Strentse, myself and Vicki (in that order) were invited to sniff snuff. Never Again! Later on (or perhaps beforehand) we passed a memorial to Michael Jackson (in front of the baby-dangling hotel); a different shopping district with police and a brass boar; and into a cafe for a late-night coffee. 

This is your brain on snuff

We left the next morning for a drive straight back to Amsterdam. It was fraught with leaving-things-behind (my hanky :'-/ ), traffic snarls, wrong turns and general "driving sucks" moments. We made it back to A'dam and sat down. Seriously. We were all tired. 

You know what happens after this. Victoria and Matthew look around Amsterdam. Victoria and Matthew pack their bags and take one of ours. Victoria and Matthew are driven to the airport. Victoria and Matthew get on a plane to Montreal and a train to Ottawa. Matt and Liz get to sleep in their own bed! The End. 

Friday, March 18, 2011

Road Trip: Part Six: Austria

Switzerland, Liechtenstein and Austria all in one day. 

All of Austria was passed through in the dark. By the time we had gone through the border crossing, dusk was setting in. It had again been cloudy and foggy most of the day, and the night was not going to be an exception. 

Driving through Switzerland and Liechtenstein had been along the foothills, other than a few incursions over some mountain passes. Driving across Austria was up and down twisty roads or through 5 kilometre long tunnels. It wasn't wasted time, driving in the dark. It gave us a view of a few lit up hillside fortification castles and ruined walls, lending an atmosphere of fantasy to the drive. In one hairpin of the road sat an old inn, overlooking the valley. 

According to a roadside sign, we had entered the Tirolian Mountains. Unfortunately, we had entered behind a series of slow trucks and micro-cars, and ahead of some locals and speedy transport trucks. The occasional jerk passed the building queue, regardless of the falling snow, the blind corners and the steep slope. 

After going down the backside of whatever we had gone up, we neared the Austrian-German border. Because we could, we had decided to stay in Austria. On the night of separate hotels, I had messaged Matt and Vicki with a couple hotel options, and the instruction to book upon agreement. By Pflach, our destination, no one could remember the name of the guesthouse. Of course, this meant no one knew the address. We found it through sheer force of will. The guesthouse overlooked the quiet rail line and main road of Pflach. It was a bit horror-film, with the settled fog minimising the field of vision. 

The next day, we stayed for a great breakfast, eaten in a dining room. Matt noticed a hotel bill from 1921, and I saw old photos of the site. Now, there are a main house and two outbuilding of rooms. Before, it was just a farm house. Whatever else it is, it is close to our next destination, Germany. 

Next Installment: German crazy castle; Munich.     

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Road Trip: Part Five: Liechtenstein

Having left the Swiss Alps, we head towards our hotel for the night. To get there, we went through the twee "nation" of Liechtenstein. 

Why, Thank You.
Liechtenstein approached far more quickly than anticipated. Suddenly, Switzerland was no longer, and Liechtenstein was. Not knowing it then, but crossing over the river was the sign of Liechtensteinian entrance.

Getting our bearings in Liechtenstein was super easy. The country is about 24 kilometres long north to south, and is bordered to the west by the Rhine RIver. The south is mountainous, and where all the rich bankers go to ski. We entered about halfway up, near Schaan. Because we could, we headed south to Vaduz to get a peek at the Castle and the capital city. At the (probably sole) roundabout, we saw a matte black Bentley Continental GT. For no reason at all, we deigned it to be the Prince out for a drive. We turned around after exhausting the city, and headed back north.

Castle of the Prince
On the way through the country, a few interesting things were seen. One that made the two Matts super excited was the Hilte Tool Factory. I was awed by the barn buildings and farm housing in the middle of a city. Banks were everywhere (apparently, that's how Liechtenstein makes its money). At one point, other Matt turned to me an asked "Have you been here before?"I answered in the negative, and he threw open his door, put his foot on the ground and blurted "I touched Liechtensteinian soil before you!"


I put my foot on the pavement too. Why not?
Switzerland? Austria? Liechtenstein!

LCH is a bit weird in total. The buses and money are Swiss. The rail is Austrian, as is the long term jail system. The government is actively headed by a monarch. The country is exceptionally wealthy, and only 209 citizens are unemployed (but 2/3rds of the workforce is foreign)! Liechtenstein (along with Uzebekistan) is double land-locked - it is surrounded by other completely land-locked nations. And was founded when a dude wanted a bit more power, so he bought some land and had the Holy Roman Emperor decree LCH to be a principality. I couldn't really see much that defined Liechtenstein as a separate culture. It is small - ridiculously so. Even their Prince's private art collection is housed in Austria.

Soon (really really soon), we had arrived at the border, and the customs building. Matt and Vicki had wanted to get the taxes back from their purchases. However, the man with the gun immediately waved us through with a "Go go go!" attitude. So we went into Austria. I'm not arguing with a guy with a semi-automatic weapon.

Photo of the Moment:

Yeh, I don't know what this really is. But it's Liechtensteinian.

Next Installment: Austrian Tyrolian Alps. Slow pokes and snow hoax. 

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Road Trip: Part Four: Switzerland

We leave France, finally, and enter french Suisse, drive into german Schweiz, pass by italian Svizzera, and visit romansh Svizra, all in Switzerland. The land of chocolate, army knives, watches, mountains and tunnels - but all at a price!

After arriving in Paris, I had no plans for the remainder of the trip. The idea was to allow for all four of us to weigh the options of the last week of the trip. The boys, with their usual immunity to decision, said that they were "easy going". Which is about the least helpful suggestion out there. With my own lassitude in regards to direction, Vicki picked up the burden of planning. A joint hope of visiting a hot springs bath in our hearts, we headed to the aptly named Yverdon-les-Bains. 

Yverdon has the best rated hot springs in Switzerland. Arriving in the dark, and without a map of the location was perhaps not the smartest decision. The first hotel encountered was built around the hot springs and had a full service spa. It also cost 350 CHF (270€ or $365 CA) per night, per room. Um. No. The next hotel we tried was nearer the train station, and a 2-star (which is the type we'd been staying in through France). It also came with a hefty price tag of 170 CHF per room, per night. It seemed that Yverdon-les-Bains was out of our price range. Driving about, we found a motel-type that was still over 100 CHF for a double room. At that point, the boys made a decision to drive to Lausanne. Switzerland being small, it was only a half-hour drive. 

Lausanne's suburbs provided us with an Ibis hotel. The internet was frustrating/entertaining as only one section of one room really got signal. At one point, somebody looked out the window and began giggling. There was an act of intimacy between two people occurring inside a car. During the performance, another couple and a dog walked by. The dog ran up to the car and started barking and generally being annoying. The lady grabbed the dog and proceeded to drag him away. The man repeated the actions of the dog. Later on, everybody and the dog in the story piled into the car and drove off… presumably content. 

Terraced Wine Op.
Day 7 was to be our first proper day in Switzerland. The morning was spent in a Swiss indoor mall, breaking our fasts and having a general look-see. Finding a gas station, we bought a required Highway Sticker. Then there was another epic battle with the iPhone Nagivator. Eventually, we got to the other side of Lausanne and headed on a route that took us past the cloudy foothills of the Alps, along the coast of Lake Geneva (like much of Switzerland, is also has another name: Lac Lèman). Here, we found a series of terraced vineyards, and a wine caveau that was due to open the day after! Matt and I offered cash for a bottle, but were rejected. Other Matt and Vicki explored along a waterfall down to the lake shore and train tracks. I think the trains held equal interest as the landscape for certain members of our party. 

Train and Wine
A late lunch, of Mexican, was had in the town of Interlaken, where I had hoped to have a gorgeous view, and an opportunity to go up a funicular mountain train. The whole day had been grey and cloudy though, and the mountains seen from the car were a better view than from this tourist town. After a quick walk, our journey continued onto Luzern (Lucerne, Lucerna, Lozärn!). 

Driving at Night, in a Tunnel
Again arriving in the dark, but with the advantage of having an Ibis Hotel guidebook. The first hotel we hit was the suburban Ibis, which only had one room available in the whole hotel. Gathering the stuff that we'd hauled up the stairs, we trudged back to the car to re-pack and re-assess. We next headed to an Etap - which is a crappier Ibis - and they only had one room available. After having the receptionist call a variety of other hotels, in Luzern and outside, one room in the Etap was taken, and the last room in the Ibis was booked. Matt and Vicki took the car to the Ibis (it had free parking), while Matt and I went into our "family sized" room of three single beds. We went out for a walk, out to the Swiss Life Arena, and turned out because of Matty's foot and the creepy silent dudes across the street.

Covered Bridge, Luzern
Matt and Vicki picked us up on the morning of Day 8. Some time and research the night before had booked a hotel for that night (so we wouldn't have the same problem). The internet had also explained the attraction of Luzern's centre. So Luzern was to be our major Switzerland stop. To get from the parked car to the centre, we had to cross a wooden bridge (built in 1333). Spending the morning in a lovely cafe for breakfast, shopping for gifts/souvenirs, and generally enjoying the area. There were some intricate fountains, as well as beautifully painted and decorated half-timber buildings. On the way back to the parked car, I saw a beautiful bike in a store window. I went in to look at it, and talk to the guy behind the counter. The others were less enthused, and wanted to head out and on. In fact, we headed on a little too fast, and coming out of a tunnel on a Swiss highway a flash confused our driver. Going 5km/h over the speed limit, another speeding ticket!

Driving in the fog, up a mountain.
This drive was not at the foothills, but instead ran through the passes of the eastern end of the Alps. Going up the passes, the weather went from mild and foggy to cloud and snow covered. Even though this is the Alps in February, snow coverage was spotty and grass poked through the ski runs. It seemed to be near the end of the outdoor snow season in this region. I'm fairly certain in other sections of the Alps, skiing is still ongoing, even now (March). The spotty snow still had a load of people enjoying the outdoors, and these people seemed to stay in Swiss cottages. Built anytime from the 1600s until right now, every cottage followed the same style. Unlike France, there were building dates above cottage doors between 1939 and 1945. This revelation brought about some choice comments regarding the neutrality of the Swiss during WW2. 

View from Pizol
During the afternoon, we headed towards another town with a thermal bath. However, before we arrived, there was a small road sign pointing up to a gondola. Taking the cue from the gods, we followed. Fearing this to be our last opportunity, and ignoring the less than ideal conditions, gondola tickets were purchased. Sweeping out of the valley, up past the clouds and fog, we were awarded with a lovely view of the Pizol Alps.

There was a bar, in which we were served by another non-ironic mullet (this time blonde) and had our picture taken by the local Chalet Patrol. A brief discussion on Canada, snow sports and beer occurred. What else! Near the end of the beer and fries, a couple of us went into the back room, to see the decorations... that was a bad idea.

Say "Pictures are Stupid!"
Back in the Kia, pointed northward, we braced ourselves for the entrance into Lichtenstein. 

Photo of the Moment:

I have Tonsils!

Next Installment: Liechtenstein. Do we see the Prince? How far into this tiny country do we go? Do we even touch Lichtensteinian soil with our feet, or only the car? These exceedingly important questions will possibly answered, if I remember!

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Road Trip: Part Three B: France

We continue to journey through the rest of France on the road trip with Matt and Vicki. So far, we've been through the Netherlands, Belgium and northern France. This episode takes us from Pontorson to Paris, and possibly beyond!

The morning of Day 6 started well enough. All four of us got fed coffee, croissants, cola. I made a complaint about bed-bug bites that no-one believed. We piled in the car and started for our first destination: Mont Saint Michel.

Mont Saint Michel
Quick History Snippet: A Roman-Breton stronghold during the 6th century, the space has always been occupied. The building of the first (still partially standing) church on the tidal island was in 709 by Aubert, Bishop of Avranches. Apparently, Archangel Michael had commanded Aubert to build a church on the tidal island in 708. Aubert ignored this, until one day Mike got annoyed, and burned a hole in his skull. Luckily for Aubert, science and medicine allowed him to sally forth and begin building a church. Over the next thousand years, the church was featured in the Bayeux Tapestry; became a monastery, an abbey and a site of pilgrimage; served as a stronghold in the Hundred Years' War against the English; converted into a political prison; and saved by Victor Hugo and UNESCO (not at the same time).

Salt, Sand, Sea
Quick Environment Snapshot: The island is a rocky outcrop near the mouth of the Couesnon River, near the border of Normandy and Brittany. The bay in which the island sits has the second highest tidal levels in the world. The sand of the bay is treacherous, and contains quicksand. Prehistorically, the bay was all land, but the rising sea levels and erosion created several granite islands. Over time, the region has become more silted, as the French have created polder pastures for the yummy lambs. Additionally, a causeway between the island and the shore was built, changing the tidal flow. The current government has invested in a dam and a light bridge to re-island-ify Mont Saint Michel and decrease the silt levels of the surrounding area.

Colourful Tourists
We parked our car fairly close to the entrance of Mont Saint Michel, and headed up to the first gateway. Just outside is positioned a wrought iron bombard, which was used to hurl various missiles (like rocks) at the walls of Mont Saint Michel during the Hundred's Year War. None of us really believed the sign beside it, stating the date of 1424, but it's all true.

Then, we began the spiraling walk up to the monastery itself. It being early, there were few shops open.  We headed through a tourist trap to the outer wall, where we looked down onto the low tide below us. There were minor arguments about sand versus water, but it was all settled in my favour, obviously.

After about 300 steps, a few weird corners, and a bunch of japanese tourists, we made it to the gate keeper.   We got out tickets and headed up the steps to the 11 AM english tour....stopping along the way for some prime photo-ops.

Then the worst possible thing happened ... teenager school group! At one point the staff looked at us and asked "Are you with them? If so, you not getting tour!" Thankfully they were herded off by their elders, to get lost inside the cathedral, hopefully forever. Then, this little hobbit lady appeared and beckoned us to her. She was our tour guide. Finding out we were Canadian, she told us about her desire to move there. She liked BC and Queeebec... Odd little lady.  Anyway, she took us for an hour and half tour of the "monastery": at times tripping over the darkness, being run into by Liz and generally getting annoyed at us for not being present when she was talking (seriously this place is huge and  following a tour guide, it's easy to fall behind). There were only the four of us with her, and at times, only Vicki was near enough to hear her. It was most excellent!

After the tour, both Matts went off to take pictures and go exploring. I also hear that there was debauchery in cordoned off areas. Upon their glorious return, we showered them with gold and crepes. Not at the first restaurant though, because the prices were too high. The restaurant we settled on had an upstairs with some birds and a sheepdog... it was cute, a bit dirty and french, but cute. Beer and coke light was had by all. Except my Matt, thats just how he rolls.

After lunch, now approaching 3pm, we made our way down and out of Gondor. There was one more destination to hit, and then a decision to make.

St. Uniac
After about an hour of back-roads' driving through smelly poop air, we reached the hamlet? miniature village? cross-roads? of Saint Uniac, the Shire. Um. There's a church. And a farm with smelly, smelly cows. Also a fountain? well? that we couldn't find. Matt and Liz wandered through the cemetary, which held about 60 dead 'uns and 0 relatives. Matt found a bar that he was threatening to purchase. Don't worry. He didn't.

Car travel past Rouen. Then past La Mans. Then past Chartres. Then to Paris. Then we were in Paris. A place I had not wanted to be, in a car, on a Friday night. It was %$*&@*^& chaos. There were some intensely stressful moments - participant include myself, Matt, Matt and other drivers. Generally, I blame the iPhone nagivator lady. Vicki, somehow through the entire trip actually, managed to not kill the three of us. That says something for her resolve.

Right. So here the four of us were. In Paris. On a weekend. The weekend before Valentine's Day. As I have said: living in a cliché. Needless to say, line ups were ridiculous. Prices were increased because of the "holiday". Every two seconds we were abused with other people kissing. Gross. Not exactly a wonderful introduction to the City of Lights. Sights seen up close were the Louvre, Eiffel Tower, Champs Elysees, Arc de Triomphe, Place de Concorde (with its Egyptian obelisk), Notre Dame, and general Parisian architecture. We also went (very briefly) inside the Louvre; on a river boat tour up and down the Seine for an hour; underneath Notre Dame Cathedral to see Roman ruins. Another post about Paris will be done in the future. For now, let us say that the city wasn't a home-run hit, more of a singleton bunt.

Leaving Paris was easy in comparison to entering. We headed onto the tolled highway towards Dijon. After 300 km or so, and 17€, we arrived in Dijon for lunch.

Now, the great thing about the French is the opening times of shops. Some are closed on the weekends, some on Mondays or Tuesdays. Some open all day, some are only open during specified hours. The majorly annoying thing for us was that on Monday afternoon, in Dijon, bupkiss was open. And it was raining. Not knowing much about Dijon, and not having any tourist info, I made them drive towards the tallest building in the city. Generally, this is the church spire, and the "old town" surrounds it. In most places, the church and the old town are the tourist attractions. It's a fairly safe bet to find something to eat in the vicinity...

Matt's Knuckle
 The first restaurant we tried told us they were closed and shooed us away. We were delighted that the neighbouring restaurant did let us in, and was even prepared to serve us lunch. According to general consensus, it was the best meal of the trip. That's excellent, as Dijon is known for it's food and wine... not just it's mustard (Note: no mustard was bought in Dijon because nothing was open!). Lunch, for three of us at least, consisted of generously sized portions of meat and vegetables. Some meat came on swords! For the fourth individual, it was a bit different.

On the menu, that dish was labelled "knuckle of veal". In reality, it was discerned to be a knee-joint of a pig. (My) Matt was ecstatic! His meal fit in perfectly with the decor of the place too. It looked like a medieval pub, with beams crossing the ceiling, swords and shields crossed on the tapestry covered walls. I think there was a suit of armour too.

After eating, a digestive walk was in order. We passed a building that had been used as a body-deposit and hospital during the plague years. It was currently closed, and "too dangerous" to enter. That was opposite the Dijon church, which was quite colourful. A bit over-tired of French architecture, we kept going. I popped into a wine store (the only place open!) and everyone followed. There was purchasing of alcohol. Back to the car! Onwards to Switzerland!

Photos of the Moments: 

The next installment covers the neutral nation of Switzerland. We fail in finding a hotel; can't see the Alps; and bleed out of our pockets.  

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Interlude: Amsterdam

Today, we all take a break from re-hashing travels to talk of the present time. Return to France in a couple days from now. 

We had been relaxing since Monday, but still going out daily to Centrum and back. No major goals in mind. Slightly bored.We'd become annoyed with the cold and rain and drabness. Saturday, Matt was trawling with the internet, looking for things to do:

At the RAI, the Amsterdam RAI, it's a convention hall, south past the big ring road, down here, not that much further than our usual. [pause]

 There's an outdoor and travel show. It's a show about outdoor stuff and travelling around doing outdoor stuff. [pause]

It's got a bunch of hiking and cycling stuff. Do you want to go? [pause]

Of course! 

It's tomorrow. [pause]

So Sunday morning came, as did the rain. We'd figured out a bus route that led us almost to the front door of the RAI. The day before, Matt had learnt that his water-resistant jacket was no longer water-resistant in any way, so the closer to the front the better. We still had to wander across a large open pavilion before getting to the ticket desk, so Matt got a bit damp. We should be used to it by now; Amsterdam is not known for being a sunny corner of the Earth.

As soon as the tickets were bought, and we had entered, I pulled out the DSLR to take a few pictures. Where else is better to photograph bikes than at a convention, where they shine with cleanliness, unused. It was quickly pointed out to me that the screen said "No Memory Card Installed". I was stuck using the iPhone camera for the day.

The show was a fantastic resource, and couldn't come at a better time. It had travel information on hiking trails and campsites worldwide. This could have been information overload; but details diminished with distance from the Netherlands. Matt and I managed to buy a Dutch map book that we'd been searching for in many Amsterdam bookstores. Also, some market vendors and camping/B&B owners showed uo to sell their products. Further abroad, information on multi-national pilgrimage hiking routes was plentiful. This is particularly good as my Dad has travelled along part of the Spanish Santiago de Compostela route, and the pilgrimage routes translate into good touring cycling. Some info was available on the Americas and Asia, but that's too far away for our plans. All the paper, flags and goodies took up Hall 10. Halls 9 and 11 were still to come.

On the Road: Crank Fix
Hall 9 was across the way, and next on our list. Here we found the alluring face of a bike show. There were retailers hawking last seasons' stuff, and industry teasing with next year's shiny samples. Industry booths were from the likes of Rohloff, Brompton and small specialized touring bike manufacturers. There was one booth that has magnificently engineered bike pumps! Stores were the camping/outdoor life category, or touring bicycle stuff. We picked up some items of need, at a discount price. I got a bit goggle-eyed at a vertical bicycle parking aid and a guy who seemed to be showing travel fixes for severely broken bikes. Behind him an open area was set aside to allow people to test rides bikes. Unlike the Toronto Bike Show on this track were mainly tandems, folders, cargo carriers and granny bikes.

Bike Test track
At this point, we were almost broke, but hungry. Upstairs was a decently designed buffet restaurant. Not a single hotdog booth in sight. Ate food, drank drinks, went back downstairs for the last haul.

Hall 11 proved to be more touristique than the other two. Instead of aiming at the outdoor crowd, it seemed to be more for bus tour groups. We went through it quickly, and ended back up in the first hall. We did a quick go-around of everything again, ran outside in the rain to the bus shelter to wait for the first public transport to come our way. Back home. Tired and happy.