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Val Cenis August 18, 2013

Posted by clairical in Travel Log.
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When I tell people I’ve never been skiing, their immediate response is to tell me I’m missing out. I’ve been told skiing is fast-paced and exciting, the best thrill you’ll find in the deadbeat of winter. And, most importantly, it’s fun. Skiing is one of those things commonplace on southerner’s bucket lists, and one I recently got to cross off of mine.

Val Cenis is a little mountain town in the Haute-Maurienne region of the French Alps, very close to Italy. It’s basically just a big ski resort, which was perfect for our interests. The hostel we were staying at provided rooms, food, and ski rentals. It was an all-in-one ski resort that mainly serviced English customers, as evident by the daily tea-time.

Even though Val Cenis isn’t exactly a big-name city, it is one of the most beautiful in France. There’s a 360⁰, breathtaking view of snow-capped mountains no matter where you are in the city. Literally breathtaking, since the oxygen up in the mountains is spread so thinly that just walking leaves you gasping for air.

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Since Val Cenis was so close to the Italian border, we only had one full day there for skiing. A few weeks ago, I had bought a giant puff-ball of a jacket and some ski pants just for this occasion. The night of our arrival we were outfitted with skis, ski boots, and rods. I was ready to go.

I decided to start at one of the green courses, which were supposed to be the easiest courses to ski on. When I got to the base of the hill, I realized there wasn’t a ski lift. There were little rods floating by on a wire. The rods had a disk on the bottom of them. The idea was to stick the disk between your legs and let the rotating wire pull you up the mountain on your skis. This should have been my first clue that the slope wasn’t going to be the easiest one, but I was determined to go skiing.

About halfway up the slope, my left ski fell off and the sudden friction caused me to face-plant in the snow. I had to scurry to move out of the way of the next person coming up the ski lift. It probably took me the better part of 20 minutes to reattach my ski and stand back up. I probably fell down another 5 times just trying to get standing up straight. The problem was I could either stand up with my skis facing diagonally down the slope, in which case I would immediately start skiing down the slope (if you could call it that) and subsequently fall backwards from the sudden movement, or I could stand with the skis perpendicular to the slope, in which case the incline would cause me to fall over on my side as soon as I was up.

After I cycled through standing up, skiing a few meters, and falling back down again several times, I had reached the base of the slope again. The whole cycle probably took an hour, maybe more, and at that point in time, I was pretty fed up with skiing. What was the big hoot about anyway? All I had to show for my efforts were a few bruises and some wet clothes. My feet were especially cold which made walking in the boots hurt.

So I hobbled back to the hostel, convinced that skiing really wasn’t my cup of tea. Thankfully, I did make it back in time to catch afternoon tea, which was absolutely lovely. They had scones and jam and everything! Walking back to my room, I was set on taking a nice hot shower and never going skiing again. Unless it was the aquatic variety. But I ran into Steven and Erin on the way up and they convinced me otherwise.

They were on their way back to the escargot slopes, which they described as not so much slopes as a very smooth and practically flat surface. Stubborn as I am, it took some convincing, but once they mentioned that there were actual ski lifts with a bench and a safety bar, I was all in. And so we went back out to the cold air and the escargot slopes

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The escargot slopes were true to their description relatively flat. I only fell down on the turns the first time around and not at all the second time. But I still wouldn’t say I enjoyed skiing. Skiing requires that it be horrifically cold outside and wet on the ground, two things that aren’t optimum by themselves and worse when combined. Plus there’s the whole falling off the cliff thing if you aren’t careful, which made me overly antsy when I was skiing.

So I did get to cross skiing off of my bucket list and visit the gorgeous Val Cenis. But you won’t catch me on the slopes anytime in the foreseeable future. But now I can safely tell people that yes, I have been skiing. And I plan on never doing it again. The highlight of the trip was definitely the delicious pizza I ate on the way back to Metz. In addition to tiny purple squid, it also had some seafood I couldn’t identify. Most delicious unidentified food I’d ever eaten.

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All roads… May 12, 2013

Posted by clairical in Travel Log.
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In high school, I made the foolish mistake of taking Latin as a foreign language. Although I picked up useful phrases in every language, such as “Une baguette, s’il vous plait.”, I still struggled with grocery shopping, mainly because I never knew what I was buying. But Rome would be different. Just like in Latin America, everyone in Rome speaks Latin. True story.

Now, for a word problem. Rome is halfway down the boot of Italy. Metz is in the top right of France. The cheapest flight to Italy goes from Frankfurt Hahn, which is three hours from Metz by a train and bus combo, to Bologna, which is a 2 hour train ride from Rome. A night train to and from Rome takes around 16 hours and can get me there by Saturday morning. What is the best way to get from Metz to Rome and back, minimizing cost and maximizing time?

It turns out, a combination of flights, buses, and trains. Friday, I took the night train from Munich to Venice, springing for a couchette. Then I took a train from Venice to Rome, arriving before noon. I spent all of Saturday and Sunday in Rome. Sunday afternoon I took a train to Bologna, flew out of Bologna to Frankfurt Hahn, spent the night in the airport, and took a bus the next morning to Frankfurt main where I got a train back to Metz. Please, hold your applause.

The first thing I noticed about Rome was that it was warm. Really warm. As in, no-jacket-required warm. It was absolutely glorious. The next thing I noticed was that my high school teacher lied to me: no one in Rome spoke Latin. Et tu Brute? But really the only vocabulary words I needed to get by were “Gelato” and “Pizza”. Also, everything was old, even for Europe. There were ruins everywhere and all the crazy-driver filled streets were cobblestones. My feet hurt at the end of the day. Rome was the first city I had visited that I could actually see myself living in long-term, if everyone would just start speaking Latin again so I could understand them.

Rome is huge, and every part of the city is packed with monuments, ruins, and markets. It’s hard to know where to start, so I just started with the closest thing to the train station: The Foro Della Pacia – the Forum of Peace. It was expansive and only half there, the other half had been lost some time ago. From there I passed the beautiful Altar of the Fatherland on the way to the Trevi fountain, which was absolutely gorgeous. It was crowded with tourists, so I took a side-street to get away and grab some Gelato.

After eating way too much Gelato, I headed to the Pantheon, which is a temple originally built to honor the gods of ancient Rome. It is lit entirely by natural light, all stemming from a giant hole in the middle of it ceiling. The whole building looks quite a lot like a giant eyeball. It was slightly unnerving.

Although all the ruins of Rome are interesting and full of history, the best part of Rome is the Villa Borghese, a garden expanse in northern Rome. The gardens themselves are lovely, and a welcome break from the snow-covered branches in France. It has palm trees and shade and non-stop tweeting birds. And did I mention it was warm?

The Villa Borghese stretches on for a few miles, littered with statues and a few lakes and some great museums. The best museum, in my opinion, is the Borghese Gallery, which contains a plethora of sculptures and a section devoted to ancient instruments. It’s supposed to be lovely, but I wouldn’t know. It was booked out until Tuesday, which I think speaks for itself as to how magnificent this museum is.

Sunday morning I got up early to go shopping at the Porta Portese market. Porta Portese is one of Rome’s oldest markets and only open Sunday mornings. The market is split into two roads that make a V. The left side of the V is primarily a clothing and accessories market. The right side is mostly an antique market; with some stands trying to sell what I assume is a bunch of junk they grabbed from a nearby dumpster.

Rome may be known for some sketchy shopping, mainly for imitation high-end brands, but I was having no luck. I had a routine down-pat that I assumed would work wonders. I would start eyeing and picking up purses from a vendor. When he asked me if I needed any help, which they always do, I would say, “These are nice purses, but I was hoping to find some brand-name items.” Most of the time all I got in reply was, “No, these very nice.” I was sorely disappointed and went home without a fake Prada bag.

After the market, I went to St. Peter’s Square to see the new Pope’s Sunday Angelus. The square itself was magnificent and stuffed full of people all there to see the Pope. Around noon Pope Francis appeared in a window of the Apostolic Palace. He said buongiorno, followed by a bunch of Italian words I couldn’t understand.  I think most of them were prayers, since other people in the crowd were chanting along with him.

Overall, Rome was a beautiful city and I was glad I was able to make the trip down to Italy. The city was so full of history everywhere you turned. There were monuments and ruins everywhere in the city. It was the first city I could see myself actually living in. The pace of the city was so fast, with people darting around everywhere in Vespas. Maybe I’ll go back someday.

Copenhagen April 24, 2013

Posted by clairical in Travel Log.
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In all of the excitement of visiting a new city every weekend, many of the details and memorable experiences tend to blur together. Did we visit Budapest first, or Bratislava? And which city had the covered flea market with a basement full of smelly fish? And where are we off to next?

Fortunately, Copenhagen was a deviation from the typical traveling experience in many ways, making it the most memorable trip so far, if not the most enjoyable. One of my favorite parts about visiting Copenhagen was the city night line, a train that operates solely at night. I had been on a night train before, but I had slept in a chair. This time I would be traveling in a couchette, a bunk bed in a room for 6 people with 3 tiers of beds on the two walls.

I suppose that sounds much less exciting to you, but after struggling to fall asleep on a middle chair and trudging about the next day like a zombie, a couchette is a little piece of heaven.

Another refreshing change in Copenhagen was the currency – Danish Kroner (DKK). I really enjoy looking at how countries split up their coins and cash. 7.5 DKK is equal to about 1 euro, which made for some fun math when trying to figure out how much something costs. At first I thought I must have mistaken the exchange rate as everything in Copenhagen, from food to museums, was extremely pricey. But that’s just how the economics work in Denmark. Apparently, this price inflation is due in a large part to some of the more socialist politics in Denmark. We ran into some local students on the metro who told us that they actually got paid a stipend to go to college, which they got to attend for free. My first meal in Copenhagen cost around 15 euro. It was a bowl of soup

After the pricey dinner, our group was worried about the price of touristy attractions and such in the city. We were shocked when we arrived at the National Museum of Denmark and discovered it was free. The museum was extensive, and we didn’t even sort through all of it. But the highlights included a mummy of a priestess, figurines from the Disney movie Hercules scattered throughout the Greek pottery exhibit, and a display of historic toys, including dollhouses several feet tall and as intricate as the mansions they resembled.

Not all the sights in Copenhagen were as reasonably priced, but the Rundetaarn was well worth the money. The Rundetaarn, as the name implies, is a round tower with a spiraling ramp that ends in an open-air roof. About halfway up was an exhibit on trees, which was possibly the most boring exhibit I had ever seen, excluding the tree fort, of course. At the tower top is a marvelous 360 degree view of the city. I assume the binoculars are for show only as they ate my kroner.

After the tower, I was convinced by the other members of my group to see the little mermaid, which is possibly the most underwhelming attraction in Copenhagen. For starters, it’s basically just a statue of a girl sitting on a rock a few feet offshore. For another, it’s on the water, so the wind is about 10 times worse than it is in the heart of Copenhagen, where it’s fairly strong to begin with. I was so cold; I could have seen a real mermaid and the walk there and back still wouldn’t have been worth it. I even forked up enough kroner to buy an over-priced hot chocolate from a hipster coffee shop in an attempt to warm up a little bit. I will say, that hot chocolate was absolutely delicious.

The next day, I slept in a fair amount before embarking on a canal boat tour. I highly recommend this experience to anyone visiting Copenhagen. The boats are covered and heated, which is worth the money in and of itself. The tour was a little over an hour and took us around the canals and into the harbor. We passed by the Black Diamond, an addition to the local library; a military boat converted into a museum that once accidentally launched a missile; a section of the city modeled after Amsterdam; and the little mermaid statue, which was still underwhelming. Along the way, the tour guide entertained us with historical facts and tidbits, such as a story about a guy who was unable to become a belly dancer because his face was too ugly and his feet were too big. Again, if anyone is planning on visiting Copenhagen, a boat tour should be the first priority.

The rest of our last day we spent wandering around the city, just taking in the sights. We saw the outsides of a castle with a quaint little park next to it. We arrived just in time to see the changing of the guards at a palace, which was a spectacle mostly because of the ridiculous hats they wore. We even did a little window shopping, which included a Lego store with a dragon coming out of the walls, floor, and ceiling.

That afternoon, on the train back to Metz, I really felt that I had seen a good portion of the city. It’s nearly impossible to see all that a city has to offer in one weekend, but if I could redo that weekend in Copenhagen, I still don’t think I could have squeezed in anything more. And that’s how I knew I had really carped the diem out of Copenhagen.