Thursday, July 28, 2011

Where Have We Been!?

Well, a bunch of places... We had a great time playing with a brand new baby in Zurich, and then we skipped off to Greece. This has been in the works for at least a year. Our great friends who live in LA knew they'd be going to Greece, so we figured we'd fit it into our plans, too.

From Zurich, we took a train to Venice - a trip in and of itself. At one point the train goes into a mountain and makes a 180 degree turn, passing the same church twice in opposite directions. I guess maybe you'll have to see that yourself.

We had our first experience and stayed with a really sweet couple. Highly recommended. Be sure to tell AirBnB where you heard of them. We'll be using the site again very soon, in Madrid, but I'm getting ahead of myself.

Whoever developed knows a lot about search capabilities - every option you need is available. We stayed in the spare room in a two bedroom apartment for a whopping 40 Euros. Two minute walk to the bus, 10 minute bus ride into Venice, and Venice is no place to stay if you're on a budget. It is, however, a place that everyone should get to visit at least once. Even if just for one day. Did you know that there are no cars there? No bikes, either, because of all the stairs.

White building on left - municipal hospital of Venice

We enjoyed ourselves, drank limoncello after dinner, sat in molte piazze drinking cafe, walked and walked and walked. Got lost on the way home... something everyone needs to do in Venice. It's an island. Just wander around... there's no such thing as lost, even if you end up at a dead end.

We also bought some accessories to help spiff up our look - nothing like a little glamour on your way to Greece.

That's right. A hat and earrings and we're ready for anything.

Our ride to Greece was a boat - kind of a big one. Great views of Venice on the way out of town. This baby is a good 40 hours in ferry heaven. Anyone can ride this boat in the style they prefer. There are cabins, of course, but for those who don't feel like shelling out the cash there are other alternatives. For example, you can camp on the deck. Just buy a ticket and arrive early and prepared. 

The tent is orange. The dogs are on a walk.

People staked out space under staircases, behind unused doorways, and in every corner. Some people brought their motor-pumped, blow-up mattresses. I assume many of these people also had cars on board, so the shlepping of sleeping bags and pillows and mattresses was minimal. But I think they had it right. We each brought a messenger bag full of sunny weather clothes, minimal packing, and reserved "business class, airplane seats" - option number 3. And they really were like seats in business class on an airplane, except that they do not lean back so you still have to sleep sitting up. We noticed that others in this "class" had brought mattresses and sleeping bags and slept in the ample space on the floor in front of their seats, a technique we adopted for the return journey.

IF we ever do that again, which is unlikely, we will take the cheap tickets and find some carpet or deck space. Why not? We also brought food and wine enough for two days. Well, almost enough. We tried the onboard cafeteria-style dining option. Not impressed. Again, on the return journey we came better prepared. 

And then suddenly (after two restless nights) we woke up in Greece. 5am, total darkness, not a taxi in sight - taxi strike strikes - and speaking no Greek at all. And this isn't the kind of place where a rough understanding of latin roots will help you read signs. News flash: Greeks have their own alphabet. Good luck!

We knew, roughly, where the hotel was, but not the street name. As we passed the only lit building, the bus station, we stopped to ask for directions. Nobody understood English, however Olympic Hotel seemed to resonate and they gave us directions in Greek. We managed to keep the sounds in our heads, and when we hit the correct street we made our left turn and found the hotel as if we'd planned things that way. The hotel was even open! The (non) plan had been to just hang out, maybe leave the bags with the hotel clerk, go to a cafe. Very funny in total darkness the day of arrival. Luckily our conversation with the clerk went like this:

Clerk (bewildered): Good morning. Can I help you?
Ramona: We have a reservation for today, we just arrived on the ferry.
Clerk (clarity): Oh, you're checking in. What is your last name?
Ramona: Marks?
Clerk: Okay, you are in room 602, here's the key.
Ramona: So we can... okay, great, thanks so much.

We slept through earthquake number one (the actual quake, 3.8, 10am-ish, yeah, first of many) and awoke to a 6th floor view.

look left

look right

Not bad. We wandered and saw some stuff. As it turns out, you can't go out for breakfast in Patras. As one restaurant worker/owner put it: "I had pancakes and eggs at home. We have some tiny croissants that we give away with coffees." Okay, thanks, we'll take those. We did find places to buy various pastries at about breakfast time, and some days we just held out until lunch and ate everything. 

typical Greek (vegetarian) meal. meat-eaters, there's a lot waiting for you in Greece.

The first day was a short, hazy day for us, as we'd slept barely enough for two nights in a row and then napped all morning. We did see one of the few tourist attractions that Patras offers. A church built in 1908, painted inside as if the artists were stuck in the 1600s (maybe earlier).

Lovely on the outside and the inside. Sorry, no photos of the inside. But if you've ever studied Boccacio, you know that the discovery of perspective in paintings of the Virgin Mary pre-dates 1908. Oh well, great mosaic octopuses on the floor. Nope, no photos of those either. 

On day 3 or so we had another brief earthquake. Then on day 4 we felt two, both while we were eating dinner outside. The second that evening was a rumble and then jolt that we could hear in all the buildings around us. We lived in Los Angeles for more than 6 years, but never had we felt so many earthquakes in such quick succession. When the world moves under you, solid ground starts to feel like a mirage that you can hold onto. Everything is good if the land stays still and the buildings don't crumble.

That said, Greece was very hot in a way that makes me want to complain. Every day we were guaranteed temperatures in the 90s, and it was a kind of heat that rendered us almost completely useless and very ready for air conditioning. We decided that the best thing to do in Patras is go to the beach. Available in both the bronzed-teenage-body-and-dance-music variety and the less-crowded, quieter, more comfortable type. Cappuccino Freddo available everywhere.

cappucino freddo, your friend in Greece, made with espresso, ice, and whipped milk/cream with sugar

Beach #1. We stayed in the shade between swims.

the water... so lovely

wait... who are these toughies

The absolutely, no-doubt-about-it, dreamiest part about Patras was our LA friends who came for a Swede-Greek wedding. Being on the road, in a new country every... short amount of time, meeting new people, we love it. And also, we miss all of our fantastic friends. Just seeing photos of them makes life feel a bit more concrete again. These jokers (above) were accompanied by a Swede posse that made each day feel like the best guided tour with semi-locals ever. Meaning, they knew about beaches.

beach #2, dubbed "the beach at Whittier when sea levels rise" (thanks Guzman)

a dock to jump off of is a very nice feature indeed

So is Swede ass, I mean gorgeous turquoise water. The groom is far left, his brother is playing tough guy, climbing onto the doc without using the ladder. And the bathing suit? Just a Swede in a suit. There were a couple of days at this particular dock.

yes, we drank lots of ouzo

ooooooooouzo, by mrs. kelly martin

hot Swede at our table!!! awesome!

nothing sums it up like a panorama

might've been a little windy during this photo

aaaand the underwater feature comes in handy

One of my favorite moments was when I stood on the dock with the camera, took a photo of Simon jumping in, and we both laughed as he came up and looked back. Then I dove off the dock, and just before I hit the water I heard "YOU'RE HOLDING YOUR CAMERA!!!"

Came up laughing. Greece was alright.

Except for the taxi strike. Or, maybe the infrastructure dependent on taxis. Surprise, the same ferry you arrived on will leave from a DIFFERENT PORT. We found this out the evening we were meant to board. Oh, 5kms away? Cool. How the f*** do we get there? We planned to be at the terminal early, so we made it to the boat. But not without a bunch of stressful fretting over bus schedules. And then the bus dropped us at least one kilometer past the boat, because the entrance to the port is built for everyone except pedestrians. Old ladies dragging rolling luggage had to walk almost a mile to get from the bus stop to their boat. How cool is that? Taxi drivers may have reasons to strike. They also have a powerful status in the tourism structure of Greece - without them, travel can be a pain in the butt. 

We were still on the boat two hours before it left. Joshua prefers being early, and Ramona ran back to the hotel for bus information and to buy bus tickets. (Wait, did you notice that? Ramona and ran in the same sentence?) Sometimes, being overly prepared means being just prepared enough.

sunrise the morning we got back to Venice.

After that trip, we were welcomed back to Zurich with love. Our coffers depleted, we realized it was already time to start house sitting again. Sorry, no trip over the Alps this summer. At least, not by bicycle. The first opportunity that popped up was two plus weeks in Paris. Who turns that down? 

Friday, July 15, 2011

More Climbing, Descending, Happy Touring

Yeah, it's official. I love climbing through mountainous landscapes and descending into little towns between the trees on creeks that have yet to become rivers. This is bicycle touring at it's finest.

Our second of the proposed three big days was glorious.

We go up 

reach the top 

and go dooooow 


As you can see, it was also sunny. The Ardennes get two thumbs up from me, and I (Ramona) will never beg for flat touring again (we're going to cross the Alps into Italy on a future bike trip, so check with me then for an update on that attitude).

Some of the landscapes reminded us both of Switzerland, and some moments were reminiscent of Northern California coastal ridge lines.


All the towns are really nice, and people were quite friendly. Again we made it to our end of day shopping town (Bertrix) around lunchtime. Nope, we have not tallied up kilometers, and no, we have no idea how high we climbed. The maps were color coded for altitude, and we went from green to yellow to reddish-orange. And then we went back down again. By the end of the day we were back down to yellows, and the landscape returned to the fairly level farmland from a few days before. We camped in the woods again, in a lovely, hidden spot that was maybe a little close to the train tracks (loud!).

the view up

Having spoken to Thomas a little when we had some internet access, we decided that our successful and enjoyable time in the Ardennes was enough of a bicycle success and that we were ready to go to Switzerland. We have a little break planned, hanging out with friends in Zurich. Then we take a quick train/ferry trip (without bikes) to Greece for a week, and head back to Zurich to resume touring at the beginning of August. Bicycle over the Swiss Alps after ouzo and spanikopita? Why not.

We did another half day in the morning, after delicious breakfast that I had to take a picture of.

Then at a town just a 20 minutes train ride from Luxembourg we hopped on a train. In Luxembourg we caught a direct train all the way to Zurich, and arrived around 9:30pm to a warm, summery city, and warm, summery friends.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Rest Day at the "Lake" and Big Climbs on the Road

We rode a good solid half day, heading straight for the large lake on the map. At one point the route went down a somewhat intimidating road, all gravel and bumps, and then took at turn into the woods. Maybe it's the wrong way?

Turned out to be just right. But the lake itself was a little disappointing. Mostly the product of a few huge dams, you could only swim in a couple of designated spots. There's lots of jetskis, though. Loud and obnoxious.

We worked our way around to where there was supposed to be a campsite, and this time it was actually there. They were even happy to have us! Woo! First campsite in Belgium where we weren't rejected. We paid for two nights, to ensure we would rest the following day, and then realized that things were in kind of a sorry state. No laundry facilities, but we were welcome to wash in the sinks. Showers were a bit grim, but the water was hot. Toilets were hit and miss. The camping area was awesome, and we met a Dutch couple, touring from Amsterdam to Italy. They had four months off to enjoy each other and all that Europe has to offer. I think (and hope) that we will see them again one day.

We did a little laundry (in the shower) and took advantage of the sun. However it was not to last very long. After a warm and relaxing afternoon it started to look like rain. So we hoofed it to the store without all our gear and bought supplies to last a couple of days. It didn't start to rain until after we got back (luckily), but then it rained most of the following day. Which was good for our resting. We spent most of our time next to the shut down restaurant, where the teenagers usually hang out.

We were told to expect similar weather the following day. Cold! Wet! I thought we left this in Scotland! Oh well... we planned. Back before we hit Charleroi, we were already contemplating a train sooner than later. We talked about a train to Strasbourg, or Worms, or Mainz. Something to get us back on the Rhine so we could ride into Switzerland. We didn't have enough time to ride the whole way, but we had hoped to see what we could of Belgium and take a train from Luxembourg, or even Trier, Germany. After a lot of deliberation and thinking, we decided that we should just go for it - conquer the Ardennes. The maps we had were enough to get us on a south and east route, with a little planning and a serious effort we could make it to Luxembourg in three days. Big days. So we pumped each other up about it and I sat and planned a route.

Joshua kept himself busy with the charging of various electronics.

And late in the afternoon the rain stopped for a while, so he took down the tarp and we did what packing and re-organizing we could when things were a bit drier. After a nice dinner we got into bed early, to the sounds of a camping group of kids, the rough but friendly family (of sorts) in the pop-up trailer close to us, and dance music.

We got up early in the morning, when we both woke up and realized it hadn't been raining. Things were dry, we ate a nice breakfast, and busted out a huge day.

Beautiful rolling hills and farms, not a lot of rain, a pretty good route.

Climbing. We finally did some semi-serious climbing. Riding up and up, sometimes on pretty steep roads, and being rewarded with a long, beautiful descent. Maybe I like hills.

We had one route hiccup, which I don't think I can blame on the mapmakers at this point.

See the large truck in the photo above? Well, that's where the bike route came out. See the barriers between the truck and us? Joshua lifted our bikes over those. Apparently, someone thought a freeway that is uncrossable was a good idea through here. Thanks a lot!

By 10:30am or so we were already at an impressively straight and almost flat bike path running along an old rain line. With 30kms under our belts already, this meant we would continue to make great time and cover lots of kms. The sun even came out for a little bit.

And then a funny thing happened. We reached our dinner destination city by lunchtime. Now, last year on July 14th we were in Colmar, France, and had a bit of drama related to everything being closed for Bastille Day. Not a lot of food around. This year, we were fully aware of the date, and even joked that maybe Belgians in the south (who speak only French) might also celebrate Bastille Day. In the early parts of the day we had found plenty of open stores and nobody seemed to be on vacation. However, we neglected to notice the pale grey dashed line on the map, indicating the border with France. The city of Givet is surrounded on three sides by Belgium, but to the south it is just barely connected to France, and therefore when we rolled into town everything was closed. Joshua said, sarcastically, "what is this? France?" And amended it with, "we're boned! This is France!"

Everything was closed, it was France, but due to expert food planning we had plenty of lunch to eat in the park (and even enough for dinner that night). Plus we figured out that we would be back in Belgium within a few kilometers anyway. A really gorgeous part of Belgium. 

More mountainous, forested, and a satisfying ride up and down.

That evening we had at least two too many beers at a bar where the final hour of a Tour de France stage was playing, and then found a lovely spot in the woods to camp.