Thursday, 29 August 2013

Greece is the Word

Last August we foolishly attempted to enjoy ourselves during the hottest part of the year in a country dominated by the western Saharan desert. Bad idea in retrospect (bad idea any way you look at it). This year, we thought we’d spend the hottest part of the year somewhere with lots of water, and the Ionian Sea on the west coast of Greece was just the ticket.  The main part of the vacation was on a sailboat, but not before a few days on the island of Corfu, adjusting to the culture, food, and rhythm of country.

Part of Corfu town harbour.
Not much happened for the first few days, barring a few trips to the local beaches and a hot day spent checking out the old fortifications in Corfu town. To be completely up-front about the weather: some days were hot and sunny and some days were very hot and sunny. But I now know why the Brits go to Greece for their vacation: summer is guaranteed.

One afternoon at the beach, we were told the power was out in all the restaurants and had been all day. Our server told us there would be no hot food. However, you could order omelettes (hot), and fries (hot). Sandwiches (cold), on the menu, but sadly also not available that day. You could order salad (cold), containing everything you could ever want on a sandwich including chicken, ham, tomatoes, lettuce, and cucumber. Bread (cold) came with each meal. Apparently assembling the sandwich was not possible without power. Welcome to Greece.

Typical Beach
Later in the day, we were asked if it would be a problem for us to move rooms at our condo complex… to rooms at another condo complex down the road (double booking problem). We’re Canadian so, you know, “no problem”. The proprietor of our complex took me down to meet the proprietor of the other complex (“we are good friends thirty years”) where it appeared to me, with my limited Greek, no previous discussion about us staying the night had been had. Still, I meet the proprietor, nice guy no English, who eventually called three or four younger women, relatives I assume, to escort me to a pair of rooms that may have not been completely safe from an structural standpoint. Again, being a good Canadian and having seen air conditioning units attached to the rooms, because it was stinking hot, I shrugged and smiled accordingly. Then I figured I best go collect the girls and the bags, and bring them back to our new home. But first, the proprietor of the first place told me that the proprietor of the second place insisted on sharing a glass of grappa with me, in a way that suggested I should accept if I knew what was good for me. Best grappa in the world, apparently. Made in Crete. And curiously, available only in old 2 litre plastic water bottles with the labels scraped off. Grappa, grappa.  What can I say about grappa? I was immediately reminded of cheap tequila as the second glass seemed much less harsh than the first.  My first lesson in Greek hospitality was almost fatal, being a bit of a lightweight drinker. Apparently it is acceptable to have a lengthy conversation in Greek in front of a non-Greek-speaking guest, provided your guest’s glass of grappa is continuously filled during said conversation.  I believe I only narrowly avoided possible hospitalization for alcohol poisoning only because my first guy needed to get back after only ½ hour. Still, I’m pretty sure the two old guys were able to express their opinions on the entire Greek political scene in the short time they had. My contribution was nodding occasionally while diplomatically avoiding expressions of obvious revulsion after each sip of grappa. Good times.

The next day, after a short flight from Corfu to the mainland (don’t delay booking Greek ferry space on-line in August because there won’t be any after April – we learned that lesson for everyone), we arrived in Preveza, where our sailing adventure would begin. We had booked a boat with what is known as a flotilla holiday. A flotilla holiday is really just glorified house-boating, where the houseboat is a bit trickier to handle, and the lake is a bit bigger and much saltier. You get the picture. Essentially, you spend the day mucking about on your own, and in the evening you park your boat at the same place as the rest of the group.
Our Flotilla
These next two boats were definitely not part of our flotilla, but they seemed to hang around...

We called this one the BatBoat

No dinner invitations were forthcoming.

We had a big group (14 boats), so a big part of our day was waiting to park, or waiting to leave, which I found a bit tiring. On the bright side, we had an opportunity to try a new little tavern or restaurant almost every night, with generally good results. There were complaints toward the end of the vacation related to excessive portion sizes, but that is a risk every vacationer takes.

As it turns out, Ann and her sister really do know how to make a sailboat do that sailing thing. My job, as cabin boy, was making sure we had adequate gin and tonic source material, or failing that, coconut rum and fruit juice for the skipper and the first mate (Ann). I’d say I met expectations.

The skipper and her crew.
Perri working hard while Ann does ... something related to sailing.
The crew at ease.
The only downside to the sailing component was the wind, which was a bit unreliable. Some days we spent much more time lounging in some quiet bay, playing in the water or reading, rather than actually sailing. The water in the Ionian Sea is remarkably clear and a shade of blue which makes a cynic like me think someone sneaks out each night to dump a bunch of blue dye in the water (I kept an eye out, but saw no indication this was happening). Also, not much wind and lots of sun turn your average sailboat into the hotbox in ‘Cool Hand Luke’, which is arguably the sweatiest movie ever made. Perri and Samantha were able to lie on the tiny seats in the cockpit and get a proper night’s sleep while the rest of us were not so lucky.

Sleeping beauties?


Cliff jumping.

Each day blended into the next with only slight variations on the "eat, sail, eat, swim, eat" schedule. One day we looked at a cave with some bats, and another we went cliff jumping, and another we had a big group barbacue. Good fun all around. However, after seven days on the boat, I will freely admit I was longing for some space. People taller than about 5’8”, or anyone who is clumsy, should perhaps take a pass on a sailing vacation. I incurred more dents in my skull than I can count, plus a small collection of cuts, scrapes, and bruises, whose origins were difficult to establish. Sailboats are dangerous things, as it turns out. I won’t even mention the tiny toilet, which defies explanation in terms of geometry, odor, and function (there’s a hand pump thingy which I don’t believe I ever mastered).

One interesting side-effect of spending a bunch of time on a boat is the gentle sway the rest of the planet takes on for at least a day or two afterwards. You are convinced everything from the hotel bar to your own bed is ever-so-slightly leaning left and then right. It’s kind of a low-level, drug-free buzz (granted, I had been drinking).

On our first night back on dry land, we visited a classic family-run restaurant where the menu is ‘whatever mama’s cookin’ up that night” and the wine list is a three liter tankard of local plonk, for each table. I’ll admit I was a bit concerned about what version of candied tripe or sheep’s eyeballs might get dropped in front of me until I saw reasonably happy non-Greek people at the other tables. That, plus I’d never before been to a restaurant where the guest book had favorable comments from both Jamie Oliver and Gordon Ramsay. It only got better when the mama-mia found out we were from Canada, where, as it turns out, she had lived for ten years and had had a few kids. From then on, we were practically family, with the head chef regaling us with her tales of boxing-day shopping and eating at the CN tower. Leaving was a drawn-out affair involving more hugs than I’ve ever received from my own family.

Not enough for everyone.

The last day we spent driving around looking at Roman ruins advertised in the hotel brochure, which were all locked up, except for the one with no gate, which clearly stated it would be closed on Mondays. We're not sure how that might be enforced, since there was obviously no one looking after the place. Fortunately, there was a beach nearby and we were able to overcome our disappointment at not being able to look at old stuff by playing in the water one last time.

Skipper and first mate on shore leave.
In total, going to Greece was an extraordinary experience. I even began to like some of the wine (brought two bottles home even). I regret to admit I was unable to learn even the simplest Greek phrases while I was there, which makes it at least as hard as French . I think when I realized the Greek word for 'Yes' sounded a lot like "Nay" and the word for "No"  sounded a lot like "OK", it was probably best that I left the whole thing alone. Still, all went well right up to the last day when Ann’s checked bag blew a zipper somewhere between Rome and home, and much of her packed clothes were lost to the luggage management universe. For those of you travelling abroad in the next few weeks, please keep your eyes open for any of Ann’s underwear appearing on baggage carousels. Really, that stuff could turn up anywhere.

Tuesday, 14 May 2013

Men are from Mars, Women are from Venice

Another school vacation and another whirlwind tour of… somewhere, with the added bonus of a third generation of the family (Ann's mama, Brook, had joined us as part of a larger European experience). We were targeting the trifecta: culture, good weather, and most importantly, food. In May, all three of these can be easily satisfied in Italy. So, off we went. 

Driven by flight and hotel availability, preferably inexpensive, but not necessarily so, Ann put together an interesting itinerary which started in Nice, and finished in Venice. I was called upon to act as chauffeur, poo-pooer of spontaneous travel plan changes, and general stick-in-the-mud. I like to think I excel at all three. 

Nice is aptly named.

The weather in Arcachon had been unseasonably cool and wet, so landing in Nice to sunshine and 25c was a good start. We spent the first day driving to Genoa, with a quick look at Nice and a tasty lunch in Monte Carlo. Food may become the dominant theme in this blog as I'm pretty sure we all returned somewhat more … complete, than we did when we started (to slightly mis-quote the film Jerry Maguire: "food completes me"). 

Focaccia bread hot out of the oven.
Breakfast hot chocolate should always support the spoon.
We stayed a single night in Genoa (dinner was great) on our way to Cinque Terre, a hiker's paradise of five separate towns along the rugged Mediterranean coast, linked by walking trails and rail. The towns are quaint and quiet since most are inaccessible by road. Unfortunately, many of the trails were closed due to some nasty mudslides a few years ago. 

Ann's mama was still game to get some trail miles in, so we decided to walk to the next town, Levanto, from where we were staying in Monterosso. We were assured the hike would be about an hour and a half, in the same way the SS Minnow was going on a three-hour tour. Who needs water or food for a lousy hour and a half stroll through the trees? No one does, of course. But for a four-hour grind up and down some serious inclines, I retrospectively recommend all sorts of provisions. That being said, the only person who didn't complain about the lack of sustenance and the surprisingly long and difficult trek was the most experienced member of the group, who consistently remarked about how nice it was to be out and about.

Three hours in. Are we there yet? I'm pooped.

Obviously, we took the train back (after a nice lunch and a glass or two of wine at an outdoor cafe).

The next day provided ideal conditions for another hike. Based on the previous day's experience, we took the boat tour down the coast to enjoy some of the other towns. From the water, each of the little towns we passed looked like someone had randomly glued some houses along the steep hillsides rising up from the water's edge. Porto Venere offered a nice castle, so we stopped and enjoyed pasta and wine for lunch. On the way home, Brook (Ann's mom) elected to continue back to Monterosso by boat while Ann, Perri and I hiked back from Vernazza. This time, it was about and hour and a half, and quite pleasant, relatively speaking. Dinners in Cinque Terre were fabulous. No exceptions.

Contemplating the Mediterranean.

Just another seaside town.
The next day was a travel day to Florence, or Firenze, as the locals call it. We were lucky to have spent the previous two days outside as it poured rain most of the way. On our way we stopped in Pisa, for the required look at 'the tower'. 

Leaning? Perhaps.
Big church in Pisa. Every town has one.
Look everyone is holding up the tower!
It seemed everyone wanted a shot of themselves pretending to prop up the tower. I refused to participate (see previous reference to stick-in-the-mud). Lunch was less interesting in Lucca, but we were in a bit of a hurry to get to Florence, so no surprizes there.

Florence was a place the chauffeur had to earn his stripes as Italian drivers work hard to prove two objects can occupy the same space at the same time. Fortunately I was able to get us to our destination with a minimum of swearing, rude gesturing, or uttered threats from the other drivers, pedestrians, or occupants of my vehicle (anything I said doesn't count). Florence was a distinct change in pace from the previous three days. It was a big city with huge gobs of tourists. If May is the shoulder season, I don't recommend visiting in summer. As an added bonus, Perri had been nurturing a nasty cold virus which chose me as it's new host just about the time we arrived in Florence, so perhaps my perception of the place was distorted. I was most surprised by the number of Russian tourists we encountered. They were everywhere. Perhaps it's easier to spend the money than launder it in Cypriot banks. Who knows? Even so, Florence does have some nice features: serious renaissance architecture and art, street musicians, and food. Just around the corner from our apartment, a talented clarinetist spent each evening serenading passers-by (although it might have just been the Dristan). Also, those renaissance guys didn't shy away from full frontal nudity. Where were the censors?

Perri with a naked Greek guy (Poseidon?)
One night Ann and Perri took a pizza and gelato course, where the last half hour is spent consuming their efforts. I laid in bed moaning and blowing my nose. 

It is as easy as it looks, apparently.

A recipe for disaster.

Each day, there were plenty of museums chock-full of arty stuff and a big central market, which offered plenty of tasters for prospective customers. We took a day trip to Sienna, which gave us some nice views of the Tuscan countryside. Lunch was ok, but not great.

Plenty of fresh veggies.

Try some of this...

We got cheese.

As we approached Venice, we had become a bit twitchy about eating our body weight in in food each night for dinner. The Italians give generous portions and multiple courses and tasty desserts. Also, the wine is pretty good. Even though we spent the better part of each day walking around, we were pretty sure nothing short of a daily ultra-marathon was going to off-set our caloric intake. This was never resolved. I wait patiently for the comments related to the next two images:

A typical lunchtime pose (for me).

Hard to believe I didn't get it all.

Venice was everything I had imagined with perhaps 100 times more tourists than I thought possible. Again, it is shoulder season, so I can't begin to imagine July at twenty degrees hotter with even more tourists and more persistent street vendors. Still, a gondola ride, some more nice meals, and wandering through the narrow streets with a few thousand of your closest brand-new friends makes for a pretty interesting time. 

Lots of gondoliers. No waiting.

Hello? Tourists? Anyone?
When in Rome...

How many people can fit on one bridge?

The Rialto Bridge as seen from the Grand Canal.
We stayed at a great hotel on Murano Island that had opened only days before, which offered a free shuttle to Venice (perhaps a 15 minute ride). Murano island is famous for world-class blown glass products and giant glass sculptures, and pretty much nothing else. We didn't spend much time there.

Words don't do it justice.
Ann was able to catch the same cold I had (of course, mine, as a man-cold, was much worse), so 3/4 of us spent at least part of the time with a nasty head cold. Even so, the trip was still a great success in spite of Ann's failure to purloin a brand new fake Prada handbag although they were available just about every place we stopped.

On the boat to the airport, no one wanted to leave...

Extra note about travel in Italy. Try not to rely too heavily on a GPS tool.
1. The highways have lots of tunnels. Lots. I think between Nice and Genoa we were inside more than out.
2. Medieval towns and cities are well fortified against invaders and GPS tools.

Sunday, 17 March 2013

Spring Skiing

OK, so last year I begged off skiing in the Pyrenees which means I eliminated any chance of dodging at least one ski trip this winter. I do like winter, but usually in a more remote form (i.e. pictures of snow, etc.). As the spring weather arrived in Arcachon, and thus delightful golfing conditions, I was even less inclined to expose my rapidly thinning, barely recognizable Canadian blood to genuine winter conditions.  However, Ann was determined to have a go at the Alps, so off we went.

This time we were off to Chamonix, a mountain town nestled against the flank of Mont Blanc, and surrounded by a half dozen or so ski hills. Fortunately, the trip was pre-disastered by Ann (we missed our flight owing to the complexities of an emailed itinerary shamelessly utilizing the 24-hour clock to identify the departure time - next time everyone reads the itinerary). A zillion dollars later found us in Geneva the very same day where our driver scooped us up for the hour-long drive back into France. I don’t think the Swiss appreciate the French ski resorts using the Geneva airport as the pick-up spot for thousands of tourists who won’t spend a single Swiss franc while waiting for their rides back into France. Perhaps the Swiss should adopt the Euro. I’m just saying…

The first day in far-east France gave us a chance to get used to the place, see the sights, and remind ourselves Chamonix was like southwest France, just bumpier.
Looking one way...
Looking the other way.

The first order of the day, after breakfast, of course, was a gondola ride to the top of the world, or so it seemed.  In reality, it was to the Aguille du midi, a pointy bit right next to Mont Blanc and surprisingly high in its own right.

At the top of the gondola there are some interesting views and the start of the Valley Blanche ski adventure, where crazy people can be guided around cliffs and glacial crevasses for over 20 kilometers of potentially fatal, but fun skiing. As a snowboarder, I begged off, in hopes of being able to kill myself later on the regular ski hills.

I’m pretty jaded, being old and curmudgeonly, but I admit to being quite impressed with the views from over 12000 feet. I’ve never been that high without being told to keep my seatbelt on until we reach our cruising altitude.

12602 feet above sea level
Mont Blanc 
Some other mountain and the start of the Valley Blanche.

Mer de Glace - it used to be bigger.

We followed up that experience with a short train ride up another valley to see an ice cave in the Mer de Glace, a receding valley glacier (France's largest). For those of you who are climate change theory deniers, feel free to check this out. Nothing says ‘warming’ better than standing next to the ‘Ice level in 2003’ sign while hovering 100 meters above the current ice level of a glacier 7 km long and ½ km across. The advantage of a receding glacier, if you can call it that, is the occasional melt-water cave exposes itself, and somebody can turn it into a tourist attraction.

Girl on ice - inside a glacier. Cool?

The next few days were all about skiing. These ski hills tend to get you above the tree line where the snow is good and the visibility is great, unless it isn’t. We had three days of the former, and one of the latter. All told, pretty good.

A couple of the adjustments we had to make from our experiences in North America:

1. Each ski hill defines only 5 or 6 actual runs on a map, which they groom, and everything else is regarded as “off piste”. Apparently, breaking your neck off piste gets no sympathy from, and more importantly, no attention from the ski patrol. That being said, we spent essentially all of our time off piste. The snow was so good, skiing on the groomed runs felt like doing jumping jacks while the hot new zumba instructor (gender left to the imagination and orientation of the reader) was running a class across the hall.

2. I had been told getting onto a chair lift in Europe was like trying to get rush seats at a Who concert. Fortunately, we never had to find out as the crowds were quite light. We never had to wait more than a couple of chairs, on those occasions when we chose not to take a gondola. Now, before everyone gets too excited about the good manners and sportsmanship of our European brethren, I’ll tell you the buses were a different matter. Free buses ran up and down the valley all day such that one could go to different hills over the course of the day, or get back to town at the end of the day. So, at the end of each and every day, watching a few hundred fully-equipped skiers and snowboarders squeeze into a bus, was … a study in human nature.  When the doors opened it was every man for himself, as seats were worth pushing your own mother down or elbowing an obviously pregnant woman. If you failed to get a seat, you could spend the 20-minute ride without touching the floor of the bus, such was the crush. At times I imagined myself riding the Tokyo subway at rush hour.

Above the trees, and the clouds (elevation: 10400 ft).
The shear magnitude of skiable terrain on these ski hills is breathtaking. We spent three days on the Grand Montet and never came close to getting bored with it. I would argue it is as big as Whistler although entirely above the tree-line. And, there are four more hills on the same bus route. Granted, I believe the other hills are a bit smaller. And, speaking about above the tree line, the one not-so-good day we had involved going all the way to the top of the Flegere ski hill just as the whole valley disappeared in the clouds. Sadly, we were the only ones at the top of the hill when this happened and had to rely on the spotty signage to find our way down. There is no question about that being the worst whiteout conditions I have ever experienced. Every time we stopped to discuss directions, or the likelihood of cliffs, or simply dying of exposure, I would fall over because there was nothing to tell me which way was up or down until I hit something. Fortunately, the clouds cleared for the next day and we were back on the Grands Montet, still finding good snow.

Definitely not 'on piste'. Yes, that is a glacier at the bottom.
Before the whiteout.
As an aside, I heard so many different languages being spoken on the various bus rides, I began to think we had inadvertently joined a UN-sponsored symposium on ski resort water quality (don’t get me started on the UN). Chamonix is a truly international tourist destination.  

The town itself is typical of any ski resort town, complete with plenty of stores to capture the tourist dollar, and a wide variety of expensive eating establishments.

Mont Blanc, from outside our apartment.
All told, I could probably be talked into visiting Chamonix again next year.