Friday, October 30, 2009

Day 34 - All Ruins All The Time

Hey Team,

Headed 25 minutes down the road from Avignon (I'm staying here and making day trips elsewhere) via train to the town of Arles.  It's famous for it's Roman ruins and for being the place where Van Gogh lived and was eventually committed.  This is a bit more of a blue collar town, but I liked the feel of it. Grittier but a lot of personality.  It is also on the Rhone River, and I got some nice shots of my 4 or 5 hours here.

No, this is not THE Coliseum (that's coming soon), but it is the first Roman Ruin like this that I've seen.  I'm sure once I see Rome, this will be small potatoes, but after the day I had at the Pont du Gard, I'm on this antiquity kick so you're going to have to look at it.

Just a detail shot of how well the structure has held up after 2000 years.  A little paint and I think you could have yourself a nice little fixer upper.

At the museum close by I got a shot of some beautiful mosaics that researchers have been able to reassemble.  As you may know, mosaics are not paintings, but thousands of tiny pebbles or specially cut rocks that are put together to form the image.  This was a popular form of art in ancient Rome.

Here's a shot of the skyline in Arles.  That's the Rhone you're looking at in the middle left.  This is "downtown" by the way, hence that skyscraper in the middle.

Back inside the Amphitheater (i.e. the Coliseum).  For those of you who went, you can see that even after a couple of millennia and no electricity, the tunnels leading up to the stands are still brighter than their counterparts at Old Yankee Stadium.

Stroll up on this in some small backwoods East Texas town and you have an "eyesore".  Do it Arles, and you have to pay $10 to get within 20 yards of it.  Maybe these French folks are on to something here. . .

In all seriousness, what we are looking at is the Roman theater in Arles where they held various plays, etc.  It actually was buried through the centuries, but over the last couple hundred years or so, they've found it and excavated.  Not much left other than the seats and the columns, but still, pretty neat.

After my fun filled day in Arles, I headed back for my last night in Avignon.  In the evening I strolled around the main square and took some shots of their very nice main square, Place de L'Horlage.  I can't remember for sure, but I think this is town hall.  Seemed very French looking so it made the blog.

Here's another shot of the square.

So I went out on a high note in France as my last night in the country also yielded my best meal at this resaurant called l 'Epicerie.  Scallops, sun dried tomatoes, and butter with mashed potatoes.  Even I couldn't say no to that..

Tomorrow I have a brief stop in another little Roman town before I make my way to Espana and Barcelona.  Till then. . .

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Day 33 - Rome in France

Hey everyone,

After most of yesterday on a train, I am back to seeing the sights on my own two feet.  Welcome to Provence, a region in the southern part of France, and more specifically today, the city of Avignon.  This little town has quite a bit of history attached to it as it is the only place other than Rome that a Pope has ruled from.  From the early 1300's to the early 1400's the head of the Catholic Church (and toward the end of this time, one of the "heads" of the Catholic church) resided in Avignon.  This was done for political reasons of course and also because of the instability of the Italian states at the time.  Eventually, this mini schism of sorts ended and everything went back to the way it was, but during that time, you were looking at the focal point of Christnedom here in this little town.

If you're going to have a Pope living in your town, then you apparently can't have him staying at the local inn.  To rectify this situation, the Pope's Palace was built. This is a portion of this rather large fortification/bachelor pad (the ultimate bachelor pad btw).

It was a cool building, but I'm afraid somebody forgot to call the interior decorator.  For a good hour plus I walked through room after room that looked mostly like this.  For 10 euro I was hoping for something a bit more.  Like here for instance; is it just me or would bumper cars be the perfect solution?  You could put the faces of the French Popes and the Italian Popes (at some point there were two, thus the mini schism) on the cars and they could go after each other.  It would be educational plus entertaining.

This was one of the three shots that had something in it besides stone and mortar so I had to include it.  If you look closely, you'll even notice a vague hint of color.  I felt so spoiled taking this shot.  In the palaces defense, I will say they had a very good audioguide.

After leaving the Palace behind I went to this spot immediately outside of the building.  This is the Pont Saint-Benezet which is a bridge that used to (only goes halfway across now) span the Rhone River that runs through town.  This unexpectedly turned out to be the highlight of Avignon.  I got on this bridge, and for the first time on the trip I felt like it could have been 1000 years ago.  Almost everything in view (except the cars of course) looked like something out of the history books.  It was very cool.  Little did I know that later in the day I'd have this sensation magnified by 100.

Here's a shot of me on the bridge.  In the background is the Pope's Palace and the new cathedral.  Apparently the folks in Rome where not real pleased with the town for taking away their leader, so they intentionally made the huge statue of Mary (you can see it up top) intentionally taller than the highest point on the palace, just to let them know they were back in the driver's seat.

After this, I headed out of town and caught a bus to one of the most famous Roman ruins outside of Italy:  The Pont du Gard.  It is part of a 30 mile long aquaduct that the Romans built to supply water to the Provencial town of Nimes nearly 2000 years ago.  This part is a bridge section that they had to construct to span the Gardon River.  For over 150 years, this structure supplied up to 5 million gallons of clean drinking water a day to it's intended destinations.  To give you an idea of it's size, it is the 2nd highest remaining Roman Ruin on the planet (the Coliseum is just 6 feet taller).

Here it is.  The water runs along the top sections and the lower arches support a bridge for walking across.  I was impressed with it just from appearance, but I went through what may have been the best smaller museum I've seen over here, and came away in amazed at the technological innovation and skill that the Roman engineers employed to build it.  Over 30 miles, the drop in hight from start to end is a mere 40 feet.  No GPS, no computers, just lots of ingenious mathematical and engineering savvy that would soon be lost for a thousand years with the coming Dark Ages.

Here's a shot to give you an idea of the size.  That's a kiddo playing directly underneath it.

This was a cool point in the day. We were allowed to go down to the river bank (people even jump in if they want), so I just headed down, found a comfy rock, and listened to the current and admired the view.  Ever since I was a little kid, I've loved Greek and Roman history and seeing this fine example up close has been one of the highlights of the trip.

This is what I'm talking about.  Even from this shot you can see how easy it would be to not for sure know what year it is plus or minus a couple of millenia.

Tomorrow is more Roman ruins in Provence.  See you then.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Day 32 - A Golden Day On The Golden Pass Train

Hey everyone,

Well today, I come down from the mountains and spend the day hanging out on a train.  But not just any train. The Golden Pass Panoramic Train from Interlaken to Montreux, Switzerland.  This supposedly is one of the most scenic rides in all of Switzerland so I was really excited to be going.  Additionally, I was very excited to be sitting after my little jaunt around the mountainside yesterday.

I don't know why, but this was the best day of the trip for me so far.  It's not that the events were any better than a lot of the others, but for some reason I was just really happy today.  Don't get me wrong, I've been happy the whole trip, but this was one of those "can't wipe the grin off your face" times.  Really awesome.  It was just me, a little OAR on the MP3 player, and some of the prettiest mountain scenery I've ever seen.  Perfect.

Before this moment of locomotive bliss, however, I had a couple of hours to kill.  So I spent it wandering around the most expensive city I've ever been to: Interlaken.

Don't get me wrong, it's a beautiful town, but when  a plate of spaghetti costs $25 (and I looked around for something cheaper believe me) it's not ridiculous to assume you might be a bit too proud of your product.  Still, there's no doubt it's got a couple of things going for it.

After a few hours, it was time to hit the train.  The trip was broken into two parts.  The first part was from Interlaken to this town called Zweisimmen, which was the first couple of shots here.  The last part to Montreux was where they make there money though.  Apologies for the glare.  These were panoramic trains, but they still had windows so I had to do the best I could.

I'm really struggling with how to make a smarta-- comment about mountains, so for this post (and just this one I promise) I will forgo trying to futilely entertain you while I show you pictures.  Enjoy the break and the scenery.

So this was the highlight of the day and the trip so far.  This was just before we arrived in Montreux, which is on Lake Geneva.  This picture doesn't even come close to doing the moment justice, but it was kind of cloudy and dusk was approaching, and you could see the city on the bank of the lake in the foreground and the mountains behind it.  Then out of nowhere comes that "Light from Above" sun beam in the middle of the shot.  Such a beautiful and peaceful moment.  I think this is what I want Heaven to look like.

So after we arrived in Montreux, I hopped another train to head for the Provence region of South France.

Here's a brief taste of what's to come over the next several days.  This is a shot leaving Monteux and heading to Geneva.  Time to leave the cold behind and start experiencing a little bit of the Mediterranean.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Day 31 - Down The Mountain, Up The Mountain. Result: Same Spot I Started. Smart.

Hey Team,

So today I decided to try out my my mountain man skills and do a bit of hiking.  I had planned on doing all of this by myself, but as I said, I ran into three guys at the hostel and we decided to do the morning hike together.  They were catching a train out of town in the afternoon so from there I would head back to Gimmelwald solo.  I hadn't really hung out with any guys for an extended period of time on the trip so it was a nice change of pace for me.  Our path was basically the reverse of how I got to Gimmelwald except there would be no lifts or buses.  We would hike it.

The day was split into thirds essentially.  First part was a 2000 foot hike down to a town called Stechelberg, followed by a nice little walk on the valley floor to Lauterbrunnen where I would leave the other guys, and then a nice strong finish up 2000 feet to a town called Murren at which point I would take a lift back to Gimmelwald.

So here was the first thing that I saw as I walked out of the hostel.  It's a tough life, but I'm willing to sacrifice so you don't have to go through what is obviously nothing less than pure hell over here.

I think I take back what I said yesterday about the Christmas Card.  We may have a new name on the leaderboard here.

So we started our decent down the mountain.  Here's what I was wearing:  blue jeans, my jacket and fleece, and a pair of walking shoes.  Now this was perfectly adequate for what I was doing, but it turns out it was a bit icy in spots and the grade on this decline was not exactly a nice leisurely stroll.  So what I thought was going to be the easier part of the hike turned out to be one of the hardest parts.  Going back up was more exhausting, but this part was a bit more hazardous due to that whole gravity thing threatening to send me face first onto a step a few feet below me.  Glad to say that after a good hour to an hour and a half, we made it down the mountain.  I'm doubly happy to report that I made it through without incident and we were rewarded with this amazing view of the valley floor. That's Stechelburg in the foreground.

After we made it down, the easy part of the trip started, which was a 2 hour walk along the valley floor to the next town of Lauterbrunnen.  This is just another beautiful shot of the mountain range.

Hallelujah!! Flat Ground!!

The next three are just more pretty shots of our walk including a waterfall that's over a quarter mile high.

After about two hours, we made it to Lauterbrunnen where we rewarded ourselves with nutella and raspberry jam sandwiches, paprika flavored potato chips (not bad actually), and cold crisp water that the city pumps out continuously from the mountain springs.

Here's a shot of my 3 new buds and me from Left to Right:

Josh, Eric, me, and Greg

Learned a lot from these guys about hiking and climbing while we were going, not to mention just enjoyed hanging out.  Had a blast fellas and really enjoyed the day.  All the best going forward.

At this point, we parted ways and I began my ascent back up.  I was a little fatigued but I really wanted to do this part so I headed back to the mountain.  Worked out fine in the end but it was definitely a work out.  For about an hour and a half or more this was my view.

If you see my pictures from the day, there will be several like this.  Why?  Well, I had to justify stopping somehow.  I'd see a tree stump and say, "That looks important.  I probably should take a picture."  This happened ever 45 seconds or so.

I'm sure you've noticed, but the photos are alternating between snow and this.  It never snowed while I was there, but the higher up we went, the more likely we were to see the white stuff that had fallen previous to my arrival.  This was obviously lower to the valley.

So after an hour or so, I came to a clearing on the mountain and got to see this.  That's the Eiger, Monch, and Jungfrau from yesterday.  Beautiful.  I found a nice rock and just enjoyed the views for about 10 minutes.  One of the best moments of the day for sure.

Here's a detail shot of a glacier that's on the Jungfrau. You can tell it's a glacier by the bluish tint that the ice has.  I don't know if you can see it here, but most of the peaks have a couple of these hanging out near the top.

So once I got to the clearing, I was under the impression that I was finishing up.  Oh how wrong I was.  Turns out the hardest part was coming up.  The first leg was going up but at least there was no snow and ice.  This part was basically the same thing but with the white stuff.  Don't get me wrong it was beautiful (as you can see), but it was a little slower going as I had to watch my footing.

This was what the path looked like.  Thankfully the snow was there because it was much easier to get my footing as opposed to the bare rock which was icy.  When I finished, I was never so glad to see concrete in my life.

I made it from the valley to Murren in about 2:15 which was not bad I thought.  For people who hike on a regular basis this probably was not too intense of a day, but considering I don't need all my fingers to count the number of times I've seen snow, combined with my propensity to spontaneously fall down, I was happy with the effort.

The scenery was absolutely gorgeous and I had a great day on the mountainside.  Very rewarding part of the trip and now I can say I've hiked in the Alps.  After 5 or 6 hours of doing this, it's safe to say I slept fairly well that night.

Tomorrow I take a scenic train from Interlaken to a little town called Montreaux on the East Bank of Lake Geneva.  See you then. . .

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Day 30 - The Alps - They Were OK, If You Like That Sort Of Stuff

Greetings from Switzerland Everyone,

Time to switch things up a bit as I leave the cities and towns for the mountains of the Berner Oberland in the Swiss Alps.  I hopped a night train to Zurich from Vienna and then from there to Interlaken, Switzerland.  I'm staying at this very small village up in the Alps called Gimmelwald.  Wait till you see these pictures.  Now to each their own, but you could stay in Interlaken for $250 a night and have a couple of more amenities or you could come up to close to 5,000 feet above sea level and get the views that I had for $25.  You're choice entirely but just so you know, there is only one right answer and it's not the former.

In addition to the beautiful scenery I was in fine form today as I had not one but two Classic Kenny Moments all before noon.  This may be some kind of record, even for me.

So here's a shot on the train from Zurich to Interlaken.  I've said it before, but it bares repeating.  Looking out my train window and seeing this immediately reminds me of home.  Uncanny the similarities that we see here.

So here's Classic Kenny Moment #4.  After the train dropped me off in Interlaken, I had to take another train, a bus, and then a lift to get up to Gimmelwald.  This is the bus portion of the ride.  If you'll remember from the Day 0 post, I have a very heavy bag and a small day pack that goes everywhere with me.  Obviously these aren't just heavy but big as well.  So I always try to get one of them stowed.  I was sitting on the left so I tried to put it over my head.  Well the bin above me was really really small so I naturally looked to the right.  There was tons of room over there so I went that way.  Well, I don't know if it's clear from the picture, but the reason there is so much more space is because there isn't a rack over there, just that red bar that people who aren't sitting hold onto.  Well you can imagine my surprise (as well as the very understanding older man who ended up wearing my day pack on his head) when I put my bag over the bar and let go only to watch it plummet to the ground.  Nothing better than apologizing profusely to someone in a language they don't understand in front of a whole bunch of strangers (he was fine btw).  I quickly went back to my seat and stared out the window for the rest of the bus ride.  Yes everybody, I am your representative to the world.  Rest easy Houston, you're in good hands.

Here's the view from my hostel.  I don't think I would have picked another place to stay in Switzerland.  Years ago, some very savvy locals had Gimmelwald declared an avalanche zone (it's not, but they pulled the right government strings) which effectively killed any plans for somebody from the outside to proceed with any commercial ventures.  Without a doubt, this is the village out of the storybooks folks.

This is a common sight around here.  The Interlaken region and the surrounding mountainside are popular destinations for thrill seekers.  These are paragliders but this is also a popular place to base jump as well.  Unfortunately I didn't get to see anybody doing that.

So a cool story followed by Classic Kenny Moment #5.  I had just  checked in to the Mountain Hostel, and decided I would go up to one of the highest peaks on this range, The Schilthorn (close to 10,000 feet elevation).  Well, I'm not going to hike that, so I planned on going up the lifts.  While I'm waiting, a couple of girls come up to buy tickets as well.  I could tell they were American so I asked them where they were from.  Not only was one of them from Houston, but she works at Methodist, the same hospital I work at!  They were both Dietitians who did their graduate work at Texas Womens' University in Houston.  Unbelievable.  Never seen her before in my life, and I run into her in Gimmelwald, Switzerland.

Well obviously, we were all pretty excited to bump into each other, so we talked right until the lift got there.  Turns out they were leaving to go home, but somehow I had the impression that they were going up the mountain before doing so (they weren't).  Well, we were so busy chatting, that I hopped on the same lift as them completely oblivious to the fact that there is a separate lift for going up and going down. You really want to make sure you are going the direction you want to because, at least on this mountain, there are no rocket packs to shoot you back the right way if you head down the wrong one like I did.  Of course I realized what was happening about 10 seconds after the door closed and the lift started moving.  Thus the most recent hour of my life that I will never get back.  Here's a pictorial representation for all you other future first timers.  On the plus side, we did get to talk for an extra 10 minutes and I will never make that mistake again.  Great meeting you ladies.

So eventually, I made it up the mountain to the Schilthorn.  It was a crystal clear day so I felt good about deciding to do this today.  You could see forever.  Here's some shots from nearly 2 miles up. .

Here's a shot of me in front of the big three peaks:  (from left to right) The Eiger, The Monch, and the Big Momma herself, Jungfrau.  All of these are over 13,000 feet up and the highest point in Europe reachable by train is on the Jungfrau.  You'll be seeing these three a few more times over the next couple of days.

Another shot in a different direction from the panoramic viewing deck.

After that, I came back down and did a bit of hiking around Gimmelwald for a couple of hours.  Here's a couple of shots.

Here's your next Christmas Card.  For a small fee, I'm willing to provide each of you with the rights to use this very professional looking shot.

Lots of brooks and streams and things running through here.  Made the experience even better.

When I went back to the hostel, I ran into three other guys and we decided to do a hike the next day.  Tune in to see how it went.  Later. . .