Tuesday, February 12, 2008

One last day in Geneva

Wow, tired! What apres-ski? We're not even snowboarding anymore but with all the walking we've done each day I still find myself ready for bed in the middle of dinner each evening. Not a good idea to nod off into a bowl of spaghetti.... Today is our last full day in Geneva, heck it's our last full day in Europe for this trek! Hard to believe it's been nearly two weeks but I'm almost out of clean clothes again so I guess I'd better go home tomorrow. Laundry is expensive here.
Today I am off on foot to explore Geneva some while the other three go get Dalrene new leathers for her bike. Since we're staying somewhat toward one end of the waterfront, I walked down with the others to the middle where the lake drains into the river. It's quite fast moving water which is a little unnerving but it's very clear and beautiful too. I didn't take the time to test the temperature. On our way, we went out on a pier to explore some more where we found some neat bathing pools and a lovely stone beach with nice views of the city and the lake. It wasn't cold enough for the lake to have frozen so there were lots of boats still moored to buoys and docks. I wandered around to the other side of the waterfront to see for myself more closely the famed Jet d'Eau. It's got some neat history to it and reaches an impressive height of 140m with 500 litres of water coming out of the nozzle every second at about 200 kph.

Having some time to myself and time to kill, I took to the side streets without my map to drink in the sights and sounds of this great place. Most everywhere you turn there's something neat to see. I'm rather a fan of carvings and other neat architectural features and was never disappointed at how much of that I found in Geneva. Neat little balconys, details above doorways, dates carved into buildings, gorgeous clocks on towers, you name it. It's not everyone's cup of tea but it made me happy. Soon I found myself back in Old Geneva so I settled down to wait for the slowpokes to join me for lunch by the cafes in the square. After a bite to eat and a hot chocolate for me, we headed off to the Patek Philippe museum. For those like me who profess to know very little about watches, this is a VERY lovely museum (the kind with marble everywhere for example) of VERY expensive and ultra chichi time pieces. Some of them date back to the 16th century with the company itself dating back to 1839. We all got a lot out of our visit and actually left Tony there because he enjoyed it so much.

Back in Old Geneva, we entered an Anglican church which was rather remarkable from the outside because of its many architectural styles. It would appear (my memory is faulty so I can't cite fact) as though each addition through the years was done in a different style for some reason. Very odd looking but quite beautiful inside. Soaring ceilings, immense pillars, gorgeous stained glass windows, enormous pipe organ in an upper loft, endless rows of pews. We ducked into a room off to the side and found the most lovely decor with fun painted ceilings, neat carvings, a smaller organ, heavy drapes and much colour. I really enjoyed our visit there although there was a sign by the entrance asking people not to enter the church during religious services. Maybe it was geared toward atheists?

Some goofing around on a playground adjacent to the church resulting in me feeling very dizzy after the comasickadizzawhirl and a near miss with a puddle on the teeter totter with Sean. Dalrene had a great time watching that one develop. Some more photos and we're off to Manor for last minute chocolate shopping and purchasing of extra luggage with which to drag it all home (NOT me for the record). We scrounged one last dinner at the train station then it was back to our unheated and strangely scented room for the final packing. This took some choreography as our room was not that big but eventually we got it done and turned in for the night, knowing how horribly early the alarm was set for.

Do people seriously rise at 4am on purpose? I thought this was a vacation! Oh right, we've a train to catch. Quick ablutions and linen stripping, then it was load-yourself-like-a-camel time. Off we stumbled and staggered to the train station, groaning under the weight of our luggage. One quick train ride later and it was check-in time at the airport. Only one person had to pay extra for their obese baggage weight but I won't name names. We had an interesting time at security when Sean realized that the coconut body wash he'd bought had been packed in his snowboarding helmet which happened to be in my carry on. It's still in Switzerland although one bottle made it back in the regular luggage. All too soon we were boarding our plane and bidding a fond farewell to a great country and a fantastic trip! Hope to see you again soon :)

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Goodbye Zermatt, Hello Geneva~!

U2 sings a song called "Sunday Bloody Sunday" and although we had to get up early on our last Sunday overseas, it was a great day. Bidding a fond farewell to our funky smelling room after our same old breakfast (milk, orange juice, 4 kinds of cereal, 4 kinds of yogurt, rock hard butter, 2 kinds of bread, 4 kinds of jam, stale cheese, 3 kinds of mystery meat: repeat for 10 days), we loaded ourselves like mules and staggered down the steps and slopes into town. Did I really bring this much stuff??!! Unfortunately we just missed the train to Geneva so we settled down amongst our heavy belongings in the cold morning light to wait nearly an hour for the next one. A near miss of our connecting train in Visp caused some brief adrenaline highs but soon we arrived back in Geneva where we'd landed nearly two weeks previously. A bright sunny day greeted us with blue skies everywhere. Heads down in concentration (and pain?), we gritted our teeth and dragged everything to the hostel. Since we couldn't have our room for another few hours (they closed during the day for cleaning), we chucked our luggage in lockers and headed out on foot to take in the sights and sounds of a great city.

There's so much to see and do in Geneva that our 3-ish days weren't nearly enough but knowing how much I really wanted to see the two headed turtle, Sean steered our group to the Museum of Natural History. We stopped at the Museum of Art and History on the way to get directions then were pleasantly surprised at the Natural History one to discover that admission was free because it was the first Sunday of the month. Sweet! These people are smart. Sure enough, I got to see my turtle and after a few hours (plus a visit to the gift shop of course), we were ready to move on. http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2007/09/photogalleries/wip-week45/

From floral clocks to the Jet d'Eau, museums everywhere to Old Geneva, Botanical Gardens, high end shopping, watches, chocolates, government, whew! This place needs a repeat visit, hopefully in the near future. As it were, we found ourselves in the old town with neat cobblestone narrow streets, aged buildings, an immense church and a most excellent spaghetti house. It was here that we imbibed in only our second non-hostel dinner since arriving in my favourite country and the food was great! Having discovered that, of the 4 of us, I possessed the lengthiest exposure to the French language, I would be oft enlisted to help translate both written and spoken French over the next few days. People in Geneva speak primarily French (not surprising given their extreme proximity to France) while those in Zermatt spoke mostly German although they were virtually at the Italian border. Needless to say to those who are worried, English is widely understood and spoken too. Failing that, charades usually work. Satiated and sleepy, we wandered back to our hostel and tried to get the heat working in our room. The people in there now are probably still trying....

Our first full day in Geneva was a bit of a mixed bag. First thing in the morning we faced pouring rain and nearly the same breakfast as Zermatt but we were determined to enjoy ourselves anyway. Donning our best game faces, we set out in the Vancouver weather to get our tour of the United Nations. This was something we were all excited about and it was awesome! Our window of opportunity was small as many museums and public places are closed on Mondays. We lucked out with the U.N. and lined up to get through security while dripping puddles of water on the nice floors. First things first, we killed time in the gift shop (I'm turning into my mother) then set out with our tour guide for a behind the scenes look at one of the most guarded places I've ever been. Such history, such responsibility, such importance, such a nice shade of blue, such expansive use of marble...... amazing! I learned a lot and really enjoyed myself. Even the bathrooms were great.

We'd planned to tackle the Red Cross museum across the street next but after photo ops around the U.N. and at the entrance to the Red Cross museum, we opted to explore the gift shop then go our separate ways. Maybe next time... I set off for the Botanical Gardens while the other 3 headed toward downtown for some exploring of their own. Having been to a great Botanical Gardens in Montreal last July, I had to tell myself that the expansive areas of grey and brown in front of me would be gorgeous in the summer but that as it was only February, I would have to be content exploring the greenhouses. I did see some really pretty set ups and some great flowers indoors. I'd love to go back sometime in the warmer months to see more outdoor plantings. Detouring behind the World Trade Organization building, I set off along the lake under overcast skies to meet the others at the comic book store. Here was a place that sold (among other things) Tintin memorabilia and books, something that has a special meaning in my life. I was happy to peruse the French titles and be flooded with memories by the pictures inside. Heading over to the Manor store (department store with groceries and a restaurant), we got ourselves some yummy pizza for dinner and made good use of the chocolate department. The solution tonight for our heater not working was extra blankets from the front desk.....

Italian attempt number two

While I don't often have "goals" when on vacation, this trip had a few things I wished to accomplish, among which were to ride my snowboard Luna down to Breuil-Cervinia in Italy as well as see the two-headed turtle in Geneva. More on the turtle later.

Saturday, Feb 2 was a momentous day. Not only was it Darlene's birthday (age withheld due to fear of retribution) but it was our final full day in Zermatt. This meant I had one last chance to haul my aching self over the hills and back again. Crack all the age jokes you want but after 5 days of snowboarding at high altitudes, accumulating more mileage than the 3 previous seasons combined not to mention equipment issues, I had a bit of trepidation when we set out. Once we found ourselves at Trockner Steg, Sean opted for the killer T bar lift (having had more experience on it previously than us, he was better able to stay on it) while Darlene, Tony and I took the gondola up to Matterhorn Glacier Paradise, from which we would ride down to meet Sean at Plateau Rosa.

What's that saying about the best laid plans? Ours went slightly awry which put some damper on the day unfortunately. Since the run from MGP started off as a long flat section which we hated, the three of us opted to carry our boards until we reached the start of the inclines. As we set out, we decided to detour to a door set in the snow down the side of the run that we'd noticed on our previous passes. Inside we discovered a long passageway in the ice which led down to a grotto. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Grotto Believe it or not, just walking down the passageway caused shortness of breath. We were all feeling the altitude at this point, being more than 12,000 ft above sea level. We explored the ice cave for a while, taking in the warning signs, information about ice fleas (disgusting!) and admiring the ice sculptures. Hiking back to the entrance and panting rather heavily, we rested until able to set out once again along that horrid flat section. Darlene and Tony stopped for some binding field repair at one point so I went ahead to find Sean and a bathroom. Unfortunately we'd taken much longer than we'd planned which kept Sean and his sore leg waiting a rather long time in the cold. In the end, he headed back to Trockner Steg, Darlene went over to Gornergrat to find souvenirs while Tony and I decided we would make an attempt at Italy, this time taking a different route from my last visit over the border.

Off we went along a ridge with some rather steep sections and sharp turns. Neither of us was rushing terribly as we were ok for time and wanted to avoid injury, not to mention we were pretty beat up and tired. At one point I got ahead of Tony and, wanting to rest for a bit, flung myself into the snow at the side of the run, only to discover with a horrible grinding sound that it was rocky underneath the white stuff. This made my landing rather painful when my posterior hit the ground. I directed Tony elsewhere when he caught up to me. Luna has a few new gouges now but she's ok. We got to ride around the edge of a reservoir/lake and down into the trees. Luckily the runs are pretty well marked so we didn't have too much trouble navigating along with the trail map. Stopping for breaks frequently now and to happily let the gaggles of skiiers go by, we gradually made our way lower and lower. Soon we were scraping our way down a nasty icy part then success! we were at the bottom in Breuil-Cervinia, Italy! It was a long arduous journey with some hard painful crashes but totally worth it in the end.

One of the first strange things we noticed was that the village being built on the other side of the parking lot looked a lot like Whistler or Blue Mountain. They're of course modelled after the European style but it didn't look like back in Zermatt. Then there were all the vehicles haphazardly parked every which way in the parking area. During our stay in Zermatt, we'd gotten accustomed to not seeing many vehicles and mostly just the little truck ones so it was weird to see all these cars at the bottom of a ski hill. Nevertheless, we took some photos and staggered toward the gondolas which would take us back to Plateau Rosa. When we arrived back to Trockner Steg in Switzerland to get the gondola down, who should we encounter but Darlene? That girl is everywhere! Back at the hostel it was time to shed our equipment and commence the arduous task of repacking everything in preparation for an early departure to Geneva the next morning. Not wanting to lug any further our remaining groceries which we'd been refrigerating on the window sill of our room, we had some dinner and midnight snacks before calling it a night.

Note to self: update blog more frequently!

They say that hindsight is 20/20 so I'm hoping that writing this part after my return to Canada will go smoothly using said hindsight. Maybe my lime herbal tea will help.

Friday was our second-to-last full day in Zermatt. Since our ski passes allowed us use of the gondolas for 8 out of our 10 days there, Sean and Tony decided to fit in another day of toboganning. Still leery and bruised from my last (literal) run-in with Darlene on sleds, I opted to use the day for emails and photo-taking while she headed into Zermatt for a day on foot. I also sneaked in a bit more sleep time, sometimes difficult to do while sharing a room with 3 other people on different schedules. We won't talk about the snoring.

Since Sean had brought his laptop, we were hopeful for "easy" Internet (Wi-Fi) connection at will. This would not be the case as we soon found out. After an evening of huddling with the laptop on a bench in the cold at the side of a road downtown, across from a packed bar (with free but dreadfully slow wi-fi) full of drunken singing Europeans, we searched for another solution. Granted, the hostel had internet but we didn't want to pay every time if we didn't have to. Another bar and some recycling bins provided temporary fixes until I realized that the phone booths behind the garbage outside the bar would not only provide shelter from the elements but would also allow us a little more discretion and a place to rest the computer. Thus I managed to upload a few photos and post my blog that day, all thanks to Swiss Telecom in a way. You kind of had to be there...

I had wanted to go back up to Gonergrat to take some more photos and since Sean and Tony were up that way sledding, I arranged to meet them at one of the train stations. Since it's two gondolas to get to that station, this meant I had plenty of time to myself, just me and my camera. This must be how I ended up with 1000+ photos from the trip. Got to experiment with my colour settings, try the zoom some more, sing whatever I felt like, look at butterflies, etc. The second gondola I was on ended up being full of Brits plus me. After declining a candy from an old man (yikes! although he seemed harmless), I endured the pompous posturing of the gondola rooster. British, male, older, and skiier. Note at this point I was on foot without any indication of my winter sport preference. He proceeded to "entertain" us with his personal perspectives on blah and blah and blah, then the conversation turned to snowboarders who he condescendingly denounced as "gays on trays". Honestly, I felt so loved as I bit my tongue and found fascination out the window. Jerk.

When I finally caught up to them, Sean and Tony were covered in snow but having a blast on their sleds. Since they had a better knack for staying on them than did I, it's probably just as well it was them against each other. Sean had even taken up riding the sled on his belly, hurtling down the mountain face first which sounded like a lot of fun although I'm certain I would have injured myself somehow. There was plenty of chatter about stuff like run times being cut down and extreme cornering. I got a few photos but the clouds had come in, bringing along a biting wind which I hadn't entirely dressed for so we opted out of Gornergrat and headed back to Zermatt.

Friday, February 1, 2008

I may not be in the tropics but it's warmer here than back home!

So last I wrote Sean, Tony and I were beginning our first full day off since arriving here. Darlene had taken off with her snowboard to find more Canadians and we three headed into town. She seems to have acquired a knack for travelling partway around the world, only to meet people from back home. This has been attributed to the Canadian habits of being polite and speaking to strangers whereas a lot of the other people we are encountering are rather gruff or silent to us, perhaps due to language barriers. So far D has met a family from Toronto, two guys from the GTA, a woman from Waterloo and who knows who else? A pretty low key day was spent by the rest of us. We did some shopping and browsing, got my new snowboarding tool engraved and bought a few more groceries. I love the milk here!! It’s so delicious and creamy and hey, it does a body good. We found the post office too. Did you know you can mail chocolate bars to people? I don’t mean you go to a store, buy a chocolate bar, wrap it up and put postage on it. Nope, instead they have a rack of chocolate bars (100g) with packaging that includes an area to put postage, an address section and a part to write a message. Are these people smart or what? Sorry but I should warn you now that I’m too cheap to send any of these. Coming out of the post office involved some unplanned hilarity. Sean, who was exiting ahead of me, provoked a little yappy dog tied up outside the door but got no reaction so he carried on. As I blithely followed him out the door, the dog took one look at me and began to yap hysterically, causing me to shriek loudly in alarm and leap a foot off the ground, much to the complete amusement of Tony behind me.

Our day of R&R also included a trip to the Matterhorn Museum which is not only located underground in Zermatt but is also very informative and interesting. They’ve designed it as something of an archaeological dig under a little square by the church where you turn left and a bank where I opened my Swiss account to use as a tax shelter. Oops, inside voice. The exterior of the museum is something of a glass dome which contains a gift shop (hey Mum, a gift shop!) and some lockers, then you descend underneath to begin exploring. Upon closer inspection from outside, the dome is actually shaped like the Matterhorn. Unlike a lot of museums I’ve been to, this one had a lot of stuff you could touch which was great. We learned things like an awful lot of people have died trying to climb the Matterhorn and nearby peaks, that Theodore Roosevelt likened his ascent and descent of the Matterhorn to climbing up and down stairs on his hands and knees for 9 hours, that the railway to get to Zermatt came about in 1891, that winter visitors weren’t common in Zermatt until the railway started operating in the winter more than 20 years later. We also learned that the number of visitors to Zermatt dropped dramatically during both world wars, and that the oldest person to climb the Matterhorn was 92 at the time. One of the features we’ve been noticing here is that most of the barns and outbuildings are built off the ground. This in itself isn’t terribly dramatic, especially if you’ve been to Cape Hatteras, N.C. for example. However, the part that interested us was the use of large slabs of stone as part of the pilings on which the structures are built. Think of it as similar to putting up a bird feeder on a pole and below the feeder you put an inverted dome around the pole to deter squirrels from raiding the feeders. We learned that these slabs of stone are designed to deter mice from raiding the grains and feeds stored for animals. Slate roofs are also very popular here. The museum taught us that often these roofs will shift during winter under the load of snow and have to be rechecked each spring. A great museum indeed!

On Wednesday, I had been hopeful to take Luna back to Italy but this was not meant to be. The weather was co-operative (albeit viciously windy up top) but my body was not. In order to snowboard over to Italy, one ascends first to an altitude of over 12,000ft by various gondolas, then rides down to a slightly lower altitude stop which is on the border. The top most Glacier Paradise has numerous dire signs posted to warn people about the extreme altitude and to emphasize taking things slowly. My body has been reluctant to adapt to the altitude changes here, mostly resulting in breathlessness and decreased energy at higher altitudes. My boots have also been causing me discomfort and apparently my day off in running shoes was not enough rest. We’re SO not in Kansas anymore! Anyway, to make a long story short, our group managed to get to the lower Plateau Rosa but at that point I decided it would not be a good idea to try and force myself into Italy with painful feet and intermittent shortness of breath. Instead we rode down further to our oft-visited locale at Trockener Stag. This area seems to have runs that suit both Sean’s carving board and our standard all-around boards since the riding styles for the two types are different. This area also provided me an opportunity to try out a T bar lift for the first time. Not to be confused with a beginner hill T bar lift back home, this one is about 2.5 km long which is great if you ski, torture if you ride a snowboard. Skiiers most often don’t mind the T bar lifts because they basically sit on it and admire the scenery while being calmly propelled along. Snowboarders, on the other hand, need to point their boards uphill in the direction the lift is travelling while their bodies torque sideways yet forward to accommodate their riding stance and the complexities of how the lift is designed. Daunting. Not only was Tony nice enough to try and explain to me how to get hold of it but he also forgave my blonde moment with only a few quiet snickers. A polite fellow on a snowboard with a charming British accent who was trying to master the T bar just ahead of us asked (in English) if we spoke English to which I brightly replied, “Yes. Do you?” Sean treated me to a great guffaw when this story was related to him later. Eventually the Brit grabbed hold of a bar and was whisked away. Some whimpering, a few blind misses and then I was being dragged uphill. With one arm keeping the bar in a stranglehold I worked hard at maintaining my precarious balance. Did I mention that one of the runs intersects the T bar towing line? As in the people coming downhill at high rates of speed with varying degrees of control must wend themselves between the people riding the T bar lift. Tony has a good story about that but I’ll save it for another time. First ride up, I fell off about ¼ of the way along. After waiting for Sean and Tony to ride down, it was time to try again. This time we all made it up to the halfway point which was about as far as we could tolerate. A few runs down and we met up with Darlene to begin the trek back to our hostel, always an uphill climb at the end.

Holy cow, it’s already Friday! Soon (too soon) we will be heading back to Canada and reality. First, however, we had a great night out yesterday. Since Sean tends to sleep until noon, Tony, D and I headed up to Rothorn Paradise, located at 3103m for some daytime runs. The first leg of this journey involves another peculiar train system, this time at an angle of about 45 degrees by our best guess. The station where you load is pitched at that angle and you climb up the stairs until you reach a car that you want to enter. The train descends into the pitched station and when the little gates lift, you can enter the cars where you stand and get pulled up the mountain for lack of a more technical explanation. We were hoping to get a car to ourselves but ended up with about 10 of us, including our boards and a baby carriage. Two women got on with the carriage and we were figuring for full. However, as soon as the announcement came that the doors were closing, some Italian man carrying two pairs of skiis decided he needed to wedge himself in our compartment. Crashing his skiis into the doorframe a few times, he barrelled into one of the baby carriage women, repeatedly saying , “Scuzzi” and effectively pushing her companion out the opposite door. Needless to say, his victims did not feel very kindly toward him and the lady he was shoving released a barrage of French invectives as she fought to maintain her balance and not squash her baby. We three rolled our eyes but he remained oblivious to his ignorance. Two more gondolas later and we were through the cloud covering the valley, gazing out in wonder from Rothorn. Earlier in the morning I had been worried that it might not be a good day to ride since it had snowed overnight for the first time since we got here and none of the town was visible from the windows of our hostel at breakfast time due to low lying cloud. From Rothorn there weren’t many choices of runs to try if we wanted to remain in an area with easy gondola accessibility to descend when ready but we chose right and headed off. Did I mention that on the first gondola up from the train station we saw two little goat-type creatures on the rocks as well as two parasailers who were not on the rocks but in the air? I also broke a nail rather nastily doing up my boots at the top. Too bad I left all my fun bandaids at home. My leadership decision to “go right” would prove to be rather controversial later. Soon we came to another fork and again, I suggested taking the right fork which, according to the trail map, would get us down to a gondola station should we want to take it back up and do another run from the top. Wending our way down with me leading, I came upon a long narrow fairly flat stretch of run no more than 10-12 feet wide. Flat terrain is not snowboarder friendly for the record. This skimpy stretch, which felt 3 inches wide, was cut into the side of the mountain with a precipice plummeting an unknown distance down on the other side. Did I mention there was no snow fence on the cliff side? The run seemed to go on forever so I’ve no idea how long it really was but it was no picnic. I had to hurl myself into the snow on the mountain side at one point to give my burning toes and calves a break (mostly toe edge terrain so much pain involved) as well as to let the other two catch up to me. After a breather we regrouped at the gondola station to plan our next section. We decided to head lower since, although the views were gorgeous, we hadn’t particularly enjoyed our suicide ride along the cliff edge and had no desire to do that run again. Once more we encountered some crazy stuff, this time more flat parts preceded by some seriously steep sections. I like those seriously steep parts but I was alone in my sentiments this time. We headed back to the hostel where Tony departed to find Sean who was riding elsewhere while I hit the showers.

Normally the hostel provides us with dinner but last night we had a special treat. Stopping for some hostel soup first as a snack, we then took a gondola up to Furi (1864m) where we hiked up some ski area to a restaurant that has probably been there for over 100 years. It’s perched up on a steep hill overlooking the valley with great views. It’s such a cool little place, made of wood primarily, with an open fire place by the front door, gorgeous curving staircases, and old pictures of the Matterhorn everywhere. Ambiance indeed. Too bad I hadn’t brought my camera. Four hours later, our 13 course (!) fancy pants dinner wound down and we struggled into our snow pants and outerwear. I nearly fell asleep during the three desserts but the bracing air outside woke me up. We had been expecting to toboggan back to Zermatt but what we hadn’t realized from the wording in the brochure where we learned about this dinner was that we would have had to bring our own toboggans up with us from a rental place in town. Considering the ski run we followed back to town on foot was not lit at all and had sharp drop offs, I’m not sure it’s an entirely bad thing that we didn’t have sleds to ride at high rates of speed in the dark on unknown terrain with only some control. We did find some poles to use as sleds with varying degrees of success so we made good use of those on the steep sections. Luckily Sean had had the foresight to bring a headlamp with him so we weren’t entirely in the dark. Long night but lots of fun was had.