2011-Present

Spain is Splendid Again, Nov and Dec 2017

By Dom Nozzi

We arrive at the Denver International Airport. Surprised that our bus to the airport was full, as it was Thanksgiving Day. Who travels on this holiday?

Weather forecast for the coming week in Boulder will be unusually warm for this time of year. I am hoping that we will return to a lot of snow and good ski conditions, however.

We started the trip by walking Brooklyn and Manhattan. Bad idea on BLACK FRIDAY.

Barcelona

Friday, Nov 24: Our flight from Toronto to Barcelona took off at 9 pm on a Friday. By 8 pm the next day, after 11 continuous hours of travel by plane and bus, we finally arrived at our first Spain hotel in Valencia.

I have previously traveled in Spain (eight years ago). Maggie has never been. She is in for a treat…

Oddly, I have been in Spain twice and both times I had a train trip be cancelled. This has never happened to me for any other trip I have taken in the world. First cancellation in Spain had us be transferred to fly from Madrid to Barcelona. This time, it was a bus from Barcelona to Valencia. Turns out that rail workers were on strike in Barcelona.

Valencia

Saturday and Sunday, Nov 25-26: Old Town Valencia at night is lovely. We have a very charming, romantic, festive first night in Valencia. The streets are surprisingly vibrant even during a non-tourist time of year. Our tapas bar serves fantastic food at a place full of happy customers.From our hotel, Valencia, Nov 25, 2017 (1)

We start with a very tasty breakfast at a place called BBVA. Boisterous, loud Sunday morning crowd. I have the smoked trout omelet and Maggie has the salmon bruschetta. We then rent bicycles and have a very enjoyable ride along the Valencia greenway, where we pass athletic fields containing soccer games, rugby (who knew Spaniards played rugby?) and baseball. We bike to the beach. Valencia, of course, has many street trees that are orange trees. Valencia oranges. I opt for a FANTASTIC Imperial Brown Ale at Tyris Craft Beer.

At the end of our greenway bike ride, we spot several surfers surfing at the beach of the Baltic Sea. In late November! Who knew that Spaniards surfed?

The architecture in Valencia Old Town is mind-blowing. Ornamentation is stunning.

Our last night in Valencia is spent on a shiny marble piazza surrounded by fantastic medieval architecture. We dine on very tasty paella and a glass of house red wine. The view from our Valencia lodging is above. The photos I shot while in Valencia are here.

Sevilla

Monday, Nov 27:

Old Town Sevilla is a delight to stroll through DESPITE very narrow sidewalks (much of it less than 10 in. wide). The streets are so crooked and cranky that we got disoriented and lost several times. Which, of course, adds to the delight. Nearly all of streets are medieval cobblestone.

The modernists have added “tripe architecture” to Old Town Sevilla. A blight on the charming ambiance of the neighborhood, but a handy landmark for finding our apartment.

The Sevilla churches are noteworthy for containing an overwhelming amount of intricate gold. They can’t seem to get enough of it, to the point where it makes the observer dizzy.

Alcazar, Sevilla, Spain, Nov 27, 2017 (33)Alcazar boasts Islamic (Moorish), Christian, and Renaissance architecture all blended together by successive kings over the centuries. An incredible place to visit (again, for me).

Great, fun, tasty tapas are to be found in Sevilla. Our first stop for tapas is at a bar that opened a few years ago (1670, to be exact). They serve us excellent red wine and delicious tapas. A quirk is the bartender slicing thin strips of meat from a leg of a pig. And writing our check total on the bar with chalk.

So far, our biggest mutual problem on this trip is our inability to get enough sleep. We are both sleep deprived.

Nearly all of the street trees and courtyard trees and plaza trees in Seville are orange trees which are loaded with oranges. Valencia oranges are EVERYWHERE! Are the oranges harvested from street trees, or left to drop and rot?

On Tuesday, Nov. 28, Maggie is too sleep deprived to get out of bed in time for our planned day trip to Malaga. Unfortunate, since Tuesday is the window of fair weather for the next few days in that southern coastal town. She sleeps until noon, which gives us a relatively late start on our second day in Sevilla.

But I am happy to have her sleep late, as today is her birthday. On her birthday she will enjoy a full day in Sevilla. For her birthday last year, we were in Rome.

Lucky girl.

Since loss of sleep was due, at least in part, to the noisy cobblestone street traffic outside of our apartment, and because our washing machine was in disrepair, we are happy to learn that we can move to a nearby apartment with quiet conditions and a working washing machine.

First stop is the incomparable Cathedral of Sevilla. Like eight years ago when I was first humbled by what is the largest gothic cathedral in the world, the Cathedral is stunning. Built to such a crazy huge and ornamental size, according to Rick Steves, that the builders would be considered “madmen.” So huge that one feels like an ant inside the colossus – surely the intent of the Catholic designers who seek to make mere humans Barrio Santa Cruz Sevilla, Spain, Nov 28, 2017 (30)seem puny in the house of their infinite god.

Again, the Cathedral is full of altars and sanctuaries that feature overwhelming gold flake. The support columns inside are too tall and wide to believe. Somehow, we are again not converted to Catholicism despite the dizzying splendor.

We depart Ground Zero Catholicism in Spain for a walk in the nearby Santa Cruz neighborhood, which is a delight. The dimensions are too cute. A lot of very narrow, Venice-like, cobblestone “kissing” streets (so narrow that people on balconies of buildings facing each other can kiss). Indeed, some of the streets in the neighborhood are so narrow that we are able to touch building walls on both sides of the street at the same time. Delightful! Romantic! Charming! And utterly inconceivable in America, where 100-foot wide roads are considered Nirvana. And the only way to prevent babies from dying in burning buildings.

After our stroll, we reach a place to rent bikes. Biking in Sevilla is relatively pleasant and safe with its okay supply of grade-separated green-painted bike paths flanking many streets. We enjoy a delightful ride through an enormous park with flat clay pathways and a lush forest, where trees there today had been planted in the 19th Century. The park contains extremely impressive military and university building towers that are linked by a crescent-shaped building system.

Over-the-top palaces seem to pop up around every corner in Sevilla. In its history, the city has seen the construction of both palaces and parks and cathedrals fit for kings.

We drop off the bikes and walk back to the Cathedral, where we are disappointed to see that only a small handful of horse-drawn carriages are waiting. Earlier in the day, we had been descended upon by an endless gauntlet of carriage drivers begging us to be their passengers. It is, after all, the “shoulder season,” when tourist customers are relatively scarce, so the begging is particularly fierce.

Now, at 7 pm, only 3 carriages are in the Cathedral plaza, and we are unable to find a driver who speaks more than a few words of English. And it is also starting to rain. This is our only opportunity for a romantic carriage ride in Sevilla, so we board a carriage with these less-than-optimal conditions. Happily, it turns out to be a pleasant ride.

The photos I shot while in Sevilla are here.

Day Trip to Malaga

Wednesday, Nov 29th: Our day starts out in an unfortunate way. After only 15 minutes of travel on our train to Malaga — a coastal town on Spain’s southern coast — we passengers must deboard the train and board an “autobus” (a bus). It is the second time we have been transferred from a train to a bus in this Spain trip. This time due to a huge flood in Southern Spain.

Why, when we bought our train tickets 15 minutes earlier, did they sell us the tickets and not tell us that there was massive flooding ahead of us in Southern Spain? Had we known, we would probably stayed in Sevilla and not boarded the train to Malaga.

This would have been a mistake, as we are to eventually learn. Malaga is a delightful place. Even in monsoon rains.

Our bus finally arrives in Malaga three full hours after we would have arrived had our train not been stopped by the biblical floods.

I am immediately struck by the large size of the city. I had thought we would be arriving in a small coastal village, but Malaga is a large metropolis.

We stroll along a festive walking and shopping street festooned with holiday lighting. The surface is a polished marble not unlike the main street in Dubrovnik. Skinny, fun, smaller shopping streets branch off in odd directions from the main shopping street. We stop at a restaurante with outdoor seating facing the amazing Malaga Cathedral and order a fish and seafood paella that is both very filling and very delicious. Rioja house wine is our beverage. An excellent choice.

The Cathedral is simply stunning. We walk inside with our faces looking straight up at the splendor looming above and around us for about an hour.

Alcazaba, Malaga, Spain. Nov 29, 2017 (66)We then explore nearby Alcazaba, a medieval labyrinth with brick passageways, small Moorish doorways, and brick steps leading in all directions. Several times we find ourselves with a very nice view of Malaga and the seaport. A delight. In its heyday, this was surely a romantic place for a walk with a loved one. To top off the Alcazaba, we stumble upon Teatro Romano, a medieval theatre that surely was the venue for many a play or performance. The photos I shot while in Malaga are here.

In the end, we find ourselves on a higher speed train than the one we were bumped off of in the morning. We are heading back to Sevilla, wishing we had more time for surprisingly pleasant Malaga. The train upgrade is a compensation from the train company for our morning inconvenience.

Day Trip to Cordoba

Thursday, Nov 30th: We awake to clear skies after the Wednesday deluge of rain and clouds. We hop on the 8 am bus from Sevilla to Cordoba.

Our first stop in Old Town Cordoba is the incomparable Mezquita. A massive former Mosque that since the 16th Century has a Christian Chapel built in the very center of it. An astonishing place. One of the Wonders of the World. Indeed, I ask Maggie how it was possible that neither of us had ever heard of the place until now. Over 800 arches areMezquita, Cordoba, Spain. Nov 30, 2017 (17) inside. The contrast between the Muslim and Catholic symbolism is striking. We spend hours wandering around in wonder.

After Mezquita, we have lunch at a small, quiet, out-of-the-way restaurant (Casa Mazal) in the Jewish Quarter. The food was DELICIOUS. Maybe the best lunch I had ever eaten.

After lunch, we stroll the lovely, romantic little cobblestone streets that move in all manner of crooked, confusing, delightful directions. The sun in the clear skies is so brilliant that it hurts our eyes.

Unfortunately, our time is rushed, as our train leaves for Sevilla in the afternoon.

Back in Sevilla, we stop at a very nice tapas bar/restaurant and dine on very good food. We nailed two consecutive tasty meals in a row today! After dinner, we walk down an impressively busy, bustling, lovely shopping street (Teutan?). So full of happy strollers that it seems like a “paseo” (an evening community stroll). I could not stop taking photos of the beautiful lighted streets and people.

From dinner, we walk across Old Town to a house now converted to a Flamenco singing and dancing venue (Tablao Alvarez Quintero). The acoustic guitar based performance is riveting. I have never before seen live Flamenco singing and dancing, and am quite impressed. The dancer and singer display pride and anger in their movements and facial expressions. Very, very good.

On the way home, we pass several bars that are overflowing with huge numbers of chatty beer and wine drinkers. We stop in one of them for a beer. The beer and wine, we notice, is in the one to two euro price range. Sevilla late at night is a party town containing what seems like the Spanish version of German beer halls.

The photos I shot while in Cordoba are here.

Madrid

Friday, Dec 1: We train from Sevilla to Madrid on a crystal clear day late in the morning. Our first destination is the infamous Plaza Mayor, historic site of much mischief in the name of the Catholic god by the immensely cruel Spanish Inquisition. At this Plaza, countless “heretics” were executed or tortured. Today the Plaza is filled with silly amusements for tourists. A stark contrast.

After failing to find a tour guide-recommended restaurant, we opt for a random place on the outer walls of Plaza Mayor based on the charming medieval arches and walls within. It turns out to be a stroke of luck, as the food and wine are stupendous.

Dinner is followed by our walking at a brisk pace (it is now icy cold and very windy in Madrid) toward the Prado Museum. Unfortunately, the line is several blocks long. Forget that! We continue down the street to the Reina Sofia Museo to visit the stunning, larger-than-life Guernica masterpiece by Picasso.

On the way back from the Museo, we cross the heart of Madrid: Puerto del Sol – an Madrid, Spain. Dec 1, 2017 (42)immense and always festive piazza. Tonight Puerto del Sol is jammed with happy people – tens of thousands crowd the piazza and nearby walking streets. We stumble upon what appears to be an annual event where a massive crush of people are squeezed into three or five street blocks to watch an animated Christmas holiday show being performed on a building façade by little mechanical elves and snowmen.

Throughout our walk in Madrid, we are stunned by the stellar, ornamental, monumental buildings and architecture. Truly a MONUMENTAL, world class city. Madrid shows off much of its architecture by lighting up the building facades at night with brightly colored lights. If only American cities had a decent collection of such lovable buildings to flaunt at night with lights!

We don’t.

Madrid

Saturday, Dec 2: Our apartment sits on a vibrant walking street in Madrid. Despite my fears, we are not awoken overnight by the 24/7 party atmosphere just outside our 2nd story balcony. But our earlier plans to enjoy bicycling in Madrid today are put on hold. It is chilly and in the 30s this morning! Spain is unseasonably cold for our trip.

“Breakfast” is at the world famous Chocolatería San Ginés, said to be the best chocolatier in all of Madrid, and a place that has had a long list of famous customers in its over 100 years of existence (including Audrey Hepburn, Penélope Cruz, Tina Turner, Stevie Wonder, Sophia Loren, Tony Curtis and Naomi Campbell). All seats were filled when we were there, and EVERYONE was enjoying dipping their churros into chocolate sauce.

We walk to the Royal Palace (Palacio Real), which is only a short walk from our Madrid accommodations. The sumptuous splendor of the rooms (there are 2,800 of them in the palace!) is mind-blowing. When one looks up “over the top” in the dictionary, there is a drawing of this palace.

Upon departing, the sun is out and it is warm enough to bike, so we rent a couple of “Donkey Rental Bikes” to sample bicycling in Madrid. We discover that the large park behind the palace is off limits to bicycling, as are the gardens in front of the Edifico Espana palace that we stumble upon. The superb Gran Via shopping street in Madrid, we also learn, is not very bikeable at all (the occasional “sharrow” is dangerously out nearPlaza de Cibeles, Madrid, Spain. Dec 1, 2017 (20) the middle of the heavy traffic street). So we walk the Gran Via.  We enjoy the Puente de Cibeles city hall (?), which is impressively ornamental inside and out. We then enjoy bicycling in the very large Parque de El Retiro flanking Madrid Old Town.

Overall, I’d give Madrid a 2 or 3 on a scale of 10 for bicycling quality.

After bicycling, we visit the Mercado San Miguel. As it always seems to be, the place is PACKED with happy, festive customers hungrily jostling for more and more tapas to gobble down (and washing it down with great Spanish wine). We enjoy a delicious salmon tapa, sardine tapa, octopus tapa, cod fish tapa, tuna tapa, squid ink and seafood paellas tapa, and raspberry tapa. Along with a few glasses of tinto (red) Spanish wine.

We walk to La Gayalos restaurant – reputed to serve outstanding paella. Along the way, the streets of downtown Madrid are utterly JAMMED with people out walking. It is as if New Year’s Eve at Times Square is occurring on every street in downtown Madrid. I have never seen so many walking people packed onto streets before. And these were not tiny streets. Utterly astonishing.

At La Gayalos, we have black rice paella with shrimp and squid. Superb. The chef comes out to serve our paella onto our plates from the pan, and at the end of the meal brings out a Spanish brandy: Spanish Grappas. Very tasty end to an excellent meal.

Later that night below our 2nd story apartment balcony on a Madrid walking street, an acoustic guitar player and opera singer performed. An unexpected treat.

The photos I shot while in Madrid are here.

We will be sorry to be leaving Madrid.

Day Trip to Toledo

Sunday, Dec 3:  We learn at the Madrid train station that we need to be at the OTHER Madrid station to get the direct train to Salamanca, our planned day trip today. So we opt to instead go to our other day trip option: Toledo. Salamanca will be tomorrow.

Alcazar and Tagus River, Toledo, Dec 3, 2017 (3)Toledo is spectacular medieval charm, as always. The entire city, after all, is designated as a world heritage site.

We enjoy walking (and getting lost several times) on the crooked, often nameless streets. Fortunately for us, many of our church and museum destinations are free on Sunday, including the military history museum, which we very much enjoy.

The Cathedral of Toledo knocks our socks off with its splendor, as it does to everyone else who visits.

The photos I shot while in Toledo are here.

One thing we have noticed in our Spain travels overall, by the way, is that the trains are impressively spotless in cleanliness. Or as they might say, the trains in Spain are mainly without stain!

Salamanca

Monday, Dec 4: We board a metro subway train at Puerta del Sol to get to a Madrid train station. That station will take us directly to Salamanca, a charming, medieval college town in the remote northwest of Spain. The college there was established in the 13th Century and is the oldest in Spain.

It is a very chilly day in Salamanca, so we skip our plans to rent bikes. Too bad, since Salamanca has a very nice bike route system that circles the old town.

The city turns out to be far more impressive than I had anticipated. The medieval streets and buildings are wonderful – particularly the main cathedral.Plaza Mayor, Salamanca, Spain, Dec 4, 2017 (16)

For lunch, we have a very, very good tapas meal overlooking Plaza Mayor in Salamanca. It is a bustling place. We order several tapas overflowing with delicious seafood. Along with two glasses of nice red wine, our final bill is $13. Surely there is a mistake. Is there a zero missing in our bill??

We have a bit of a SNAFU on our return train trips. First, we struggle to exit as our train cards are not opening the gates to let us out. Then we get on a train going the wrong direction for our destination. But we figure things out, and end up at the Mercado San Miguel again for another round of sumptuous tapas for dinner.

The photos I shot while in Salamanca are here.

Barcelona

Tuesday, Dec 5: We hop on a luxurious bullet train to be whisked from Madrid to Barcelona. The countryside shows of mountains and a very arid landscape. Looks a lot like the American southwest – albeit with olive trees here in Spain.

The trip is only 2.5 hours due to the speed of the train. We are served a large and tasty breakfast as part of our train ticket.

In Barcelona, we immediately have smiles on our faces. This is a great, fun city. After checking in at our apartment up the street from Las Ramblas, our first errand is to rent a few Donkey bikes. The weather is sunny and warm. Much more pleasant than the frigid Barcelona, Dec 5, 2017 (1)cold we experienced while in Madrid. The bicycling is fun and impressively safe in this big city. We bike down Catalunya, walk through the incomparable Las Ramblas, and get on the bikes again for a ride along the marina and waterfront (near the Christopher Columbus statue/tower). We also have great fun riding in the wonderful, historic, kissing street neighborhood of the Barri Gotic (getting lost over and over again, happily).

I would give Barcelona a 6 or 7 regarding bicycling system quality. On the downside for transportation, Barcelona is afflicted with a large number of enormous, hostile streets. Many are 4- and 6-lane one-way roads that have very high car speeds. Even when on a bike lane or protected bike lane, I found bicycling unnerving at times.

Barcelona has many sex shops. Seemingly more than even Amsterdam. We visit the Cathedral of Barcelona for another WOW experience. Outside the Cathedral, we enter a market of vendors selling a dizzying number of Christmas manger figurines. Bizarrely, I notice that on top of one of the vendor carts, there are two male figures squatting to poop. The next morning, I very coincidentally see a posting from a Facebook friend who reports on this strange Catalonian tradition. She reports that “…[f]or at least the past two centuries, the traditional nativity scene in Catalonia has included a character called a caganer. In polite terms, the best translation is ‘the defecator.’ When residents were asked what the tradition is about, they seemed confused and came up with varying answers: ‘It’s typical of Catalonia. Each house buys one for Christmas, I don’t know why (we do it), it’s just a tradition.’ or ‘There was the legend that if a countryside man did not put a caganer in the nativity scene, he would have a very bad year collecting vegetables,’ he said, claiming that the figurine is a symbol of fertility and good fortune.”

Later, after a surprisingly long search, we opt for a restaurant on Plaza Reial (considered by some to be Barcelona’s best-loved porticoed square) after comparison shopping the many restaurant options on the square. Delicious black ink seafood paella and tinto wine.

Barcelona

Wednesday, Dec 6: Our day starts with our stumbling upon a very large demonstration by Barcelonians marching to oppose the separatist efforts by the Catalonians.

We visit three of the most famous Gaudi creations in Barcelona. Today is Bizzaro World, Barcelona, Dec 5, 2017 (29)so we visit Casa Batllo, Casa Milla, and Sagrada Familia. Next, we spend a lot of time bicycling in the Barri Gotic neighborhood (see photo at left). Big smiles on our faces while we ride in this stupendously enjoyable place. Every street beckons us with its charm. I could visit Barcelona, spend weeks doing nothing but walking or bicycling in the Barri Gotic neighborhood, and have the time of my life.

We serendipitously stumble upon ancient, unearthed stone ruins and view them for an hour or so.

Next we enter Santa Maria del Mar Cathedral, which is quite impressive (as are so many European cathedrals).

We walk through an absolutely crushing number of Barcelonians browsing a vendor outdoor sale of a dizzying number of Christmas manger and manger figurines. What is it with the Spanish and mangers (and manger figurines)? We have seen so many of them sold in Spanish towns on our trip. Included was a large set of “pooping boys.” We areBarcelona, Dec 5, 2017 (35) VERY tempted to buy a set today. Especially when we saw a vendor selling pooping famous figures, like Obama, Bob Marley, Trump, etc. They are surely a collectors item. Big crowd of people gathered around this evening to snap photos of them. What an ODD tradition!

Dinner is at the very homey and locals popular Petra restaurant. I have a delicious meal of cod mixed with purple potato gnocchi, pumpkin sauce, and vegetables.

 Day Trip Montserrat

Thursday, Dec 7: We hop on a bus for a guided group tour of the highly popular Montserrat, a “serrated” mountain with an extremely important history – it was instrumental in bringing Christianity to Barcelona.

We see (and learn) much about Barcelona on our bus ride. Montserrat is unusually shrouded in a cloud, which gives it a spooky appearance. At Montserrat, we hike to the San Miguel cross high up on a ridgeline about the town, Impressive views.

Dom and Maggie, Montserrat, Spain. Dec 7, 2017 (33)I then opt to wait in a line for over a half hour to see the highly beloved “Black Madonna” in the Basilica, which was found in the 9th Century and spurred the creation of the Christian community in Montserrat.

After that, Maggie and I enjoy a Tuscan soup, and FOUR (!) complimentary shot glasses of four versions of a very tasty liquor.

The photos I shot while in Montserrat are here.

Back in Barcelona, we happily get on our bicycles for another fun ride experience in the city. Maggie spots a craft beer place, so I insist we stop so I can sample their wares. I try an Espiga (Blackcelona) Imperial Stout. It is extremely tasty. The way an Imperial Stout should taste.

We visit a much-talked-about neighborhood transportation experiment being conducted in Barcelona: The “Superblock.” The Superblock is intended to improve quality of life and reduce air pollution, noise pollution, and safety problems by reducing the amount of car traffic within connected city blocks.

According to a 2017 book I am now reading, Barcelona was substantially failing to meet European Union air quality standards, and car emissions were an important reason. The City learned that 85 percent of its public space in a typical city neighborhood was being consumed by cars. In response, a pilot program has been started to address these problems. Started in 2016, nine city blocks are aggregated into a “superblock.” Within the superblock, car access is strongly limited but not completely prohibited. Car traffic declined within the superblock by 40 percent, which noticeably improved air quality and freeing up a lot of new space for people, cafes and playgrounds.

The Superblock we visited was very interesting. A few of the very large intersections have been retrofitted to include a kiddie playground. Trees in large planters are used to close off street lanes. Single lanes in the Superblock are “sharrows” (lanes where cars and bicycles share the lane safely). It appears that only neighborhood vehicles (how doSuperblock near Sagrada Familia, Barcelona. Dec 7, 2017 (63) they regulate that?) and service vehicles are allowed within the Superblock. The Superblock we saw seemed to be relatively “permeable,” which was a fear I had when I first heard of the idea – that a Superblock might be inwardly turning by putting its back to the outside world and creating what amounts to an urban gated community. But the Superblock we saw does allow car, bicycle and walking traffic to pass through.

The Superblock was quiet and seemed very safe for bicycling and walking. But it seemed rather dead and lifeless. Many blank walls and other blank building designs deaden the streets, as do the overly wide streets, overly wide sidewalks, many vacant lots, and overly generous building setbacks. We also did not see any “activating” buildings on the street, such as cafes, bars, restaurants, or retail. No “third places,” in other words. In sum, it appears that the Superblock idea might have some potential over time, but the example we saw in Barcelona seems a long way off of being a great place. For starters, the Superblock needs to have skinny, human-scaled streets and intersections.

We are in search of churros with chocolate sauce, but the THREE places we stop at in the Barri Gotic neighborhood all have very long lines of hungry customers (each place has no seating due to their capacity crowds). We have now seen these long churro lines several times in more than one Spanish city. The Spanish seem to LOVE churros and chocolate!

Barcelona

Friday, Dec 8: We get a very early start because the day before, our Montserrat guide had given us the handy tip that entry to Park Guell – a Gaudi creation – has free entry just before their official morning opening time. Unfortunately for us, the park opens at 8:30 am, not the 8:00 am we were told about. The second misfortune for us this morning is that unbeknownst to us, very steep hill climbing on our bikes will be required to ascend to the park. A tiring way to wake up!

Park Güell, Barcelona. Dec 8, 2017 (41)Curving tile formations are everywhere, as are stone pillars and caverns and caves for this hilltop park. Park Guell is a place where Dr. Suess meets Fred Flinstone. In sum, his Park Guell was very interesting, and in many ways admirable and appropriate.

Gaudi’s building designs in the city outside of the park are certainly remarkable. His design of buildings is worth seeing to check out Bizarre World. It is like being on LSD without taking the drug.

I strongly dislike the modernist (ie, innovation is the imperative) design that Gaudi was a pioneer of. Modernism is a failed paradigm, and in my opinion, Gaudi is a failed architect. We know that because successful design is replicated over and over again (indeed, replication is the biggest compliment that can be paid to a design). When touring Gaudi’s buildings, it is strikingly obvious that almost NONE of his ideas have been replicated. He threw timeless design that has been loved for most of human history out one of his weirdo windows and replaced it with things that are so impractical and unloved that none of it has been replicated.

Gaudi should have stuck to designing parks and leaving buildings alone.

We bicycle back to our apartment along a very nice, tree-lined boulevard. Little did we know that the “Fiasco of the Day” was awaiting us.

After preparing at the apartment for the remainder of our last full day in Spain, we depart for lunch. European door locks have always befuddled me, and this strongly contributed to what is about to happen.

I make it a habit to ALWAYS keep my keys in my pants pocket. But today, I opt to follow Maggie’s habit over the past few days to leave our apartment keys in the keyhole of the backside (inside) of the door. When we move through the first door of our apartment (there are, oddly, two separate lockable doors), I forget to pull the key out of the keyhole to take with us. At the instant our first door shuts behind us, a horrifying thought explodes in my head: OUR KEYS ARE INSIDE THE APARTMENT DOOR!!!!!

There are two huge problems with that. One, our apartment door automatically locks without a key when it shuts behind us. Two, we had been in the habit of locking the outer second door when retiring in the apartment each night. What that meant is that we now had the crushing, slightly panicky realization that we are trapped inside this tiny 2 ft by 3 ft vestibule with locked doors on either side of us! And no keys. Yikes.

Maggie retains her reasoning skills enough to call the hotel proprietor to inform him what has happened.

The first solution tried is to send the cleaning lady to unlock our door. We wait over a half hour for her to arrive. While waiting, I contemplate what we would have done if we had to spend days inside that vestibule prison. Try to break down the door like in those TV detective shows? Resort to cannibalism?

When the cleaning lady arrives, the next awful event occurs. Her key will not open the inner door, since our keys on the other side of the lock are preventing her key from unlocking the door!

We call the proprietor again to report the latest debacle. He informs Maggie we will need to pay for a locksmith, and the locksmith will be both difficult to find due to the holiday this day, and very expensive (due to the holiday). Maggie admirably and firmly points out to him that since we were given no clear instructions about locking the doors, we are not liable for what Dom had stupidly done (forget the keys). Fortunately, the proprietor learns that he will be covered by his insurance.

The locksmith, we are told is 90 minutes away. So we opt to find lunch in the meantime. Unfortunately, we are unable to find an acceptable place before we must return to meet the locksmith. The locksmith arrives, and in a flash he opens the locked door.

For lunch, we visit a highly popular tapas restaurant in the Barri Gotic quarter. The night before, we passed by and I noted with extreme envy that the place was PACKED with happy, hungry tapas costumers. As the Beastie Boys would say, you would have to fight for your right to TAAAAAPAAAAASSSSSSS. Just the way I prefer it! (could anything be more enjoyable?) But this afternoon, the place is nearly empty. We go in anyway and enjoy great tapas.

Happily for us, these lost hours are not a crushing blow, as we had time to burn before starting our last Barcelona experience: the Magic Fountains.

We arrive by the easy-to-use Barcelona metro subway at the Montjuic. Before the show, we marvel at the immensity of the Olympic facilities near the fountain, as well as the splendid and enormous palace that is today a museum. Impressive to what extent the city had put so much time and money and effort into their selection as the 1992 host city for the Olympics. Besides the Olympic facilities, the city actually re-located a number of large industrial operations out of the city.

It probably paid off, as Barcelona, ever since those Olympics and accompanying world exposure, has been a huge draw for millions of tourists throughout the world.

The Magic Fountain show is, as it was when I first saw it eight years ago, quite…well… magical. A masonry wall rings the fountain pool. Unfortunately, while this arrangement accommodated hundreds of Barcelonians as they joined hands and danced to the Dom and Maggie at Magic Fountain, Barcelona. Dec 8, 2017 (12)choreographed colored lights, water, and music, the wall is now roped off, so we did not see much dancing.

On Saturday morning, as we prepare to depart Barcelona and Spain, we find a restaurant in downtown Barcelona that serves us a wonderful breakfast. A fitting farewell to Spain.

The photos I shot while in Barcelona are here.

All in all, we enjoy Spain enough to want to return.

And no, we did not return to a lot of snow in Colorado, as we (actually, just Dom) had hoped. Not a flake of snow has fallen in Boulder for over a month.

 

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Categories: 2011-Present, Adventure by Location, Adventure Chronologically, Beyond North America, By Type of Adventure, Miscellaneous | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Denmark, Sweden and Germany Trip, Sept 2017

By Dom Nozzi

We arrive at the Denver International Airport at the crazy early hour of 5:00 am. At the security gate, a large man is being told he must remove his stability boot (for an ankle/foot injury). He is not happy. He shouts angrily that he will not remove the boot. He states that underneath the boot is a bloody mess. No matter. A supervisor arrives and informs him he must remove the boot.

The episode reminds me of how America has lost its mind and gone off the deep end regarding safety, which in my view is so patently permeable that it is clearly a form of security theater. I realize that the level of concern for safety will be much more relaxed (ie, more sane and reasonable) in Europe.

Boarding the plane, we passengers sit for an hour with no “pushback” by the plane. Periodically, a flight attendant or pilot informs us that there is a tiny, minor scratch that is being evaluated on the right wing of the plane. It needs to be documented, logged, and photographed so that an engineer in Dallas (!!!) can evaluate it. “We will be underway shortly,” we are promised.

We are then told that the “minor scratch” will scrub the flight. For the first time in my life, we passengers must deboard the plane and board another plane in the airport.

Finally, more than two hours after our flight was scheduled to depart, our new plane (hopefully free of “minor scratches”) lifts off. Fortunately for us, our relatively long (3-hour) layover in Chicago allows us to avoid missing our connection for the flight to Providence RI (where my brother and sister-in-law have generously agreed to host us for the night before our trip to Copenhagen the next day).

Copenhagen

Sunday, Sept 24: Our first day in Copenhagen starts as cloudy and muggy but eventually and mercifully became bright and sunny for most of the day. We rent bikes and enjoy seeing the sights.Copenhagen, Sept 24, 2017 (8)

We have a large brunch at a café called – appropriately — Apropos. We find a delicious, broad sampling of many Danish delicacies. The bread and cheese is hearty and tasty.

Dinner is at “Tight” restaurant. I order a HUGE and very tasty vegetarian burger and wash it down with a yummy Dracula Licorice Porter from Estonia.

Impressions from our first day: To begin with, I am disappointed by the large number of cyclists I see who are wearing helmets. When I was here 13 years ago, I don’t think I saw any. Today about 3-4 percent use them. Probably a bad influence from the US, where bicycle helmets are obsessively pushed and aggressively required for all cyclists on all bicycle trips. An effective recipe for perpetuating the myth that cycling is dangerous and unfashionable and inconvenient. Such an overwhelming, crusading pitch to always demand cyclists wear a helmet surely reduces the amount of bicycling in America. Ironic, since many helmet pushers are firmly convinced that increasing helmet use PROMOTES bicycling.

Second, I feel as if the streets and bicycle infrastructure seem a bit more safe and comfortable for cyclists in Copenhagen than in Amsterdam. Amsterdam certainly benefits from a quite large number of cyclists, which provides huge “Safety in Numbers” and sociability benefits, but motorists seem more patient and slow in downtown Copenhagen.

Signage at the Copenhagen airport and within the downtown leaves much to be desired. Signs are either missing or confusing.

Copenhagen, Day 2

Monday, Sept 25: Another pleasant weather day, despite initial worries that the Denmark climate would be cold and wet this time of year.

Disappointed to notice how many overly wide streets are found in Copenhagen, which requires a VERY long crossing time for pedestrians (we were often stranded in the center median because we have insufficient time to cross a very wide street with too many lanes). Also disappointed to notice that Copenhagen does not seem to have countdown crossing signals, so pedestrians don’t know how much time they have to cross.

We find a very affordable, fun, and quite delicious place to have lunch today. Papioren (also known as Street Food) has a large number of food vendors to choose from (about 50?). The foods are very tasty. The prices are very moderate. Seating is indoors or outdoors on long wood picnic tables. The outdoor tables sit along a waterfront. The ambiance, however, is “warehouse.”

We visit the very entertaining Christianshaven neighborhood, which is Copenhagen’s popular counterculture neighborhood. The lifestyle is CLEARLY “alternative” and “utopian” here. For me, it seemed like the Haight-Ashbury of Copenhagen. Here one finds a great many funky homes and businesses, including an enormous number of marijuana vendors. Squatters took over the abandoned military base in the early 70s and have made it a desirable, “rules are different here” kind of place.

Here are the photos I shot while in Copenhagen.

Malmo

Tuesday, Sept 26: Malmo, slightly more than Copenhagen, is a delightful, safe, and comfortable place to ride a bicycle. The city is home to spectacular, photogenic, medieval Statue parade, Malmo Sweden, Sept 2017 (9)and classical architecture, which is tragically and jarringly juxtaposed in many cases with modernist architecture in buildings next door. The sterilizing, deadening, blank modernist building walls made of glass, metal, or concrete are obliterating the former charm, interest, and lovability of the historic building facades. It is as if the city had great architecture built prior to the 1930s, and then skipped over anything from the 30s through the 60s and lurched right into the utterly failed, hideous, unlovable modernist architecture since the 70s.

I am thrilled to learn in an Internet search of famous food and drink in Sweden that the best beer made by the Swedes consists of about 30 imperial stouts and porters, so of course I have to try three of them during our day trip to Malmo. DELICIOUS!

Here are the photos I shot while in Malmo.

Dusseldorf and Cologne

Wednesday, Sept 27: So far, I find the Danes, Swedes and Germans to be attractive, healthy, and in good shape.

Dusseldorf turns out to be a surprising treat. On another day of pleasant weather, we find that the Old Town has a huge number of heavily used walking streets loaded with outdoor cafes and happy strollers. Dusseldorf had been nearly leveled by the Allies in Dusseldorf, Germany, Sept 2017 (2)WWII, apparently in retaliation for what the Germans did to London, and it shows. Nearly all buildings seem to have been built since 1945. The very few remaining historic buildings are churches, which leads me speculate that perhaps the fighter bomber pilots for the Allies were given strict instructions to avoid bombing churches. Despite the brutal bombing in its past, the city seems to be happy and normal.

 We dine on our first night in Cologne at Brauerei Päffgen. This place is WILD FUN! They keep serving us glasses of beer without our asking, which, we later learn to our joy and amusement, is the tradition at German beer halls. We almost have to beg them to stop serving us. Even the waiters are chugging glasses of beer while they are serving. Very loud, good times, rollicking atmosphere (without the loud music you get in the US). First time I have eaten brotwurst and sauerkraut since I was 12 years old.

In both Dusseldorf and Cologne, we are pleasantly delighted to notice that the beer hall waiters tote around large trays full of several glasses of the same beer in the same 6-8 oz glass. The staff IMMEDIATELY replaces empty beer glasses with a full glass WITHOUT YOUR ASKING THAT THIS BE DONE.  We later learned that the signal for your being finished drinking is to place your beer coaster on top of your glass.

Here are the photos I shot while in Dusseldorf.

Cologne and Bonn

Thursday, September 28, 2017: On the way to the Cologne train station this morning, we take in a few sites in Old Town Cologne. We stop in at the Old City Hall (Rathaus) and then enter what many believe is the most exciting cathedral in Europe: The Cologne Cologne Cathedral, Sept 2017 (34)Cathedral (Dom). Like other German churches, this cathedral is relatively understated and not as bright and colorful as we have grown used to in many Italian churches. The inside, however, is quite impressive given the very tall, soaring ceilings and columns. Cologne Cathedral is an immense, towering, over-the-top-intricate building.

In Cologne we visit a very interesting church that was brutally bombed in WWII. Since then it had been restored by raising walls and installing a new ceiling. Tragically, the intricate colors were not restored and what one sees today is plain vanilla, unadorned concrete butting up against the splendor of the original sections.Bonn, Sept 2017 (2)

Bonn is relatively small but still has many pleasant things to see and do. We rent bicycles and have a lot of fun bicycling for many miles in the Old Town and points south along the Rhein River. We end up having a great time at the Bonn Markt.

Back in Cologne, we enjoy the 18th Century charm of Peter’s Brauhaus beer hall in Cologne over several Kolsch beers. A fun, vibrant place full of happy people.

Here are the photos I shot while in Cologne and Bonn.

Aachen and Cologne

Friday, Sept 29: We train west for a day trip to Aachen. Tragically, Aachen suffered destruction of 80 percent of its city during WWII. Had I known that in advance, I would have opted not to visit. Too much of what we see is awful post-WWII architecture. Much of it needs to be leveled again as it is sterile, dated and not enjoyable to visit as a Aachen Marktplatz, Germany, Sept 2017 (71)pedestrian (or cyclist or motorist). We do visit a few medieval sites that are interesting – particularly the Aachen Cathedral and plaza, which is impressive.

Later that night, we do a pub crawl to several top beer halls in Cologne. Brauhaus Sion, Bierhausen d’r Salzgass, and Beverai Zum Pfaffen.

Aachen makes me realize that the more a city has been destroyed by bombing, the less I am interested in visiting that city. Too much of the lovable, charming architecture has been forever lost. Replaced by post- WWII architecture that is part of the failed era of architecture (roughly the 40s up until the present day).

In many cities in Germany, we notice the sale of “currywurst,” a type of veal sausage. Of course, I have to try one in Aachen.

Here are the photos I shot while in Aachen.

Berlin

Saturday, Sept 30: We take the high-speed rail from Cologne to Berlin. Unfortunately, we pick a train car that turns out to be the child care train car from Hell. For the entire 4 hours, it seems, each of the 10 or 12 3-4 year old kids were screaming at the top of their lungs in seats next to us.

After a rain-filled ride, we arrive to clear, warm, sunny skies in Berlin. We are there in the late afternoon so we stroll through some awe-inspiring sites in the city center, confident we will return the next day for a more leisurely review. We only have time to check out the Berlin Wall Memorial and the many exhibits about the Nazi and East German history in Berlin. Our first impressions are that Berlin is surprisingly bike-friendly. It is a city full of outdoor cafes and buzzing with energy.

East Berlin is far less sterile in architecture than we expect. Impressive residences and several tree-lined streets.East Berlin, Sept 2017 (13)

Our first effort to find a dinner spot is foiled by the very long line out front. We walk a few blocks looking for an alternative. I spot a very funky, quaint, cool-looking, popular place that does not even have a sign out front of its brick façade. Is this a restaurant or someone’s home? I walk in and eventually get help from the staff. Our meals and drinks were very good. Our appetizer is a smoked tabouli with shrimp. I have a white fish with risotto main dish, which is divine. As is the octopus dish Maggie opts for. Our waiter treats us to complimentary spicy scallop in red sauce. And a round of anise for our end of the bar.

On our ride back home, we experience what I never thought would be possible: A 4-mile bike ride at night in the middle of a very big city felt very safe and comfortable.

Our second day of bicycling in Berlin – October 1 — is cool and drizzly for most of the day. We have a fantastic breakfast at a place in Hackescher Markt, stop at Checkpoint Charlie, Humboldt University, Berliner Cathedral (which is on par with many Italian cathedrals that stunned us in the past), the DDR Museum of life in the Soviet Block (mostly East Berlin), the Memorial of Murdered Jews Museum, Brandenburger Tor Gateway, the Reichstag, and Hitler’s Bunker (I am amazed that it is today a parking lot paved over the site of the bunker).

Berlin is clearly a monumental world class city on par with Rome and Barcelona. On our first night, we accidentally and serendipitously stumble upon an unnamed restaurant that looked charming, hip, and popular. It turns out to be a place called “Night Kitchen.” I have smoked tabouli, white fish risotto, and Maggie again has octopus saute. To be more German, I have a glass of Riesling German wine. Exciting night life here.

Here are the photos I shot while in Berlin.

Leipzig

Monday, October 2: We visit Leipzig in a day of drizzling weather. The town turns out to be much more enjoyable than I had been led to believe by the guidebook I was using. The Leipzig, Germany, Oct 2017 (31)guidebook claims that Leipzig is the most drab of any city in Germany, as so many quaint old buildings have been replaced by bulky box modern). I see less than I had wanted to as we are rushed to catch at 2:15 train back to Berlin (the next train is 3 hours later).

That night, Maggie’s son Ryan leads us on a walking tour of the seedy, grimy, run down part of Berlin, where we stop and a great meal at an Indian restaurant.

Here are the photos I shot while in Leipzig.

Dresden

Monday, October 3: Our last day for this Europe trip includes a day at Dresden, Germany.

Dresden is a big surprise, as we did not expect anywhere near the splendor that is found there. Stunningly spectacular. One of the most photogenic places I have ever visited. This city has clearly been a capital of an empire in the past. Wish we could have spent more time here.

Dresden was viciously firebombed by Allied forces in WWII, which destroyed nearly the entire collection of spectacular medieval buildings. The controversial American and British bombing of Dresden towards the end of the war killed approximately 25,000 Dresden, Germany, Oct 2017 (24)people, many of whom were civilians, and destroyed the entire city center. After the war restoration work has helped to reconstruct parts of the historic inner city. It is quite impressive to see that a great many of those destroyed buildings have been rebuilt to close to their original splendor. Much of the detailing is no longer there in the newer sections of buildings. Many sterile and unlovably boring and dated modernist buildings have marred the Dresden streetscape in the Old Town. And many gaps remain in the Old Town where bombing destroyed buildings. But the reconstruction effort is nevertheless a job well done.

To bid farewell to Germany, I eat knockworst on a bun with sauerkraut and mustard and a dark Dunkel German beer. I also sample a very interesting, unusual German version of Italian gnocchi, which is mixed with sauerkraut, of all things. That night, I dine on salted raw herring filets with scalloped German potatoes.

Here are the photos I shot while in Dresden.

Germans are relatively fit and attractive. At German restaurants, the meals served tend to be quite hearty and huge in size. In many instances, we notice that bar and beer hall staff drank alcohol while at work. Vonderbar!

All in all, we enjoy Germany enough to want to return. Tops on our list is to spend more time in Berlin.

 

Categories: 2011-Present, Beyond North America, Miscellaneous | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Touring Switzerland, The Netherlands, and Belgium, May 2017

By Dom Nozzi

It is Thursday, May 4, 2017. Maggie and I depart Boulder at 8:30 a.m. It is the start of a very long day of travel. First, we fly from Denver to Washington DC. It was not until 1 p.m. the next day that we arrived at our European gateway – Zurich Switzerland.

Iceland airport, May 2017 (1)Our airline – IcelandAir – takes us to their home base in Reykjavik, Iceland. First time I have ever touched land in Iceland. The Iceland landscape from the airport looks barren, volcanic, and treeless. The photos I shot are here.

Unfortunately, IcelandAir loses my luggage on our flight from Reykjavik to Zurich. Despite the fact that Maggie sees my bag being loaded onto the plane in Reykjavik. The consequence for me is that I have no change of clothes for three days. One benefit: It was lightning fast for me to get ready in the morning!

We train to Bern. Like all cities I have visited in Europe, Bern has an impressive, charming old town district. We enjoy strolling the city streets, and learn the old town can easily be seen in less than a day. Our fondness for Bern is tempered by the fact that the Bern Switzerland, May 2017 (42)streets are relatively wide. Most of the streets we walk, therefore, lack the human scale I adore so much in Europe. Here are photos I shot while in Bern.

We are informed by a Geneva, Switzerland friend who has met up with us in Fribourg that Switzerland has suffered a long, terrible drought. That drought comes to an end on our arrival in Switzerland. Saturday morning greets us with a steady, cold rain, which starts before we wake up and ends up being continuous for over 50 hours.

As I often say, if a place is suffering from drought, the effective method for ending the drought is to have Dom Nozzi visit…

On this day, we enjoy touring Fribourg — a very lovely, charming town. We ride the only poop-powered funicular in the world while in Fribourg. Photos I shot in Fribourg can be found here.

We make a quick side trip to Medieval Morat down the road. I find it to be a very nice little town. Fortunately for us, we are mostly able to avoid the rain, as the ramparts we walk along the edge of the city are covered. These are the photos I shot while in Morat.

Entry to Gruyere Switzerland, May 2017 (1)We then tour the town of Gruyere, famous for its cheese. Again, a quite pleasant little town. We are treated to a delicious fondue in the best place in the world to have a fondue. Here we start what will be several consecutive days of eating a lot of cheese. Photos I shot while in Gruyere can be found here.

Lodging for the night is in Chateau-D’Oex at Hotel de Ville. Our ride there by Michael Ronkin, our tour guide today, takes us through lovely, typical Swiss villages and mountain valleys. My Chateau-D’Oex photos are found here.

Our next stop is Montreux, home of the Montreux Rivieria on Lake Geneva and a striking Freddie Mercury statue. Our friend and guide that day – Michael Ronkin – tells us that in 1970, he played in a band that opened for Deep Purple just before that band wrote Smoke on the Water. “We all came out to Montreux on the Lake Geneva shoreline…” We walk by the new casino that has replaced the one burned down in the early ‘70s, and I start singing the lyrics I have not forgotten since first hearing the song in the early ‘70s, “…some stupid with a flare gun burned the place to the ground. Smoke on the water, a fire in the sky. Smoke on the water. They burned down the gambling house. It died with an awful sound. Funky Claude was running in and out. Pulling kids out the ground. When it all was over, we had to find another place. But Swiss time was running out. It seemed that we would lose the race…We ended up at the Grand Hotel. It was empty, cold and bare…” You can see the photos I shot in Montreux here.

Michael drives us to the small lakeside town of Nyon, where we first walk a bit of the town (here are photos I shot), then board a historic steamboat to ride to Geneva on Lake Geneva. We spoil ourselves by ordering a delicious red wine on the boat, and marvel at the Swiss palaces along the shoreline. Upon arrival, we enjoy a quick walk through Geneva Old Town. These are the photos I shot.

In the early afternoon on Monday, after a brief walk and nice, affordable lunch at a popular Lake Geneva dock-based restaurant, we fly Geneva to Amsterdam on EasyJet. Soon after arriving in Amsterdam, we rent bikes and go for a fun ride on random streets. I love riding in large groups of cyclists. Safety in Numbers is palpable.

We arrive at our apartment, It is a fantastic, two-story abode featuring large, unfinished wood beams.

Tuesday morning finds me ordering goat cheese, spinach, garlic oil, and pine nuts pancakes. We top that off with mini-pancakes smothered in chocolate sauce.

Lunch today is fun and fantastic. Zeppo’s in Amsterdam. It is the first time I have ever sampled raw herring. I gobble down two of them without retching. My friend Michael Dom Nozzi eating raw herring for lunch at Zeppos, Amsterdam, May 2017 (27)Ronkin had informed us that he has lived in the region for 30 years but has never had the courage to sample the Dutch delicacy. It takes me less than a day to beat him to the punch.

This day also includes my first consumption of marijuana (an edible in a brownie) in 39 years, as we stop into an Amsterdam pot shop. I don’t opt to consume enough to get high, but since I last had pot in 1978 and experienced extreme paranoia and hallucinations, I have no idea if even a few crumbs would send me to a mental asylum.

We make the obligatory walk in the Red Light District, where many “ladies of the night” beckon me with winks and hand waves. We also decide to tour the very amusing Sex Museum.

Maggie has eaten too much of her pot brownie and ends up flat on her back on this night. This nixes her much-desired tour of the Anne Frank House. She is too knocked out to get out of bed for dinner, so I have to set out on my own at 10 p.m. for dinner (at a café bar). Latest time of evening I have ever gone to dinner. My photos of Amsterdam can be found here.

On Wednesday, we decide to make a day trip to Utrecht. We find Utrecht to be delightful. I revel in the vibrant atmosphere and the charming, lovable, human-scaled streets and canals.

Our favorite city so far on this trip. My photos of Utrecht are here.

We buy four different cheeses and a hearty bread for our train trip from Amsterdam to Delft.

We happily take advantage of a complimentary meal offered to us by our Delft apartment proprietor at a restaurant across from our apartment.

Delft Markt for breakfast, May 11, 2017 (7)Thursday morning finds us grabbing breakfast and shopping at the big Thursday outdoor market at Markt Square in Delft (my pictures of Delft are here). We bike a bit in Delft and without more to see in Delft, we decide on biking the countryside to visit the beach and then The Hague.

Despite detailed advice from friend Michael Ronkin, we get lost several times, even though we use a numbered bike route map described to us by Michael. Our problem? A huge percentage of bike route numbers are missing. The missing numbers has us guessing several times and ending up biking much further than we need to.

Town center in The Hague is quite bustling, I grab a delicious Queen Bee Stout brewed by a British brewpub in the center. We end up much more quickly getting back to Delft as we mostly abandon the bike map and just follow the motorist street signs back to Delft.

Friday finds us hopping on a train with our bikes from Delft to Gouda. We spend a few hours enjoying Gouda and biking around the small, quaint town. I decide to order a fantastic quadrupel beir and a great carpaccio sandwich for lunch on the main piazza.

We then train to Leiden, which is another charming canal town FULL of cyclists. It warms my heart to see huge numbers of cyclists on major city roads. My Gouda and Leiden photos are here. We then bike 15 miles back to Delft in the late afternoon and early evening through a very stereotypical, delightful Dutch countryside. Our ride Leiden, May 12, 2017 (36)includes the stereotypical Dutch weather: on and off drizzle through much of the ride.

In general, in our time in The Netherlands, we notice that the Dutch start their mornings relatively late. Public outdoor markets and breakfast cafes don’t really open and get started until well after 9 am.

On Saturday, we train from Delft to the Belgian city of Antwerp. Antwerp turns out to be surprisingly impressive. We emerge from exiting the train to arrival in the main train terminal hall. The hall is spectacular. I quickly snap a large number of photos, as do many other arrivals at the hall. My Antwerp photos are here.

Our plan to rent “Blue Bikes,” which would allow us to conveniently use the same card to rent a bike in multiple Belgian cities at a relatively low cost is foiled as we are surprised to learn that the Blue Bikes office is closed on weekends (we arrived on Saturday). Instead, we opt to rent from another company for a few afternoon hours. We head straight for Old Town Center Antwerp and we are immediately immersed in a crowded flow of pedestrians on a large walking street. Our evasive and reflex bicycle skills are tested as we must constantly weave in and out of crowds of walkers.

After a few blocks, we arrive in an area of fantastically ornate medieval buildings and tiny walking streets. Both the large and small streets are full of high-end shopping (one comment I had spotted on the Internet before our arrival stated that this was a woman’s favorite shopping city in the world).

Maggie cannot resist buying a Belgian waffle, so we stop at an outdoor café where she enjoys a delicious version of one. We rush back to the train station where we quickly return our bikes, grab our luggage from the lockers, and arrive at our platform to board a train to the sightseeing powerhouse of Bruges, Belgian.

We walk Bruges at sunset. Over the top charming and huge wow factor. Overwhelmingly picturesque (my photos here). We enjoy dinner at a pleasant place along a canal. Then take a romantic evening horse-drawn carriage tour of the old town sights.

Finished the night at a very local beir joint that has a huge selection of beers. Sampled a lambic for the first time. AWFUL. Also tried a very nice Hawaiian stout. Ended up drinking a good Belgian local Hercule Stout.

We rent bikes in Sunday morning and have an enjoyable day bicycling around town and in the southern suburbs of the city. Belgian drivers seem to be more aggressive and faster near cyclists than in The Netherlands.

We treat ourselves to a pleasant, large lunch where I order a huge steaming pot of mussels (along with fries).

To our great fortune, as we start bicycling again, we stumble upon an ENORMOUS celebration by thousands and thousands of fans of the Bruges soccer team. The Bruges team is to face off, as the #2 team, against the #1 team. We were told by a fan that if the #1 team won, they would win the championship. But, he added, that won’t happen. The Massive fan pep rally before huge Bruges soccer match, May 14, 2017 (60)celebration is a near riot of yelling, singing, loud firecrackers, blue (the team color) smoke flares, and a sea of blue clothing. Shocking how rowdy the fans are in this spectacle of fan support for the team. And this BEFORE the match. Having played high school football, it is difficult for me to imagine the stirring joyfulness the team must experience when the team bus drives into this party.

We get so caught up in the hysteria that we end up watching some of the match later on a pub TV.

Dinner tonight is at The Flemish Pot in Burges. Delicious slow, fresh food. The Flemish eat a LOT of food, so our portions are HUGE.

As I sit at an outdoor café with another delicious Belgian beer and the convivial atmosphere of happy people all around me, I wonder: “Would I prefer living in a place of walkable, compact, convenient, charming, romantic urbanism where the weather tends to be cloudy and damp? Or would I prefer a more sterile, suburban, isolating, boring lifestyle that features sunny and dry weather?” I decide I would lean toward the former.

On Monday, we have a delicious breakfast at Julliette’s in Burges. After fueling up, we climb the 366-step Belfry at the Markt.

We learn to our great dismay – despite what we were told when we called in the US before the trip – that we cannot rent a “Blue Bike” unless we have a Belgian passport.

We train from Burges to Ghent, regretting that we have not lodged in Maastricht rather than Ghent. Rick Steves has given Ghent an average rating, noting that it is a working town without the charm of Burges. But we found many striking buildings and charming medieval buildings in Ghent (my photos of Ghent). We tour the castle (intended more to intimidate local citizens than to protect the city, according to Steves) and I am so impressed by the structure that I shoot quite a few photos.

We chance upon a restaurant which has a fun motto: “We love organic ingredients, local products, and f**king rock and roll. The pizza names are also hilarious. We cannot resist, so we have antipasta and a nice salmon pizza at the restaurant.

After dinner, we select an outdoor café for a Belgian beir. Oddly, we are unable to find a suitable outdoor cafes for beer along the Ghent canals.

I cannot resist the urge to sample Gruut Bruin, a local dark, sweet beir brewed a few blocks away in Ghent. Gruut is made without hops, but instead uses a medieval mix of herbs that brewers call “gruit.” I decide Gruut tastes much more like a beer than I expected. And tastes much better than I expected.

Overall, we find that foods such as yogurts are much less loaded with sugar than they are in the US.

We also discover that Belgians are beir connoisseurs, not tea connoisseurs, as we learn through the fact that all the restaurants and lodging have only Lipton tea.

Throughout Belgian we see a large number of severely pruned large trees. We also note that the great majority of homes and commercial buildings are brick rather than wood.

We start the day with a lovely breakfast at an outdoor café in Ghent. On the way to breakfast, we get lost along the way on our bikes – which just meant we got to see more of Ghent.

We drop off our bikes at the bike rental shop, walk home, collect our luggage, forget our bread and cheese in the fridge, and hop on a tram to the train station.

Our Rail Pass today is taking us to Brussels. This city has a very noticeable “big city” vibe compared to other cities we visit on our tour of Europe. Our apartment is on the third floor, which has us climbing a LONG and narrow wooden spiral staircase to the apartment.

Grand Place — said to be the most beautiful place on earth — is a block away and its tallest tower looms close by outside one of our windows. We stop at a café in the Grand Place to Grand Place at night, Brussels, Belgium, May 16, 2017 (61)map out our city stroll this day. We don’t notice as many cyclists here in this city as we had in previous cities in Belgium and The Netherlands. It is only late in the day that we discover we could have cheaply rented Villo bikes without being local resident “members.”

In general, we find Brussels to be impressive, but too hostile to biking (at least compared to other cities we biked in The Netherlands and Belgium). We end up disliking the Villo bike share system, as the bikes are far too heavy and too commonly out of repair.

Brussels has an impressive number of pedestrians. The city seems very alive, electric and vibrant – particularly at night. We enjoy the many streets closed to bicycling. I personally find the city to be too “Big City” for my taste. That is, streets too big, and distances to destinations too large.

On our first night of sleeping in downtown Brussels, we learn what it is like to be in a “real” city – a city that is, in other words, a 24-hour city. From about 7 p.m. till about 6 a.m., we hear a continuous buzz of talking and socializing outside on the streets.

Looking outside our apartment window upon being awoken, I hear a lot of people talking. Since I could see street buildings, I assume this means it was the early morning breakfast crowds at outdoor cafes. Instead, it was about 2 or 3 in the morning, and the street buildings are visible not due to morning sun but because the streetlights are on. These are my Brussels photos.

On Wednesday, we train Brussels to Leige to Maastricht first thing in the morning. We rent bikes to ride around Maastricht on a very warm day (85 degrees). Maastricht turns out to be an impressive medieval city. Quiet and low-key – particularly compared to 24-hour Brussels. My Maastricht photos are here.

We have a delightful, festive final dinner at Arcadi Café, a 1900-era café in the heart of downtown Brussels (and across the street from a very loud, boisterous art opening). As a Dom Nozzi on Delirium Tremens beer alley, Brussels, May 17, 2017 (2)nightcap, we stumble upon “Delirium Tremens” Alley, which is lined with several connected Brussels bars full of great Belgian beer on tap. I have the infamous Delirium Tremens, and a taste of the black Delirium Nocturnum.

It is always a treat when I am able to freely and legally join wine and beer drinkers in a public street outside of a bar, and this is the scene here in the “Alley.” In nations where I have experienced this, which includes Belgium and Italy, adults are treated like adults and allowed to drink in public streets outside of the bar. By contrast, in America adults are treated like misbehaving children. A form of Nanny State.

Overall, streets are very difficult to navigate in downtown Brussels. As Andres Duany would say, the streets are very “cranky.” They are crooked and stubby and twisting every block. The French street names use what seems like 6 to 8 unpronounceable words, and the names seem to change every block. The street name signs, to compound the problem, are also hard to find, and often too far away to read.

I find myself enviously admiring the strong outdoor café culture in The Netherlands and Belgium. Over and over again we come upon large happy crowds of people enjoying this delightful, convivial, festive scene in the cities of those two nations.

On this trip, I must have drunk over 30 different Belgian beers. The Belgians certainly excel in making high quality beer. A delicious aspect of visiting Belgium.

Water quality in Belgium, as confirmed by how awful the water tasted to us — and what we were told by a waiter — is amongst the worst in the world.

It is no wonder that the Belgians are so avid about brewing beer.

 

 

 

Categories: 2011-Present, Beyond North America, Miscellaneous | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Sampling Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, April 2017

Maggie and I now make a decision about our next trip based on a “screaming deal” we see for travel prices. Maggie notices that we can fly to, and lodge relatively cheaply in, Puerto Vallarta. That is all we need to know. We are soon on a plane.

It will be my first time spending a meaningful amount of time deep in Mexico.

Our first day is a Tuesday. For an early April date, I immediately notice that this locale is a FURNACE! How can people stand the much hotter conditions in the summer, I wonder?

At the Puerto Vallarta airport, when walking to get bags, one is inundated with THOUSANDS of offers to take a taxi. Taxi and bus service is everywhere. VERY tourist-driven economy.

I also notice, with both trepidation and amusement, that the city buses are very Third World. The bus lacks identifier numbers. Instead, one sees on the windshield a list of major stores the bus serves. The bus is loud, and packed with people — so much so that many are standing in bus stairwell. Also, the bus has no shocks. And seems to have been built in the 1940s.

At first, I see no ability to signal to the driver that we would like to get off at the next stop. Then I hear what sounds like a male whistling to stop. I don’t see any men whistling, and notice that this is the sound that is made when one presses a button to have the bus stop.

Glad we won’t need to just leap off a moving bus like skydivers…

Another Third World trait: We are almost constantly hounded by people hawking tourist trinkets, food, and drink.

Maggie Waddoups at Puerto Vallarta, April 2017 (16)Impressive public art is everywhere in Puerto Vallarta. Maybe this town is not so backward after all.

In what we soon learn is a sample of things to come during our time in Puerto Vallarta, we enjoy a very tasty and affordable ceviche for what we make a combination lunch/dinner at a “locals” restaurant/bar.

We discover that “old town” is very fun and vibrant, with nice cobblestone streets, good street dimensions, and a party atmosphere full of music and dancing at night.Puerto Vallarta, April 2017 (4)

The main north-south coastal roadway in Puerto Vallarta is an awful, miserable highway to hell. Impossible for pedestrians, dangerous, and full of loud cars and trucks.

Affordability is a pleasant trait of the town. When we were there, $20 USD was about $300 pesos.

On Wednesday, we opt to rent bikes and quickly learn that bicycling is really tough here: zero bike parking, and very hostile roads. The major roads are commonly high-speed and crowded. A great many neighborhood streets feature a lot of bruising cobblestone surfaces – which would be charming if in a compact, walkable area, but are mostly a nuisance when distances require bicycling. To add insult to injury, there are almost no signs informing you of street names.

On Thursday, we take a catamaran on a two-hour ride to the Marietas Islands. We see many dolphins and sting rays breaching the water surface. We also catch a glimpse or two of quite rare whales along the way.

At the islands, we hike along a very scenic beach filled with interesting arched rock formations. From the catamaran, we do a little kayaking and paddle boarding, and a Maggie Waddoups paddleboarding at Marietas Islands, Puerto Vallarta, April 2017 (56)little snorkeling. On our way back, it was Booze Cruise time. I had two margaritas, two pina colodas, a salted beer (Mex style), and a Bloody Mary.

On Friday, we have a great breakfast on the beach at La Palapa restaurant. We then walk for several blocks in old town, where we stumble upon a very enjoyable, local produce market.

After several months of urging Maggie to try paragliding (and her saying “NO WAY NO HOW!”), I finally talk her into something safer and approximate: parasailing, which we both try out on the Puerto Vallarta beach.

Delightful.Dom Nozzi parasailing over Puerto Vallarta, April 2017 (5)

Soon after, we grab lunch at what most call the best fish tacos in town at Marisma’s Fish Taco stand.

On Saturday, we make our daily trip to Old Town, and today I wonder about how charming the streets must have been before the tourist invasion. Like Cuba?

In general, authentic Mexican food is quite spicy hot. Yet here in Puerto Vallarta, many restaurants we visited often served noticeably mild food. I conclude that this is likely due to the fact that the restaurants do not want to scare off the more mild taste preferences of Americans. A menu today read, for example, something I have never seen on a menu: “Don’t order a dish if you do not know the dish.” Surely a sign of this concern. Too many tourists in the past have surely Puerto Vallarta, April 2017 (32)refused to eat a dish when it turned out too spicy, and the restaurant was obligated to dispose of the dish.

Throughout our trip, we notice a curving cobblestone decorative pattern inlaid into public sidewalks. I joke to Maggie that this was a way to humorously mimic the path taken by people staggering home after getting drunk on too much Tequila. I mentioned this to a taxi driver later and he confirms my speculation was true.

We very much enjoy browsing in an open air Saturday market in the public square in Old Town. We sample many delicious breads, cheeses, grains, drinks, pestos, and oils. We wonder why there were not more vendors at this market in a square and guess it is due to pressure from nearby restaurants concerned that they would lose business.Puerto Vallarta Mexico, April 2017 (10)

Late in the afternoon, we enjoy watching four entertainers on the beach spinning upside down from a tall tower while hanging from ropes.

Pinatas are everywhere in Puerto Vallarta. Not sure why this is so.

During our time in Puerto Vallarta, I notice that it seems unusually easy to bargain down prices for goods and services in the community. My speculation: This is a sign that prices are inflated, which makes it likely that vendors are easy to bargain down on their prices, since a lower price is the “reasonable” price.

In our five days here, we drink alcohol like fish. We also eat high quality fish and seafood Dom Nozzi and Maggie Waddoups breakfast in Puerto Vallarta, April 2017 (70)for breakfast, lunch, and dinner every day.

It turns out to be a bad trip for my glasses: First, I forgot my sunglasses at home, which meant I had no eye protection from the several days of intense sun in Puerto Vallarta. Then, I discover after getting off the plane from Denver to Puerto Vallarta that I had forgotten my reading glasses on the plane. To top it all off, I discover to my extreme annoyance that I had forgotten my back-up pair of reading glasses on the plane from Puerto Vallarta to Denver!

I think I need to have my sunglasses and reading glasses surgically attached to my head…

Here are the photos I shot during the trip.

Categories: 2011-Present, Beyond North America, Miscellaneous | Tags: , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Hiking the Utah National Parks

By Dom Nozzi

It is late at night on Wednesday, March 25th, 2015, and I’m driving my Florida adventure buddy and I from the Salt Lake International Airport south on the infamous Interstate 15 in the middle of the Salt Lake City metro area. Infamous because I-15 is what appears to be 12 lanes of superhighway in each direction (with construction suggesting the state Dept of Transportation is building even MORE lanes), and one drives for 40 to 60 miles of screaming agony and high anxiety through awful strip commercial entropy, and hostile, high-speed, randomly-lane-changing motorists – undoubtedly driving so fast in part to minimize the time they spend in such a depressing nowhere place.

Shockingly, this monster highway is filled with cars. At 10:30 pm. It appears that due to the tragedy of spending billions to require nearly all trips in this region to be forced onto this soul-crushing freeway, Salt Lake City’s signature nightmare road is now delivering 24/7 rush hour traffic.

The next morning, the day starts poorly, as our plan to visit Cedar Breaks National Monument (a place we had not heard of previously) is thwarted by the fact that access roads to the park are inexplicably closed.

Instead, Plan B finds us briefly hiking northern Zion National Park. We follow this by hiking one of the most stunning – and most scary – hikes in the National Park system: Angels Landing.

Angels Landing is a somewhat terrifying, very narrow trail. A number of times on this trail, the tread narrows to a razor-sharp 12 inches wide with 1,000-foot cliff drops on both sides. This necessitates the National Park Service installing long stretches of stainless steel chains that we are obligated to hold onto for dear life.

I am feeling a great deal of anxiety and must regularly fight the sensation of vertigo. Quite thankful for the chain.Angel's Landing hike Zion NP March 26, 2015 (41)

Views on both sides of us, as we ascend the trail, are spectacular. We soon arrive at switchbacks, which allow us to ascend a very steep section. One set of switchbacks is called Walter’s Wiggle.

Here are the photos I shot when hiking to the summit of Angels Landing.

Zion National Park, on the day we are there, is packed with tourists.

The following day promises to be epic. Today we are to hike The Narrows. For over ten years, this hike has been near the top of my bucket list, after hearing from a sister-in-law that it is a MUST hike. We have worked to figure out the gear we will need: waders? Neoprene socks? Wetsuit? Waterproof boots? Having appropriate gear turns out to be especially important, as we learn on the morning of our arrival at the shuttle access point that the water is running at an icy 41 degrees. Yikes.

I have brought along a full wetsuit. Water/boat shoes. Neoprene sox. Daypack with hydration system and food. My buddy has not brought anything appropriate from Florida, so ends up renting waterproof hiking boots and neoprene socks. He wears shorts instead of waders or wetsuit, which shocks me. And many other hikers later in the day, who repeatedly ask him if he is not numb cold. He ends the day saying he was fine.

Unlike most hikers, we opt not to use a walking stick.

Much of the many miles we hike from bottom trailhead has us in ankle-deep to calf-deep water on sand and softball-sized rocks. Periodically, we are able to walk on dry sand, as the river is a bit below normal height.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe slot canyons of The Narrows are simply stunning. Jaw dropping. I cannot stop taking photos of the sheer, wavy, colorful rock walls soaring hundreds of feet above us on both sides. The beauty is hard to describe. Unlike anything I’ve experienced previously.

Oftentimes, it seems as if we are walking in the American version of ancient Rome, as the rock walls around us reminds me of the marble walls and arcades and columns found in that ancient city.

The current in the river was rather swift, which regularly tested our balancing skills as we worked to cross it several times without a hike-ending fall into the ice water.

At one point, we take a branching slot canyon off the main canyon. The slot is much more narrow, and after a few miles we reach a shoulder-deep pond. Of a group of hikers stopped at this point, I am the only one to be able to cross the pond, because I zip up my full wetsuit and wade across. We end up turning around here and returning to the main canyon, where we stop for lunch before continuing on.

I have hiked a great many spectacular hikes around the world in my life, and yet would place this hike in my Top Three all-time best hikes.

Unfortunately, I had not really used the water/boat shoes before The Narrows, and learn – to my great dismay – that the shoes were extremely inadequate. No sturdy leather soles or other support. Just a thin layer of very pliable rubber. After several hours of walking over rocks in The Narrows, my feet are extremely painful and numb. I need to remove the shoes and walk barefoot along the paved path back to the shuttle.

Here are the photos I shot during my exploration of The Narrows.

Like the other mornings, the next morning starts out with bright blue skies and sun. Precisely the sky we want for our next destination: Bryce National Park. Spectacular rock formations. Navajo Trail and Peekaboo Trail Bryce Canyon March 28, 2015 (74)Unimaginably colorful and vibrant orange colors. Hoodoos everywhere. At the end of an incredible day of hiking the stunning canyon trails, our thirst brings us to a grocery store. I am in search of one of Utah’s trademark microbeers: Polygamy Porter (Motto on label: “Why Have Just One”). Unfortunately, they are sold out of Polygamy Porter, so I opt for something similarly amusing: 4-Play Porter. We end up at Sunset Point on the Rim Trail. Here, a large number of people have assembled with extremely expensive cameras to shoot photos of the fantastic flat light of sunset playing on the canyon formations.

Because alcohol is strictly prohibited at a national park, and because such patronizing rules never stopped us, we hit on a way to enjoy the sunset with our beer: We pour our beers into our canteens. No one suspects a thing…

Bryce is exceptionally photogenic. Here are the photos I shot while hiking Bryce Canyon.

On Sunday the 29th, we find ourselves at the Grand Staircase National Monument. We opt for a hike on the Escalante River trail.

This hike teaches me that my buddy and I have different hiking philosophies: I am here to experience the geology, which is easily enjoyed on the trail. He is here to experience the biology, so he opts to hike in the sandy river.

Grand Staircase National Monument Escalante River, March 29, 2015 (22). Natural Bridge.After a few hours, we have lost track of each other (and have neglected to agree to a plan if we are separated). I stop for a leisurely lunch at the impressive Natural Bridge along the river. Expecting to find him coming up the river when I start heading back down the river, we don’t cross each other.

I stumble upon his hiking boots, which he had taken off and planned to return to after his hike. Here I wait – knowing that he will be obligated to return to retrieve the boots.

I wait for 4.5 hours.

I give up on him and head back to the trailhead. My plan is to call emergency rescue, but just before I do, I hear a report from a few hikers that they have spotted a hiker who fits the description of my buddy. I am relieved that he is still alive.

Here are the photos I shot while hiking the Escalante River.

On our way to this region, we are puzzled by our Delormes map, which shows a town named “Ruby’s Inn.” Why would a town be named after a motel?

Later that night at a restaurant, we learn why. Long ago, a family had settled in the area and established a motel called “Ruby’s Inn.” They ended up building an empire complex of restaurants, stores, gas stations, and offices – what ended up amounting to nearly a full set of town elements. We are informed that like the TV show “Bonanza, Ruby’s Inn was started by a family somewhat like the Cartwrights in the TV show. But the Ruby’s Inn family ended up being “the Cartwrights Gone Bad.”

Our last day featured relatively short hikes, but the first hike on this day is a hike for the ages. A peak experience hike. On the strong, enthusiastic advice of a Grand Staircase National Park Service ranger, we warily opt for starting the day by hiking Spooky Gulch, Peekaboo Gulch, and Dry Wash slot canyons. We are wary for two reasons. First, we are informed that the access road is up to 45 minutes of driving (each way) on a washboard dirt road. Second, we are told that the Spooky Gulch slot is often so narrow (as narrow as 10 inches) and its walls so tall that it can induce claustrophobia (hence the name of the slot).

These three relatively short trails are part of a loop (which I greatly prefer, as I dislike backtracking). We unknowingly start our hike at the Spooky Gulch entrance, as the Peekaboo entrance seems slowed by a family of parents and young children. “Unknowingly” because we are about to learn that this counterclockwise direction requires a serious test of our free climbing skills.

Spooky Gulch is otherworldly. Surreal. Spectacular in golden colors and smooth, wavy, OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAsunsplashed rock walls and white sandy floor. As advertised, we regularly found ourselves squeezing through slots no wider than 10 inches. Indeed, it was common for us to have to remove our backpacks to fit through, and it seemed to me that anyone even a few pounds heavier than I could not push their way through the tight gaps.

The curving, rounded walls appear to be waves of water frozen in a large pipe.

We unexpectedly arrive at a long rock chimney above us. We had not heard or read anything about it. We spend about 20 minutes closely inspecting the rock faces and evaluating whether it is possible to ascend without ropes or other climbing gear. Finally, we spot a solution. There is a very thin foothold about chest high on the wall, and a reachable hand hold that is just barely reachable above the foothold. Mike ascends slowly while I hold his backpack. After several careful minutes of free climbing, he finally shimmies his way through the chimney. I hand him both his pack and mine, and I repeat what he has done.

Clearly, our counterclockwise direction makes for a much more challenging hike through Spooky.

There were hikers going the same direction we were going, and we could see that they would CLEARLY be incapable of ascending this rather technical free climb up the chimney. We stopped and waited at the top of the chimney to listen to their voices below — so that we could hear comments about what they would do – knowing they would have to turn back.

Hikers coming clockwise would have it much easier, as they are simply needing to slowly slide DOWN the chimney.

While the dusty, bumpy access road was a tough slog of over 80 minutes of driving, the slots we experienced behind us made the demanding ride well worth it. One important benefit of the washboard access: It tends to discourage less serious hikers from using the trail…

Here are the photos I shot while hiking the Spooky, Peekaboo, and Dry Wash slot canyons.

We end the day by arriving at Capitol Reef National Park – yet another national park we had not previously heard of. The name derives from the fact that the rock formations on canyon walls here appear to be coral reef formations.

Because of the lateness in the day, we take a ranger’s advice to hike the Sulfur Creek trail – a trail I had previously seen was highly rated on the Internet.

I scramble up a slightly rounded canyon wall to get large views of the horizon, while Mike remains along and in the creek. On descending back to the creek and trail, I come upon Mike carefully trying to figure out a way to get across a very slick, tricky waterfall crossing.

We spend about 30 minutes trying to decide if there is a reasonably safe way to cross. We are standing on a narrow lip on a rock wall next to the falls. To get close enough to the falls to have a Mike Byerly at Sulfur Creek waterfall, Capitol Reef NP, March 30, 2015 (60)chance to leap over would require us to somehow use very thin hand holds far above us and inch along a very steep, smooth, slippery rock face. See photo to left.

This seems to iffy to me. I propose to make a running leap over the falls (instead of using the hand hold/inching method). I am confident that my momentum and my history as an all-county triple jumper in high school will allow me to do this successfully.

But in the end, we decide it is not worth the risk. The payoff rewards in front of us on the trail are not high enough for us to take the chance. This is a historic moment, as in the past, whenever I faced a risky maneuver in the outdoors, I would always tell my companion that “if Mike was with me, I would do this.” I say this because Mike and I invariably WOULD do what it takes.

Risk never stopped us.

But this time, for the first time, it does. But we know how we can do it next time we are here. We know what we will need to be wearing for footgear and other clothing.

Our unforgettable, peak-experience week of hiking the Utah National Park concludes by our battling the 16-lane SUPERHIGHWAY SPRAWL of Salt Lake City.

After checking and turning down several hotels near our airport (due to high cost), we finally find one that is somewhat reasonably priced.

Dinner tonight (at an Applebees, which has a sign on its wall that inappropriately calls itself a “neighborhood restaurant”) is at 11:30 pm.

Latest dinner I have ever had.

Categories: 2011-Present, Hiking, Utah | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Enjoying Five European Countries, May 2014

by Dom Nozzi

Ann and I can hardly believe it. We are with friends in Boulder on Tuesday, April 29th, and will be getting on a plane the next morning. Our first stop is in Rochester NY, where we will join my family in celebrating my mom’s 80th birthday (I have used ancestry.com to create a family tree book as a gift for her). After a few days there, we fly to Amsterdam in The Netherlands, then on to Hungary, Czech Republic, Croatia, and Montenegro.

We are excited in anticipation of what will surely be an unforgettable trip to five nations we have never visited before.

It is May 5th. I have survived a nasty, mercifully short-lived stomach virus I contracted in Rochester (which included a fortunately unrealized fear that I’d be nauseous for seven hours in a plane over the Atlantic Ocean). We are on a noticeably quiet train taking us from the Amsterdam airport to the Centraal Station in Old Town Amsterdam. The architecture we see from our train window transitions. First, in the newer, outlying part of Amsterdam, we are given unpleasant views of the almost invariably unlovable modernist architecture of boxes and glass cubes. We know we have arrived in Old Amsterdam when we start noticing the change in architecture toward the timelessly lovable, ornately classic architectural styles of buildings built over 80 years ago.

The older architecture is such a nice change. What a tragedy for what we have built in modern times, however.

In our too-brief couple of days in Amsterdam, we are astounded by the overwhelming amount of charming streets, canals and architecture – as well as the great food — in the town center neighborhoods that surround our Air B & B hotel.

Bicycling, of course, is seemingly engaged in happily by all demographic groups: very young through very old, businessmen and women in suits, elegant ladies in high heels and dresses, very poor through very wealthy. Over the course of our first day, I notice a great many women singing as they bicycle. It is obvious that bicycling is a great way to feel happy.Amsterdam May 2014 (26)

We make the excellent decision to rent bikes and join the thousands of happy Amsterdamers bicycling through their lovely city.

In the late afternoon of our first day, we serendipitously bicycle to a canal bridge where thousands have gathered to enjoy a concert by a symphony orchestra which is performing on a stage floating on the canal at Hermitage.

In our two days in the city, we have an absolute blast bicycling in what amounts to a ballet of bicycling. So many bicyclists that we feel as if we are joining a flowing river of bicyclists. Scooters, cars, and bicyclists are weaving and darting in a dizzying number of directions at intersections – almost without care or worry, as they somehow safely avoid each other. Indeed, during our time in the city, despite this seemingly chaotic mixing on streets, we don’t witness even a single minor fender bender or crash. Safety is truly in numbers. The ballet induces joyful riding without crashing. Check out this video I shot of one intersection I came upon while bicycling in Amsterdam.

A colleague of mine – urban design consultant Victor Dover – has cited his admiration for a street in Amsterdam called Tweede Tuindwarsstraat in his Street Design book. We eventually bicycle to the street and confirm its wonderful, vibrant nature. We join many others in happily eating gelato at an ice cream shop on the street after I’ve shot several photos of the architecture and street dimensions.

Over the course of our 2014 journey in the five European nations, we are relieved to find that most everyone speaks English. I feel shame that like most Americans, I do not, by contrast, speak more than my native language.

As Rick Steves points out in his tour guide for Amsterdam, we notice that many who reside in this city are relatively tall, attractive, and seemingly healthy. Is this any wonder, given how much bicycling (and walking) occurs in Amsterdam?

The next day, May 6th, I set off on my own. I arrive at the festive Leisplein Square, where so much seems to happen in this city. Here one finds the Stadsschouwburg Theatre, a great many restaurants, and lots of lingering people.

I also walk Kalverstraat, the famed pedestrian street in Amsterdam (which seemed a bit antiseptic to me in comparison to the delightful, vibrant rough edges I find elsewhere in the city), the well-known Spui Square, and the extremely popular Dam Square. The walk on this morning also brought me to Anne Frank’s house, and the Flower Market. One of the most interesting (amusing?) things I experienced (as both an observer and a user) was a tiny, simple, low-cost public men’s urinal. The device was a small, green, sheet metal wrap that allowed males to pee very quickly and with just enough privacy (which wasn’t much!) to avoid any embarrassment. A brilliant idea.

Next I stroll the obligatory Red Light District, which was highly entertaining. On very narrow alleys, a large number of sizeable studio windows feature a scantily-clad prostitute – a great many of whom did whatever they could to draw me into their “office.” Most all of them winked, vigorously beckoned me to walk in, or mouthed a welcome to me. I was quite impressed by the fact that a large percentage of them were highly attractive. Had I any interest in using their services (I’ve never been tempted at all throughout my life, for the record), this would certainly be a place I would make a “purchase.” One such alley contained a number of young males who seemed not very happy when I shot a photo of them and the alley.

Later, Ann excitedly informs me that she has boldly asked an artist she had met earlier in the day (who pointed out to her in passing that he had a small boat) to give her a tour of the Amsterdam canals. Surprisingly, he was happy to agree to do that (and later expressed surprise to us that she was so forward about asking). He gives us a fabulous, leisurely guided tour (coupled with his many thoughts about Amsterdam and politics) of the Amsterdam canals at dusk. Our “fee”? We are to provide a picnic meal, which we are of course more than happy to do. The tour was an excellent way to see town center Amsterdam (including another amusing pass through the Red Light District), and the lights at night showed how romantic the city can be (even more so than it already is in daylight). He even provides wine for the three-hour trip.

We start the next day by stepping into a bakery for a superb breakfast sandwich, and a chocolate croissant (Ann feasts on them throughout the trip). We step into a nearby cheese shop and are extremely impressed by the vast quantities of cheese on display – including, of course, Edam cheese, which the Dutch are known for. It is our farewell to Amsterdam.

Here are the photos I shot while in Amsterdam.

We fly to Budapest. Our first stop is the very enjoyable, charming Castle Hill, where our lodging is located. We go to the Royal Palace and the over-the-top ornate Matthias Church. Crossing the Chain Bridge brings us to Pest (Buda is west of the river). Here we find Vaci, which some call the best pedestrian street in the world (I would rate it a 7 out of 10). The architecture is stupendous. The public library, for example, is a beauty that any city would be proud of. We also visit the Synagogue, the gorgeous Budapest Opera House, and Franz Liszt Square.

Budapest is known as a city with perhaps the most impressive collection of natural hot baths in the world (who knew?). The main reason Ann has added Budapest to our itinerary is to enjoy the baths here, and she is not disappointed. We visit Szechenyi Baths (via the Budapest metro subway), which contains an amazing labyrinth of a seemingly endless number of heated baths, saunas, and steam rooms. Visiting these baths ends up being a highly enjoyable experience for us on this day. Ann later concludes that Budapest is now her favorite city in the world.Ann at Szechenyi Baths Budapest May 2014

As I am to notice in the other four nations we visit, a great many of the women in Budapest are highly attractive.

The next day, we walk the “long” way to Pest from our across-the-river hotel over the bridge north of Chain Bridge. We pass by the impressive Hungarian Parliament building on our way to Szabadsag Ter (Liberty Square). Here we find the controversial Soviet monument of liberation (often defaced), and visit the “Great Market” – which is loaded with sellers selling a vast array of goods (although a surprising lack of food diversity).

We buy a loaf of rustic black Hungarian bread, and Hungarian cheese. I can’t resist sampling the Hungarian vino, so I buy a red Hungarian wine for $990 Forints (the Hungarian currency, which is equivalent to about five US dollars). That night, we picnic on the steps of the Royal Palace. Our vantage point gives us an impressively panoramic view of the Danube River and the Budapest skyline lit up at night (including the Parliament Building and the Chain Bridge – both of which are superb when lit up). It is the night before the Hungarian Prime Minister is to be crowned for his second term of office on these very palatial grounds.

Here are the photos I shot while in Budapest.

First thing on the following day, we are on a train through the Hungarian countryside. We had wanted to use a train each time we went from city to city (or nation to nation), but were surprised to learn that they are not only much slower than planes, but more expensive. Our train crosses through a portion of Slovekia. Along the way, we see vast acreages of agricultural fields that are brilliantly bright yellow. Later, we learn that this is the “corn” of Hungary. Huge government subsidies seek to promote the production of rapeseed as a way to create more energy independence through bio-diesel. The Hungarian countryside we pass through reminds me very much of my boyhood home region in upstate New York.

We arrive by train in Prague, and on our way to our hotel we stop at what is obviously a local beer hall filled with boisterous, blue collar locals happily drinking pilsner beer. Like the other local beer hall we sample later in Prague, this place is choking with cigarette smoke. It would be my first-ever experience where every single patron (about 40 in the second beer hall) was chain smoking like a chimney. Overall, my assessment of the Czech version of a dark beer is that at least that particular beer is mediocre.

My walk he next morning gives me an unusual experience for town center Prague, as the annual Prague marathon is being run this morning, and there are runners and running booths everywhere. I come upon Nerudova Street, cross the fantastic, pedestrian-only St Charles Bridge, the Tyn Church, the Church of St Nicholas, the Old Town Hall (including the Astronomical Clock), Bethlehem Chapel, the Estate Theatre, the Powder Tower, the Municipal House, and the Church of St James. I am overwhelmed by the beautiful architecture of the buildings in the town center, and cannot stop taking photos.Charles Bridge Prague May 2014 (5)

That night, we are, in effect, robbed by a restaurant we visit for dinner. There is no other way of putting it than to say it was a HUGE rip-off scam operation. Name of the restaurant is “Mystic.” Avoid this place at all costs (although we were to later learn that the place changes its name often – apparently because it strives to avoid losing customers who might see bad reviews). We ask for tap water and are given priced bottled water. Little do we know that the cheap, paper-thin potato chips (about 5 chips) set in a bowl on each table will later cost us three dollars. A mediocre salad cost Ann $13. The waitress brings out a main dish without the cranberry sauce on the menu, so comes back with a bowl of awful creamed berries in a tasteless white cream. To economize, we order only one main dish that we share. We are also hit with the surprise of a large, hidden “service” charge. Total bill: $70 (had each of us ordered a dinner, it would have cost almost $150. When we complain about the terrible, rip-off nature of the meal and ask the waitress if we can speak to the manager, she informs us that the manager will not be there that night or the following night. We then get a sob story from her informing us that if we leave without paying (as we threaten to do), she will be forced to pay the bill herself. Later that night, we learn that the Internet is filled with criticism of the place. One called it a “criminal rip-off.”

Overall, the “Mystic” restaurant offered the worst meal experience I ever had, and, ironically, the most expensive.

In the morning, I walk the west side of the river, and find it almost as impressive as the famous town center of Prague.

Here are the photos I shot while in Prague.

We fly to Split, Croatia from Prague airport. Split has a very Caribbean, tropical ambience. Our first experience is to tour the astonishing Diocletian’s Palace (built by a Roman emperor as a retirement residence – and who was terrified of being assassinated). We stumble upon a pair of acoustic guitar players serenading a crowd at the ancient Peristyle Square. They play a melody of famous American popular songs. Check out this video I shot of the performance.

After the performance, we dine on a very tasty seafood risotto and a tuna steak dinner. I finish the night with a draft pint of dark Czech beer (this time a bit better) at a local pub.

I walk more of Diocletian’s Place first thing the next morning, explore the old neighborhood west of the palace, and circumnavigate Marjan Park further to the west. The park provides great views of Split, the Adriatic sea, and many coastal villages.

Ann opts to have us be given a walking tour by a historian. He informs us of many interesting historical facts about the palace and emperor. We learn, for example, that the main entrance to the palace essentially operates as a human mouse trap. Invaders would naively rush through the open gate and find themselves stopped by a closed gate inside a circular “foyer” area. The gate they rushed through would quickly be sealed shut, and archers would then proceed to fire arrows at the trapped men. It would be like shooting fish in a barrel.Peristyle Square Split Croatia May 2014 (2)

Here are the photos I shot while in Split, Croatia.

We ferry to Korcula, an island famed for its wonderful waters and beaches and ancient architecture. A heavy thunderstorm hits on the first night. We are later to learn that this storm system causes major flooding in nearby Bosnia and Serbia, but we somehow don’t see any of this in our later bus crossing into those nations. Because of the rainy, surprisingly cold weather that greets us in Korcula (and is forecast for the next several days), we end our stay in Korcula and opt to go to Dubrovnik. Our brief stay in Korcula, however, gives us enough of a taste of this lovely island to tempt us to want to return.

Here are the photos I shot while in Korcula.

Our bus from Korcula to Dubrovnik is loaded onto a ferry to get us across the water to the mainland. The bus takes us through the Croatian countryside and along the coast. Both are gorgeous. We are rewarded with great views of the islands along the coast that dot the Adriatic sea. The region we pass through is rich with grape vineyards, wineries, olive orchards, fig treess, and oranges. The countryside and coastline have an appearance very much like the Amalfi Coast in Italy, including many treacherous hairpin turns on steep mountain roads. The drive is so scary that I start wondering if cars have plummeted off the cliff to the sure doom of the drivers. Sure enough, just as this thought crosses my mind, I look down to the bottom of the cliff and see a number of crumpled car carcasses.

Dubrovnik immediately signals to us that it is often inundated with tourists, as the port is crowded with cruise ships and the gateway jammed with tour buses. And for good reason. Dubrovnik is shockingly dripping with the charm that only ancient construction can provide.Old Town Dubrovnik May 2014 (3)

I should note here that many of the towns along the Croatian coast are so flooded with tourists that their economies have become distorted. Nearly all jobs are now tourism-related.

In Old Town Dubrovnik, I find alluring swimming holes behind the St John Fort, and immediately alert Ann about them. I hear a commotion of parading, singing, shouting young people who are setting off firecrackers, and learn later that this is the annual celebration of those graduating from school.

We visit the Rector’s Palace, and an amazing display of seafaring artifacts and history at the Maritime Museum. Like many other ancient quarters of towns we visit, old town Dubrovnik is graced with highly polished stone roads and walkways due to the centuries of being walked on by residents. I end the day by strolling along the top of the city fortification walls, which provided spectacular views of old town and the coastline, and had my shooting photos almost non-stop. We stop to enjoy two live music performances. One a band of men, and later a group of girls singing near our hotel.

During our four days in Dubrovnik, we learn why our hotel is called “La Musica.” While there, we were serenaded by lovely classical music played at a neighboring music school.

I opt to buy a van and walking tour of nearby Bay of Kotor and Budva, and my van sets off the next morning. Along the way, the driver points out that the nation we are driving to (Montenegro) is named because the mountains in the region appear black during heavy storms. Montenegro is also the most recent nation created in the world (2006).

Among the many noteworthy features of the Bay of Kotor is the fact that it is so well protected by a very narrow 58 Kotor May 2014waterway throat and surrounding mountains that it was the only community in the region that was not conquered by the mighty Turkish Empire. We also learn that the Bay contains the southernmost fjord in Europe.

Here are the photos I shot while touring Kotor and Budva.

Our final full day in Croatia is spent at the little-known seaside village of Cavtat. A 50-minute ferry ride from Dubrovnik Old Port takes us there. I experience my first-ever kayaking  and swimming in the Adriatic Sea. The water was chilly, but crystal clear.

My maiden kayak voyage on the Adriatic was on a relatively “tippy” kayak, and combined with the sea waves being “pushy,” I felt somewhat ill at ease (despite my many years as a kayaker). But while it felt disconcerting, it just added to the enjoyment of it all.

Here are the photos I shot while in Cavtat.

Our final dinner was a joyful discovery Ann made of the Lady Pi Pi restaurant, which sits perched at the highest point on the top of the old town Dubrovnik city walls. The restaurant, which is named after a female statue that crouches and “pees” into a ceramic bowl as a fountain, offers commanding views of Old Town, and is topped by attractive green grape vines.

Here are the photos I shot while touring Dubrovnik.

Overall, our three weeks touring five nations in Europe was highly pleasant and quite unforgettable. Ann repeatedly noted that she wants to either live in a number of the places we visited, or visit them over and over again.

 

 

Categories: 2011-Present, Beyond North America, Miscellaneous | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Skiing the best snow on Earth: Park City, Alta, and Snowbird

They have been at the top of my “must ski” list for a long time. Park City, Utah was rated fifth best ski resort in the Western United States by Ski Magazine in 2006. Nearby Alta and Snowbird average 500 inches a year of fluffy, dry powder. Alta is considered to have the most reliable, high-quality ski snow in the world, and was ranked Number One by Outside Magazine in October 2008 for snow and terrain.Snowbird ski4 Feb 2014

To say I was exceptionally eager to ski these three ski playgrounds was putting it mildly.

Despite the reputation, I grew worried as our trip date approached. A good quantity of snow fell at the first of the month, but not a single flake had fallen for three weeks. Would our timing be awful again for a ski trip??

Fortunately, there was justice in the world – at least for me on this trip. The day before my arrival, a foot of light, fluffy, soft powder falls on the Utah resorts we intend to ski.

Flying into Salt Lake City from Denver, our plane arrives at sunset, which provided an exceptionally scenic view of the Great Salt Lake, which appeared to be glowing orange as the sun set on it. And despite my living on the front range of the Colorado Rockies, I was surprised by the big, bold impressiveness of the large mountains that surround the Salt Lake Valley on all sides.

As I drive from the airport to my hotel on Interstate 80 and Interstate 15, I notice immediately that Salt Lake City if afflicted with highway GIGANTISM. The interstates are ten to twelve lanes in size. Of course, the ungodly amount of public money that was spent to build these HUGE monster roads did nothing to avert congestion in the region. Indeed, they did the reverse: We know from studies that these massive highways INDUCE new car trips that would not have occurred previously, which means that the Federal and State governments have spent ruinously large amounts of public money to create massive congestion every single day during the morning and evening rush hours. On my first day there, I felt extreme stress, unease, and anger. I was in fear for my life due to the crazy, high-speed jockeying of all the cars on the regional superhighways.

Every day, twice a day, commuters in the area must put up with the huge dose of stress and fright. How do they do it? How do they avoid high blood pressure? Do their relationships with friends and spouses suffer from the daily psychological damage? Is the region better off now that so many new car trips and suburban sprawl have been induced by the 14-laners?

Unfortunately for my Florida ski buddy, he loses a day in arriving, because his flight is canceled due to winter weather. And it is NOT weather in snowy Utah. It is weather in normally sunny and warm Florida.

As I head out to the car from my hotel room in Sandy, Utah on the first morning, stormy weather is still making itself felt in Utah. I come upon another skier who sees me with my gear. He asks what my plans are. I tell him I’m going to ski Alta. He informs me that the Alta website is reporting that the access road is only allowing four-wheel drive cars and cars with chains. I have a small, two-wheel drive rental car. Oops.

Park City6 UT ski Jan 2014Good thing I have run into him. On his advice, I opt for Plan B on the first day, then. Despite no prior plans to do so, I decide to drive out to Park City – a world-class resort I’ve long wanted very much to ski.

My first day at Park City is superb. A large number of exciting runs to choose from, including a healthy selection of tree glades, which are almost exclusively my ski preference these days. Because I am skiing alone, I’m getting on and off ski lifts much faster than I would if I had a ski companion. So on this first day, I ski an astonishing 22 runs – including two under the lights (I made a deliberate decision to ski the resort into the night hours to avoid the crushing highway congestion). Best-ever powder (much of it virgin, untouched powder – secret stash conditions) and tree glades I’ve ever skied. Favorite run: Motherlode Meadows. I get a good taste of Park City, and enjoy it enough to want to perhaps return some day. Here are photos I shot at Park City.

To further delay my return to avoid the rush hour frenzy, I stop at Squatters brew pub for some food and excellent oatmeal stout.

I was later to be reminded that I had once seen that the Canyons ski resort is top-rated for tree glades, and since I did not have an opportunity to sample Canyons at all, there is even more reason for me to consider Utah skiing again.

I pick up my friend that night at one in the morning at the airport. For his first day, we learn that the Alta access road is accessible, so we head there. It is my first experience at Alta. After a pretty good day of skiing, my impressions of Alta is that the resort, while in many ways good, has too many runs that are too easy, and too many that are too Alta ski resort6 Feb 2014difficult. Several chutes/gullies are found here, which I personally enjoy. But on this first day, we find tree glades to be too sparse and too small (in contrast to Park City).

In addition, too many runs require an uphill hike to access.

Given the disappointing features, we decide to sample neighboring Snowbird the next day. We don’t make the decision lightly, as we had just bought a four-consecutive-day lift ticket for Alta, and skiing Snowbird requires us to pay another $30.

As it turned out, our first day at Snowbird was substantially more enjoyable than our first day at Alta. Rather steep like Alta, but the tree glades and chute runs we find are much more to our liking. We enjoy several “dream” tree glade runs (some of our best-ever glade runs) in the secret stashes we discover. The deep powder we find at Snowbird is so forgiving that we find it irresistible to ski even impossibly steep runs (knowing we can control our speed in the powder). We are, in fact, often skiing runs we have no business being on, as they are normally runs that only extreme expert skiers have any hope of surviving.

For the entire day, it snows on us heavily (a first for me as a skier), despite weather forecasts of zero to ten percent chance of snow. As a result, we were essentially “skiing by Braille,” as our vision was so severely limited that we could not see hardly anything in front of us. In addition to the blinding snow, my 16-year old ski goggles (bought at Panorama Ski Resort in Canada) decide to reach the end of their useful life on this day. The scratches on the lens and the loss of ventilated padding (which is thereby regularly filling my goggles with snow), in combination with the snow, gives me the sensation that I’m skiing blindfolded. Not good for a skier like me, who needs to ski at high speeds and in tree glades that require lightning reaction speeds.

I make the call to end our ski day earlier than we had planned, as it becomes apparent that it is just way too dangerous for me to ski without reasonable vision.

We had started our day at Snowbird on their famous aerial tram, which is somewhat disconcerting. The tram moves at a relatively fast speed, is elevated to an unusually tall height, and delivers skiers to the somewhat scary upper reaches of the mountain. This is particularly true for us, as newcomers to the resort, not at all knowing if skiable runs awaited us at the tram summit. Adding to the anxiety, we are positioned at the front of the tram, and at an open window as the tram cuts through bitter cold wind, fog and snow on its way up.

Given the harrowing tram experience, we opt not to return to that lift.

Mike Byerly after sliding down a chute at Snowbird ski Feb 2014We opt for a second consecutive day at Snowbird the next morning (and the $30 added fee). We are thrilled to discover spectacular tree glades. And the combination of brand new ski goggles (which provided what seemed like my best-ever vision while skiing) and the soft, deep powder gives me, by far, the most confidence I have ever felt as a skier. It is no wonder that deep, fresh powder is sometimes called “ego snow,” as I felt invicible. Without fear. Like I was suddenly an expert skier. No matter how impossibly steep or tight the run looked, I found that I opted to ski it without hesitation (runs that just a few weeks ago would have seemed impossible). Cutting fast through big moguls was done with joy and ease. It is said that one must look relatively far ahead (rather than what is immediately in front of you) to best ski moguls and trees. With my big confidence on this day, I find that I’m looking ahead without thinking about it. After all, I have no fear that I will be negotiating what is dead ahead.

My favorite runs at Snowbird? Tiger Tail, Primrose Path, and Black Forest. Favorite runs at Alta? Nina’s Curve,  Westward Ho.

Plenty of soft, fluffy powder in the trees. Steep and deep. Learned that fresh powder means the skier can ski fearlessly. We didn’t hesitate to do runs that would have seemed impossibly extreme in the past. I never felt so confident or so skilled as a skier. It is said that Utah resorts get the best snow on earth. We can now see why.

Overall, as I look back at our Utah skiing, I would say that the skiing is excellent. Both Alta and Snowbird, however, Snowbird ski8 Feb 2014are relatively skimpy when it comes to providing signage for runs. We often had to guess where to go. Both resorts have outrageously steep runs, and the skier is often surprised to find himself looking at a cliff dead ahead. Both are intimidating when you drive into the canyon and arrive at the main parking, as the very steep mountains loom over and around you menacingly. And, unfortunately, both Alta and Snowbird require far too much poling and hiking to reach a number of runs.

Nevertheless, they are both world-class, and I recommend them for other skiers. Photos I shot at Snowbird are here. Photos I shot at Alta are here.

Our last day in the Salt Lake City region is a needed day of rest and healing from our days of rather aggressive, bruising, exhausting skiing. We spend the day sightseeing in Salt Lake City. Once again, the unbelievably huge roadways and confusingly gigantic intersections boggle my mind. Shocking. And as a colleague says, great opportunities for “road diets” (removing travel and turn lanes to improve the obese sizes).

As is typically the case, I’m only interested in visiting the historic areas of the city. Like most all cities, the more recent areas of the urban area are sickeningly car-happy or afflicted by modernist buildings, which leaves placelessness that has no charm. There is no “there there” in such a post-apocalyptic setting.

Fortunately, the modernists and conventional traffic engineers have not yet destroyed areas in or near the “temple square” area, where walkable neighborhoods and charmingly gothic buildings are in relative abundance. Our timing allows us to enjoy the daily noon organ performance at the impressive Mormon Tabernacle building.

Tabernacle2 Salt Lake City Feb 2014

I find Salt Lake City to be somewhat creepy and awkward. Why? Because while walking around in the town center, one frequently gets the impression that locals you meet have a hidden agenda. That the happy, friendly persona I encounter from locals I come upon is ARTIFICIALLY happy and friendly because the local knows happy and friendly people are more likely to persuade non-locals to consider the merits of Mormonism. Proselytization, in other words, seems to be just under the surface of those you meet — and seems to be something you will eventually be subjected to in the conversation.

We also visit the exceptionally charming, gothic “city and county building,” which has lovely faces in each of the four directions it faces. The county courthouse across the street is also worth visiting to at least enjoy the front lobby area.

On the grounds of the city/county building, we find, happily, a secular monument – a surprise in such an obviously and aggressively religious community. The monument reads: “I pledge of allegiance to the flag of the United States of America and to the Republic for which it stands, one nation, indivisible, for liberty and justice for all.” No mention of the relatively recent, religiously degrading and unfair “UNDER GOD.” My hat is off to the City

We visit the Utah State Capitol Building, which sits desolately up on a hill far from any other buildings (or even trees). The inside of the building is magnificent. Do not miss it. We get a tour of Brigham Young’s “Beehive” house. The beehives are seen all over Salt Lake City, and are a symbol of industriousness.

Temple Square5 Salt Lake City Feb 2014A great many monuments, statues of people, water features, and public art are dispersed throughout the city.

As a grand finale, we enjoy great glasses of beer at the Red Rocks brewpub, and have an interesting chat with the pub brewmaster, who generously provides us with a delicious bottle of his Russian Imperial Stout (10.2 percent alcohol).

Categories: 2011-Present, Skiing, Utah | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Dom’s Adventure Tour of Southwest Colorado (September-October 2013)

A Florida friend and I opt for an eight-day adventure tour of Southwest Colorado, a place neither one of us has previously visited. The trip will heavily focus on checking out national parks. As is generally the case with us, we have not made any lodging reservations in advance, but simply assume we will find hotel rooms on the road. That way, we preserve flexibility on where and when our trip finds us.

We drive our tiny rental car – a GM Spark – from the Denver airport on a Thursday night to Buena Vista, Colorado – a gateway for many adventures in Colorado. The beautiful view we see the next morning of the striking Collegiate Peaks to the west of town gives Buena Vista its name. Buena Vista beautiful view from town, Sept 2013 M

I have selected a hike on the Hartenstein Lake trail between Buena Vista and Cottonwood Pass. Immediately after we depart from the trailhead, we find ourselves immersed in the bright yellow colors of aspen trees changing color in the fall. Soon, we find ourselves hiking in a snowstorm that dumps six inches on us. A rude awakening for my Florida friend, but we press on to the lake. A disconcerting thought occurs to me: When we turn around to return to the trailhead, will we get lost due to the snow hiding our tracks on the poorly marked trail? Fortunately, this does not happen. A night spent in the national forest of Colorado at high elevations in the snow would have been quite grim for two hikers utterly unprepared for such a night.

Three days after this hike, we are stunned by the news that five hikers (three of whom were family members) have been killed in a rock slide on a Colorado trail. At first, we thought the trail was hundreds of miles away near Denver. But we then learn that they were hiking only a few miles to the southeast of our Hartenstein Lake trail.

After our hike, we reverse our plans. Instead of next driving to the Black Canyon National Park, we double back east. For much of the drive, I am cruising on a multi-lane highway, making for easy passing in the passing lane. Unfortunately, this state of affairs lulls me into complacency. I begin passing a large recreational vehicle and casually see a wonderful view of snow-capped peaks in my rear-view mirror. I nonchalantly urge my friend to have a glimpse of the wonderful view. Fortunately, my friend happens to be paying more attention to the road than I am, as he looks up from the map he is looking at to see that I am on a two-lane road with the other lane carrying traffic coming towards us. IN OTHER WORDS, I AM NO LONGER ON A MULTI-LANE HIGHWAY. He sees a vehicle in the opposing lane a short distance from us and rapidly closing on us for a possible high-speed head-on collision. YOU’RE NOT GOING TO MAKE IT!!!!, he shouts at me. Startled back into paying attention to the road rather than the mountains, I immediately realize that I’ve made a potentially deadly mistake. I hit the brakes and quickly drop back into my own lane behind the recreational vehicle. WHEW!!

Despite my driving blunder, we safely arrive at the Great Sand Dunes National Park, nestled against the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. The dunes are the tallest in North America. The dunes are otherworldly immense (32,643 acres in size, with another 40,595 acres in National Preserve). Most sand, we learn, comes from the San Juan Mountains, 65 miles to the west. The dunes are about 440,000 years in age. A storm is rolling in as we start out onto the dunes, and we are pelted by a cold rain. We press on, and are soon on a sand dune ridgeline. Here, winds that must be approaching 100 mph are pounding us. So this is what it is like to be caught in a sandstorm! We opt to stop in our tracks periodically while being battered, and quickly move forward only when the winds have mercifully died down. Finally, we arrive at our goal: we summit the highest sand dune peak at the park. For weeks afterwards, I am finding sand in my ears and in my clothes.

Here are the photos we shot during our first day of adventure. For the best view, after you are taken to the Picasa photos, click on “slideshow” in the upper left:

https://picasaweb.google.com/105049746337657914534/GreatSandDunesColorado

Here is a video I shot of the Great Sand Dunes:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=biHF_0lpPLE&feature=c4-overview&list=UUr3Iyrr6_pzCS56wz0_ELGA

On Saturday, we opt to visit the nearby Alamosa National Wildlife Refuge, which is 11,169 acres in size. Large areas of marsh flank the Rio Grande River here, and it reminds me of Paynes Prairie State Preserve in Gainesville, Florida, where I formerly lived. We then drive Route 160 west, an extremely scenic route that takes us along the south side of Colorado. My road map indicates which roads are considered scenic, but oddly, this section of Route 160 is not one of them. I suggest to make-makers that they add the route…

On our drive, we stop to enjoy the impressive Treasure Falls. See photo below.

Treasure Falls, Rt 160, Colorado, Sept 2013We visit the famous, acclaimed mountain town of Durango. The town was organized in September 1881 by the Denver and Rio Grande Railroad to serve the San Juan mining district. The city is named after Durango, Mexico, which was named after Durango, Spain. The word Durango originates from the Basque word “Urango” meaning “water town”. In 2010, 16,887 people lived in Durango. We find a noticeably vibrant town center here, despite being in an off-season. As an urban designer and transportation planner, however, I would suggest an important renovation to the town: Your main street is overweight. It is too big to create a human-scaled sense of place. Please consider putting your main street on a road diet by reducing it from four and five lanes to three lanes. You’ll end up being much more wonderful.

Here are the photos we shot while driving in southern Colorado:

https://picasaweb.google.com/105049746337657914534/SouthernColoradoSept2013

Late in the day, we arrive at Mesa Verde National Park. The park was created in 1906 to preserve the archeological heritage of the Ancestral Pueblo people, after being discovered by local ranchers in the 1880s. There are 4,500 archeological sites at the park, 600 of which are cliff dwellings. We hike the Knife Edge trail. On the Park Point trail, we watch the sun set over the horizon. While at Park Point, I am astonished to see that we can view the famous “shiprock” geological structure hundreds of miles away in Arizona. The views all around us on these two trails are big.

The next morning, we make the surprisingly long drive from the tiny town of Mancos to the famous Cliff Palace Pueblo ruins at Mesa Verde. The Pueblo started living in this area in 550 AD. The guided tour provided by the park ranger was exceptionally interesting. We also take a self-guided hike to the Soda Canyon Overlook nearby.

We then enjoy a guided tour of the Balcony House ruins, which is also embedded in the Mesa Verde cliffs. Both Balcony House and Cliff Palace afforded the Pueblo with astounding views into the distance, which surely provided good defense from possible invaders (although our rangers inform us that it is not clear that the settlers had to defend themselves in their over 700 years living there).Cliff Palace, Mesa Verde NP2, Sept 2013

At both Balcony House and Cliff Palace, we see well-preserved “Kiva Houses,” which are round depressions that acted as a venue for much of the life and ceremonies of the Pueblo.

After our visit to Mesa Verde, we finish our day with a short trip to hike the Pass Creek trail and Little Molas Lake. We find a room at the historic Grand Imperial Hotel in the historic mining town of Silverton, which is surrounded by impressive San Juan Mountains. Silverton is a former silver mining camp, most or all of which is now included in a federally designated National Historic Landmark District, the Silverton Historic District. Silverton is linked to Durango by the Durango and Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad. Silverton had a population in 2010 of 638 people.

Here are the photos we shot on this day at Mesa Verde:

https://picasaweb.google.com/105049746337657914534/MesaVerdeNPAndSanJuanMtns

Monday turns out to be The Day of Debacles. Our plan is to hike the highly-rated Highland Mary Lakes trail. But because trail guidebooks today place too much reliance on navigating by GPS (which we don’t own), the guidebooks deliver us a bum steer. Our drive on the very rough, narrow, steep, harrowing, rocky road has us make a wrong turn, which means we unknowingly hike a trail that we THINK is Highland Mary Lakes but turns out to be a nearby, seemingly unnamed trail. Fortunately, the trail – like most all trails in Colorado – is quite impressive. We realize we must not be on Highland Mary San Juan Mtns hike near Highland Mary Lakes trail8, Sept 2013Lakes trail when we thoroughly scope out the mountain ampitheatre at the end of the canyon we are hiking. Where are the three lakes, we ask ourselves. Nowhere to be found. Oops.

Because we had extra hiking time, we then opt to hike the Hope Lake trail from the optional east side approach. But again, the guidebook assumes we are using GPS, and leads us astray. We never find Hope Lake. Not only that. In our futile search, we actually lose sight of each other, and only discover each other hours after we split up.

Here are the photos we shot on this day in the San Juan Mountains:

https://picasaweb.google.com/105049746337657914534/SanJuanMtnsHiking

The next day more than compensates for The Day of Debacles.

On our drive to the town of Ouray and the Ice Lake hike, we notice that Route 550 from Silverton to Ouray is eye-popping in its splendor. So much so that there are groups of professional photographers with their $10,000 cameras and tripods at each of the road overlooks on Rt 550. Along the way, we are treated to several clusters of glowing, gorgeous, fiery yellow aspen tree clusters, and the bright strawberry red-streaked mountain peaks in our view.

I must say that in this section of my driving that unlike my near head-on collision, I was forced to pay close attention to the road, as the drive on Rt 550 from Silverton to Ouray has many more sharp hairpin turns than any road I have ever driven on.

In 2010, Ouray had a population of 1,000. Originally established by miners chasing silver and gold in the surrounding mountains, Ouray at one time boasted more horses and mules than people. Prospectors arrived in the area in 1875. At the height of the mining, Ouray had more than 30 active mines. The drive along the Uncompahgre River and over the pass is nicknamed the Million Dollar Highway.

I suggest we experience the Ice Lakes trail. It turns out to be one of the best, most gorgeous hikes we have ever done. Simply spectacular! Early in the hike, we unintentionally take a diversion side trail off the main trail in order to cross at the top of a very tall waterfall off to our right. It was a very steep climb to arrive at the precipice of the falls. Over the precipice is a wooden log structure. Logs are lashed together facing in the direction of waterfall movement, with another set of logs running perpendicular to the lashed logs. I arrive first, and notice that one side is ponded water and the other side of the wood platform is relatively dry logs (the relatively dry side, however, is unprotected, as the perpendicular logs are not between the falls and the hiker. Nevertheless, I foolishly decide that the exposed, dry logs are the place I will cross. I’m holding the trail guidebook in my right hand as I tentatively cross a section I presume is adequately safe. But I slip on an incredibly slippery log. In an instant, I am on my butt, only a few feet from surely falling to my doom over the falls. As you will see in the photos below, my hiking buddy had his camera ready and shot a photo of me only feet from my death. I jokingly tell him that it was good he got a photo, rather than doingn something to save me, and that I would return the favor if I see him plummeting over a cliff to his demise.

Overall, a VERY close call.

Ice Lake turns out to be, by far, the bluest lake I have ever seen in my life. So blue that it does not look real. It looks more like a Dr Suess cartoon. I could not stop taking photos of it.Dom on Ice Lake hike41, Oct 2013

We also hike to the nearby Island Lake, which was nearly as spectacular as Ice Lake. I also opt to hike to Fuller Lake. We then notice that the stream near us is a bright white color in its bed. Is it the “glacial till” (“white flour”) I had heard about in my geology classes in college?

Here are the photos we shot on this day in the San Juan Mountains:

https://picasaweb.google.com/105049746337657914534/IceLakeHikeOct2013

On Wednesday, we hike the Bear Creek trail, said to be the most spectacular of all four of the Bear Creek trails in Colorado. The trail has two very interesting mine site ruins: Grizzly Bear Mine and Yellow Jacket Mine. Near Grizzly Bear, we enter and explore a long mine shaft adjacent to the trail. At both mines, we puzzle over how on earth the original miners were able to haul in large, very heavy iron to build their mine processing machines. Mules? Trains?

I find myself laboring and gasping for air as I ascend the steep switchbacks of Bear Creek. I tell Mike that these miners were surely in top physical condition by having this sort of daily commute carrying their heavy pick axes up these steep trail sections. The views along Bear Creek are astounding. Did the miners even notice the views?

The Bear Creek trail is “infamous” largely because it has trails that are noticeably narrow, are often skirting along rock walls, and have a tremendous amount of exposure to very scary and enormous cliff drops. One misstep and it is all over…For us, however, while these frightening trail sections look worrisome as we come upon them, hiking on them is less dangerous than we expect.

Yellow Jacket Mine ruins, Bear Creek hike58, Oct 2013We end our day by visiting Box Canyon Falls and Cascade Falls – both of which are on the periphery of Ouray. Box Canyon Falls have a VERY loud roar. The roar of the thundering hoof beats of a huge herd of horses. We read an interpretive sign that informs us that if the energy of the falls were harnessed by a hydroelectric plant, the falls could supply nearly all of the electrical needs of the Town of Ouray. The deafening sound of the falls makes me believe it. I decide that the falls are so powerful that it would be impossible for a human to stand in them. It would be equivalent to being shot at by a machine gun spray of bullets.

Here are the photos we shot on this day in Ouray and the Bear Creek trail:

https://picasaweb.google.com/105049746337657914534/BearCreekHikeOct2013

On our final day of adventuring, we opt for a 14-mile paddle in inflatable kayaks (commonly called “duckies”), which takes us through the northern section of Gunny Gorge National Conservation Area and Wilderness on the Gunnison River. The Gunny Gorge area is 62,844 acres in size, and was designated in 1999. As I noticed during a canoe trip through Escalante Canyon on the Gunnison River, the canyons which the river passes through is a treasure trove for geology class field trips. Indeed, the geological history for these canyons is said to span 1.7 BILLION years. The Gunny Gorge has been inhabited by humans for at least 13,000 years.

During our kayak paddle, we come upon a sign that reads: “EXTREME DANGER!!!! WATERFALL AHEAD!! EXIT IMMEDIATELY!!!”

Of course, we ignore the sign – partly because our kayak rental manager had told us to do so. But then we come upon a second warning sign, and soon we are upon a river that is nearly entirely roped off by warning signposts for the falls. Did the manager lie to us? We carefully navigate to the western side, and are disappointed to see that we have therefore paddled past what looks to be a wonderfully enjoyable Class II-III sluice where the dam used to be. Damn!

Fortunately, we had previously enjoyed several Class II ripples and whitewater wave trains upstream.

In the middle of our adventure week, the dysfunctional U.S. Congress has created yet another fiasco: For the first time in 17 years, congressional fighting forced a Federal Government shutdown. The result, for us, was that our final destination – the Black Canyon National Forest – had closed and locked its gates. We surprisingly did not “stand tall for freedom” by running over the gates with our car to enter…

We were, however, one of the few Americans this past week who had not only visited three federal parks in the past few days, but had hiked on federal forest lands for many of those days as well. HMPF!

After our paddle, we drive through – for us – the previously unheard of Curecanti National Recreation Area, which is an extension of the Black Canyon adjacent to the east. Here we enjoy STUNNING fall colors. Some of the best fall colors I have ever seen. I need to return for fall colors here in future years.

A fitting conclusion to a week of adventuring in Southwest Colorado.

Here are the photos we shot on this final day on the Gunny Gorge and Curecanti NRA:

https://picasaweb.google.com/105049746337657914534/GunnyGorgeKayakingCurecantiNationalRecreationalArea

 

Categories: 2011-Present, Colorado, Hiking, Miscellaneous, Paddling | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Summiting Longs Peak

Standing boldly, the mountain dominates the sky at 14,259 feet. Its prominent size means that it attracts dangerous Longs Pk in Rocky Mtn National Park from Knobtop trail July 2012thunder- and hailstorms nearly every day in the summer. About half of all those who attempt to summit this monster fail to reach the top. On average, two climbers die in their attempt to summit this massive mountain each year.

Longs Peak is the tallest mountain in Rocky Mountain National Park, and perhaps the most infamous, fearsome and dreaded fourteener in Colorado. A popular goal for Colorado mountain climbers is to summit “fourteeners” (mountains over 14,000 feet in elevation). And Longs, despite its dangers, is the most well-known fourteener in Colorado.

In December 2014, this danger was proclaimed by Outside Magazine, which listed Longs as one of the 20 most dangerous hikes in the world.

For several months, I had felt some anxiety about summiting Longs. A friend down the street had told me he had run a marathon, but summiting Longs was the hardest thing he had ever done in his life. Would I be in good enough shape to do it?

Each time I hiked in Rocky Mountain National Park, Longs loomed menacingly on the horizon. Could I actually climb that angry beast? And what about all of the scary lore surrounding the mountain?

On Friday, July 26, 2013, I meet a group of adventurers at the crazy hour of 3 a.m. at the “Bustop,” a “gentleman’s club” located next to a major Boulder bus stop on North Broadway. We meet to take on the mountain, and like most climbers of Longs, our plan includes meeting at this early hour to reduce the likely chance of getting caught in a dangerous storm at the summit.

Our carpool reaches the Longs Peak ranger station and trailhead at the very early hour of 4 a.m. Already the parking lot is filled almost to capacity with climbers. “Are we starting too late?” I think to myself. Indeed, in 2014, an employee for Old Town Outfitters in Longmont CO recommended starting at 2 a.m. The weather forecast, which I had checked a number of times over the past few days, has gone from a 40-percent to a 50-percent chance of afternoon thunderstorms. Would they be early afternoon storms? Or late, after we have escaped the mountain?

My group starts heading up the mountain at 4:20 a.m. In front of us is 7.5 miles of rugged, sometimes treacherous trail. Our pace is torrid, as each of us is well aware of the importance of being off the storm-battered summit as early in the day as possible. Our anxiousness is heightened by the fact that NONE of us have ever summited Longs before, which I must admit seems troubling to me.

Ahead of us is an intimidating elevation gain of 5,100 feet. This will be the tallest mountain I have ever climbed. And surely the most physically demanding.

Each of us is wearing an LED headlamp, as this early hour makes the trail corridor leading into the pine forest utterly black.

By 5:30 a.m., we are above treeline (the trailhead is perched at just over 9,000 feet in elevation). We look back to see a gorgeous, bright orange sunrise coming up over mountains to our east. Our headlamps come off.

Longs Peak climb3 July 2013Soon we reach the trail junction that takes climbers either to Chasm Lake — which I had hiked to the foot of Longs last year. Or to Longs summit. We stop at the junction to use the “privy,” and to shoot photos in the morning sun, which is making Longs a glowing giant.

Here, we are quite close to the summit, and it seems that we can reach the peak in 15 minutes. But we know from our research that we are barely into the climb. That we have several hours of arduous work in front of us to reach the top. The trail to the well-known “Keyhole” (an extremely common gateway to the summit) takes one on a circuitous, back and forth route — much of which is over the large, challenging Boulder Field.

At a little after 6 a.m., we see the “Keyhole” on the horizon. Between us is the difficult Boulder Field. For years, I had thought that a large notch near the summit was the famous “Keyhole,” but today I learn otherwise.

A few nights before, my girlfriend Ann and I were providing a farewell dinner to a woman I had been good friends with in Upstate New York 40 years ago. She was the girl I had my first crush on, and we had coincidentally chosen to live in the same town (Boulder) many years later on the other side of the country.

Like others, we heard from her that when she summited Longs many years ago, a woman with her took one look over the ridgeline of the “Keyhole,” lost her nerve, and turned back, rather than try to negotiate a trail at the edge of a terrifying cliff hundreds of feet above a rock-filled valley.Keyhole on Longs Peak climb2 July 2013

Would I find the courage and press on after glimpsing over the “Keyhole” edge? Or would I fearfully turn around, like so many others have done?

“Hell,” I tell myself as we approach it. “If lots of others can find the gumption, so can I!”

We reach the “Keyhole.” Instead of terror, I feel exhilaration. Before us is a spectacular view of mountain ranges in the Rockies. And the trail on the west side leaving the “Keyhole” (known as the Ledges) looks much less narrow than I had been warned about previously.

It is here that we first spot the “bulls eye” red and yellow circles painted on several boulders along the trail. Descriptions I had read earlier led me to believe there was only one such trail marker, and it was in a boulder field near the summit. But we thankfully find a great many markers showing us the way. Without them, it was clear to me that I would make dangerous, mistaken guesses on to which direction to head in trying to find my way.

From Keyhole on Longs Peak climb July 2013At the end of the Ledges, we reach a quite long, steep boulder field. I look up and decide the summit is surely reached just beyond this ascent. Near the top of this ascent, there is a quite steep little climb that one must negotiate. Like a number of other climbs we must overcome this day, the climb has few foot- or hand-holds. Somehow I manage to scramble up it. Once at the top, I learn that the Longs summit is NOT just ahead. Instead, we are at the gateway to the next trail section, which has the frightening name of “The Narrows.”

It is said that the final mile and a half to the summit is the most difficult part of the ascent. I soon learn why.

Instead of immediately starting on the Narrows, I must wait several minutes, as a long line of climbers are descending in the opposite direction from me, and the entrance to the Narrows is one-way in width. The group is moving exceptionally slowly, as the descent down the narrow, slick chute I had just ascended is a challenge for those going down this V-shaped passage.

Finally, the entrance is clear and I start on the aptly-named Narrows, which is quite tiny in width (only a few feet wide). And unlike the Ledges, this trail has a much more steep, almost cliff-like drop-off at its edge. It takes my breath away. “I’M GOING TO CLIMB ACROSS THAT????” Worried, I find myself deliberately leaning strongly toward the mountain to feel less like I’ll plummet to my doom down into the rocky valley hundreds of feet below.

Several times, I feel nausea. And vertigo. I think to myself about how dangerous it must be to be caught in a thunderstorm while traversing the Narrows. To top it off, I am gasping for air most of the way. Very little oxygen at the elevation we find ourselves at: well over 12,000 feet.Dom negotiating a difficult section on Longs July 2013

The Narrows turns out to be quite long. And extremely exposed (i.e., very little, if any, protection between the trail edge and the big drop-off). I had earlier convinced myself that this scary-sounding trail would be only 20 or 30 feet in length. But it actually turns out to be much, much longer than that (it seemed like well over a mile in distance to me). It is on the Narrows that one in our group of five tries repeatedly to climb a steep, slippery pitch, but is unable to do so. With deer-in-the-headlights eyes, she loses her nerve and hikes back to the keyhole. Five others could not find the courage either, as our original group of ten had narrowed to five at the trailhead.

Many of the smooth-faced boulders we climb are disconcertingly slick due to spring water issuing from the mountain. I find myself quite surprised by how treacherous some of the very tricky climbs are that I come upon during my assault. That’s me in the yellow rain jacket and Australian Barmah hat in the photo — a little worried about whether I can avoid slipping to my death.

Indeed, 20 days later, a 24-year old man plummeted 150 feet to his death during his traverse of the Narrows.

I had been ready for the tough physical exertion. But nothing could prepare me in advance for the Narrows.

Finally, I am at the end of the Narrows. Above me is about 300 feet of a very steep rock face (a section of the climb known as the “Homestretch”). But instead of feeling dread, I feel relieved. “Once I climb this, I will be at the top of Longs Peak!” I can The Homestretch on Longs Peak climb2 July 2013already see the tiny figures of climbers looking down from the summit. A photo I shot of the Homestretch is to the left.

After almost an hour of hard climbing on the face of the Homestretch, I reach the goal. I am at the summit of Longs Peak — the Top of the World — at 10 a.m.! Slightly more than 5.5 hours after starting the climb.

The views at the summit are 360 degrees of fabulous mountain ranges.

But the danger is not over, as the descent from the summit along the Keyhole route is said to be the place where most injuries occur. I learn that on the descent on the Homestretch, the steep pitch dangerously coexists with a shocking amount of loose rock and gravel. For much of my descent here, I was surprised that me and other climbers were not starting large rockslides.

A minor hailstorm begins to rain down on us. I pick up my pace as it is not clear to me that minor will not transform itself into major

We get back to the trailhead at 3 p.m.

An extremely physically demanding climb, and a number of surprisingly difficult sections that climbers must contend with. Incredible views.

An unforgettable experience.

Here is a description from Wikipedia:

Longs Peak is one of the 53 mountains with summits over 14,000 feet in Colorado. It can be prominently seen from Longmont, Colorado, as well as from the rest of the Colorado Front Range. It is named after Major Stephen Long, who explored the area in the 1820s. Longs Peak is one of the most prominent mountains in Colorado, rising 7,000 feet above the town of Estes Park, Colorado to the northeast, and 9,000 feet above the town of Lyons, Colorado to the east.

As the only “fourteener” in Rocky Mountain National Park, the peak has long been of interest to climbers.The Keyhold on Longs Peak climb5 July 2013

The first recorded ascent was in 1868 by the surveying party of John Wesley Powell. The East Face of the mountain is quite steep, and is surmounted by a gigantic sheer cliff known as “The Diamond” (so-named because of its shape, approximately that of a cut diamond seen from the side and inverted).

In 1954 the first proposal made to the National Park Service to climb The Diamond was met with an official closure, a stance not changed until 1960. The Diamond was first ascended by Dave Rearick and Bob Kamps that year, by a route that would come to be known simply as D1. This route would later be listed in Allen Steck and Steve Roper’s influential book Fifty Classic Climbs of North America.

Longs Peak has one glacier named Mills Glacier. The glacier is located around 12,800 feet at the base of the Eastern Face, just above Chasm Lake. Another permanent snowfield, called The Dove, is located north of Longs Peak. Longs Peak is one of fewer than 50 mountains in Colorado that have a glacier.

Trails that ascend Longs Peak include the East Longs Peak Trail, the Longs Peak Trail, the Keyhole Route, Clark’s Arrow and the Shelf Trail. Most days, no technical climbing is required to reach the summit of Longs Peak during the summer season, which typically runs from mid July through early September. Outside of this window the popular “Keyhole” route is still open, however its rating is upgraded to “technical” as treacherous ice formation and snow fall necessitates the use of specialized climbing equipment including, at a minimum, crampons and an ice axe.

It is one of the most difficult Class 3 fourteener scrambles in Colorado. The climb from the trailhead to the summit is 8 miles each way. Most climbers begin before dawn in order to reach the summit and return below the tree line before frequent afternoon thunderstorms bring a risk of lightning strikes. The most difficult portion of the climb begins at the Boulder Field, 6.4 miles into the climb. After scrambling over the boulders, climbers reach the Keyhole at 6.7 miles.

The Narrows on Longs Peak climb8 July 2013The following quarter of a mile involves a scramble along narrow ledges, many of which may have nearly sheer cliffs of 1,000 feet or more just off the edge. The next portion of the climb includes climbing over 600 vertical feet up the Trough before reaching the most exposed section of the climb, the Narrows. Just beyond the Narrows, the Notch signifies the beginning of the Homestretch, a steep climb to the football field-sized, flat summit. It is possible to camp out overnight in the Boulder Field (permit required) which makes for a less arduous two day climb, although this is fairly exposed to the elements. 57 people have died climbing or hiking Longs Peak. According to the National Park Service, 2 people, on average, die every year attempting to climb the mountain. In the summer of 2005 a Japanese climber was blown off a ledge after reaching the summit. On September 3, 2006 a man fell 800 feet to his death when some rocks let go while he was descending the Loft route. Less experienced mountaineers are encouraged to use a guide for this summit to mitigate risk and increase the probability of a summit.

Here are the photos I shot during the ascent. For the best view, after you are taken to the Picasa photos, click on “slideshow” in the upper left:

https://picasaweb.google.com/105049746337657914534/DomNozziSummitingLongSPeak

Categories: 2011-Present, Colorado, Hiking | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Paddling the Gunnison River between Escalante and Whitewater (July 2013)

Ann and I sign up for an adventure company group canoe trip along the 26-mile stretch between the Escalante bridge and the town of Whitewater. This section of river is mostly class I, with small amounts of class II water. We pass through both Gunnison River canoe trip70 July 2013Escalante and Dominquez Canyons, where we find extremely impressive canyon walls up to 800 feet tall, and an arid, desert-like landscape.

The 26-mile paddle takes two full days. We tent camp along the river for two nights, with our three guides providing river guidance, water and wine, three cooked meals each day, and dishwashing.

Along the way, we stop in Dominguez Canyon, where we hike into the canyon. There, we enjoy an extremely refreshing waterfall and pool of water, spot several Bighorn Sheep, and find a number of “pictographs,” which are ancient boulder drawings dating back to 400 AD. The drawings are called pictographs because the artists picked small depressions into the rock to create relatively permanent art.

While at this canyon, we learn of Billy Rambo, who has lived alone in Little Dominguez Canyon for most all of his 93 years. The Bureau of Land Management has granted him a life-lease for the 2.5 acres he lives on. His nephew is said to deliver him supplies each week.Gunnison River canoe trip41 July 2013

The river during our two days of paddling was a chocolate brown color due to a severe thunderstorm that struck the region the day before our trip, and the many flash floods the storm created had deposited a great deal of silt into the water. Nevertheless, the water cooled us down many times as we often slipped into it for a swim.

The canyon walls are fascinating because they clearly show many layers of rock, sand dune, and sediment deposition over the millions of years of the creation of the canyon. The black gneiss rock found in the Dominguez Canyon is exceptionally rare, and both the layers and the gneiss make these canyons a superb place for geology field trips and study.

The Gunnison River is formed by the confluence of Taylor and East rivers at Almont in eastern Gunnison County.

Here are the photos I shot during our trip. For the best view, after you are taken to the Picasa photos, click on “slideshow” in the upper left:

https://picasaweb.google.com/105049746337657914534/GunnisonRiverCanoeTrip

Categories: 2011-Present, Colorado, Paddling | Tags: , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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