Saturday, June 30, 2007

June 29 ~ Vals

So one of the last big trips we took was to Vals, Switzerland. Our destination was the "Therm Vals". It's a bath house of sorts, built into the side of a mountain, using a hot spring for its source of water. One of the guys out here rented a car, and after 5 hours of driving we arrived. The town has about 1500 people, and is very un-commercialized. This bath house and hotel are the biggest buildings for miles around.

These baths were by far the most bizarre swimming experience I've ever had. They baths were designed by a famous German architect, Peter Zumthor. The place felt like an art museum, only filled with water. The architect really wanted you to explore the baths and find everything on your own, so he didn't put any signs or maps anywhere. You'd think you were at the end of a hallway, then look thru a little doorway to find a really cool bath. It felt like a labyrinth.

There was this little bath that looked pretty normal, then when you swam around one of the corners, there was a narrow passage way in the corner. You'd go thru that to find a room 30 feet high with really cool lighting. It was called the Harmony room, and if you found the right note to hum, the place would reverberate til your ears hurt.

Every room was really unique like that. There was one where the water was full of flower pedals, and little jets would make the pedals dance around. Another room had 3 huge shower heads, each with a unique concept. One was 20 feet tall and put out a really thick stream of water. You could control the pressure and temp, and it'd fall the 20 feet, which was great for massages.
They actually looked more like art pieces.

We only had 2 hours to enjoy them, since we had to drive back and get to Leysin by 9. So, even though time was limited, it was definitely worth the driving. If I come back to Switzerland, that will be the 1st place I visit. If I honeymoon in Europe, that will be the place.

Go here, and look at the photo gallery. Simply amazing.

Monday, June 25, 2007

June 23 ~ Athens to Mycenae

So on Saturday, it was time for the leg of the trip by car. Our car was dropped off at our hotel at 9 a.m. and our travel agent drove with us for a couple minutes to show us how to get out of the city. It was actually a pretty easy route, thanks to our hotel's location. We dropped him off, and were on our way.

We headed West, where our first stop was Corinth. It may sound familiar, since it was a city in which 2 books of the bible are dedicated to (the apostle Paul spent some time here).

Aside from its biblical fame, the most noticeable feature is the Corinth Canal. The city is located at a narrow neck of land between two gulfs, the Corinth and the Saronic. It reminded me of the situation in Panama, where trade was slowed due to the mariners having to travel around a large land mass, just to reach the other side of the city. So, like in Panama, to remedy the situation, the people began to dig a canal, only they started a few thousand years ago. They gave up after believing that joining the two seas would cause a tidal wave from the difference in sea levels, destroying the town. Different rulers started to dig again throughout history, but nobody had the means to finish it. Finally, in the 1800s, things came together and it was finished, opening the two seas to ship traffic.

So, as we walked across this massive bridge with a spectacular view, we got talking about how fun it would be to jump off of it, as we always do when we walk over something really high. We weren't being serious, as the 240 foot drop would do some damage. At that moment, we noticed a banner off to the side offering bungee jumping from the bridge. We got curious and checked it out. The storefront was a really chill atmosphere: Hammocks, bamboo, and a bunch of employees that spoke very good English (the owner was Swiss, of all nationalities). We talked with him for awhile, got a feel for the company and, after some thought, we (me, Spence, Nate, and his wife) decided that if we ever DID go jumping, this would be the place to do it. So, we signed up, got our ankles prepped for the cord, and walked to a platform just under the highway bridge. We waited for the ship traffic to stop between the two gates at each end of the canal, then began hooking up.

I had the same feeling that I do before jumping a really big cliff in Lake Powell, kindof a weird feeling in the stomach. However, this was no cliff. When the safety railing stops and you look down with nothing between you and that small blue strip of water, things get pretty intense. The jump master then tells you to hold your hands straight out to your sides, then counts down from 5. After 1 he yells go, and then you jump (they tell you to jump just like you would swan dive off of a diving platform). So, after jumping I had about 3 seconds of total uninhibited freefall, followed by a couple seconds of slowing down (from the bungee), which then launches you right back up again. You bounce up and down for awhile then hang for a bit, while they send a cable to hook to your harness, which brings you back up.

Check the video here (the lighting was bad under the bridge, but you get the idea). Give it a bit to load, as it's about 7 megs. Here's a self portrait photo of me just before the jump.

So after jumping we continued west toward our next destination, Mycenae. There, we had reservations at a very nice traditional Greek restaurant. It was 4 courses. The appetizer was this eggplant lasagna which was very good. The lamb was amazing as it was every time I had it in Greece.

After lunch, we went to the ruins of the Mycenae. This civilization was in full swing 3500 years ago, making it one of the oldest sites I'll see on this trip. It's been pretty well preserved for being so old. We visited its acropolis, found a really cool old tunnel they dug to collect drinking water (photo here), then went to its museum. There, we found this really cool gold mask (a replica) called the Mask of Agamemnon. It was discovered at Mycenae and has been on the covers of a couple of my art history text books. I did my best impersonation of it here.

After the museum, we hit a huge dome shaped tomb, the Treasury of Atreus (
it was the tallest and widest dome in the world for over a thousand years)
. The rocks are still holding, and the accoustics were incredibly entertaining (you could stomp your foot, and the thud would sound twice; once when you did it, then twice as loud a millisecond later... it sounded just like a delay guitar pedal). We were the only ones in there and had a freestyle beatbox session for a good half hour. (photo) And who says history has to be boring?

After Mycenae, we started to loop back to the East, driving along the coast back towards Athens. We had our snorkel gear with us and hit another beach (here's a self portrait a few kilometers before the beach).

The drive along the coast was beautiful. It got a bit adventurous, as the signs were, at times, only in Greek. Their alphabet was a bit tricky to figure out as well, but it started to make more sense as the trip went along. Traffic wasn't too out of control on the highways. However, driving in downtown Athens was a different story. It was more like a video game than anything else. Cars cutting you off every couple of seconds, motorcycles using the room between cars as their own private lane, and pedestrians jumping out at any given point of the road. I do like driving, so in the end, it was a lot of fun and I would do it again (as long as insurance comes with the rental car, at least).

So we crashed back at the hotel that night at about 11, woke up and spent yesterday, the 24th, traveling back to Switzerland. Nothing out of the ordinary there, which is a good thing (Milan was a little bit nicer to us this time around, however from my experience the people just don't compare to the Swiss or Greeks). If I have the time and means in the future, I'm definitely game for another Athens adventure. The food, the people, the sights and culture offered entirely positive experiences for all of us on the trip.

Today, the 25th, we're just recuperating. Tomorrow, I think I might try to get a tee-time at the golf course up the valley. We'll see. Stay tuned.

Friday, June 22, 2007

Photos from Yesterday, the 22nd

Got em uploaded, here you go.

The first is me at the Parthenon, atop the Acropolis area of Athens. It's within walking distance of our hotel, and is very central here to most of the city. Unfortunately, right now, it has some reconstruction going on, hence the scaffolding.

The second is of the Parthenon, self portrait.

The 3rd is merely a fraction of the sprawl that you see from atop the Acropolis. The city goes every way as far as your eye can see. The only place is stops is where you can see the Mediterranean to the west.

The 4th is dinner last night. I had food in my moustache and was getting it out. Leftovers. Gotta love em.

More to come on today's happenings. Enjoi.

June 22 ~ Athens to Aegina

This morning we met our transfer driver in front of the hotel at 7. Boat ride went fine. We arrived in Aegina at about 9. We walked around, found the restaurant where our lunch reservation was, then decided to rent some scooters. They were only 15 euro for the whole day. We decided to get a couple, so it'd be 2 to a scooter. Nate shared with his wife, obviously, so me and Spence shared as well. Check this out. Self portrait while we were cruising.

Cruising along the coast, we made it around the whole island in about 45 minutes. We bought some snorkel gear, and wanted to swim a bunch. Here's our group snorkel photo. Nate's wife has been awesome to hang with, and is handling the whole 3-on-1 guy vs. girl challenge like a champ. Here's my customary self-portrait scuba shot. The water was very warm, no shivers whatsoever. We had fun going out from the shore, looking around at the fish, occassionally diving for shells. Sometimes it got pretty deep and really eerie feeling. The ocean just turned into this big gray-blue wall at one point, which made it time to turn around. I love how easy it is to float around with your head in the water in this salt water. The scuba idea was brilliant (suggested by our travel agent friend we found here).

So, after the island, we took a speedboat back to mainland, where we had reservations for our dinner again. Our table was on the rooftop of a restaurant just downhill from the Acropolis. This was literally a shot from the table as we sat and ate. There have been so many times during this trip that I've said, this is the perfect place to be with a girlfriend/wife. The streets, the music, the restaurants, the views, all have a very romantic feeling to them. I guess that's another reason to get going on that whole wife thing, eh?

Thursday, June 21, 2007

June 20 and 21st ~ Athens

So our next leg of the trip came up yesterday. It required us to take a train from our Swiss homebase, to Milan, Italy. Then from there we were to take a flight to Athens. We planned the train trip accordingly: 5 a.m. leave Switzerland to Milan (arriving in Milan 3 hours ahead of our flight just, for a cushion). As the train got going, we noticed it was getting delayed more and more at each stop. This got us a bit on edge, as we knew it would be a major headache to miss our flight. (In the end, our train arrived about an hour later than usual.) Then, as we entered Italy, the train ticket-checker came in and asked for our tickets. We showed them our Swiss pass, as usual, but she told us those didn't work anywhere on Italian soil, contrary to what we'd been told in Switzerland. However, after a little schmoozing we convinced her to let us thru without trouble. She was kindof cute, and I think I caught myself flirting at one point.

So, that got us to Milan. This is where the trip got a little hairy. We needed to buy a bus pass to get to the Milan airport from the Milan train station. We knew the trip was about an hour. This gave us just enough time to get to check-in before it closed. All we needed to do was find an ATM to get Euros (because Switzerland is on there own Franc system, we didn't have any Euros yet) and jump on the bus. The location of the single ATM in the gigantic Milan train station should be a crime, along with the freaking locals, police, and employees advice in finding it. (Our experience in Milan did not have one positive aspect to it, aside from the flight out of its stinky, run down and dirty airport.) In the end, we were out of time, and Nate (one of my travel partners) finally found a Western Union and took one for the team in converting some US dollars to Euros at a horrendous rate. We got on the bus, assuming by the time we arrived at the airport, check-in would be closed. Then the bus decided to wait for another 15 minutes to fill up before leaving for the airport. The hour bus-ride was hot, dirty, smelly, and forced me to sit next to an arabian father and his son. The father preached THE ENTIRE hour to his son about something I couldn't understand. For a minute, I thought the father was going to jump out of his seat and beat the living crap out of his kid. It was interesting to watch for about 5 minutes, and a little too much for another 55 minutes. Arrival at the airport was a breath of fresh air.

So we ("we" being me, Spencer, and Nate... Nate's wife was meeting us at the Athens Airport to hang with us for the 4 days also) sprinted to the check-in when we arrived, and by some stroke of luck, the flight had been delayed. From then on, it was smooth sailing. We jumped on the flight and flew to Greece. The Athens airport was clean, newly remodeled (thanks to the recent Olympics, I'm assuming) and provided English translations everywhere. The metro took us within a half mile or so of our hotel. We wandered around trying to find the hotel for about an hour, which was interesting as there are bursts of "rough" parts of town. (I've seen about 10 people in 24 hours who were currently in the middle of their heroin experience... yeah, don't want to interrupt that). The hotel, however, is great. Worth more than the 89 euro per night we paid for it. It's very clean, smells great, and has everything you'd expect in a nice US hotel. There's an internet cafe across the street, which is where I am as I type this, and is relatively close to the major sights.

Today, Spencer and I were wandering around town, and had been for a couple hours, which is actually really fun. The shops and sights provide everything from 5-star hotels, to the Greek ruins, to homeless people, prostitutes and junkies. As we walked around, we hit a book store to try to find a little bit of info on the ruins themselves. We ended up talking to a travel agent who worked at an agency across the street. We went over, and by the time we walked out we set up a 2-day adventure/excursion. He got us dinner for tonight, which was incredible. After dinner, we hit the Acropolis area, which was within walking distance. The Parthanon is there, along with a few other temples and sites. But the Parthanon was by far the most surreal thing I've seen on this trip so far. It was built 500 years before Christ, and is the oldest thing we've seen on this trip (so far). Supposedly there's some stuff built at Aegina 100 years earlier, but cool nonetheless.

Tomorrow, the agency has arranged for us to be picked up at the hotel, taken to a fairy, which will take us to Aegina. It's an island that has some ruins, and isn't quite as commercialized (so we're told). We'll be able to swim there, and lunch has been reserved for us at a local taverna. We'll return at about 7 pm via a speed boat, then hit the hotel for some sleep. The following day, Saturday, we're having a car dropped off at the hotel, to allow us to drive to the Mycenae area. I've studied this place in art history, and remember that the art was very distinct. I'm also looking forward to the adventure of driving in this insanely bustling city. The drive back on our Saturday day trip will take us along the coast for a couple hours, with plenty of swimming opportunities, and a lunch is reserved for us there as well.

All in all, we've got the rest of the trip planned out, and we're stoked to have everything finally laid out and ready to go. We'll hit the fairy trip tomorrow and get back later, I'm hoping to get everything transfered from my camera to my server, so I can share this beauty with all of you. Wish us luck.

Monday, June 18, 2007

June 19 ~ Hike above Leysin

Today we "slept in" and had breakfast at 9, instead of 7 or 8 as usual. We left on foot from the hotel towards the mountains behind here. The hike was beautiful and took a few hours to get up to a glacial lake (reminded me of some of the copper basin lakes, check out the video of me shoe-skiing on the glacier).

glacial shoe-skiing

From the lake, 5 of us decided to head up to the peak. Our guide didn't feel comfy taking all 25 participants up it, as it got a bit technical, but gave us the green light. It was definitely worth the extra hiking and provided some great photos. We could see Lake Geneva, mountains in Italy, and mountains in France. Not a bad view eh?

Leysin is at about 1250 meters, while the peak we ended up on is about 2500. So the 1000 meter increase wasn't easy, but thankfully I was in decent shape and was able to make it without any heart attacks or aneurysms.

So, today was a nice change in scenery, and provided a new and very breathtaking view of the Leysin area.

On the Peak of Mayen
(more info on Mayen here)
Midhike Group Shot
Mayen Self Portrait
Snail along the Trail

Saturday, June 16, 2007

June 16 ~ Mountains above Sion

Today, we were in the Alps above Sion. We took a train, then a bus, then ended up in a little ski village surrounded by acres of grass for grazing cows.

The cows here have bells around their necks, acting as an old-fashioned GPS. Cows get loose, you stop and listen, supposedly, to find them. So, I'd seen a cow or two on all of our past day-trips (they ALL have these bells), yet it didn't quite make sense, since I could barely hear the cowbell. I figured, the cow goes over a hill, he's toast, because you're not hearing him after that. But, after today, I realized that when you get 200 of these cows together, the clanking bells become a deafening windchime-esque wall of sound (you can hear it in the video I've uploaded below). No way you're losing those cows if they stick together.

So, today we end up in these cow fields for what is known as "The Cow Fights". Bizarre sounding in itself, but even more bizarre to watch. I guess they have these cows that they've bred that have kept their territorial nature. Note, there are no bulls, these are all females. They are, however, the size of bulls, and have their horns too. So the farmers round up their own cows, about 150 in all,
write a number on their hind legs, and let 'em loose on each other. They snort, growl, scrape the ground with their front hooves, then charge each other and lock horns. (It was a lot like a demolition derby. But instead of cars, there were cows, and instead of white trash in the stands, it was us, some locals and some Swiss farmers.) The cows push each other up and down the hill and a winner is declared at the end of the few days. We may have been the only English speakers there, as they all looked very much like locals. So I decided to get a video of the cow fight for y'all. Not much to look at, but very bizarre for female cows to act this way. Watch it here.

So after the cow fights, we had some Swiss BarBQue and took a hike up to an old dam. Got some sweet photos. The hike reminded me very much of the rockies, kindof the Targhee/Yellowstone areas. Photos below.

Self Portrait from the dam
Hike 2