Category Archives: General

Random musings that do not belong anywhere else find a home here.

Independence Rock

July 10, 2015.

2.2 mi. | 300′ ele. gain | 1:10 hr.

Just the place for an afternoon stroll. We chose a campsite at Marion Forks to spend the weekend. Wanting to do something active, we walked up the road to the Independence Rock Trailhead.

According to cascaderamblings.com, Independence Rock was named by a survey party in the 1800’s who just happened to be by this rock on Independence Day. In other words, there’s nothing terribly special about this place.

The trail was nice enough, traveling over soft dirt through an evergreen forest. The views would probably be great on a nice day, but we were in the clouds today. The hike is over just after you start, so it’s not a destination in and of itself. I’d love to know why there’s even a trail here. Maybe the people at the Fish Hatchery needed something to do on their lunch break.

Whatever the reason, it was a good excuse to stretch the legs before settling down to attempt cooking cedar plank salmon over the campfire…

North Guardian Angel

April 23, 2015.

East Ridge | 7.5 miles | 750′ ele. gain | 7.5 hrs. | Photos

We met up with Rick at a coffee shop before sunrise, and caravaned up to the Wildcat trail head in the central part of Zion National Park. With less publicity and several road closures planned for the day, we anticipated more of a wilderness experience on the trails.

Aaron, Rick and I hiked down the Wildcat Canyon Trail and turned on the junction towards Northgate Peaks. At trail’s end, the two Northgate Peaks stood like stone lions guarding the gate of some VIP’s mansion. We bushwhacked down the overgrown blocks of dark lava rock to the sandy valley floor. Heading directly towards our obvious target, we picked our way through scraggly shrubs and the occasional pine tree as quickly as we could. Once we reached the impressive sandstone slabs of North Guardian Angel, Aaron turned back to hike up East Northgate Peak while Rick and I harnessed up for our climb.

The first bit was a fun, third class scramble up the horizontally scarred slab to the long, flat landing zone above. My approach shoes felt incredibly sticky on this rock. We weren’t in Oregon anymore…

Once we hit the plateau, we roped in and I led up the first pitch of actual climbing. The hardest moves (as always) were right off the ground—within the first 30 feet or so—and so it took a little mental magic to push myself through on lead. Since I rarely ever climb rock anymore, my brain gets a little rusty on exposed, unprotected climbing, even when it’s technically easy.

Once past the tough spot I breezed up to a good anchor point and brought Rick up. There may not have been anywhere to place nuts and cams on this climb, but there were plenty of Ponderosa pines along the way. Each pitch ended at one such tree, and was almost always shared with a massive throng of red ants. That kept the pace moving. We consulted a photocopy from one of Rick’s climbing books that had a play-by-play route description to keep us on track, but mostly the pitches ran out whenever there was a convenient tree to sling.

We ended up climbing 4 or 5 roped pitches, then carried the rope up the final ascent. The climbing was really enjoyable and never that challenging, but the exposure made us pay attention. It felt nicer to be roped up, even though belaying up my partner was exhausting (since he was cruising along so fast).

Near the summit block, we had some options. We decided to go left and traverse around the “face” of the ridge, since it looked pretty vertical. The traverse was pretty easy, minus one airy step that Rick assured me was no big deal. After that, it was a straightforward scramble up some loose but not exposed sections of rock.

On the summit, the views were incredible. Pale, slickrock mountains jutted up from the forested scrubland all around it. Voices echoed out from the Subway, a popular canyoneering route nearby. We hung out and ate snacks for the first time today, admiring the colorful mountains and valleys in all directions.

Seriously, 360° views:

On the way down, we walked to the edge of the summit block wall and set our first rappel. This saved us some time and hassle negotiating the exposed section we passed through on our way up. By combining downclimbing with rappelling we comfortably descended the ridge back to the plateau. One last slickrock scramble brought us to the base of the mountain, where we packed up our gear and headed out.

It was now pretty warm and we were both ready to be done. We aimed for the gap between the Northgate Peaks and I scrambled back up the lava to the trail while Rick stayed low in the valley. After much yelling, waving of hands, and wandering back and forth on the trail, we met up once again and retreated towards the trail head together.

At our final trail junction before the parking lot, we came across a group of young women with overnight packs on, who were paused for a break. Rick asked if they were headed to the Subway, to which they basically replied: “whatchutalkinabout?” They clearly had no idea what the (most popular route in the universe) Subway was, where they were or where they were going. We marched away from the confused ladies, remarking on the utter lack of preparation the average visitor seems to have in the National Parks.

We then continued marching along the (wrong) trail for another mile, wondering why we hadn’t reached the car yet.

It then occurred to us that we’d mistakenly taken the connector trail to the Hop Valley trail head and had overshot our destination. After a brief moment to reflect on the irony of the situation I pulled out the map and noticed that we could bushwhack up the cliffy rock band to our right once we reached the general area of the parking lot, instead of hoofing it all the way back to the aforementioned junction. Conveniently, there was a break in the vertical wall right where we needed it and we clambered up the rocks to the field just south of the lot.

Meanwhile, Aaron had gotten concerned that it was taking us so long to return, and had decided to hike back up the trail to look for us. Fortunately he ran into a couple who had passed us on the wrong trail and based on their conversation, he figured out what happened. We eventually reunited and all was well. Just a hiccup in the adventure.

This would be our last foray into Zion National Park. I enjoyed the solitude, the outstanding views, easy climbing, and unique perspective of the park. I left Zion with a positive vibe and I was ready for the next stage in our road trip.

Route information

Doing more research? Here’s a very bare bones route description on Summit Post. And another from Mountain Project. Bring a rope, material to build belay anchors and a handful of slings; leave the nuts and cams at home.

Great Basin National Park

April 18-20, 2015.

View the photo album from this leg of the trip.


Spring arrived, so was time for another big adventure. The decision on where to go was made easy when I was invited to climb a pair of peaks in Zion National Park in late April. In order to make the most of my travel time, I crafted a road trip that would last nearly 3 weeks and take us through 4 states. Fortunately, my partner was up for it and the two of us set out from the mid-Willamette Valley in Oregon to explore some new territory.

Getting there

After spending a night in Northern Nevada, we got up early to make our way to Great Basin National Park. Driving down highway 50, or the “Loneliest Road in America,” we took a lunch, car maintenance and tourist break in the town of Eureka. I wandered into the Eureka museum, which chronicled the rise and fall of a mining boom-town. There were rooms full of old printing machines, newspapers, kitchen items, and relics of old stores, homes and businesses. There was little information to accompany all these items so it was kind of like walking into a crowded antiques store. Nonetheless, it provided a nice diversion and the woman working there was very helpful in providing information about the town and the area.

As we approached the park from the west, Wheeler Peak came into view. That would be our target for our first and most challenging hike of the trip.

We made a quick stop at the Visitor Center to ask about current conditions and one of the rangers suggested an alternative route, involving climbing a couloir, that might be easier and more straightforward given the time of year. I thanked him for the suggestion and we settled into camp at Upper Lehman Creek.

Wheeler Peak

16 miles | 5300′ ele. gain | 12 hours

In the summer, Wheeler Peak is a challenging but accessible high peak. The trailhead starts at 10,000 feet so there’s less than 3,000′ of vertical climbing to get there. A nice path leads 4.3 miles one way to the summit.

But now the road to the trailhead was gated due to snow. We’d have to start our hike from the Upper Lehman Creek campground at 7,750′. That nearly doubled the mileage and elevation gain. No worries, we were ready for this.

Living at sea level doesn’t quite prepare you for being at elevation for any period of time so we woke up early in the morning feeling short of breath just walking around camp. We packed up and hit the trail before 6:30 am, with only one group signed in ahead of us.

We walked along the steadily rising trail through stands of cactus, aspen, sage and juniper. About an hour into our trek we looked across a meadow to get our first view of Wheeler Peak. The bump we’d been staring at from our campsite was not, in fact, our mountain but some insignificant neighbor. The view was stunning. We’d see the mountain several times from many more angles through the course of the day.

After crossing the creek, we began to encounter patchy snow. Two hours into the hike we reached the Wheeler Peak Campground. Picnic tables and grills stuck out of the tops of snowdrifts. We followed the road, as the ranger had suggested, about a mile up the road to find the Wheeler Peak trail. Signs at the trailhead  warned us of the challenges that lay ahead and suggested some easier alternatives.

We followed the trail to a junction to Stella Lake. From here, according to the ranger, we’d find a couloir that would take us straight to the ridge below the summit. It would be easier than trying to find the main trail under snow. Besides, it sounded like more of an adventure.

The couloir was an obvious ribbon of snow to the left of the lake. We circled around the southwest side of the lake and then headed cross-country over the hard-packed snow to the base of the couloir. I was surprised to see so many trees here, clinging to life at over 10,000′.

The snow texture provided enough grip in most places to allow us to climb up without any gear. Yaktrax would have been helpful in some of the icier spots, but I found that if I moved quickly and stepped firmly enough it was possible to get past the worst of it without slipping. Poles were essential.

Once we reached the ridge we were both a little disheartened to look ahead and see how much further we still had to go. The combination of being at a high elevation and climbing was knocking the wind and energy right out of us. We took a few extended snack and water breaks to keep moving forward.

Along the ridge, the views were stunning. There were snow-capped mountain ranges in every direction. Wind farms were visible in the valley bottom. The sheer rock face of Jeff Davis Peak became more dramatic with each step forward. And the weather was so pleasant! Sunshine, dry skies, and moderate temperatures helped us keep taking steps forward.

Once on the summit, we really took a rest. It was time for lunch and some backpack-free exploration. There was a summit register placed inside a mailbox that someone left in a windbreak. We watched flocks of small birds swooping above the snow in search of food. And we celebrated the success of our efforts: a panoramic view that very few park visitors have seen, especially off season. Click the link below to get an idea.

Of course we were only halfway done and it was already 2:30 pm so we needed to start moving down. Aided by gravity we quickly ambled down the ridge and were back atop the couloir in no time at all. Going down was much faster and much more fun than going up. By the time we reached the snow above the lake the sun had softened it up considerably, so it was an agonizing slog to get back to the trail.

Knees wobbly from the cumulative effort of the day, it felt good to be on packed, dry ground and we made good time back to camp, arriving in time for a reasonable dinner. While I cooked many elaborate meals on this trip I had very little energy on this night. We settled for hotdogs and beans, a classic camp meal.

Lehman Caves

Before leaving for our trip I booked a Lehman Cave tour for 1 pm for the next day. I knew we’d be beat after our climb and could use an opportunity to sleep in. We did just that, had a delicious campfire brunch, and packed up our camp. We arrived at the Visitor Center just before the tour and layered up for our descent into the cold, damp cave.

Unlike many of the caves in the Northwest, which are nearly all lava tubes, Lehman Cave is made of limestone. Our tour guide took us into several rooms of the cave. In the first room, she discussed how crazy it must have been for the first visitors to this space. She turned off all the lights. It was completely dark. Then she proceeded to tell us about experiments that demonstrate how quickly people go insane when they’re held in complete darkness. I could believe it.

Each room had interesting features, including some that were apparently pretty rare to find. There were the usual stalactites and stalagmites, plus several that had welded together into columns. There was cave popcorn and soda straws. What was most impressive to me was how many intricate features there were in every room. The cave was well-lit so we could appreciate the formations in the cave. Early visitors must have had a harder time appreciating it by candlelight.

After the cave tour we ran to the small cafe attached to the Visitor’s Center to satisfy my milkshake craving, then hit the road. We had to book it to Zion National Park.

Coffin and Bachelor Mountains

February 28, 2015.

Coffin and Bachelor Mtn Trails | 9.4 miles | 2225′ ele. gain

Photos from the trip on Google+

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It’s been a strange winter. The weather has been drier and milder than the past several winters here, and snowfall has been much below average. Instead of lament the lack of snow, we decided to take advantage of the early season access to summer trailheads. Today, we set our sights on Bachelor and Coffin Mountains.

Our hike began at the Coffin Mountain trailhead. There was a light dusting of snow there, at an elevation of 4750′. We left the snowshoes in the car and began hiking up the trail.

Coffin Mountain is a short, steep affair, and begins climbing immediately. This is one of the biggest bang-for-your-buck hikes I’ve found in Oregon, though. There are views of expansive meadows and the surrounding Cascades right from the start. In spring, the meadows blossom with fragrant beargrass. Today, we walked through last year’s beargrass stalks, which were coated in a layer of ice. It was a very unique landscape.

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In just a mile and a half, we reached the summit. A Forest Service lookout building sat there, adjacent to a helicopter landing pad. Both were blanketed with gleaming, white snow. The lookout is staffed in summertime, but was abandoned when we arrived today. It was a good place for a snack and some photo ops. Mt. Jefferson was bathed in sunlight and was practically right in our faces. Mt. Bachelor stood out like a tall person in a movie theater, just big enough to be noticeable but not take too much away from the view.

We glided back down to the trailhead and began the 1.2 mile roadwalk to the Bachelor Mountain trailhead. I’d never hiked up to Bachelor, so this would be a fun new adventure. The road walk was quick and offered up several views back to the steep cliffs on the east side of Coffn Mountain.

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The trail up to Bachelor mountain was a bit more snowy and forested. It provided a charm all of its own. We enjoyed the occasional break in the forest canopy that let some of the bright sunshine hit our faces. It sure was a beautiful weather day.

In just a few places, the snowbanks deepened and the trail became a little obscured, but navigation was pretty straightforward. The view from the top of Bachelor mountain was even better than that from the summit of Coffin. We sat here and had an extended lunch break while exploring the best place to take panoramic photos. We could see the Three Sisters, Mt Hood, and the faint tops of other snow-capped Cascades from our magnificent perch.

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Wandering back to the parking area, we soaked up the remaining afternoon sunlight and had entertaining conversations. The hard work was over, and it was time to just put one foot after the other all the way back to the car.

I was glad to have the chance to experience both mountains in spring-like conditions. The meadows are certainly gorgeous in peak wildflower bloom, but they had a very different kind of beauty covered in ice and snow. I’d recommend visiting this place any time the trail head is accessible, whether it’s spring, summer, fall, or as we experienced this year, even winter.

Hiking the Leutasch and Partnach Gorges in Germany

April 22, 2014.

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We’d done our fair share of being city tourists in France and Germany, and were excited to take advantage of some hiking opportunities in Bavaria.

Leutasch Gorge

Our first hike was close to the cute little town we stayed in last night: Mittenwald. This picturesque little village sat alongside the Alps, offering views of great rock faces and dark, forested hillsides. A short drive brought us to a time-limited parking space. The only reason this was notable was due to the fact we had to place a little paper clock on the dashboard showing what time we’d arrived. The clock was provided by the rental car, and thankfully Aaron had read about this quirky fact before we took our trip. With the clock in place, we set off for the trailhead.

The waterfall hike was closed, so we scanned the map and crafted a loop that was roughly a few miles long. The map was so detailed that trail segments were measured in meters, so we practically walked the entire trail system there.

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The Goblin trail was the most fun and interesting, as it took us along metal walkways and bridges that put us right on top of the gorge. This crazy network of “trails” was manufactured right into the rock. We could look beneath our feet to the river, a couple hundred feet below us in some places. I was happy that our early start meant that no one else was out there; it would have been much more scary if the walkways were mobbed with people.

In addition, there were several signs along the way that detailed how the gorge was formed, what animals lived there, how to identify plants, and lots of other interesting facts. Each sign was colorful and written in a few languages, so we actually learned a thing or two.

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After finishing the gorge walk, our hike looped back through the forest. At some point we found ourselves briefly in Austria, as indicated by a small sign. No passport required there!

With just a half mile or so to the car, the weather suddenly changed and a passing storm dropped hail and rain on us. We ducked under the roof of a nearby lodge (closed) and ran into a young girl who had also taken shelter out of the storm. She chatted us up in English as best she could, and when the rain relented the three of us walked back to the car. We bid our new friend adieu as she rode her bike back into town. On to the next adventure.

Partnach Gorge

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The second hike was much different than the first. It was located near the Olympic Ski Stadium in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, a buzzing hive of tourist activity. We were on a time schedule to get our rental car to the drop-off in Munich, so with that in mind we picked up a map at the Tourist Information desk and started walking towards the gorge.

The paved road leading to the trailhead was busy with other people walking, biking or taking a horse-drawn buggy to the gorge entrance. When we finally made it there, we found a little ticket booth with a woman collecting a 3.5 € entry fee per person. She told us the hike was a loop, so we started straight ahead as instructed.

I was surprised at how many people were shoving their way against the flow of traffic. “What loop??” I thought, as families and couples retreated towards the ticket booth. I was doubtful we’d have enough time to complete this hike.

This trail, in contrast to the previous hike, was just above the water coursing through the gorge’s rocky walls. In many places, a trail tunnel was blasted into the rock. In others, the trail was made of steel beams. Handrails protected hikers from falling into the swirling river, or being pushed in by the madding crowd.

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Water dripped down on us from above, and spray from the fast-moving water blasted up from the river below. It was raincoat time. After we exited the claustrophobic, yet beautiful, gorge, the trail climbed up an open hillside and brought us to a wider and more gently flowing part of the river. This appeared to be where many people stop for lunch and then turn straight back. We continued up, determined to make our loop, switchbacking up the hill to an even more idyllic setting. The sun blazed high in the blue sky, brightening the grassy meadows and clusters of wildflowers. The high peaks of the Alps formed a beautiful backdrop on the whole scene, which felt quite like a movie set.

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People were milling about up here as well, but as soon as we dropped down the other side of the hill, we were on our own. We walked past a curious sign that announced “Way only for practiced” and discouraged children from using the path. “Cool,” I thought. Now we’re on for an adventure.

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The trail here was muddy in sections but it was well built and had several sets of stairs and handrails to guide hikers through the roughest bits. I thought it was a pleasant walk. The scary sign kept everyone off the trail, so we were able to finish the loop in quiet solitude. It was the polar opposite of the tourist trap we just scrambled out of.

We returned to the ticket booth, checked the time and hoofed it down the trail to get back to the car. There was no time to waste.

How not to return a rental car

We had just enough time to drive to Munich and return it at the train station by 4 pm to avoid being charged for an extra day. We’d never been to Munich before, as we’d picked up the car in Frankfurt and were just driving the one way. We plugged the train station into the GPS and were on our way.

Racing down the Autobahn was fun for Aaron and scary for me. But I’d no idea it would get so much worse when we entered the city. In the city, we hit traffic. Traffic of all sorts: cars, trucks, bikes, pedestrians. I wouldn’t have been surprised to see a man on a camel in the middle of the road. We scrambled to find a gas station to fill up, detouring around construction and trying to interpret all the German signs we’d barely become familiar with. Miraculously, we navigated the gas station and drove to the train station. Traffic congestion increased at an exponential rate the closer we got to the station. People were all over the road. Lanes inexplicably split off in all directions, with one-ways, train tracks, bike lanes and all sorts of other confusion muddying up our drive. To top it all off, we couldn’t figure out where the car drop was.

We circled the train station several times, once mistakenly turning ONTO the train tracks, until we found an underground parking area. We parked the car, ran into the train station, and asked the first English-speaking staff person we could find to direct us to the rental office.

The man at the rental counter kindly gave us a map and directions to the car drop site, which would have been very helpful to have had at the start of our journey, and we ran back out to the car.

Tension was high in the car as we barreled out of the train station and followed the new directions to the car drop. We pulled in, Ace Ventura style—”like a glove”—and breathed a sigh of relief. It was 3:50.

It was really nice to have a car for this leg of the trip. We had the freedom to come and go as we pleased, travel to areas we couldn’t walk to, and see some of the German countryside from the comfort of a car. But I absolutely stressed about this car return. I’ve learned a few things about how to better prepare for next time. At this point I was so ready to be back to being walking distance from everything in the city. And we’d finish our trip with a couple of days in Munich, Germany…

Exploring the Romantic Road in Germany

April 18-19, 2014.

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See the pictures from our trip to Bavaria here.

We took a train from the south of France up to Frankfurt, Germany, where we began the second half of our trip. In Frankfurt, we rented a car and set off to travel the Romantic Road through Bavaria.

I’ll skip over the stress of figuring out how to operate an unfamiliar vehicle in a new country with an operating manual and navigation system in German.

I’ll also skip over navigating through narrow, congested city streets with little understanding of the strange street signs and confusing directions.

I’ll dive straight into the blissfully idyllic country drive through rolling hills, yellow fields, and puffy clouds. The Germany we pictured when we dreamed up this magical vacation.

Since we arrived in Germany in the evening, we bolted straight for Rothenburg ob der Tauber, where we had a place to stay for the night. We pulled in around 7 pm, driving down narrow but uncongested streets, as the city had quieted down for the evening. I admire the Rick Steves guides for the small, practical tips they offer; one of these tips was to spend the night in Rothenburg, since most of the visitors are day-trippers. He was spot on with that tidbit. We had a lovely meal at a nearly empty restaurant, I downed my first glass of German beer, and we took a peaceful stroll down darkened streets. We retired to a comfortable and spacious hotel room that felt like a four star suite after the crap hotels in France.

On the city walls of Rothenburg

All hotels in Germany include breakfast in the price, so we got up early and headed straight to breakfast. We were treated, unexpectedly, to a bountiful spread. This was no cheap, American continental breakfast. We had our choice of eggs, bacon, lunch meats, sliced cheeses, breads, rolls, jam, muesli, yogurt, fruit, coffee, and juice. We ate until our cheeks were stuffed like chipmunks, then rolled out the front door for a walk.

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The town of Rothenburg is encircled by an old rock wall. It is still nearly intact; visitors can walk around the perimeter of the city almost entirely on this medieval barrier. We began our tour at an old church with colorful gardens and bubbling fountains. It was a gray and foggy morning, but we enjoyed some views of the valley and nearby countryside. It looked very much like a scene from Monty Python: Search for the Holy Grail.

Occasionally, we’d see a person or two standing on the wall, taking pictures with their iPads or some nonsense. This was rare; inevitably there was a staircase within twenty feet of the people. It seemed like we were the only ones actually exploring much of the wall.

That meant there were lots of opportunities to look at stuff, take pretty pictures, and have a little fun.

After making a lap around Rothenburg, we wandered into a little bakery to try a Schneeball. We’d seen them in the shop windows the night before, and figured they were made for tourists but they looked really damn tasty. They were. Fried dough and sugar is always a winning combination. Plus, they had a funny name. Win-win.

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The city was starting to buzz with people and I felt a little anxiety bubbling up. We made one last stop in St. Jacob’s church before leaving. The interior of the church was very different from those we’d seen in France. The walls were cement gray, plain and smooth. There were some elaborate stained glass panels, but most of the windows contained clear glass and were framed by straight bars and metal circles. The plain walls served as an excellent backdrop to feature the intricate wood carvings, huge pipe organ, and perfect, symmetrical border details. It had a different style of beauty, but it still looked a little unfinished.

Around lunch time, we bailed out of Rothenburg. I’ll skip how insane the traffic was as we tried to get out of the walled city, which is not well designed for hordes of cars.

Instead, the story continues on the peaceful country drive. Aaron was behind the wheel and I frantically flipped through our guidebooks to try and pick another stop. There were too many quaint, historical towns for us to see in only a day and a half. I decided on Nördlingen, a walled city inside a crater. It sounded pretty awesome. Clearly, many other people had the same idea, and the place was jam-packed. We found a spot in a two-hour parking zone, so we had to prioritize our visit. We walked to the center of town and climbed the 90 meter tower at St. Georg’s church. It was 2.5 euro for the privilege of walking up the tower. The ascent up the old spiral staircase was dizzying, and the view was excellent. But it was bumper-to-bumper people traffic at the top, so we had to wait for someone to leave before we could get out on the deck.

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Wieskirche

There were so many more towns to see, but we had to get to Schwangau that evening. We skipped back to the freeway and I pored through the books to choose one last stop. I decided on the Wieskirche, a rococo-style church that had ridiculously high reviews. It was all alone, outside a small village with apparently no other attractions. And, there was no entrance fee.

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Upon arriving, it was clear we were at the right place. Not because the church was all that stunning, but because there was a pay-parking lot and there were vendors selling trinkets everywhere. A truck drove past us and rolled down the window. A German lady inside handed us her parking ticket, which was still good for an hour, and motioned for us to use it. We mumbled a danke schoen and watched her drive off. It was an omen!

The outside of the church was unremarkable. It was a big, white, plaster structure with a bell tower and some moderately interesting external architecture.

But once we got inside, the entire character changed. Every surface of every part was exquisitely decorated with gold leaf, vibrant paint, and three dimensional structure. Only a few plain, white strips of wall remained to draw attention to the painted details. The ceiling was most impressive of all, with finely detailed paintings of the “scourged savior,” showing scenes of Christ’s suffering and redemption. Religious or not, one could hardly ignore the craftsmanship and beauty of the church’s interior.

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We finished the drive to Schwangau, a little mountain town near the Austrian border. The majestic Alps dominated the view from the deck of our perfectly perched hotel room. It seemed mellow at the hotel and the town felt empty, but as soon as we tried to go out for dinner we were shut down left and right. We ended up at the bar in a tiny Italian restaurant, which was not exactly what we were looking for. After dinner, we explored a little city park near the hotel, where we could see two castles in the mountains: Neuschwanstein and Hohenschwangau, our destinations for tomorrow.

Can you see them in the image below?

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Resources for Visitors:

Romantic Road

Rothenburg ob der Tauber

Wieskirche

Pont du Gard

April 17, 2014.

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Click to view the photos from Nîmes and Pont du Gard

The Pont du Gard is a 2,000 year old Roman aqueduct that is a short bus ride from Nîmes. There are only a handful of buses heading there each day, so we boarded the early bus and arrived before the museum and shops had opened.

The aqueduct

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A quick walk brought us to the Pont du Gard. The sheer size of the structure was hard to comprehend. It was made of huge, golden blocks neatly stacked and formed into arches. Three stories of arches gracefully spanned the Gardon River. At the top, a narrow channel once permitted the flow of drinking water from one side of the river to the other.

We walked across the bridge and explored the trails on the other side. A sign pointed to a hillside viewpoint to the right, but dirt paths led off in all directions. We spent a good portion of the morning chasing trails, “finding” bits of stonework and ruins, and searching for secret viewpoints. Eventually, we made our way to a cute, little wildflower meadow that had an excellent view back to the Pont du Gard.

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One of the best parts of this impromptu exploration was that no one else had decided to go exploring, or so it seemed. We had our own private hiking trails for hours.

 After some creative scrambling we made it down to the river and hopped along the rocks to get a view of the underside of the aqueduct. We could hear lots of people on the deck above, but no one was down on the river. Again, it felt like our own special place. The river was running slowly and smoothly. Swallows flitted above our heads, diving in and out of the nests they’d built on the aqueduct. The giant structure provided welcome shade in the heat of the day.

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Back on the other bank of the river, we walked up to the fenced off upper portion of the Pont du Gard. We could clearly see the path that water used to flow thousands of years ago.

Museum

We made our way back to the main entrance and walked through the museum. It was overrun with groups of French schoolchildren, but we managed to weave our way through the exhibits that were not occupied. Although it was poorly lit and somewhat strangely designed, the museum had lots of informative and interesting exhibits that told the story of the ancient Romans. A combination of ancient artifacts, modern replicas, and historical photographs showed the Pont du Gard throughout time.

All the exhibits focused on one thing: water, and how to move it from one place to another. This reminded us that we were pretty darn thirsty, and hungry too. It was about lunchtime.

Picnic in the park

We grabbed some sandwiches and sodas from the cafe and ducked into the woods to get away from the crowds. We enjoyed a lovely picnic lunch, consuming the most un-American items we could find: baguette sandwiches, “Nature” chips, and a carbonated drink called Panach’.

Aaron took one sip of the aforementioned beverage and handed it to me, asking for a trade. As it turned out, Panach’ is made by Heineken, and contains a mixture of lemonade and beer. While I wouldn’t ever order it on purpose, it made a nice accompaniment to a warm spring picnic.

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A garden surprise

After lunch, we walked through the Mémoires de Garrigue, a Mediterranean garden located in the park near the Pont du Gard. A signed route led us through the many pathways in the garden. Here, I really wished my French was better. There were something like eighty stations scattered throughout the park, offering historical photos and facts at every station. I could tell that the signs told a story of the people in times past, and how the land was used to support the community. We made our best guesses about the stories on each sign, using help from Google Translate and the context of each sign. We learned frequently used words such as hill (colline), abri (shelter), manure (fumier) and récolte (harvest). It felt somewhat like a scavenger hunt. Again, we pretty much had the place to ourselves.

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Visiting the Pont du Gard and surrounding trails and gardens was one of the highlights of the entire trip. It had it all: natural beauty that begged for exploration, incredible architecture, and educational exhibits that added depth and background to everything we saw. While the Pont du Gard was not on my to-do list heading out to France, I can’t imagine doing this trip without making the effort to visit this site. Sometimes last-minute plans turn out to be treasures.

Resources for visitors

Mémoires de Garrigue
Pont du Gard

City walk: Nîmes, France

April 16, 2014.

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Click to view the photos from Nîmes and Pont du Gard

When we were planning this trip, I really had no idea what I wanted to see or where I wanted to go in France. I asked a more experienced travel buddy where I should go and she mentioned Nîmes. As I did my trip research, I found the city of Nîmes to be somewhat elusive; it’s not in the France travel guide from Rick Steves, and no one else I’d spoken to had really heard of it. All these  were omens that spoke to me : “I really want to go there.”

Nîmes has a rich history. It was an important city in the first few centuries AD, under Roman rule. The Romans constructed an array of impressive buildings, some of which remain in really good shape today. Nîmes is much smaller than Lyon or Paris, so it is perfect for exploring by foot. The city also provides quick access to the Pont du Gard, which I’ll cover in another blog post.

Les Arenès de Nîmes

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Right in the center of town, we found the big arena. This was a great starting point for our travel back in time to the ancient Roman era. There is a self-guided audio tour provided to visitors, so we walked at our own pace as we learned about the long and twisted history of the arena. The arena was used for entertainment purposes, which often involved lots of blood and death. Over centuries, the events changed from animal hunts, prisoner executions, gladiator fights, and bullfights. We learned all we ever wanted to learn (and more) about the various types of gladiators and battles. We were so inspired by our visit that we watched the movie “Gladiator” on our train ride from Nîmes  to Frankfurt.

Jardins de la Fontaine

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These sprawling, carefully designed gardens served as a backdrop to our take-out kebab lunch. There were palm trees, pools, fountains, lawns and flower beds. Children were taking pony rides, school groups were playing, people were out strolling and generally enjoying the sunshine. It was a beautiful place to just hang out.

The original centerpiece was a natural spring used as a foundation for the first Roman settlement. Today, the spring bubbles up into a stone pool connected to other channels and pools leading out of the garden. The modern structures were designed and built in the 18th century. Back home, we’re lucky to have a couple of old, rickety park benches along the edge of a lawn of grass. I think we could learn a thing or two from the city planners in Nîmes.

Temple de Diane

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Within the Jardins stood the remains of a temple. To this day, the purpose of the temple remains a mystery. It stood behind a metal fence with a French interpretive sign. It was interesting to walk in and around it, noting the centuries of graffiti and little flowering plants poking through every crack they could.

La Tour Magne

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The only reason to visit this tower is to enjoy the view from the top. The tower itself is nothing special, apart from the fact that it’s about two thousand years old. It was originally built as part of the town’s defense system. We showed our entrance ticket and walked up the tall, spiral staircase to the viewing platform nearly 60 feet above the ground. It feels much higher on top, since the tower was built on a hill overlooking the city. From there, we had an excellent view of the arena and central boulevard as well as all the rooftops of the city. The platform was pretty small, however, so as soon as another group came up we had to leave.

Maison Carée

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We saved the Maison Carée for last. From the outside, this is an impressive structure. It gleamed bright white in the sunshine. Its tall columns erupted out of the earth. Its clean lines and stout structure made it look like it was just completed yesterday. A huge courtyard set it apart from the busy streets and modern architecture all around it. It was magnificent to behold.

When we went to go inside, we were told that a movie played roughly every half hour, so we’d have to wait for the next showing. As we entered, we noticed that the place was completely modernized, containing a small theater for watching the movie and nothing else. The movie itself was not worth waiting for. The only reason it was remotely interesting was that we’d already visited many of the places featured in the film and had some sense of the history and locations. It would have been a terrible way to start our tour of the city.

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On top of all the sightseeing, we had some incredible food in the restaurants and from the street vendors. I loved the smaller feel of Nîmes, the clash of modern and ancient architecture, the friendly locals and the comfortable climate. I had no idea that my visit to Nîmes was just about to get even better with a visit to the Pont du Gard…

Resources for travelers

Amphitheater of Nîmes, Maison Carée Tour Magne
Finding Nemo in Nîmes (Rick Steves)
Pont du Gard

City walk: Lyon, France

April 14-15, 2014.

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Click to view the photos from Lyon

We took the train south from Paris to Lyon, one of France’s largest urban centers. Lyon is also famed for its cuisine and ancient Roman ruins. With a day and a half to spend, we had a lot of ground to cover. The first afternoon took us to the park. On the second day, we visited 2 cathedrals and the Gallo-Roman museum, then explored the traboules, stairways and side streets of the old city before finishing up with a traditional bouchon meal.

Parc de la Tête d’Or

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Lyon made a tremendous first impression on us with this sprawling, magnificent park. The park is divided into several sections, and includes a lake, walking paths, rose gardens, greenhouses sports fields, and a zoo. Everything was free, including the zoo, so we began with a relaxing stroll to see the animals. For the next several hours, we explored the park. Along the way we found a war monument, a Mediterranean garden, a urban beekeeping display (including some very busy hives), families of geese, and a huge iron gate. It was a lovely park with something for everyone.

Cathedral of Lyon and Notre Dame de Fourvière

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Surprisingly, we hadn’t gotten enough of being in churches yet, so we visited a couple more. The Cathedral of Lyon, or Saint Jean-Baptiste Cathedral, was located near a small square in Vieux (Old) Lyon. It was hard to believe that this structure was built in the 14h century. It’s sturdy walls, built in the Gothic style, had a stern presence over the square. We timidly opened the huge doors to take a peek inside. The interior was beautiful, with stained glass and flickering candles playing with light and shadows. Carefully carved stone highlighted an acute attention to detail. Downstairs, a treasury held many priceless artifacts from the church’s past, including gold ornaments, robes, and items used to celebrate mass. It all felt very lavish.

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A short but steep walk up the hill took us to the Notre Dame. It seemed like every city had one of these churches dedicated to Mary. It was very windy on top of the hill so we were happy to duck inside. The interior was grand, with spectacular mosaics decorating the walls. Gold sparkled from every corner of the walls. Every square inch of the place was ornately adorned, including the ceiling. Rule #1 for traveling in Europe: never miss the opportunity to visit a church. Each one was spectacular in their own right. We spent what felt like hours investigating every corner of the magnificent building.

Roman Theaters and Museum

One of the most modern buildings in Lyon stood in stark contrast to one of the oldest. The Gallo-Roman museum, built seamlessly into a hillside, was a stone’s throw away from a rare pair of ancient Roman theaters. The museum contained artifacts uncovered in Lyon and surrounding areas, like statues, grave markers, lead pipes, pottery, and mosaic tile floors. For a measly 4 Euro, we had access to the entire collection. A friendly woman at the front desk set us up with free English audioguides and we were on our way.

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After exploring the museum, we walked around the remains of the theaters. The lower portions were in really good shape, and were still apparently being used for festivals and shows. The upper portions were more wild and rugged and interesting. Our feet were pretty tired from this point, so we cut our explorations short and headed back into town.

Traboule-hunting

All over Lyon, there are secret passageways snaking through the old buildings. These passageways are called traboules. I’d read about them in Rick Steves’ book so we thought we’d try and find a few.

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Most of the traboules were private, but a few were open to the public. Shiny plaques hung on the walls in front of some of the more prominent traboules. We pulled open a few doors near these plaques to investigate what traboules looked like. As we expected, they were like private hallways leading to interior entrances to apartments, stairways and businesses. Some were colorful, well lit and decorated. Others were dark and narrow. Some were open to the sky above, and others were totally enclosed. We popped in and out of a few of these, and an old French woman motioned for us to follow her into another one. We did, and then sort of followed her around town, watching her every move, to find more traboules. She appeared to have a map in her hand, like she was looking for treasure. We hadn’t done much research, so we were happy to have a little guidance along the way.

Eating in Lyon

Our first experience of eating in Lyon fortunately did not set the tone for the rest of our stay here. I’d read about the food scene in the city, and its famed bouchons. These were small, traditional, family-run eateries that offered lots of simple and hearty dishes for a reasonable price. I happened to notice that our hotel was pretty close to Chez Georges, which was very well regarded on the travel websites I’d visited. We walked in a little after noon, and were greeted in French. “No, we do not have a reservation,” I stuttered as best I could, and was afraid we’d be turned away. But, we were seated at a long, communal table (no one else was seated there) and left to think about what jerks we were for coming in off the street.

I struggled to read the daily specials board, not because it was in French, but because the the writing was illegible and chalk was half smudged off. When the waiter came back to ask what we’d like, I asked for water and 2 daily specials. Any follow-up questions he asked me were followed up with shoulder shrugs and Je ne comprends pas. I think I was starting to sweat.

Eventually, we were brought a couple of dishes in succession. They were delicious, and we enjoyed them, but I felt we were missing out on something. Everyone else in the restaurant was brought out these communal steaming casseroles to try. I vaguely remembered reading about the shared-dish concept online, and regretted that I had no way to ask if we could have some of what were they having. Total French fail.

Although our waiter was very nice, he spoke very quickly to my slow French ears and I felt awful that I was completely paralyzed and unable to talk back. I couldn’t wait to get out of there and never wanted to embarrass myself like that again. Fortunately, Aaron’s the type of guy that just rolls with the punches, and assured me that I was much less of an ass than I felt I was.

Our last meal in Lyon was the complete opposite. After walking down a street in the old city, reading menu boards outside a few bouchons, the proprietor of one restaurant poked his head outside and said Bon soir! Entrez! or something to that effect. We shook our head and kept walking, when suddenly Aaron decided he wanted to go back there.

When we walked in, there was one family eating dinner in the corner. The other few tables were empty. He sat us down, gave us the menu and greeted us again in French. He had a kind face and a nice smile and we immediately felt comfortable there. I squeaked out a few basic French phrases and pleasantries, ordered our meals, and was feeling quite proud of myself. When the waiter came back, I realized I’d mistakenly ordered not a glass of wine, but an entire bottle. For me. Aaron doesn’t drink.

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Working quickly to down a couple glasses of wine, I was thrilled when the first course came out. We had a delicious Lyonnaise salad and some sausage-in-bread thing to get us started. Then, we received the main course: a quenelle for me and a huge sausage for Aaron. An iron skillet full of roasted potatoes was our shared side dish. It was all delicious. The waiter patiently and slowly explained to me that the quenelle recipe is traditional, not like those trendy huge ones the touristy restaurants have, and asked us how the food was. He then indicated that it was cash only, and I was grateful that I’d taken enough Euro in my purse that day, or we’d still be doing dishes right now.

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Overall, Lyon was a lovely town to see on foot. There were more than enough sights to see in the couple days we had, and if we’d had more time, plenty of shopping to do. There were excellent restaurants and food vendors on every street corner, although we often felt overwhelmed by choice. My lesson: make reservations if you want to show up to a well-known establishment, and forgodssake learn how to order like the locals do.

Resources for travelers

La Cathedral Saint-Jean-Baptiste de Lyon
Lyon’s Traboules
Notre Dame de Fourvière
Roman Theaters of Fourvière

Paris in the Springtime, Part 2

April 9-14, 2014.

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 Click to view the entire album from Paris.

The story picks up on Paris’ Left Bank. Heading south from Notre Dame, we walked clear across the Latin Quarter to stand in line at the entrance to the Catacombs. It was lunch hour, and we hadn’t eaten yet, but we were committed to getting into this place. The pictures were compelling. Plus, it was so hot in the sun, spending some time in a cool cave sounded like just the thing.

The Catacombs

An hour after we got in line, at last it was our turn to descend into the tunnel. We picked up a couple of audioguides and went down. Sixty feet below the city, we entered a network of tunnels. Originally a huge limestone quarry, the tunnels now house the bones of millions of Parisians. In the 18th and 19th century, Paris saw the closure of several cemeteries in an effort to improve public health. The bones were dug up and moved to their present home in the Catacombs.

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Along the tunnels there were several sayings, poems, and quotes written or carved on the walls. Simple markers indicated which cemetery the surrounding piles of bones came from. The bones were arranged in neat patterns, with the knobby ends of femurs forming walls on either side of the tunnels. Rows of carefully laid skulls added complexity to the simple pattern. The less aesthetic bones and other bits must have been buried in the deeper layers of the piles, out of view. In all, we covered over one mile of walking underground.

Besides the bones, there were a few other unique features. My favorite were the 18th centure carvings created by a quarryman in his spare time. The buildings were replicas of actual places he’d been, which is especially incredible considering iPhones weren’t invented at that time, so they were carved from memory.

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The experience was made much richer with the help of the audioguide. Since we couldn’t read much of the French, we would have pretty much wasted our time if we hadn’t had the guides to listen to.

Jardin du Luxembourg

Emerging from the darkness, famished, we jetted over to the first lunch place we could find and devoured some crepes and cider. We took the scenic walk back to the apartment, detouring through the Jardin du Luxembourg.

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Now, this was a park. A map at the entrance detailed all the different sections and what you could do there: playgrounds for kids, bocce ball for old men, sitting areas, fountains, gardens, and of course, snack stands. There were symbols designating which grass was off limits and which was ok to trample. The park was filled with people, each enjoying the outdoors in their own way. We wandered through the paths, trying to stay in the shade, until we got our fill. If I was staying longer in Paris, this would be a favorite destination on a lazy, sunny afternoon.

Panthéon

The Panthéon was another of France’s National Monuments that seemed worthy of a visit. It was kind of on our way home anyways. The dome was under construction, but even so, it had captured our attention early in the trip.

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The outside of the structure was impressive, with its grand staircase and huge columns, but the inside was ten times more amazing. I felt really small once I stepped through the door. Built in the Neoclassical style, the Panthéon is shaped like a cross with a massive dome on top. The building stood over 270 feet tall. Gargantuan paintings filled up the walls, bold tile patterns decorated the floor, and detailed stone carvings commanded attention in each room. Click to view a 360° view of the interior.

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Plaques recalled a time when the Panthéon served as a place for an important experiment: demonstrating the rotation of the Earth by hanging a pendulum from the top of the central dome. Foucault’s Pendulum has since been removed to a museum and a replica was installed here. But, not today, since the dome was under construction.

Lastly, we descended into the crypt beneath the main building. Here lay the bodies of many historical French figures, including Marie and PIerre Curie, Victor Hugo, Louis Braille and Voltaire. Many confusing hallways led from one tomb to the next. Some had fresh flowers or other gifts, some were gated shut, and some had descriptive signage explaining what the person had accomplished to earn their place in the Panthéon.

Louvre

The next morning, we headed straight for the Louvre. It was a short walk from the apartment, so we arrived before it opened and got in line. The queue standing outside the famous glass pyramid turned out not to be a ticket line, but a security checkpoint allowing us the privilege to go buy tickets. Once we descended into the main atrium, all hell broke loose, with people walking in every which direction and speaking every language known to man. We looked around the confusion until my eyes settled upon a ticket machine. Once we got tickets, we had our choice of several wings to enter. I headed straight for the one with the least people milling around. Whew, we were in.

We started exploring a wing of the museum dedicated to the history of the Louvre. We were mostly alone, looking at old pictures, floor plans, and details of renovations of the building over time. It was fascinating, but not a major draw for tourists. After that, we explored some of the more popular exhibits: Greek Antiquities, European paintings, Asian art. The halls were packed with loud and pushy tourists, all on their cellphones and iPads, shoving in front of me to take a picture of whatever I was looking at, then take off a second later. Was anyone actually looking at anything? I thought, perhaps not. I kept my phone in my bag and instead tried to enjoy the art and artifacts displayed in the museum.

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What was maybe more impressive was the museum building itself. Looking up, I saw intricate paintings, decorative wood and stone work, and lavishly decorated rooms. Looking out the windows, views of the building exterior, glass pyramids, fountains, and gardens presented themselves. The Louvre was an extraordinary place, if you only took the time to look.

One Last Surprise

Later that evening, after walking past the Eiffel Tower, its pulsating mob of tourists and sketchy street folk hawking souvenirs, after a late dinner, and after exhausting our feet with walking, we conjured up enough energy to re-visit the Eiffel Tower after dark.

Paris was a great walking town at night. It was cool but not cold, and bright lights illuminated all the monuments, fountains, churches and statues throughout the city. We wandered towards the tower, admiring its familiar shape jutting over the Paris skyline.

But suddenly, we stopped in our tracks. When the clock hit 10pm, a dazzling light show began. Each light twinkled fast and furious, the entire structure glistening in the night sky. We rushed to find a clearer viewpoint and take some photos. This was an event to remember. The lights flashed on and off for several minutes before settling back to normal, as if nothing had ever happened. The picture does not do it justice; this must be experienced first hand.

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The next couple of days were mostly consumed with MovNat training, which was awesome in its own right.

And my favorite moment in Paris? That Sunday morning when I woke up early to get to my training class by foot. Jogging along the Seine with not another soul in sight, watching the boats floating in the river, breathing in the cool air, feeling the cobblestone under my feet. It was perfect.

Resources for Visitors:

Eiffel Tower
Jardin du Luxembourg
Les Catacombes
Louvre Museum
Pantheon