Thursday, December 30, 2010

Day 53: Nice is Nice

Last night was the closest to a normal night's sleep I've had in the past three days. It was well earned after my torturous scavenger hunt to find Yves' apartment. When I told Yves about how the crazy time I had finding his place he asked if I opened the text document which included his address, phone, and detailed directions. Oops.

When I arrived last night Yves was cheating on me with another Surfer. He was two timing! Double dipping! The other fellow was an Indian dude named Prashant. Prashant also had a rough past few days. He came from Marseille, where he was jumped and had his backpack stolen. Marseille as my next destination, this was startling. Good thing Yves had been nursing him back to health with his magic teas and cooking.

The next morning I experienced Yves' culinary mastery first hand. He made a classic French breakfast of baguette, butter, jam, and hot chocolate. I'm all about the jam – it's apricot ginger. He transforms fresh apricots from a tree at work into a jam so good you'll forget about Smuckers forever. My obsession with his jam was so extreme it became an inside joke.

After breakfast, Yves went to work and Prashant and I went out to explore Nice. The view from Yves' balcony had been teasing me all morning. Time to explore! We hopped on the #17 bus and headed down the Cimiez towards the seaside.

Nice is a gorgeous city even when the weather isn't perfect. Upon arriving in the city center, Prashant and I walked along the beach towards a look out point. There beach was empty except for a few folks doing odd stuff, like digging holes.

Smooth stones instead of sand – a natural foot massage!
The dynamic CouchSurfing duo!
The hill that we climbed to get a good view.

The views from the look-out point were stellar. Everywhere we went could have been in a post card. We could see over the sea and the whole city. I can't imagine what kind of mob scene the city becomes in the summer. It was so beautiful – I wanted to go swimming!

Postcards, I told you.
A building down below.
Nice and the sea.

The small hill that we were on offered a view of the harbor as well. We saw a ferry from Corsica doing an epic parallel parking docking maneuver. We joked about it crashing into the lighthouse "Sorry!"

I call this "Harbor With Cactus."
Soon I'll put all these panoramas online biiig.
*Crunch* Sorry about your lighthouse!
The ferry did a sort of flip-turn backup maneuver in order to dock.
These people spoke English with strange accents.
A phenomenal view from the top – complete with gift shop.
This funny dog couldn't see over the railing.

The cemetery was interesting. I told Prashant about the Lafayette Cemetery we saw in New Orleans. The crypt keeper from Nola told us that crypts were a French method of burial but we didn't see any here. Prashant was grossed out when I told him about how they reuse the crypts by scraping the decomposed remains to the back and then putting a new body in. In India everyone is cremated using a funeral pyre. I'd prefer to be buried.

No crypts in sight.

I really enjoyed Prashant's company. Traveling alone makes me appreciate when I have someone to walk around with and talk to. He was an excellent listener and carried on a good conversation. Having someone to take pictures of you was a novelty for me. He was excited and kept insisting I pose. We had a good time taking photographs of Nice and each other.

Compliments of Mr P.
A Ross Connard original photograph.

After the observation point we headed to Vieux Nice, the old part of the city. Many cities that I've seen so far have an old section preserved. They're commonly identified by windy, narrow streets, stuffed with shops. Vieux Nice is a charming area replete with tantalizing restaurants and lots to see. Throngs of people were all over the place and added an exciting air to the environment.

Vieux Nice was packed.
Never seen streets cleaned like this before.
The flowers smelled heavenly.

We wandered over towards the Christmas market. People were desperately hanging onto shreds of holiday cheer. I've really enjoyed seeing all the different Christmas markets in cities that I've been through. We came on a shop selling apples dipped in chocolate and coated with all sorts of goodies. I couldn't resist buying one! I eagerly incorporated the fake holly leaf into my hat.

I'll take 10.

Yes! I shared! Prashant never had a candy apple before.
Fall down and everyone will laugh.

Unfortunately Prashant had an early morning flight so we headed back to the apartment so he could get ready. He was much smarter than me and slept at the airport overnight – advice which I'll follow in the future. Before he left Yves made a delicious dinner. Dinner was amazing but finally getting a solid night's sleep was much better. Fun fun.

Au revoir!

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Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Day 52: Easyjet Should Change Their Name

Biking around the southern coast of Lac Léman was a physical and mental challenge. I never considered how much more difficult biking with a pack would be. Consider biking 100 km with a 3rd grader on your back (an American third grader).

Thankfully I had a CS host to look forward to in Geneva. When I got to Alain's apartment I was dead tired but I needed to find a bike lock for Ioan's bike before the bike shops closed. The bike lock must have fallen out of the basket during my branch induced spill. Thankfully Alain knew a place nearby. The store's steel gates were not welcoming. Bummer. Although Migros, the Swiss mega-corp sells everything under the sun, bike locks must be a shady item. I suppose I will be sending Ioan money VIA PayPal to set things right. Staying with Alain was a much needed moment of calm amongst the maelstrom of my life.

Alain is the first person over the age of 30 that I have stayed with. In fact, he's about twice that. CouchSurfing allows me to communicate with many types of people and I embrace that by intentionally seeking out new types. Staying with him was the closest that I've felt to home while traveling. He made my life very easy for my brief stay. It was unfortunate that I had a flight at 6:35 AM, which meant I had to be up at 3:45 AM. We didn't have long to talk but we made the best of our brief time together. Our conversations ran the gambit – his experiences being a CS host, his current job situation, and stories about hitchhiking across America in the 60's. Every topic was delivered in a unique and genuine warmth that I rarely encounter but thoroughly enjoyed.

Given the quality of the conversation, food, and sleep, I cannot decide what part of staying at Alain's I enjoyed most. He treated me to a classic raclette dinner. Melted raclette cheese with small potatoes and pickles. Mmmm! Seeing his old school cheese melter was cool but I enjoyed eating the 'cheeses of its labor' more! By some luck, he had a bottle of rather expensive wine open and was kind enough to share it with me. It certainly completed the meal.

Eat raclette every chance you get.

After dinner I treated myself to a much needed shower. 100 km of biking and trekking with a full pack makes for a smelly Ross. Emerging from the shower, I felt a few pounds lighter. It was the perfect segue before bed after a long day. Time to explore dreamland; thankfully less intensive than biking 100 km.

Getting up this morning was rough. Camping in the snow last night made sleeping inside a treat. Because of my early flight I only slept for four hours but my body made the most of every minute. I was up at 3:50. As I was saying goodbye to Alain my body was saying "I wish I wasn't leaving, go back to sleep." Having a bike to return and a plane to catch – grudgingly I schlepped my pack onto my back and headed out the door.

Time and I are usually chill; this morning was an exception. Before I got on the train to go to the airport I needed to swing by Ioan's apartment to drop off his bike. My whole body protested and knees felt like they were going to explode as I pedaled. After stashing his bike in his building's basement I walked twenty five minutes to the train station. On my way it was apparent that I was going to miss the train but I wasn't worried because I thought I left enough time. Every step towards the train station burned as my boots rubbed on my blisters. Nonetheless, I arrived, bought a ticket, and hopped on the next train for a brief ride to the airport.

Due to lack of sleep, the four minute train ride was surreal. Getting off the train, I had a bad feeling. I was pretty sure I was at the right place but there was no airport in sight, only a small snowy platform. It didn't look like the train stop for an airport. I still had a bunch of time before my flight so I wasn't too worried so I headed towards some large buildings. After asking, I learned that I was at the airport but at the wrong terminal. I needed to go to the main terminal, about a 20 minute walk. I set off in a hurry – my window for check in closing. Finally I began seeing signs for flight check in. What a relief! The automatic doors parted and I entered into the Geneva Airport. Immediately I headed towards the EasyJet signs with about 10 minutes to spare.

At the check-in kiosk there were no flights to Nice. Uh oh. Stressed and confused I inquired to an employee, who told me that I was still in the wrong place. I needed to go to the other side of the airport for France-bound flights. Off I ran. Running. Rubbing. Running. Rubbing. My pack bounced up and down as I booked it towards the correct check-in.

Upon finding the correct kiosks I promptly tapped the language button for English, "No flights currently available for check-in." Frantic, I asked the employees who were checking in luggage. "Sorry," she said "check-in for the flight ended three minutes ago." My irate "What the hell does that mean? I need to get on this plane," was countered by her "Sorry, sir. You can change your ticket for 80 francs over there."

Excuse my French, but I feel boned. I missed the check in for my flight by 3 minutes. I was awestruck standing at the check in when they told me that there was no way that I could get on the plane. Upset, I showed them the boarding pass that I got online that clearly said that check-in closes at 6:05. When I realized it said that the gate closes at 6:05 I felt like an idiot. I should have left more time because I was so clueless about where to go. Not only do I rarely fly, but I was in an unfamiliar airport in an unfamiliar city.

After missing my flight, my only option was to pay 80 francs and change my ticket to a flight leaving at 8 pm. I made the best of the 17 hour wait by catching up on blog entries. I definitely have enough work to keep me busy until 8.

Small bird, big chirp – flitting around in the airport's cafe.

At least I can look really authentic waiting in the airport. Pack astray, hat slung over my eyes, asleep on a bench in a hodgepodge of my belongings.

A little tired, can you tell?

Fast forward a few hours and it was 7:25, time for my flight. I joined the writing mass waiting to board the plane. As 7:30 rolled around a voice crackled over the loud speaker, "The 7:25 flight to Nice is delayed and will be leaving at 9:20." Ugh. Two more hours – just what I needed.

Boarding insanity.
At 9:25 we finally boarded a bus that took us to the plane.
I've never boarded a plane from the tarmac before.
The plane was small and didn't offer free food.

Arriving safely in Nice was a relief. After three long days, I was nearly where I needed to be. All I had to do now was find my host's house. I thought his directions were excellent. He told me which busses to take and even included maps of where I needed to go. Oddly, he didn't include an address or phone number. I figured he was a private sort of dude. As long as I could get to his house everything would be ok!

As I started following his directions, I realized that there was some key information missing. I caught the bus from the airport no problem. I asked some folks on the bus about the stop I was looking for, Gare Routere. They said it was the last stop. Needless to say, the bus stopped three stops from Gare Routere and I had no idea how to get there. Welcome to the tip of the iceberg.

Thankfully, a nice man I bought a kebab from pointed me in the right direction. I took the tram and I was soon at Gare Routere. I asked around s'more and found the correct bus stop. I waited with a handful of other folks. Around 1:00 AM the bus came. I knew I was on the right bus but I didn't know if it was headed in the right direction or where to get off. Luckily I took pictures of the maps Yves sent me and I asked the bus driver if it was headed to the monastery. He replied in French. Ugh.

So I sat, not knowing where I was going. Eventually the bus stopped and he said that it was the end of the line and the monastery was just up a nearby street. Sweet! I donned my pack and headed in the direction he indicated. Up a series of stone steps. Lots of stone steps. I reached a street which I thought was the one my host lived off of. After walking down the hill and back up, it proved otherwise.

It was 2 AM and there was no one around to ask for help. By some miracle a motorcycle dropped someone off a few feet away from where I was. "Pardon, can you help me?" I showed him the map and he seemed confident of where I needed to go. As he was giving me directions he would say, go right at the Monoprix, while pointing with his left hand. Hardly confident, I thanked him and set off. Sure enough, his directions were good and I found my host's house. Now I know what desert nomads felt like when they found an oasis. Salvation! Sleep!

Finally where I could get some rest, I looked at the building's intercom. There were two panels and I found my host's name on the right hand one. A sheet of plexiglass had been bolted over the names, keeping me from pressing the buttons. It said something in French at the top but I was clueless. Ugh! So close and I couldn't even get inside. I didn't have his phone number so this was my only way to contact him. I felt like I was in Myst.

Imagine this is at night. The panel on the right has the plexi.
Imagine this is at night. Down the steps to get some sleep.

Eventually I succumbed to the notion that I would be spending another night in my tent. It didn't seem so bad; at least Nice was warmer. Defeated, I walked down a flight of steps to the left of his building, looking for a spot to sleep. When I saw another intercom panel I was elated. Sure enough there wasn't any plexi on this one and I triumphantly pushed the button next to his name. It was 2:30 AM and I expected him to be asleep. A voice came over the speaker, "Could it be?" The gate made the sweetest sound as it buzzed open.

It had been a long day.

Au revoir!

Monday, December 27, 2010

Day 49 and 50: Bike Trip from Vevey to Geneva

Switzerland had been kind to me so far. Geneva was interesting to walk around and my time in Vevey was enjoyable. It is certainly a town that I wouldn't mind living in, but paying 30 francs a night for a hostel was too expensive. It was time to move on.

What follows is the biggest blarticle of the century. I would have liked to split this into two parts but I'm behind in my posts. I'll be impressed if you make it through alive – kind of an allegory of my bicycle trip.

Ever since I decided to go to Geneva I wanted to bike around Lac Léman. Over the past two days I biked from Vevey to Geneva. I had to get back to Geneva in time for my flight to Nice so failure was not an option. Despite the comfort of not being able to get lost, this two day bicycle trip was the most physically exhausting challenge I have faced while traveling.

Total Distance: 100km (62 miles)
Total time: 2 days (12 hours)
Average speed: 8km/hr
Average temperature: 4ºC
Pack weight: 18kg
Towns visited: 34
Photos taken: 177
Nights camping in the snow: 1
Total expenses: €25,70

DAY 1:
Powered by pasta, I followed the lake. New gloves kept my hands warm as the frigid wind whipped over my body. Legs pumping, ground zooming past. Progress was difficult. Biking with the weight took more effort than I imagined. My pack pressed against my vertebrae like a pile of bricks. Hunched over awkwardly, I grasped the handlebars. Speeding past store windows I caught glimpses of this strange animal. A young man with an enormous burden, peddling... somewhere.

I visited Chateau de Chillon the day before.
Having some fun with the self timer.
A rather enjoyable visit, especially because it was free!

It wasn't long before I reached the limits of my previous explorations. My reunion with Chateau de Chillon was brief. Resting and reflecting as I coasted past.

8 km conquered. I needed a rest. Panorama time!
I explored every dock around the lake.
Lake meets sky.

Separated from Lac Léman, surrounded by snow, I passed through a park. Snow blanketed the ground as if to create a canvas for my camera. Romantic. Beautiful. Cold. I passed through open fields with breathtaking views of the Alps. I felt dominated by the mountains and amazed how their size escaped photographic reproduction.

The beautiful town of Villeneuve
The majestic alps!
The open road.

Out of sight from the lake I followed my internal compass down trails constantly decreasing in size. The trails tapered and tapered, I biked down a tightrope, until the trail ended. Wrong direction. A harbor on my right. Boats trapped in the ice. I reminisced about my former life. A house boat. I dreamt of adventures to come.

Soon the roads would get smaller and smaller.
Some day I will buy a house boat and explore the world.

Wheeling around, it wasn't long before I was on the ground. Back on track but not moving. I found a sign that pointed me along a bike path through the park but my umbrella caught on a low limb. It happened so quickly I just went along for the ride. The earth was cold, moist, and soft. No pavement, no pain. A quick laugh and brushing off and I pushed on.

It was nice to know I was on some sort of established trail.
I forded the river with my bike.
I wonder if they get internet here.
Cows don't care about internet.
Through fields aplenty.

Roads greeted me from their birthplaces, far away on the horizon. They brought with them fields and forests. Endless expanses waiting to be crossed. The open road brought a freshness. Constant struggle along with continuous rebirth. I marked my accomplishments with a single tread line in the snow.

Too bad I didn't have a motorcycle.

I explored one small town after another – a trail of chocolates – each with a unique flavor.

I have a new found love for boats and harbors.
An excellent color match! Street sign and shutters.

I'll never forget people's faces as they glimpsed me through their car windows. More than the glass separated our lives. Everyone's expression was different but many were similar – a look of amazement. Mouths open, eyes bulging. "What's he doing? It's too cold to be doing that." Interestingly, I was only cold when I stopped peddling for too long. If I stayed in one place I was sure to freeze and remain there forever.

The small town of Meillerie.
I found many beautiful textures here.
The sun didn't come out the whole trip.

Recently I watched a Do Lecture given by Alister Humphreys, a world adventurer. Hearing him speak about his accomplishments, I was awestruck. He has pushed himself to limits far beyond the comprehension of most people and survived to tell about it. Some people live so far out of the realm of general acceptability. I'm working on a theory about doing now and thinking about it later.

Vevey from the other side of the lake.

On the final stretch to Evian I was exhausted. I had been biking with a full pack all day. Knowing that I was close to Evian was my sole motivation. Thank goodness the last few kilometers were down hill. 4 o'clock felt like 11. I was exhausted. Time for sleep.

Almost there!
Anyone for some artisan pain?

The only hostel in Evian was €35 a night. Already over budget for the week, and inspired by Alister Humphreys, I wanted to see if I could camp in the snow. The classic camp site search began.

I quickly realized that if I planned to pitch a tent, it was unwise trying to find a spot in a large town. Regardless, a map showed me a forest on the top of the hill which Evian is built into. Another hill to climb. Fantastic.

Getting to the top was really grueling. I'm still breaking my boots in and they were rubbing rubbing rubbing. Blisters pulsing with every step. Pushing my bike up frozen hill. As the sun set the temperature halved. I felt like I would be climbing forever.

Frustrated from not finding a place to camp, I began to bike out of Evian. Something was wrong. I looked at my front tire and sure enough. Flat as a crêpe. Getting off the bike, I was so tired I couldn't worry about the flat tire. It didn't even matter. I would deal with it tomorrow.

Thankfully I soon found a road that looked promising. A quick investigation proved that it was good enough. There was a flat clearing large enough for my tent. Although it was in someone's backyard, the darkness and some bushes made me difficult to see. I scraped the snow and thorn bushes aside with my boots. "Some reward," I thought.

My driveway.

Eventually I got my tent set up and tried to make myself cozy. My hair brain idea of having a small fire ended quickly so it was time for some sleep. It was only 6PM. Inside my sleeping bag it wasn't too cold. The worst part was sleeping directly on the ground. The earth was like an ice cube, constantly sapping my warmth.

All things considered, I felt exhausted but accomplished. Biking 45 kilometers with a 18kg (40 lb) pack then trekking up a hill for an hour made me indifferent to sleeping in the snow. I fell asleep quickly.

The rest of my night was spent in an interesting state between sleep and awake. Some theta brain waves, perhaps. Due to sheer exhaustion I initially slept until about 10:30 PM. When I woke up I was still alive! I rolled around and went through the photos on my camera, deleting the duplicates. Every time I breathed the LCD would fog up so I had to wipe it constantly. I wanted to write a blog entry but I was too tired and I was worried the light from my laptop would give away my location.

I more or less slept through the rest of the night, rolling over every now and then to let the side of me that was against the ground warm up.

Home sweet home (it was dark).

DAY 2:
Some mornings I am not ready to get out of bed, this was not one of them. I was up promptly at 6 AM. It was still dark, almost like I hadn't slept at all. Packing up the tent went smoothly and soon I was headed back down the hill. Retracing my steps was fascinating, I remembered certain spots where my body swore it couldn't go on. Rather hungry, I stumbled into a boulangerie. I must have been quite the sight, having received full spa treatment the night before. Thankfully one of the employees spoke some English and told me there was a bike shop in Amphion, the next town over.

I ate my whole baguette and the snow came. Flurries matured into a white out. I walked and walked. After about 3 km I found the bike shop in Amphion-les-Bains.

Thankfully Decathlon was able to fix my flat for a measly €8; about the price of a train ticket to Geneva from Vevey.

Flat tires are bad tires.
Decathlon saved the day.

Biking on the second day seemed twice as hard as on the first day. My energy stores had been drained but I had to peddle on if I wanted to make it to Geneva in time for my flight.

The towns that I passed through were even more beautiful than on the first day.

I believe this is Thonon-les-Bains.
One of the larger towns I passed through.
Anthy-sur Léman, I think.
The splashing water formed a row of beautiful icicles.
Anyone up for a swim? You first.

By mid-day I was almost falling asleep while peddling. I needed to eat. Problem was, nearly all the restaurants were closed since these small towns shut down during winter. Luckily I found gastronomic salvation in Yvoire.

A welcoming restaurant in Yvoire.
The chorizo and olive pizza was stellar.

My favorite out of the 34 towns I passed through on my bike trek around Lac Léman was Yvoire. An incredibly charming town built of stone that looked like it was straight out of a Disney movie. I can't imagine what it looks like come summer. Amazingly, the restaurant that I found had the whole village in it – I soon found out why. I ordered a chorizo pizza and a beer. The owner suggested I get a Grimbergen – as soon as I tasted it I was glad he did! A hot lunch was the pick me up I needed. I sat at the table for nearly two hours decompressing. After an amazing meal I needed to hurry or it was going to get dark before I got to Geneva.

That's one graphic section of asphalt!
Almost there. Sweet Jesus.

The last 15 kilometers were the most difficult. My legs were burning and my whole body ached. Even after lunch I had to stop at a bus stop and take a nap. By some miracle, the last 5 km were all down hill. Rocketing towards Geneva, when the city came into sight I felt relieved.

Geneva from afar.

I thought I was too tired to take any more pictures but I couldn't help myself. These were too good to pass up.

Ships moored outside of the city.
Barges and birds.
My favorite sign, ever.
Geneva off in the distance.
I made it, just in time.

I returned to Geneva triumphant. I felt like I accomplished something great and my body was certainly sore enough to prove it. Even though I didn't bike the whole way around the lake, I don't think I could have done any more. I was tested physically and mentally. That night, sleeping inside never felt better, even if it only was for 4 hours...

Au revoir!

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