Tuesday, December 17, 2013

on the radio

At Knik Glacier, 2011.
I've been invited to participate in a winter biking discussion that will air on our local public radio station. I had to dig back to remember how long I've been riding on fattire bikes, having made the migration from studded tires on standard mountain rims to SnoCat (44mm) rims to the 80mm rims I ride on these days. It was Christmastime 2007 when Jon and I made the leap onto the fat tires. That was the year we got the Pugsleys. Then a few years ago, we made the change to the wider-rimmed Mukluks. For riding on snow (or sand), there is no going back.

In preparation for the radio program, here are a few pics from some of my more scenic winter bike rides. Enjoy! Then listen to the program on Thursday on KSKA.

At the Placer River on my ice bike with 44mm SnoCat rims.
Riding around near the Placer River.
My first fat tire bike (with 65mm rims) on Middlefork.
With my friend Margaret on Resurrection Trail.
Margaret on Resurrection Trail.
Middlefork on the Mukluk (80mm rims).
With Jon and friends at Knik Glacier, 2011.
At Knik Glacier, 2011.
Looking through all these photos makes me pretty excited about getting out onto some of the more remote rides, though I'm still not mentally prepared for 20 below! No worries; the weather here is always just about to change, right?

to paris!

Europe Trip, Part 10

We made a fairly quick drive from Lespignan to Orleans, about an hour south of Paris and checked into the micro-hotel room (seriously, the place was so tiny that there was no space between the bed and the wall to pass one-another; the room fit three only because of an upper bunk) then took off for the city center. People who know about Orleans will know that it's the city that was liberated by Joan of Arc during the Hundred Years' War. Yeah, I didn't know either.

In Orleans.
Before we arrived at the cathedral, we came upon a courtyard where art was displayed under the many arches of a covered passageway. The public art was a wonderful treat. I felt like we'd stumbled upon something that most people had passed by. It reminded me of my artist friends in Anchorage and around the country, all the creative energy filling the spaces. It was here I most wished to have an interpreter to understand the nuances of each piece and the possible message they were trying to convey.

That evening, we made our plans for the next day in Paris. I anticipated it with excitement and a little sadness that our journey would be done. Though, I admit, it would be good to get home and be in one place for a few weeks.

We arrived early the next day at our hotel just outside Paris, from which we took public transit into the city. Destination: Eiffel Tower. We climbed the 360 stairs to the first viewing deck, and after a look around, climbed another 360 stairs second deck. The day was sunny, though a bit hazy, yet we had views of so many landmarks of the city. Arc de Triomphe, Notre-Dame, the Louvre. We could map our course from the deck. We took in the views in all directions before finally heading for the stairs to return to ground level.

Detail. *
Commemorating a high wire walk Philippe Petit made to this point...*
...starting way down there! (We'll walk there soon.)
With the Arc de Triomphe beyond my left shoulder.**

Many of the museums were closed that day, a Monday, which was probably for the best because with so much to see on a sunny day, I would have been torn between being outdoors and spending hours in the Louvre or the Musée d'Orsay

The Louvre at sunset.
Instead of spending time indoors, except for meals, we wandered the city, visited the Arc de Triomphe, walked along the Champs-Élysées and went on a brief wild goose chase to find a fabric store that didn't exist (though I found some wonderful striped tights in a sock shop). We ate and drank inside small cafes when we realized that the smoking ban only applies to indoor dining and the sidewalk cafes were choked with cigarette smoke and exhaust. (I forgot to mention that the restaurant in Lespignan had a mildew smell which had set off my sinuses. Once in Paris, the vehicle exhaust and cigarette smoke irritated my nose even more. I developed some pretty bad sneezing when I was near smokers of which Paris has more than its share. I was kind of bummed to sit indoors to have lunch or a coffee, but it was the only way to keep from sneezing through a meal.)

At sunset, we walked the grounds of the Louvre, then made our way across a couple bridges to reach Notre-Dame where a musician was playing and singing for the gathered crowd. Barges filled with tourists and revelers plied the Seine. The tourists snapped photos of us and we snapped photos of them. We stopped by Shakespeare and Co. and browsed through the shelves of the tiny but busy bookshop. With hunger setting in, Jon encouraged us to stop at a small cafe we had walked past earlier.
We stepped into Quay 21, a quirky place on the Left Bank, near Notre-Dame. It was almost empty of customers, which can be a bad sign or a very good sign. The owner greeted us and learned which language to use with us, then helped us understand the menu. He spoke at least three languages and when we found out he was originally from Latvia, he and Janis slipped into Russian and it was as though we were now part of the family. Near the end our meal - one of the best of our trip - Janis was about to take a photo of Jon and me. The owner grabbed Jon's camera from Janis's hand and snapped a couple pics. Everything about the experience made Quay 21 the best possible place to end our trip and our day in Paris. All we had to do was find the transit station and take the train back to our hotel.

Quay 21. Taken by the owner.
The next day, we would be on a jet back to the U.S., by way of Iceland; and Janis would be crossing the English Chanel, returning to London for a few more weeks before driving back to Latvia. In less than a week's time, I would start checking on fares, wondering how soon I can get back to Europe.

* taken by Jon
**taken by Janis

Friday, December 13, 2013

a few days in france

Europe Trip, Part 9
In Arles.
We were walking along the twisting, cobbled streets of Arles looking for a place to have lunch. "That looks good," Jon said, gesturing toward a diner's plate. "It is good," she said. We stopped. She was sitting alone at the sidewalk table. I asked if we could join her for lunch. "It's been two weeks since I've spoken full sentences with another woman!" I said. It was a strange realization. Traveling with two guys through countries where each word spoken to a stranger was a challenge, I didn't use many to talk with other people. It was a sensory deprivation of sorts. Jon and Janis had their guy talk, and while I enjoy their company, I really missed having one of my girlfriends to hang out with!

We sat at the table and introduced ourselves. Shirley was a software developer from Israel. When Janis said he was from Latvia, she told us she is of Lithuanian descent. (Lithuania is between Latvia and Poland so we'd spent a few hours driving through the small country.) She was on a daytrip from Avignon, having traveled the short distance by train. She told us that traveling solo after a friend had backed out of the trip gave her an opportunity to improve her French. I envied her that she had a few weeks to explore France while we were just arriving with little time to soak it in. After we parted, I continued searching for my idea of Provence, of van Gogh, of the places that make Arles such an attraction.

I've admitted before that I love fashion, though am not usually very fashionable. Working in a bike shop means knowing that whatever I wear could get grease-stained or snagged, so I tend to wear t-shirts and jeans or shorts most of the time. I saw an adorable skirt on a mannequin outside a shop. I had to go in and see what else they had. The racks were filled with skirts and blouses in beautiful patterns and colors. Jon pointed to the back of the store where a woman sat at a sewing machine; an assistant stood nearby. I tried on the skirt, then a different one. Soon, the woman was wrapping a blouse around me, tying the lace ties. I felt fabulous. I could have spent an hour in the tiny shop, but I made my purchases and left happy. Something unique. Something handmade by the designer right there in Arles!

We walked around the Roman theater and arena, ducked into a few more shops selling textiles and ceramics, then wound our way back to the other side of the Rhone River, where the car was parked. We were soon on the road trying to reach Lespignan before dark.
Roman ruins in Arles.
The narrow, twisty one-way streets of the old part of Lespignan almost did us in as Janis and I tried to navigate Jon to the house. We missed one turn and ended up climbing a hill. We knew we were very close, we just couldn't quite figure it out. I got out of the car to try to walk the route... and to see if we would even be able to drive the car around a corner and between the buildings without scraping the sides of the car. We could see where plenty of drivers before us had failed. Jon made the tricky corner and drove down to an intersection. I started walking up a hill and that's when I saw Pierre. He was standing at the intersection uphill from me, waving us onward!
I think we squeezed the car thru here! In Lespignan.
In Lespignon. Vineyards and fields on the horizon, then the sea.
If you have ever driven in any foreign countries that have these single-lane streets that were designed for walking and maybe a narrow wagon, you will appreciate just how frustrating it can be to squeeze a car around a corner. I have a new appreciation for our two-lane streets and well-signed intersections, however I must confess the tiny village streets were very appealing for the sense of revelation we experienced rounding each bend. I would prefer to experience them on foot or even bicycle.

That evening, we went to one of the local restaurants (there are two, and one pizza take-out place). We shared tales of adventures and caught up on what Pierre and Cheryl have been doing since returning to France last year. Pierre and Janis had lots to talk about, especially when it came to bike tools and how they could be made better.

The next day, we all went together to a couple of towns: Aigues-Morte and La Grande-Motte for sight-seeing before returning home in a downpour that almost washed the streets clean back in Lespignan. By "almost" I'm referring to the dog poop on the cobbles which pet owners for some reason don't pick up. Gave a different meaning to the term, "watch your step."
A balcony in Aigues-Morte.
Jon climbs along the fortified wall of Aigues-Morte...
...and took this shot of the wall and the roof lines.*
Outside the wall.*
La Grande-Motte.
The buildings of La Grande-Motte reminded me of cruise ships.

A little color in La Grande-Motte, a city like no other.

The following day, while Pierre and Cheryl visited friends in another town, Jon, Janis and I set out to walk to the coast. What I didn't know was that when Pierre told Janis the directions, he made it sound like it was about five kilometers away. It was not. 
We walked among vineyards.*

It was a clear, beautiful day. But, eventually the joy of walking past vineyards and fig trees degraded into somewhat of a death march. Don't get me wrong; I enjoy a good hike. But this was to be an afternoon outing, 5k each way. None of us had planned for such a long walk, or the wrong turn that dead-ended at a no-trespassing sign. We were quickly going through what little food we had packed (at least we'd stopped in a local shop for some cheese before starting). After a few hours, there was nothing I wanted to do more than just sit in one place and watch the world go by. I wanted things to be stilled. Instead, I became frustrated.

When we reached a bridge over a river and there was no sea nor beach in sight, Janis volunteered to run to the house to get the car. Jon and I also turned around. We watched cyclists ride past at their Sunday pace and wished for bicycles; we tried to hitchhike and watched as full cars drove past, the drivers shrugging their shoulders in apology. I kicked myself for not having studied a map before leaving the house. It was not the day I had wanted.

We were almost halfway back to town when Janis arrived with the car. We all agreed that after having walked so far, we should at least drive to the seashore. When we finally arrived, we knew we'd made the right decision to get the car. We walked along the sand beach as waves roared in, too rough and chilly for us to swim. We looked at sea shells and weathered glass that formed a jumbled band of debris along the beach. I tried to relax and enjoy being in that place. To watch other people. I tried to put the long walk in perspective. I guess I was done with the pace, done taking wrong turns and done with long days. I was mentally and physically exhausted. I cooled my feet in the wet sand, let waves wash over my feet and ankles. Jon tried to get me to smile. Finally, we were ready to return to the house and, even more important, have some dinner.
Janis finally reaches the sea!*
We made it. Cooling my feet.*
At the sea.**
Up the hill from the house was a restaurant we'd seen that first night when we were trying to find the house. It looked pretty fancy. I put on my new blouse and we arrived just as they were opening. Neither the waitress or the chef spoke much English so we went down the menu ordering a different starter each and a different main course for each, unsure of what would arrive on our plates. We shared a bottle of wine and the relaxation began. That's the beauty of sharing a meal and a bottle after a rough day. The edges wear down; we can laugh at our miscalculations; we can take note of how far we've traveled - not just that day, but since leaving London. We know we will remember our walk toward the sea for a long time!

As we were finishing our meal, Pierre showed up at the restaurant. He and Cheryl had arrived home and he wanted to see how we liked the restaurant. The food was fantastic (though since I didn't write it down, I'm not sure what everyone had. I had enormous prawns and remember that they were great. The next morning, we would leave Lespignan and our friends for the long drive to Paris. Our adventure was coming to a close.

*taken by Jon
**taken by Janis

Monday, December 9, 2013

to italy and france

Europe Trip, Part 8

The biggest challenge of this trip (after the airport incident) was traveling long distances on our driving days so that we could spend time in one particular place. It was a tasting tour: we sampled things here and there, then dashed off to the next place. The biggest challenge in recounting this story is that I sometimes get confused about what happened when. Despite good intentions to keep an accurate journal, often I'd fall asleep at night mid-thought. Other times I'd try to write in the car, but the scenery and the navigating were more important than jotting down the details that might have helped me remember something. I piece together places by looking at my photos, but who takes pictures of gas-station cafes? Maybe I should have...

After leaving our campsite just inside the German border we drove south into Italy on a road that took us through deep valleys framed between the mountains. We saw villages perched high on the slopes. Churches and castles, sometimes grazing cattle. I'm not sure how many places we stopped in for coffees or food. Sometimes the memories merge into a mix of gas stations with great bakery or a cafeteria filled with regional food and coffee that would put our local roasters to shame. Or was it just that we had been drinking instant for most of the trip?

At midday, we detoured off the autostrada to the town of Riva del Garda. From the map it looked like we could drive along the road that skirted along the shore of Lago di Garda, maybe stop for a picnic before continuing south. But the lake was far below the road and it did not look promising for a lakeside picnic. Instead, we took off on a side road that twisted and switched back-and-forth up a steep hill through a few farming villages.
Church at Ustecchio dates back to before 1566.
The little car that could!
Above Lago di Garda, at Ustecchio.
A haze settled in over the lake and we stopped several times to look back at the view. In places the road became a single lane, threading into tunnels before opening into another view over the water, the horizon disappearing behind the haze. Cars honked horns before going around the next bend, sometimes even backing up to allow another car to pass. I hung on and wondered just where the road would take us, fluctuating between being annoyed that we had to spend so much time in the car yet awed by some of the sights. I think we were all a bit more relaxed when we got back onto a standard two-lane road.
S. Lorenzo at Voltino dates back to before 1187.

We continued west and south until night had fallen and we were done driving. The town we stopped in had a pizza place in a hotel but they had no room available for us. After dinner we backtracked a few miles and found the hotel that the clerk had recommended to us. It was kind of pricey and was in a water park that was closed for the season but we were happy to get some rest in the spartan room.

In the morning, the only staff person in the hotel was a woman making breakfast. I struggled to order anything beyond a latte, then pulled out my phrasebook. Egg. Ova. Of course. Cooked in olive oil and served with bread it was one of the best eggs I've had! Soon the guys joined me and repeated the process. Seems we were the only guests besides a traveling salesman!

That day, we packed up and headed for Genoa, on the sunny Mediterranean (technically, the Ligurian Sea, but I didn't know that at the time). From a description on a map we chose a place to explore. We parked the car and "strolled around in one small seaside neighborhood for about an hour and a half, sun, hot sun! Felt so good after cool and cold days, rain days. Up and down narrow staircases that connected (or didn't connect) one lane streets or alleyways."* I rolled up my pants to allow the sun to hit my legs and wished we could just kick back and spend the day.
Jon meets a friend at a public drinking fountain in Genoa.
Jon on a narrow stairway in Genoa.
Jon in Genoa.
Leaving Genoa, we traveled along the coast toward France, passing through tunnel after tunnel. I sat in the back seat and plugged in my headphones. It would be awhile before we arrived at our stop for the night. I was overwhelmed by the trip. My senses were full, filled with sights and sounds and the feel of the road under us. But a part of me was sensory deprived. I wouldn't realize this until the next day when we were in Arles...

As we neared Frejus, I paid closer attention. We almost made it to the hotel, but for some reason the address of the hotel was not the address provided to us by the listing service. We ended up in a narrow, almost dead-end cobbled street (not the last time this would happen), with Jon trying to negotiate the car without scraping the corners of the old buildings. A little more navigating and a stop at a visitor center and soon we arrived at our little hotel.

A 10-year-old boy was doing homework in the lobby. He called his mother on the phone, then handed the phone to me. He would give us the key and show us the room, she told me, adding that she would return soon from her errand. That evening we strolled around yet another old town, found a sidewalk cafe where we ordered dinner without knowing what we would get (not the last time this would happen, either), and found our way back to the hotel for another good night's sleep.

Enjoying the late afternoon sun in  Frejus.
In the morning, I was again up before Jon and Janis and headed downstairs for coffee and breakfast. I sat outdoors on a sunny deck, enjoying my quiet morning time alone with my books and coffee. That day we would drive to Lespignon to stay with our friends Pierre and Cheryl. Pierre made a couple of suggestions for places to visit on our way to their place, but I'd been reading about the area and already knew where I wanted to go. I wanted to see Arles.

*Journal entry dated Oct. 2, 2013.