Some Speed Bumps on the Road

Greetings from the home base.  It has been awhile since our last post and we are long overdue for an update and providing some closure to our trip notes. We have been back in the States for some time –  regrouping and adjusting to our Seattle lifestyle  – and of course, daydreaming about our next lap around the globe!

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Here is the first of a few final posts on our travels until we head out again sometime in the future.  We’ll tackle the ever popular subject of What Went Wrong When You Were Traveling.  We have briefly covered this topic in an early post but continue to get questions on the topic so here we go!

 

Admittedly, our posts throughout the year tended to take a positive and happy tone  – and why not? It was a pretty stress-free year of travel.  We generally avoided “hot spots” so our itinerary took us to mostly safe spots. And the travel gods were with us, we never missed a flight or train, nor showed up to  a hotel that didn’t have our reservations. We missed one bus and were forced to spend extra time in Megeve, France – not a bad place to be stuck.

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But having said that, here are our top baker’s dozen challenging and negative experiences while traveling for the year:

The Thai Dog Bite Incident

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By far this was the most challenging situation for us.  During a couple weeks of sailing lessons in the Bay of Thailand, Susan was bitten by a stray beach dog.  The irony of this happening while we were sailing was not lost on us.  We encountered stray dogs while running or biking throughout the year – especially in Asia and South America and had some uncomfortable encounters with security dogs in South Africa and aggressive farm dogs in Portugal. But we only ran into troubles in Thailand.  Because Thailand has one of the highest rates of rabies in the world, there was no choice to get Susan appropriate treatment which meant changing our agenda to ensure we would be in countries that had the vaccine. It turns out that Thailand actually has very good healthcare and clinics and we found the level of care there to be very good.  It was also extremely cheap relative to the high cost of health care in the States.

A Nasty Wasp Sting in the Alps

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While hiking through the French Alps on a trail that circumnavigated Mt Blanc, we left our windows open at our auberge one evening.  It was a beautiful, crisp evening and the mountain air was wonderful.  Around 3am, I woke up in incredible pain – just about at screaming level.  Something had bitten me in the middle of my forehead.  We are still not sure what it was but my assumption is some type of wasp. Being Europe, there was no ice available so not too much to do.  I drained a bottle of whiskey after using a bit to clean out the wound on my head.  Unsurprisingly, the next morning my forehead was swollen and I had a lump for a week.  Not fun but as we have said, we didn’t run into many significant issues during our travels.

A  Bad Slice of Pie in Pai

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We loved Northern Thailand  – an addition to our Asia plans due to rescheduling because of the dog bite. Chiang Rai, Mae Hong Son, were great spots. Cheap, beautiful, exotic. The food was awesome.  But we had a a bad meal in Pai, a remote backpacker mecca in the Thai hills.  We  both were violently ill for about 8 hours. Crazy ill.  Unfortunately, the only way in and out of town is by bus – not the large Greyhounds with bathrooms – the mini-van variety packed with 13 passengers.  We had a 6 hour ride with one bathroom stop the next morning – not ideal for those suffering from a bad case of food poisoning. We ate as much loperamide as we had and hoped for the best.

The Curious Indian Yoga Adventure

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We were excited about a week at a yoga “retreat” that we booked in Goa after we spent a few weeks cycling in Southern India. We thought it would be just the way to unwind and stretch out some of the sore muscles. We booked through The Clymb which we used with much success to find some trips in South America including our Inca Trail hike and some trekking in Guatemala and Colombia.   But we didn’t fully vet this one and were a bit oversold.  The week turned out to be a bit of a gong show.  Our beach accommodations were in an  apartment block a 10min drive from the beach.  The yoga was OK but outside next to a busy street in the morning. Our very nice Italian yogi was fired for some reason during the week. We had evening yoga sessions on a beach that was nice but a bit of a drive and filled with stray dogs which put Susan on edge. We also had a crazy dog staying with us at the accommodations that would constantly bark at us every time it saw us – which was often. The included massages were at some shady massage parlor (we passed on these after the first one).  The owner got in a very heated argument with the staff one day that cast a very uncomfortable air about the place for the rest of the week. 1st world problems and complaints for sure but it was a wacky, uncomfortable few days under the Goa sun.

Hot and Bothered in Nicaragua

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Dang it was hot in Nicaragua.  Really, really hot and oppressive. We booked 2 weeks in the country  without a lot of research and figured we would fill in the blanks when we got there.  But things didn’t work out well for us.  We found a great hotel in Granada – the main entrance city of the country that we enjoyed a lot but the rest of the visit was painful. My windsurfing lessons were canceled because of lack of wind.  We did some paddle boarding in Lake Nicaragua, but the extended heat wave dropped the water levels extremely low and most bays were a steaming stew of algae.  We had to bail from a eco lodge because it was crazy hot – and too hot to sleep without AC and no power at night to run a fan. We booked into an Airbnb instead which was nice enough and complete with AC.  But unexplained in the Airbnb listing, running the AC would cost approximately another $100-200 per day.  In hindsight, we would have much preferred to skip the country and spend much more time in Guatemala which we loved.

Avoiding Elephants  while Cycling in India

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Biking for a couple weeks in Southern India was an incredible experience and a full-on assault on all the senses but it was not without its challenges… and obstacles.  Kerala and Tamil Nadu are filled with beautiful rural spaces with all sorts of exotic animals including tigers, elephants, and bears. With some experienced wilderness guides, we got to get close to a few in Periyar National Park. While cycling however, our local guides were a bit less experienced in the wilds and more adept at urban pursuits and the arts of persuasion. They were so persuasive, in fact, that they talked a number of soldiers to allow us to cycle through a tiger and elephant reserve.  We didn’t appreciate the gravity of our adventure until we tried to exit the park and were accosted by a number of upset and frightened officers at the other end of the reserve.  We were all lined up against a wall and were subjected to a number of stern warnings and reprimands. Admittedly, we didn’t follow the whole conversation because it was not in English and there were 3 wild and angry elephants a few hundred yards from our discussions (elephants kill many in their area every year).   We were lucky to get our bikes and guides back…and avoid the elephants.

Disgusted in Pataya

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Two hours south of Bangkok is one of the worst cesspools in the world. Pataya is a thriving city that grew from a US air force base back in WWII.  It is now one of the sex capitals of the world filled with Western lowlife sexpats.  Seedy, shady, filled with the lowest of the lows – it is a place to avoid – there is really no reason to be there.  We were based in a marina 20 miles south of the city and well out of the grime.  But after Susan was bitten by the stray dog, we were forced to hop a bus every day for a week to visit a clinic for daily cleaning of her wound (you can’t stitch an animal bite because of infection).  While the clinic and personal were great, the trip there was always an adventure and the clinic was always filled with drunk Russians with head wounds or broken bones. Stay away. (The silver lining was catching an all female Black Sabbath cover band in the city center).

The Epic Battle with Fed-Ex

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I will reiterate again that these are mostly 1st world problems here so we took them all with stride. As strategy that many extended travelers take is to have the home team ship clothes and gear to them in certain locations so they don’t have to lug them around the world.  We spent most of our time in warm weather following the sun but we had some climbing and cooler weather hiking plans in South America so we had friends ship us a box of appropriate gear to our location in Buenos Aires.   That was a mistake and Argentina is probably the worst country in South America to try and ship belongings – their imports rules are brutal. We spent hundreds of dollars and many hours trying to secure our box from customs.  We eventually ran out of time and gave up but we did spend months calling and e-mailing FedEx for resolution and were absolutely shocked by their support and customer service.  We are firmly in DHL and UPS camps now.

A Week Delay at the Cusco Airport

 

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Cusco is a great city. It is the gateway to Inca Trail and the Sacred Valley as well as many other locations in Peru.  But the airport is tiny, crowded and stressed.  The good news is they are building a new international airport that will allow folks to fly directly to the city and not requiring a transfer in Lima.  But unfortunately, they are developing it in the middle of the  beautiful Sacred Valley. Progress.  A day before we were set to leave, a plan skidded off the runway and closed the airport for a number of days (no one was hurt).  We spent 8 hours at the airport because communication and crisis management is different.  We didn’t mind the extra few days in the city but we spent another two full days waiting and expecting earlier flights out. All that time in Peru and we still never managed to eat a BBQ’d guinea pig so we definitely have another visit in our future.

Bumped off the Bike in Cartagena

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Cartagena is a beautiful Colombia beach town with much history – a Spanish outpost, a pirate’s lair, the setting of famous literature.  Young backpackers love the crazy beach scene that the islands offer.  After a couple months in Peru and Colombia, we enjoyed the wide streets and ocean boardwalk for  early morning runs and evening strolls.  One day, we decided to grab a couple cruiser bikes from our hotel and take a short ride to the beach.  On a one-way street, half-way to our destination, a car pulled out from the left on one-way road and ran into me.  Luckily, it was a relatively low-speed incident and the only thing that got banged up was the bike.  After some shouting in English, I noticed the two occupants were dressed in military garb so we just quietly went on our way.

A Domestic Dispute Intervention in Cusco

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More drama from Cusco.  A minor incident for sure but as we have stated before, we had minor bumps along our way.  When out for an evening stroll on the outskirts of the city, we encountered a couple young folks in a heated debate.  The man started to get physical with a women and young child – kicking and punching.  With others, we expressed our concerns and demanded he stopped. The women took the opportunity to leave quickly but the man followed her – continuing to berate her.  We followed them for 15 minutes or so until we arrived a square with policemen and we were able to get them involved.

Avoiding the Duel in Bogota

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Walking back to his bike. Pistol in right hand.

We did have some concerns about visiting Colombia.  We were both well read on the subject of drug violence of the 80’s and 90’s. Our preconceived notions were completely changed after spending a month there and the country ended up on our top 5 list for sure.  But the first week-end in Colombia, we spent a couple nights in a dingy part of Bogota.   Not a big deal but not the most comfortable environment.  During an afternoon stroll, I encountered a scene that was straight out of a James Bond film.  A motorcyclist jumped off his bike, pulled out a handgun and ran right by me chasing another man.  I didn’t hear any shots so it may have been just a bluff charge.

The Messy Aftermath of a Bike and Truck Collision in Uruguay

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We had a great visit in Uruguay. There is not much going on there but there are a couple hopping cities and a surf scene on a few beaches.  We rented a car and had a great road trip around the country for a week or so.  But on the last day and on the way to the airport, we encountered a gruesome scene on the highway.  A tractor trailer ran over a couple road cyclists – it was a quite a mess and a bit unnerving as we were only weeks away from a couple of months of cycling later in the year.

We were both surprised as we compiled this list that many of the incidents occurred in South America.  We loved out time there and ended up spending three months exploring the region when our original plans didn’t even include a visit. We’ll be back.

Reeling in a Big One in Southwest Portugal

“Now is no time to think about what you do not have. Think of what you can do with that there is” – Ernest Hemingway, The Old Man of the Sea

With our year on the road quickly coming to an end (they do go quickly), we set off to the southern coast of Portugal for more sun and some cycling along the Rota Vicentina – the fisherman’s trail.

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The trail follows the coastline through the Alentejo and Algarve regions of Soutwest Portugal. We didn’t cycle it the complete route (hiking is the best way to cover it all) but road some very scenic pieces while  adding some mountain biking in the interior and some road cycling through the cork forests to complete a solid week of cycling in the region.

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The scenery is incredible and parts of the trail are quite wild and remote.

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We started in the sleepy town of Grandola and ended in the surf town of Sagres stopping in Porto Covo, Vila Nova de Milfontes, Odeceixe, Arrifana, and Pedralva. Grandola was a mostly forgettable town, but we did have a surreal experience there. The town is small with 15K people but hardly tiny.  When we arrived on a hot Sunday afternoon, there was absolutely no one around. Parks were empty. Streets were empty. The roads had no cars. It felt liked we stepped into a ghost town.

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But as the night cooled, people started to emerge. Most of the other towns we visited were much more vibrant as they were a bit closer to the coast and still drawing many visitors.

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And the beaches that are scattered all over the coast near towns and in remote and seemingly unreachable locations were “filled” with surfers and sun-worshipers.

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But the true gem of this journey was the endless coastline with its craggy rocks, stork nests, beach flowers,and sea vistas. The coastline is  wild, gorgeous and mostly undeveloped…and a sight to see.

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Sagres was a great place to finish up.  It is one of the larger surf towns on the coast and has a number of beaches and surf breaks within walking distance from the center.  There is a castle and ruins and the Cape St. Vincent, only 4km or so out of town, which is the Western most part of continental Europe. There are plenty of restaurants and watering holes and a strange outdoor laundromat that is a great place to meet backpackers and surfers hanging out drinking beer and waiting for their dry cycle to complete.

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The scenery on the southern coast of Portugal was really amazing.  The cycling was a good means to get the views and experience the untamed lands, but if you are after a pure cycle vacation, there may be better spots in Portugal, the North on the Camino route as an example or east of the coast. On this trip, we ran into a lot of dogs – especially on the off-road routes. Most of them were farm dogs defending their turf.  Some were security dogs protecting particularly remote homes.  Most were chained but enough were not that we were a bit on edge from the many encounters each day.  Often there were options to do a bit of riding on the road but because of the lack of options in the areas, cyclists need to share the road with transport trucks.  If you do cycle here, make sure to carry extra water during the hotter months and a bit of extra food because it can get so remote that you can find yourself hours from any option for food or water.

But if you are a surfer or beach goer, rent an RV and head for the coast.  There are so many spots to pull over and spend the night, take a swim, throw out a line, and chill.  It was a great spot for us to spend the last two weeks of this year’s adventure!

 

Thoughts on Lisboa

“One’s destination is never a place, but a new way of seeing things” -Henry Miller

In September, the sun is still out and warm in Lisboa (or Lisbon), and the city is buzzing with visitors and locals enjoying the warm weather. With its fascinating history, coastal neighborhoods and beaches and its gateway access to the rest of the country, Portugal’s coastal capital is a European hot spot. With its relatively low cost of living, it is also a popular spot for travelers looking for bargains (although we found Croatia to be a better European bargain location right now).

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We visited Lisbon twice but both times while entering and exiting the country. So we did not see all the sights or have a chance to visit the beaches in the Northwest (which we would recommend), but we did have enough time to get a good sense of the city and taste plenty of the pastel de natas. It is an incredibly beautiful city with new waterfront boardwalks, ancient twisting back alleys, vast squares and parks and historical buildings. And of course, plenty of hills and trams to help you get up them.

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You can spend days in the city center exploring neighborhoods such as Alfama with its Fado bars or Baixa with its tiled sidewalks and tree-lined boulevards and we did.

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But getting out of the center was nice.  The Belem neighborhood, a 15 min train or Uber ride west of the city center, is one of the more modern spots of the city with new landmarks and a beautiful path along the waterfront.  And with its many museums, the Jeronims Monastary, and the Monument to Explorers), it is well worth a few hours or more, especially if the museums are interesting to you.

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We spent a couple hours at the Museu Berardo which would be worth a visit if for no other reason to check out the building itself.  But it also houses a great collection of modern and contemporary art.

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Parque das Nações is another neighborhood outside of the city center that provides some different sights and while it is designed for visitors,  the developed waterfront attracts many locals and its size and scope make it feel a lot less crowded than other locations in Lisbon. It is very close to the airport and the train station making it a perfect location if you are transiting.  We flew into Lisbon airport, stayed in the neighborhood for the night and walked to the train station the next day to head out to Porto – it was a very convenient locale with some great running options.

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There are a number of days trips that you can take from Lisbon including beach towns and “mountain” towns (Portugal is not known for its mountains, but locals will refer to their hills as mountains).  We took a 45 min train out to Sintra which is a UNESCO city with a number of castles and ruins. It is incredibly hilly, but for the adventurous, a day of “urban” hiking will reward one with views and vistas that are incredible.

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Lisbon, similar to Porto, is undergoing a boom driven by tourism.  Public works projects, including waterfront development, new transit options, and countless hotel and home renovations are changing the landscape dramatically. From our limited perspective, it looks to be positive change.  Of course, not all are happy. Gentrification, traffic congestion due to development projects, increasing housing and travel prices are some of the challenges.

Nonetheless,  go there! – it is a worthwhile visit.

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If you need some additional motivation, check out Night Train to Lisbon (currently on US Netflix and there is also the book) which is another interesting WWII thriller with some great shots of the city of Lisbon.

 

 

 

Good Reads: A Small Death in Lisbon

A Small Death in Lisbon is a murder mystery story based mostly in Portugal and alternating between modern day and WWII. It is a light and quick read thsmall-death-in-lisbonat mostly follows a traditional thriller crime plot.  You follow the investigation of a murder by two Lisbon detectives on the fringes of their peer group.  There are plenty of twists and turns to keep things interesting as a crime story.  But it will be particularly interesting to those who have visited or are visiting Lisbon with all its references to the city and its neighborhoods, foods and customs. Also, the WWII sub story shines an interesting light on Portugal during that time and as a crucial supplier of tungsten to both the British and Nazi war efforts.

It is a worthwhile accompaniment to your trip to Portugal, especially Lisbon.

Any Porto in a Storm

Port is not for the very young, the vain and the active. It is the comfort of age and the companion of the scholar and the philosopher. – Evelyn Waugh

We are back after our re-entry back to the States. We’ll have a number of updates and a few recaps of the year but look out for a few posts on Portugal where we spent September.  Here is our take on Porto.

We spent most of September in Portugal. It is a great month to visit as the weather is perfect. And although it tends to be a busy tourist time, it is not too hard to find plenty of spots away from the hot spots. Porto, for example, has a number of neighborhoods with hotels that are  only a kilometer or so from the city center but provide a bit more of a local experience.  We spent the better part of the week over two different visits in Porto (an easy 3 hour train ride from Lisboa) and enjoyed the city.  There is a lot of history, port wine production and waterfront to keep things interesting. The small streets with their colorful buildings, tiled mosaics and street art make exploring the back alleys a lot of fun. And the city is also extremely photogenic providing endless vantage points with unique views of the water, its six bridges and the historical monuments and buildings.

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Portugal’s cities are known for its tile work and Porto does not disappoint here. Tiles are used everywhere and are very popular on the sides of homes and buildings.

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Of course, one can not visit the city without tasting some of the port wine that is produced there.  Most of the grapes are grown in the Duoro Valley, and one can take a boat ride up the river to visit the vineyards as a day trip from Porto (our schedule did not allow us to make the trip this time). Grapes are barged down to the city to a number of port lodges that blend, bottle and age the wine.

img_4968img_4969img_4971img_5180img_3732Like many wineries, many of the port lodges (wine making facilities) are quite spectacular and designed to host visitors, Some include hotels and restaurants.  Here is a good list of some of the top ones. We visited Graham’s Port lodge for some tasting and a tour of their facilities.  Graham’s is one of the oldest lodges in Porto and blends some very good port; and was a favorite of Sir Winston Churchill.

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Port wine is a perfect way to start or finish a good meal. Production is quite different than most wines as it blended using up to 135 different grape varieties and then fortified with alcohol.  Out of the three types of port – ruby, tawny, and vintage – vintage tends to be the best and will age quite well. Port is available around the world, but it is worth grabbing a bottle during your visit here as the selection and pricing is quite good if you avoid the tourist shops. (Tip: once open, store your bottle in the fridge. Ruby will last for 6 weeks and the others up to 4 months).

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The Livraria Lello bookstore is a worthwhile stop while in Porto.  It is said to have been a source of inspiration for J.K. Rowling during her writing of the Harry Potter stories.  She lived in Portugal for some time and was said to visit this book shop often. Its architecture as well as many of its student customers, donned in their school uniforms complete with capes, are familiar images to readers of those stories. (Note: the shop can get busy and due to its size it often requires waiting in a line outside).

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Navigating the city center is easy on foot, but streets can be hilly. It is definitely worth getting out of the center for a look around.  Directly across the river is the neighborhood of Vila Nova de Gaia, where there are a number of restaurants and port lodges and its location provides some great shots of Porto city.  Further afield, west along the river and north on the ocean provide some interesting perspectives of the city that are much less touristy.  You can take a tram out to the lighthouse to check out the beach or rent a bike and head along the boardwalk and chat with the local fishermen found up and down the coast.  We put on our running shoes and ran out to the coast along the river a number of times, and it was a great way to experience local life.

img_4883img_4898There are plenty of good eats in Porto, and we enjoyed a number of dishes.  Our favorites included the vinho verde – a young, bubbly green wine perfect for the hot days; bacalhau – salt cod that is prepared in many different ways including some tasty stews (the fish mostly comes from Canada and Norway nowadays, but the Portuguese now how to prepare it); and tripas a moda do Porto which is a bit like the Portuguese version of cassoulet.  Get out of the city center and off of Trip Advisor for eating in Porto. Take a walk down side streets or head west a bit and look for a crowded local taverna for a bite. (We found Uber the most efficient way to move about in the city).

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We would not recommend eating at McDonald’s here or back in the States but their location in Porto needs to be visited.  Zoning laws in the city require that the outside facade of original structures must be left as intended, and details inside historical buildings must be retained.  During a tough time during the city’s history, McDonald’s was able to purchase an old art decco building (there are a lot in the city) that was a very popular night club in the past.  The resulting restaurant is one of the most opulent McDonald’s you will ever visit anywhere in the world.

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The hype on Portugal in the travel industry right now is extreme and you can most appreciate it’s impact in the two large cities- Porto and Lisboa.  Development is booming. Historical renovations, public transport projects, boardwalks and waterfront land development projects are everywhere in the two cities.  It will be quite interesting to visit in 3-5 years when a lot of these projects will be complete.

 

In Lake Gadda da Vida, Italy

Having just completed the Tour du Mont Blanc in late August, we were looking forward to spending a few days in Italy before heading off to warmer Southern Europe for the month of September, but we wanted to avoid a crowded spot (hard to do in August) and not get on a plane.  So we rented a car and headed to Lake Garda, one of the lesser known lakes in Italy about a one hour drive from Milan. Lake Garda is known for its biking, beaches and its proximity to Verona (Shakespeare put Verona on the map in Romeo and Juliet) and some of Italy’s wine country.  The wines of the Bardolino zone (red, rosé, and sparkling) and Lugana–a primarily white wine zone are just south of Lake Garda.

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We found an new agriturismo place, Agriturismo Miford ,in the town of Salò, a small town on the southern coast of Lake Garda and infamously known as the previous headquarters of the Fascist Government of the Italian Social Republic.

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We planned for a few days of hiking and biking (both mountain biking and road biking). The town is centered right on the water and has a wonderful boardwalk that follows the coast for about 3 kms.  It is a great place for a run, and there are a number of small beaches, if you want to take a dip.  The town itself is a mix of commercial and classic medieval architecture with the classic old town center.  The northwest part of the town is the most ascetic but any spot on the water is nice.  There are a lot of bad tourist restaurants, but many good ones, if you take the time to look a bit and ask some locals.  We were staying a kilometer outside the city up on the hillside which provided some fantastic views and easy access to a number of trails that wind through hilly farmland and ancient rural villages.  We went out for a short 6km hike that turned into 16km (the scenery was compelling and the signage was lacking).

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On another day, we headed north to the town of Riva Del Garda.  The drive can be a bit challenging with travel on very narrow roads that snakes along and above the coast, but it is well worth it.  Riva Del Garda is a nice spot on the water and a good spot to grab a drink or bite.

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We hiked the Old Ponale Road Path which is an old highway that was carved into the mountainside high above the lake. It is a relatively short and steep hike that provides some fantastic views.  It is very popular with mountain bikers, but we thought it was more interesting as a hike.

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We struck out with the biking.  We considered lapping the lake but after driving it for a day, we realized it was no location for bikes and we did not want to tangle with the Italian drivers who all seem to be late for an important appointment.

Nonetheless, we enjoyed our stay here. It is a very popular with German tourists but does not seem to attract the amount of tourist that other spots in Italy do.

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Road Trip Sidenote: To get to Salò, we had a road trip from Chamonix, about 400km, which was also a lot of fun.  Traveling through the 11km Tunnel de Mont Blanc is an experience as well as the additional 30+ km of tunnels and suspended bridges thru the Italian Alps into Milan was also quite interesting. I always enjoy driving European cars, even the “econoboxes”.  The driving experience is always more fun. The cars are more responsive, and they are typically manuals. Our ride this week did not disappoint. We randomly ended up with a 6-speed Mazda 2 that was completely tricked out with all the latest tech – proximity sensors, lane warnings, auto stop-start, Apple Carplay. It has been a few years since we have driven a new car and with the way tech changes, a few years is an eternity.  We totally agree with Car & Driver that it is “hugely fun to drive” (especially on the winding roads around Lake Garda).

 

 

Majestic Megève

Megève is a smaller ski-town located in the Southern French Alps near the Mont-Blanc with about 4,000 residents.  (As a reference point, Chamonix has about 10,000 full time residents which swells significantly in the winter and summer.) Megève is situated in a beautiful valley – the same one that contains Les Contamines and parts of St. Gervais ski resort. The craggy peaks surrounding it makes for a gorgeous setting. The views of the surrounding ranges, the valley and the medieval cobblestone streets of Megève attract some high-end visitors and temporary residents. In fact, the Baroness Rothschild put Megeve on the map around the 1920s.  As the legend has it, she grew bored with Saint Moritz and turned to Megève.  Rovers, Bentleys, and faster Italian rides roam the streets and the surrounding villages.

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On our rader for some time, we headed there after completing the TMB for a couple days to check it out, to hike a bit more on the fabulous trail system in France and for  a little mountain biking.

From Les Houches, we took the Mont Blanc Express to St. Gervais.  From St. Gervais, we took a bus to Megève.  The Mont-Blanc Express is a fabulous, super scenic train that connects a bunch of villages in the Chamonix valley.  It is a super convenient and very efficient way to get around the valley and visit villages like Chamonix, Les Houches, Argentiere, St. Gervais and a bunch of others. (Hotels can give you free tickets to ride).

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Megève is only about 20km from Les Houches, but there not a lot of direct routes on public transportation.  Most visitors drive or shuttle directly from the Geneva airport.

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The mountain biking was great. There is a large network across three different ski resorts with 4 or 5 different main lifts to get you to some of the good spots or help you get back to your starting point.  Some of the trails are a little rough and raw but if you find the right ones, you can link some fun flow trails into a few 90-120 min loops in a day. I am sure there are a number of more EPIC loops if you can find the right bike shop to show you the way. Online info is a little bit limited and more than a few of the bikes shops in town seem to focus more on the electric bike riders (which is a bit of a thing over in Europe now – we have seen it a lot this summer).

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There are also a number of great hiking trails that leave from the center of the city and Susan was able to find a nice one.

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Megève is a beautiful Alps village and worth the visit. It would be hard to justify a visit there from afar given Chamonix and St Gervais  in its backyard, but if you are in visiting the area, it is a sweet spot.

 

Another Round of Mont Blanc

“You’re off to Great Places! Today is your day! Your mountain is waiting,
So… get on your way!” ― Dr. Seuss

We received some requests for some additional information on our Tour du Mont Blanc experience.  So here are more details and pictures (in addition to our blog post that we posted earlier).  Enjoy!

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Our Mont Blanc hike was counterclockwise starting and ending in the beautiful mountain village of Les Houches (just a few clicks down the road from Chamonix).

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This route with its Les Houches starting point gets going immediately with plenty of climbing, and some of the best views on the whole route are within the first 3 days but nearly all the views on the TMB are superb.

Les Houches to Les Contamines

15km, 700m up, 1300m down, 6 hrs with Bellevue cable car

We hiked from our hotel to a cable car at the base of Les Houches which took us up to Bellevue to begin our hike.  (We started hiking around 9 am from the hotel and there were plenty of other TMB hikers setting out as well as day hikers and rock climbers heading up in the cable car.

The first part of the day winds through the woods and over glacier rivers.  Then, begins the ascent up to Col de Tricot.  Going up and down is incredibly scenic (you may read that a lot in this post).

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After a short break at a refuge at the bottom of the ascent, it was up another steep but short climb to Col de Truc.

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And ultimately, the trail winds down a forest road to the hamlet of Les Contamines which is at the top of the same valley where Megeve and St. Gervais are located.  ( We fell in love with France all over again this summer.  Megeve and St. Gervais are another two absolutely stunning villages in France.)  We arrived in Les Contamines on a Sunday, and the shops in town were having a massive market sale that took over main street.  Les Contamines is yet another beautiful spot.  (You will hear that a lot in this post with the exception of Trient which we suggest hiking thru and no staying staying in Trient, if at all possible.)

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Les Contamines to Les Chapieux

18km, 1350 up, 90o down, 6-7 hrs

Today’s route started off on another steep forest road along a river, and then climbed up to an open valley that was just spectacular. We hiked along the valley for a couple hours all the time viewing the saddle where we were heading – the Col du Bonhome.

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This day was another dual Col day.  So after the initial climb, we climbed up to the Col du Croix du Bonhome which is one of the highest spots on the TMB.

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There was a refuge just below the summit to grab some food and cafe.  Then it was a long downhill to the tiny village of Chapieux.  There is not much in the tiny village of Chapieux but a couple spots to stay, a bar and a small store (that sells wonderful sausage and cheese).

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Les Chapieux to La Palud

20+ km, 1100m up, 500m down, 6 hrs, with lift down

Today, we hopped on a public bus and took it up the road about 7km.  Purists hike the whole way, but our bus was filled with about 30 folks looking to cut off the less interesting dirt road that starts the hike.  And then it is up up and away to the Col de La Seigne – today’s primary climb.  The peak is the border between France and Italy.

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Once over the top, you hike down and along a valley that reminded us of some of the hiking we have down in Alaska – open meadows, glacial rivers and towering mountains. Our destination was Courmayeur, Italy, and there are more than a few options to hike to Courmayeur. We chose to hike up to the Col de Checrouit which gives you access to a high route along the valley with astonishing views of a number of glaciers

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After descending from the high route, we found a couple lifts to shorten our descent down to Courmayeur, a classic Italian Alps town. It is large and jammed with tourists in August but we stayed a few kilometers above the city center in the smaller village of La Palud.

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La Palud to La Fouly

18km, 1200m up, 900m down, 5 hours

The start of today’s hike also included a bus start. We hopped on the Courmayeur public bus and rode it to the end of the road, about 10km or so past the city center.  The road followed another valley and a small river until we were at the base of the Grand Col Derret.  It was a bit cold and slightly wet at the top of this climb (the only day we pulled out our rain jackets), but the views and scenery did not disappoint. The peak is also another border – between Italy and Switzerland.

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The descent down eventually winds through woods and along another glacier stream that flows through the town of La Fouly, a very typical Swiss village in the Alps. The town is small – a few restaurants, a supermarket and a bunch of beautiful Swiss cabins.  It was pretty quiet when we were there, but it has two ski lifts and a bunch of Nordic tracks in the village so it is likely more popular in the winter.

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La Fouly to Champex-Lac and Rest Day

20+km, 400m up, 550m down, 4 hours

Today was a relatively easy day until the end.  The route was mostly downhill through a number of small Swiss villages. We passed a number well preserved historical farm buildings and neighborhoods and ended the descent in another classic Alp’s valley

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The last hour or so was a steep uphill through the woods to the alpine lake town of Champex-Lac.

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We had a rest day in Champex-Lac which worked out well as it was the only day on our route where it rained heavily for most of the day.  We took the opportunity for a couple short hikes around the lake and trails around the village, but mostly took the day off from hiking.

Champex-Lac to Trient

15km, 700m up, 1000m down, 5 hours

Today was another relatively easy day. The hike was still long and we had plenty of climbing – some of it very steep.  There was some leftover moisture from the previous day so it was a bit chilly and wet heading up the first Col. But there was a nice refuge up there to get a cafe and warm up a bit.

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The route took us up to the Col de Forclaz which is one of the popular road cycling climbs in the area and was featured in this year’s Tour de France. We took a side hike up to another refuge and a glacier vista which was quite nice.

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The trail up followed an ancient aqueduct so it was relatively flat and also positioned well to follow the valley to our final destination of the day, Trient. Trient is a tiny spot with nothing to offer. There are a couple auberges that are pretty worn and tattered but its location on the trail make it a very popular overnight stop. There were definitely more hikers than residents in town the evening we were there.  (Trient is the only village that we would suggest skipping if you plan to do the TMB.)

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Trient to Argentiere

20+ km, 1200m up, 1300m down, 5+ hours

We woke up early and exited our auberge as fast as we possibly could so we were on the trail at 7:15am. We could not get out of it fast enough (it was really the only spot on our hike where we were not thrilled with our accommodations but it did offer a clean bed, cold beer & wine as well as hot food).  Our first goal of the day was to hike up to the Col de Balme which was a 2 hour steep hike in the woods and then another hour of incredible walking up through an alpine meadow to a refuge at the top of the Col. We watched marmots playing and hawks hunting them as we followed the hairpins to the top.

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At the top (after throwing in an extra Col because of some poor navigation), you are greeted with stunning views down to the Chamonix Valley and can almost see to Les Houches  – still a few days of hiking away.

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There are many trails down that wind through ski areas, forests, and ridges to the towns of Tours and Argentiere – both villages north of Chamonix.  We chose the route along the Aiguilette des Posettes which was along a ridge line that provide views of two different valleys.

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We ended in Argentiere which could be our favorite village on the TMB. It is a short bus ride to Chamonix but not as crowded or developed.  It also has a train stop and a number of lifts that can get you high on the mountains fast for great skiing or some alpine hiking.

Argentiere to Chamonix

11+km, 1150m up, 400m down, 4.5 hrs

We took a trail right out of Argentiere to avoid any buses or lifts that many trails require in the area and headed up to Lac Blanc – which is a very popular day spot for hikers staying in Chamonix.  The trail up was steep but beautiful and very rocky at the top.

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The lake itself was beautiful but a bit busy.  We stopped at the refuge for some water and refueling and then headed down a steep and rocky trail to a lift that took us close to Chamonix where we were able to take nice wooded trail along the river right into the heart of Chamonix.

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Chamonix Rest Day

We had plenty of energy on this rest day. And having spent a few days this summer in Chamonix, we decided to hop on a bus back to Argentiere and climb up to the Argentiere glacier. This is a spot that I have skied in the past so I was looking forward to seeing it in the summer. It was good to see the glacier was still there.

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Chamonix to Les Houches

13+km, 800m up, 1700m down, 5 hrs

Today  was all downhill accept for the parts that were not. We took the PlanPraz lift up to the base of the Col de Brevant and then climbed for 90 minutes or so to the top.  The lift was quite crowded in the morning with paragliders who launch at the base of the climb and sightseers who take another lift up to the top of the Brevant. We really enjoyed the hike up to the Brevant as it was very quiet along the backside of the ridge and offered views of different valleys. The trail was steep with some ladders, rungs and chains to help keep you on the trail. Once at the top, the views were fantastic. It was then a long steep downhill back down to our starting point of Les Houches with epic views the whole way.

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We regrouped with our travel companions in Les Houches for some celebrating and a big meal and then it was off on the train in the morning to the St Gervais valley.

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Let’s Go Everywhere, Man

mmw_letsLet’s Go Everywhere

-Medeski, Martin, and Wood

“When you’re tired of your toys,
And of your games, and of the television,
When you’re done with chores and homework
Then it’s time to make a big decision,
You might need a change of scenery,
It might be time to go
Over mountains, over oceans,
Through dark jungles down below
On an airplane, on a railroad
On a tall ship with the tide
All you need’s a little music.
Howzaboutit, whaddya say you buckle
up and we go for a little ride?
Let’s go everywhere man
Let’s go everywhere, man
There’s lots of fun out there, man
We gotta have our share, man
Get out of your chair, man
Let’s go everywhere.
We’ll go to
Bombay, Taipei, Mandalay, Bora Bora
Deauville, Louisville, Whoville, Glocca Morra
Havana, Montana, Savannah, Varanasi
Bermuda, Barbuda, Or Yehuda, Tallahassee
Khartoum, Rangoon, Cancun, Saskatoon
Kowloon, Cameroon, Brigadoon, to the moon
Let’s go everywhere man
Let’s go everywhere, man
There’s lots of fun out there, man
We gotta have our share, man
Get out of your chair, man
Let’s go everywhere.
Cairo, Shiloh, Moscow, Chichen Itza
Krakatoa, Shenandoah, Mauna Loa, Tower of Pisa
Hamburg, Frankfurt, Beantown, Montecristo
Cayenne, Salt Lake, Cocoa Beach, San Francisco

Saigon, Amman, Dijon, Yokahama
Tijuana, Grand Bahama, don’t forget to call your mama
Let’s go everywhere man
Let’s go everywhere, man
There’s lots of fun out there, man
We gotta have our share, man
Get out of your chair, man
Let’s go everywhere.
Xi’an, San Juan, Pusan, Sri Lanka
Chambertin, Canton, Avalon, Casablanca
Warsaw, Aqaba, Shangri-La, Transylvania
Nome, Rome, Stockholm, Lyon, Mauretania
Hong Kong, Guangdong, Haiphong, Tonga
Salamanga, Rarotonga, Cucamonga, sing-a-long-a
Let’s go everywhere man
Let’s go everywhere, man
There’s lots of fun out there, man
We gotta have our share, man
Get out of your chair, man
Let’s go everywhere.
Xanadu, Kathmandu, Timbuktu, Santiago
Tasmania, Slovenia, Rumania, Pago Pago
Sedona, Pamplona, Daytona, Patagonia
Winona, Bologna, Barcelona, Caledonia
Bangkok, Sliding Rock, Antioch, Tuba City
Sun City, Cloud City, Emerald City, ain’t it pretty
Let’s go everywhere man
Let’s go everywhere, man
There’s lots of fun out there, man
We gotta have our share, man
Get out of your chair, man
Let’s go everywhere.”

Viva the Wi-Fi, 11 Months Traveling the Globe without a Phone

“SIM Card? SIM Card? We don’t need no stink’n SIM Card” – Anonymous, 2015

Well, the title is not exactly accurate. We have had a phone but it has been provisioned for Wi-Fi use only – no SIM card, no cell network coverage, no phone bill.  What joy we experienced calling our friends at AT&T  11 months ago and informing them that we would no longer be needing their services. We parked our number with a service that forwards voicemail and text messages for a few bucks (there are many but we have used NumberBarn) and disconnected from any telecom services.

Just as satisfying was the call  with Comcast where we delivered a similar message. We were frankly a bit late in “cutting the cord” and this trip was just the impetus we needed to say “good-bye and good riddance”.

It has now been 11 months that we have been using Wi-Fi as our only means of communicating and connecting to the inter-webs….and it has been great. Around the world, Wi-Fi is pervasive, mostly fast, and free – for the most part. We use it for voice calls, messaging, watching movies, travel planning, web browsing and of course, blogging.  No surprises there – but what surprised us is how good the experiences have been around the world (of course, with a couple exceptions).

It has been fun to use our year of travel to experiment with exclusive Wi-Fi use without any cellular connectivity.  Especially because my career focus prior to this trip involved deep research of Wi-Fi usage around the world and helping both large companies such as AT&T and Vodafone as well as investors on Wall Street understand the growing usage of Wi-Fi networks and its impact on traditional telecom business models.

Without a doubt, we can confidently say that our experience has been fantastic. With very few exceptions, we have been able to do everything we have needed to do using Wi-Fi and compromised little (although, we acknowledge that our travel can change the type of daily connectivity and communication needed). We have used Skype  (still one of the best) as our primary app for voice calls and WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger for messaging.

Our minor issues:

  • Contact on the fly.  This is our common use case back home for all the reasons that you can imagine and primarily for connecting with folks on the fly and talking from the car (hands-free, of course). We have not had to deal with this too much while traveling.
    • On a couple group cycle rides, it would have been helpful to connect with folks with a traditional mobile phone but we managed to find free Wi-Fi hotspots that worked out.
    • We rolled the dice a bit with a couple weeks of road-tripping in the middle of nowhere South Africa and some cycling out in French farmlands where we would have needed cellular access in case of any emergencies or break-downs  – but we avoided both.
    • For the most part, we schedule calls when we need or want to chat with folks.
  • Authentication. Many websites and mobile apps and Wi-Fi services like to use text messages as a means to authenticate and validate users. Given the decrease in SMS text messaging and the increase of chat apps such as Whatsapp and WeChat, most of the good services offer an alternative, most commonly e-mail, but there are still a few out there that require a phone with cellular service (that should change quickly). In most cases when we have faced this issue, we have been at an airport or trying to use free municipal services (as example in St. Gervais and Megeve France).
  • On the fly, mobile navigation.  We thought this would be a bigger problem that it really has been.  But it has not been an issue – mostly because Google has improved their mobile apps quite a bit over the last few years and they are really good.  We take snapshots and screen shots of maps and navigation routes; we download and cache maps and use the GPS services of our phone.  This has worked really well. We haven’t spent a lot of times in cars though where sometimes the cellular access can help. We have had built-in nav included in some rental cars in Europe and we did buy a cheap portable nav system in South African road trip (that I tried to pawn at the end but that is a story for another post).
  • On the fly, point of interest location.  Again, we were surprised here. The Trip Advisor app provides a good way to download city guide information so that you can have access to restaurants and other points of interest when you are offline.

The Wi-Fi experience around the world differs, as you can imagine, but here is our experience

  • The Good (Really the Great)
    • Asia is the gold standard for Wi-Fi internet access – at least, in the countries where we visited. On this trip, Asian countries included Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam. Free access is everywhere – airports, hotels, restaurants, bars, train and bus stations as well as on trains and buses, and even at gas or petro stations.  It was free everywhere and bandwidth was plentiful. We never had issues here.
    • South and Central America was also great. Although, not quite as pervasive as Asia, Wi-Fi access was fast and free and always available at hotels and in restaurants. And airports generally have decent free access (with some exceptions such as Cusco, Peru as an example).
    • We also found a handful of locations in South America, such as Lima, where there was free Wi-Fi available in urban neighborhoods.
  • The (not so) Bad
    • Europe was and continues to be good. Access in restaurants and bars is limited but that is not always such a bad thing.  Hotels are mostly free now, where in the past it was often only a Pay-for model.
    • Most airports in Europe offer free services but we have run into many bandwidth issues with the free services in many locations. And there is still a Pay-for premium model (for more bandwidth) that exists. Although, if you need good access, it is usually available.
    • In France, we had some disappointment with limited availability or SMS only authentification at bus stations, some train stations, and in cities but the fact that free Wi-Fi is even available in some of the small villages was a bit of a surprise. Orange seems to be lurking about in many small villages with a 5 euro/hr offer.
  • And the Ugly
    • South Africa, by far, was the worst experience.  There is a Pay-for-MB model that is still very much in place. Many public spots, such as hotels and restaurants,  will give you free access but most will not. Apartments, such as those found on Airbnb, will often charge guests.  This was one of only two spots in the world where we paid for Wi-Fi access  – it was about $5USD per day for unlimited usage – which is a lot more than most of the world and enough to make you change your daily activity (although not too much at the end of the day).
    • Japan was the second spot where we paid for access. We were only at the airport during our initial flight over from the States so not sure that counts:>. But we needed access to tie up some loose ends on our exit and there was no free access available.

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