Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Lyon, France

Welcome to Lyon, France!  I'm thinking it means "lion" in French - I dunno.

We stopped through this little gem for a day on the way back to Frankfurt after skiing in les Menuires.  The tour was short and sweet as we visited a couple of churches, walked through the old town which is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and took a gander at some old Roman ruins.

Basilica of Notre Dame de Fourviere

Entrance to the basilica.

Inside the Basilica was a neat-looking astronomical clock which reminded me of the one in Prague - just without all of the characters that walk around on the hour.

Mural in the basilica.

Vibrant stained-glass windows in the basilica.

Ruins of a Roman theater.

Part of the UNESCO site, due to Lyon being an urban settlement for 2,000 years.

Lyon was a pleasant city to snoop around for a day, but I wouldn't put it on a high priority list of places to visit in France.


Saturday, January 28, 2012

Ski Fest 2011: Les Menuires, France

To finish out our "hot and cold" combo this Christmas we ventured over to the French Alps to supposedly the largest ski area in the world:  les 3 Vallees (the three valleys).  The Three Valleys is exactly what it sounds like, but it includes 4-5 ski areas that are all in cahoots.  We flew to Lyon and took a 2.5 hour train ride to the base of the mountains before taking a 1-hr bus ride up to our ski resort: Les Menuires.  

The idea sprung from one of Marisa's high school friends, Shaun, who's living with his wife, Cassie, and dog, Colt, in Dublin.  We were all planning on staying in Europe for Christmas and it can totally suck without family and friends if you just stay at home, so he thought we should all get together some where.  We decided on skiing; they wanted to be able to bring their dog; so we chose a location close enough for the drive from Dublin (still can't wrap my head around that) with dog-friendly rental chalet's that could house a bunch of people, at a resort that had a good track record of early snow.  I should mention here that it wasn't just the four of us getting together - rather, we had Shaun and Cassie's sisters (1 each) from the States as well as their friends from North Carolina that are stationed in Spain......and one of their friends also in Spain.  So we're talking about a crowd here getting together for Christmas for food, skiing, and much merriment....including a gift exchange.  It's about the best you can do when you aren't going to see your family for Christmas.

There were several pre-planned meals laid out such as this beef filet with risotto and brussel sprouts - probably not the most common choice of a vegetable for a large group of people you don't know, but I give the Dickie's props for their effort in trying to convert a young, hardened generation into brussel sprout lovers.  Nobody drank the kool-aid in the end.

If this picture doesn't scream "Performance Package" then I don't know what does.  We all went for the 6-day ski pass and the insurance policy to make sure that we got our money's worth.  Left to right: Justin, Cassie, Chelsea, and Shaun.

Although a late-arriving Winter nearly turned our ski trip into a hiking trip, Les Menuires got dumped on for two weeks prior to the trip and the sun was shining the entire time we were there.

Marisa demonstrating the "Apres-Ski" culture in Europe by having a cup o' "vin chaud" or hot wine that resembled the German gluhwein without as much added spice.

Colt was everybody's favorite this week and needless to say........he also ate like a king this week.

Christmas dinner featuring ham, pasta salad, and I honestly can't remember what else.  I do remember enjoying it though.

The entire crew......happy despite sharing two bathrooms all week and with three sleeping on the couches and inflatable mattress.

The crew again, even happier after the "dirty Santa" gift exchange.  Everyone brought something under $20 that is representative of that country.  We had quite a variety including: red wine and Iberian ham from Spain, tons of iconic Ireland trinkets from the Carroll's store, a surfboard sign from Huntington Beach, a flask and wineskin from Georgia, and ornaments from Germany.

We also managed to string together a few game nights with Taboo and a card game called "BANG".

Two years in a row of skiing the Alps makes this guy a happy camper.  Absolutely stunning views and great visibility all week.

You know I love mascots and I found this ram or mountain goat or something atop the Les Menuires ski area.

Perhaps the profile does it more justice.

The success story of the trip was getting Marisa up on skis for her first time.  She did a beginner lesson the first day; then I gave her a few more pointers to mold this lump of clay into a beautiful masterpiece.  She was rolling like Picabo Street in just under 3 hours of instruction.

"I just don't know if I like something that has so much equipment" - Marisa.  While it is true that skiing requires more than spandex and kneepads, I hope that we can have more ski trips together in the future.

I highly recommend the Three Valleys and/or Les Menuires if you're looking for a week of skiing in the Alps.  This place was so massive that not even a week would be enough to make it down every run.  With lift passes going for about 40 Euros per day and rentals for more like 20-25 Euros, I find skiing in Europe more affordable than some of the high-profile ski resorts in the Rockies.  The exception being Switzerland of course.


Saturday, January 14, 2012

Morockin' it Out: Fez

After a long drive north from the Sahara desert we made it to the final destination on our trip........the city of Fez - yeah, like the funny little hat that the Shriners wear. We had a jam-packed day of exploring the city with the help of a local guide who walked us through the bustling market and took us around a few artisan shops to check out the local handcrafts.  Fez is old.............like 789 AD old.  It was one of the former capitals of Morocco and the old walled part of the city ("medina") is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.  If you want an authentic Moroccan experience, you can't go wrong in Fez.

Our riad in Fez - another beautiful courtyard with a calming atmosphere.

Let's see what's behind door number 7?!  Love all of the brass detailing on the doors below.

Aforementioned brass detail.  Metalworking is a very traditional trade in Morocco, and Fez is one of the most famous cities for it.

Door number 7

So this is what I pictured for a market in this part of the world.........sacks of beans, grains, and other dry goods.  I love taking pictures in the markets.

You can't go anywhere without running into dried figs and dates.  Before this trip the only fig I knew came in a Fig Newton, which is not a cookie by the way.......it's fruited cake!  Anyhoo the real figs look kind of gross (resembling shriveled up mushrooms or garlic or something), but they are delicious.

Like other Mediterranean cultures, there's no shortage of olives and other colorful vegetables.

If you saw a grocery store in the States selling horse meat you'd think that was weird right?  While it didn't seem to be very common, I did come across this camel meat butcher in the market.  I didn't include it in the picture, but there was even a camel head hanging in front of the stand.  After riding on a camel for 4 hours in the previous two days of the trip, I couldn't imagine eating my means of transportation.  On the other hand I suppose it would be a waste to not use it.

Cheesecakes, sort of.  Pretty sure this is goat cheese.

As mentioned before, the metal work is popular and we came across some jokers pounding out some copper cookware.  Needless to say it's noisy work and doesn't sound as nice as a Caribbean steel drum.

Light fixtures are very popular here as well.  They make the metal shapes by hand and fit them with clear or colored glass or just have neat metal detail with no glass.  With candles or electric bulbs these give a really nice effect.

We visited this ceramic shop where people come and work as apprentices in all areas of the trade.  It's very popular to learn a trade in addition to one's studies to keep the tradition alive and to supplement income.

Old school kiln.

Another apprentice works on painting the intricate designs that are featured on all of the ceramics.

Apparently these guys know all of the different patterns by name and just customize the color choice for each customer.  This guy is assembling small ceramic tiles for a table upside down entirely from memory.

The finished products are spectacular.  Of course they were disappointed that we weren't ready to purchase a fountain or a huge patio table - even after they promised great shipping rates to the U.S.

Leather goods are also a huge craft and this is the tanning area of the old medina.  They use all natural ingredients for the dyes.....including bird poo (the white vats in the upper left corner).

This has to be one of the toughest jobs on the planet as these guys are literally thigh-deep in the vats all day, working the leather.

After dyeing, the leather and other materials (this looks like wool) are laid out on rooftops to dry.

The courtyard of an old madrasa, or religious school.

One of my favorite views in Fez is through this "blue gate" where you can see the minaret from one of the mosques in the background.

     So Fez definitely didn't disappoint and neither did anywhere else we went in Morocco.  If you're thinking about north Africa for a trip, which most people aren't these days.........then Morocco is an excellent option.


Saturday, January 7, 2012

Morockin' it out: Sahara Desert

As many of you know I am easily excited by small things, but trekking on camels and a night under the stars in the Sahara desert was almost too much excitement. The only desert I have been to is Palm Desert in California and I hardly think those are even comparable.  It was not all fun and games but a memorable experience that I will never forget.

On our way. Don't see many of those signs in Germany or the US for that matter

I would say that is maximizing capacity

Todra Gorge

More nomadic people

Erfoud is known as the fossil town of the Sahara

Justin was loving this and couldn't help but think of his brother the geologist

Starting our two hour trek into the Sahara desert for a night under the stars

I am not totally sure about all this

Justin and I on our camels at sunset

Texture, I love the texture

Around 6am when the sun was just starting to come up over the desert

Good morning sun!

What an amazing event to witness, a sunrise over the Sahara desert. It was worth a freezing night in the desert

Our guide Addi was a trooper. He walked us 2 hours there and back.

The morning after and the camel and Justin are looking alright

My boy, Jimmie

I will tell you one thing they look cool but man do they smell 

Exactly what I picture when I think of the Sahara desert- Camels and Sand dunes

The overall experience of camel trekking two hours to our campsite and sleeping under the stars and watching the sunset and sunrise in the Sahara desert was really cool but I would probably not do it again. It was one of those life experiences you just cross off the list and appreciate it for what it was. For one, the camels smelled and weren't the most comfortable thing to ride. Secondly, it was really cold and my feet never got warm when I slept.  All that being said, I have never seen so many stars in my life and waking up to a shooting star was incredible. Watching the sun rise over the desert was an experience I will never forget. So if you have never done something like this I would say definitely give it a go. A trip to Morocco is not complete without a trip to the desert.

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