Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Varenna 31/05 - 01/06

Early last Spring, Laure and I drove out to Lago di Como to meet up with our friends Llew and Gabbie.
This is not Lago di Como.
We passed some beautiful lakes in the Alps on the way there.
This is it.
Lago di Como is hugged by mountains with many little hilly villages on its shore. We stayed at one such village named Varenna -- across from the world famous Bellagio, which bares little resemblance to its Las Vegas counterpart as we described when we first visited. For those of you that are Rick Steve's travel guide book fans, Varenna happens to be his favorite town along Lake Como.

We walked around Varenna and checked out some landmarks including an old fort up on the hill.

Gabbie found a ghostly friend by the old fort.

As it usually goes with Italian trips, my favorite part was the combination of tasty food outside with good ambiance and great company.

Assortment of cheeses and cold cuts is a good way to start a meal.
Llew eloquently expresses something exquisite.
Great company.
And an amazing sunset view.

At night, we took a couple of bottles of wine up to the rooftop, where we stayed and chatted until late. The view was amazing.

Bellagio across from the lake.
Llew and I look like Italian mobsters here.
Next day, we took a ferry across the lake to visit Bellagio with its cute narrow streets and some fancy shops before all driving back to Zürich together. A fun weekend adventure!

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Cat in Paris; April 23 - 25

I really wanted my sister, Cat, to get the most out of her trip to Europe and thought we should visit one more place besides Rome and Zurich. With a little inspiration from an Eiffel Tower statue I gave my sister back in 2000, she decided it was time to see the real thing. So I planned a day and a half whirlwind tour of Paris for us.

We arrived late in the evening by bullet train from Zurich and didn't get our trip really started until the following morning. Our sightseeing began at the Arc de Triomphe, allowing my sister her first view of the Eiffel Tower and the rest of Paris. We made our way down to the Musée de l'Orangerie to view Claude Monet's eight Water Lilies murals. The series is amazing in person. My sister was taken aback by them. She had seen them in books before but wasn't expecting them to be so large.
View of the city from Arc de Triomphe
Thanks New York Times for the photo of Monet's Water Lilies paintings

We joined a free walking tour outside of the Notre Dame Cathedral and the surrounding neighborhood. Overall the tour was blah but we did walk away with one golden nugget of information -  that the real Sweeney Todd murders took place a stone's throw from the Cathedral.
Cat and I

We did a little window shopping at Galeries Lafayette and various other malls hoping to find a bride's maid dress for our cousin's upcoming wedding. No luck finding a dress but we later found a nice place to rest our feet and people watch at Sacré Coeur Church in the Montmartre neighborhood. We must have sat there for nearly and hour watching the street performers. I think my wallet enjoyed that over buying a dress in Galeries Lafayette.
One last look at Sacré Coeur Church before heading on.

It rained off and on throughout our Paris trip, conveniently more of the "on" happening during a meal. After dinner and a short rain shower we finish up our evening with watching the Eiffel Tower light up.
15 minute sparkles on the hour.

We started our next morning planning for our departure, we stored our luggage at the train station for a quick getaway and headed back into the city for the main reason we came to Paris, the Eiffel Tower. We paid a little extra for a reserved time for the Eiffel tower - and it was worth every cent. The reservation line was empty and we had a straight shot to the elevator. Otherwise we may have stood in an hour long line in the drizzle.
Sister time at the top of the tower.

After coming down from the tower my sister just gazed up at it. I asked her what she thought and all I got out of her was that it was a lot bigger then she had imagined. We grabbed a crepe on the street and soaked in the view of the Tower a little longer before making our way back to the Gare de Lyon Train Station and back towards Zurich.

I hope my sister enjoyed Paris enough to come back. I'd love to spend more time there doing more of my favorite Paris activity - a lot of aimlessly walking around and eating.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Roaming in Rome; April 17 - 21

Last April, Laure and I drove down to meet her sister Catrina in Rome.
The drive down to Rome passes by some picture-perfect hill towns.

After arriving at night, Laure and I had an excellent dinner at The Library and walked around the city while checking out some of the famous outdoor highlights.
The Trevi fountain is a cool hangout spot at night.
It is apparently also good for wedding photos.

Next morning, we visited National Roman Museum, which we quickly realized has an impressive but overwhelmingly huge collection of archeological findings spanning multiple ancient centuries.
These Roman "cheap" copies of the Greek Discobolus statue used to be popular decorations at Roman gyms.
The sarcophagus of some guy that killed a lot of people.

Then we then picked up Catrina from the Rome airport after her flight from San Francisco. We were impressed that she hit the floor running without letting jet lag stop her from getting the most out of her trip.

The next morning we went on a guided tour of the Vatican offered by their own official tours, which covered the must-sees. We really liked our Italian tour guide not only because she presented the information in an approachable manner, but also because after visiting each section, she would slowly say in an unforgettable way, "andiamo."
One of many extravagant hallways of the Vatican museum.
Raphael obviously stole the idea for this painting...
from the poster I used to have on my bedroom wall growing up.
We also visited the Sistine Chapel.

They didn't allow photos, so I ripped this one off wikipedia.
Rug and Mochi pose for a photo at St. Peter's Square. Of course they came along!

Later in the afternoon, we had time to check out some more famous touristy spots.
Trevi fountain gets annoyingly packed during the day with tourists like us.
The Pantheon has been in continuous use for a couple of thousand years.
No visit to Italy is complete without some pizza.
Dar Poeta didn't let us down.

Next day, we headed to the world-famous Colosseum. We had made reservations for the limited guided tours months in advance by phone with Coop Culture but they had never sent us a receipt, which turned out to be a tremendous headache. Because of this, we were not able to simply waltz up to the reservation window. We pleaded with security personnel to convince them about our story and that we were not just trying to skip the ridiculously long lines. After a bit of stress, we found a sympathetic person that found our names on a printed list in a big binder of papers. We were in.
The cultural guided tour took us to exclusive viewpoints away from regular visitors like this one and the underground area where gladiators and animals were held underneath the arena.
One of the exclusive viewpoints was on the top floor (third ring) looking down at the massive structure and masses of tourists.
Totally worth the headache.

When visiting the Colosseum, one must imagine the original building at its full grandeur including all the stones and sculptures before they were destroyed by conquerors and natural decay.
Hmm, maybe this...
used to look something like this.

Photo credit: someinterestingfacts

Another place we visited was a fairly new museum named Le Domus Romane di Palazzo Valentini, which turned out to be my favorite. Guided tours are mandatory and we were lucky enough to snag an appointment. We joined a small group and walked through excavated ruins with a clever display of light projections and sounds, which recreated an immersive experience of ancient Roman life. When I was growing up, I would have paid much more attention to history classes if they would have been taught this way.

Lights virtually reconstruct the paint, artwork, and water of this excavated Roman bath house at Le Domus Romane.

Unsolicited Advice

For those planning a trip to Rome, I strongly suggest reserving tours for popular sights as early as possible. Thanks to Laure, we booked the Vatican and Colosseum tours months in advance basically as soon as they became available. Many people do not bother to reserve in advance and must wait many hours to get inside each place just to get a tour that may not be as good. We got lucky with last minute tickets for Le Domus Romane, but that is an exception rather than the norm.

One last thing: don't book a room right off Campo de' Fiori. Every night we had to deal with loud drunken people outside before being awakened by energetic vendors early in the morning. Earplugs helped us survive.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Verona, Italy; March 29 - 30

After a week in the Italian Ortler Alps, a city break was a good change of pace. We stopped for an overnight stay in Verona before heading back to Zurich. We spent our short visit indulging in Italian food and exploring the city.
Loving the roadside scenery on the way to Verona.
No trip to Italy is complete without this...
...or this
Amazing value and quality for a three course dinner set menu at Papa e Cicia.
Perfect weather to do nothing at Piazza Delle Erbe.

And we did fit in a little bit of culture. Verona is best known as the setting for Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet.
Watching lovers announce their love for each other along the hallway leading to Juliet's house.
Q couldn't resist announcing his own love.
It's out there for the whole world to see - someone loves Laure
Juliet's balcony
Rubbing Juliet's boobs for good luck.

We found ourselves really enjoying Verona. The city center is charming and very walkable. Since the city isn't overrun with tourists (at least in late March), it allowed us to relax, enjoy the food, and wander around in the evening with the locals.
Classic Italy
Nothing planed other then to wander around the city.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Ortler Range Ski Touring

Laure, Peter, and I toured the Ortler range of the Alps for a week this Spring.
The Ortler range straddles the borders of Italy, Austria, and Switzerland. 
The Ortler range is an immense mountainous area with many beautiful peaks, good snow, and comfortable huts with delicious food. There are other more famous tours in the Alps, but they usually require many people to travel on a rigid itinerary from point A to B. In comparison, Ortler tours typically focus on going where the snow and weather are best for skiing. The area is also relatively snowboard friendly, which is an advantage for Laure and me.

Day -1: Heading out

We decided to leave Zürich a couple of days before our first official day in the Ortler range and spent a night in Zernez at the edge of the Swiss National Park.
Laure got a fancy cappuccino 
To our surprise, Google Maps directed us to drive onto a train that took us through part of the Alps. We did not realize what was going on until we were almost on the train!
Driving onto the train at the Vereina tunnel.

Day 0: Munt Buffalora

Next morning we decided to climb a peak at the edge of Swiss National Park -- Munt Buffalora. This short climb gave us a chance to wake up our legs and work out any last minute kinks with our gear. The snow was old and dense, but it was still a worthwhile exercise.
Munt Buffalora summit.
Squint your eyes to find Laure and Peter descending Munt Buffalora.
After our climb, we headed out to our hotel in Stelvio, where we met our guide Walter Andrighetto from OnTop Mountaineering and discussed our options dependent on weather.

Day 1: Tons and tons of snow at Sulden

Our original plan was to jumpstart our tour by taking a few ski lifts at the nearby ski resort Sulden. But then it snowed. A lot.
Morning snow at Sulden.
Another reason we had chosen to go to Ortler range was that the southern Alps had received record breaking amounts of snow that season. And just when everyone thought winter was over, they received another huge dump of powder.

Since the snow conditions were a bit sketchy and visibility was terrible, we decided to ski at the resort for the day. At first, we skied some higher elevation slopes but had trouble seeing more than a few meters in front of us. But then we started skiing the tree areas and we were in heaven. Each turn kicked up a cloud of fresh powder covering us entirely causing what skiers call "face shots". I can't believe how many face shots we got that day.

Day 2: Heading out to Marteller Hut and Cima Marmotta

Next day, the weather seemed promising enough to really start our backcountry touring itinerary.

Not all lifts were open, which forced us to hike up a bit in order to cross the nearby ridge. Since we were the first group to leave the resort after the storm, we (actually, our guide Walter) had to break trail through the deep powder.
Walter breaking trail with powder up to his waist.
Laure and Peter following.
Visibility was better but still poor.
At the top of the ridge, Walter assessed the snow conditions and deemed it sufficiently safe for descent. As we were the first to climb the ridge after the storm, we were also the first ones to come down the other side. An amazing feeling for any skier or snowboarder, but we had to be extra careful about avalanches.

As we came down from the ridge, the weather cleared up a bit. It was really amazing to be in that vast area alone with the surrounding mountains and a ton of untouched snow. The powder plus low angled terrain meant that Laure and I had to work hard to move on our snowboards. Fresh snow creates a lot of friction and makes it nearly impossible to move on flat terrain where snowboarders cannot simply walk like our skier friends. We came up with a system where Walter and Peter laid the tracks on their skis, packing down the snow, before Laure and I would try to snowboard as fast as possible without stopping. It worked fairly well but we definitely had to break a sweat.
Walter and Peter laid down tracks on the low angled terrain.
Then Laure and I blasted down as fast as possible.
As is usually the case with ski touring, hard work paid off. Once we were out of the flat area, we started carving down the hills with our skis and snowboards again.
One, two, three, four tracks.
At the bottom of the valley, we transitioned into touring mode and climbed up to our destination for the day -- Marteller Hut.
The Ortler range is sprinkled with beautiful ice falls.
Arriving at Marteller Hut.
Marteller Hut.
Photo credit: Peter.
Before coming to the Ortler range, we had heard great things about their legendary huts. Large, comfortable, and, best of all, great food. Marteller Hut did not disappoint.
You would think this is the kitchen of a regular restaurant instead of a remote alpine hut.
Cappuccino with a smile.
After we took a short break at the hut, I was still itching to climb a peak and ride more powder. So Walter took me up to a nearby peak named Cima Marmotta. As we would be cutting close to sunset (and dinner), we moved fast in order to make it all the way to the top. My god, I don't think I had ever felt so exhausted from touring.
View from the peak of Cima Marmotta.
This photo captures pretty well how I felt at the end of the day.

Day 3: Over the glacier to Pizzini Hut

As luck would have it, Walter and Laure both got some stomach bug. But they were strong enough to press on and cross the Zufallferner glacier. We broke trail on most of the ascent. The weather started out promising but then turned cold, foggy, and windy.
Crossing the Zufallferner glacier.
At the ridge above the glacier, we stopped at Casati Hut, which Walter dubs as "The Shining" Hut for the spooky empty sensation you get when visiting.
Cappuccino from The Shining.
After our break, Walter and Laure were feeling a bit better and we proceeded to descend down the other side of the ridge to our stop for the day: Pizzini Hut.
Many were climbing up the ridge heading the opposite direction.
Our stop for the night: Pizzini Hut.
Photo credit: guy using Peter's camera.
While Walter and Laure recuperated from their stomach sickness, Peter and I decided to do a tiny tour on a nearby hill while trading roles: I skied while Peter snowboarded. I felt a bit weird skiing in powder with those fat skis, but Peter was definitely out of his element snowboarding goofy with a backpack. The backpack really throws off the balance on a snowboard for people that are not used to it.
Peter's successful turn on a snowboard riding goofy with a backpack.

Day 4: Climbing Monte Pasquale and heading to Branca Hut

Next day, Walter and Laure were feeling much better. We left the hut and climbed a nearby peak called Monte Pasquale. Parts were icy on the climb and also on the descent. We came across some traces of Sahara desert sand from earlier storms in the winter. Nonetheless, the views were as astonishing as ever.
On glacier walls, we saw layers from the seasonal cycle over multiple years.
Walter and Peter.
On top of Monte Pasquale.
But could really be anywhere.
After summiting Monte Pasquale, we skied down to our next stop: Branca Hut.
Yup, that's our guide.
Photo credit: Peter.
Rooms with heaters at a ski hut.
One of many reasons why Europeans do not snow camp.
Braulio is an alpine herbal digestive popular in the area.
It tastes like cough syrup.
Towards the end of the day, we thought hard about where to go the next morning. Walter repeatedly checked weather updates and talked to all the other groups to get a scoop on surrounding conditions.

Day 5: Palon de la Mare

We decided to climb a nearby peak named Palon de la Mare. Probably the main convincing factor was how the route between the hut and the peak is always uphill, which is more welcoming for the snowboarders on the way back down.

Laure was still a little weak from her stomach bug, so we had a few contingency plans in case she felt too weak to summit. But she pulled through like a champ even at the cold and windy parts towards the end.
Wind scour, rocks, low temperatures, and low visibility.
Why are we doing this, again?
You will find a cross at the top of most peaks in the Alps.
Or less after a snowy winter.
Frankly, we did not have much hope of good skiing because the visibility was awful on the way up. Alas, after a few hundred meters, the fog cleared up and the awful visibility was replaced with awesome views.
And that's why we put up with painful climbs!
Photo credit: Peter.
Towards the lower elevations, the snow became a little heavier. It brought nostalgia for those of us that have not recently snowboarded on "Sierra Cement", which is the nickname the heavy snow that is often found in the Sierra Nevada.
One, two, three, four tracks.
Stick a fork in it.
There's the fork!
When we arrived back at Branca Hut, we learned that the other groups had attempted climbing another popular peak further south. But unfortunately the snow condition seemed unstable at the top and the visibility was poor, so everyone turned back before summiting. It seems that we made the right (or lucky) decision.

Day 6: Long way home

It was finally time to return home. There were basically two choices: one long way with a multiple ups and downs, and one long way with one up and one down. Frankly, we were pretty spent, and I think Walter saw it. We decided on the easier route. Most of it was pretty relaxed apart from a steeper section on the way to The Shining Hut.
We had to hike up the steepest section to Casati.
The large but uninviting Casati Hut.
There we tried another local liqueur: Génépi.
I later found out it is made from alpine wormwood -- similar to Absinthe.
After Casati, we went up a neighboring peak named Suldenspitze - our last climb of the trip. From there we were very pleasantly surprised that much of the terrain on the path back to the ski resort was still untouched and in very good condition. Ironically, the best snow quality turned out to be closest to civilization. It helped that the weather was gorgeous and the visibility was perfect.
Our last summit, Suldenspitze.
Photo credit: Peter.
There goes Peter.
Peter (on the right) did not want to spoon.
Oh yeah, we're still on a glacier.
Back in the ski resort.
After arriving at Sulden ski resort, we decided to go for one last off-piste run from the highest chair lift. It turned out to be very unsatisfying. The snow was almost completely chopped up and we had to work hard to find untracked powder. Peter pointed out this was a good reminder of why it pays off to ski tour.

Final thoughts

From my experience, the Alps are the most beautiful mountain range of the few I have visited. It typically does not receive as much snow as other popular ranges, but the sights are hard to beat.

In the Ortler range we were lucky enough to get the best of both worlds: the sights and the powder. I could not imagine a better combination. The fresh snow complicated things for me and Laure to travel over flat areas in the beginning of the trip, but the benefits were absolutely worth the effort.

Another decision that really paid off was to choose a local guide. From my online research, most English-speaking guides are not from the area, unlike Walter Andrighetto or others from OnTop Mountaineering. Walter is a native Südtiroler and knows these mountains like the back of his hand. As the conditions constantly changed after the big storm, Walter was able to confidently adapt our plans on a daily basis to ensure safety. He also adjusted plans based on our skills and preferences. We noticed guides from other groups seemed a little more reluctant about changing plans that they had made months in advance. Lastly, Walter told us exactly what we needed to bring without overpacking unnecessary gear including ice axes and certain glacier rescue equipment. We had a great experience with him.
Our guide Walter.
Photo credit: Peter.

Stats and Route

In total, we climbed (without lifts) no less than 5,200 vertical meters (17,000 feet). We hit our highest elevation at Palon de la Mare at 3,703 meters (12,149 ft).

Here is our trip's approximate route:
You'll have to imagine the countless switchbacks missing in the video.