A Travellerspoint blog

June 2018

A Tale of 3 Cities

Part 1

sunny

Well, long time no see! Apologies for posting this so late: this past week we had Monday thru Wednesday off from school, so we decided to take our weekly travel a tad further from base camp. We departed from Metz on Friday afternoon and rolled back into town on Wednesday evening. This time, our curiosity brought us to visit the homeland of my mustachioed, turtle-throwing, plumbing cousin: Mario! Like a pinball in a machine, we bounced around Northern Italy from Cinque Terre, to Florence, and finally to Venice. Our crew of seven made for an interesting cast. There were the von Matterhorn Brothers, Lorenzo and Jake, who were ready to do just about anything if you’d ask them to do it. Then there was Rosalind, who was always on top of things and kept everyone together. Coming up next was Smalls, who was the right-hand man of the von Matterhorns and whom hated hiking. Batting cleanup was the dynamic duo of Glenn and Maggie: you never knew what would happen next with them around. Before I delve in, I should tell you that this will be a 3-parter. With six days of travel to cover, I’d prefer not to write one giant essay. Instead, I’ll release two parts and leave the third as a cliff-hanger to begin again next season (just kidding)! There’s a lot of ground to cover, so let’s get started, shall we?

This blog wouldn’t be complete without a school update, however! In short, everything is still going well. Right before I left, I took a thermo quiz that I felt fairly confident about as I walked out. Thermo quizzes are ones where you end up working the entire fifty minutes given. Even as he called time, my pencil was still streaking across the page trying to double and triple-check my work. I should find out the grade next week, so hopefully it will go well for me.

Everyone left early on Friday afternoon to get into Paris, but I had a late class, so I ended up going alone and meeting them there. After class got out on Friday, I sat around in nervous anticipation for the weekend to come. I had two hours to kill, so I spent the time watching Netflix and cleaning out my fridge. I got so caught up in “How I Met Your Mother” that I almost missed my bus to the train station! I had to run like a madman across campus to make it to the bus stop in time, which got me to the station with ten minutes to spare. The train ride was short and quiet, with no breakdowns or cancellations to speak of. I’m beginning to learn that French trains are notorious for the frequency with which they have delays or are cancelled due to “strikes”. When I got into Paris, different groups were scattered throughout the city, so I decided to join Maggie and Rosalind down at the Eiffel Tower. It was about 8pm when I got into Paris, so I was able to get to the Tower just in time to see the sun’s rays scattering through its patchwork of metal, signifying the end of another day.

Around 9pm, the von Matterhorns, Smalls, and Glenn came rolling up to join us on the packed green pasture that the Tower presides over. Talking and taking it all in, we sat there and enjoyed the tranquility of the warm evening until 11:30pm. This was my first time with this group, so I spent some time getting to know a bit about each of them. Our accommodations for the evening would be in Glenn’s apartment, which was really more of a studio meant for one or two people at a max. Taking the metro to the flat, we rolled up around midnight and had to climb a mountain of stairs that eventually deposited us at our room for the night. If you’ve been reading closely, you’ll notice that there are seven of us in the group. With only one bed, four people had to squeeze onto its tiny frame. Meanwhile, two of us (myself included) slept on the floor and one slept curled up in a ball on the terrace outside. By the time any of us could actually fall asleep, it was almost 1am.

Sleep was intermittent and hard to reach with the cold drafts that kept floating in through the window (not to mention it was a hardwood floor!). However, we had to be up at 4:30am to make it to our airport shuttle, so it’s not like we would get much out of sleeping for three hours anyways. At precisely 4:30, the blaring alarms set by Rosalind and Smalls jolted us out of our stupor and signaled the beginning of the long day of travel we had ahead of us. Begrudgingly, we packed up our belongings and hit the road. Shuffling like a pack of zombies, we trudged the mile to the airport shuttle and got there in time to collapse in a heap at the busses’ entrance. By 5:30, we were seated in semi-comfortable chairs and on our way to Beauvais Airport, a regional airport North of Paris that specializes in budget flights for cheap people like us.

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We arrived at Beauvais by 7am, which gave us plenty of time to hang around the airport until our 8:35am flight. There wasn’t a lot to see, however. In its entirety, it wasn’t much more than a security checkpoint, a few shops selling food, and two gates for airplanes. In our sleep-deprived state, none of us did much talking. Instead, we snagged a few empty seats and sat there with glazed-over expressions and arms wrapped around our bags. I was incredibly thankful when the airplane showed up, because it meant one step closer to our destination for the day: Cinque Terre. I gave up on attempting to sleep during the flight, which seemed determined to make you as uncomfortable as possible: My legs were perpetually jammed into the seat in front me of thanks to the non-existent legroom, attendants wouldn’t let you close the shades, and they would come down the aisle constantly trying to sell you useless magazine subscriptions. Despite these drawbacks, I made a new friend on the flight! The girl next to me had NASA stickers on her laptop. Being the ultimate space nerd, I started chatting with her and found out that she was from Colombia and working on her masters in mechanical engineering in France. More so, she had spent some time at JPL and is even interested in being an astronaut herself! She is a certified scuba diver and also intends on getting her pilot’s license. The last half hour of the ride flew by after that (haha, get it?).

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After touching down, everyone on board was ecstatic to get out and stretch their legs. I’ve become a master at staying in one position for long periods of time with all this traveling, but even I need a break from it. Our plane deposited us at an airport an hour outside Milan, which required us to take yet another bus to get to the central train station. One more agonizing hour of remaining motionless and we would finally be in Milan! As the bus made its way to the city center, we passed through crowded streets packed with vendors. It made for an eclectic collection of open-air shops that created a maze to navigate. By the time we got off at the train station, we were feeling the pangs of hunger beginning to set in. Most of us hadn’t eaten since yesterday evening.

With only an hour to find a place to eat, we wasted a lot of time standing around in indecision. Finally, as if a sign from the Heavens, the Golden Arches descended down upon us and guided us to our decision. I’ll admit, I’m ashamed to have succumbed to the McDonald’s bug, but it tasted incredible after eating nothing but a croissant in the past 12 hours. After refueling our tanks, we got ready to begin the final part of our journey. The train from Milan would take us to Pisa, where we would hop on another train to get to Monterosso. As we made our way to Pisa, we came very close to missing our connecting train. Although we started out behind schedule, our conductor did a good job of getting us in on time. When we transferred at Pisa, we had a whole five minutes to find our train! Through the hot, sticky, humidity, we stumbled onto our train to Monterosso, which would mark the end of our long travel.

Now, a quick side note about Cinque Terre. Cinque Terre, which is Italian for “Five Villages”, is a UNESCO world heritage site that is comprised of five unique towns perched on cliffs overlooking the Ligurian Sea. The northernmost village is Monterosso, where we would be coming into. In between each village are narrow trails cut through the rock. In the late 1800’s, through a marvelous feat of engineering, they were able to connect the five villages by train. This region is known for its white wine, fishing, lemons, rugged beaches, and breathtaking views. As I mentioned, each village has a unique personality that appeals to different people. The villages, as colorful as a box of crayons, are so small that you can walk through their entirety in half an hour. However, the amazing part is how the houses cling to the cliffside on ledges that are mind-bogglingly small. This region is best for more able travelers, ones who don’t mind getting a good hike in. The majority of your day will be spent getting a calf workout as you work your way up hill after hill. However, what some might deem “drawbacks”, were the exact reasons why we would be going to Cinque Terre.

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On the way to Monterosso, we caught glimpses of the sea and the beaches that lay in wait. The last half hour before we arrived was spent in excited anticipation to finally get out of our sedentary positions. When the doors clanged open, we burst through the train station and down onto the beaches below. What greeted us was something straight out of a movie. A picturesque walkway formed a protective semi-circle around shimmering blue-green water. The beaches, filled to the brim with people, contained pure, white sand. Moving along the walkway, we made our way over to get our reward from the day’s long adventure: a hefty scoop of gelato. As we scarfed the cool treat down, we spent some time walking through Monterosso and over to a quieter beach. Within twenty minutes, we had stripped down to our bathing suits and were wading into the refreshing water. There were a series of rocks perched on a sandbar not far from shore, so Jake, Lorenzo, Maggie, and Glenn went to check them out and go cliff diving. Meanwhile, Smalls stayed behind to watch our stuff. After forty-five minutes, we met back up and walked through the miniature town. There were as many tourist shops as there were restaurants (and I even found one named after me!). We had some time to look around before we began the hike to Vernazza, which we expected to take us an hour and a half. Although only three kilometers long, the path wound its way up and down the steep cliffside. It got so tough that Maggie and Glenn almost turned back. However, we convinced them to keep going and were able to stick together. Every ten feet we would have to stop and take pictures, because the view was out of this world. The narrow ledge we followed plunged down to meet up with the sea, which crashed against the rocks below like thunderclaps. If there was one thing we were certainly wary of, it was making sure our footing was solid. Along the way, we passed by various groups of travelers and swapped stories with them. We met exchange students from China, couples from Australia, and even other GT students!

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When Vernazza came into view, it did so dramatically. Walking around the edge of the cliff, it began to appear below us as if it were rising up out of the sea. With it in sight, we picked up our pace: our footsteps a bit quicker. We were ready to get some real dinner, and we were eager to try the fresh seafood. Making our way down the steep staircase, we emerged onto the main street of Vernazza and regrouped before a water fountain. At this point, our criteria for restaurants was if the “Open” sign was still hanging in the window. The restaurant adjacent to the water fountain ended up being our pick for the night. Serving traditional food that highlighted the region, it was exactly what we wanted. We chowed down on seafood platters mixed in with bowls of spaghetti and washed it all down with glass after glass of cold water. With full stomachs and the evening setting in, we made our way down to the crescent-shaped harbor that defines Vernazza. Boats of people came and went as we watched the sun go down behind the cliffs that loomed over us. We spent a half hour exploring the streets and hidden coves of the town before making our way back to the train stop that is nestled in the center. Although I said that we were done with travelling, I actually lied. We would have a short, twenty-minute ride over to our Airbnb for the evening, which was located in a town called La Spezia.

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Getting in at 9:45pm, we split off from Maggie and Glenn, who had their own place for the night. Lucky for us, our hosts were nice enough to meet us at the train station. They gave us a ride from the station to their apartment, which normally would have been a forty-minute walk. As if that wasn’t enough, when we walked into the place that would be ours for the night, our draws dropped: it was a spacious apartment with three bedrooms complete with air conditioning, a fully-stocked kitchen, and even a terrace! It felt like a palace compared to the hardwood floor and cramped quarters from the night before. After some difficulty getting the hot water working, we spent the rest of the evening showering off the layer of grime and relaxing. Within minutes of laying down, I was fast asleep. Getting this at the end of the day was an amazing surprise after nearly sixteen hours of travel. It also made us sad that we would only get the chance to spend one night here in this mini-oasis.

The next morning, I helped myself to the croissants our host had got for us. Slathering the baked bun in Nutella, it was a delicious combination of chocolate and bread that made for a great start. While the others slept in, Rosalind and I went out for a walk through La Spezia to see what we could find. We went down along the waterfront and then through the old town, completing a two-mile loop that got our legs warmed up for the day. They were still pretty sore from the steep inclines that we made our way up yesterday. Around us, shops began to open their curtains and begin their day as well. We found a tasty, little, bakery with apple desserts that we munched on as we headed back to the apartment. At 10:00am, we rolled up to the train station and met up with Glenn and Maggie, whose host had given them a ride there. They had an equally awesome experience with their stay: their host keeping them up late with stories of fishing expeditions.

We were sad to leave Cinque Terre so soon, but Florence was next on the agenda. The beauty of the land around us and the friendliness of the locals made a great first impression. If I could go back and do it all again, I would stay in Cinque Terre longer. However, we were moving on to a new city and a new day! Who knew what would wait in store for us at the next stop? I guess you’ll have to wait and see what went on in Florence……

Posted by oklempay 05:46 Archived in Italy Tagged paris palace italy cinque_terre milan monterosso vernazza matterhorn pasta genoa airbnb la_spezia Comments (0)

An Unexpected Journey

sunny

On paper, everything seems easier than it actually is. When you see that expected travel time should be about eight hours, you take for granted just how much of an eternity eight long, excruciating, mind-numbing hours can seem. This past weekend was a lesson, a cruel lesson from the Universe in Murphy’s Law: “Anything that can go wrong will go wrong.” I’m sure you must be confused, so let me explain….

First, though, the weekly report card! I’m still getting smiley faces in all my classes and have even gotten an A++ in the “tells awesome jokes” category. It’s the usual grind of homework and studying till I fall asleep, so as to leave my weekends work-free. I’ve been running in the mornings in preparation for the Hell that will be Field Training, which continues to loom over my head. There’s a great park not far from my dorm, comprised of a kilometer loop with workout stations set up along its path. One day, running down by the city, I saw several soccer fields filled with kids in bright, solid-colored uniforms. They must have been a youth soccer league, because they couldn’t have been much older than 14. It reminded me of my days when I used to rule the ol’ football pitch: I was the best defense in the U-6 American Youth Soccer Organization of New Hartford. I was good, so good that they even gave me a trophy at the end of the season! Although, for some reason, they gave my trophy to everyone else as well. Anyways, I did some reminiscing as I passed by the fields and finished up my run before the sky cracked open and buckets of rain began to drench anything not covered. Overall, I believe that school is continuing to go well and, thus far, none of the balls of my juggling act have been dropped. Hopefully, I can keep it going like this.

Now, what you’re really here for: my travels! Last weekend, Triberg gave me a great taste for nature and had me longing to go spend more time outside of the city. Although cities are a great way to experience a culture, one can only stand so much concrete, overpriced food, and funky smells coming from grates that disappear into blackness. Atlanta will forever be my numero uno city in my heart (and not just because it has Krispy Kreme and Green Manor, although mostly). The place I set my sights on this time was in the French Alps: a well-known ski-destination by the name of Chamonix. This is home to the massive, snow-capped, four-thousand meter tall mountain known as Mount Blanc. The city sits in the cradle of two expansive mountain ranges, which gives the impression that one is in a giant crater. However, I’m getting ahead of myself. Before I can even begin to talk about Chamonix, I need to explain how I got there first.

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As I mentioned earlier, the anticipated travel time was eight hours from Metz to Chamonix. I would have to get up at the exhausting hour of four in the morning to make it to the station on time, with the expectation that I would roll into Chamonix around two in the afternoon. Painfully, I clambered out of bed at four-thirty and made my train at six. Everything was going just smoothly until Lausanne, Switzerland (stupid Lausanne…). The plan originally had a twelve minute layover at one stop, which certainly isn’t the closest I’ve cut it before. However, as is the custom here, my train ran behind schedule and pulled up to the station just as the train I was supposed to be on was departing. You can imagine my frustration as I ran up to the platform and painfully watched my train fade away down the tracks. This setback delayed me three hours and meant I wouldn’t get in until five in the afternoon. Just like that, my eight hours of travel had now turned into eleven.

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Being naive and carefree, however, I brushed it off as the setback that is always destined to arise in any trip and figured that I would be okay. With an extra hour to kill in Martigne, Switzerland, I was able to climb the parapet of an old tower and take in the beauty of the Alp’s sweeping valleys. Leaving Martigne, I hopped on board the Mount Blanc Express, which is a special train that winds its way through the mountains of the Alps. If you’ve ever been on the Expedition Everest ride at Disney World (or any roller coaster will suffice really), that’s what this train felt like. With a jolt, it pulled away from Martigne and started off the journey at an alarming thirty-degree incline up the side of a mountain. Near the apex of our climb, we plunged into the darkness of a tunnel that cut through the mountainside. When we emerged, we were traversing the side of a mountain on a path barely wide enough for the train. Looking through the large viewing windows that stretched across the entire cabin, there was only a heart-stopping plunge downwards next to the rail tracks. Unlike a Disney ride with fake backdrops, this was the real deal. As the train clattered along the precarious tracks, it offered some amazing views of the Alps. It was so amazing that I forgot how upset I was about getting in three hours behind schedule!

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The adventure ended at a station in Vallorcine, France, where I had a one-hour layover. It was the kind of place that only had a main street, with a smattering of houses here and there. I met some interesting people who were waiting for the same train I was: there was an older French couple who extended an invitation for me to join them by saying: “Hey kid, we’re going to go get a beer. Want to come with?” Although we didn’t find an open bar, we did end up finding a 700 year-old church that had survived an avalanche thanks to its surrounding stone wall, so I guess that was cool. Then, I met an English family that loathed European football and were instead massive fans of the Green Bay Packers! Talk about finding a needle in a haystack.

Finally, one hour and twenty-eight minutes later, the long journey came to close. As we passed into the shadow of Mount Blanc, the train pulled up to the station and delivered its cargo of weary travelers. I was feeling it at this point, so I made a beeline for my Airbnb (funny side note, its listing was “cozy couch”). It was situated in an apartment suite adjacent to the train station, which I was thankful for. Unfortunately, none of the doors had numbers or names on them, so I had no clue which couch was mine. My host had neglected to send me the details on said information. I ended up becoming a door-to-door salesman, in search of someone who might have a clue. Every room I stopped at was out-of-towners, which got me no further than where I started. I tried calling my host numerous times, but no one picked up. After a half hour of searching, I gave up in frustration and left a message saying that I would come back later. The shower that I had been desperately looking forward to would have to wait a couple more hours. Instead, I went out in search of something to fill my stomach.

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Being a ski-resort town, Chamonix is essentially the Parks City of France. It has a rugged, outdoorsy feel to it, with enough basic amenities included that it doesn’t scare away the city dwellers. The bars were filled with sweat-soaked hikers and backpackers like myself, and impromptu concerts were set up by musicians hanging outside restaurants. The town was a perfect blend of nature and civilization that made it fun to walk through (although some parts were certainly touristy). I satisfied the ever-hungry pit that is my stomach at a hot dog shop, where I feasted on perhaps the most delicious hot dog a person could find after going the last twelve hours without food.

When I returned to the apartment complex, I was nervous that I would have to cancel the Airbnb and end up booking at a place that was exponentially more expensive. My host had still not sent me a response, so my worry-meter was right up at the top. I gave it a half hour more before I would try and find an alternative place. As my luck would have it, she messaged me just as the half hour passed. Sending me detailed instructions, I eventually made my way to one of the doors that no one had answered earlier. She was out of town, so she had left the keys in her mailbox and some sheets for me on the couch. At this point, I was so tired that I collapsed on the couch without taking a shower. Although it was only 9:30pm, I knew that I would need a lot of sleep for the hiking I intended to do. That night, I slept more soundly than I had in weeks.

I ended up sleeping in to 7am (for those that know me, that’s really, really, late)! I rolled out of bed in a tumble of sheets and crawled to the heavenly spout of hot water, where I camped out for at least ten minutes. After that, I fixed myself a hearty breakfast of an orange and an assortment of crackers, washed down by gulps of fresh mountain water. Leaving behind my couch, I set my sights on a new challenge, this one a little more fun than the previous I had encountered. I found a trailhead that led up to a cable car station called “Aguille du Midi”. That was the halfway point up Mount Blanc, and also where I would make my way to. The beginning of the trail was a series of steep switchbacks that were barely two feet wide. However, as the day was still young, I had the advantage of fresh muscles and the benefit of being in the shade. Even then, by the end of the first hour, I was beginning to feel the effects of the constant uphill climb in my calf muscles. It got worse when I passed by someone hiking down, who told me that I was only about halfway up at this point.

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Continuing upwards, I crossed over a river and noticed that the flora and fauna were subtly changing around me the higher I got. It reminded me of pictures we had seen in environmental science, where a mountainside can be broken up into several distinct regions: there are large trees down at the bottom in the subalpine region. In the alpine region, trees become more stunted and have to withstand blasts of colder temperatures. Then, above the tree line, the vegetation gives way to tufts of grass and shrubs and a much starker environment. As I progressed along the trail, I noticed all this changing around me and remarked at how much it was like the pictures in the books. Once I got above the tree line, the landscape gave way to rocks the size of houses and patches of snow that lay frozen on the ground. In several spots, the trail became so hard to follow that I had to backtrack to make sure I was staying on it. For anyone with little kids, this is not a hike I would recommend: I had to scale several large boulders and shimmy my way across ledges of snow that covered up the path. Up here, there was little shade to speak of, and there was not another soul in sight at this early in the morning. Two hours into it, my body was covered in sweat and every footstep became a battle of lifting my lead-like leg upwards and fighting Earth’s gravity. I wanted to give up, but I knew that this far in, there was nowhere to go but up. The only way I could maintain my resolve was to continually count to one-hundred in my head in Russian. It took my mind off of the exhaustion and helped pass the lonesome time.

Salvation came at two and half hours into this grueling trek. After seeing nothing but nature for some time, I finally saw my first small sign of civilization: literally, it was a sign! It pointed to an even larger sign of civilization, a warming house (called a refuge) for weary hikers like myself. Even more exciting, the cable car station, Aguille du Midi, finally came into view! One by one, things slowly began to get better. At the warming hut, there was a trough with frigid, flowing, water that I took in in large gulps. However, my final stop wasn’t the refuge. No, I needed to go continue upwards for ten more minutes to get to my real destination: the cable car station. Only then could I say that I had accomplished my mission. I came across two hikers carrying skis that were planning to ski down Mount Blanc and completed this last leg with them.

Coming up to the crest of the cable car station, the view was indescribable. That’s why I’ll take a moment and let the pictures speak for themselves.

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My reward was a much-needed break and some food to eat. I claimed a metal bench as mine and gobbled down cheap crackers while taking in the picturesque view. Talking with some English folks, I set my sights on a new destination: I would traverse the side of the mountain and head over to Mer de Glac, the largest glacier in all of France. This time, I wouldn’t have to worry about climbing up and could enjoy a relatively flat hike. Compared to my morning trek, this was a piece of cake. It took me just under two hours to make it the four and a half miles to my next stop. The only bad part of it were the snow drifts that lay across the trail. They could be as large as fifty feet across and made it so that you could only walk in a narrow trail of footprints made by earlier travelers. Stepping out of these would have you taking a very long and dangerous slip n’ slide down the side of the mountain. As I approached Mer de Glac, the number of tourists began to rise dramatically. The reason behind this was one of laziness: there’s a train which runs from Chamonix up to Mer de Glac, so any Joe Schmoe can pay an outrageous thirty-eight euros to plop themselves down and have an internal combustion do the work for them in getting up the mountainside. I’m not made of money, so I took the cheap option and went with the two hour hike to get down. Every time the train went by, I could hear its shrill whistle mocking me in my weary state.

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Now, I should elaborate a bit more on the whole “getting back” situation. There was a train leaving Chamonix, which, if everything else went accordingly, would get me back into Metz at 10pm Saturday night. Unfortunately for me, its departure time was 3pm. I had just begun my two-hour hike downwards at 2pm, so I was faced with three options: miss the 3pm train, run like a madman down the mountain and condense two hours into one, or give up every essence of manhood and shell out thirty-eight euros for an overpriced train ride down. Option three was off the table, and I was nervous that I might trip and fall, so I decided to enjoy the hike down and ended up taking my time with it (I would later realize that I had chosen wrong). When I got into Chamonix, it was 3:15pm and my legs had been magically transformed into jelly. My new plan had me travelling for twelve hours, with an overnight delay at a station in Basel, Germany. Although the prospect of it was not very exciting, I was still in that foolish mindset where I figured it couldn’t be that bad. Let me cut through that crap right now: it was bad, very bad.

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I left from Chamonix around 5pm and, as the Mount Blanc Express began to trundle back through the steep mountain passages, I looked out the windows in sadness. For once, I was sad to have to leave and go back to school. I wished that I’d had more time to go hiking and see some of the hidden gems of the area. Alas, it was my time to go. The ride back to Lausanne, Switzerland, passed in a few short hours. I’m supremely glad I had the foresight to bring a thick book with me, as I ripped through its pages on these tedious rides. A lakefront town, we pulled into Lausanne just as the sun was setting. With white, wispy, clouds creating a haze on the horizon, it made for a stunning array of colors as the sun slipped into the watery depths and the darkness of the night came on. I had an hour to walk around Lausanne, so I spent it stretching my legs and getting in some extra steps (That day, I ended up doing 38,000 steps!). Then, an hour later I boarded several series of trains that eventually dropped me off at a station in Basel, Germany right after midnight. Now, the worst part was upon me: my next train wouldn’t leave Basel until 5:25am. Here I was, stuck at the station with nowhere to go and nothing to do for five freaking hours. I found a bench in a well-lit area of the station, wrapped my backpack straps through my legs, and began the long, painful wait. As the night wore on, the temperature began to drop into the high forties and bugs started assaulting my skin that made me twitch like a horse. Around 2:30am, several guys came through the station and started clapping loudly and making a lot of noise so as to wake up those of us that were sleeping (for I wasn’t the only traveler caught in this overnight nightmare).

When 5am eventually rolled around, I was starving, exhausted, and desperately in need of a shower. After all, I’d spent six and half hours the day before hiking. I got into Strasbourg at 7am and thought that the worst was finally over. However, there was one more “surprise” lying in wait for me. My train from Strasbourg to Metz, which would have gotten me in at 11, was cancelled due to strikes! Talking with the information desk, I would have to take a train from Strasbourg to Paris and then from Paris to Metz. It would end up adding an hour onto my overall travel time. Here I was, only a forty-five minute car ride from Metz, and now I would have to keep traveling. As fed up as I was, I did the only thing I could do: I got on the train and tried my hardest to keep from passing out. At 1pm on Sunday, I finally crossed the threshold of my apartment and collapsed in a heap of sweat-stained clothes on my soft, clean, bed.

There is a lesson to be learned from all this: don’t overextend your travels or yourself. It’s one thing to say that you can do something, but another thing entirely to actually carry it out. I thought that I could make a twelve-hour trip back manageable, and I was dead wrong. I spent more time traveling than I spent in Chamonix, which kind of made this trip a drag. I loved every second in Chamonix, but I would not recommend taking the trains to get there (unless you’re only taking the Mount Blanc Express). From here on, I plan to stay more local and enjoy the things that are near me, instead of trying to make a massive trip happen. Anyways, I learned a lot about myself and about traveling this week. Although a lot of it sucked, it’s important to remember the words of T.S Eliot – “The journey, not the arrival, matters.”

Posted by oklempay 09:50 Archived in France Tagged hiking mountain train chamonix hike couch express basel lausanne mount_blanc martigne vallorcine Comments (1)

Following the Breadcrumbs

sunny

This past weekend brought me to the land of the lederhosen wearing, beer-drinking, schnitzel eating country that is home to eighty-two million people. Yes, that’s right, I put on some festive flannel and headed out through Germany’s Black Forest to visit Munich and Triberg. The only experience I’ve had with Germany is its large airport hub in Hamburg, so I was pretty excited to get some more time to experience its culture and, if we’re being real here, its food. In addition, my family has a lot of German and Polish roots. Although this trip wasn’t my favorite thus far, I had a fun time with what we ended up doing.

A quick interjection, however: school continues to go well! After getting whacked by three back-to-back tests in three days, I somehow managed to keep from going completely insane and crawling into my room with the intention of never coming out once it was all over. This week, I got my scores back and was pleasantly surprised! Although I made some stupid mistakes that I’m still kicking myself over (I should just hire someone to keep kicking me so I don’t forget it), I came out better than I had thought going in. Even more, the first big hump has been overcome! Now, the only thing left to worry about is a test every week until finals week (psh, no biggie, right?). I’m a fan of having class every day, because I feel like I actually have to dedicate time every night to getting work done, as opposed to leaving it for the night before (or, y’know, the hour before). One strange thing did happen, however. Let me preface it by making sure you’ve read The Half-Blood Prince. If you haven’t, take a quick second, go read it, and come back here when you’re done. Okay, here goes: I had been sitting outside the student lounge, chilling like a villain and munching on some bread, when my MSE professor happened to walk by and told me to come with him to his office. He gave me my test back and congratulated me on my grade, after which we connected over Pittsburgh. He had worked there for five years as a researcher at Alcoa, the company responsible for aluminum foil and many other household wonders, and I had been to the city many times to see Pirates games. He then told me to come back and visit him later after we had our afternoon class. When I did come back, he ended up showing me different pictures of Pittsburgh’s buildings and reminiscing about his favorite places there. I felt a lot like Harry getting invited to Professor Slughorn’s party and making it into his good graces. I’d say it was a little odd, but I’m just happy to be on his good side for when the red grading pen comes out. Long story short, my classes are going well and I’ve gotten better at this clown-like juggling act of travel and study.

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Now, onto Munchen (as it’s known in German). Our train was an early, 6:30am train. In most normal circumstances, this wouldn’t have been an issue. However, me, with all my hubris about “not needing” an alarm clock, woke up at 5:32am. This left ten minutes for me to douse myself in soap and water, throw my clothes and wallet into my backpack, and book it for the bus stop to catch the 5:45am bus. Luckily enough for me, I was able to make it in time and only ended up forgetting one thing! When we did get to the train station, I ran into another slight complication: I was unable to get a reservation in time for the 6:30am train, so…. certain events transpired that I’m not particularly proud to talk about. I promised last post that I had learned my lesson when it came to reservations, but this time I really mean it. As I write this, I’m on my way to book my reservation (ahead of time!) for next weekend. Our train to Munich had six stops and it was a long, grueling, six-hour ride to get there. I suppose the universe found a way to get back at me, because the one thing I forgot to pack were headphones. The hours of history podcasts I had just downloaded the night before would sit disappointingly unplayed on my phone for this trip. The train had delays throughout its journey, which led to several frantic dashes in some of our change-overs. One delay gave us only two minutes of transfer time at one station. As soon as we stepped off our arriving train, we dashed like madmen through the station to our departure platform and got there just as the train was about to pull out. Although we received several strange looks, we were just happy to make it to the final leg of our tiresome journey.

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When we did get into Munich, it was past 1pm and we were overjoyed to finally be out of a train cabin. We had signed up for a free tour starting at 2pm, which I was really excited to go on. It would be a history walking tour of Munich and, here’s the best part, it would be given in English! When you spend enough time in a different country, you realize how much you take for granted the ability to communicate basic things with fellow humans, such as, “Yes, I would like fries with that.” By the time we left the train station, we had to move at a brisk pace to make it to the meeting point in time. On our trek there, we were stopped by the heavenly gates of the golden arches that called out to our empty stomachs. Giving in to the growling pits that controlled us, we made a quick pit stop at McDonalds and rolled up to our meeting point precisely at 2:00pm. Our tour guide was a college-aged kid named Brett, who was from the lonely state of Nebraska. He had a great sense of humor and kept the tour engaging and informative. Personally, I liked him because he wasn’t afraid to go to the highest form of humor: puns. On the tour, we were able to see a church with a cannonball glued in its side through some redneck engineering, learn about stealing a town’s Maypole, grab some beers at the hall where Hitler tried his “Beer Hall Putsch”, and see the Devil’s actual footprint. Suffice to say, it was a great tour that helped us see the old town and actually learn about the buildings around us. Within our tour group, there were several Atlantans and even an Emory graduate! We got to talking and bonded over a city we all shared in common.

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When our tour was over, it was only beginning to dip into the middle of the afternoon. We decided to hop on the metro and took it up to the Olympic Park. Munich hosted the Summer Olympics in 1972 and the park that remains is still gorgeous. The Olympic buildings are protected by sweeping glass awnings that look like waves flowing through the air. We ventured over to the Track and Field, but couldn’t find a way to get down onto it. Then, we ended up scaling a massive hill that gave us a stunning view of the city and the Olympic Park. It was quite a sight to see the sun reflect from the glass buildings down onto the glistening lake. Heading down, we made a stop in the BMW Museum and ogled over the cars of the future. I hopped on a motorcycle and tried to drive it out of there, but I guess someone forgot to fill up the tank.

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Tired and ready to get some dinner, we began to make our way to our hotel. Unfortunately for us, our hotel was in no-man’s land when it came to public transportation. Imagine a circle with points all along it representing rail stops. We were at the center of that circle. Getting off from our stop, we booted up google maps and had to triple check to make sure its estimated travel time wasn’t set to snail speed. It said that we had almost five kilometers and forty minutes of fun walking ahead of us. With no other choice, we set out and began to trudge, step by step, to our far-away sanctuary. My friend ended up running ahead because we had to check in by 8pm and our estimated time of arrival was 8:15pm. Walking alone, I made my way past the Nymphenburg Palace and through an expansive park. At this point, the only thing I had eaten all day was a greasy chicken wrap and some fries, so my fuel tank was running in the critically low region. I happened to come across two grocery stores on my hike, but they closed at 8:00pm. Guess when I walked up to them: 8:02pm… When I finally got there, we spent some time recuperating in the room before heading out once more to find some dinner. Our trip back to the city center yielded us some delicious full-plate pizzas that could have beat Frodo’s Elvish bread any day. As we were preparing to make our way out of the city center, we bumped into some more Atlantans: this time they were Tech graduates! They were a funny bunch, and in the words of one half-drunk dude, “The girls here are way better to dance with than the ones at Tech!” We trusted his advice and did what any young person in a large foreign city would do: beat the drunk crowd onto the metro before they filled it up and headed back to the hotel at a reasonable hour where, within seconds of our heads hitting our pillows, we went into a deep sleep.

I was woken up by a blaring alarm at 5am the next morning. Our train left at 6am, so we had another early day of travel ahead of us. The ride to the station was uneventful, but we were certainly feeling the exhaustion of it all as we plodded along. When we got onto our train, we went right back to sleep within minutes of the train leaving the station. Today, on our trip back to home (aka Metz), we would be making a short stop in Triberg: a town in the heart of Germany’s Black Forest that is famous for its waterfalls. The Black Forest has long been seen as a vacation spot for Germans. In the old days, whenever you were sick, the doctor would tell you, “Take some time in the Black Forest. You will get better.” It’s also where Grimm’s Fairy Tales were written, like Hansel and Gretel. To no avail, I spent the entire train ride with my head out the window looking for a giant candy cottage.

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Several hours later we pulled up to a station in the middle-of-nowhere Germany, otherwise known as Triberg. It was a half a mile walk from the station to the town, which gave us a much-needed chance to stretch out our legs. As we strolled through the town, vendors lined every inch of sidewalk space and people enjoyed lunch in the fresh air outside bars and restaurants. It had a very festive atmosphere, with gangs of bikers driving through every thirty seconds (the Black Forest is home to many biker gangs). We followed the river upstream, which eventually brought us to our destination: the waterfalls. As one of the highest waterfalls in Germany, it was a sight to see. Standing below it all, we felt a cool mist blow into us. There were trails up the sides that led to several bridges from which you could stand over the waterfall. It provided for some very scenic views of the town and the mountains. When we came back down, we found a place that served some traditional German food for a reasonable price. Our waitress was a practical jokester who fooled me: she brought out ketchup and mustard packets and told us that it was the first course. I shot her a look of confusion, but began to reach for a packet when she said, “No, no, I was joking.” Henceforth, I have now been made fun of at least a dozen times for that. The schnitzel we ate tasted like an amazing version of chicken tenders and was our first bite to eat that day. After lunch, we grabbed some traditional Black Forest Cake, which is a rum and cherry cake that is very heavy on the rum. It was a bit too much for both of us. Our ride back to Metz was (thankfully) uneventful and short. We got in around 5pm, so we had the afternoon to relax and put off work until Sunday. Overall, Triberg felt very much like a German version of Old Forge: it’s stuck in the 1970’s and everything was cash only. It is known for its nature and the people are incredibly friendly. I’m glad we were able to make a side trip and visit the Black Forest, even if I didn’t figure out where the Candy Cottage was. Like I said, this trip may not have been the most exciting, but it was great to experience Germany outside of its airport. Till next time, auf wiedersehen!

Posted by oklempay 22:37 Archived in Germany Tagged germany waterfall munich black_forest triberg cherry_cake nympenburg old_forge Comments (0)

Back to the Basics

overcast

This was a big weekend for a lot of people. Many journeyed down to Interlaken, a town in Switzerland known for its stunning views and incredible hikes around, well, you guessed it, some lakes. Don’t get me wrong, it’s an absolutely beautiful place that I want to visit at some point, but this weekend was a special occasion. Making the trip out to Western France, I went to visit the beaches made famous at 6:30am on June 6, 1944. This, of course, was DDay.

Before I ramble on about my trip, a quick word for my sponsors: school is still going great, I am in good health, making lots of friends, taking of bunch of tests, and yes, I am getting enough to eat. Homework is ramping up, but the smaller class size lets me work on it with groups that I’m familiar with and end up completing it faster. What I’m truly dreading is this upcoming week: I have 3 back-to-back tests on top of multiple assignments due. Up until now, I’ve been enjoying Georgia Tech-lite, where your biggest responsibility is showing up for class on time. Now I need to prove that I’ve been paying attention and understanding the material. If I study hard enough, I meet even be able to get my Materials Science test grade into the double digits! There’s a reason I’ve spent so much time in churches the past two weeks: I’ve been trying to find salvation from the ensuing storm. Alright, that’s enough of the doom and gloom talk. It’s not as bad as it sounds (really).

Saturday morning, I had to get up at the soul-crushing hour of 6am (psh, no problem for me) to make it to the train station in time. Our route would have us on a high-speed rail from Metz to Paris, transfer stations in Paris, and then take an intercity train from Paris to Caen. As we walked up to our platform, my friend ran into ticket issues. I tried to convince them that it would be alright, but they didn’t want to run the risk of being on the receiving end of a massive fine from some overeager ticket checker. Their decision to stay came after I had already boarded, so I watched helplessly from the window as they stood there on the platform and would not get on. Just as I was about to head down to convince them otherwise, the doors clanged shut in front of me and the train groaned to life. Any chance I had was now gone. This adventure would be one I would have to take alone.

I’ll admit: I was a little jarred by the abruptness of their exit. Now the dynamic duo had become the…. Well, I don’t even know what cool name there is for a singular person. With just one, I no longer had the power of alliteration on my side. Even worse, I had to figure out everything for myself. If I had any hesitation about something, I would just have to go with my gut (and it usually told me to get food). Making the most of my train ride, I began to work out the logistics of what would come next.

When the train pulled up to the Gare L’est in Paris, I bolted off the platform and began to make my way to the Gare St. Lazar, which stood several miles away. I had to be wary of time because I only had fifty minutes of layover and the next train to Caen wouldn’t be until much later in the evening. Luckily enough, the metro got me there with ten minutes to spare. Boarding it, I snagged an empty seat and unloaded the hefty pack that was bearing down on my shoulders. As the seats around me filled up one by one, I began to worry that this was a reservation only train (which yours truly did not have). Thinking back, I had passed by a sign earlier in the station that looked awfully like the French words for, “Reservations Required Dummy”. My biggest concern was the massive fine that could be slapped on me for not paying whatever marginal reservation fee there was. I made my decision a minute before the train pulled out: I would play it like “Joe Cool” and act like I belonged.

This tactic, surprisingly, worked out for me quite well! As has been with every previous train ride thus far, the ticket checker walked straight through the cabin without batting an eye at anyone. However, I knew I was lucky this time. From here on out, I’ll have to be more careful with knowing what trains require reservations and making sure I have them.

The train ride was long, hot, noisy, and crowded from Paris to Caen. As was the French custom, we had several delays in our journey. Originally a one and a half hour hop, it transformed into a three hour outing that a turtle could have done faster. It didn’t help that I was surrounded by high school delinquents who didn’t mind jostling my seat back and forth (man, when did I become a grumpy, old grandpa). The saving grace was the kind, older, French woman who sat next to me and who had brought her adorable dog with her. There’s no better therapy than having a puppy crawling around in your lap.

Around 1pm, the amazing FINALLY happened. We rolled into Caen! Now, I feel that I should tell you that the city’s name is pronounced like “cone”, as in, ice cream cone. I don’t know how you’ve been reading it so far, but let’s just set the record straight and make sure you say it correctly from here on out. Furthermore, a quick history lesson! Caen played an important role in the DDay invasion. After the Allied Forces secured the beachhead, the Germans holed up in Caen and prepared to make their stand here. The fighting was intense and left most of the city in ruins. Caen was one of the most, if not THE most, destroyed cities in all of France. The air bombing done by the Allies was fairly ineffective and ended up creating as many civilian casualties as it hurt German assets. The original plan had the Allies expecting to secure Caen within a day of the landings. It ended up taking four bloody weeks before the town would be back in their grasp. This was a city where history was buried in its walls: every street-corner holding the story of some intense firefight that had occurred 74 years ago.

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Walking out of the train station, I made a beeline for the nearest grocery store where five euros could fill a bottomless pit (aka, my stomach). Thirty minutes later, I found myself stuffing groceries into my already full backpack like a homeless person and leaving the store with baguette in hand. I munched on the bread as I cruised the streets and ended up working my way towards the obvious center of the city. Why was it obviously the center? Well, it was the remains of a large fortress embedded in a hillside that loomed over the rest of the city. It was pretty hard to miss. I hiked my way up the ruins and plopped down in the soft, green grass. Enjoying my mini-feast I had acquired, I soaked in the sights from the hilltop. Although the grey clouds didn’t make for an attractive backdrop, it was still warm enough for a t-shirt and shorts. Around me, little kids on a school trip scurried around and played tag on the hillside. I’m sure none of them realized that the walls they were running around were almost a thousand years old, erected by William the Conqueror.

After lunch, I began to amble around the old town. Here and there I would see pockmarks in the walls: bullet holes which served as reminders of the fights. The streets narrowly wound in every direction from the center, as if the enormous roots from the Tree of Life. I made my way through several churches and eventually to the DDay memorial park, which situates itself a mile northwest of the city. To my surprise, there was a wonderful museum at the entrance of the park. It offered an interesting perspective of Caen and France before and after World War Two. Unlike other World War Two museums I had visited, this one was different in its tone. It paid homage to the staggering number of civilians lost and didn’t thank the Allies as incredible saviors. Instead, it highlighted how some of their actions led to a greater loss in civilian life. Like I said, it gave a unique perspective of the war that felt genuine, as if seen through the eyes of a French person living during the time.

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At this point in the afternoon, I was trying to kill time until I could check into my Airbnb. I stumbled upon a botanical garden and sat for a while, enjoying the tranquility of the water flowing down the rocks and into a reflecting pond. I was very excited to check out my living arrangements this time. After all, the place I had found to stay at was in the bottom of a boat! Yes, you did read that correctly. Someone had an extra bunk in their boat and was renting it out for travelers like me! I couldn’t turn down an opportunity like that. When the time did come, I found my new dwelling not far from the city center. The host, with his two sons, was incredibly friendly and helpful. A jovial man with a perpetual grin on his face, he provided me with dinner recommendations that I heartily took. After going out and getting my fill of falafel, I returned to my bunk and got some studying done. As I dozed off to sleep, I could hear the sounds of the city swirling around and slipping into my cabin through the porthole. There was quite the party going on across the river. At some point through it all, I finally ended up getting some shuteye.

The following day, I departed from my host at 7:30am and made my way back to the train station. I would ride the rail one station further up to Bayeux. The tour I had signed up for would meet at the train station there and depart at 8:30am. Even smaller than Caen, Bayeux was a quaint town that had escaped the tragedies of the war. Due to its narrow streets, it never saw any fighting, so it maintained its pristine, rustic quality. When I found my tour group, I was easily a third of the age of the next youngest person there. Boy, did I feel like a kid. Comprised of three older couples, I stuck out like a sore thumb. Despite the massive age gap, my new groupmates were very friendly and made great talking companions. Being from the States themselves, they had all served in the military in some capacity or another. One of them had even been a pilot! We struck it off right away and would jabber incessantly about planes in the spare minutes. The guide of our group was a younger woman who was a Bayeux native. Her accent was thick, but her knowledge was vast on the topic of DDay. This was definitely not her first rodeo.

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Our tour started with the Point du Hoc, which was a set of cliffs that housed a scary array of German anti-naval and anti-air batteries. The craters from the bombs were overgrown with brush and the same lush, green grass that I had seen in Caen. In some places the craters were ten or fifteen feet deep! As we stood at the edge of the hundred-foot-tall cliffs, our guide explained that the Army Rangers had to scale these very cliffs by cutting slits in the rocks with their knives and climbing up with their hands (even Bruce Willis would be scared of these guys). The original plan called for them to launch grappling hooks and make the ascent with the aid of ropes. Unfortunately for them, their ropes, drenched in the ocean’s salt water, prevented the hooks from reaching the ledge. When the Rangers did get to the top, the Germans had already packed up all of their larger guns and replaced them with telephone-pole look alikes. The men that came over the ledge were hit with a heavy torrent of bullets that kept them pinned down and slowed their advance. By the time they finally captured the Point, the Germans had regrouped a mile away and were preparing a counterattack. Pinned up against the cliffside they had worked so hard to reach, the Rangers had to fend for themselves for two days before reinforcements would reach them. Of the 225 men that had landed, only 90 made it through.

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We continued on to Omaha Beach itself, which is a shallow stretch of sand that goes on for 3.5 miles. It was a fairly good landing site for the Allies to pick, but the Germans had the advantage of sitting on the high ground. After disembarking from their water transports, soldiers had to crawl past tank traps, barbed wire, landmines, and dodge the deluge of bullets that rained down across the beach. Even with the Germans caught off guard about the attack, it was no easy feat making it up the beach. We didn’t stay too long at Omaha Beach, but our guide told us some fascinating stories that transpired that morning.

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By the time we got to the American cemetery, it was nearing midday. There was a good gaggle of tourists surrounding the centerpiece of it all: a beautiful statue showcasing the youth of the troops as they came in from the water and onto the beaches. We walked among the white crosses, which seemed to glow in the sun. At one point, we heard the deafening roar of a C-130 as it flew overhead and out onto the water. With DDay being so close, there were actors everywhere getting ready for the large scale re-enactment that would take place in a few days. That day we saw tanks driving down main roads, people dressed in the garb of World War 2, and planes from the era practicing maneuvers. I’m sure it would be quite a spectacle to see. As we rounded the edge of the cemetery and made our way back to the van, we were stopped short by the sound of “Taps”. At the statue, there was a procession going on for veterans of the 101st Airborne. As the notes played, there was a hushed silence as all movement ceased and everyone faced the center. There, several veterans stood and held a salute for their fallen brothers. It was a very moving tribute that sent shivers down my spine.

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Thirty minutes later, I was back in the city center of Bayeux and making another grocery run. I had said my goodbyes to the group and found a quiet place to eat my loaf of bread and block of fresh cheese. I spent another hour exploring the city before making the trip over to the train station and beginning the journey homewards. Although I’d only been in Western France for 24 hours, I felt like I had seen enough to last me a week. The train ride home, I mulled over the famous landmarks I had seen and how significant they are to our history. The beach, soaked with the blood of thousands of young men, lays testament to the noble sacrifice given up in the name of freedom. Those men may not have realized the importance of it at the time, but their selfless devotion and courage in the face of insurmountable odds provided the stepping stone to the world we live in today. Through the celebration of DDay, we remember their legacy. Within Arnold Air Society, we have a quote that we say after every session of PT, which we dedicate to the POW’s and MIA’s. This DDay, I hope you can take some time to remember those who gave up their life in the hope of making the world a better place. As we like to say: “Always Remember, Never Forget.”

Posted by oklempay 22:02 Archived in France Tagged boat castle normandy bayeux rangers caen dday st._lazare Comments (0)

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