A Travellerspoint blog


and the sweet sounds of my favorite smaller city

sunny 85 °F

I know, I know - the title of this episode is Granada, but before I got to there, I spent a couple days in Valencia. It would be unfair and inaccurate to say that I didn’t like Valencia or didn’t have a great time there - I did. However, as I continue to fall further behind in this blog, I’ve decided to try and speed things up and fast forward to the good parts. I liked Valencia very much, but of the 3 places I stayed in Spain, Valencia is the one that gets cut.

Old town

Quick summary: Valencia’s old town is beautiful and interesting, an ancient royal city with large buildings hundreds of years old and some sidewalks made of marble, no joke. It is also the birthplace of paella (according to Valencians), and, like Barcelona, has a language other than Spanish as their primary language (Valencan). It’s god a big beach which attracts many of the tourists, though I didn’t like the beach as much as at Barcelona, mainly because it lacked the numerous sand volleyball courts.

The 3 most signficant things from Valencia (in no particular order):
- I saw a flyboard for the first time. If you didn’t see my video on FB about it, check it out, or you can watch a much better video shot by one of my favorite youtuber - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gMaDhkNJA2g. I so need to get one of these.
Other pictures from the beach

- La Ciudad de Arts y Sciences is a collection of stunning buildings at the end of a very large public park in Valencia. Though I didn’t cough up the admission to go inside any of these attractions, I did admire the incredible architecture from the outside. If you go to Valencia, this cannot be missed.
Here you see some of the park that runs the length of Valencia and ends at La Ciudad De Arts y Sciences

- I celebrated my 27th birthday here! My birthday was actually a travel day for me, and while that seemed like a bumer at first, I did get to celebrate it properly in two different cities! I went out with a group from my hostel on July 18th (birthday at midnight) and started off the night by buying the first round of shots. My compatriots followed suit with rounds throughout the night and I got properly and delightedly drunk. A highlight for me was actually at the end of the night when one of the guys I was with forced me kicking and screaming to go and hit on two local Spanish girls we saw, and to do it in Spanish. I stumbled my way thru my opener, and understanding what was going on, the girls didn’t miss a beat and insisted that I continue in Spanish only. It was a great combination of embarrassing, fun, challenging, and rewarding. I’m sure I sounded like an idiot, but the girls seemed to appreciate the effort and laughed good naturedly with me. It may seem like a strange highlight, but it was a lot of fun for me.

I got a 2nd chance to practice my very poor Spanish the next day with my driver to Granada! Due to the strange routes, it takes about 8 hours to go from Valencia to Granada by either bus or train, but its only about 5 hours by car. Inspired by this, I took my 3rd ride from BlaBlaCar, the ride share website I’m growing increasingly fond of, this time with a large, jovial Spaniard named Javier who didn’t speak any English. The 2 girls in the back seat also hitching a ride spoke a little bit of English, so they could translate when necessary, but much of the car ride constituted Javier and I communicating slow and painfully and teaching each other some new words. He was a great guy, always quick to laugh, and got me to Granada in no time.

When I arrived in Granada, I wasn’t planning on spending as long as I did there, probably just a couple days and then zip to Madrid and Toledo before getting back to Barcelona to fly out. It didn’t take me very long to decide to slow down and just chill out in Granada for the remainder of my time, and it started with my hostel. One of the rare hostels that was among the cheapest and highest rated hostels available, it touted that it had a “cult-like following” among backpackers for its staff and atmosphere. It also had an incredible location, high up on a hill in the old part of town, where all the streets were 1 way out of necessity and confusing enough to figure out on foot. The winding streets of cobblestone instantly transported you back to a simpler time, and it felt like not much had changed there in the last few hundred years. Climbing the hill to the Rambutan Hostel was rough, but I was rewarded by an amazing view that was very easy to get used to.

This is an unbelievably beautiful picture that I'm quite proud of. I caught it in the perfect light I actually found a postcard near the end of my time there that I believe was taken from our hostel’s terrace. Further proof that this was the best seat in the house
And here's the same view in two more lights

I didn’t arrive to my hostel until after 10 pm, and it was incredibly quiet in the hostel. I was disappointed because it was still my birthday and I was hoping to go out and get some drinks with some fellow travelers. The Australian hostel worker, Sean, told me that a group had headed to a certain tapas bar about an hour ago, and that they’re probably still there if I wanted to go and join them. I headed out, got instantly lost in the winding and wonderful streets, but didn’t care in the least as I soaked in the atmosphere.

I eventually found my way to the tapas bar and it was pretty easy to figure out which group I was looking for, as they were the only ones speaking English. Primed by my months of solo travel, I didn’t hesitate, walked right up to them and asked, “Are you all staying at the Rambutan Hostel?” After getting a positive response, I told them that I had just arrived into town and asked if I could join them. An incredibly welcoming group, they instantly made room and told me that I had earned big points by the way I had “fearlessly” approached them. For reasons partially known to myself, I didn’t tell them straight away that it also happened to be my birthday, but I was soon laughing and joking around with the group of them that I would spend quite a bit of time with over the next 5 or 6 days. This wonderful group of people were the 2nd reason that I ended up staying longer in Granada.

Granada has this wonderful custom regarding their tapas bars in which, in just about any restaurant in town, when you order a drink you get a free small tapas plate with it! Apparently, this tradition began years ago during the start of modern urbanization. With workers now traveling to their jobs that may not have been very close to their homes, they would go to the local restaurant or bar for lunch. With limited funds, many of them decided to spend their precious coin on drink rather than food, and after a few rounds of drinks on an empty stomach, would return to work. This quickly became a problem so they made it mandatory (or maybe strongly recommended) that restaurants serve a small amount of food with each drink. Though this may not still be necessary, I’m so glad they keep the tradition. On many nights, we would head out, have 4 or 5 drinks, get 4 or 5 small plates of food and that would be dinner! At 2 euros a drink in most places, this made for some very cheap and very enjoyable nights.

For some strange reason, however, the tapas bar that I met them at wasn’t giving us tapas with the drinks that night, so after 1 round, we were about to head to another bar. Before we left, a small piece of birthday cake was brought to a girl in the table next to us, and we joined in singing “Feliz Cumpleanos” (Happy Birthday) to her. When the song was finished, I off-handed commented, “Wow, that’s crazy. She’s got the same birthday as me.” It took a few seconds for anyone to realize what I said, but then I heard, “Wait, it’s your birthday?” Laughing, I told them that it was and I got a number of drinks bought for me the rest of the night. I think that I didn’t want to make a whole bunch of people I had just met feel obligated that they had to treat me special since it was my birthday, but by that time, I felt like I knew them well enough already to let it out. We bounced around to a few bars and got back to the hostel around 3 am - the first of many great nights in Granada.

The next day was Sunday, and in a religious, Spanish town, that meant that there weren’t very many things open. Because of this, Robbie, an American college student spending the summer in Barcelona, and I decided to go out on a hike. Robbie and I had met last night and already knew we got along well. I absolutely loved the map that Rambutan provided for us for the trail. Instead of an actual map, it was a series of pages in which the general shape of the trail and landmarks along the way were hand drawn on it. Throughout the hike, anytime that we started thinking that maybe we missed a turn or something, the next landmark on the map would come into view. It was a great style of orienteering that I think represented the unique flair of the Rambutan Hostel.

The region of Andalucia apparently produces about 15% of the world's olives. Incredible
Classic sugar maple? you know who you are :)

The main “goal” of the hike was an abandoned monastery a few miles out of town. Really the hike was just a hike, but the monastery represented the midway point and an interesting place to explore.This also was a place that did not seem to like me very much.

It looks inviting enough, right?

As a halfway point, I decided that the monastery was a good spot for lunch, so I took out the bread, cheese, meat, and tomato that I had brought along. Robbie wasn’t hungry and went off to explore. Everything went smoothly until I carelessly snapped the knife on my pinky while closing it back up. Though not deep or painful, it bled quite a bit, and without anything better to use, I had to grab a leaf off of a tree to staunch the bleeding. Cursing myself, I then set out to explore the monastery, just as Robbie was coming back. I set out and found a few cool looking bits of graffiti. Unsurprising to most people who know me, however, an abandoned monastery offers much more than a place to glance at graffiti, and very soon I was up on the walls climbing around. Scaling the walls allowed me to move around the monastery much easier, but after I had my fill, I was started to look for a good way down. Leaning out over an edge to plan out my descent, suddenly I stepped onto a weak part of the wall that crumbled beneath my foot, tipping me over the edge.

They say that falls like this happen in slow motion, but I beg to differ. After wildly clutching at air near the top, I dropped like a rock, falling the 10-12 feet in a split second and landing hard on my ass on a pile of ceramic roofing tiles. This was lucky as I believe the tiles did at least a little to cushion my fall. But a very little. I fell hard right on my tailbone, but as I sprung up from the ground, relief washed over me along with the pain in my ass. My back didn’t appear to have been thrown out of wacks from the fall, as has been known to happen over much less, and though it hurt, it didn’t feel like I had broken my tailbone. The possible breakage of my tailbone remained in doubt for a few days. After consulting a couple of my almost-doctor friends, I rejected the suggestion that I give myself an anal exam, and was instead satisfied that a minor broken tailbone and a badly bruised tailbone are treated the same way - painkillers and stay off of it as much as possible. After I had established that I luckily didn’t do any serious damage to my body, I realized that my phone had fallen out of my pocket during my fall, and I scrambled to find it. Luckily, I had it in the protective case, and I found it generally unharmed in the pile of broken tiles. No broken bones, no broken phones - disaster averted.

Graffiti on the monastery

Though I had avoided much worse consequences, my ass still hurt like hell and I spent a few more minutes bent over (NOT sitting down) regaining my composure. As I was bent over, I saw a cigarette packet on the ground. Not a smoker myself, most of my new friends at the hostel were, so I picked it up to see if I could offer any of them any free smokes. Instead, I found a peace offering from the monastery in the form of a fair amount of a familiar, natural painkiller. Laughing at the hilarity of this near disaster, I called it even with the monastery, rejoined Robbie, and got the hell away from that place.


The walk back was by no means pleasant, but it could have been a lot worse. I decided to count myself lucky - I do enough dumb semi-dangerous monkeying around and this was the first time (knock on wood) any misfortune had come from it. Considering the size of my fall, limping away from the scene with nothing more than a sore butt was pretty lucky, and I decided to try and exercise a little more caution in the future. I followed this strategy decently well until Dan joined me in Montenegro, but I’m getting ahead of myself. Robbie and I hiked the 3 or so miles back at a leisurely pace and then I retired to my room to lie down for a bit (on my stomach, NOT my back). This fall and subsequent discomfort was the 3rd and final reason I ended up staying in Granada. Truth be told, I probably didn’t need this 3rd reason, as I was loving the vibe in the city and the Rambutan, but that was the deciding blow.

My next 3 or 4 days in Granada were very relaxing. I took it easy from some of the more intense hiking / adventuring I had been planning in the Sierra Nevada mountains due to my rump and just breathed in the wonderful atmosphere of Granada’s old town. I took a general walking tour, given by a great guide, Nick, who also hung out at Rambutan quite often. Granada has a very interesting history that I already can’t remember well enough to include in here.

Assorted pictures from around Granada:

I also joined Nick on a tour of the caves above Granada. Now, “visiting the caves” is nowhere close to what you think it means. In this case, the caves are actually a community of squatters that have turned the numerous caves up in the hills of Granada into their own free housing. The tour was incredibly interesting because it is very different than the images that I first conjured up regarding people living in caves. Yes, the shelter over their heads are actual earth and rock, but some of the houses are renovated so much that they are barely distinguishable from regular houses. Some have electricity from solar panels, running water piped in from a juvenile facility up on the top of the hill, and even satellite TV. In these cases, the biggest difference between this and an ordinary house is an infinitely interesting ceiling. One of the caves is actually a hookah bar (complete with drinks and music) that is open “when the owner feels like it”. I tried to go to the hookah bar later in the week, but he had decided that he didn’t want to open it on that night. Some of the caves are nowhere near this elaborate or luxurious, but many of the owners seem to be moving in that direction. Nick introduced us to one man who lives in one of the nicer caves with his wife, and has been renovating the cave next to him for the past couple years as a hobby. Though he doesn’t own the land, he believes that he will be able to sell his renovated cave for 15-20,000 euros soon.

The guy in this cave was especially proud of this plant. He saw me taking a picture and came running out - "Es muy grande, no?" "Si, es MUY grande"
So now that I look at the pictures again, no they're not exactly like how ordinary houses look
But the cave houses do have a hell of a view

I also visited La Alhambra, the one thing that you HAVE to do in Granada. An ancient fortress built by the Moors, La Alhambra was the first great Muslim building that I had seen on my trip. Granada in general is filled with the contrasting styles of the alternating Islamic and Christian rulers, but La Alhambra was built entirely by the Moors, and reflects it. Instead of large pictures or statues of various religious figures, the beauty is in the intricate designs carved into the ceilings and high up on the walls. In classic Islamic design, the center of many of the buildings is a large courtyard, always with a pool in the middle. The grounds also contain many wonderful garden areas, ensuring beauty throughout.


My evenings in Granada were filled mostly with going out to the cheap and delicious tapas restaurants or hanging out on the hostel terrace with the amazing view of Granada and the Alhambra and a number of fantastic new friends. Besides Robbie, the rest of the folks that I met that first night were there thru the duration of my stay, and I really enjoyed having repeated contact with the same people, something that, besides my trip in the Alps, hadn’t happened very often throughout my travels.

Oskar was a sarcastic Icelander who was studying classical guitar at university and was spending a month in Andalucia (region of southern Spain), getting in touch with some of the songs that he loved playing. Many nights after tapas and drinks, Oskar would do us the pleasure of playing some of these songs, specifically “Granada” and “Memories of La Alhambra”. I fear by the end he may have gotten tired of the continued requests, but he hadn’t by the time that I left. The song Granada left an especially lasting impact on me. Hearing it the first time, I had no problem closing my eyes and envisioning myself wandering the quiet, winding streets. The slow, calming tune seemed to capture the spirit of the city. Then, after a couple more listenings to it and discussions with Oskar, I found many more complexities that fit so well with Granada. In one section, the chords struck have a distinct Middle Eastern, or more accurately, Islamic sound to it. That section is followed immediately by one with higher, more choral notes that cannot be confused for anything but Christian. This dichotomy is reflected in Granada’s history, that changed hands between Muslims and Christians several times in the history of the city. I wish I could figure out how to post videos to this blog...

Matt and Kabrina were a couple from NYC who were lucky enough to be able to spend a month or so every summer traveling. Matt was a teacher and Kabrina, owned her own business, so each summer they would pick an area and spend a month traveling around. This year they had decided to do something different and were spending the full month only in Granada, at the Rambutan for the entirety. They seemed exceptionally happy about this decision and when I had to leave Granada, I was very jealous of them. Dom was a funny Englishman who, after discovering Granada for the first time several years ago, tried to spend as much time as he could in Granada. He estimated that he had spent about 2 out of the last 5 years in Granada, getting away whenever he could. He actually wasn’t staying at the Rambutan, instead renting a flat nearby, but he had stayed there in previous visits and regarded it as a 2nd home and spent much of his time there, also entertaining with his guitar playing, though it was in a very different style than Oskar. The workers at the Rambutan were also frequent and welcome additions to our late night (or anytime) musings, and the week culminated with a BBQ party thrown for a neighbor and friend of the hostel. The staff of the hostel cooked up a 4 or 5 course meal that was delicious from beginning to end and the group of about a dozen of us spent the night sharing laughs, drinks, stories, and songs - Oskar with his wonderful and mesmerizing classical and Dom with his fun and familiar songs the group could karaoke to.

The next day I was to depart, and I left with a heavy heart once again. Luckily, my ass was feeling better so that I could find several sitting positions that were bearable, which was grand since I had a 10 hour train ride to Barcelona in my near future. Granada was totally different than Barcelona, and I was sad to leave in a very different way. Barcelona was beautiful, exciting, energetic, and a million other things. Granada was beautiful in a totally different way, much slower and more paced, and infinitely charming. Barcelona I know I will be back to, and I think the same is true for Granada, but I fear that no other time will be as good as this. Luckily, I know where to stay if I return, but I cannot hope to get as lucky with the company that joins me as I did this time. I’m sure that I’ll never have the pleasure of listening to the light sounds of “Granada” or “Memories of La Alhambra” while staring over the wonderful city.

Adios Granada - on to Barcelona for about 10 hours, and then to Budapest!

Posted by danza 10:55 Archived in Spain Tagged hiking caves music injuries good_hostel good_friends rambutan Comments (0)


The soul and spirit of Catalonia and possibly my favorite city in Europe

sunny 80 °F


Driving into Barcelona, I realized that I had romanticized the city as others might have Rome or Paris. Spain had always held some strange allure to me, whether it was the language, the women, or my heritage - I'm not sure. And Barcelona was always the first and last city in Spain that was talked about, especially by my numerous friends who studied abroad or spent more than a week in the city. As we drove into Barcelona, I was initially disappointed because it looked like other cities and didn't gleam in some special way and I realized I had to clear my expectations and just enjoy myself.

Once I got passed this initial foolishness and started really looking around, I took an immediate liking to the city. The roads and especially intersections are especially spacious, especially because I had spent the last couple days driving thru tiny narrow streets of nameless cities along the Mediterranean in France and Spain. The intersections are especially big because they actually chop off each of the corners to put parking spots for cars. And there was green everywhere. Lining every street. That has always been a big plus for me.

This photo shows an interesting apartment building but also shows the interesting intersection + parking that you see all over the place.

Though not the capital of Spain, Barcelona makes sure that everyone knows it is the capital of Catalonia serves as a poster child for Catalonian culture. The Spanish / Catalonian dicotomy is displayed in Barcelona’s uniqueness at every corner. All signs are displayed in both Spanish and Catalonian, and though all the locals there respond to and speak Spanish, they brighten up just a little when you greet them with “Bon dia” instead of “Buenos dias”.

After parting with Emilie and Noemie, my French companions, I decided to switch hostels. The previous night I had been in a big franchised hostel - Generator Hostel - that has locations all over Europe. While that guarantees good facilities, cleanliness and security, I have learned in my travels that I value those aspects of a hostel infinitely less than the good atmosphere and friendly staff that you typically find at a small hostel. Finding a cheap one right off Las Ramblas (the main touristy drag), I headed there. This hostel turned out to be totally horrible in all of the categories that I don’t care much about (over cramped rooms, subpar showers, good security), but better in the categories I do care about - friendly staff and a great, friendly, close knit atmosphere among the travelers. In the bigger hostels, you can feel at times like a nameless traveler in a very shiek, but carbon-copied big building. In the smaller hostels, you say hi to everyone in the hallway and easily strike up conversation with anyone. When you have 8 beds cramped into a space that should hold 4 beds, you become close with your bunk mates very quickly. For a solo traveler, it is a very easy choice.

After establishing my base for the next 4 days, I didn’t know where to start. There is so much to see and do in Barcelona, but I could luckily put off that decision making, because I had found online that one of the 2 club Ultimate teams in Barcelona had pickup beach ultimate today! After really not playing ANY of the sport that I play 5+ times a week typically in the summer, I was anxious to get out and ball. I rented a bike and had a magnificent 30 minute ride down to Playa de Bogatell. With all the hot women, beautiful beaches, and sand volleyball courts I saw as I rode, I knew that I would be returning to the beach later in the week.

My eyes lit up as soon as I saw Frisbees flying thru the air, and I rushed my bike over to the group. I could see right away from the throws that there was a wide range of talent there - legit club level to beginners. I was always under the impression that Ultimate was still gaining steam and usually played at a lower level in Europe, and this seemed to be about half true as the level was high, but most of the best people on the field (beach) turned out to be American ex-pats or students. Anxious to get right into the mix and hoping to make a good impression, I got a layout D on my first point, and went from there.


Different day at the beach

The ultimate was pretty good and I quickly found out that being in hiking/walking shape is NOT the same as being in Ultimate shape (especially in sand), and my legs were burning before long. We played for until it got dark, and then a few of us played some 500 and I got the opportunity to practice my favorite skill in Ultimate, skying players much taller than me and showed an American kid named Willis a thing or two (and he returned the favor). That kid is 6’3”, just entering college, and is going to tear shit up. Maybe the best part of beach ultimate is when it’s all over, we can just run into the ocean and cool off. After rinsing off, I got a few beers with Willis and Aaron, an American with crazy dreds who is teaching in Guatemala and a big fan of spear fishing! Talking to the both of them just made me want to someday live and work abroad even more. The long and detour-filled walk back with Willis gave me a good opportunity to get some great night photos of downtown Barcelona.

Las Ramblas - the main tourist drag
Gothic Church


A HUGE part of what makes Barcelona beautiful, unique, and one of my favorites is the architecture that is such a colorful and interesting departure from the beautiful, but repetitive architecture you see thru much of Europe. The styles vary for sure between many other cities, but nowhere is the departure from the norm as drastic or entertaining as it is in Barcelona.

Gaudi's lightposts

The most famous (and in my opinion the most genius) of these Catalonian architects was Antoni Gaudi. If anyone out there knows a good quality biography or resource to learn more about Gaudi, please let me know, as visiting Barcelona has sparked a casual obsession in me regarding his influences and works. I was expecting to love his style, which was deeply inspired by natural and natural shapes (curves over straight lines and edges), but I didn’t realize how deep his genius went. For anyone out there who has read The Fountainhead, I’ve never understood the feelings of passion and purity that the author uses to describe architecture as much as when I’m looking closely thru a Gaudi structure. Symbolism plays a major role in his designs, especially in his famous church, but ALWAYS form and function takes priority in guiding his designs. The engineer in my wondered how much harder and more expensive it was to make many of his curved, non-uniform building pieces of stone, but art of this brilliance and beauty must come at a price.

La Sagrada Familia
I had known that I could not leave Barcelona without seeing Gaudi’s most famous work, the still-in-progress church known as La Sagrada Familia. The price tag to get in was about 20 euros, and while I often balk at the prices to get inside some of Europe’s most famous cathedrals, I knew that for this, I would not be satisfied with only viewing the outside. Still without the tallest towers, the church already cuts an impressive figure from the outside. It covers a surprisingly small amount of area on the ground for how high the towers will eventually rise, and this is owed to Gaudi’s unique support structures and design.

The church currently has 2 main facades or entrances that are mostly completed: Nativity and Passion. The provided audioguide can give many interesting details regarding the symbolism in each of them, but any laymen can immediately see the stark contrasts struck by the two.

Nativity, displaying symbols of the birth and early life of Christ, is filled with beautiful and detailed images showing a dozen or so different scenes from the Bible. The entire facade emits life and beauty, including the Tree of Life situated high above the center door.
The Tree of Life is in the center
Notice all of the adornment and detail

Passion, on the other hand, immediately batters you with its stark emptiness and simplicity. Devoid of the artistic flourishes of the other facade, this one depicts the end of Christ’s life - his trial, crucifixion, and rebirth. Though not evil or wicked, it definitely does not have the warm and optimism so evident in the other facade.

By contrast, notice how stark and bare the Passion side is

While the outside is interesting and impressive, if you stop there you are missing the best part of Gaudi’s masterpiece and quite possibly one of the most beautiful interiors of any building in the world. Though the expression has become common place, the Grand Canyon is the only other time that I can remember seeing something that literally took my breath away. Even with the loud, consistent sounds of construction disturbing the otherwise peaceful and almost other-worldly environment, time still seems to slow down the moment you alk in. I physically began moving slower, thinking slower, breathing shallower, afraid that if I went too fast, I might break this magical and fragile spell that had fallen over me. This structure will truly be one of the great man-made wonders of the world when construction is completed and the invasive sounds from the work are banished from inside of these walls. After recovering my mind and senses, this was when the language from the Fountainhead that I previously referred to first spontaneously sprouted up in my mind.


The tree-like supports, so evoking of nature, are one of the most unique aspects of this building and allow it to rise higher and cleaner into the sky than you would normally see. His sense of symbolism continues here on the inside, with each of the 4 main support “trunks” containing an image symbolizing the 4 most prominent disciples - Matthew, Mark, John, and Luke - which are who Christ first built his religion upon.

Beyond the shape of the support structures, the other thing that is so striking is the incredible use of light within the building. Always a fan of the natural, the church’s main areas are entirely lit by natual light during the day, but it is the USE of this light that is so intriguing. Just as I was appreciating this character, the audioguide chimed in with perfect timing:

“There is a misunderstanding that the abundance of light is a positive element; that is not so. The light should be just right. Too much too little light both leave things blind, and the blind cannot see.”
- Antoni Gaudi

Each of the large stained glass windows uses different colors, and together they tell a story as you walk around them. The audioguide describes the story and symbolism, but I can’t remember it very well at this point. Though half of the windows use “cool” colors, all of the light coming in thru these windows has a warm characteristic, encouraging you to bask in their color and imagery.


The construction sounds from outside are not welcome, but despite that I felt an incredible calm while inside La Sagrada Familia. As a non-religious person, I’m not usually particularly moved by the inside of churches, but I spent a lot of time sitting down and trying to digest the feelings this structure evoked in me. The religious symbolism is everywhere, but I think you take what you want from any work of art. For me, I was blown away by the astounding power of man and the feeling that higher levels of beauty and form are attainable when a revolutionary mind is given the proper resources.

After soaking in the glow inside the church, I did go up one of the bell towers and then went into the museum underneath the church. The views from the bell tower were impressive, though I was still reeling from the inside of the church, I hardly noticed.


Underneath the church was interesting, as it described the building of the church and how Gaudi executed some of his genius. Like any true revolutionary in his chosen field, Gaudi thought differently and pioneered principles that had never been widely used before. One of the most interesting of these techniques is a peculiar looking “funicular model”. Using strings and bags weighted proportional to the loads the structures would support, Gaudi used gravity and natural principles to guide his deisgns of the overall shape of a dome or structure. These models helped Gaudi to avoid complicated and tedious calculations and design structures more organically.

The view in the mirror overhead shows how this leads direcly into the focal design. Today, similar models are constructed using complex computer models, but no other architect that I’m aware of used this to the extent that Gaudi did in his day.

Palau Guell
Gaudi designed these intricate and elaborate doors himself, and they do an effective job of allowing light in, but making it difficult for anyone to see in

Palau Guell (Palace Guell for those who don’t “Hablo espanol”) was one of Gaudi’s earliest commissions by a wealthy patron, Guell, who would become a lifelong admirer and friend of Gaudi. As an early work of Gaudi, this home is less unique and gaudy and more similar in structure than many of his later commissions. Side note: the English word “gaudy” actually stems from descriptions of Gaudi’s architecture. But as becomes obvious while touring Palace Guell, Gaudi’s style was everything but gaudy, as almost every detail was well thought thru and serves a specific function. This private residence is less distinct and unique that many of his later works, but this urban mansion nevertheless displays Gaudi’s brilliance. It may even be BECAUSE its more traditional structure that it displays his genius so well because the subtleties and unique details designed by Gaudi stand out even more so.

Many of the ceilings are very elaborate
Case and point
Again these windows allow light in, but make it difficult for anyone to see in thru them

As the audioguide describes, Gaudi thought of so many different factors when designing a room or building, from aesthetics to acoustics, multi-use to even ventilation, Gaudi was a master at uniting all of these desires and factors into one comprehensive design. Functionality, above all. The main receiving hall was the best example of this. A room that served as both a concert hall and a chapel, depending on the occasion. As always beautiful to the eye, the room had a small area that served as the altar during religious ceremonies, and could be closed and hidden from view during other times. The acoustics of the room were designed with Guell’s favorite musical instruments in mind, and a large custom organ was also installed.

A view skyward from inside Guell's main concert room

Gaudi displayed some of his uniqueness that he became so famous for on the roof, where he decorated each of the many chimneys with a different, colorful top.

Seafood and Sangria - mmmmmmmmmmm :)
Certainly one of the things that I was excited about with visiting Spain was the seafood that they’re so well known for. Especially with the cities right on the coast, the seafood is fresh, varied, and used in all sorts of dishes. My favorite of these dishes in Paella. Paella is a delicious dish that is primarily rice, with all sorts of vegetables and meats added to it. There is a lot of freedom regarding what else is added to it, but my favorite is, of course, boatloads of seafood. Usually this includes a ton of shellfish - mussels, clams, shrimp, etc. I had already had paella for a meal in Barcelona, but then I saw an ad for an interactive dining/cooking experience in which a chef talked you thru the making of paella, which you obviously got to eat afterwards, and I couldn’t resist. For 20 euros, I got a lot more than I had originally bargained for.

The experience started out at the “Travelers Bar”, where I started to get to know some of the others that would be joining me for dinner that night. I met people from all over, including a beautiful girl named Ayissa who happened to live in San Francisco, where I’ll be moving to! After chatting about the Bay Area a bit, the chef had arrived and we were ready to head out. Unexpectedly, we headed first not to a restaurant or bar, but to the famous Boqueria - the liveliest and most colorful food market in Barcelona (or the world???). As Abayello, our wonderful chef, explained, it was important to see where the ingredients come from and how to get good quality ingredients. Paella itself, he says, is a very simple dish and the wonderful flavors are owed mostly to high quality ingredients. His bosses told him to skip the market, and get people in and out quicker with this tour, but he felt that it was important enough to see paella from market to plate and took us anyway. Abayello walked us slowly thru the market, taking time to describe what he was looking for when selecting the high quality seafood and meat needed for paella.


After the market, the group (about 20 in all) made our way to the restaurant and into a back room where we could see Abayello cook our dinner in the largest paella dish I’d ever seen. Prior to getting the food started, he first showed us how to make proper sangria. I had always been under the impression that sangria was basically a cheap and sweet variation on wine, but I learned that it can be so much more. Starting with a base of about ⅓ wine (usually red, but it doesn’t have to be), you add sugar, white rum, and brandy to bring it to almost full. Then you add your chosen fruits and top it off with a little Sprite or something similar. The result is magnificent, and after Abayello made the first pitcher, we were free to make our own throughout the night. We took turns making it, and the sangria flowed freely all night long :)


When we got down to the true business of paella, I was amazed how simple it was. You should know the proper order to add the meats and veggies so that everything gets cooked the proper amount, but it is mostly adding in the ingredients to the large paella cooking dish, and letting it cook. Seafood and meat, then the veggies, and finally the rice which soaks up the delicious juices. According to Abayello, tradionally men are usually the ones that cook large dishes of paella for large parties and events, giving the women a break from preparing meals every night.


The result was delicious and our entire table got our fill. Afterwards we all headed back to our various hostels, but I met up later that night (after a little digesting) with a group of them for some late night dancing to burn off some of those calories. Overall, it was one of the best experiences I had on my travels and would encourage others to look for those sorts of unique opportunities, even if they may cost a bit.

This journal entry does not detail out everything that I saw and experienced in Barcelona, but that would take far too long. I loved my time there and was upset to leave, but there was so much more to see. I did consider for a brief time hitting the breaks and spending my whole 2 weeks in Spain just in Barcelona, but knew I had to see more of the country, especially a country as varied in culture (and language) as Spain. I headed out on a train to Valencia, another town right on the sea known for its beach and as the birthplace of paella (mmmmmmm). I left with a heavy heart, but knew that I would be back to Barcelona again, hopefully for much longer a period.

Posted by danza 08:26 Archived in Spain Tagged architecture barcelona church gaudi seafood ultimate Comments (0)

Sneaky Camping (Spain)

Short but sweet

sunny 75 °F

Our view in the morning

After our epic traffic jam the previous day, we woke up to a nice French breakfast (lots of bread and jam), a view of the sea, and a drive ahead of us to the country I was most excited about - Spain. Making sure to grab bread, cheese, and wine before we leave France, I cross the border with my 2 beautiful French companions and soon find myself amidst picturesque small towns lining the coast of NE Spain. We stop a few times during our drive down to admire different views, stop at a vineyard, and have an ideal picnic lunch on a resort-like beach. We stop on the road a few times, in roadside wineries, fruit markets, and scenic lookouts. Our progress down to Cadaques is slow, leisurely, and extremely pleasurable.

Always be climbing :) (look on the right side of the photo)
Beach where we grabbed lunch

The coast of Spain is mountainous, with a few vineyards, and many more groves of olive trees. This made for a relaxing and beautiful drive down the coast, and we made it into Cadaques. Cadaques is known as Salvador Dali’s birthplace, and just a beautiful Spanish seaside town. Without much of a schedule, we wandered around for a few hours, got some food, and then set off in search of our campsite.

The bay in Cadaques
What are these vine/flowers called? They were all over Cadaques and gave the stark white town such great color
A view over the rooftops of Cadaques

When Emilie had originally invited me to come along on this adventure, she had told me that we would be “sneaky camping”. I wasn’t completely sure what that would entail, but I knew it would be an adventure and was pretty sure I would enjoy it. It turns out, that the plan was to drive along the coast, and pick out a public beach where camping was legal, or at least ambiguous. This ended up being tougher than we had anticipated, and we were starting to think we would need to look for a legitimate camping site when we stumbled onto a secluded beach an hour south of Cadaques and decided we had reached our destination.

Sneaky camping, it turns out, is very similar to regular camping, so I led us in the oft-practiced routine of making camp - setting up our tent and getting the stove going for dinner. Dinner was a bit of a challenge. With all of the wind on the beach, it was tough to get the stove lit and going. Dinner was very cheap and basic, but it did the job and 2 bottles of wine always make it go down easier. This was my first time camping right on the beach and there’s a reason that people use “Ocean Sounds” as relaxation music, and the waves combined with the views and the company made for a spectacular night :)

The view we went to sleep with :)
Breakfast in the morning

As secluded as the beach was, we were awoken by the police… what’s the tent equivalent of knocking on our door… at about 7 am. They weren’t thrilled with us, but also weren’t that upset. We packed up the tent, but then stayed to cook some breakfast before heading out. Our journey continued down the coast from one beautiful small town to the next, much the same as the day before and we ended up in Barcelona - a city I had been disturbingly excited about for a long time. We had a good, but quiet night out in Barcelona. The next morning I had to say goodbye to my beautiful French friends as they headed back to France, but before they took off, we were able to go and see Guell Park, a wonderfully unique park designed by Antoni Gaudi. If you don’t know much about Gaudi, look him up OR make sure to read my next blog entry, haha. This park was originally conceived as a ritzy playground for rich people to build fancy homes, but that idea never took off. It is now a public park where the majority of it is free to enter, but the most famous areas, including the famous animal mosaics that have become a symbol of Barcelona, cost money. We wandered around the free area for a while until Emilie and Noemie had to get going. It was sad to see them go, but I was so excited to explore Barcelona.

Pics from Park Guello:
This photo doesn't show much except out the Park is up on a hill and offers some great views of Barcelona
Such unique structures with a classic touch of Gaudi
This looks a little like the candy house from Hansel and Grettel
This is inside the paying area, so I didn't get up close, but it looks really lovely

See you next time!

Posted by danza 11:53 Archived in Spain Tagged beach camping seaside french_girls small_towns Comments (0)

France's Traffic Jam from Hell

sunny 70 °F

This next entry is written in a slightly different style - more stream-of-consciousness thoughts jotted down on my phone as our car crawled thru France in the midst of the worst traffic jam I’ve ever been in. To set the scene, this day was to be my first experience with the organized ride share website called BlaBlaCar.com. Started in France, it is an ingenious and very European website that is essentially CouchSurfing, but for car rides. People post routes that they will be driving, when they will leave, and post how much money they’d like for gas from point A to point B (or C or D) and you can reserve a seat. The idea just makes too much sense to me for it not to be a good thing - people are out there wanting to go from A to B, and there are others driving these routes with extra seats and a desire to save money (and maybe the environment). On this day, I started out by grabbing a ride share from Lyon to Grenoble in France (only about an hour drive), where I met up with Emilie, my beautiful French engineer CS host in Paris, and her friend Noemie, along with 2 other ride share guests. Emilie, Noemie and I were driving down to the northeastern coast of Spain and dropping off our 2 guests, Jean Claude and Roxy, on the French coast near the border. The drive was supposed to take about 6 hours, including dropping off our passengers.

Here I sit in a car in the middle of France, listening to the pleasant french dialogue rolling around the car like a ball being passed around circle of children, I pleasantly gaze out the window and watch the countryside whip by. Occasionally Jean Claude's phone would ring with "moves like jagger"and I wondered why someone would become attached to a song in a language they didn't speak. Then I remembered Gangnum Style.

We are about 3 hours into the drive and have been stuck in an awful traffic jam for 30 minutes. Though our progress has slowed to a crawl, the feeling is not too miserable. On a bus, everyone would be miserable and complaining, but in this shared car we all knew we were in it together and determined to make to best of it.

Reminiscent of the line to get into Bonnaroo, we were soon out of the car walking alongside of it, and easily outpacing traffice. Remembering the 8 hour line we waited in to get in at Bonnaroo, I really would have liked a beer as we walked and sat on the side of the highway in the bright sunshine.



As the hours stretch on (coming up on 4 hours since we hit traffic), our patience thins and what was once a fun an interesting adventure with no friends has slowly turned into a painful, tedious game. 30 minutes ago, all of the highway traffic was completely diverted off onto an exit leading to small, regional roads. The landscape has changed from monotonous highway to small streets and occasional towns. The towns provided welcome distraction, but our pace remains at a crawl. Small, poor towns in Europe seem to hold onto some charm from the old world. The buildings appear the same as they were a few hundred years ago... because they probably are. Old buildings like this exist throughout Europe, but outside of the larger cities, they have received less upkeep and LOOK older. It is very easy to imagine the scenes virtually unchanged from the 1600s… though now the houses have satellite dishes atop them.

After a brief nap I saw the sun setting in the distance and with a heavy heart I accepted that there would be no picturesque beach sunset tonight for me.

As darkness falls, Emilie goes to the back during one of our frequent standstills and retrieves a bottle of wine she had brought. There is applause when she returns with an enthusiasm impressive for people who had been in a car together for 9 hours at this point. Turning up the radio, we have a small dance party while passing around the wine and for a few songs we forget that we are still stuck in traffic instead of relaxing at a beach.


15 minutes after we finished the wine and the dance party, we made it to another highway and began driving in earnest for the first time in at least 6 hours. Things were looking up and we might even make it to the beach before it was light out in the morning.

Around 1130 we dropped off Roxy, the first of our ride sharers. Her father was waiting with a car at a convenient roundabout just off the highway, making the dropoff extremely easy for us. I still marvel at how nice, efficient, and friendly this ride share thing is.

The original plan had been camping on the beach in Spain tonight, but by the time we dropped off Jean Claude after driving more than 11 hours we were still more than an hour and a half from our original destination. Thankfully, instead of having to push on into the early morning, Jean Claude invites us into the home of him, his wife, and his 3 girls. We have a very comfortable night’s sleep in his extra rooms in his beautiful home with a view of the Mediterranean. Our epic struggle is over and hopefully tomorrow gives us a smooth drive to beaches and sun.

View from Jean Claude's. You can see the moon reflecting in the Mediterranean

Posted by danza 13:38 Archived in France Tagged traffic french ride_share french_girls Comments (0)

Tour du Mont Blanc (Part 2)

Much love to my fellow tour groupies!

all seasons in one day

Fun story I left out of my last post - from Day 1:
The biggest disappointment the whole trip for me was unlucky timing - after making it out of group play, USA had made it to the next round in the World Cup, which I had been following closely. After being in civilization for the first 3 nights of this round, we started our tour the day the US was to play Belgium, and it was laughable to think that our remote mountain refuge would have TV or Internet. I honestly considered and discussed with Gary hiking the almost 2 hours to the nearest town to watch it (without my pack? no problem!), but I wasn’t too sure about finding my way back in the dark after the game. I then spent the next 40 hours asking most of the people we ran into if they knew what happened in the game. It wasn’t until a day and a half later that some Belgiums smugly told me how the US played honorably, but couldn’t keep up with the Belgiums :(

And our journey thru the Alps continues:

Day 4 - Rest day (Courmayeur, Italy)
We all took advantage of our rest day in different ways. Some set out early to explore the very quaint and attractive town of Courmayour while others headed out for Spa Day. The weather turned out to be overcast, which gave Chris and I an easy excuse out of our previous ambitious plans (5 hour hike or mountain biking) and most of the morning/afternoon found Ellie, Vicky, Chris and I just lounging about and fulfilling our long overdue WiFi addiction. This was also my introduction to a proper siesta schedule, which I would come to know better in Spain, and Gary warned us that almost nothing would be open in the town between 11 and 3. At 3 the 4 of us headed out and quite enjoyed the small Italian town, making sure to take advantage of the Italian specialities of cheap cappuccinos, delicious gelato, and a festival of Celtic music (huh?).


Our rest day also happened to be July 4th and as the only American on the trip, I felt that I had to represent! The Canadian threesome of Jen, Kim, and Anneke had rocked out sparkly Canada headgear earlier in the trip for Canada, but as I was not quite as prepared, I had to get a little creative.
As soon as I saw the “American Bar”, it was quite obvious I couldn’t let the 4th pass without getting a shot there, although I did find it funny that no one in the shop knew what I was talking about when I wished them a Happy Independence Day.

My crowning achievement for the day was, after a dedicated search effort, somehow finding the materials needed to make S’mores in the small Italian grocery stores (or close enough to the proper ingredients). After we returned from dinner, it was lightly raining outside, but not to be deterred, we brought the fire pit under an umbrella, got the fire going, and I made sure that the Aussies got their first taste of true American happiness. It was met with overwhelming success. What out Australia - a couple of S’more ambassadors are coming back your way.

Day 5 - Back on the trail
Gary had told us that his two favorite days of the trail were getting to Courmayeur and leaving it, so since our last hiking day had provided such beautiful views, I had high hopes for this day. The sky wasn’t quite as clear as it had been which, while not the best for pictures, does make the hiking a bit cooler and easier. After getting breakfast in the hotel and our bag lunch from a bakery, we set out and started climbing. Since Courmayeur is in a valley, you’ll be going up pretty much any way you try to get out. That worked fine for me as I prefer the uphills to the downhills. Interesting note - almost everyone who has done real hiking figures out pretty quickly that the uphills are better than the downhills. While uphills might be more tiring, the downhills can be hell on your knees and feet. It didn’t take long for everyone to figure this out.


We climbed a couple hours up to a very picturesque refuge overlooking the Courmayeur valley and took a break for elevensies. It was there that I met 3 truly crazy people. They jogged into the refuge just behind us and with all their running swag, I knew right away they were the real deal. I started chatting with them and learned that they were training for an Ultra-marathon up in the Alps, called the North Face Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc. For their training, they were covering about 75 km that day. This number seemed huge until I learned about the race they were training for - 168 km (~104 miles) of rugged terrain with 9600 m of positive ascent over the same mountains that we were laboring over. The race starts on a Friday evening and they were hoping to finish it in 36-40 hours, meaning that they’d be running through 2 nights without sleep. Whenever I start to get a little cocky about my exploits, I always run into some truly crazy people who put me back in my place.

After elevensies the trail again diverges. While most of the people that we talked with at the hostel that night took the easier, lower road, I am really glad that our tour tried to challenge us and didn’t simply bring us thru the easiest and quickest route around Mont Blanc. We took the high road, and the climb continued thru lunch. While we were waiting for people to catch up, we had a little fun with our pictures:

This scenery never gets old
And the panoramas can't be beat
I can't remember who had the idea, but I was so happy everyone was down for it
Successful pyramid!

After the pyramid, the day culminated in the highest point that we would reach on the Tour: 2680 m. Another reason why this route is so popular is because you don’t have to start taking meds for the altitude until you reach about 2800-3000 m, so we were about as close as you’re going to get before then. This summit, in my opinion, provided the single greatest views of any one spot on the trip. We spent a good 40 minutes up on the summit, enjoying the views and waiting as everyone took advantage by snapping their new FaceBook profile pictures. These are a few of my favorites:

Courmayeur is the town you can see at the bottom of the valley
"I'm on top of the world" pose
This is probably one of my favorite pictures I've ever taken or been in. It is really tough to beat

From there, we gradually descended for the rest of the day until we reached the Bonatti Refuge, which we all agreed was our best lodging of the trip (excluding our resort in Courmayeur). It had VERY tight living quarters, and you only got 21 L of hot water per shower (honestly not much at all), but it undoubtedly had the best food and the best views. And when you’re hiking in the Alps, that’s what it is really about. The refuge was named after Walter Bonatti - a legendary explorer who I had never heard about before this trip. He pioneered many of the routes and was the first up many of the summits in the Alps, and that was just his warmup. The refuge was filled with pictures either taken of Bonatti or by Bonatti from all over the world. Wrestling crocodiles in the Amazon, going up sheer rock faces, the guy did it all.

Course 2 out of 3 at Bonatti
The scene from the picnic area outside the refuge
Same mountains in the wonderful morning glow

Day 6
At a refuge with my last Italian cappuccino
The group relaxing during our elevensies

This was one of our shorter days of hiking, finishing up at our next refuge just before 3 pm. We crossed the Italy - Switzerland border and, true to form, continued to come up with some creative poses. We had started running low on ideas by then, but I came up with my favorite of the trip.

If you don’t know what “Planking” is, just google it :)

Gary continued to challenge us to see how many people we would get on the border marker at once.

Silly Dual Camera :)

This ingenious flower pot was at the refuge where we took our last break of the day. I swear these things would sell like hotcakes in the US. After we got a bit of food, a storm started to roll in and rain was threatening. As everyone else got their rain gear on, I just decided to skip the gear and try to outrace the rain. I started double timing it down the road only to have Chris catch up to me within a few minutes, literally running down in his rain gear. We powered thru and beat the rain, earning the first showers at the refuge as well.

That night we stayed in a small Swiss town, much closer to civilization than the refuges up in the mountains. The combination of getting in early and having multiple bars to choose from turned this into our first real drinking night. As much as we tried to get more from our group in on our silly American drinking games, it was just the 4 young’uns ordering beers and getting silly. It does continue to amaze me how far a little drinking can do for bonding with new (or old friends) as we learned much about each other. The rule that all the North Americans had to talk like Australians and vice-versa more or less ruined us as any conversation devolved quickly into laughter.

Oye mate, throw another couple snags on the barbie, right? (snags are sausages)
Sorry for the picture choice, Ellie :) haha

Day 7 - more racing of rainstorms
Our last full day of hiking :( As I said before, by now we had the routine down. Up at 7, breakfast, out by 8, 8-10 solid hours of hiking with breaks in between, then relax over a delicious 3 course meal and a beer. Rinse and repeat. It was a simple existence, but I think we all grew to love it. After day 1, many people were exhilarated, but also dead tired and scared about how they would handle the next week. By Day 7, we were all collectively sad about the prospect of departing from the trail and the group that we had spent nearly every hour of the day with. The thought of departing on my own to continue my romp thru the hustle and bustle of Europe was a little sad after this week in the mountains.

Day 7 also brought us our 2nd most intense day of climbing, altitude-wise, with all of it coming before lunch. With the strenuous cardio effort required, uphill climbs exaggerated our varied levels of fitness and hiking endurance, and we tended to spread out a bit more. Because of this, these were also the times that I broke out the headphones and the music helped me power thru. Rocking out to the mashups of White Panda, I tore into the climb, though always trailing Chris, the young Australian who had about 6 inches on me. Just as I emerged from the woods at the top of the climb, I look up to see Chris perched on an overhanging tree stump, like some prophetic character out of Lord of the Rings, just lounging about waiting for that traveler who needed their sage guidance.

I can't remember the character's name from the Hobbit, but that's who he reminded me of

With the sun shining and a great view, Chris and I hung out there for a little while, until Ellie and Vicky caught up to us. From there, it was a quick traverse over to a refuge for lunch. As we sat there enjoying our food and views with each other and fellow hikers, a dark cloud snuck up on us from behind the mountain. Seeing this, Chris, Jordan, and I packed up our gear just as the first raindrops began to fall on us. Hopeful to outrace the storm, we set a quick pace, climbing a little more before we began the long descent down to our final refuge.

I’m not sure if I talked about this before, but any hiker knows that downhills are usually everyone’s least favorite part. While it’s not very tough aerobically, it can be rough on the knees and uses a surprising amount of leg muscles to prevent you, and your hefty pack, from careening down the hill as gravity wants you to. Throughout the week, I tried out different strategies to make downhills easier and specifically to protect my troublesome knees, and I usually found that going faster is better - letting gravity do the work instead of trying to fight it.

I tell you all this to explain why the Day 7 descent was maybe my favorite stretch of actual hiking. Not the best views, not the best weather, but the hiking was fantastic. Initially our speed was to try and outrun the rain, but very soon I no longer cared about the rain coming down around me, and was going fast simply to go fast. I led our threesome and we flew down that hill, finishing a 2.5 hour stretch (according to Gary) in just under an hour and a half. The trail was relatively crowded, meaning we passed maybe a dozen groups on the way down, and flying past these other groups gave me an indescribable childish joy. I did feel bad when I frightened a woman early on who turned to see who was behind her just as I flew by to her right. After that I tried to announce our group with plenty of time to spare, so we didn’t illicit any more frightened screams, haha.

We all greatly enjoyed our descent and did manage to escape the worst of the storm, so our spirits were high when we reached our refuge. Chris tried to convince me to go back up the trail to give the rest of our group encouragement and maybe do some pack muling, but with showers, internet, and beer at the refuge and rain outside, I was having none of that. That night we had a so-so dinner and stayed up with a couple of cute Norwegian girls doing the TMB on their own. Talking with them only solidified my desire to come back in a few years with some friends and do the trail again, though on our own.

Day 8 - Back to Chamonix
We all knew that our last day would be a relatively brief one, finishing up with a bus back to Chamonix after 5 hours of hiking or so, but before we left, Gary let us know that it would be anything but an easy stroll. Steep climbs and descents, no problem - we were used to that. Today we were also supposed to get dangerously close to the snow line. No matter the season, if you get up high enough, it can be snowing and up until now, though we had seen snow on the ground, we were never close enough to the snow line to actually get any solid precipitation. According to Gary, this day would likely be different. The col and the couple kms on either side was also above the tree line, so we wouldn’t have any cover if the weather starts acting up.

Bryan’s internal dialogue: Gary says snow, but Gary seems to be a pessimist regarding the weather, always predicting worse weather than we actually get. Plus, it’s a steep climb up to the col, which always gets you real hot, so I’m sure I’ll be fine in shorts. I’ll heed his advice slightly and actually put on 2 shirts, 1 of them long sleeved.

Yes, I'm wearing shorts in this picture

This plan worked great all the way thru the woods, and I reached the tree line where Gary advised us to put another layer on. Feeling warm and seeing continued climbing ahead, I hesitated, tucked my jacket behind me with easy access, and pushed on. With about a km to the refuge at the col, the snow hit me. And when I say hit me, I mean it. Not only was it snowing up there, but the winds were whipping up to 20 mph (total guess). I found out in the refuge at the top that Vicky had literally been blown over by the wind, to give you some idea. I had weather proof pants, gloves, and a hat in my bag, but the thought of stopping and unpacking it in this wind was unbearable, so I just kept pushing. It was a good 15 minutes before I spotted the refuge and it couldn’t have been more welcome. Cold as we were, Jordan and I approached it cautiously as Gary had warned us about this refuge, tellign us to not eat anything cooked there, don’t plan on using a clean bathroom, and above all, beware of the “Witch of the Col”, the nickname he gave to the woman who ran the refuge. Treating her with caution reminiscent of the Soup Nazi, we made sure to not bring our packs inside and treaded lightly.

The refuge was clutch for me, as I was able to put on my pants, gloves, and hat, and got a great cup of hot chocolate. I don’t think the hot chocolate was actually anything special, but in that snowstorm, it was magical.

The climb down was uneventful. Jordan and I set off together while others were still warming themselves in the refuge and still others hadn’t yet reached it. Donning the proper warm gear, it was actually quite comfortable and after 20-30 minutes, we were out of the snow, and after another 45 minutes, we were down at the bus stop. The bus we would be taking back to Chamonix came thru once and hour, and looking at the schedule we saw that the next one would come in about 30 minutes. What were we to do in that time? Like true hikers, we just set off down the road and walked until the bus caught up with us. When it did, we were surprised to find almost all of our party on the bus as well. Strangely, Kim and Gary, not the ones we would expect to be last, were the only ones not there and we found out that with people coming and going from the refuge, and others who didn’t stop but just pushed thru the snowstorm, everyone else left in one big group while Kim was in the bathroom. When they got to the bus station, they realized that Kim must have been left behind and Gary, like a good tour guide, stayed behind to wait for her. She quickly got there and they were on the next bus back, but they missed out on the celebratory alcohol that Jen and Anneke, who had put it in an (unused) sock for safe keeping, passed around. While we were all sad that the tour was over, many expressed proud feelings of completing it and we all were looking forward to some fresh changes of clothes.


On the trail, though there was always beer and wine available, our daily schedule made it tough for us to get drunk and rowdy at all, so for our last night together, I know that that was the intention of many of us. After a good dinner in Chamonix, we asked around for the liveliest bar and headed to Elevation 1904 for some drinks and to watch the Germany - Brazil semifinal. We even convinced Gary to come out for a drink (I think he stayed for 3). A couple of us were closely following the World Cup and I for one was very excited to see this matchup. Needless to say for everyone not living under a rock, but the game was a stunning disappointment, and effectively over after Germany put 3 goals in in 4 minutes to go up 5-0. With the game out of hand, we turned most of our attention to our giant beer tower, and believe me, that wasn’t the last one.


After Brazil finally put in a goal in the closing minutes and the game ended, we were all feeling a bit toasted. A few of the party went back to the hotel, but most of us quickly turned the post-match bar into a dance party. As only loud, jovial travelers can, we quickly made friends with the staff and got them to put on a playlist of popular, top 40 dance numbers, including an always-fun interpretative dance to Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody”. I surprised my companions with my unique and enthusiastic dance moves and took a couple turns spinning and dipping some of the ladies. The towers of beer were soon accompanied by rounds of shots, some of which were compliments of the house, and our ecstatic night raged on. A fairly crazy, questionably drugged up woman holding a dog continually tried to insert herself into our table and our dance circles, and playing casual defense on her became an entertaining game.

Last call sometime around 2:30 roused groans from our group, but as much as we teased and flirted with the bartenders, it seemed like our time was up. It had been a great night and on the way home, Chris and I somehow ended up on top of a statue. I’ve still got to locate that picture… Other funny story - in the morning I woke up and took a shower, while in the shower I absent-mindedly stroked my chin that had grown into some decent stubble after not shaving for almost 2 weeks, only to find that I had somehow managed to shave it off the night before without remembering.

The end of the night / the morning after was filled with sad goodbyes, but hope that it won't be the last time we see everyone. I now have great friends spread across the globe from Brisbon to Montreal, Toronto to Seattle to Hong Kong, and for all of you out there - the invitation will remain open if you happen to swing thru the Bay Area in the next couple years :)

I love how I set up the Dual Camera and got the friendly French guy who took the picture as well :)

Posted by danza 08:15 Archived in Italy Tagged landscapes hiking drinking canadians alps panoramas aussies tour_du_mont_blanc good_friends Comments (0)

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