We took a break from major travels this past weekend so Riley could work on his latest paper. We did, however, hop the train to Leeuwarden on Saturday afternoon just to check it out. We wandered around town and the canals a bit and had coffee (of course) before we headed to their leaning old church tower, from which a free guided tour by a local was due to start at noon. I was congratulating Riley, who is generally not the biggest fan of such tours, on his escape as we approached at 11:59 with no sign of a guide or other tourists. Suddenly, Peter came flying up his bike and screeched to a halt in front of the designated meeting spot, leaning over to catch his breath as I laughed unabashedly. A crowd of 20 people appeared from nowhere and soon the tour (in English) began. We saw off-the-beaten-path stuff such as the town's coat of arms, inconspicuously mounted on the side of a building that used to be on the edge of town but is now on the edge of the city center. Next was a graffiti alley, for which Peter was delighted to give the town credit for reaching a gentleman's agreement with the local graffiti artists. Several pieces were exceptionally well done. We also saw the old town square, a statue of William of Orange, a beautiful complex of homes and apartments for the elderly and infirm (with its own full-time gardener and stunning gardens), new and old municipal buildings, the Princesshof ceramics museum, the distillery of a local specialty herbed gin (similar to Jagermeister, we were told, but better), and a huge former prison complex. The prison only closed in 2008, and was subsequently converted into small offices and artists' studios where a cell (the "offices" still have a sturdy lock, solid steel door, and a small opening for food trays) can be rented for only 50 euro/month. The tour ended at a small shop selling goods from the Province of Friesland. Riley couldn't help buying (more) mustard and (more) cheese. We wandered a little more, had a snack along the main canal, and I toured the ceramics museum (beautiful and overwhelming) before we headed home. All-in-all, a wonderful visit.
We capped off the weekend with a home game for the local football club, FC Groningen, the boys in green, against Rotterdam's Excelsior. The good guys scored two goals, and the bad guys scored zero, but the game ended in a draw since the first tally was an "own goal." Womp womp. Had it been intentional, it would have been a stellar header for a goal. I can't say FCG did themselves any favors with a lot of sloppy passes and giveaways. Their few strong shots were stifled by Excelsior's goalie, who played an exceptionally good match. We were stunned to discover that you could smoke in your seats at the game, or at the very least it was overlooked by ushers, officials, and other non-smoking fans. Riley lost count of the number of cigarettes the guy next to him rolled himself and then smoked, though he probably reached the double digits by the end of the 90-minute match. Ugh. Below is a photo of bike parking at the stadium (free-for-all) and a blurry photo of post-game traffic, bicycle version. It was mayhem getting out of there.
The Green Heart
I tagged along on one of Riley's required field trips to a suburb of Amsterdam (the Bijlmer neighborhood), The Hague, and Rotterdam for an overview of planning in the Netherlands. Special attention on the tour was given to the historical changing design and architecture of neighborhoods, city growth and development, and encroachment (or lack thereof) on the Green Heart of the Netherlands. The Green Heart, an area targeted for open space preservation, is encircled by the Randstad ("rim cities") of Amsterdam, The Hague, Rotterdam, and Utrecht. On our short stop in The Hague, the professor leading the trip (Paul van Steen) highlighted the contrast on nearly every block of the city center between historic buildings (international consulates, city and regional government) and contemporary buildings (modern shopping streets and malls, the new dance and performing arts hall, and an apartment building with the highest population density in the Netherlands). Paul was not a fan of such visual contrasts, but Riley and I both thought the town had an energetic vibe and would enjoy visiting again.
Photo notes below: the smallest house in The Hague, government ceremonial meeting "church," Riley sneaking a waffle-ice cream sandwich during the tour.
The tour of downtown Rotterdam, the final stop on the trip, highlighted the town's resurgence after the inner city was bombed into oblivion in WWII. Only four buildings in the city center survived the war. Since then the city has been completely rebuilt. The town has embraced avant garde building design and is marketing itself as the modern architecture center of the Netherlands, and possibly even of Europe. One highlight was the cube house forest, where each home is intended to look like a tree, and the collection of homes an urban forest. Each house has three floors, believe it or not. We visited Rotterdam the weekend after a new, space-age multi-function building opened with a yuppie-friendly market and sleek apartments. The difference between Den Haag and Rotterdam was striking in their balance of old and new buildings; Den Haag had many of both, whereas downtown Rotterdam's buildings were only built in the last 60+ years. We ended the day by driving along Rotterdam's very long and active port to a waterfront bar/restaurant for a festive dinner (first course: vegetarian cheeseburgers, I kid you not). Post-dinner, on we went to the train station, destination Leiden.
Abi! Leiden and Delft
My good friend Abi from Ireland is living and working in Leiden, so when we saw how close it is to Rotterdam we invited ourselves to visit. It was a bonus visit because her boyfriend, Enda, was also visiting. We got an extra surprise when we arrived to find out they are recently engaged! I had met Enda when working in Ireland but never got to know him very well, so we enjoyed the time we spent with the two of them together and see how happy they are. We finished off Saturday night with wine and a few beers, chatting until everyone's eyelids were drooping.
On Sunday we hopped the train to Delft and spent a beautiful afternoon wandering around town and chatting over beers on the main square. We looked at some blue-and-white pottery but didn't officially visit any of the local ceramics factories. Abi suggested a stop at the seaside suburb of Schveningen. They had the closest thing I've seen to a boardwalk in Europe, though a little nicer and less commercial than your average NJ version, with broad walkways linking the waterfront road and the wide (man-made) beach, snack shops dotting the route, posh bars/restaurants down on the beach, and a cluster of surf shops at the far end. We even got to take a new mode of transportation for us, the tram, from Delft through The Hague and out to Schveningen. Couldn't have been a prettier day and a great call by Abi. Back in Leiden, Abi walked us around a few highlights in town before we settled in for a delicious Indonesian dinner. We were all worn out at that point and getting up early the next day, so we said our good nights and counted on the upcoming American Thanksgiving weekend to see each other again.
I got to spend a fabulous and eye-opening week in Morocco with Rose and Karen (two co-workers and Baking Club members from Ireland) sampling foods, trying to pick up a few Moroccan words, and experiencing the holy day of Eid nearly first-hand. It started with a travel nightmare: all three of us were meeting in Brussels from our various locations and flying to Fez together. I got to the airport about 6 hours early, but only about 2.5 hours before the flight was due to take off and I hadn't seen either Rose or Karen did I finally ask and found out I was at the wrong Brussels airport. I think I lost a few months of my life from the sustained panic that accompanied me as I traveled as fast as I could to Charleroi and in the end I made it, by the skin of my teeth. Whew.
We spent our first few days in Fez, staying in the heart of the old city medina and eating our way through the various treats on offer. It is something that has to be seen to be believed: the narrow, winding alley-streets with who-knows-what sloshed over the cobbles and stray cats everywhere, vendors trying to show you their wares, even if all they are selling is cigarettes (by the pack or single cigarettes) and small packs of tissues. Beautiful historic mosques and universities are hidden behind hand-carved doorways, and you need only duck around a corner to find yourself in the middle of artisans' workshops where they still work tirelessly - and without any benefits from health and safety regulations (saw a man picking up raw ammonia powder with his BARE HAND and throwing it into a copper pot to clean it and prepare it for tinning) - on hand-crafted scarves, copper pots, engraved trays, and leather goods. The style of market - cow halves hanging in the fronts of teeny "shops," teeming with flies; live chickens to be selected and killed/de-feathered/cut up on order; carts with a bounty of just one type of fruit; all of the stands and carts overflowing into the alleys through which you are constantly pushed aside to make way for donkeys and carts moving goods all day - is completely different from the brightly-lit, clean, sanitized, neatly-packaged grocery stores in the US. Part of me was horrified at the chickens being slaughtered at the kiosk next door to where we ate lunch one day; another part of me kind of wanted to try one myself. We never bought meat while we were in Morocco, but we did buy all kinds of produce and olives at the markets and cook a few meals (new favorite: Berber eggs!). And all of it is at about 10% of the price you'd pay in Europe or the US.
From Fez we went on to the holy city of Moulay Idriss, where the main who brought Islam to Morocco was murdered and is buried. The town has been open to non-Muslims only since the mid-19th century (and non-Muslims couldn't stay overnight until 2005). Karen and I planned the trip around being able to help Rose manage her guest house and guests over the Eid holiday weekend so that Rose could give her staff the time off to spend with their families. We helped re-make beds, move laundry around, and even helped cook breakfasts in the morning and dinner one night (my favorite part of course ... even piloted my version of Berber eggs on the guests, successfully Hamdoulah), but mostly we got to enjoy the sights and sounds and smells of Moulay Idriss in the company of some really interesting people. Rose hosted two guests exclusively for Eid, and they had arranged to join the family of Rose's staff (two women who are aunt/niece) for the day of Eid. They witnessed the full splendor of Eid while Karen and I stayed back at the guest house to prepare our vegetarian feast in deliberate contrast to everything going on around us.
The main tradition for Eid is that every family purchases a sheep (or goat, or cow, or two sheep depending on how many family members they are feeding and what they can afford ... even if you are only feeding 3 people but can afford a big sheep, the social norm is to buy a big sheep) to be sacrificed on Eid. Sheep are purchased and kept (alive) at the family's home no more than 10 days before Eid. The sheep souk (market) alone is a sight to behold, and for the days leading up to Eid there are sheep everywhere: being prodded, dragged by their horns, carried on shoulders, transported in the trunks of cars, but most commonly packed into either the side bags or on top of the local donkeys for delivery to your home, after which they spend all day and night bleating to remind you that they're there. Most people keep their sheep either in their inner courtyards (if they have one) or, more commonly, on their rooftop terraces. We could look out from Rose's terrace and see at least 3-4 sheep on various neighboring terraces.
On the day of Eid, your family first goes to the mosque to pray (this is one of two times per year that there are so many people that they pray outside, kind of like the Catholics' Christmas and Easter I guess), then you have a small breakfast at home, and then you begin slaughtering and preparing the sheep. Note: the next part is not for the squeamish, though I don't have any photos, so it's not as bad as it could be.
On Day 1, the sheep is killed, skinned, gutted, and de-headed. The head is roasted slowly over a prepared wood fire until it is consumed the next day (possibly in soup though I can't remember for sure, and we didn't stick around to see). The heart, liver, spleen, and other unusual goodies are what's eaten on Eid. Two or three days later, each family gives one-third of their sheep to charity. When we asked about the logistics of giving to charity (do you take it to a local donation center, who then distributes it, or is it more personal and direct?) we were told that, at least for Rose's staff's family, they have a family in their personal acquaintance to whom they would give their 1/3 sheep. Note that it is strictly understood you don't skimp on what you give to charity or give only the dregs; you give 1/3 of the sheep including the more desired parts. All day we were surrounded by the dwindling sounds of sheep bleating, followed by the smell of all the wood fires and roasting meat, and at one point we could see a few sheep skins being laid out to dry. Trying not to be too nosy on what is a very holy day and solemn experience for the neighbors, we snuck only a few peeks and mostly kept to ourselves and prepared our vegetarian food. The day before we had prepared some of our food and taken it to the local oven to be cooked. Most homes in Morocco do not have an oven. You prepare your food (bread dough, sweets) and then take them to the local community oven, hand them to the man who works it (always a man - in Morocco women do not do the hard/hot jobs), and go back a little later to pick up your baked goods. Mornings are for the daily bread; afternoons are for everything else, when the oven is usually maintained at a lower temperature. When we went, we took several different vegetable dishes to be roasted plus a cheesecake with the local version of typical ingredients. All the veggies were a success; the cheesecake not so much. I think it just scorched the top and never even had a chance to rise; I think it actually contracted. Ah well, a fascinating experience nonetheless.
One other highlight during our stay in Moulay Idriss was borrowing mountain bikes from Rose and biking, via the high road (for the views), in the early morning to the local Roman ruins, and UNESCO World Heritage Site, at Volubilis. I have to admit I was skeptical about what we'd find when squinting at their outline from 2 miles away, but WOW they are incredible. They are said to have been built in the 3rd century BC and grew over ~500 years into a bustling metropolis in the fertile valley until overtaken by local tribes, not defended by the Romans as they marked the most remote southwestern outpost of their massive empire. Of the portion that has been excavated (thank you, France!), there are meticulously tiled mosaic floors, still well-preserved, and acres of the surviving city complete with giant arch, walkways, columns, baths, and even ovens. We should have taken a guide book with us to better appreciate the site, but we can fully understand Rose's love of taking a picnic down to the ruins and spending an afternoon wandering or just sitting among the beautiful relics. It's incredible just to think of the Roman Empire stretching that far and maintaining rule for so long.
P.S. The last photo below is the beef kefta + lightly pickled cucumber + zucchini I made for Riley (let's be honest, I made it for myself and thought he might also like it) as soon as I got home because I JUST CANNOT GET ENOUGH OF BEEF KEFTA.
Riley had a few days off from class, and since we were so close to Germany during Oktoberfest season we decided to venture into Germany, settling on Münster and Düsseldorf. I had originally opposed Münster declaring that it wasn’t really one of my favorite cheeses, only to find out later that Munster cheese as Americans know it is an entirely American product. There is also a completely different French Muenster cheese, similar-looking to brie, but regardless the Münster in Germany has nothing to do with either. [Riley: I got this completely mixed up when I was talking to my parents. I have no idea what they believe now.]
Despite the cheese misgivings, after a little research it seemed like an appealing town, so we hopped on a train in the morning and were in Münster by lunch. We rented bikes at the train station and navigated in a roundabout way to our accommodation [Riley: had a lil’ trouble with the maps] which turned out to be in a spare dorm of local practical college. Odd - but why not? We stopped by the highly recommended Balkan Hutte for lunch (turns out there are a lot of Balkan transplants in Münster) and were promptly reminded of our translation ignorance when Riley unknowingly ordered liver. [Riley: I like most foods; liver is not one of them. One bite…bleh.] Luckily my plate of sausages and grilled pork was more than enough for both of us. We enjoyed two 45-minute loops cycling around scenic Lake Aasee before finding the Schlossgarten botanical gardens. When we finally biked into the city center to see the St Paulus Dom cathedral, we discovered is was the 750th anniversary of the cathedral! The whole town was festooned with banners for the occasion and party tents were set up all over. We just missed the festivities but Münster was abuzz with excitement. While having a drink on the plaza we decided there was a large number of very posh shops for an otherwise small town. We ended the day with a cozy traditional dinner and local beers [Riley: no liver this time, so happy], topped off with tasty beers at a neighboring brewery before heading home. On to Düsseldorf!
Düsseldorf had its own buzz with a waterfront Oktoberfest festival and busy shopping streets in the city center. Plenty of breweries claimed their local altbier was the best. We tried several but rendered no judgment. We had a fantastic vegetarian lunch at a packed spot before wandering to their newly redeveloped waterfront, including a spacey new office building and a space needle copycat, the Rheinturm, at the top of which we relaxed with refreshing beverages. We walked along the waterfront and grabbed an early dinner before attending the Düsseldorf symphony performance in re-purposed planetarium. Riley MAY have had a snooze or two. [Riley: at least three snoozes and 2 twitches.] We realized we should have saved energy for late-night partying because we passed by endless clubs pumping house music on our walk home through the Old City. Drunk Germans everywhere. We took a day trip to Koln the next day to visit the Dom cathedral and enjoy some waterfront kolsch. The riverfront was as lively and vibrant as I remembered it. I suggested Riley take notes for his future planning work on my idea of an ideal waterfront. We drank more than our fair share of beer by the liter back at Düsseldorf’s Oktoberfest that night. [Riley: Prost.]
It was a sluggish trip to Maastricht the next morning but a lovely day for wandering the streets. We had a cozy lunch (mustard soup for Riley!) and climbed around the city’s old walls and gates. A tour of the old basilica, ice cream samples, a church-turned-coffeeshop-and-bookstore, and finally, a relaxing glass of wine with which to watch the world go by. Next was a concert by the Four Aces classical guitar quartet. I loved this group. They ended their regular set with what turned out to be my favorite of their pieces, Hungarian Rhapsody #2, and Riley particularly enjoyed their more contemporary stuff, especially pieces with traditional Spanish guitar bits. The venue was a teeny old chapel that fit about 30-40 people. We couldn’t understand a single word of the host’s introduction or what the group leader said between pieces. Oh well. Everyone else chuckled quite a few times. My restaurant selection for dinner missed the mark a little but we had a wonderful night and got to relish these fun opportunities we’re so lucky to have.
For starters, I made it to the top of Mont Blanc (and back) safely last Wednesday, 17 September. It was a fantastic climb, one of my all-time favorites.
To get to Chamonix, we exercised our planes, trains, and automobile skills over the course of an 11-hour travel day. The apartment I had rented devolved into a confusing debacle which I'll skip here. Needless to say, I booked a different hotel that very evening even though I had prepaid for apartment. I'm still fighting for my full refund. The service we received was poetically bad so I will not desist until I win.
Chamonix itself was lovely. Many pedestrian-only streets full of shops and restaurants -a lot like Zermatt, in fact, but much cheaper. The town has a great vibe in fall, even though everyone was busy getting ready for shoulder season. Many of the lifts closed the day we arrived, and the mountain huts would close not long after. Despite those hurdles, we had a lovely hike 1500 meters up to Le Brevent on the west side of the Chamonix valley.
I climbed with Justin, a fire captain from San Francisco, and Lionel, our guide for the Chamonix guide service. I met Justin at 6 pm the night before our climb when I wandered into the guide office in search of a new guide. My first guide had to bow out at the last minute with a knee injury, and I had to scramble to find a back-up. Fortunately, Justin had already arranged for a guide when I met him so he and I were able to split the cost, saving each of us hundreds of euros. The King of Luck wins again.
We started our march to the top the previous Tuesday morning, 16 September, with a 7 am bus ride to the Bellevue telecabine. The telecabine (or gondola if you prefer) didn't leave until 8 am so we still had time to nip over to the bar next door for an eye-opener before the lift took off, as it were. Taking the lift saved us 800 meters of vertical gain, dropping us off at 1800 meters above sea level. After disembarking from the lift our hike was uneventful. We eventually met Lionel at 11:30 am at Refuge de Tete Rousse at about 3100 meters.
From there we donned our climbing helmets and roped up with Lionel to make the scramble up to Refuge du Gouter, our stop for the day. The scrambling was straightforward, no real difficulty. Given that the climbing was so easy I seriously questioned why we needed to be short-roped together for the 700 m climb. Such a restriction is very awkward and not needed when you have experience scrambling.
Anyway, I digress. We reached the Refuge at 2 pm, just in time to enjoy coffee and a deliciously fudge-y dessert. We relaxed until dinner, chatting with other climbers from the U.S. and Germany. Dinner was a three-course feast, great preparation for our strenuous efforts in the morning. From there to bed, though sleep was hard to come by due to excitement, mountain gas, and the high temperature in the sleeping bays. Although I laid down by 8:30 pm and got up at 2:30 am, I'm positive I didn't sleep much more than two hours.
I woke up at 2:30, ready to go. Scarfed a few slices of bread with nutella and jam as well as a cup of coffee and a bowl of cereal. Crossed my fingers that the coffee wouldn't work its magic too quickly. We marched out the door of the refuge at 3:36 am into a warm, slightly moonlit night. We donned headlamps since the visibility was minimal. Unfortunately, my headlamp stopped working about 15 min into the climb. 'Bloody batteries,' I thought. Oddly enough, the spare batteries I put in later also blinked out after about 15 min. After both of my camera batteries flatlined I finally decided that the cold was zapping the juice from the batteries. Sure enough, upon my return to warmer temps the camera and headlamp both worked without a problem.
The climb up the glacier was mostly uneventful. Beautiful night gave way to even more beautiful sunrise as we slowly made our way to the top. The climbing wasn't difficult, though crampons were a must. We also carried our ice axes in case of a fall, but they weren't really needed, either. We reached the top, 4810 meters above sea level, about 7:20 am, about 3 hours 45 minutes after we began. We weren't the first group on the top that morning, nor we the last. Luckily, we had the summit all to ourselves for the 15 min we spent on top. Took many photos of the surrounding mountains, Chamonix far down in the valley below, and ourselves, of course.
The way back down was much faster than the way up, for we reached the Refuge du Gouter at about 9:20 am. We went so quickly, in fact, Justin's knee was causing him considerable pain. He tried to get Lionel to slow down, but to no avail. Lionel appeared to be one a mission to return to the refuge before most of the other guided climbers.
After relaxing in the refuge for about 45 minutes we continued our downclimb to the Refuge de Tete Rousse. As before, we donned climbing helmets and harnesses and stowed our crampons. Scrambling down while short-roped was even worse than climbing up, especially with Justin's bad knee. We persevered anyway since we didn't have a choice. When we crossed the couloir we had to return to safety on our first try due to rockfall. Not long before we started crossing we watched a bowling ball-sized rock whiz by, then shatter into deadly shards far below us. Very exciting.
We crossed uneventfully, though, and soon enough arrived at the refuge. We bid goodbye to Lionel and kept on to the bottom of the mountain. We finally reached the bottom of the Bellevue telecabine about 3:15 pm. After a brief beverage stop to refresh ourselves we caught the bus back to Chamonix. I walked in the door and hugged Tracy at about 4:30 pm.
We celebrated that night at a French-Asian fusion joint. It was solid. After a leisurely morning the following day we made Savoie-style fondue our send-off meal. We ate it all, the entire pot of cheese. Oof-da. If you have never had the cheese sweats - trust me, they are real, and they are weird. I felt strangely for the rest of the day, but even worse, Tracy didn't fully recover until more than 24 hours later. It made the nearly 12 hours we spent traveling back to Groningen a test of will.
It was totally worth it, cheese sweats and all. I would do it again tomorrow.
The original plan was to do the official Three Peaks Challenge: climb the highest peaks in Scotland, England, and Wales in under 24 hours. I agreed enthusiastically and even volunteered to be Riley’s driver (since the hikers need to sleep between hikes). Then I read about The Challenge for myself and found it involved 10 hours of driving, just between the peaks, not including to/from the airport. The Challenge didn’t sound as much fun to me under those circumstances. In the end we settled on what I called the “Peaks and Pubs Adventure” where we both climbed one mountain per day, took time to enjoy at least one pub each place we went, and shared the driving.
It was a long haul from The John Lennon Liverpool airport (complete with giant yellow submarine outside) to Fort William, Scotland, finishing the drive down a long windy one-way road to the bunkhouse where we were staying – rustic sleeping bunks but a wonderful cozy bar with delicious hearty food. We stopped not once, not twice, but THREE times at the local Spar convenience store to pick up hiking snacks and breakfast food before finally settling in for the night. (I should note that after seeing there was a fridge for campers to share for breakfast foods and such, Riley came back from one trip with Magnum bars, intending to put them in the freezer. When he returned he discovered there wasn’t a freezer we were forced to eat them as appetizers before dinner. This did not keep Riley from having a large brownie sundae after dinner.) We rose early the next day and hit the trail by 7 am. It was hard to tell if the sun was up yet due to the fog and light rain, but we plowed ahead anyway. There were lots of cairns to guide our way. It was for the best that we couldn’t see much since we traversed past some deep plunging ravines at the top; they turned my stomach, even in the fog. After three hours of resolute hiking we found ourselves completely alone on the fogged-in peak with safety refuges, monuments, and the ruins of old refuges. Due to our early start we passed hundreds of people trudging up as we hiked down. At the bottom we celebrated with beers, soup, and yet another large brownie sundae (3 scoops of ice cream this time!) for Riley.
Then we started driving. Our afternoon drive stretched into evening, and we struggled in the dark to find our hidden B&B near Scafell Pike in England. We finally arrived around 9 pm and immediately crashed into bed. We woke to a sunny view of the valley and English sheep the next morning. A hearty English breakfast prepared us for our hike, which was a more crowded than Scafell Pike but pleasant nonetheless. It was a bit foggy again at the top, but as we came down and escaped the clouds we had a beautiful view down the valley to a narrow lake and the Irish Sea beyond. We managed to find a local microbrewery for a celebratory half pint before hitting the road to Wales.
We hit the travel jackpot by meeting Rose at her home in Manchester along the way. It was quite lucky she was actually home for the weekend. We were able to observe what her life in Manchester is like (as I’ve only known Rose in Ireland and Scotland and miscellaneous travels. Morocco is next, and hopefully NZ in the not-too-distant future!). She graciously let us take showers (best for everyone involved) before treating us to a wonderful Indonesian meal. It was such a treat to be so far from home yet be welcomed into Rose’s home.
Riley resumed primary driving responsibilities, claiming he was enjoying the windy country roads in our manual transmission rental car. Several hours later, even Riley’s enthusiasm waned by the time we got to Snowdon. We tucked into our bunk beds at our hostel, then slipped out early the next morning to beat the rush at the mountain. Good thing we did, as it turned out. We got one of the very last parking spots at the trail head. The peak had multiple routes to choose from; we opted to hike up a scenic valley, replete with a series of lakes. We went down the opposite side of the mountain ridge. Snowdon was packed with groups, especially for charity, and was the busiest of the three mountains. Although the shortest of the three peaks, the path was a little longer than the trail up Scafell Pike, thus making it fairly approachable for all ages, and manageable for most fitness levels. It even offered a more advanced route if you were so inclined. (We thought our fitness levels were sufficient for the advanced route, but I nearly had an anxiety attack just thinking about the half-mile knife-ridge section we’d have to traverse. We stuck with a more straightforward trail.) We stopped at a local hotel/bar that a friendly fellow hiker on Scafell Pike had recommended for refreshments. Snowdon had been used as a training ground for the first team to summit Everest. Some had left climbing gear as souvenirs and signed the low wood-beamed ceiling. Coupled with good food, it made for a lovely lunch before we returned to the airport.
We spent our first weekend post-arrival in Groningen in Ireland for the Croke Park Classic, an American college football game between Penn St and UCF at the legendary Gaelic Athletic Association stadium, Croke Park. Penn State edged UCF on a field goal as time ran out, a very exciting finish. Penn State fans were everywhere; bartenders and waiters commented they’d seen PSU colors and fans about 10:1 compared to UCF fans. Our Irish friends mentioned the event caused some major grumbling among the Irish; it was Gaelic football playoff season, too, and a GAA match should have been played in Croke Park that day but was diverted all the way down to Limerick. They explained it was like asking the Yankees to go play a playoff game at Wrigley Field. The almighty dollar triumphs again.
It was the meeting of many worlds: separately, my Irish former roommate Dan told me he and a bunch of his mates had gotten tickets to the game, and a good friend from Philly and Penn State alum Matt and his wife and friends were also coming over and had asked me for day-trip recommendations from Dublin. That was all I needed to make the trip! We got to meet up with Jon, another American and former Merck colleague, for lunch at one of my favorite spots, Avoca café near Grafton street, before the game. We had just enough time to grab a pint with Dan and his mates before the match. And Matt and Clare were kind enough to find us at our seats during the second half of the match, otherwise we would have missed each other entirely. Matt & Co., Dan & Co., and Riley and I all went for pints after the match. The Irish challenged the Americans to a game of foosball, and I’m happy to say the Americans triumphed, though I bet we had consumed at least 10 fewer drinks per person than our Irish counterparts. Riley and I had a great dinner with Matt and Clare to finish the evening, and we narrowly avoided our rental car getting ‘booted’ in a parking lot at the end of the night. Riley’s persistent good luck, well, persists.
We took the roundabout way to Groningen, where we'll be based for the fall as Riley completes an exchange semester with at the University of Groningen. We flew to Brussels, took a day trip to Luxembourg (new country for Riley), moved on the next day to Bruges, then to Antwerp, and finally, made our way to Groningen.
Here's how Riley began packing for our trip: mountaineering gear first. He's still hoping to climb one more mountain this year (Mt. Rainier just wasn't enough) and wanted to make sure he could get it all in before packing his regular clothes.
We landed in Brussels, dropped our bags at our accommodation, and hopped straight on a train to Luxembourg (new country for Riley). We wandered to the main square, and were just finishing a light late lunch when a local Luxembourger started chatting with us about Luxembourg.
- He pointed out how he could tell who was a local just by the way they walked, similar to a "lumbering farmer."
- He explained the financial dominance Luxembourg now holds in the world, superior to Switzerland, he claimed, and how their financial dominance makes up for the thousand years they were constantly invaded and controlled. ["For 1000 years, everyone else f@ck us. Now, we f@ck everyone. Isn't that how you Americans say it?"]
- He also pointed out how Luxembourg was impacted disproportionately, based on relative populations, from the influx into EU countries of North African refugees. He continued to comment how the tight Luxembourg government monitors the mostly Muslim immigrants and keeps thing under control: they have a list of who comes into the country; they watch who goes into the three new mosques for religious services; then they track those who don't go into the mosques. "The people who go to the mosques-they have values. We watch the ones who don't go to the mosques."
- Finally he summed up his country's relationship with neighboring countries: "The French, we like them but we don't respect them. The Germans - we respect them but we don't like them. The Italians - we like them AND we respect them."
Quite a character as you can imagine. Considering neither Riley nor I knew much about Luxembourg when we arrived, we thought we got quite the education, however unexpected.
We had just enough time in Brussels proper to take in the Grand Place, see Manneken Pis, and have a Belgian waffle. The next morning, we were off to Bruges.
Bruges is as picturesque as they come - old walled city center surrounded by waterways and boat tours, classic architecture, tasty beers and nice cafes everywhere you turn, and pastoral countryside just outside of town. I had been on a quest for moules frites and finally found them at a cafe for lunch. Riley, not to be outdone, found a superior waffle, complete with chocolate AND chocolate ice cream (don't let that 2nd fork in the photo fool you - he ate the whole thing himself). We had a lovely walk around the cobbled streets of the main square and finally biked back to the place where we were staying, outside of town. We tried a route home that took us by several old windmills and some of the biggest boat homes we've seen.
Our last stop before Groningen was Antwerp, a bit of a wild card for both of us. We arrived into their gorgeous train station which is a tourist attraction all by itself. Then we found the town to be a surprisingly vibrant place with a Red Bull X-Games-type competition taking place in a newer canal right next to their new art museum and observation tower and a local beer festival on the main plaza in the city center. At my suggestion, and completely by accident, we wandered through their red light district as we strolled around. Riley had another waffle (does that even need to be stated or can we just assume this is a daily event, at a minimum, going forward?). Before we left town the next morning, we walked over to Zurenbourg, Antwerp's Art Nouveau neighborhood. The street was lovely, but even better was the small local bakery with spectacular croissants we found on our way there. They were so good we got another round to go, and more for afternoon snacks, on our way back!