Tuesday, January 19, 2010


I had a really interesting time in Normandy. It was not the best time to be there due to weather and the fact that they were in the tourist low season. If you wanted a tour of the beaches, you were out of luck. Snow had hampered the area for the past 2 weeks and many locals hadn't been able to go anywhere for three days prior. On the plus side, I already knew something about the history and could show myself around. There was good information in English throughout the major sites (especially the American Cemetery). Unfortunately, my camera ran out of juice in the middle of the day. I still got some cool shots - mostly of Point Du Hoc, a place where a Ranger battalion mounted steep cliffs to overtake a heavily fortified German position.

That still wasn't the best part of the day. At closing time at the American Cemetery on the east end of Omaha Beach, I participated in the ceremony to take down the flags that fly over the headstones. The guy holding the other end was an Eagle Scout - everything about the ceremony was very patriotic. We pulled the flag down, folded it, and handed it to a 30 year veteran who lives and works full time at the cemetery. It was definitely a once in a lifetime opportunity. Any other time I go back, it would likely be in the high-season and much more crowded. I guess there are benefits to traveling when there is no transportation to support your trip. It was a great day and an awesome way to geek-out on history. It's nice to really experience the sites.

Looking down Omaha Beach towards the American Cemetery

In Bayeux, the closest town to the beaches
On Point du Hoc at one of the bunkers
Folding the flag in the cemetery

Monday, January 18, 2010


Paris was by far one of my favorite parts of my time in Europe so far. It's right up there with London, the pair of good days on the hill in Switzerland, and the ancient ruins of Rome. Like London, I felt like I could have spent another two weeks there without running out of really interesting things to see. Adding the experience of living there would give even more things to experience and people to meet.
The city was beautiful. The architecture was beautiful and the design of the broad central squares and boulevards was really incredible. It gives a sense of a city that really has its act together (though French transport was hardly ever on time). The metro within the city was very efficient and covered the whole city - great for tourists.
I found the people I met throughout France to be very helpful and accommodating with language barrier and information. That goes against most American prejudices and stereotypes and was a pleasant surprise.
I was also able to catch up with some American friends during my stay. Had a great time with Diane and her friends with a night out at the Louvre and a few bars (a big thanks to the Berkeley kids who put us up for the night after the Metro closed). Caught up on Berkeley news with Steven and Jen over lunch. It was great to see someone from my home continent.
Another thing I've realized during my travels is how cool Aussies are. They've been in hostels everywhere since it's their summer break. I had a great time on the last day with good weather touring Versailles with Matt and James, two guys from down under. I also spent some time on my last day talking with Nathan, another Aussie, and Cassie from Claremont, CA. We exchanged some stories and photos from our travels. Cassie had spent a good amount of time in Eastern Europe. Talking to the two of them made me want to go see some of the things they had seen (thought, at another time - I've had enough travel over the past month). Between the Aussies and Cassie, I'd say it's easy to have a good time travelling by yourself in hostels.

The French term for Hall of Mirrors can also be translated as 'Hall of Ice Cream'. It would be interesting to see Ben and Jerry do a redesign but if they're going with the 'Hall of Mirrors' translation, they did a pretty impressive job:

Notre Dame Cathedral still has its Christmas tree up - must be like those lazy neighbors who never take the lights down:

With Steven in front of Sacre Cour looking over a cloudy Paris:

Tomb of the Unknown Soldier under the Arc du Triomphe looking down to La Defense, the financial district:

on the second level of the Eiffel Tower:
Maybe I don't need an SLR after all:

Really strange mix of modern and classic architecture:
The facade of the Louvre is photogenic at night:
On a historical note - empty frames after the evacuation of the Louvre before the Nazi invasion:

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Last two days in Switzerland

I had a great last two days in Switzerland! The weather had made the skiing difficult on my second and third days on the hill. Heavy fog covered most of the runs and flat light meant you couldn't see any detail in the snow. You had to do some mighty careful steppin' to no end up on your face (especially coming over rises onto patches of ice where edges were as useful as a long metal pole in a thunderstorm). A day away from the slopes proved to be worthwhile.
I took a train to Bern (the Swiss capital) to meet up with Florence and Marc (family friends) for a great night. We started out at the local arena for a pro hockey game (Bern v. Rapperswil-Jona). Hockey is the second most popular sport after soccer. The players were basically billboards (the opposing team had 'Erotik Markt' in big red letters across their backs). There was lots of spirit in the home team's rowdy seating section. It's the same sort of thing you'd find at a European soccer match - songs, chants, etc. They had their own drumline and cheerleaders. Florence is the coach for the cheerleading team which is why we were at the game in the first place. Seems like a cool perk to get free tickets to the games. The good guys won and we headed to a concert.
Florence's boyfriend is a talented professional musician. He had a gig with his band at a small bar/club in Biel where he laid down some great basslines. The music was what Florence and Marc called 'French blah-blah'. The lyrics were humorous, I'm told. It was an interesting brand of jazz. We hopped around to a couple bars until I was ready to collapse (full day of skiing plus all the stuff I just talked about - I was pretty beat).
The next day, Florence and Ursula (another family friend) gave me a tour of Biel and Bern. Bern's a nice city. It's exactly what I would expect from the Swiss - clean and serene. I saw some stuff I hadn't seen in Bern two years ago when I walked around with family. Florence also knows a lot more about Swiss history than I do. She showed me the city's mascot perched on the hill next to the river that runs through the city. To name the city, someone said the first animal they shot on a hunt would be the name. It was a bear, like the one on the canton's flag. They now have bears safely hemmed in just outside the center of the city (one idiot was mauled when he hopped into the pen recently, though). After the tour, we grabbed an early dinner at a Mexican restaurant (surprisingly good) before Florence and Ursula so graciously drove me all the way back to Interlaken.
Some photos from Bern:

The day after the tour of Bern I hit the slopes again. I had though about sitting out for the day if the weather looked like it had for the two previous days of skiing. I'm glad I didn't because it was a beautiful day. Blue skies and the snow was still remarkably fresh even though there had been no new powder since I'd been in town. It seems like there are lower temperatures on the mountain which allow the snow to stay soft and less icy for longer. Coming up in a few days is the world cup race on the Lauberhorn. I couldn't believe how steep this run is in a few places. The pros get down in 2 or 3 minutes (the longest downhill course in the world - it wraps around from the Kleinne Shiedegg area down to Wengen), but it took me about 20 minutes to cruise down at a comfortable pace taking some photos along the way. The lines they have these guys taking are insane. They basically point their skis straight down the hill and prey that their edges don't slip. There were some huge jumps, too. With as uncontrollable as pro racing skis are, I don't know how they get down a course like this in one piece. I'd be done after two turns (on a good day).
In places where the groomers were a bit icy, I hopped into the moguls. If there was decent coverage on the steep groomers, I cruised on those and worked on rolling my downhill knee into the hill to dig my edges in cleanly. The area around the Lauberhorn was what I had been looking for all week in terms of terrain. I thought a lot of the other parts of the Jungfrau region weren't very challenging. A little bit of black diamond terrain at the top of the hill with long intermediate and easy runs down to the chair. The Lauberhorn and surrounding chairs above Wengen were much more of what I was looking for. I did laps on groomers there all day.

Here's a shot from the top of the Lauberhorn course - it got hairier as it progressed

Looking down into Wengen towards the bottom of the course

Here's a video from the race that took place a few days later:

At the top of the Mannlichen - I 'skied to the bottom' without stopping on my second day

It's not 'Florence', it's Firenze

I skipped over Florence in my blog updates after the fun I had on my first day in Switzerland, so I’ll talk a little about it now.

The weather was pretty poor the whole time; it rained throughout my visit. Luckily, most of the things I had planned were indoors. I went to the Uffizi gallery, the Bargello, and the Accademia; climbed to the top of the Duomo (which was half a block from my hostel); and visited Piazza della Signoria and the Ponte Vecchio. It’s a beautiful city with a lot of character – I’ll have to go back and see more of it. I can tell there was a lot of history I missed this first time around. I would think it comes into its own with better weather, too. Since so much of the typical sightseeing in Florence is centered on galleries and museums, going in the low season means short lines. I went to the Uffizi and the Accademia in the same day (without a reservation at the Uffizi). It seems like all the guidebooks suggest this would be impossible in summer.

I don’t have many photos from Florence since the museums don’t allow photos. It’ll always be easy to look up the art with an image search, though. Here are some from outside the museums:

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Skiing in Switzerland

Had a great first day on the slopes. The conditions, both weather and snow, were great in the morning. Bright sun and soft snow. I was able to hit a few mogul fields before they were fully formed and packed down and even found some fresh powder. I brought my boots with me, so no problems there. I'm using a pair of 2010 Solomon XWings which track pretty well in the groomers and put up with my terrible performances off the piste. The sheer amount of vertical distance you cover top-to-bottom is staggering. Some photos:

Skiing between barns and houses - very different than the tree-littered slopes in the US. Most of the resort is above the tree line giving you open glades of power on nice days.
Murren - it's even cuter with snow. I had to go from the center of town to the gondola and I was able to ski the whole way. Not something you could do in most towns surrounding resorts.
The local beer, Rugen Brau, brewed in Interlaken. Very good stuff - enjoying one right now, in fact. Cheers!


I had a great time in Sorrento! My trip was full of family, Italian hospitality, food, sights, etc. I took my information on the family around with me so I could understand where I fit in with the different members of the family. It was necessary given the distant relationships I have with most of them (my great grandmother was the sister of the grandmother of two of the ladies I met, for example).

Here's some of the family I met [file names of the photos give the full names of the people from left to right]:

Cousin Giuliana, center. Emedia (left) is a 20 year old student who took me on a tour of Pompeii on her day off work. She knew quite a bit about the ruins and Italian history in general
The Apreda cheese factory ("Caseficio Apreda") with two generations, mother and daughter directly next to me, plus Giuliana again on the left. The daughter, Rosanna, is very focused on the business which her father started. Mom also works all day long for the family. Giuliana (pictured on the left here and in the center above) works as a child psychologist in Sorrento and Naples. She and Rosanna took me to a great seafood lunch at a restaurant on the water in Marina Grande.
The ones who were the hardest to find on the family tree (in terms of how we were related) were the Aiellos. Pictured here are Elena and Antonino Aiello and their granddaughter Maria Russo. I went to their place for New Year's - lots of food, culture, people, etc. The fireworks set off at midnight all around Sorrento were amazing. There wasn't one central show like we would see in wildfire prone California. The entire city was lit up by its people. Along with the Apreda family, the Aiellos did a lot to help me when I got sick for a few days in Sorrento. They didn't speak much English, but it was still great to spend time with them. The chorus was always 'have some more' when it came to lunch and dinner in Sorrento.

Day trips: I took short side trips to Capri, Amalfi, and Pompeii

bad weather, not really a winter destination

New Year's Day parade - not quite the production value of the Rose Parade in Pasadena. They played and sang folk music. An accordion was hooked up through the loudspeaker you see behind the banner.

Narrow roads and wide bus to Amalfi and Poisitano, glad I wasn't driving
The town perched on its hillside
Coastline - somewhere around Poisitano
The ampitheater where Pink Floyd filmed their live show in 1972

The Forum

I think Pompeii was much more 'graspable' than the ruins in Rome. You saw where people lived their day-to-day rather than just the huge political, religious, and cultural centers of the city. The main market street and the once-opulent apartments of the richer residents were interesting sights.

I was not impressed by Naples - it was dirty and had little to offer for tourists. In fact, most of Naples' tourist attractions were outside of Naples: Sorrento and the Amalfi Coast, Pompeii, Vesuvius, etc. Here are a couple photos from the nice part of Naples - the road along the shore: