Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Mont St Michel & Normandy

After Paris, we headed north-west to Mont St Michel. Alexia had heard amazing things about the place and so we were very excited to go there. After arriving in Beauvoir, we took the scary hotel bikes into Mont St Michel which was only about 5km away. For those of you who have never been to Mont St Michel, it's basically an island. It used to be only accessible at low tide, however they have since put in a new man-made road that makes it accessible in all tides. We decided to take the old road out which was the one that would get covered by water. We came upon a beach which looked like it was sand, but as Alexia soon discovered was very nasty mud. Ellis was alerted to this by her screaming as she tried to walk her bike up a small embankment. Apparently the mud was as slippery as ice, which made it very hard to walk on, let alone push a heavy mountain bike up the hill. When she emerged, her feet and the bike were completely covered in mud.

After Alexia's incident, we arrived at the island and began our exploration of the old town. We were too late to visit the cathedral, so we stuck to the shops. The shops were an interesting mix of very touristy things to local wares. They had a lot of clothes made of wool from the region which were extremely high quality and very expensive as well as very nice copper cookware. It was a lot of fun.

Midway through our trip to the island, it started pouring rain. We had, of course, neglected the gathering clouds and did not bring our rain gear. There were groups of tourists huddled under every dry spot, but we were from Seattle, so we didn't care and walked around taking pictures. About the time the rain started, we heard announcements in many languages that it was time to move your cars because the tide was rising. It was amazing to watch the water raise so quickly. They say it comes in as fast as a race horse; we are not sure if this is the exact speed, but it comes in very fast. You wouldn't want to be stuck out on the mud flats.

It was about 7:30, so we decided to head back into town to grab some dinner. We biked back in the rain, keeping our speed low enough that the back tires didn't spray up our backs. There was thunder and lightning, it was gorgeous. We had dinner at a nice little restaurant across from the hotel. Alexia had been seeing signs for Moulles (mussels) everywhere so she decided to try them. They were amazing; probably the best mussels we ever had. After dinner we went back to the hotel and went to bed.

The next day we went back to Mont St Michel where we toured the abbey and walked around everywhere. The Abbey was built in 1100 AD and the rest of the structures were built up around it slowly. The Abbey was amazing. It took pretty much the whole day to tour the abbey and look at more shops. After this, we had dinner again (mussels) and then went to bed.

The next day we had mussels one more time, except in a cream sauce. BEST MUSSELS EVER. Alexia liked mussels, but didn't love them. These were just so good you couldn't get enough of them. After our mussel fix (2 large plates heaped with mussels and a small portion of fries) we hopped on a bus for Rennes and then a train for La Rochelle.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Paris Day 4

We woke up the next day with still no hotel for the night. Ellis went down to check with the hotel manager if he had any cancellations for that night and he did! In fact, we could have the same room. This was good news. We decided to do the usual for breakfast and had croissants (.90€ a piece). Ellis had heard about this fantastic steak restaurant several blocks away from the Louvre. So our game plan for the day was to run errands, go to the restaurant, then go to the Louvre. Yet again, we step out of our hotel and there is a street fair going on so we buy some more cheese, strawberries and peaches and put them in the refrigerator for dinner and then set off for the restaurant.

We strolled to the restaurant, window shopping along the way. The restaurant was about 3km away from the hotel which was a walk, but not too long. When we arrived we were quickly sat at the only open table in the restaurant. The place smelled amazing and we saw wonderful plates of food being carried by. We were presented with the menu and began discussing our meal. There were all sorts of steak dishes to choose from as well as some things that were unknown to us. We saw a steak dish at the very bottom of the menu for two so we decided to go with that.

What they brought out was two enormous dishes completely covered in thick cut pieces of steak, homemade potato wedges, and a big bone full of marrow. As dressing we had three different types of mustard and really good gray sea salt. We also had a nice bottle of red wine to go with our dish. There was so much food. We got full and had the rest put in some foil for us to take home. After the restaurant we headed straight for the Louvre.

The outside of the Louvre was gorgeous. The building was intricately decorated. Each archway and each window had a different design carved into the stone. The famous glass pyramid is where we entered. We got our tickets and went exploring. First we went to the Medieval Louvre exhibit where they had excavated walls of the original castle that the Louvre was build on top of. After that we went to the section with the Egyptian antiquities where they had pink granite sphinxes, weaponry, pictographs, pillars, and of course sarcophagi. They also had a real mummy and some mummified animals. The Egyptian art was amazing. It was beautiful and extremely well preserved, even the wood carvings. This was probably due to the climate and that most was art was kept in tombs. Still, the art was 5000 years old and looked like it was only made 100 years ago. For instance, we saw a wooden and leather chair that you wouldn't be surprised to find at a simple antique store in Seattle.

We quickly went through the Oriental art and into the sculpture section were we some sculptures by Michelangelo, Donatello, the ancient Greeks and Romans. They were all spectacular. Then it was getting close to closing so we decided to see the Mona Lisa. It was small like everyone says but it wasn't a disappointment. The painting is gorgeous. We had a few minutes so we admired some other paintings. Once 5:30 came around we were all herded out of the museum by the guards who seemed to appear out of nowhere.

After the Louvre we just walked around the city some more looking at shops. We looked at some more landmarks then went on a hunt for the best ice cream in town with no luck. We then headed home and had our leftovers and market food for dinner with some wine. Then, as usual, we crashed out.

Leaving Paris

We started the next day with getting up early-ish and trying to figure out the Paris train system. We wanted to get on a train to Mont St. Michel. All this time we had walked all over Paris. This was not only great exercise and a bit time consuming, but we really got to know the city. It did make our day a little more complicated. We asked the local subway info desk and they informed us that we needed to be at the regional train station across town. In order to do this we had to figure out the subway system. We go our tickets and went downstairs and started asking for help. We ended up asking a local off-duty policeman who not only showed us how to get to where we wanted to go, but took us there himself! He walked us through how the train system works and helped in translating a few things. After this we had no problems getting around.

It should be noted that the stereotype that the French, especially Parisians, are snooty and mean is absolutely not true at all. Almost every single person that we've encountered on this trip has been incredibly helpful going way out of their way to help us even when we don't need it! They bear with us stumbling through French and butchering their language and have just been wonderful hosts to us on our trip.

We went back to our hotel and packed and Alexia took a shower. We then took the subway back to the train station and hopped on a train to Rennes. The train was incredibly fast; it probably hit 150 mph or more. When we went through a tunnel our ears popped from the pressure of the air being displaced by the train and having nowhere to go in a tunnel. It was pretty uncomfortable at first.

We saw a lot from the train such as a wind farm, fields, rivers, and small cities. In Rennes we got on a but that took us to Beauvoir where we were going to stay for a while. The bus took small one lane roads through the country side. It was such a beautiful journey. Once in Beauvoir, we checked into the hotel and relaxed. We took the free rental bikes of the hotel to a small local restaurant that was recommended to us by the receptionist. It was good food but took forever to come out. I think the meal took about three hours just because the food came out so slowly. At least the food was very good. This was the first time we had ordered from a set menu on this trip and it was a great experience. Ellis had a very nice salad for the starter, then a big slice of ham that was grilled with a cider sauce served with veggies and other good things, and then for dessert some of the best ice cream we've ever had. Alexia had a house made paté with a salad, grilled chicken with roasted vegetables, and a strange custard bread that wasn't really sweet; it was interesting.

After dinner, we walked the bikes back to the hotel because it was dark and we didn't feel like getting killed by cars, and pretty immediately fell asleep.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Paris Day 3

Today we had been planning on going to the Louvre, but first we had to find a new hotel since the one we were staying in was booked. We talked to the person at the front desk who suggested a hotel around the corner about two blocks away. We walked over there and asked if they had any rooms available and they did, but just for one night. We took the room for a night and went back to hotel #1. The guy at the desk recommended a couple other places which also turned out to be full, but finally found one a couple miles away. He booked us a room and said we just needed to walk over there and pay. We looked on the map and it seemed close enough so we set off. The only problem was, we didn't have a name or an address. To this time, we still have no idea where that hotel is.

We showered, packed, checked out and then moved our stuff to Hotel #2, and then decided to go out and find that third hotel. We walked over to the area which turned out to be a lot further than it seemed on the map, but realized that there were many hotels in that area and we didn't even know what ours was called. After searching and searching we gave up. The location was far from ideal. There was a busy street and a train track close by. The neighborhood looked less appealing overall as well. We decided to make the most of the rest of our day and headed to a small little restaurant called "Le Escargot." Alexia had not had the fabled snails and this was the day she was going to try them. We had them as an appetizer and they were yummy. They were cooked in a basil, garlic, and butter sauce. It is hard to describe the taste, but it was not strong and it was very good. Alexia was feeling rather adventurous so she decided to order the restaurants special even though she had no idea what it was. Turns out it was a delicious, mouth watering heart attack on a plate. It was: ham, potatoes, onions, cheese, all cooked together with butter and crème fraise. AMAZING!

After lunch was over, it was too late to go to the Louvre so we decided to go explore our area of the city a bit more. Ellis really didn't pack any nice clothes and was eager to find something that didn't label him as "American living out of a backpack." There was one interesting part to this story. The last shop we went into was a shop dedicated to suits. We were just browsing around and getting a feel for things and one of the men who worked there pounced on us and started pulling out suits for Ellis to try on. He found a really nice one which fit very well, but turned out to be 675€ which was way too much. Ellis said it was too expensive, and he asked us our top price. Alexia said 200-250€ to be nice. A reasonable price for a suit we thought, but enough that they would leave it at that. The guy runs off and talks with the owner of the store and he comes over and says he'll give it to us for 300€. We're very confused at this point, and we said that our top price was 250€. Keep in mind, Ellis had only had the jacket on for 2 minutes and hadn't even tried on anything else. The man said, "Fine. 250€," and we were just dumbfounded. Ellis said "Maybe, we need to keep looking," and the man threw the suit coat on the table and stormed off. We were now very, very confused; it had all happened so fast. Quickly after that, we said we were sorry and ducked out of the store and headed on our way.

We went back to our hotel and stopped in a wine shop along the way. We bought a Bordeaux to go with the leftovers we had for dinner and then also a bottle of champagne for dessert. It was amazing to us how nice the wine was in Paris and how inexpensive it was if you shopped around a bit. We retired to our room and pulled the chairs in our room out onto the balcony. Our new room was on the 6th floor of this hotel right on the main drag, Boulevard St Germaine. From our balcony, you could see the spire of Notre Dame and all of the other building that made up the Paris skyline.

We were deciding between having dinner or champagne first, but the champagne was chilled then so we decided to drink that first and watched the sun set from our balcony. Afterward we ate leftovers and had our bottle of wine. Overall it was an amazing day in Paris.

Paris Day 2

On the second day of our stay in Paris we got up fairly early and enjoyed a nice shower. Ellis went out to the bakery to grab some delicious croissants for breakfast. After a tasty breakfast we set off to see more sites but then were quickly distracted by a local street market one block from the hotel. There were fresh fruits and vegetables, coats, bags, jewelry, and CHEESE! Of course we went a little crazy with the cheese. We got brie, and three others that we had no idea what they were called. Alexia also got a necklace made garnets and silver for cheap. We also bought some strawberries and a peach. Ellis tried on a gorgeous leather suit jacket but it was too expensive and a little bit too shiny for Seattle. We bought another bottle of wine at a wine shop (5€) as well.

We took all of our goodies back to the hotel and had lunch of a baguette, the CHEESE, wine, and the strawberries. The CHEESE was AMAZING. All of it! The strawberries were wonderful too; they tasted like candy. The strawberries were different than the ones they sell in the States. These were tiny strawberries, like wild ones, perfectly ripe and bursting with flavor. Best strawberries either of us have ever had.

After having our little foodgasm, we set off for the Eiffel Tower. We had a couple other places we wanted to stop along the way as well, so we set off. We started off walking down Boulevard St Germaine. This is the main road through the Latin Quarter which is where we were staying. This road is lined with all sorts of shops. Everything from super high end clothing shops (more on that in a bit) to tiny little cafes and convenience stores. We were feeling completely underdressed and so we set off to find some new clothes so that we could look more like the locals. It was quite interesting. Everyone there is very well dressed. Most men wear suits, or at least slacks and a shirt. Even delivery truck drivers were wearing shirts and ties and nice pants.

We found a couple cool shops with clothes within our budget, but nothing in there really called out to us. For kicks, we went into one of the high end shops to try stuff on. To give you an example of their stuff, a Hugo Boss suit at 850€ was their budget suit. Alexia was looking at the coats and found a couple nice ones, but they weren't quite right until she found "the one". It was a gorgeous felted cashmere grey coat and it fit perfectly. Only problem was it was 690€ which is was more than out of our price range. You could buy another plane ticket for that kind of money. Alexia just wished she had a million dollars and then we went off on our way.

We window shopped in a few more places and then visited the Hotel des Invalides. It was built in the 1600s as a hotel for the soldiers that were injured in the name of France as well as veterans. Part of it was still being used as this and the rest was a museum of war. We got in for free with our ISIC cards and went through the whole thing. They had an exhibit on armor from the medieval ages on and two elaborate exhibits on WWI and WWII. After that we headed to see Napoleon's tomb, also in the hotel, under the large golden dome. There were several tombs there; some were of people we heard of (Napoleon) and others we hadn't. They were huge granite structures, carefully carved, and set in various large rooms in the domed area. Intricate paintings, carvings, and stained glass decorated the ceilings and walls. On our way out of the Museum we saw the area where they kept the wounded soldiers. It was forbidden for tourists to enter. It was nice to see that this country cared for their wounded and veterans as such. The hotel was very well kept.

After the hotel we set off for the Eiffel Tower. We could see it above the buildings so we knew where to go. We stopped at a sandwich shop along the way to grab a bite to eat since it was almost dinner time. We had a sandwich with composed of a baguette, ham, and butter. It was simple but delicious! After that we stumbled the rest of the way to the Eiffel Tower. By this point we had walked 8 km so far and our feet hurt a lot. The Eiffel Tower was beautiful. It was built in 1889, but had some refurbishments along the way of course. The elevators were essentially original except for the automation. We decided to go all the way to the top.

We got to the top and you could see everything! Miles and miles! And Paris went for miles and miles! We didn't realize just how big Paris really was. We went to all corners and took lots and lots of pictures. Then we had a celebratory toast of champagne, because all though cheesy, we had made it to the top of Paris and had worked really hard to get there. After that we continued site seeing and then realized "Paris is the city of lights!" We had to see the city at night. It was 6:00 then… and sunset was at 8:30. So we camped out on the top of the Eiffel Tower for 3 hours, well maybe more with all the picture taking and the trip down. We watched the sun set and slowly watched the city light up one street lamp at a time. We also saw the Eiffel Tower light up. Once we had seen Paris in all its nightly glory we decided to head down and make the long trek back home. The Eiffel Tower sparkled on our tip down with tiny little strobe lights everywhere. Since it was just after 9 pm we thought it must light up on the hour, but we were too tired and hungry to wait until 10. We snapped some photos of the Tower at night and headed home.

It was very dark on the way home, we were starving, and our feet were killing us, but it was completely worth it. We walked back toward the hotel and found a cool little restaurant about halfway back. This was our first time eating out at a proper restaurant in Paris and we were quite excited. Ellis ordered the beef tartare, which was the first time he'd had it, and Alexia had the veal. The meal was very good, and afterward we made our way back to the hotel and collapsed.

Arriving in Paris

Our plane left Cyprus at 3:55 am so we ended up getting sleep deprived again. The plane leaving Larnaka was not full so we each got a row to ourselves, but sleeping was still difficult. We were both very excited to be starting on the next leg of our journey and the stiff uncomfortable seats and plane noise did not help things either. We got into Vienna at about 6 am and had to catch a connecting flight to Paris leaving at 7 am. Our plane landed early and we made sure we knew where we were going so we got to the gate with time to spare. The flight to Paris was full. Alexia managed to crash out but Ellis only slept for an hour.

The decent into Paris was exciting to say the least. It was very windy so the plane was being tossed around side to side and dropped a few times. The landing was a heart stopper. The plane landed squarely on the back two wheels then got lifted off sideways by a gust and landed again on one wheel followed by the other three. It was jarring and everyone gasped. In spite of the scare, we made it to the gate safely and headed to the airport to figure out how to get into the city.

The French airport was small and easy to get around. We found the train depot and took a shot at the automated machines. They seemed simple enough but we checked with an info booth to make sure we were doing it right and headed in the right direction. We were! The train into Paris from the airport took about 30 minutes. Once we were in Paris we decided to find our hotel. We started with the map that Ellis had saved on his computer. We circled the area the hotel was supposed to be for a while with no luck. Then we looked to the guide book and it said that the hotel was in a slightly different location, so we looked there. Again no luck. We were so tired! We finally asked a French couple for some help. They gladly offered and even walked with us to help us find a better map. They had gotten off work for lunch and as a routine, took walks around the city. They were very nice and extremely helpful. They got us to within a block of the place and then continued on their walk.

Finally, a few hours after arriving in Paris, we found our hotel. We got our room, which was at the top of 6 flights of stairs, and dumped all of our stuff on the bed, changed out of our nasty travelling clothes and took a moment to get our bearings before we set off. The first place we went to was a creperie. Alexia had been craving crepes since half way through our time in Cyprus, but had decided to wait until we hit Paris. We found a cool little one just down the street from our hotel and ordered one savory crepe with ham and cheese and one sweet one with Nutella and bananas. They were very delicious.

After our first taste of French cuisine, we set off to see the famous Cathedral of Notre Dame. It was beautiful. Outside, the architecture and detail was extraordinary and on the inside, the stained glass, large rooms, and organ were breathtaking. The Cathedral was well maintained and still functioned for mass and other forms of worship. We didn't go to the top because we were so tired, but we enjoyed looking at it from the inside and circumnavigating while admiring the outside.

After the cathedral, we headed back toward the hotel and found a small bakery and bought a small lemon meringue pie and a baguette. We also found a small grocery store and bought some cheese and a bottle of wine. We brought this back to our hotel room and ate dinner and drank our wine and just took in this amazing city we'd arrived in. Ellis then crashed on the bed because he hadn't really had a chance to sleep on the plane on the way over, but Alexia wasn't that tired yet, so she decided to go exploring.

Alexia walked around the city and took in some of the sites. The city was amazing. The buildings were all made of stone and looked like they were built many years ago. The river Siene and the several cathedrals were picturesque. The streets were covered with people walking and window shopping. The city was filled with small stores such as bakeries, coffee shops, restaurants, tourist shops, boutiques, and super markets. There was much dedication to art including interesting statues, medieval statues, and many art museums. Alexia got tired and decided to visit Ellis back at the hotel. Ellis, who was going to try and get up at 7:30 that evening was out for the night. So Alexia crawled into bed. The was our first, and very long day in Paris.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Normandy

Hello all,

We are currently in Normandy in this little town named Beauvoir. Our hotel room is actually across the river from the region of Brettony so it's a very interesting area. We've been doing a lot of exploring, and internet is very hard to come by so bear with us! More posts will be coming.

Ellis and Alexia

Leaving Cyprus

The last few days in Cyprus were a whirlwind of emotion and activity. On one hand, we were really excited to be leaving and continuing our journey, but we were also sad about the amazing country and people that we were leaving behind. Things really got crazy about three days before we were leaving. Everyone wanted to say goodbye and see us before we left.

On Friday, Alexia's uncle took us, Alexia's grandmother and cousins out to dinner. We were there from 8 to 12 talking and saying our goodbyes. On Saturday we went to downtown Larnaca where we got a souvenir coffee pot and then headed towards the beach in Protaras for our last swim in the Med. It was really stormy as the weather had changed and there were large waves and strong currents. We played on a floating dock that was being tossed around like a slinky in the waves and went for a short swim close to shore. After this we went out for drinks at a local bar and went home for dinner. It rained hard for about an hour while we were eating and it smelled like we were in a giant greenhouse. Philip and us all played a game of Mao with tequila and then went drunken swimming in the apartment pool. The UN Irishmen and women of Cyprus were having a barbeque and came by to harass us a bit.

The next day we spent the morning packing our backpacks and deciding what we were going to send back to the States and what we were taking with us to Europe. After we were mostly packed, we went to Alexia's god-family's house for lunch. Actually, "feast" would be a more appropriate word. The food there was amazing, and there was so much of it. There was mousaka, chicken with mushrooms in a nice sauce, slow roasted lamb, two types of salads, zucchini with eggs, roasted potatoes, and olives. We were stuffed, to say the least.

We said our goodbyes to the family which was really sad. The great-grandmother of the family, who was somewhere in her 90s (no one knows her actual age because she was adopted) always cries when we leave. It was sad to say goodbye because this was probably the last time we would see her. Everyone else was sad to see us go as well because Alexia only makes it there once every three years. They enjoy our visits greatly. We each got a small goodbye present from everyone. We got key chains, mirrors, souvenirs, and Ellis got a coffee set because Sofie know how much he loved the Greek coffee. Everyone was so thoughtful.

The last visit was that of Alexia's aunt (whom we stayed with) and uncle, as well as Alexia's cousins, Maria and Banayotis. They also gave us presents of necklaces and lots of booze. We stayed there until it was late and time to go. We went back to the apartment, packed the rest of our stuff and then headed to the airport.

Everyone in Alexia's family was very kind and generous. They took us into their homes, they fed us, and they showed kindness and love. It was so nice to feel so appreciated and loved. It was really sad to leave them behind.

After we left, we went back to the apartment, finished packing and hit the road to the airport.

Sailing in Cyprus

After we moved into the second apartment, we discovered a sailing club down on the shore a couple miles from our apartment. On the Friday before we left, we decided that we were going to go down there and see if we could rent boats. When we arrived, we discovered that there were actually two sailing clubs right next to each other. There was the Nicosia sailing club which was more of a windsurfing place with two lasers, and then there was the Sailing Club of Larnaka. We went to the first one and they wanted to rent us lasers at 20€/hour. This was pretty steep for some old lasers, so we decided to go next door. When we arrived, there was a bustle of 8 yr olds and optis. There was a sailing class just starting. The club appeared to have several lasers, several optis, two 470s, and some random boats such as a Hobie 18, a trimaran, and a Laser 16. We soon found out the club owned the Laser 1s, optis, and 470s. The rest of the boast were private.

We talked to one of the instructors about sailing and if we could take out a boat for free and he said he could only offer one of the 470s since the children were racing the next day on the Lasers and Optis. We told him this was perfect! The 470 he offered us was old and well-used. It had a bit of soft spots on the transom, as well as a torn sail, and nuts and bolts instead of shackles in some important places. The rig seemed sound and we weren't going far so after we repaired the sail, and found some old PFDs.

Launching upwind off a beach was an interesting experience. We got the sails up before we put the boat in the water, then one of us held the bow upwind while the other pulled the trailer back up and put on the rudder and lowered the centerboard. Those kids put together the Optis by themselves like this! As soon as the boat was rigged we jumped in over the side and took off sailing!

The wind was great. Ever since we'd arrived in Cyprus we'd been amazed at the lack of sailboats. The weather there is ideal for sailing with strong consistent winds, high temperatures, and warm water. If we lived there, we'd be on the water every day. Anyway, as soon as we got on the water and sheeted in the sails, the boat jumped up on a plane and took off. Sailing in the Med is much different than sailing in Lake Washington. The water is extremely salty and therefore much more buoyant so the boat handles differently. The other difference is the waves. The waves were a couple feet tall, but unlike the Lake Washington waves, these were spaced much further apart. We took advantage of this by surfing down them.

We mostly spent the time sailing around and just enjoying being on a boat after a couple weeks of no sailing. Neither of us had ever sailed a 470 before so it took a little time for us to get completely comfortable with it, but not too long. After a close call with some rocks, the wind started dying so we called it a day and headed back in.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Apartments

So, we moved into our new apartment on Sunday night. It was great. It was this little one bedroom apartment with a balcony looking out over the Med, and the best thing was, it was just ours! We had it all to ourselves. Alexia's mom and brother had another apartment they were renting in the same building, but at least we had our own space. We stayed up late that night getting everything put away and finally crashed out at a very late hour after everything was perfect.

Then next morning though, we were awakened by Alexia's mom going knock, knock, knock, knock, knock, knock, knock… Apparently, their apartment was not as nice as ours and had all sorts of problems. Joanna had gone out early that morning and found a different two bedroom apartment that we were all going to be staying at and had already moved all of their stuff over, so we began repacking everything and headed out to the new apartment.

The new apartment was quite nice. It was in a new building, all the appliances were new, and they had air conditioning in every room instead of just in the bedrooms. We have the master bedroom which has its own bathroom attached to the room so at least we have that, but it's not quite the same. Still, we're not complaining. This new place is nice, and it's close to the airport and a lot more accessible to the city than when we were living in Nicosia. We're also close to a sailing club which we want to check out in the next couple days. The wind here is amazing. 15-20 kts every day and we're just dying to get out on the water.

Sunday

Last Sunday, we drove to the mountain village of Limnatis to visit Joanna's godparents to have a big meal with their family and deliver the kitten. We decided that this village would be a safer home for the kitten than the busy suburb of Nicosia where we were originally staying. We showed up in the early afternoon and found the little place. They had an orchard with olive trees, apricot trees, fig trees, grape vines, and almond trees. They had a chicken coop with a rooster and 17 chickens, one of which lived outside the coop because she and the rooster didn't get along. They had a small 2 room house (a big living area and a bathroom).

Once we got there we let the kitten roam around. The kitten was happy to be able to run around and got really dirty from all the exploring. Lunch started soon afterward. The food was spectacular. The meal consisted of Souvla, (barbequed lamb killed earlier that day), bulgar, salad, village bread, homemade French fries, Greek lasagna. This was probably the best lamb we've ever had. It was just simply spiced and then cooked over a wood fire. Just amazing. Don't worry Denea, there are pictures. After lunch, there was dessert and fresh fruit. We had so much food, most people fell asleep afterward. Instead of sleeping, we embarked on a hearts marathon with Philip.

After dinner, we drove into Larnaca where we moved into our new apartment.

The Turkish Side

Something many of you might not realize is that part of Cyprus is occupied by Turkey. In 1974, following a military coup, Turkey invaded and bombed Cyprus and now occupies about a third of the country. For decades, they closed the border of the occupied area and filled it with settlers and dubbed it the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus. Six years ago, the opened the border because they wanted to join the EU and to do that they have to take care of the Cyprus situation.

Last Saturday, we went to the Turkish side. First we went to the St. Hillaron Castle. It was perched on the peak of a mountain and was just amazing. This is one of the older castles in Cyprus and it predates the Crusades. From the castle you can see Kyrenia, a fishing city, as well as a large portion of the Cyprus coastline. You could even see the coastline of Turkey, 60 miles across the Mediterranean to the North. The castle had many towers and it was quite a climb of old stairs to the top. There were some amazing rooms, but mostly the views took your breath away.

The next place we visited were the Salamis ruins on the Eastern shore of the Turkish part. People have inhabited Salamis since 7500 BC. Most of the ruins there are from the classical period though. There are amazing large pillars and gorgeous marble statues all without heads (originals). We were very curious about the whole headless thing, so we asked Alexia's uncle Ricos when we got home. He told us that the early Christians removed the heads of the statues to turn people away from Paganism. The cool thing about these ruins was that they were a lot more accessible than the previous ones we visited. We could climb all over them and all but a few areas were completely accessible and not blocked off.

After we explored the ruins we had dinner at this little restaurant right next to them. The food was similar to standard Cypriot fare, but was still unique. They had different spicing, and it was exceptional. After dinner, we decided to go swimming, and look for more ruins underwater. We found a lot of evidence of the ancient culture underwater. Everywhere you looked there were shards of pottery and foundations. The foundations and the pottery had become fused with the rocks on the sea floor over the ages and had various sea life growing on them. You could find some lose shards. Supposedly, in the deeper waters you can find entire vases according to Alexia's uncle Ricos. These are also fused onto rocks and need to be removed carefully; otherwise, you end up with just the handles or the top.

We all found some cool shards and sea shells. After taking a shower and drying off, we drove to Famagusta. Famagusta has an interesting story. Like Nicosia, it has a medieval section inside castle walls. The buildings and churches in there are old and still in pretty good shape. Before 1974, the city was the best in Cyprus. It has the most commerce, the best weather, the nicest beaches, and a lot of hotels. The Turkish bombed the city furiously, took half of it, and left the remainder sectioned off. This section still stands today as it did after the bombing in 1974. You can walk along the beach at the bases of several hotels, abandoned for 35 years, with bullet and bomb holes. Once you get to the end of the un-sectioned beach you can see a coastline of dark, vacant hotels, and more behind them. It was eerie, especially when our voices echoed off the empty buildings. It was very sad to think about everyone that died while on vacation; the bombing was without warning. On a lighter note, this area would make quite a site to film a zombie or post-disaster movie.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Moving

Hello –


 

We are moving out of Alexia's aunt's house in Nicosia this morning and going to an apartment in the coastal town of Larnaca. We may have limited internet access there, but we will post updates when we can!

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Limassol Wine Festival

Please forgive me for any misspellings or grammatical errors. This evening we went to the annual wine festival in Limassol. This festival is put on by the city of Limassol every September and everything is subsidized by the municipality. It was quite the production. Seattle should really have something like this. Not only does it stimulate the wine industry, it also provides money for all of the vendors that are selling their wares and food.

It was a pretty great deal. We paid 5€ to get in and another 2€ for a nice stemmed wine glass. This got us free unlimited glasses of wine. Our admission ticket got us one free bottle of wine of our choosing of those the vendors provided. Unfortunately, they didn't give away the good bottles of wine for tasting as free bottles. So we got the best we could.

With all the wine you could drink at one low price, of course we got good and buzzed. We only spent just under 2 hours there but managed to drink close to our limits. We went to wait for Joanna at the place we were dropped off. She and Lia, Alexia's Aunt, picked us up. On the way back to Lia's 's apartment, Alexia said random directions in Greek to Joanna in an attempt to confuse her. Luckily, she knew how to tune Alexia out. We made it to Lia's apartment and continued back to Nicosia. On the way home we had drunken conversations on math theory (Math 308 at UW) and how confusing it really was. Philip, Alexia's brother, had just finished his second year at UW at was irritated at how hard math was at UW. My mom just drove an enjoyed listening to our heated drunken debate.    

The Mountains

Thanks for bearing with us through the myriad of posts crammed full of information. This blog is as much a journal of our trip for us as it way to share information and stories with you guys. We are so excited about this trip and are having such a good time, we want to remember everything.

Today we went to the mountain range of Troodos for the second time. Troodos is a mountain range in the center of the country. The peak is Mount Olympos, which is 1951 meters high. It is pretty impressive considering the rest of the country is not much above sea level. The road up the mountain is a driver's heaven. It's winding with banked corners and an amazing view. Every time we see it we're yearning for a small rear-wheel-drive sports car to just go crazy in. Unfortunately we're in an underpowered Chevy Lasetti driven by Alexia's mother. This is a driver's hell.

The mountain range is peppered by tiny, picturesque villages that look un-touched by the passing of time. The last time we were up in the mountains, we stopped at a small bed and breakfast run by an elderly couple to eat lokumades which are a traditional Cypriot pastry filled with sweetened rose water. While we were sitting on the balcony of the building looking over the valley, we started hearing the sounds of a cello playing. Soon it was joined by other instruments and we decided that it was a school music program practicing. It was really a timeless, wonderful experience.

Today we went to an abandoned hotel. From what we've been told, this hotel was once very famous and a favorite of Egyptian royalty. It was standing on the hillside, a ghost of its former self, looking out over a large valley. It was constructed of stone with marble floors and a marble grand staircase in the entryway. These days it's in pretty bad shape and some places looked too dangerous to walk. We explored the parts we could but didn't want to die so we took it easy.

After the hotel, we continued up the mountain and found a little place with some shops where we sampled local wines and Ellis bought a belt made from local Cyprus leather. The town was very nice. It had just rained and the air was cool and clean and felt amazing. After we stopped there, we set off down the other side of the mountain for Limassol for their annual wine festival.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Ruins of Cyprus

Being in the Middle East, Cyprus has a lot of history from prehistoric times to now. Some of the ruins we have seen so far have dated back to 7000 BC. Most ruins, however, are from the classical and medieval periods.

The first ruins that we went to were the oldest ruins. When we arrived we convinced the guard that we were students and he should let us in for free. We accomplished this by rapid fire English and flashing student cards and I think he didn't understand us that much and just waived us through. Walking through the path into the first area, they had reconstructed huts that showed how they would have looked in the ancient times. These were the oldest ruins we've seen so far, dating back to 7000 BC.

From there we walked up a very steep hill to look at the other ruins. What was interesting about these people is that they practiced animal husbandry and farming so long ago. Another interesting fact is that they buried their dead in the floors of their huts. These huts were not abandoned even with the dead in there.

The next ruins we visited were Kurion. Kurion was once a Classical period establishment and was composed of houses, roman pools/baths, an old Greek style amphitheatre, mosaics, pillars, and various rooms. It was rebuilt again in 400 AD by early Christian people. The remodel consisted of the addition of a basilica, and some other various rearrangements. The ruins were on top of a huge mesa that overlooked the Mediterranean and had some incredible views.

The latest ruin we visited was the castle of Kolossi. The castle was built in the 15th century under the rein of Kind Richard the Lionhearted for the Crusades. An interesting note is that this castle is where King Richard married the Queen of England.

The castle consisted of four floors with access to the roof. Each floor was divided into two large rooms with windows and fireplaces and then one spiral staircase connecting the floors. On the roof, there were battlements with slits so archers could fire on attacking Arabs. There was also a drawbridge going to the second floor of the castle so that they could close off the building from attackers. Around the castle there were ruins of a church, an aqueduct, stables, and various other buildings.

Ellis’ Observations

While Alexia has been to Cyprus many times over her life to visit family and go vacationing, this trip has been the first time I have been out of the Pacific Northwest. My whole family has done a ton of traveling and I'm the only one who has never really been anywhere, so I was very excited and a little overwhelmed to go.

Cyprus is amazing. The weather is like nothing else I've ever seen. It is so incredibly hot. The days generally get well past 100 degrees F and the nights only dip into the low 80's. For a Seattle boy who wears shorts in the winter and thinks that 70 degrees is hot, this is an interesting experience, but I'm doing a lot better than I thought I was going to. I just have to remember to drink lots and lots of water to stay hydrated and then I'm good.

Driving on the left is an interesting experience, but I'm used to it by now. Unfortunately though, we don't get to drive because Alexia's mom will not let us. This is a very aggravating thing, but whatever. The next time I come back, I'm going to be sure to rent something that can drive off road and go crazy. It seems like there are more dirt roads than there are paved so something like a Subaru would be amazing.

I'm also learning a bit of Greek from listening to the people speaking here and I'm learning how to read the language from the street signs which are in both English and Greek. It's pretty cool. We both can't wait to keep going on our trip and continue with the exploring.

Arriving in Cyprus

We had Lufthansa again flying into Cyprus so we got to enjoy decent food and beer. This time, instead of screaming children, the plane was filled with Cypriots who at 9pm enjoy chatting. And chatting and chatting and chatting. So again, we didn't sleep at all. We arrived in Cyprus at 2am local time which is noon Seattle time. We got off the plane and boarded a bus that took us to the airport. It wasn't too hot or humid yet. We breezed through security and customs. Alexia's Aunt and cousin picked us and drove us to their house in the capitol, Nicosia, where we promptly fell asleep on this tiny, hard bed.

The next afternoon around 1pm we were woken up by Alexia's Aunt Dina barging into the room and speaking in heavily accented English telling us that lunch was ready and that we should get up and come downstairs. This really confused Ellis who had no idea what was going on, and was woken up by someone screaming in tongues, but didn't open his eyes until after the intruder had left to go serve lunch. We had lunch and then chilled out around the house recovering. You would not believe how amazing a shower felt after 72 hours of travelling. Btw, Frankfurt was in the middle of a heat-wave while we were there and it was in the mid 90's with very high humidity and no wind.

When we finally left the air-conditioned house, we were instantly melted by the sheer heat. That day was around 110 degrees in the shade with humidity. We quickly retreated and went back inside where there was air conditioning. That evening, Alexia's mom and brother showed up and we picked them up from the airport and rented the first of many cars that we would go through. We went back to the house and had Souvlagi (grilled meat in pitas) for dinner. It was yummy. After socializing for a bit, we went back to sleep.

The next day, we went to Protaras, a nice beach on the south-eastern shore of Cyprus. Here, the water is very clear and there are lots of rocks to look at life. We snorkeled, fed fish with sea urchins, and caught and released a small octopus. We would like to catch a big one sometime so Ellis can cook it. We spent about 4 hours swimming and then went out to eat at Romanzo Restaurant which has the best tahini sauce. We drove back to Nicosia, socialized again, and went to bed.

The next day we went swimming again at Makronisos, which is also on the south-eastern shore of Cyprus. There are clear waters and lots of life here too. We snorkeled, fed the fish again, and swam around for a few hours. See a pattern? Many of our days here are comprised of getting up and heading straight for the beach where we swim for hours and hunt things underwater, then go out for either Souvlagi or some restaurant for dinner and then head back to Dina's house for socializing and beer.

Frankfurt

We arrived in Frankfurt at 10am local time (2 am Seattle time). The flight was good aside from the screaming 6-year-old in the row in front of us. We were flying Lufthansa and they took good care of us. The food was surprisingly decent and they brought us nice German beer and wine whenever we wanted it as well. Ellis was pretty tense on take-off, never having really flown before, but the beer helped. Haha.

Even though we were so tired, we found it incredibly hard to sleep. We spent the 11 hour flight talking and watching the in-flight movies. We arrived in Frankfurt exhausted but excited. With a 12 hour layover, we decided to explore the city and made our way down to the train station. We had asked an INFO desk what train to take and when we arrived it was waiting at the bay. Alexia wanted to buy tickets before boarding, but Ellis, very excited, decided it must be like Seattle Metro and you could pay on the train and therefore boarded the train before it took off so as not to miss it while buying tickets. Unfortunately, this was not the case… The ticket man came around and informed us that we had to get off at the next stop, which happened to be in the middle of nowhere.

We were at this little train station which was completely devoid of life thinking, "Well, crap". We found some ticket machines, pressed the button next to the Union Jack and started navigating through the menus. While the menus were in English, the destinations were not and we couldn't find the stop we wanted and unlike in the airport, this time there was nobody around to help us out. At this point Alexia reminded Ellis that he shouldn't go jumping on trains without tickets because sometimes you get stuck in the middle of nowhere. Finally, after a few minutes of attempting to figure out the machine, a nice German Gentleman strolled by and we asked him for help. He showed us how to use the ticket machines, and helped us buy the right ticket. He also led us to the right train bay to make sure we didn't get lost again and told us where to get off.

A few minutes later, we arrived in the station. The station was really cool. There were multiple levels and so many bays with trains going from places within the city to places all over the country. The architecture was amazing as well.

We set out of the strain station into the city. We started walking down the main drag into town. They had it closed off to cars and there were all sorts of different stands set up. It was similar to the street fairs in the US. We don't know if it was always like that or if we arrived on some special day, but never the less, it was pretty cool.

From our book, we read that Frankfurt was almost completely destroyed during WWII, and during the rebuilding, they opted to modernize the city instead of rebuilding it exactly as it was. This became really apparent to us as we were walking through the city and we saw old traditional Bavarian structures alongside towering skyscrapers.

We had read about a cool café in our book and decided to try and find it. With Alexia leading the way, we took off into the heart of the city. We found the café and ordered some light food and apfelwein. Jos had told us that every city in Germany had their own specialty of beer or spirits, and in Frankfurt, theirs is apfelwein. The apfelwein was quite tasty and inexpensive. The food was also good. There was a small bakery next to the café so we grabbed a couple small pastries to try for desert; also very yummy.

We took off to explore the city again. We wandered the streets and looked at the buildings. It was hot so after a short while we were in search of water. We found some at a Starbucks of all places and then decided to find the river Main; which was supposed to be scenic. It was, but we didn't get very far down its banks because we found a small park where some of the locals (both homeless and businessmen) were taking naps in the sun. We, being so tired, decided to do the same and were out cold for 2 hrs. We had been up for 36 hrs straight at this point.

We woke up and had to take care of Nature's call and went off in search of the fabled water closet. We found the Jewish Museum which we had been interested in anyway, and decided to check it out with renewed urgency. The museum was fascinating. It's hard to comprehend having to go through what they did and even more amazing to know that every artifact that they had in the museum was smuggled through the Holocaust.

After the museum, we embarked on a quest for sausage and beer. We asked one of the curators at the museum and she looked at us funny. It was 4:30 in the afternoon; right between lunch in dinner so the bars had closed for lunch and were not yet open for dinner. She told us our best bet was to go to the little street fair and see if the vendors were still selling there. We went to the street fair and first went into a gelato shop where they had some AMAZING Tiramisu ice cream. It tasted enough like rum that we thought eating enough might get you drunk. After that, sure enough, we found Bratwurst and more Apfelwein. It was freshly cooked to order and served on a little table in the middle of the street. After our delicious dinner, we set off for the train station and attempted to figure out the ticket machines on our own again. We did, but we double checked with someone at the INFO desk because we didn't want to miss our flight.

Back in the airport, we bought some local apple blossom schnapps at the duty free store and settled into the chairs near the gate to wait for our plane. We were playing cards, and reading, and not paying attention until Ellis noticed that it was almost time for the plane to board and there was nobody else around anymore. We had an "oh shit" moment and ran off to find a Lufthansa desk to see what was going on. Turned out the gate had changed and we made a mad dash to the new gate, arriving just in time. We boarded the plane and set off for Cyprus.

The biggest thing we took away from Frankfurt was just how amazing their public transportation really was. The efficiency of their rail system blew us away and on top of that they were amazingly bike friendly. Everywhere you looked you saw hundreds of bikes and they had really clear bike lanes and the cars were very respectful of them. The US has a long way to go catch up.

Travelling

Hello readers. This blog will chronicle the adventures of Alexia and Ellis as we travel through Europe for two months. We are starting our trip in Cyprus visiting Alexia's family and from there we are flying into Paris where we will begin backpacking around Western Europe.

Planning for the trip started several months ago and entailed questioning several friends on their travels and about 20 trips to REI. We are expecting large dividend checks come next April. REI was quite helpful and several employees walked us around the store giving us advice from their travels and helping us remember things we needed. From backpacks to very expensive quick-drying underwear and European power adapters, we slowly accumulated all of the stuff we were going to bring in a big pile on the living-room floor.

On top of hours of planning and shopping trips across Seattle, one of Ellis' best friends was getting married and he was the best man for the wedding. We also had to move out of Alexia's apartment in the U-District and work right up until we left. This meant getting about 4 hours of sleep the day before we left.

Ellis' parents were amazing in letting us use their freshly cleaned living-room floor as a staging area for our trip as well as doing laundry, taking us to the airport and lots of moral support. Thanks so much!

After doing last minute laundry and packing, we went to Ellis' grandparents' house where we had been staying for a few days before we left. The next morning, we woke up early and did all the last minute packing as well as the final round of purging of clothes we really didn't need to bring along. Finally, we were all packed and ready to go. It was nice to have about 10 minutes to just sit down and breathe before picking Ellis' mom up to go to the airport.

Following the advice we'd been given, we arrived at the airport almost three hours early for our flight and prepared for the horrors of airport security. We somehow beat the crowd that was behind us and breezed through everything and 45 minutes after we arrived at the airport and unloaded our bags, we were sitting at the gate, ready to take off for Europe.