Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Beaches of Cyprus

Cyprus has many beaches that vary from scenic rocky cliffs to vast expanses of pure sand. So far we have done most of our swimming on the south-eastern and the southern shores.

Protaras has an excellent beach of both rocks and silver sand. The best place to find parking and beach access is through the Silver Sands beach hotel; a hotel Alexia has been going to since 1996. This hotel doesn't make their guests wear colored wrist bands so it easy to "break into" the hotel's pool, showers, and bathrooms. There are public bathrooms and changing rooms on the beach that are clean. The beach has a long stretch of sand for those who enjoy lying and tanning, walking, building sand castles, or playing games. The beach also has rocks with a large variety of sea life. You can find octopi, sea cucumbers, sea sponges, sea urchins, a variety of plants, and many fish including rock fish, star fish, flounder, multi-colored tropical fish, black, and sliver fish. Alexia has seen cuttlefish, eels, and sea snakes but these are a rare find.

The next beach we have been to a lot is Makronisos by the town of Agia Napa. It is on the other side of the south-eastern peninsula from Protaras. This beach is not as diverse as the Siler Sands, but it is still quite nice. There are sea urchins everywhere; so much so that you have to watch yourself if you decide to stand up. There's also a cool sandy beach where it is nice to just hang out in the water and swim a bit without having to worry about injuring your feet.

Another beach is that of Larnaka. This beach is a long expanse of dark colored sand and pebbles. There are break waters to stop the large waves. Most of the winds in Cyprus are southerlies and Larnaka is on the southern shore so the waves can get fairly large. You can find some life on the breakwaters such as limpets and small crabs. This is one of the most ideal beaches for wind and water sports as there are no rocks to worry about. Unfortunately, sailing hasn't really caught on yet. We have seen some lasers playing in the surf at a small dinghy marina. We plan to check this out in the near future to see if we can get some sailing in.

A famous beach of Cyprus is Petra Tou Romiou, or Aphordite's Rock. Cyprus is the island of Aphrodite, the mythological Greek goddess of love and beauty. This beach is said to be the birthplace of the goddess. It has 3 large rocks and a pebbly beach. The water is usually murky to due waves and strong currents. We didn't go swimming this time, but Alexia and her family has done so in the past. We haven't mentioned this yet but the Mediterranean is very salty. Unless there are showers, you get very sticky after a swim.

The other beach of note is called the Governor's beach. It's also on the southern shore near Limassol. We haven't been to the actual beach yet, but to the surrounding area. Right next to the beach there is this area made up of these huge white rocks. Getting into the water was a little tricky as you had to walk across these slippery, rough rocks, but once you're in the water it's great. This beach is much deeper than the others and you can find many reefs in the deeper parts. The life here is very diverse, but you have to watch out for the jelly fish. We're not sure if they're poisonous, but we really don't want to accidentally find out that they are.

The place we went swimming which wasn't really a beach was at the sea caves on Cape Gkreko. Cape Gkreko is what separates Agia Napa and Protaras. We first stopped on the southern side by Agia Napa to look at the caves but didn't go swimming there because there wasn't easy access to the water. It involved some serious climbing. Maybe for another time. After that, we went to the other side of the cape and found a small church which had stairs going down to some of the caves and from there you could climb into the water without too much difficulty. The water here became very deep very quickly. It very quickly became 60-70 feet deep, but the visibility was so amazing you could easily see straight down to the bottom.

The Cats of Cyprus

One of the first things that you notice when you arrive in Cyprus is the abundance of cats. They are *everywhere*. The myth says that Cleopatra of Egypt introduced cats in Cyprus to clear out the snakes so that people could live here, but a little bit of internet research shows that the Cypriots has had cats long before the Egyptians brought them here. Apparently, the oldest known domesticated cat was found here, dating 7500 BC.

Anyway, when we arrived at the house we're staying in, we found many cats. Most of them are strays. One belonged to Alexia's cousin; the oldest one which was 9. The others were about 1-2 years. Alexia's Aunt and cousins would feed the strays leftovers. A problem with the neighborhood is that people like to joy ride in their cars so the cats tend to get run over which is very sad. Other problems are presented with this as well as the neighborhood children cannot play in the street at all either. You'll also find them at every single restaurant looking for handouts.

A couple of days ago, Alexia's cousin Maria brought home this tiny little kitten that must have been 4 weeks old. She found it (not sure of the gender yet) sitting in the middle of the road by their house without its mother looking very pitiful and sad so she brought him home. He was so incredibly skinny and they were trying to feed him cold milk from a small coffee cup but he wasn't eating anything. We took the milk and warmed it a bit and put it on a saucer and he made a go at it. Then they started feeding him halloumi (a common Cypriot goat's milk cheese) and he would eat that but it wasn't very good for him. We decided that it was time to take matters into our own hands and just went to the store and bought some kitten food which he practically inhaled. He's now doing much better and will be going up into the mountains this weekend to live with Joanna's godfather.

Dijon: City of Mustard

The train to Dijon was fairly unremarkable, aside from the beautiful landscape of course. The train system in Europe is a spectacular way to see the countryside. We arrived in Dijon in the mid afternoon and found a small, very inexpensive hotel near the train station and then went out to explore the city. We had looked up a couple restaurants and done some reading about the city on the train ride in and were looking forward to it. One of the things we had read about was a mechanical music festival that was going on that weekend. Neither of us knew what mechanical music was, but we soon found out.

We saw these giant trailers as we were walking through town that turned out to be giant music boxes. They were incredible. They had full organs on board as well as many other musical devices and they were playing a wide range of music from traditional polkas to the Beatles, and modern music. About half of them were hand cranked, but some had been updated to have an electric motor which turned the crank. Other than that, there was no electricity involved. It was incredible and amazingly intricate.

The book had recommended two restaurants. One was far away from our hotel, and served traditional dishes of the region and was supposed to be good. The other was located in a 13th century cellar and was also supposed to be very good. It was closer to our hotel so we headed over that way.

Let us preface this a bit. The book we have is a guide to Europe on a budget and lists many very inexpensive hotels and restaurants as well as places that are good quality. They're usually off the beaten path for the tourists and you get to experience something that you wouldn't find unless you knew someone who lived there. Sometimes though, the book is not totally up to date or they get something wrong. They had told us that this restaurant was inexpensive but good, but that wasn't quite the case. Instead of being inexpensive and good, it was expensive and amazing.

We were the first customers in the restaurant that night, but it very quickly filled up, and soon the food was on its way.

We had ordered the cheapest set menu, which involved three courses as most of the other restaurants that we had been to, and two glasses of wine. The wine was a local white from the Burgundy Region and it tasted divine.

The first dish that was sent out was an amuse-bouche, or palette "teaser." It was a zucchini gazpacho topped with a savory whipped cream. It was incredibly flavorful and smooth.

Next we were provided with some bread which was made in-house as well as the entrée (appetizer). The entrée was an exceptional mixed green salad with escargot, mushrooms, poached quail eggs, and a light vinaigrette dressing. All the lettuce, tomatoes, mushrooms, and cucumbers were very fresh.

Now that we had finished those dishes, we couldn't wait or imagine what our main course was going to be like. The main course consisted of a cube of tender pork rib meet, cooked to perfection and dressed in a light creamy mustard sauce. You could cut through this 3x3x3 inch cube of pork with the side of your fork. The pork was accompanied by sautéed potatoes and fresh, local seasonal vegetables such a string beans, carrots, broccoli, and peas. All of this was cooked to perfection; the vegetables and potatoes were not too hard or too soft. The wine went exquisitely with the dish. It was best wine pairing we had ever had. The wine brought out amazing flavors in the pork and the pork brought out amazing and the subtlest of flavors in the wine.

The next dish was dessert. Even though the restaurant was full, each dish was brought out with perfect timing. Desert was fantastic. The dish consisted of a cube of pumpkin crème brule topped with thin cookies. The plate was decorated with a thin strip of caramel sauce, a sugar spiral, and two thinly cut fresh picked strawberries. It was delicious! This was the best meal we had on this trip so far and quite possibly the best of our lives. To top off the amazing food, the restaurant had an amazing atmosphere. It was in a 13th century cellar, well preserved and just beautiful. It was a great experience. After dinner, we slowly walked back to the hotel and went to bed.

The next day Alexia was very sick. She had only gotten worse since the cigarette room in Avignon. We ended up staying in Dijon the next few days to take it easy and see a doctor. We took short strolls around the town and looked at the cool old buildings and gardens. We found a doctor and Alexia was prescribed some antibiotics since she ended up having strep and tonsillitis.

We stayed a few extra days so Alexia could recover. On the last day of our stay in Dijon we cleaned out a store of its mustard. We bought 4kg of Dijon mustard, several different flavors of course. Then we packed this mustard in our summer clothes from Cyprus and shipped it off to Seattle. We then had lunch at the second restaurant mentioned in our book. It was local cuisine at a reasonable price. Ellis had the beef dish and an plate of dessert and Alexia had the rabbit dish and the same array of desserts. It was quite good. After our lunch we hopped on another train, this time to a different country!


The next place we stayed was Avignon, France. This was another small town encircled by medieval walls, meticulously preserved.

The train ride from Carcassonne was amazingly beautiful. Most of it was through small fishing villages on the French coast of the Mediterranean. We also went through a few larger towns that just looked amazing. It is definitely an area we want to explore more when we come back to France.

We arrived at the train station and did the usual of finding a place to stay. We found a very cheap hotel in the center of town. After we dropped the bags off we headed into town and looked around. We were rather hungry as we hadn't eaten anything since that morning so we went to one of the restaurants in the book but it was closed. We tried to find other restaurants but all the others were closed. We found out that in France, most restaurants don't open until around 7:30pm for dinner. Before this time, they prepare the tables and the staff enjoys their meal in peace.

We finally found a place in a plaza that seemed decent. We sat down to eat what we hoped was good food, but to our disappointment it was the worst meal of the trip. It started out OK, with Cocquille St Jacques, and a canned pate for our appetizers. We constantly got the three course dishes because this was the best value. Our dinner was a sad frozen salmon dish with overcooked rice, and Ellis had mediocre lamb. Ellis had a decent chocolate mousse, and Alexia's fruit salad ended up being from a can. It was disappointing to say the least. After our rather bad dinner we went back to the hotel and slept.

The room was decent for the price but somehow it became filled with cigarette smoke all through the night. Alexia, who had been fighting off a cold since Normandy, became very sick the next morning because of the smoke. That morning we decided to see what Avignon was famous for; the Papal Palace. Avignon was the home to many popes between the 14th and 17th centuries and they had a large palace in the center of town which was amazing. It was extremely large. We climbed around the outside and had some amazing views of the city and countryside. On the top of the hill there was what the popes used as a water tower. The first use of this structure was that of a small guard post from a settlement of the Stone Age. Some of it was still preserved.

After we enjoyed the views and had a good look around we headed back to the hotel to grab our bags and head to the train station. Ellis had looked up online when the train was supposed to leave so we showed up an hour early. Unfortunately, we were at the wrong station. Instead of catching a 1pm train that would last 3 hrs, we were doomed to a 3pm train that lasted 5 hrs. We needed to get to the other station, but after waiting in line for reservations we had 30 minutes left and the bus took 25. We went outside to grab a taxi but he left right before we got there. Finally, with 15 minutes before the train left, another taxi showed up. We asked him if he could get there in 10 minutes. He said of course! The train stations were not far from each other, and with a taxi driver willing to go twice the speed limit, we made it there in 6 minutes with traffic lights. We ran to the gate and boarded the train. We were on our way to Dijon.

Friday, October 2, 2009


After Bordeaux, we caught the train to Carcassonne. Carcassonne is a small town in south-western France that is built around an old castle. What makes this town interesting is that the castle was rebuilt in the later 19th century and romanticized. This is apparently a point of contention for history buffs, but the town is amazing none the less. We found a dirt cheap room in a hotel, after hunting all over the city for it. This guide book Alexia got for her birthday has been amazing, but so far it has listed a few things in the wrong spots. We popped into a bank and asked for directions. Soon, we had the entire staff of the bank circled around us either helping out or enjoying the spectacle. Time and time again, the French have proved to be amazingly helpful people.

We finally made our way to the hotel and dropped our bags and took off for the castle which was about a 20 minute walk away. We arrived through the main gates of the castle and began exploring all the little shops. The castle was teeming with everything ranging from touristy restaurants, to high end hotels, and stores with local specialties in them. We were once again on a hunt for a restaurant out of the book but couldn't find it, so we explored, looking for another restaurant along the way.

Alexia's nose led us to the place where we ate our dinner. We were walking by and she immediately stopped and declared that we were eating there. The restaurant's name, translated into English, was The House of Cassoulet, and they only had one thing on the menu. We went in and ordered their set menu and a bottle of local wine. The food was amazing. For those of you who have never had cassoulet, it is a white bean stew that is cooked with duck confit and pork sausage. It's about one of the tastiest things you will ever eat, and this place did it to perfection. We have their recipe and will try and replicate it when we get home.

The next morning, we walked back to the castle and looked around a bit more before we hopped on our next train out of town.

Bordeaux and Cognac

We arrived in Bordeaux at about 7pm and decided to find a place to stay for the night. We were booking some time in advance (several days) for the first few cities, but found that most places were pretty empty. It was later September, not August the big travel month. We sat on some steps in front of a café and checked the guide book and the internet. In the book, it told of a hotel across from the station. Sure enough, we could see it from where we were sitting so we headed to it and got a room. We then set out for dinner, but like La Rochelle, most places for closed. We found a sandwich shop and had a couple sandwiches. Then we headed back to the hotel and went to bed.

The next day we decided to head to Cognac, the city of the famous liquor. We got into town and decided to head to the Hennessey Distillery for a tour. We stopped at Larson, a Norwegian distillery, and looked at their cognac in impressive Viking ship bottles and got a couple small bottles to try. We strolled through town, looking at shops, and then made it to our destination. The tour was not for another couple hours so we explored some more. We found a local distillery and got to sample some of their fine cognac from 35 years, 50 years, and 70 years. Then we went on a mission to find Remi Martin and failed miserably (the signs were not helpful). We stumbled in Martell and had a look around. Then it was time for the tour.

Hennessey was an impressive distillery; very rich. The tour was amazing though. They took us across a river by boat and we went inside a room where they gave us some background on Cognac. All the grapes that go into a Cognac come from 6 small regions surrounding the town. These regions have a special climate and soil that makes the best grapes for this liquor. Then we head about how it was made. The grapes from each region are made into wine (white only) and then distilled twice. The result is a 140 proof liquid called eau de vie. This liquid is then put in handmade oak barrels where it is left to age; carefully checked by the Cellar Master. The Cellar Master is a difficult and prestigious job. There is only ONE Cellar Master for any distillery. The Cellar Master's job is to check on the eau de vie as they age, indicating when they are ready to be made into a drink, transferred to another barrel, or kept, some for centuries as they become better and better. The Cellar Master must also combine the eau de vie, from a small number to hundreds to make a Cognac. The Cellar Master tastes, on average, 56 eau de vie per day. This is a 70% alcoholic liquid. This job runs in the family for generations, passing from father to son, or uncle to nephew. The Hennessey distillery has had 7 generations of Cellar Masters, all from the same family. Training takes about 15 years, and the job lasts a lifetime.

Once the eau de vie are combined, they are put in a gigantic barrel where they are married for several days. Then the drink is bottled. There is the house Cognac which is made with the same taste for ages, then there are the new or limited editions. On the tour we got to see some of the stills. We saw the modern, current ones as well as some they used back in the day. We also got to go inside a real aging warehouse. It smelled amazing. We saw some barrels in there with eau de vie made in the 1800s. After the tour they took us back to the shop were we got to see some of their bottles and sample some of the younger cognacs.

After this we headed back to the train station where we hunted for food, but it was that time between lunch and dinner so nothing was open. We found a small restaurant near the train station that was closed, but they were very kind and made us these wonderful sandwiches for €2.40. That is one of the wonderful things about France. It's very easy to eat on the cheap. We have been eating croissants for breakfast and sandwiches for lunch. Comes out to about €3 each for everything. It's very nice.

After finishing our sandwiches, we hopped on the train back to Bordeaux and fell asleep. The next morning, we took the tram into the city center and explored a bit before it was time to once again go back to the train station. The whole time we'd been in Bordeaux, we hadn't been to the city center so it was nice to see the town. We bought a nice regional wine and some more of those sandwiches and headed to the train and took off.

The wine in France is amazing, especially if you are in a region that produces it. We have found that a nice bottle can be bought for about €4-5 and if you spend €10-15, you can buy an absolutely amazing bottle. Something that would sell for $60-80 or even more in the States. We had gotten into the habit of getting cheap sandwiches and a bottle of wine and having a nice lunch on the train. It really helps the hours blow by and it's much cheaper than buying things at the train stations or on the train.

La Rochelle

After leaving Mont St Michel, we headed south along the coast to La Rochelle. We had heard many amazing things about La Rochelle, mostly that it is the Atlantic sailing capitol of France, and decided that it was well worth a visit.

We arrived at the train station at the late, late hour of 9 pm. Our guide book told us to grab a bus to the hostel from the train station which was on the other side of the town, but when we went outside, the place looked like a ghost town and we went back in to ask about the bus. We were informed that the busses had stopped running and that everything in the town was closed.

We decided to try and find a map and figure out just where this hostel was. We found a map, and looked up the address. At this point we had about every person on the night shift circled around us trying to help read a map. The hostel didn't seem that far away, so we decided to walk there. The people in the station thought that walking there was too far and we should take a taxi. After walking all over Paris, 3 km, even with backpacks, wasn't that far.

We didn't have a map and we didn't want to get lost. The map was a board and there weren't any paper copies around. We tried getting a piece of paper but that was hard because no one spoke English. We finally got paper, but then realized that taking a picture with the camera would work better. We did this and then were pointed the route several times. After many thank you's to the helpful people at the train station, we set off.

In route to the hostel we saw about a dozen masts all the same height in the main harbor. These were world class racing boats. We also saw some more ocean racers on dry dock as well as many more very nice boats. We had also not eaten anything since 11am and were quite hungry. As we said before, nothing was open. We did happen upon a bowling alley with a bar and decided to see if there was anything to eat. There was one thing they were serving : crocque-monsieur; a French grilled cheese sandwich with ham. Filling but not particularly tasty.

After a nice stroll we arrived at the hostel which was pretty nice. We had a double room with bunks, a shower and toilet; quite a luxury compared to many places we'd stayed in. It had been a long day and we promptly fell asleep. The next morning, we woke up early and had breakfast which was provided by the hostel. During breakfast, we talked with another person who was staying there. He was from Scotland and told us that the masts we saw in the harbor belonged to boats participating in an around-the-world race, crewed entirely by amateurs. We wish that we could do something like that. It sounds like an amazing experience.

After breakfast, we packed up our backpacks and set off to see the town. The coolest part of the city we had seen on the walk in had been by the train station so we headed over there, walking along the shore as we did. The shore was lined with marinas, many of which were filled with high performance sail boats. Ellis kept remarking how many of the boats would be perfect for Duck Dodge.

We made our way to the La Rochelle Aquarium. After some deliberation about whether we should go in (Seattle has a nice aquarium that we both have been to, but this was the Atlantic ocean), we did. This aquarium was amazing. There were lots of Atlantic sea life as well as some Caribbean and Amazonian as well. After the aquarium we wandered around town some more. We stumbled into a small marine store where we found some British charts on Puget Sound from the 1960s and 70s. We also went to the maritime museum where we went aboard a French weather ship and a fishing ship.

After our stroll, we ate lunch a little seafood place which had amazing fish. We found that all over France, except Paris, every restaurant had a set menu where you got to try an appetizer, plate, and dessert for an inexpensive price. The portions were smaller than buying just the plate, but they were perfect size; we didn't need to box anything.

After our lunch we went to the train station and said hi to one of the people that helped us the night before. She was very excited to see us. Then we got on a train to Bordeaux.