Welcome to our Europe blog! 6-8 months in Europe: Volunteering on farms, rock climbing, site seeing, and more!

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Amsterdam and the road to Reality

We arrived in Amsterdam from Madrid a little nervous as our visas had been expired for 6 months. We had originally planned on taking the train from Madrid through France to Amsterdam, but after an unexpected border control encounter between France and Spain, during which we were sure we were going to be deported (we were not), we decided to stay in Spain until just a couple of days before we were scheduled to head home. At least that way if we had another issue we could show that we were leaving in a couple of days anyway. There are not supposed to be any border controls between Spain and The Netherlands as they are both part of the Schengen area, but then again there were not supposed to be any between France and Spain either. Thankfully there were no problems and we got to Amsterdam as smooth as possible.
It was kind of shocking going from what Madrid calls “Winter” to the freezing ass cold, dark at 4:30 Winter they have in The Netherlands. Our style of just wandering around and picnicking is less practical when it is 20 degrees with 98% bone chilling humidity. We still did our fair share of walking all over the city, but we walked much faster and took lots of coffee breaks (yes actual coffee, not coffeeshops).   We also went the the Anne Frank house which was very interesting as well as sobering.

Amsterdam, along with Venice and Prague made it into our top three favorite cities. Even though it is a big city, it feels very quaint. There are about 10 bikes for every car, canals lined with canal houses from the 1600s and hundreds of bike lined bridges. Of course there are also hookers in backlight lit lingerie and porn filling the windows, but that’s only in the red-light district (well mostly). The red-light district was seedy but on a very touristy level. It was interesting to walk around but the novelty wore off fast and we were eager to head back into one of the quaint residential neighborhoods.
Coffeeshops are as plentiful as Starbucks are in America, but sell a slightly different product. While you could get coffee, they are really there to sell pot. While it is not technically legal, the Netherlands government makes a distinction between hard and soft drugs and allows licensed coffeeshops to sell marijuana as well as allows people to smoke it anywhere. This just means that a good chunk of the city smells like a Grateful Dead concert.

We were only in Amsterdam for three nights. Time flew by and before we knew it, we were at the airport on our way home. Of course first we just had to get through this whole expired visa situation. When we went through the border control to leave they asked how long we had been in Europe. We did not want to lie and get in over our heads so we answered an honest nine months. The agent explained that we were only allowed three months and said we would have to go with his colleague. His colleague, a Dutch cop, led us into the airport police station and told us to have a seat. Of course we were shitting bricks. Our fears eased up quickly as all the Dutch police in the office were our age, laughing and joking with each other, putting ungodly amounts of sugar in their coffee and whizzing around in their whirly chairs. They were also chatting us up about our trip, and when they found out we entered Europe through Amsterdam, apologized that no one told us of the three month limit to our tourist visas. As it ended up they said they had to write a report on us. It was not up to them whether it would get filed or not and if someone (we are not sure who) does file it we may or may not get put on an unwanted alien list for 3 years. So worst case we cannot go back to Europe for three years. A bummer but totally worth it and no regrets! I would be shocked if we had the money to return to Europe in that time anyway!

We have now been back in America for one week. Lisa is in Michigan visiting Family until the new year and I am living with the parents in Arvada until we can move back to Boulder in January. It is defiantly an adjustment going from seeing a new, foreign place every couple days to living in a very suburban suburb. The thing that has annoyed me the most is being able to understand everyone else’s dumb ass conversations. I’m sure they are talking about the same stupid things in Europe, but at least I can’t understand it. Of course the hardest part is being away from Lisa as we had not been apart for more than an hour since May! We have plenty to keep us busy though, both starting businesses, planning a wedding and finding a place to live! Back to reality.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Mas Espana!

On the road again for our last couple of weeks we decided to get some climbing and warm weather in before heading north. We had flown into Madrid from Mallorca and spent just one night there before heading south to the Costa Blanca for some tower climbing. There was no train to Calpe, the town where the climbing was, so we had to take a train to Valencia and then a 3 hour bus (to go just 60 km) from there to Calpe. On the bus we went through one tourist nightmare city after another. They were all built up with high-rise condo buildings for the Germans and Brits, one leading into the next like the sprawl on the front range. This was by far our least favorite part of Spain. Calpe was a little better because at least there was an old part to the city, and more importantly it had the Peñon de Ifach, a thousand foot limestone tower rising straight out of the sea. The whole reason we came of course! Unfortunately it never stopped raining long enough to climb it. Instead we hiked up the descent trail to the summit (better than nothing) and climbed one short route at the base it a short break in the weather.

After our soggy non-climbing experience we had a really long (15 hour) day of travel to Granada. Again its not all that far but we had to go all the way back to Madrid, do a 180 and head back to the south. When we were in Andalucia before, everyone asked if we had been to Granada, when we said no they all said we had missed out. They were right. Granada was absolutely beautiful, a white Moorish city at the base of the snow capped Sierra Nevada mountains. It is also home to Flamenco and the Alhombra. The Alhombra is a Moorish (Arab) palace that is the most ornate thing I have ever seen. Ever inch of interior wall is covered in intricate carvings and tiles. The outside is covered with elaborate gardens with perfect views of the city below. As well as seeing the Alhombra and getting harassed by Gypsies with herbs we took in some culture at a Flamenco bar. We went into the bar which was actually a cave under the buildings that was just big enough to squeeze 30 to 40 people into. When the show started we were surprised that it was all men. We did not even know men could do Flamenco but they were unbelievable. Some chanted while another did a combination of what I would think of as Flamenco, tap and stomping. The show totally blew us away! 

After Granada we headed back to one of our favorite previous climbing destinations, El Chorro. When we got there we started walking to a cottage that we had booked. It ended up being way outside of town and far from the climbing. Whats more, when we arrived there didn't seem to be anyone working there. Finally we saw a lady and asked if she worked there and she informed us that she had until last week, when her husband kicked her out. We had seen enough and headed back into town. We ended up staying in the same exact cabin that we had the previous visit. We had three days there and spent the first 2 climbing in some of our favorite spots from before and spent the last hiking in the rain. 

For our last stop in Spain we had a five day stint in Madrid. Since we had five days we were able to take things at a much more relaxed pace; having lots of coffee and chocolate with churros dates. We did our usual walking all over the city but also had time for some shopping (first time on the whole trip!) and made it to a climbing gym. Overall Madrid was a really nice city and most people seemed nice. Also we were finally able to get some good Spanish practice in because they speak very clear Spanish there. The city was nice but nothing stood out as spectacular to me. Our favorite part was getting mulled wine and roasted sweet potato at the market. It was also really nice having Christmas lights and trees everywhere and everyone in the Christmas spirit, running around shopping.

At one point Lisa thwarted a pickpocket attempt. We were coming home from the climbing gym on the subway. I had our climbing pack so I looked like a backpacker. We got on the train that was so packed we were surprised to see someone cram in behind us. The guy who packed in behind us had his coat thrown over his arm so you could not see his hand. The train was so packed that we had to hold on to the bar above our heads, exposing our torsos. Just as we were pulling into the next stop Lisa felt the zipper to her jacket pocket open. She quickly put her hands down and covered her pockets. Knowing he had been caught the guy with the jacket cleared his throat awkwardly and nervously ran off the train. It was a good thing Lisa was so fast because there was an iPhone in her jacket pocket (usually a safe place) that he was going for! It was a fluke because usually I have the phone!
I guess that just shows we have to be diligent until the very end! We had fun in Madrid but were happy to move on to our last city: Amsterdam!

Saturday, November 27, 2010

We got to Mallorca late in the day and because it was the weekend there were no buses running to Pollença where we were going to be wwoofing for a few weeks.  We had to stay the night in Palma.  We set out in the dark the next moring so that we would be on the farm in time to start work that day.  When we got to Pollença our host, Bos, was 2 hours late picking us up.  Good thing we got up so early.  Once we finally got to the farm, which was a 20 minute drive up a one lane road that was one switchback after another, we got right to work.  We had talked with people about the olive harvest beforehand and everyone we taked to was curious what we would be doing; after all there are machines that just shake the tree.  It turns out that the trees we were collecting from were 500 to 1000 years old and much too big to be shaken.  The solution: hit the trees with a stick knocking the olives into a net on the ground, then pick them up.

The farm was called Pedruxella and absoultly stunning.  It sat high on the side of a valley surrounded by rocky peaks.  The land was all terraced with limestone popping out every which way and sheep wandering all over.  The owners and our hosts, Bos and Liz, live in the states but spend about 3 months a year on the farm.  When we arrived only Bos was there, who even though he ran on his own clock was very nice.  Liz and the kids arrived later for our last week.  Because they are not there all the time they have a farmer, Tolo, who runs just about everything.  We spent the days working for Tolo, and had dinner with Bos and the family.

The olives go to press first thing on monday mornings.  Because they are organic they have to be the first ones through the press for the week. This was good for us becasue it ment that we could not start picking untill thursaday, otherwise the olives would start to rot.  We worked all day Thursday through Sunday and had the other 3 days off.  We spent our first chunk of free time just hiking and exploring the farm.  After another week of work we were ready to see more of the island and go climbing.  Since it was the off season we were able to rent a car for those 3 days very cheaply.  Before climbing we went with Bos to check out the olive press.  The press itself was worth seeing but not overly interesting, the olives are cleaned, smashed and then rather than being pressed are actually run through a centerfuge.  The really interesting part was seeing how the olives are really part of the culture.  There was a huge line of small cars to huge trucks waiting to press their olives.  Everthing from families only making enough olive oil for thier own use to huge commercal operations.

After the press we headed to a town called Soller to go climbing.  Unfortunately it starting pooring just as we got there.  Luckily there was a section of the crag that was a huge cave and therefore dry.  The only bad thing is that all the routes in the cave were roof routes and way out of our leauge.  We went for it anyway and surprised ourselves by doing ok.  We tired ourselves out for the next two days of climbing.  After climbing we checked out the town that due to heavy trade in the past felt more french than spanish and had its own language.

The next day was my birthday so of course we went climbing.  This time we headed to the south coast where the weather was perfect.  We climbed right on a beach and were even able to take a break and swim.  That night we wanted to go out to dinner at a traditional Mallorquin restaurant that was recomended to us.  When we showed up at about 7:30 it was closed with no signs of life.  We wandered around and everything seemed to be closed.  Finally we settled on a British restaurant that was open.  The food was mediocre at best but we had fun anyway.  As we were leaving at about 9:00 we walked past the restaurant we had planned on and were surprised to see it was packed.  Oh well.

On our last day with the car we went to another climbing spot on the coast and climbed another full day.  When we went back to work on Thursday we felt like we needed a vaction to rest.  We continued working with Tolo and learing all about the land, he seemed to know everything!  One day when we were walking up to pick, a solid 15min hike, and he was telling us how he uses his dogs for goat hunting.  They trap the goat on a rock and by instict it will just stay there, then he throws a rope over it like a leash.  By amazing coinsidence just as he finished explaining, a herd of wild goats went running by.  He whistled at the dogs and pointed and they were off.  He threw is stuff down and followed close behind.  They all ran over a hill so we couldn´t see.  Within 3 minutes Tolo came walking back walking/dragging a live goat by its front legs.  He put a leash on it and tied it to a tree.  Later it was put in a pen with a few others where it will be kept until it is needed for meat.

After a couple days off, again just exploring the area on foot, it was Thanksgiving.  It was really nice to be in an American house so we could celebrate!  Liz had family come in and in total there were 18 people for dinner!  Lisa and I had a lot of fun cooking a good chunk of the dinner.  We cooked the turkey in a wood fire oven and it was delicious.  The next day was an even bigger party for the Tafona. The house has an old olive press run by a horse and once a year they have a big party and do a tradional press. The first step was cleaning all the machinery with vinegar.

Step 2: Tolo sorting the olives from the leaves

Step 3: A horse pulls this stone in a circle to crush the olives

Step 4: Put the "Tapanade" into baskets

Step 5: Stack the baskets in the press and add boiling water

Step 6: Press the baskets

Step 7: The oil seeps out along with juices and water.  It flows into a tank and seperates over time.

After our big finale press we were ready to hit the road again!

Monday, November 22, 2010

More Monistaries and Towers!

After Corsica, we spent one last night in France in a town called Carcasonne.  We had heard it was a nice city and it was on the way to Barcelona so we thought we would check it out.  The city itself was not memorable but there was a section of walled old city that was basically a giant castle.  We have seen a lot of castles on this trip, so at this point it took a lot to impress us, but we were impressed. 

The next day we made an exhausting journey to Barcelona.  We had made a rookie mistake of forgetting it was sunday (we had not done this in months) and had not gotten any food the previous day for the journey.  The only thing open was McDonalds and a Bakery.  I was able to just grab somthing at the bakery, but of course they did not have anything gluten free so Lisa was forced to Micky Ds.  On the menu the salad actually looked kind of good, but the real thing consisted of wilted lettus and soggy cheese.  Yum.  I think it will be another five years before we go back (except to use the free bathrooms.)

We spent two night in Barcelona and saw some tourist attractions like Gaudi`s Segrada Familia, which has been under construction since the 1920s, and a huge fort on a hill overlooking the city.  We then made the one hour metro ride to Montserrat, a monistary that is built on a mountain with hundreds of conglomerte pillars.  Of course we went for the latter.  We were so excited to get there that we didn´t even stop at the hotel, instead we just lugged all our shit to the top (really not that bad as a handy cable car cuts it down to a 10 minute stroll) and locked it to a handrail while we climbed.

Our first day of climbing we did a free standing tower that is supposed to be the "safe" version of montserrat.  Even as such, the bolts were generously spaced, up to 40ft apart, so we were glad we started with this tame tower.  A solid week of climbing in Corsica had paid off and we were supprised to cruise the route without so much as a hesitation.  (this is rare!)

The next day we climbed a five pitch face that was not in this "safe" area, but is was no worse than the climb  the previous day.  At the end of the day we decicded to climb one more small single pitch tower.  This time it did not feel safe.  The bolt spacing was similar to the other climbs, but the holds seemed as though they could pull off at any time!  Luckily none did, and it was a mental victory getting to the top.  Our last day we just did some sport climbing before heading back to Barcelona.

We spent another 2 nights in Barcelona and saw most of what we missed before: Las Ramblas (just a shopping district) and Parc Guell, a park full of Gaudi sculptures and pickpockets.  Our favorite part was the bustleing food market in Las Ramblas where we bought a bunch of fruit and some fish for lunch.  Our last day we went to the beach where Lisa got a 15 minute massage from one of the many asian women wandering the beach offering "Massagy?"  We had sent at least 20 away until we saw somone near us get one and the lady actually knew what she was doing, and it turned out to be only 5 euros!

Finally we headed to the airport, a bit of a pain becasue the Pope had just arrived in Barcelona, to catch a flight to Mallorca for our last wwoof!

Monday, November 1, 2010

Corsican Camo and Tufoni

Lisa climbing at Isla Rosa
We headed back through the cosmopolitan trash heap of Marseille to the airport to pick up a rental car for our "vacation" to Corsica. We had to go to the airport because it was the only place that we could find that would rent us a car without a young driver charge which would have doubled the cost. After a couple of trains and a bus we got the car no problem, which is actually quite remarkable because we later found out that the mob of strikers had blockaded the airport the same day. We drove back through our campsite, picked up our stuff, and headed to Toulon to catch our ferry.

St. Florent
The ferry was about 10 hours over night, which we spent camped out on the floor as opposed to paying for a cabin. It was slightly more comfortable than our nights at the airport. We arrived in the port city of Bastia on the North tip of the island with no real plan. We decided to take a scenic route to Calvi, a tourist town on the West Coast. We took back roads but even the main highway on Corsica was a back road by most standards. Along the way we stopped at a small fishing village then in the town of Ilsa Rosa where Lisa forced her way into a book store as they were closing for siesta and we bought a climbing guide. It turned out that there was a crag right in the town we were at. The climbing was unmemorable but the setting was unforgettable. The crag stat below a lighthouse above a crystal clear cove with mountain views behind.
Lisa posing in a tufoni
After some climbing and a nice dip we headed to our campsite in Calvi. The next day we headed inland for some more climbing. (We finally had a car and a guide book, we were going to make use of them!) The climbing here was better, and the view was from the top of the mountain we had been looking at the previous day. The climbing itself was bolted granite cracks. In America bolting a crack is frowned upon because it can easily be protected with clean removable protection, but since we only had sport gear we were happy to hqve the bolts. After climbing we started to explore inland a little and check out a wine route. Other than signs telling us we were on the wine route it seemed to not exist. There would be a sign for a winery, then nothing there. When we finally found one, it seemed as no one was there. Eventually another couple arrived and must have made more noise than us because a garage door opened with a small tasting bar instde that felt as though you were in someones garage.
The following day we slowly made our way towards Ajaccio, the largest city on the island, stopping to admire crazy red granite walls that fell straight into the sea that looked like if you were to flood Eldo with turquoise water. We also stopped to climb on a beach, just a beautiful as the last couple had been. Corsican rock is famous for tufoni, rock fins as thin as a quarter inch thick. While they are great fun to climb, they are nerve racking because they vibrate if you even breath on them!
Even tough Calvi and Ajaccio are only about 60 miles apart, the drive was over four hours along roads so curvy and full of holes they made four wheeling roads from home seem like highways. We planned on camping near Ajaccio that night, but found all campsites closed (and primitive camping is illegal.) We ended up getting a hotel with Internet so we could look up open camping for our next destination. Ajaccio was unremarkable and we left early the next morning to climb a granite mountain called Gozzi. It had rained the night before which meant that we got soaked bushwhacking for an hour up to the base of the climb. Once we were standing at the base, the rock that had looked bomber from the ground was covered in moss and water streaks. It also looked as though the scramble up to it was more of a challenge. We decided it wasn't worth shivering up so we headed back for the car. While we were changing our of our wet cloths we were ambushed and Lisa's shoe stolen by a very fierce lab puppy.
Lisa bouldering near Bonifacio
After playing with the puppy for a while we continued south to Bonifacio, the far south tip of the island. Again it was a slow windy road but we were in no hurry because we had found four campsites that said they were open. When we arrived we went to the tourist info office so they could direct us towards the campgrounds. We were informed that they were all closed. All? Yes all. We confirmed this by driving around for two hours looking at all of them. We ended up staying in a hotel in Porte Vechio, a 30 minute drive north. We stayed there for 2 nights. It ended up being a good thing because all three nights we spent in hotels it poored. Every other night was perfect.
The next morning we went to a beach with bouldering. It poored so there was no climbing to be had but it was seriously gorgeous. The weather cleared and we headed to actually see Bonifacio. Bonifacio is probably the coolest town I have ever seen. It is old run down Mediterranean building precariously perched on a a hundred foot white cliff trying not to fall into the sapphire sea below. The same cliff band continues for 10 miles with only a light house in the view. The only down side is no climbing because the rock is to soft and crumbly.
We drove around looking for a beach that was supposed to be beautiful but never figured out how to access it. We spent the evening watching the sun set behind the hanging buildings. (Less romantic than you might think because it was mostly me telling a shivering Lisa "only a few more minutes until the light is perfect, then we can go."
Bonifacio at sunset
The next day we headed inland to Bavella, Corsica's most famous climbing destination. It was unreal. It looked like a combination of Chamonix and Estes Park but with a view of the sea! As we drove up to it we watched the thermometer drop to just above freezing and we were planning our escape back to the coast. Luckily just as we started climbing the sun came out and it ended up being a perfect day. That night we headed to a camp site up halfway up the east coast, having called ahead to confirm they were open. When we arrived we were surprised to see a huge billboard advertising it as a nudist resort. Luckily it was cold so there were no nudists. (I guess the fat German men dont like the cold!)
Climbing at Bavella

On our last full day we went inland to the Largest inland city, Corte, where we climbed for a few hours then explored the town. We liked Corte much better that the larger coastal cities because it had a much rawer feel. The down side of this being all of the graffiti of the liberation groups. (Corsica does not want to be part of France and they don't hide it. The french in all of the road signs has either been painted over or more eloquently replaced by bullet holes. They also seem to love camo, one in three men wearing it, which I think has something to do with this.)
While in Corte we just strolled around, making friends with another black dog that wanted our lunch (he didn't know I have 3 black dogs trying to take my lunch at home, so it was easy to resist.) Before catching the ferry back to the mainland Friday night we went climbing on top of a mountain above Bastia. It was a nice way to end the trip with views of both coasts until we were interrupted by some very loud cows. Since we were now finished with our sweet tent (we tried to send it home but could not communicate with the lady at the post office) we gave it to a group of guys climbing. They were very thankful and even tried to give us a bag of pot in return. (Thanks but no thanks.) After another shitty nights sleep on the ferry we returned the car (mirrors intact) and were back to "reality."
Our new friend from Corte

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Pain in the ass trains

With some expert advice from our wwoof hosts we headed to Brittany, the far North West region of France. The first town we went to was Roscoff. It was a very quaint fishing town whose harbors were far bigger than the town center. Brittany is the region that crepes are from, and as soon as we found out that we could get them made from buckwheat, which is gluten free, we ate them for at least two meals a day. While we were there we celebrated Lisa's birthday with a seaside crepe picnic lunch and a crepe dinner in a creperie.
After Roscoff we went to St Malo, which was much larger and much more touristy. The coolest thing about St Malo was the beach. At high tide there was no beach, the water came all the way up to the city walls. At low tide the beach was a quarter mile wide and you could see the water had come up the city walls 20ft. There was a pool on the beach that was refilled every time the tide came in. Lisa went swimming laps even though it was freezing.
While there, we took a day trip to Mont Saint Michel, which is a beautiful island topped with a huge cathedral just off the Normandy coast. Well sometimes its an island, at low tide you can walk to it!
We had planned on seeing the Normandy D'Day beaches the next day but a train strike made it impossible, so we skipped it and headed straight for Paris. We arrived in Paris and piled on one of the suburban trains at rush hour that was packed so tight you could not breath because they were only running a fraction of the trains they would normally run. We met Sylvain, another one of Lisa's dads friends, who kindly offered us a place to stay. His flat was in a suburb, but it is not like an American suburb, it is still very much the city, just not technically Paris.

Lisa wanted to get her hair cut and found an academy online where she could get it done for free by students. After almost five hours she was finished with about a foot cut off. The snoody director told her that she could not just get a trim, it was not enough practice for the students.
With her new spunky hair cut we did our usual walking around every neighborhood possible. We saw a lot more pictures of Jesus at the Louvre and saw the many porn shops and strip clubs that surround the Moulin Rouge. We ate a couple of very nice meals out with Sylvain and I dragged Lisa around the city at night to get pictures.
After a few days we had had enough being packed into subways and trains and planned on heading south to climb. We went shopping and bought a cheap tent that pops up in 2 seconds!  The train strike continued, and continued to be a pain in our ass. Our original train was cancelled and we were put on a different train that had a few transfers. We got off the train at our first transfer, which as the crow flies was actually very close to where we had planned to climb (and camp), and I swear it was about to snow. We went inside and found that our next leg had be cancelled and we would have to be re routed again, this time through the Marseille, then head back north into the mountains. We took this as a sign and got on the Internet and found some climbing further south, just outside of Marseille in the Calenques. Marseille was a dump (literally, as due to the strike trash was no longer being collected and accumulated mountains on the street.) I don't think it would have been much better anyway though.
The Calenques and the town of Cassis where we camped however were beautiful. Perfect limestone mingling in crystal turquoise waters. The only problems were that the wind never stopped blowing the entire time we were there and it was a solid 2 hour hike from the campsite to the climbing. Due to these two factors we did not get all that much climbing in, but we were happy spending a few day in such a beautiful place anyway!