Monday, September 24, 2012

Some other travels in 2012


After writing all these posts for Europe, I noticed that I neglected to write about some other weekend trips I made this year. Apologies for having them out of order – but better late than never!

Seattle
I scheduled a trip out in March to visit some friends that I hadn’t seen in a while. There was still snow on the mountains, so I packed the snowboard. My friend Sahala and his girlfriend were heading out to Crystal Mountain with their friends that weekend, so I tagged along. As it turns out, cycling tightens up my right hip and psoas, so I had some pain trying to control the board. After a miserable first run, I logged into work and saw there I was a minor emergency. I spent the afternoon working while the others rode. All wasn’t lost, there was a REI company party sponsored by Marmot, so I got some Marmot schwag. I’m not giving up cycling, so I’m just going to have to learn to ride switch (with the opposite foot in front). It will absolutely suck the first couple days, and it will feel like learning to ride all over again since I don’t have muscle memory for it.

The next day, I got to hang out with my high school roommate, Maaike. It was a good time walking around Seattle with her and catching up. She’s an architect, and she lives in a flat with a fantastic rooftop view of Seattle.
Maaike on her rooftop deck

























That evening, I had dinner at Spur Gastropub with a bunch of Trilogy and TAMS friends. These folks across different periods in my life clicked, and it was a nice feeling to introduce them to each other.

Pigging out in LA
Some of my college friends and I decided to do a quick getaway to LA for a weekend in April. This was the eating crowd, so we spent all of our time eating, discussing what to eat and then eating again. I managed a run from Venice to Santa Monica beach and back, but not much else. Highlights included Newport Tan Cang, Korean food and Umami Burger.
Dinner!

























At Newport Tan Cang, we ordered a huge plate of lobster. Most of the folks weren't willing to do the work to get to the lobster meat, so Judy and I cleaned up. Hours later, I ended up with pretty bad hives, and thought I had developed an adult onset allergy to lobster. Months later, I was still breaking out in hives and eventually figured out I was allergic to dyes in laundry detergent. I can safely eat lobster again.

Leadville
At some point in time, my friends and I decided to do a trail half marathon at Leadville at the end of June to see how we would feel at altitude (some are ascending Kilimanjaro in fall 2013). I signed up and promptly forgot about it. Typical me, I didn’t run for the months leading up to it. Race day came, and it was rather miserable.  Leadville sits at 10,000 feet of elevation, and the race (a heavy half at 15 miles) has us going up to 13,000 feet. I walked most of it (slowly at that) and was just happy to be done with the race.
View going up Mosquito Pass, Leadville



















Being us, my friends and I also decided to go whitewater rafting the day after the race. We weren’t the most nimble folks, but it was nice to be active without using our legs. I actually stood in the river for a bit during lunch for a much needed ice bath.
Before heading out on the river

























Of Montreal (and Mont Tremblant)
I traveled to Quebec mid-August to watch several friends compete in the inaugural Ironman Mont Tremblant. It was nice to get out of the stifling heat in Austin and head to a cooler climate. The town really took to the event and made us feel welcome. They repaved most of the bike course, displayed Ironman banners on the small businesses and installed Ironman street signs along the route. We later found out that the banners were sold by the Chamber of Commerce to the businesses at CAD 200 each.

After four years, I finally made use of the S&S couplers on my bike and brought my bike along for the trip. It took about two hours to break it down the first time and then another hour to put it back together. It was interesting to see how far I've come in understanding how my bike works - I don't think I could have done it alone four years ago.  
Packed bike



















The bike course was gorgeous and was broken up into segments: 1) transition out to the highway, 2) an out and back on a fast and mostly flat section, 3) a short in/out of St Jovitte (where I stayed), 4) rollers from (1) back to transition, and 5) an out and back on a nice hilly section that went up in steps.  The road back on the hilly section was net downhill - I had a stupid grin on my face every time I rode that part of the course. 

Race day itself was long, but my friends had great races (especially for the tough bike course).
Happy on my bike

Scott before the race

John finishing up a great race
Denis, finding his daughter Autumn, on the run
Chris, the birthday boy, in the finish chute


I also managed to have Timmy Horton's (the Canadian donut shop) every day. There's a TimBit (donut hole) that's just amazing. We also had poutine and beaver claws (fried flat donut with cinnamon, sugar and lemon) as a treat.

In the end, I only had 12 hours in Montreal, but I managed to get a nice run up Mont Royal from my hotel. I did a nice jaunt up the stairs, but hurried down as it was getting dark. I'll definitely need another visit to Montreal to get a feel of the town. 
View of city from Mont Royal


Saturday, September 22, 2012

Day Trip to Bratislava


On the walk to the tram to the train, we stopped at the grocery store, bakery, Hundertwasser Haus and a design store. Needless to say, we missed our intended 10:20 train to Bratislava. Since it’s hourly, we decided to go to the Heeresgeschichtliches (Military) Museum to wait for the next train. The Austro-Hungarian empire had a long military history and the museum has been there since 1856, so we spent more than an hour there. We saw lots of armor from the 1500’s onwards. Also on display were guns, swords, spears, other brutal weapons, uniforms and battle field flags throughout history.

When I took American History in the 9th grade, I learned that the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand in Sarajevo started World War I. Back then, I didn’t know much about the Hapsburgs, so I was rather confused. After spending some time in Vienna, I have a bit more context. The museum had the car Franz Ferdinand was riding in when he was assassinated along with his military uniform that day. I have to admit that the slashes and blood stains were a bit gruesome for me.

While the English bits were sparse, there was a hall dedicated to World Wars I & II. It was interesting to read a different perspective of the wars and why they were fought.

Archduke Franz Ferdinand's car in Sarajevo


We finally got on the train to Brastislava, which was about an hour away. We walked around the castle grounds and then searched around for the Museum of Clocks. It’s housed in the reputedly skinniest house in Central Europe, so it’s a bit hard to find. Afterwards, we walked around the Old Town, found a cute cake shop, and then headed back to Vienna.


Bratislava Castle

The house was this big!
Old Town Bratislava

Rawr!

Summary Cycling Thoughts


In 8 riding days, I rode 368 miles with 30,578 feet of climbing. I had a great time riding in Slovenia & Croatia this week, and I highly recommend Far & Away to folks who like low-frills traveling and lots of climbs.


Some things I learned this week:
  • Churches are often on top of a hill.  Makes for very scenic pictures.
  • It’s not just the mileage or the number of feet climbed, the gradient along the way can also soften your legs.
  • The climbing here can be like Austin hills, except they don't stop for miles. However, even a quarter mile can still be a long way to climb.
  • The percentage, switchback, and snowflake signs mean more pain and suffering to come.
  • The “right way” usually involves a climb.
  • Here, people don't create the segments - Strava creates them for you.


Vienna


On the first day in Vienna, we found a crowded coffee shop for breakfast. While we were sipping on our cappuccinos, the shop’s retractable awnings slid out with the threat of rain. At one point, I mentioned that it had gotten cold, and within a minute, the electric heaters came on and set us back at a comfortable temperature

We decided to tour the Belvedere first as it was in the same district as our AirBnB flat. We walked through the grounds and then toured the Upper Belvedere, which included the well-done Klimt exhibit (includes The Kiss). Even though it was raining, we took the tram to Inner Ring of Vienna for lunch at Hollman Salon, similar to a gastro pub in the States. From there, we walked around the Hopsburg and saw that they were setting up for a sports event. Unfortunately, it didn’t include a run, so we moved on. After a coffee stop to warm and fuel up, we did a walking tour around the area.  In the middle of the walk, I noticed a bakery smell in a courtyard. When we turned the corner, there was a line for the bakery. We walked on, but the smell followed us. Of course, we turned around and had an amazingly fluffy and flaky chocolate croissant.

We returned in the evening to tour the Lower Belvedere. My legs were aching from all the walking and my feet were unhappy with my choice of shoes (Chuck Taylor's) for the day.

Gardens at the Belvedere

























On the second day, we took an early Ubanh (subway) to Schloß Schonbrunn, the summer palace of the House of Hapsburg. Good thing we went early – it got more crowded as the day went on. I guess most folks don’t wake up early on vacation.

We spent about 6 hours touring the grounds and imperial rooms of Schloß Schonbrunn. The rooms were well done, and we learned quite a bit about the House of Hapsburg. While walking through the gardens, we saw how they trimmed the hedges (something we wondered about even at the Belvedere). We completed the maze (more difficult than it looks) and went through the labyrinth.  While we didn’t find Minotaur, we did find a climbing pole. When we arrived, we saw two guys. One had already made it to the top of the pole, and the other was taking his picture. The picture taking one seemed to waffle on whether or not he wanted to climb the pole, so I went ahead and climbed it. After I rung the bell at the top, I think I heard something akin to: “Now you have to do it.” So, of course, the picture taking friend also climbed the pole.

After the labyrinth, we made our way to an apple strudel demo and had a nice lunch at the café. I’ve noticed that museum/attraction cafés in Vienna are quite good in terms of food quality and presentation. We ended the day at Schloß Schonbrunn with a tour of the carriage museum which had an impressive collection of daily, sport, coronation and mourning carriages.

Windy & cold day at Schloß Schonbrunn

What it takes to trim the hedges

Apple strudel demo

Goat cheese salad with pumpkin chutney at  Schloß Schonbrunn








































































Before the trip, we decided to go hear a symphony while in Vienna. The town seems obsessed with Mozart, but I prefer Beethoven. Our choices were easily narrowed down to a Beethoven (and Mozart) Symphony at Karlskirche (St. Charles' Church). We took the tram to a quick Greek dinner and then another to the church. The walk there gave us a good view of the dramatically lit church in the evening. While the acoustics could have been better, I still enjoyed the symphony and the surroundings. The first chair was quite animated the whole evening. I haven’t attended many symphonies, so I’m not sure if this is common. I also liked her short sleeve dress accessorized by long gloves with the fingers cut out.

Karlskirche




















On the third day, we started off at the Wien (Vienna) Museum, which is a hoarder’s dream. I saw lot of cool armor, sandstones and door signs. Until recent history, most people were illiterate, so the door signs had to be distinct: the locksmith needed a key on his sign or a tavern needed its symbol (I saw an example for the green lizard tavern).

The eclectic mix of items there came from a pattern of donation throughout the years. There was a 16th century item donated to the museum in 1899. Many statues on churches and public buildings were damaged by industrialization and weather. During their restoration, the originals were donated, and the copies are displayed outside in the elements.

Stained glass windows from Stephansdom


Armor!

























For lunch, we headed over to Naschmarkt.  It had endless stalls of restaurants and stands for vegetables & fruit (I evens saw jackfruit and dragon fruit), spices, dried fruit, sweets, meats, seafood, olives, cheeses and charcuterie. There were even a few stalls for wine. We stopped at the crowded Naschmarkt Deli, and I loved my chicken corn-flake covered schnitzel.

We capped off the sight-seeing with modern art at Belvedere 21. Personally, I don’t like very modern art. The pieces that lack craftsmanship/skill simply don’t interest me. 


Friday, September 21, 2012

Cycling in Slovenia


Day 6: Brod Na Kupi to Ljubljana
The morning was bitterly cold, and we immediately rode through the border crossing. The fog was still lingering in the valleys, and within a few miles, we had the uphill for the day that involved some “work.”  (Our tour leader, Bob, has a great way of understating the climbs.)
Fog lingering in the valleys on the ride to Ljubljana



















The day was just cold and miserable, and the pack we were riding in (Greg, Robin, John, Roman and myself) weren’t properly bundled up. We accidentally found a coffee shop, so we warmed up with cappuccinos and hot chocolate.  I poured my hot chocolate into my thermal water bottle to have some warmth for the ride.

We had fun riding through the forest and picked up the pace to get to lunch. Due to the cold and unexpected distance to lunch (about 5-7 miles after I expected it), I got a bit hungry and mean. I wasn't using much nutrition in my bottle on the trip and was counting on lunch to refill my tank.  We picked up some lunch at the grocery store (as the restaurant wasn't open yet) and tried to warm up at the coffee shop next door. At one point, I was so cold and miserable, I seriously considered not continuing on with the day's ride.

I toughened up and got back on my bike. After lunch, the cold, cold descent was on a scenic, quiet bike route and then undulating roads into Ljubljana. The ride in was nicely paced and fun, so I was happy I continued.  At the concluding happy hour with the tour group, I found out we weren’t saying goodbye to everybody - some more folks were joining us on the way to Bled.

Off tour: Ljubljana to Bled
Before we started the tour, we knew we were going on to Bled. The question was whether we would take the train or ride there. My big concern was having enough gears to cross the pass into Bled. Since other folks would be riding too, I didn’t have much of a choice.

The two couples (Robin and John, Chantel and Bob) set off ahead of us that morning. I wanted to catch up, but I didn’t think we could make up the difference. While the start/stop getting out of town was difficult; I liked the cycling infrastructure. We had a bike lane on the major thoroughfare that separated us from cars and pedestrians, and there traffic signals for all three.  The bike lane had mostly commuters, and one was upset when we passed her without using a bell. 

After some time, we stopped at the picturesque town of Škofja Loka. There was a Citroen bus caravan that we wanted to photograph, and we ran into the two couples at a coffee shop there. I had a great farmer’s cheese stuffed pastry and a tasty tangerine soda.
Citroen bus caravan

Leaving Škofja Loka




































After this stop, we had a brisk flat with a bit of headwind. I was careful to maintain an easy pace as I was wary of the mountain pass. The climb itself wasn’t too bad: it had short steep sections relieved by "flatter" sections (3-6%). Near the top, we had gorgeous views looking back at the start of the climb. A few switchbacks later, we saw a WWII memorial on the hillside. At the top of the pass, we had amazing views of the valley and a quaint church down a walking path. We could also see the snow-capped Julian Alps in the distance. 

Looking back to the climb start


Church down the path, Julian Alps in the distance



































The descent into Kropa was shaded, cold, and bumpy. My forearms got tired from squeezing the breaks so often. We went into the museum at Kropa, and the attendant turned on the loud, but neat music box for us. It even had a drum head and cymbals. After another descent, we arrived at Bled, which included a quiet route over a gravel path.

On the way in, we took a route that was different than the sign to Bled. I stopped after the sign, and Chantel (Bob’s wife) went in a different direction from the group. I remember her yelling out, “Every man for himself!”  I like the spirit of exploration and the lack of handholding. It embodies the spirit of Bob’s tours. As Chantel said, Bob’s philosophy is that he doesn’t go back.

Before checking in to our respective hotels, we rode around town to see where everyone was staying and decided to meet at Penzion Mayer for dinner. The mushroom soup that night at Penzion Mayer was one of my favorite soups of the trip. (Earlier that day, we saw that the King Boletus mushroom was in season, so I made it a point to order mushroom anything afterwards.)

Our flat from AirBnB was awesome – and our hostess left us with a basket of fresh fruit. I’m a huge fan of how the AirBnB folks go out of their way to make us feel welcome. 

Off tour: Bled to Bohinj and back
We met up with Robin & John for the ride to Bohinj and back. At one point, when asked, Roman said the next bit was undulating. Within a mile, we started our penultimate climb of the day – a Cat 2 Strava climb of 4.3 miles, averaging 7.5%, and climbing 1, 657 ft. During the unending climb, we went through two tunnels and saw a warning sign of 18% grade (the highest grade warning I had seen on the trip). I steeled myself and continued on. The climb was so long, I sweated through my arm warmers. This made the descent even colder.

At the top of the climb, we could see a village at the bottom of the valley. After descending a bit, we started to see a different village ahead on a slope with hair pin turns.  Next thing you know, we went through the village at the bottom.  We were so cold, our coffee stop ended up being a long lunch stop. We filled ourselves up with tea with local honey, hot cocoa, mushroom soup, pasta & mushrooms, goat, and strudel. In the ride through the valley, we went through several picturesque villages. We heard and saw cattle bells hanging off cows instead of spectators.  

We finally descended to Bohinj Lake and rode around the lake to the entrance to a waterfall. On the way, we encountered some unexpected climbs to the entrance. There was a 20 minute hike up steps to get to Savica Falls, and when we got there the viewing area was a bit crowded so we took some quick photo graphs and headed back. Along the hike, we saw tons of freshwater fish in the clear water.  The sun was starting to wane, and I was worried about getting back to town before dark. 
Riding through the valley


Lake Bohinj

Savica Falls






























































The road back to Bled was relatively flat with a cross and headwind, so Roman led our paceline home. We saw two cyclists in the distance, but they stayed away for several miles. John moved to the front and slowly reeled in the two. They were quite animated when talking to us initially, but we couldn’t understand them. Roman and their lead cyclist pulled us all the way back to Bled. It was nice finishing the day with a brisk fast pace, and we had plenty of daylight left.

When we got back, we found fresh-baked apple strudel from our AirBnb hostess! That night, I had trout for dinner as I had been thinking about fish all day.

Off tour: Bled East and back by Vintgar Gorge
The routes we used the previous two days had been recommended (and defined in GPSies) by Bob.  Using Strava, we looked around for suitable routes with just enough climbs at 3,000-4000 ft and around 40 miles. I then created the route for the Garmins using GPSies. This worked out pretty well – we used the route of a Bled local so the climbing was nice and the roads were reasonably safe.
  
We met with Robin & John at Helia’s, the travel agency / bike rental company that transported our luggage, and the travel agent recommended some sights along the way. We took a nice cycling path near the main road from Bled to Lesce. This was a well maintained route with a nice bridge. The cycling paths and bike lanes around Slovenia show that they really take care of their cyclists, and it shows in the number of cyclists we saw in our time there. During a Monday afternoon, we saw at least a dozen cyclists riding about.

After one of the first climbs, we saw gorgeous views of a valley and the mountains beyond.  We rode through the valley to the other side and saw those same mountains up close later in the day. The route felt comparatively flat, but we still climbed over 3,000 ft and went over three Cat 4 climbs. On one of our detours (uphill, of course), we rode by the ruins of a castle. Our route went by Vintgar Gorge, and we had a nice stop there. It had neat wooden pathways through the gorge and beautiful waterfalls. I personally liked it more than Savica Falls. 

We were so weary of riding, that this was our last ride for the trip.



























Bled
The next morning, we tried to rent a car to take us to Vršič Pass.  Since it was the end of the season, there were none available. Weighing our options, we decided to head to Vienna a day early as there was much to see there. We used the morning to visit the Bled castle atop the cliff and eat ice cream while enjoying the view of the lake. 

Interestingly, a castle/fortress had been at that location for over a thousand years. Nowadays, a castle on the hilltop looks pretty, but back then, it made great sense from a defensive standpoint.