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Archives: Serbia-Italy-France 2008

Synopsis – Skiing the French Alps! via Belgrade and driving across Italy 26 March 2008

For those of you who aren’t sure you want to read all of the juicy details of the trip, here is a brief overview of how our trip turned out:

Belgrade: Sunday-Thursday, just hanging out while Jim worked and Irena recovered from a very bad cold, visiting family and friends, and driving and GPS-ing a couple of Jim’s favorite cycling routes (THAT was fun!).

Drive to the Alps: Thursday I visited 3 new countries (Croatia and Slovenia and Italy) and we made it to Venice and spent the evening exploring there; Friday we stopped in Verona to visit Romeo and Juliet’s famous balcony, then made it to Torino; Friday it took us an hour to find our way out of Torino, and we arrived in Val d’Isere around 4pm.

Sun: First day on the slopes – very difficult heavy snow for me, but AMAZING views.
Mon: Second day – absolutely miserable! Zero visibility.
Tue: Beautiful! Rode THROUGH the mountain and skied on top of the world.
Wed: Tricked by Irena to start the day on a black; fell later in the day & nearly lost my pants!
Thu: Fantastic day of skiing (my last); visited the Keyhole rock.
Fri: Blizzard conditions – Irena is tackled by a snowdrift.

Grande MotteHead home: Saturday, Jim & Irena drove me to the notable and lovely village of Annecy to drop me off and drive back to yet another Alps resort for another 7 days of skiing. I wandered around the old city, then caught the 2-hour train to Lyon early Sunday morning for my flight home via Munich.
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funiculaireI can now definitely recommend, from personal experience, skiing (or snowshoeing, sis) in the French Alps. Since Irena asked me, it seems a good idea to put this here: For me the very BEST of our ski trip was the spectacular beauty of the mountains, and skiing the Grande Motte (above).

Here we are…tired, happy skiers on the amazing funiculaire :) —->

PS – Check back soon – I plan to add links to some Google Earth GPS track files of two days of skiing, and two of Jim’s most difficult cycling routes that you can download.

Annecy to Lyon to home 23 March 2008

Just unbelievable. (Now, for the necessary feeling and effect, imagine hearing those two words as Irena would say them – in her accent with a totally disgusted tone of voice.)

The elevator in the hotel was not working when I had to leave at 5:30am this morning, so I had to drag my 100 bloody lbs of stupid luggage down 4 flights of useless stairs. And there does not appear to be an elevator in the train station, so I had to do it again down two flights, then of course lift it up onto the train itself. Damn straight I’ve lost 5 pounds this morning already!!! (And believe me, these are NOT the expletives I used when I FIRST drafted this blog!) annecy hotel

It *was* a lovely rooftop dormer room, though – slanted ceiling just above my head with a skylight that opens, black-painted rafters, a wider-than-US-standard single bed, a big window that opens in the largish bathroom, and once again, fine attention to detail throughout. cyclist on lake path Annecy is indeed a lovely old city (thanks, Darryl, for the suggestion!) – nestled between not-so-high alps on a huge lake. What tickled me most is the two-directional bike paths, cyclists painted often in bright green, and I could see them even from the train as I went through Aix-les-Bain, another famous Tour location.bike path

Sometime last week, Irena and I were commenting and laughing about how we do not exist for all the young men…they only have eyes for their ‘own’, and if anyone ever does seem to notice us, it is only the ‘old’ guys. Well, I experienced that in spades this morning! As I was dragging my luggage down the platform toward the train, this OLD French guy that I passed, complete with beret and not bad looking but short and about age 65-70, whistled at me, gave me a thumbs up, and clapped (what, that I was pulling my own luggage?), and I heard the word ‘belle’ – sure made me laugh, and feel good!

Today is Easter Sunday, and now I am rolling (sitting backward) along the edge of a wide hilly valley between alps, steep hills to one side and flat land to the other, but cannot yet really see mountains because the sun is not quite up, and the fog and clouds are heavy. It snowed last night in this region, and everything is frosted with white – green grass and pink cherry blossoms sort of glow beneath the snow in this soft 7am light. I can just barely see the outline of peaks and ridges, and solid banks of snowfields or glaciers. Much of the countryside outside Annecy reminded me of Pennsylvania so far – very hilly with deep steep river cuts, but now it is flatter. There is a tree everywhere that looks like reindeer antlers.

For several now-funny moments, I was queasy with mild panic when at one train stop, after sitting for about 10 minutes, we started going forward, back the way we came! I began to wonder if I was supposed to change trains, and contemplated asking my neighboring passengers…”Bonjour! Parlais vous Anglais? Are we still headed for Lyon??” But then the train made a wide turn back in the direction we were headed, and now I am riding forward. Then, when I arrived in Lyon, again I had to go to the information desk… “Bonjour! Je parle Francais, mais un petit peu (in my best French accent, smiling)…switching to English: Where do I catch the Satobus (shuttle bus??), and can I get a ticket on board?” And now the phrase “Zut alors!” pops into my head…anyone remember what that means? BTW, Irena gave me such shit this week about my [lack of] French! But it WAS hilarious; I would leave a shop and say ‘Bonjour’, or enter a shop and say ‘Au revoir’ – just couldn’t get it right. They say it takes two months to recall a language you have learned, but I doubt that even 5 years of HS French, with NO chance to practice except in singing, really ever qualified me as a French speaker.

Leaving Val d’Isere 22 March 2008

Irena called this “Transfer Day” – when everyone leaves the ski resort and new folks arrive…pure chaos! I now call it “Swear-at-the-Corolla Day”.

condo view 2aThe snow has slowed a bit, and the roads appear to have been largely cleared. We again awoke to the sound of avalanche cannon going off around us. But our car problems have not yet been solved. We have a fairly new Toyota Corolla, with an after-market alarm, and found out when our cute (*I* think) Frenchie ‘Maxim’ came and tried to jump start it this morning, that the alarm key was not working – the alarm went off, so the car could not be started. So I went out and found a new battery. (And asked AGAIN about the postbox, and was pointed AGAIN to the yellow box, to which I said “That’s not for dog poop?” and she laughed! But I didn’t go look, yet.)

Then we spent about an hour trying to get the key fob to work again, and calling Belgrade to find out what to do, only to learn that we had to get the alarm key to work, then attach the cables and wait 10 seconds while the alarm goes off, then press the key and wait for 4 beeps. No brainer, right? So Jim finally got the key fob working – found out it had a bad contact. skis on car It took about 3.5 hours total, and lots of dirt on the hands and ski pants, to get the car started, with the help of some Macedonians that Irena had spotted earlier in the week and had said, we should ask them for help…isn’t that funny how that worked out?

Problem solved, right? Well, when they started the car in Annecy to leave me, the alarm went off again, so they went through another hour’s round of calls to the agency, wrangling with them to get them another car, to no avail. But they made it to back Val Thorens where they will ski this week (which is, incidentally, TWICE the SIZE of Val d’Isere/Espace Killy!!). Sounds like it was an uneventful trip, except that due to all the delays, they missed out on the indoor parking. :(

chateau I walked for about 3 hours around the old part of the city, which sits at and on the base of a ridge that comes down into the city center. The cobblestone streets are lined with lovely yellow-paned hanging lanterns, very hilly and narrow, with the buildings again painted in rich sunny colors like in Italy, and covered in vines (and now I recall that we *are* very close to the Mediterranean). vines and mountain Even the roof tiles are artfully done in wave and swirl patterns. I waited too long to have dinner, and was not able to have fondue in the restaurant (L’Etage) on the nearby walking street that the hotel clerk recommended, but I found a charming creperie and had a cheese and bacon crepe with salad on top (very savory – hi Abby!) with a glass of the house red. The decor of the place, and the city, made me think of Joan of Arc – stone pillars, low ceilings, rafters. And of course, I bought two French pastries – for dessert and breakfast. :)

Val – Last Day to Ski…Blizzard! 21 March 2008

What a wild day this has been! Snow began falling steadily at about midnight last night. When we woke up, there was at least a foot and a half of new snow on the ground, and it has been BUCKETING down and blowing clouds and drifts everywhere since. I had already decided unless the weather was clear and bright, I was not going out.

kissingBut the lovebirds did go out (just have to include this sunny-day photo here) – around 10am, and I later trudged through the blowing snow to mail some postcards (see funny story below) and do some shopping, while part of my heart was whispering ‘oh, I wish I was in this beautiful new snow’, but WHOOOOEEEEE, am I glad I didn’t go!

I bought the perfect ski goggles on sale… which reminded me, Irena told us the funniest thing about one of our ski buddies from my last trip here to ski: Mika, our wonderful cook and NON-stop skier in Kopaonik, does not wear goggles – he claims he cannot hear. (He also doesn’t wear gloves OR anything on his head, ever, regardless of the weather conditions.) I saw Mika and Duki (who both looked fantastic – younger in fact, than I remembered them) in Belgrade – it was great to see them. And I was very sad Voja could not join us, so I missed seeing him – maybe next time, Voja!!

And just now as I am writing this (it is about 1:30pm) Jim walks into the pub covered in snow and says…. “GEEEZZZ are YOU glad you didn’t go with US this morning!!” Their short ski day began auspiciously: As they were walking to the bus in their ski boots and carrying their skis (down a one-block hill), Irena slipped on the deepening snow and fell on her bum! Anyway, they caught the shuttle bus down the valley a ways (which we have all done several times) to take the gondola. When they got to the top and skied the short run from Val over to Tignes, visibility was less than 10 feet and the wind felt like about 40 knots!!! From there they took the chairlift – in the howling wind – to Touvier on the Tignes side (our meeting spot all three times), and at that point they decided to go back home. This photo is from Monday, which was not NEARLY as bad. snowy They also learned that the wind was so high the Aeroski Gondola that goes up to that same peak from another direction was closed due to the wind! The run back to the road and bus from there is easy but LONG – about 3.5k. Vis was still about 1-2 meters, and snow and sky were indistinguishable.

So Jim says to Irena “You go in front, Love, and I’ll follow you so I don’t lose sight of you!” And Irena says “Where is the run?” Jim says “Just go straight, I can see the poles.” (HE says that was the ONLY thing visible – the blue pole markers running down each side of every ski run – see above photo with much better viz.) So Irena takes off, makes one turn, and falls flat on her arse! Neither can figure out what has happened. She asks Jim to help her get up, so he skis over to her and suddenly realizes why she wiped out – because, invisible to them, 3m away, was an invisible 5-foot high drift of snow that she ploughed into, and like a wall of cold marshmallow, bounced her back! They had been alone on the slopes, but 4 other guys showed up, and visibility did begin to improve to about 100m. But the whole trip home was in 2 feet of snow from overnight, and the wind continued.

Anyway, we left the pub and crossed the street, watching a snow-vacuum street cleaner following close behind a dump truck and spraying the snow ahead of him into the truck – they were NOT connected, and were having to maintain an even speed, not always successfully. We shopped a little more, and then went over and sat in the crepes cafe for lunch (remember that Serbs, when skiing, eat lunch at 5pm and dinner at 10pm) and had beer, salad, and cheese fondue with perfectly LOUSY, RUDE service. But we got drunk and enjoyed sharing many old growing-up stories with Irena. When we finally headed home after our last stop, the storm had become a blizzard, with us swearing our way up the hill into the wind. It is now after 9 pm, and we just walked BACK down the hill to the internet cafe in this maelstrom – are we crazy, or what?!!

Some more funny stories: On the way, I was walking behind this tall skinny tall guy in a baby blue snowsuit with a baby pink ski headband on, and OVER his snowsuit he was wearing matching tiny pink thong panties!!! Everyone that passed him was swivel-headed looking at him!! On the way back home again, Irena wanted to mail those dang postcards we have been carrying around, and i told her what one of the shop owners had told me…the bright yellow box just across the street. So she slid over there, and came back a few minutes later saying that is for dog shit!!! LOL! So, is that just French humor, or did we miss the *real* yellow postbox?

condo view 1bAfter we got back from the internet cafe, we finished the day with a dinner of Jim’s ‘Arlene Willoughby’ pancakes with melted Ben & Jerry’s ice cream, jam, and the milk and white chocolate ‘nutella’ stuff, and wine… I think this was to prepare us for our drive out of here tomorrow in the chaos of the blizzard, in a car with a currently-dead battery…the adventure continues!

But ah, it has been such a lovely week of skiing in FRANCE! I will sure miss this view from the condo.

Val Skiing – [Pen]Ultimate Day 20 March 2008

trainIt is windy today – we can see the snow blowing off the peaks above (just like you can see on Mt. Everest!!), and Jim & Irena have gone early again to ski the blacks. I will meet them in Tignes at 1pm…maybe – if it is not snowy and blowy. If it is, I think I will just enjoy the day to myself, working on this blog and my photos.

Okay, so I did go up to ski…rode another tram today that went through the mountain (left)…so cool. I kept struggling with my ‘I-don’t-want-to-ski’ attitude even after my solitary long easy run to meet up, and even through delicious chips (French fries) and chocolate tart (like a brownie in a pie crust) when we met, but after the second run, on a beautifully prepared black (yeah, another BLACK!), it was fantastic; best day of skiing I’ve had in years. Irena & keyholeWe went over to this keyhole area Jim and Irena had been to on Tuesday before I joined them, and the scenery is just spectacular. Irena took a face down spill earlier today in the powder below the keyhole – here she is, not so bad for the experience! Too bad I missed it…NOT. It was, they BOTH said, terrifyingly steep! But I had my own less-exotic heart-pumper here… when approaching the lift gate, I was a bit slow, and Jim and Irena’s gate opened before I got there, and then closed so quickly before I could go through. However, in the confusion, I had to have been leaning on it, because the gate opened and I slid through onto one of those freaky lift carpets, which propelled me forward and at the same time, to my astonishment (and deep embarrassment), the chair lift suddenly banged my bum sideways and managed to scoop me up, *quite* ungracefully. Luckily I didn’t fall, and there was no drop-off, but boy did I feel stupid! I even joked, as we approached the top, that the lift operators at the bottom had probably radioed ahead to warn their cohorts to keep an eye on the chubby old gal in the orange parka! But in spite of that, today was my favorite day of skiing of the week – great snow, clear weather, horizon-wide views, strong legs.

This place (Val d’Isere and Tignes) is absolutely huge… the scope of the skiable area is just mind-boggling to me. PDF Map of L’Espace Killy There are 135 slopes (and 2 glaciers) and 90 lifts, with over 300 kilometers of runs! But what I find so fun and fantastic is that skiers and boarders go *everywhere*! tracks everywhereThe terrain, called “espace Killy” after Jean Claude Killy – a famous Olympic skier when Patricia and I were skiing teens, is huge, and as we rode the lifts up to peaks, across the flanks and over the ridges, it is breathtaking, with braided tracks on nearly every patch of snow and kind of terrain, via lifts, or on their own two legs. We have seen folks hiking up above the top of lifts to the very peaks, hiking UP the mountain on skis (eschewing the lift!) and then skiing down, tracks in near vertical chutes off rocky peaks, and clear evidence of skiers/boarder jumping off lifts to get the highest, steepest terrain. If you click on this photo to enlarge it you can see the tracks.

Our flat is comfortable – it has big window that opens wide, a nice small balcony with a great view of the mountains up-valley, and funky Mediterranean posters, but it is quite small (for the price), and not very well outfitted for a ski condo…for example, only 3 hooks for hanging ski stuff in the place (sleeps 4), and no place to dry things except for a very small heater – strange. We have never gotten the DVD player to work, and the agency (in the village) has not been helpful.

condo living roomWe are about 1/4 mile from the main lifts here in town (which means a LONG walk in our ski boots up the road AND of course, a long walk home!), then a short flat distance to ski over to one of about 6 lifts at the base of the two peaks and around a big wide beginners field (the size of 2 football fields) in the center of the village. We can also walk about 2 blocks to catch a bus that will take us up or down-valley. But the valley is very narrow so all buildings are surrounded by steep ridges, so it is quite beautiful! I discovered yesterday that if you stretch out against the wall on my bed/couch below the living room window, you can open the window and have a huge mirror view of the whole upper valley mountains – fantastic!!

Val Skiing – Day 4 19 March 2008

After the hard work of yesterday, I was NOT looking forward to skiing today, but wouldn’t you know…Irena got us on a BLACK, first slope!!! Olympic FaceRemember the one I mentioned on Day 2, called the Olympic Face? It is one of two black runs looming over the center of the village, and I clearly remember when we arrived thinking “Hmmm – I won’t be skiing THAT one!” And I knew when we went up the lift that it was black, only black, but let Irena tell me there was a blue I could take! It was terrifying as the first run of the day, and on ‘cold’ legs, but I MADE IT DOWN! And I can now say I have done it :)

WWDownhill 2009The other black run looming over the village is where the World Women’s Downhill will be held next season, and it has been closed, but that is where I see the snowcats every night, going over and over the slope, for hours – I have so enjoyed watching them from the warmth and comfort of my bed. Riding the lift up over that run is awe-inspiring…to think that they will come down this narrow, steep slope at about 90mph. It will be fun to watch that competition and know we saw it up close. If you click on this photo to the right two times, you can see the red fence markers of the competition run.

We skied a slope just above it that is very wide and beautiful as our last run of the day; at the top we had yet another view of the amazing high peak we skied yesterday, and still are thrilled that we were there! The GPS again had us traveling over 35k, which means about 17-20k of actual skiing.

me going downA hilarious thing happened to me today… Jim and Irena were ahead of me on the slope, as usual :), and I fell (softly) in the deep powder on a turn, and at a point where they couldn’t see me. And it was so flat I had to take my skis off to get up, covered in snow, and thinking they might be worried about me :). When I took off again, I made one turn and started laughing as I realized that my pants were falling down! The snaps had popped and the side zips come down, and the only thing holding them up was my jacket! And of course…I had to be under the chair lift, didn’t I!

It was another beautiful, beautiful day – clear and cool, but really warm to ski – had to take off my headband and gloves several times. Saw one young gal in her sleeveless t-shirt with her jacket around her waist. We finished the day with our first French crepes, finally! Jim had bananas and Grand Marnier, I had raspberry jam and Grand Marnier, and Irena’s crepes had chocolate, jam, creme, ice cream and who-knows-what! Wow. And we saw folks eating the most beautiful salads and fondue; we are coming back another night. (But we have eaten *in* every night and had great food – NO complaints at all.)

Val Skiing – Day 3 (Amazing!) 18 March 2008

What an amazing day today! The weather was just fantastic – clear blue sky for miles, and we skied above the clouds in the distance. We were skiing at over 11,000 feet today, and absolutely surrounded by alps – just amazing, breathtaking. Grande MotteAnd one peak we skied felt so high and exposed…it was over 11,200 feet – check this out! We took a tunnel train (The ‘Funiculaire’) ENTIRELY THROUGH THE MOUNTAIN to near the top…it felt like it was going 40 mph for 10 minutes – we couldn’t believe it. Then, we took a huge gondola up another 1000 feet – it was scary. Where you see the lift frame in this photo to the right is where the train came out, and from there we took the gondola FURTHER up, over this huge dip in the mountain! When we first arrived off the train, the gondola was closed…for wind? All the way up, Jim was saying just don’t look down, don’t look down. taking off from Grande MotteAnd when we reached the top in the gondola (all 40 or so of us standing with our skis/boards the whole way), it took another 10 minutes for the gondola to dock – because of the wind it had to go slow to completely stop rocking to get between the guide rails. And skiing down from the top (above) really gave me the heebie- jeebies – YIKES!!! I am so glad I did it, but so glad it is DONE! Irena went over the edge past the bright yellow warning signs (‘NO WAY DOWN FOR PEDESTRIANS – DANGER OF CREVASSES’), straight down on the black while we watched, carving slow scallops in the deep, heavy powder. Then Jim and I took the very narrow, steep (above left), busy, crusty, felt-like-we-could-ski-off-into-the-void red slope.

I took my GPS with me, and according to it, I skied 17 kilometers (about 12 miles) on only FOUR runs today. keyhole rockThe longest run, about 4k (about 2.5 miles), had an elevation drop of 1400 meters (over 4500 feet)! And I didn’t start until 11:30…Jim and Irena went out earlier than me again today, and I joined them later, so THEY skied about 30k today, including to where this amazing keyhole rock was – photo right.

One of the weird things I experienced today was a lift carpet (see it in the photo gallery): I had noticed it earlier on my first day elsewhere, just a moving carpet like a moving sidewalk, carrying skiers up a gentle slope a short way to another lift, no rails or ropes or anything, and I remembered thinking hmmm, wonder how I would keep my balance on that? Then as we got ready to get on one of the largest lifts – 8-seater, I think – I moved forward and saw this carpet again that I had not choice now but to slide onto (imagine the National Airport voice: “…the moving carpet is UNAVOIDABLE!”), and it made me so nervous I started swearing! Irena was laughing at me and imitating me for the next hour – you know how she likes the F word!

Jim discovered tonight that our rental car’s battery is dead. So now we have to deal with that :( between now and Saturday morning. And his ski binding broke on a wipe-out he had today, but he was able to keep skiing, and then to get it fixed quickly in the village when we finished skiing. We are also really bummed because we have not been able to get the DVD player working or to get the agency to fix it.

Val Skiing – Day 2 (St Paddy’s Day) 17 March 2008

Today we awoke to about 20+ centimeters more snow, and the sound of cannons or dynamite shaking loose the avalanches before skiers hit the mountains. Jim in powderPretty scary shit, as Jim says! Here is Jim skiing the powder – they went out earlier than I did, to scope out a new peak and ski the harder stuff, the one just above us – Face d’Olympique, one of the hosts of the 1992 Olympics. When I joined them they were already stuffed from working the deep snow. And we skied with virtually ZERO visibility the rest of the day; sometimes it was like skiing in milk soup! Very strange, scary and difficult for me – to ski without seeing where I am going, or seeing the moguls on the slope. I ski largely for the scenery it offers, and there was NONE today :(.

Such long runs! Our elevation gain is typically over 1k, and the runs are often over 3k from top to bottom!

Val d’Isere, French Alps!! Day 1… 16 March 2008

Tour routeWow – Val d’Isere is beautiful…surrounded by Alps. We are actually skiing on one of the *most famous* mountain climbs of the Tour de France (the Col de l’Iseran), even on the road they ride on (see it on the right?)! Hard to know what photos to even highlight here, and we have been skiing here only one day of 6.

It was a difficult day for me – such an occasional skier…the snow is beautiful, a little heavy, and about 12″ deep. It has been years since I have skied this type of snow, and my mates here took me down a Red, which is like our advanced Blue, on our second run! Heavy snow, steep for me, and *lots* of moguls. Irena in powder**NOTE**: Jim, who has been getting ski coaching from Irena for FOUR years (or more), and even just skiing a LOT more than me, told me after we were done this afternoon that two years ago, he probably wouldn’t have done it!! And this my first run, after skiing only WV GREENS two weeks ago, and NO SKIING for two years prior to that!! Irena’s skiing is beautiful, as always (here she is on the left in the powder), and Jim’s is great now too – I have a great short movie of him in the powder.

Anyway :), I still had a great day, but boyoboyoboy am I beat. Val valleyOn the drive up here yesterday we passed resort after resort after resort, and may actually go to the one just south of us, included in our passes, tomorrow. It snowed all night last night, and a good part of today in between patches of beautiful blue sky, and has been snowing steadily since about 4:30 (now 9pm)…so we are in for LOTS of snow tomorrow. My legs will be in great shape for cycling.

More news and great photos here later this week!

Venice & Verona 14 March 2008

We crossed 4 borders getting to Val d’Isere – Croatia, Slovenia, Italy, and France, and skirted just below Austria. But we only had to show our passports in Croatia and Slovenia – starting with Slovenia, we were in the EU, so there were no more border checks of our passports. It took about 7 hours to get to Venice, and about 5 hours to get to Turin for our second night.

The driving was wild – everyone goes SO fast, but I heard only TWO horns honked – drivers were surprisingly patient with cars in the left lane trying to get around trucks. But they do come right up to your tail and stay there until you get over. And VERY few passed on the right.

Our first night hotel was in Mestra, just 6k outside Venice, and right across the street from the train station into Venice. It was a lovely, very well appointed room in a 3* hotel, and the bathroom was exquisite; such fine detail – marble everywhere. The hotel clerk was delightful, and most helpful: when asked about parking, said park wherever you want! And if we get a ticket? What a face he made! Then he said shook his head, and said ‘Pfhhhh’ (and made dramatic hand motions) – just tear it up’!
Grand CanalAnd all the woodwork was beautiful. We arrived around 2pm and took the train into Venice and walked around for about 5 hours! We had a nice dinner there too. What a beautiful city – the colors are so vibrant, and the woodwork and stonework done with such care. Not sure what I was expecting, but it seemed both larger and smaller than I imagined. According to Jim, the city is dying due to ‘creeping damp’ – the lovely buildings are deteriorating from the water up. I did not realize it is an island – I thought it was actually just on the coast, but nope…we crossed a causeway to get there. I think it is 800 years old?

In Verona, the gelatto was artwork! And the old coliseum (arena) is the 3rd largest in Europe – 1200 years old, I think? I loved this city. Check out the marble of the streets! gellatoOne of the most amazing sights for me was the gelatto – yes, the ice cream… it is carved and decorated like a fine scuplture in every shop! FYI, Verona is where Romeo and Juliet lived and loved, and we saw Juliet’s house and her balcony. It is customary (now) to do two things… Irena did both, I did only one: she wrote “Jim & Irena” on the wall of the passageway, and we both put our hand on Juliet’s breast – for happiness! LOL!!

That was a mid-day stop on our way to Turin. We were really shocked that no one we encountered in Turin spoke English, and I didn’t get any photos, because it was evening when we arrived, and we were driving when we left the next morning. The buildings are huge and so old and beautiful, and – I’m not kidding here – there was a gelatto shop on EVERY corner, and sometimes two per block! Jim and Irena love it for its ‘ordinariness’ (Venice and Verona city centers are certainly NOT ordinary – tourists everywhere).

Getting out of Turin was an adventure in itself, despite the fact that Jim and Irena had the same problem the last time! There are NO signs directing traffic how to get to France – only about 50k away. And our hotel owners, in Italian, tried to tell us how to get to the autostrada, but gave conflicting directions, so we drove around and around, back and forth, for an hour!! We had to look for signs to the Freus Tunnel that crosses the French border, and we finally did see a sign for France, very close the the border! What a hoot that was!

Then, just before going through the tunnel, we passed by a famous cycling climb on the Giro d’Italia, Mt. Sestriere, and then early into the Alps, we passed two more famous mountain climbs of the Tour de France… the most famous – the Col du Galibier, and the Col de la Madelaine – so cool and so awesome to see *where* they ride!!!

Hello from Nis, Srbija! 12 March 2008

Hello from Nis (pronounced Nish), the 2500+ year-old city of Constantine’s birth! This is my 3rd day in Serbia with Jim and Irena. The first leg of my Austrian Airlines flight to Belgrade via Vienna had a lovely ending – flying just north of the French and Swiss Alps along the northern border of Switzerland, over Salzburg. Glacier in Swiss AlpsThe view was spectacular…I even imagined I could make out the crooked summit of the Matterhorn in the distance, and maybe also Mont Blanc – the highest peak in Europe. This photo to the left is a glacier that seemed close enough to touch.

From Belgrade we drove directly on to Nis, about 3 hours, where Jim and Irena have spent most of their time for the last two years, for Jim’s contract. It is where Irena finished her civil engineering degree after high school, and near Pirot, her home growing up, and Kopaonik National Park (where she became such a beautiful skier and we skied in 2004).

Irena's buildingThis ancient city is small (about 300,000) and beautiful – I love the architecture. Here is one of the over 40 buildings Irena restored across the nation while on the ‘Beautiful Serbia’ project with UNDP several years ago. Fort Niska TvrdjavaWhile Jim was at the office yesterday (and after I woke up from a 13 hour sleep!), Irena and I walked around the old Fort Niska Tvrdjava (left), which used to house a Turkish bath, and then along the walking street in the center of town (below). Downtown Nis

In the late afternoon the 3 of us drove one of Jim’s more recent cycling routes – the one he calls *his* ‘bad’ hills! (I call the area around my house *my* bad hills.) This route is called Kamenicki Vis, ‘rocky hill’. This ride is 8.2 miles long each way, has a total elevation gain of 2000 feet (1430 of that over the last 3.4 miles!), and the worst part, just after midway at the base of the climb, has a grade of over 11% for .7 mile!! (For those of you who are not cyclists, that is HUGE! Or as Jim said, laughing, ‘this is just SHIT’!!!) Irena says she has no desire to ride it, though Jim says she will – LOL. He says he often cannot make it up the whole way. I wish I could have at least tried. The route has so much character, going along an old, narrow paved road out of the city up into the rolling hill country, past beautiful, dilapidated old houses and buildings and fields, past a battleground and monument where over 10,000 Serbs and Turks were killed in one day, trying to throw off Ottoman rule in 1879. We passed a lovely middle-aged woman in a long, bright-colored skirt, pulling a two-wheeled cart bigger than a wheelbarrow loaded with firewood she had gathered from somewhere – it could have been a scene from over 100 years ago except for the paved road…wish I had taken a photo of her.

FYI, we were able to calculate those distance and elevation gain statistics for the ride because we took my Garmin GPS to track the route. Afterwards at home, we downloaded the track, asked Irena’s (the engineer) help in calculating the grade, and then viewed the profile (peaks and valleys of the ride) – we were “WOW”ing and so thrilled at what we saw, showing it to her with such pride – like it was Mt. Everest! But she saw it and then looked at us, shaking her head and calling us ‘jebiga idiots’, and proceeded to quickly draw a diagram on her computer showing grade. We weren’t considering how these profiles have to be drawn in order to view them on a screen… if a one mile high hill is the height of the screen, then the width of an 8 mile ride must be 8 screen widths. :) LOL – we sure felt foolish! But the profile STILL LOOKS COOL!

Another Irena buildingThen in the evening we walked just one block down the street to a local restaurant for dinner. I hope to try to make the amazing salads we had: ‘moravska’ – fresh tomatoes, grilled peeled paprika, garlic, very little white onion, sunflower oil, & parsley, and ‘sopska’ – fresh tomatoes, cucumber, white onion, grilled peeled paprika, white cow or sheep cheese, sunflower oil. But I am told that the ingredients here are matchless, and I believe it. Unimaginably delicious…I could have stopped with those salads and the fat, soft, fresh pogaca (like pita) served with them. Who needs butter?!

Irena, Lea and DamienI slept a more reasonable 7 hours last night, then took a 40 minute fast walk along the river near here. Tonight we drove to Pirot, about an hour away, to have dinner with Irena’s dad Bosko, and to visit with her brother and his kids, who are Irena’s favorite ski students. (On the way, we took another route than Jim and Irena cycle, and again used the GPS to calculate the grade of the hill climb – the same as the other one…another tough 7.5% climb of 3 kilometres.) Boki (Bosko) had prepared a wonderful dinner of noodle soup, paprikas – a spicy chicken, egg, and tomato soup, and a meat dish of chicken, lamb, and sour cabbage – the last two were even more delicious than last night’s main courses…who need restaurants?! I was given a tour of their charming home, which displays many of the paintings done by Irena’s late mother, Tina, and I was fortunate to be able to select one to bring home!

Just a couple more isn’t-life-interesting notes here for my own historical memory…Irena has been miserable these past few days, recovering from that terribly bad flue that both Patricia and I had, and Monday Jim missed a step at work and fell on his knees!! Geez! But we are all FINE, and so looking forward to the Alpine skiing!!!

Tomorrow we go for me to meet Jim’s staff, and then are driven back to Belgrade by one of Jim’s staff to pick up the rental car for our drive to France, leaving Thursday.

Do vidjenja!! “Have a nice day!” (when leaving…)

(Funny story here – I was with Irena at the travel agent when she bought travel insurance, and when we left, I was so proud to remember to say “Dobra Dan!”…only to have them all burst out laughing! That is what you say when you *arrive* somewhere, so I got an impromptu Serbian lesson at that point, and learned my first new word.)