Archive for March, 2009|Monthly archive page

36 hours in Madrid

Thank you, LAN Airlines, for your el cheapo fares to Madrid. Your service can use some warming up, but the AVOD, real silverware and real glassware, and the A340 are a refreshing change from the usual flights within Europe.

So my friend was in Spain, and I decided to meet him for a Tuesday evening dinner, so it was a brief trip to Madrid from late Monday until mid-afternoon Wednesday. Plus it was a nice escape from the lingering winter weather in Germany, compared with a balmy, sunny 23 C in Madrid. After a 17-year absence I stepped foot on Spanish soil, landing in the very swank, futuristic Terminal 4 at Barajas.

What a gorgeous structure! Too bad the signage is really confusing, and that it took 40 minutes for the luggage to arrive. The airport is gigantic, and you can pretty much fit central Madrid between the two main structures of Terminal 4. Getting into town by Metro was straightforward, although inconvenient, with a couple of changes and long walks en route to my hotel near the Puerta del Sol.

Now I’ve been here before, so I intended on making an excursion to Toledo, only to find out when I arrived at Atocha station that the trains were full until early afternoon. WTFBBQ? So I made the rash decision to catch the next train to Escorial leaving in three minutes, quickly bought a ticket, and was on my way to the castle / monastery.

The monastery is impressive, in a forbidding, severe manner. In particular, I was very taken by the proportion, formality, and the minimialism of the structure. The interior rooms were interesting, with plenty of art from the famous Flemish and Spanish masters, a number of El Greco paintings (instantly recognizable with their extended figures), and some astounding inlaid wood doors from Augsburg. But just like the outside, the interior was, with the exception of certain rooms, quite plain, livened only by the presence of tiles along the lower walls. I sneaked into the library with a Russian tour group, and avoided the extra charge. This was one very nifty vaulted room full of ancient manuscripts and books, together with some amazing examples of early cartography. Also notable was the Pantheon and especially the staggered set of staircases leading to the burial vault.

The monastery dominates the town, which is built on the slopes of the foothills of the Sierra de Guadarrama, and overlooks the haze and skyline of Madrid, 20 miles away. The plaza of the monastery serves to heighten its presence.

img_9028

Plaza, El Escorial

img_9017

Exterior, El Escorial

So then it was back into the city proper, for lunch at 4 PM, and then a quick tour of the Plaza Mayor area before dinner. My friend had driven from Cordoba at rather high speed in his rental Mercedes, and arrived too late for pre-dinner drinks, but we eventually met up in time for the dinner reservation.

Plaza Mayor

Plaza Mayor

Calle de Alcala and Gran Via

Calle de Alcala and Gran Via

I had a typical Madrid evening, which meant dinner from around 10 PM to past midnight, at Sacha (excellent!), followed by drinks until around 2:30 AM. And this was a Tuesday night.

And Wednesday, it was back to Germany. Needless to say, I woke up quite late, with enough time to buy a lunch to go (a very tasty anchovy sandwich, an egg and potato pancake, and a Coke), and then a long-ish journey back to Barajas Airport.

Terminal 4, Barajas Airport

Terminal 4, Barajas Airport

Terminal 4

Terminal 4

Now the flight is within the Schengen zone, but because it’s with a Latin American carrier carrying passengers to / from Santiago de Chile, you have to exit and re-enter Schengen.

Advertisements

French Alps, March 2009

Hello there again, I’m back after a week’s absence, and also more than a week being sick with my yearly cold that drags on and on. Being sick and snowboarding don’t quite mix, although I was more or less functioning.

I flew to Geneva, waded through the chaos of the airport on a Saturday evening, and boarded a bus for the three hour trip south to the Tarentaise Valley, via Annecy and Albertville. I was picked up at the very quiet Bourg St. Maurice station by Steve McDonald of the White Room Chalet, and he drove me the remainder of the distance to Sainte Foy, around 20 km away, and 800 m higher. He and his wife Iona run an excellent operation in Sainte Foy, so a big thanks goes out to them for everything, from the transport to the food, and of course showing the secret stashes. So I settled into my bunk on the ground level, which would be my home for the next week.

Morning, looking towards Les Arcs

Morning, looking towards Les Arcs

Now if you’re looking for immersion into French culture and language, the Tarentaise valley is not the place. The region appears to be the domain of holidaymakers from the UK, with some French and Dutch folks mixed in there (although many are fluent in French). It’s not really what I came for, though. This area is the Alps in all its wickedness and awesomeness, dominated by Mont Blanc (4808 m) a few miles to the north, which is taller than anything else in the surrounding region. It cuts quite a different profile from the Tarentaise valley than the more familiar sight from Chamonix, though, but is one massive, awe-inspiring mountain. Mont Blanc was being a bit shy for much of the time I was there, though.

Mont Blanc, hiding

Mont Blanc, hiding

Arrivederci Italia, bienvenue en France

Arrivederci Italia, bienvenue en France

Being on vacation, I checked email and Internet a total of twice in nine days, and avoided all phones and crackberries, and even my lovely MacBook Pro.

Powder turn, Sainte Foy

Powder turn, Sainte Foy, following a 30 cm+ dump

Summit of Sainte Foy, with Mont Blanc

Summit of Sainte Foy, with Mont Blanc

View from the summit, Sainte Foy

View from the summit

Playing tourist

Playing tourist

I spent a very wonderful, powdery six days at Sainte Foy and in the surrounding area, Tignes for a day, and crossed into Italy at La Rosiere and La Thuile. Sainte Foy is a nice moderate-sized resort, with a mix of trees and above treeline riding, plenty of gullies and rocks and the like to explore, and given the right conditions, lots of off-piste stuff inbounds and out of bounds. At the end of it, my legs were jelly, I realized that my technique could use plenty of improvement after seeing it on film, but I got more or less exactly what I was looking for.

Tignes was particularly interesting geologically, with this nice little natural arch next to the lift station. The other highlight was manmade, this very speedy funicular that made the 1000 m vertical ascent in a matter of a few minutes, going at what I estimated to be 80 km / h.

L'aiguille percee, Tignes

L'aiguille percée, Tignes

Steve on the job!

Steve, working hard on the job!

And finally, a mention about Geneva. I’ve been here a few times for work-related stuff and the like, and it just doesn’t excite the senses. It’s got all the stereotypical luxury stuff, from ten star hotels, lots of expensive cars, banks, and watches, mixed in with a fair bit of sleaze near the train station. I did have a nice, filling meal of pot au feu in the old town (perfect winter food), and finished with a bottle of the local artisan beer, Calvinus noire, at the bar next door, for the undemocratic price of 8 CHF. It’s a good place to spend an afternoon or a day, but that’s about it.

Jet d'eau, surprisingly quiet.

Jet d'eau, surprisingly quiet for a 140 m ejaculation

Wuerzburg, March 2009

I was sick of being stuck in the office, and also being way too far from the mountains, so I bought a train ticket on what should have been a nice, nearly spring-like day in Germany, and headed to Wuerzburg (Würzburg).

Officially, it’s Bavaria, but Bavaria is awfully big, so I guess this would be called the heart of Franconia. As it lies on the main dedicated high-speed ICE line between Cologne and Munich, I’ve gone through here numerous times, but never stopped. It looked intriguing enough from the train station, with a high fortress crowning a hill way in the back, and a grand skyline of church towers dotting the city. 

This is one of Germany’s underrated treasures, relatively unknown still to foreign tourists, and it holds some of the nation’s most important cultural sites. It’s best known for the Residence (Residenz), famous for the fresco above the grand staircase. The Residence is decidedly Italian, from the distinctive internal arches, to the collections of art, to the Tiepolo fresco. I found the decoration rather overblown, but some of it was truly quite pretty, especially the nice corner room known as the Green Room, with its dark green and silver hue, and the (reconstructed) wood floor that gives an impression of three dimensions.

It’s of course been heavily restored, after heavy damage during World War II, where the roof was blown off, and exposure to the elements led to severe deterioration of the fresco, the floors, and some of the artwork. The restoration of the palace is perpetual, with the major reconstruction going on until 1987, and more recently, the Tiepolo fresco was restored between 2003-2006.

The Residenz

The Residenz

The city has managed to retain its charm, with meticulously restored buildings alternating with postwar structures. The bridge across the Main River is more than a bit reminiscent of Prague, just down the road by 400 km, and the old town is manageably small, with the liveliness of a university city.

Old town and the Main bridge

Old town and the Main bridge

Main River bridge

Main River bridge