Norway Again

2 Mar

2015/02/21-26: Ski Touring in Huldreheimen with a DNT Tour

With our daughter putting down roots in Oslo, it only made sense to take advantage of the ski touring in Norway again this winter. Skiing from hut-to-hut across a snowy landscape has a satisfaction similar to that of bike touring, hiking, or paddling. It’s about scenes unfolding at a human pace, as one moves self-propelled across the terrain.

Our experience last year in Jotunheimen had bred in us a healthy respect for Norwegian mountain weather, and for the challenges of navigating accurately in whiteout conditions. We signed on for two more tours organized by the DNT – Norwegian Trekking Association – where we would have the security and sociability of a group of like-minded skiers.

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Although this Huldreheimen tour was graded at the same level of difficulty as our last year’s tour, the skiing days were shorter and the terrain less challenging. It made for quite a different trip.

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After a train ride to Lillehammer and several hours by bus to our trailhead, we climbed gently through birch forest to an undulating plateau. Over the next days, we dipped in and out of the gnarled trees as we moved from one self-service hut to another. We spotted a few ptarmigan, but not once did we glimpse a huldra, the mythical creature for whom this park area is named.DSC04463

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We were eleven skiers: nine participants led by sturdy and experienced leaders Espen and Helge. The other participants were Norwegians, Dutch, and Brits. Last year we were at the older end of the group’s age spectrum, but this year our grey hair was more or less the norm. Upon arrival at each hut we would set about lighting the stove and melting snow for water. A few of us would forage in the lager for canned goods and packaged food, and we made simple suppers that we wolfed down. The breakfast staple was havregrøt, enjoyed by everyone except Chris who ate Wasa crackers with jam, forever put off porridge by boarding school days.

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Our final night was one of luxury in a fjellstue or mountain hotel where we feasted on reindeer meat in green curry, and salmon salmon fillets in coconut milk. The woman who prepared our dinner was Thai, married to a local Norwegian; she’d developed Thai dishes based on local ingredients. We understand many young Norwegian women shun rural life, so marriages like this are not uncommon. We watched her blond husband, who had been both our minivan driver and our waiter, as he dropped Vitamin D into his daughters’ morning orange juice. Deficiencies are very common at this latitude, especially among people of darker complexion.

Returning to the train station in Lillehammer, backpacks and skis were everywhere. Passenger train cars are equipped with ski racks. On transit in Central Oslo as we returned, many passengers carried skinny skis as they commuted to or from the  marka – the forest that surrounds the city which is laced with prepared cross-country tracks. In a country where skiing is central to the national psyche, we cannot help but feel at home.

We leave again on Sunday for another ski tour. The task before then is to rid ourselves of the worst flu either of us has had in at least ten years.

M

Nesting between Wanderings

18 Feb

We were back in Vancouver for a few weeks between wandering by bicycle and wandering on skis. In addition to the obvious at-home pleasure of catching up with friends, we did some things that are very difficult to do when living out of panniers and moving almost every day. We had missed these,  so we took pleasure in doing them as part recharging our batteries before wandering again.

We made three batches of marmalade. It was Seville orange season.

We made three batches of marmalade. It was Seville orange season.

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I made soup stock. The aroma wafted through the house as it simmered.

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I moved my knitting skills a step forward from the simple hats started while on the road.

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I made bread. This is semolina bread that was awfully good with camembert.

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We are weight conscience when we cycle. We don’t carry many books and haven’t adequately figured out e-readers. We had time to simply sit and read.

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To top off the nesting experience, we had the company of a convivial cat.
There is nothing as soothing as the purring of a comfortable  feline friend!

M

The Acropolis and Athens

27 Jan

2015/01/20-24: Athens
We spent four nights in Athens, but between recovering from the boat trip and preparing our bikes for the flight to Vancouver, not much time was left for touristing. We did, however, see the main sites. We spent one day seeing the Acropolis and surrounding outdoor areas, and one day walking in the gardens and seeing the New Acropolis Museum.

One cannot view the Parthenon without considering its columns. The Minoan columns we had seen on Crete were wider at the top than at the bottom; this was because they were made of a tree trunk — and having the trunk upside down inhibits regrowth. The Minoan columns look strange to my eye, however. The Doric columns of the Parthenon look perfect, and it takes an informed eye to notice the techniques used to make them look perfect: the corner columns are thicker, the columns are thinner at the top than the bottom but bulge slightly in the middle, the centre column is slightly longer than the corner ones giving he plinth a slight arch, and columns tilt inwards slightly. While I think the ingenuity shown by such refinements it amazing, I think the statue columns on the Erechtheion are the most interesting.

Being at the Acropolis in January means that you do not have pictures with blue sky’s but it also means the crowds are limited.

The Parthenon

The Parthenon

The statue columns of the Erechtheion, at the Acropolis.

The statue columns of the Erechtheion, at the Acropolis.

Temple of Hephaestus as seen from the Acropolis.

Temple of Hephaestus as seen from the Acropolis.

Byzantine Church, probably built early in the 13th century.  (Church of Theotokos Gorgoepikoos & Ayios Eleytherios)

Byzantine Church, probably built early in the 13th century.
(Church of Theotokos Gorgoepikoos & Ayios Eleytherios)

The New Acropolis Museum is architecturally magnificent. It is built so as to house the marble carvings and statues that adorn the Parthenon, and other buildings of the Acropolis. But the key of the design is the Parthenon cravings are located in exactly the same positions that they would be on the Parthenon, only in a controlled environment and in a manner that makes it easy for the visitor to appreciate them. Being an Englishman, visiting this building is not easy, as it clearly is the correct place to store the Elgin Marbles stolen by Lord Elgin from the Parthenon and currently held in London. We have no pictures from in the museum because cameras are not allowed.

Getting to the airport was interesting. Taxis in Athens are sedan cars and our bike boxes do not fit in them. We got a 12 person van to take us to the airport. On the way we got an explanation of all that is wrong with the Greek government from the driver. This was timely because the next day was Election Day.

C

Crete – Minoans

24 Jan

2015/01/18-19: To Irakleon and Museums
After feasting on buffet breakfast, we headed from Tzermiado across the plateau and out of the basin by a pass much lower than the one we’d used to arrive from the south. We can’t have had to climb more than 100m! Then it was mainly fast and furious downhill to the highway along the north coast to Irakleon. We’d booked a hotel near the centre of town where the streets are really narrow, so final navigation was tricky.

Wild Rose beside the road

Wild rose beside the road

Since it was to be our last night in Crete, we went out for a fine Cretan dinner. We’re getting accustomed to the fact that restaurant meals here always seem to include a few “extras” which appear without having been ordered. When two small glasses of raki appeared, I steeled myself to down something I had till now found rather harsh. To our surprise, we tasted something delicately flavoured with essence of a local wildflower. When we expressed our appreciation, we were given a small decanter of the stuff to take home.

Leaving our bikes in the hotel’s luggage room, we first spent time at the archeological museum, and later went by local bus to stroll around the peaceful and near empty site at Knossos. The site was discovered, purchased, excavated, and partially reconstructed in the early 1900s by Sir Arthur Evans, archeologist, journalist, and curator of the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford. This Bronze Age site holds evidence of the mature and sophisticated Minoan civilization that existed in southern Europe at the same time as the pharaohs ruled in Egypt some 4000 years ago. Some argue that Evans let his imagination run away with him during the reconstruction.

Amulets?

Amulets

 

Bulls' heads figure often in Minoan art.

Bulls’ heads figure often in Minoan art.

 

The breath of objects on display is impressive

The breadth of objects on display is impressive

The main site

The main site

gymnast

Gymnast

Retrieving our bikes, we pedalled to the ferry terminal and met Lisa and Mathias as expected. We proceeded to the passenger deck before they did, and installed ourselves in the seats we were assigned with our tickets. We had not taken a cabin.

As I began to knit, passengers who seemed to be travelling in a very large group entered and installed themselves in nearly all the other seats in our salon. They all seemed to know each other, and they were very very loud. I pointed out to Chris, oblivious as always, that they were speaking a language other than Greek ….one that I didn’t recognize. They were a group of Roma (aka Gypsies) on the move.

Gold-toothed women crowded around me, kids in tow, demanding to inspect my knitting. I was working on a basic child’s hat, so I held it up to an urchin of about the right size to show my intentions. They seemed satisfied and we were left in peace, but I felt more comfortable when we moved to another area to sit with the French cyclists and a Japanese motorcyclist.

Was I guilty of profiling to be concerned about spending the night in that room? Perhaps I was, but we had been seriously cautioned by several Eastern European friends. We were down by one wallet already, Chris having been separated from his in the metro in Istanbul as we were on our way to the airport before Christmas.

Along with Lisa and Mathias, we got a bit of shuteye on Thermarests on the floor. Arriving in Piraeus, we found coffee and cheesey pies before heading our separate ways. They were headed east across the Peloponnese on their way back to a car parked in Southern Italy. We were headed into the centre of Athens, and our own trip’s end.

M

Crete – The Lasithi Plateau

21 Jan

2015/01/14-17: To Lasithi Plateau
Riding east toward Mires we met a French couple – Lisa and Mathias – who tend a market garden near Toulouse; they travel in the winter season. We chatted briefly, and moved on to Mires. We ate crepes across the road from our hotel to the strains of Bob Dylan, and chatted to the owner whose sister lives in Toronto. In the morning, we set out on back roads but were forced to backtrack due to a river in full flood that rendered a ford unsafe. We never found the early Minoan tombs we were aiming for, but we were invited by kindly Despina to sit in her garden while she squeezed us fresh juice from oranges plucked in her orchard, and loaded us with more fruit for the road as we left. We soon met Mathias and Lisa again, and shared our generous (and heavy) load of fruit.

Margo, Despina, and her mum.

Despina’s mum, Margo, and Despina.

We navigated sociably on quiet roads with them for the rest of the day, lunched on the steps of a church, and camped together in an olive orchard as dark fell, sharing food and a bottle of wine.

Spring is here?

Spring is here?

Matthias, Lisa and Margo

Mathias, Lisa and Margo

Camping in the olive orchard.

Camping in the olive orchard.

In the morning, we headed out sooner than they did, and although we’d had a similar final route in Crete to theirs planned we changed our minds when we saw a sign for “Lasithi Plateau.” I’d heard of this once-isolated high plateau, where rich soil and a cooler climate allows production of apples, pears , tomatoes, potatoes and more. We hadn’t realized it could be accessed from the south; we could see only tiny tracks on our map, but the fact that the route was signed looked promising. When asked our destination at a coffee stop, we pointed to where we were headed. The woman who’d made our thick Greek coffee was aghast that we would attempt such a route on bikes at this time of year. It was probably a good thing we couldn’t understand details of her warnings. The Lasithi plateau lies at 850 m, and the access from the south means a long steep climb to 1400 m. Recent storms had dumped snow, in fact we were later told that this winter’s snowfall has been the heaviest for over a decade.

We stocked up on food before leaving the last village. Lots of large raptors were circling above us as we began to climb, but as we pushed and rode alongside a rocky gorge we approached the level from which they seemed to be taking off and alighting. Then there they were! It must have been a flock of more than twenty-five huge vultures. They were perched on a point of land above what we soon saw was a garbage dump, and a mound of sheep’s wool made us suspect that carcasses or parts of animals were attracting the birds.

Vultures near dump, some departing on seeing us.

Vultures near dump, some departing on seeing us.

Soaring Vultures

Soaring Vultures

Later reading informed us these were griffon vultures, Gyps fulvus, wingspan 2.6 m.. We watched them with respect — their beaks and talons mean business.

Snow at 1400m

Snow at 1400m

Evening light at 1400m!

Evening light at 1400m!

It was getting late as we crested the ridge and dropped in switchbacks to the plateau below. The snowbanks were over a metre high, and my feet were wet. We put on our lights, crossed the plateau to Tzermiado, and dove indoors for hot chocolate to discuss where we might stay. Lonely Planet is sometimes a good resource and sometimes utter rubbish, but I’d read there of a newer establishment – Argoulias – where each room in a building of local stone had it’s own fireplace.

View from our cosy room

View from our cosy room

We pushed our bikes through snow up narrow alleys that climb steeply where the upper town is built up the steep slope that encloses the plateau. In the pitch blackness, an old woman in a shawl appeared from a low doorway. “Argoulias?” I asked, pointing ahead. “Nei, nei!” she replied. Nei is yes in Greek, confusing to Anglos at first, but I realized she was confirming we were on track so we pressed on and found it. What a perfect place to celebrate our final few days in Crete! Hospitable and welcoming, Ioannis lit the fire in a our room, and after a deep hot bath we used our camping pots to toast ham and cheese sandwiches over the fire. We were too tired to venture far, and the restaurant across the road was not open that evening.

View from our breakfast table.

View from our breakfast table.

We weren’t the only customers; In the morning a family joined us at breakfast. Knowing we’d found a perfect spot to nest, we decided to stay a second night. We spent the day mostly sitting by the fire. I knitted; we put together the last post; we went for a walk. Our room looked out at the snowy range we’d crossed, and across the plateau dotted with skeletons of windmills once used to pump water. In the evening, we went to the restaurant for a soul-warming Cretan meal. That second evening we had the company of quite a few Greeks in hiking boots and cosy woollens, likely from Irakleo for the weekend. They seemed to know where to go for comfort and spectacular views in January!

Windmill on Lashini Plateaux. In summer it used to have cloth sails and pump water. Today the water table has dropped and diesel pumps are used.

Windmill on the plateau. In summer it once had cloth sails to pump water. Today the water table has dropped and diesel pumps are used.

M

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