Monthly Archives: September 2011

Vignettes of Europe

(All pictures © Various Gunnersons)

The wife, daughter, and I spent the last few weeks in Europe visiting family and taking a much-needed vacation, with stops in Frankfurt, Barcelona, Bavaria, and then back in Frankfurt. I considered writing a travelogue detailing our experiences, but have instead decided to inflict on you a few Vignettes (literally, “small Vignes”) instead.

Air France

The strength of the stereotypes that Europeans have of each other are a bit strange to someone who resides in the (mostly) egalitarian west coast of the US, but they do at times have more than a grain of truth in them. For example, the German beer is very plentiful and very good, they do drive very fast, etc.

So, knowing what you’ve heard about France, what would you expect from the French airline experience? I expected food and service that were better than the majority of the US carriers and a more relaxed attitude, and that is pretty much what you get.

What you also get is the French attention towards some details and a marked lack of attention towards the sort of efficiency that we take for granted in the US. Or, to put it another way, if you type “On-time arrival” into babelfish, the French translation is “does not translate”, but they do give you free access to a large library of films and free champagne (though I’m not sure if it is méthode champenoise or not).

Nowhere is this attitude more obvious than the Paris airport, which manages to nurture your spirit through beautiful design while draining you of your desire to live through an utterly exasperating layout and what appears to be intentionally misleading signage.

The amateur etymologist in me was pleased to discover that the phrase “Of all the gall” was coined after a particularly taxing visit to Charles de Gaulle airport.


Finally, a chance to use my three years of high-school Spanish. I haven’t tried to speak Spanish for years, so I didn’t expect to be able to converse at all, but I was hoping that some of the vocabulary would be stuck in the parts of my brain that isn’t devoted to 1980’s Air Supply lyrics (“Lost in love, I’m so lost without you…”). I found that I did remember a lot of vocabulary, but unfortunately it would have been more useful to know what “Soldaditos” or “Mejillones” was on the menu at the Tapas place than to be able to ask for directions to the library (“¿Donde esta la biblioteque?”). Oh, and some of the phrases are in Catalan rather than Spanish, so even if it’s something you knew in Spanish you may not be able to read it. But in most cases we could get a menu in “Ingles” and in the others we muddled through.

Barcelona is a cool city; there are a lot of historical sites, some cool architecture, a decent zoo and a somewhat boring aquarium. And the food is good if you like seafood.

And there are the beaches.

We stayed in a small apartment in Barceloneta (literally, “pure Barcelona”) that was 82 steps up but half a block from the beach, which was excellently renovated for the 1992 Olympics and offers pretty much all that you could want in a beach; lots of sand, warm water to swim in, and vendors wandering around selling water, beer, Sangria, temporary tattoos, hair braiding, and 5-minute massages.

There is one part that is a bit disconcerting. If you were raised in Everett, Washington in the 1970s, you probably spent some time watching Canadian TV late at night hoping to catch the occasional bit of female nudity, and there is nothing in your upbringing to prepare you for the sudden lack of a swimsuit top on the woman who just 5 minutes ago was fully clothed (at least in the beach sense of the term) on a towel nearby. The European attitude towards nudity seems much more healthy than the American attitude towards violence, but it’s still a bit surreal.

And that’s on the “family-friendly” beach. There are purportedly other beaches with a still more relaxed attitude towards swimwear. Though in the spirit of full disclosure, it is important to note that this attitude is not limited to a specific age category, so one may see body parts that are, in all honestly, but left unseen.

German Breakfast

After a night in Bavaria at a GastHaus (literally, “Bed & Breakfast”), the first day we descended the stairs for our morning meal.

It was the quintessential experience of a German breakfast; a room with 4 tables decorated in Bavarian style, baskets of the exceptionally underappreciated German bread and platters of cheese and meat. Couples and families sat at the tables and conversed quietly in German, while the radio on the side table provided light background music (“Like a virgin… Touched for the very first time…”).

No, I am not making this up.

Castles and Palaces

When you’re driving around, you’ll see signs directing you to the Schloss (actually, to the “Schloß”), which can be one of two things.

It might be a castle, which was built as a fortification for military purposes. Or, it might be a palace, which is a royal residence that is generally of no military significance. Or, it might be a palace built on top of a castle.

We saw quite a few castles and palaces on the trip. Here are my ratings:

Heidelberg Castle

Featuring not just one but two moats, nice views of the valley, different parts built at different times and honest-to-goodness ruins, Heidelberg is everything that you expect a castle to be, and it isn’t very crowded. And there’s a comedy-sized wine cask (Heidelberg Tun) in the basement, with a capacity of 58,000 gallons.  Make sure to take the tour.

Rating: A+

Linderhof  Palace

Linderhof is the answer to the question “If you were a king who wanted to get away from it all, what sort of residence would you build?” It’s compact, with nice gardens and built at the base of a hill so that you can see the whole thing, a cool cascading waterfall, and, as a bonus, a grotto with a heated pool. Take the tour to see the inside, though be prepared for a lot of Wagner, since King Ludwig and Richard were BFFs. Oh, and they let you take pictures inside, which is not true in some of the castles.

Rating: A+


Nymphenburg Palace

A very large palace on huge (3-4 sq km) gardens. I wasn’t terribly excited with the interior and I’m not big on gardens, but they have a separate museum (the Marstallmuseum) that contains hugely ornate carriages, sleds, bridles, and other horsey-related stuff. That was a big hit with the horse-enabled members of the entourage.

Rating: C overall, A if you like gardens or like carriages and other horsey stuff.


Neuschwanstein Castle

Neuschwanstein gets top castle billing in Bavaria, but having done it a few times, it’s not my favorite. It’s not fully finished, and while some of the rooms are very nice, the crowds get in the way and they herd you through on a very organized tour. Because it’s up on a hill there are no real grounds associated with it, and there is no photography allowed inside.  If you want to go, plan on getting there early, and consider taking the horse wagon to the top rather than spending 45 minutes walking up to the castle, especially if you have kids.

Oh, and it’s a palace, not a castle. And it actually looks like this.

Rating: B


Hohenschwangau Castle

The ugly stepsister of Neuschwantstein, I found it to be just okay. If you’re coming to see the Neu, it’s worth the time while you wait for your ticketed time, but I wouldn’t journey to see it.

Rating: C


While in Germany we took a boat trip down the Rhine, which included a trip by Loreley (“Lurking Rock”), a large rock at a tight part of the river which is world-renowned for the murmuring sound that is said to be the echo of the name of a women who hurled herself from the rock. Which I can kindof understand because there’s not much going on in that part of the river, though the rush to take pictures of the aforementioned rock (see below) was a bit perplexing.

Any murmuring sound is drowned out by the sound of river traffic and cameras, but we were treated to many of those around us singing a popular German song associated with the event. My German is pretty much non-existent, but luckily they provided us with a rough English translation:

When I think of Lorelei,
My head turns all around.
She’s gentle as a butterfly,
She moves without a sound.

She calls me on the telephone
She says be there by eight.
Tonight’s the night she’s moving in,
And I can hardly wait…

The Rhine tour was pretty nice; you can sit on the top of a boat and drink while the scenery goes by. If you can manage it, set things up so you only go one way and you go downstream; the upstream trip takes much longer.

Eagle’s Nest

If you read WWII histories like I did, you may remember Berchtesgaden as the place that Hitler went to get away from it all. We went to the Eagles Nest while we were there, a historic hiking destination at the top of one of the more pleasantly-sited alps that was made accessible as a present for Hitler’s 50th birthday. You can either drive or bus up to the starting point from the valley, and then you buy a ticket to take a 6.5 km E-Ticket bus ride most of the way up the alp (25 MPH through tight corners with sheer cliffs on one side), at which point you disembark, walk a hundred meters or so in a tunnel, and take an elevator 182 meters to the top.

The top lookout has a nice restaurant inside and a casual one on the terrace, and they you have access to the top of the alp which has views all over the place.

It can be a bit of a drive to get to, but if you’re in the Salzburg area, I definitely recommend it.

Tour de Barcelona

The late days of August are happy days for the recreational bicycle rider. The hard training days of spring and the hot days of summer are past, and the wetter weather, annual off-season fitness loss and weight gain have not yet intruded on the consciousness, so one can either just coast along or enjoy crushing the shorter, easier rides de jour.

It was supposed to be a vacation; from work, from home, and from my less-than-stellar cycling season. But, one can take the cyclist out of the country, but one can’t take the country out of the cyclist (I’m not quite sure what that means…), so a week into the trip I found myself once again astride a bicycle, ready for another challenge.

Etapa Uno: Plaça St. Jaume – Plaça de la Seu

Since I have a limitations both in time and desire for training, I approach rides analytically; I study the route, the elevation map, try to find out what the weather will be like, and then I can figure out where the hard parts will be, where the easy parts will be, and then ration my efforts accordingly.

That’s going to be problematic this time, because:

  • I’m on a rented bicycle that I have only ridden from the rental location to the start of the ride, a distance in excess of 30 meters.
  • I lack my usual electronics to measure heart rate and cadence. In fact, my mount lacks a cyclometer of any kind.
  • My only information about the fitness and skill of the other participants is from a quick study of them before the start. My guess is that I’m okay, but having been passed uphill by a 70-year-old guy on a Schwinn older than I am, I know that appearances can be deceiving.
  • I don’t have my usual food, hydration drink, or supplements; all I have is one small bottle of water.
  • I have no map, nor do I know the elevation profile or even how many climbs there will be.
  • The remnants of high-school Spanish have not been terribly useful so far, and anyway many of the locals prefer to speak Catalan.

But, I’m a big proponent of turning the challenge dial to “stupid” (that’s what I tell people – in reality I only ever really turn it to “a bit on the far side of comfortable”), so I’m up for it.

Given that this ride is in Europe, it seems fitting that it follows in the spirit of the randonneur rides that I have done; there is mechanical support available if needed but participants are expected to be self-sufficient otherwise.

We start off without much fanfare. I latch onto the back and struggle to follow; the speed of the group is a bit shocking and there are spectators clogging the route. As I swerve to avoid the more boisterous ones I am reminded of the crowds usually found on slopes of the Col du Galibier. The pavement is variable; smooth through one section, pavé the next – when they built these roads “make them smooth for cycling” was not at the top of the list, but the list did have  “¿Esos ciclistas, qué cuido si consiguen daño?”

I discover that I can keep up with the group; while the fit of the bike isn’t what I’m used to, I have plenty of power in my legs. I think about trying to work my way forward in the group but decide that it’s probably not worth it.

It seems like only a few minutes have past before we pull into the first control point. On the randoneeur ride that I did a few years ago, you might have to answer a question to prove that you were there, but on this ride you learn something at each stop, and presumably you will later be asked to recall specific information to prove that you were there.

Etapa Dos: Plaça de la Seu – La Sagrada Familia

After just a few minutes I head out on the road again. I learned at the last stop that the big climb for the ride is coming up on this segment. The pavement has gotten better and the number of spectators has dwindled. I have some attention to spare to look at the sights and even to take a picture or two:

Then we come to the climb. I’ve only been on one ride in the last two weeks and haven’t touched a bike at all for the last week, so I’m wondering what sort of legs I’ll have. It turns out that they feel great, and the hardest climb of the ride is quickly dispatched and I roll into the next stop soon after. Time to learn what I’ll need to know at the end, and think about food. I settle for the water on my bike; the other riders who are with us have different ideas of on-ride nutrition, and I see everything from sunflower seeds to ice cream being consumed.

The crowds have returned, but they are better behaved than the early ones and we can easily move around.

Etapa Tres: La Sagrada Familia – Plata St. Sebastià

Since we climbed up to the last stop, it’s no surprise that we will now descend for a bit. Along the way we pass some nice sights:

After a technical section bordering a wild animal preserve, our route takes us through the Ciutadella-Vila Olimpica. It is an honor to be travelling streets that were travelled by the sporting elite in 1992, and the group responds by organizing a tight double paceline:

A fast smooth section, and we’re at the next stop.

This stop reminds me of the RAMROD deli stop; the majority of the ride has been dispatched, and the riders take a few minutes to relax knowing that all the hard work is done, and to have some food and drink.

Etapa 4: Plata St. Sebastià  – Plaça St. Jaume

After sitting perhaps for a bit too long, I head out on the final leg, a winding technical section that brings me back to the starting point, and the Tour de Barcelona is done. And it’s time to head off for a bite to eat and some well-earned refreshment.


Overall, this was a nice ride to do. The vibe was a little less hardcore than the rides that I’ve been doing the last few years, and the route selection was nice. The food stops were what you would expect on a rando ride; if you wanted food you could find it. There were of course no Dan Henrys and the course directions were pretty much nonexistent, but in reality following the people who knew where they were going was trivial, so this didn’t cause any problem.

Definitely recommended.


Distance: 9 km?
Riding time: 58:35
Total time: 3:45
Elevation gain: 33 m ?
Calories: 150?