Friday Thought #93 Awesome America

So I’m afraid I’ve had a bit of a summer break, but I’m back, and despite it feeling like a very long time ago now, I would like to journey back to our American road trip this summer. We try and do at least a 10 day road trip in the States every summer, simply because we love it. It is a country with endless adventures, you could spend multiple lifetimes there and still only scratch the surface of its diversity. Coming from Europe it’s hard to get your head around a land mass that size which is all one country, over here we are so used to being able to hop on a plane and be in another country in little more than an hour. And not just a different country, but one with a totally different language, a new culture, a completely different climate. And while that is just wonderful, the grass is always greener isn’t it?! What you haven’t grown up with is always intriguing and exciting, and it kind of blows my mind that in America you can drive in a straight line for 10 hours and still be in the same state!

I just love the American open roads, the big skies, the sheer enormity of it, the emptiness. Europe is SO full, especially in the summer. You cannot pitch your tent on a public campsite and be more than 5 meters away from the tent next to you. And try driving anywhere on mainland Europe in July and August without being stuck in dreadful traffic and adding at least a couple of hours to your journey. Away from the cities, the States is simply empty. During the week it’s not uncommon to have an entire state campground to  yourself, and as for the wilderness areas, wow, uninhabited wild spaces that size are just mind boggling, and it almost makes me feel worried that I’m never going to have the time or opportunity to fully explore even a fraction of these incredible places.

So enough of my rambling, this trip saw us starting in Seattle and finishing in Portland, Oregon, in between managing to explore a bit of the Olympic Penninsula, stay on a horse ranch in rural Idaho and journey across Idaho and Oregon, taking in some incredible places, including Boise, Bend, Smith Rock, deserted campgrounds, empty lakes, and of course those endless skies.

If you ever plan a trip to the States I can’t recommend road tripping enough. It is by far the best way to see the country. We didn’t really have a set plan, just followed the weather and went wherever took our fancy. The roads are enormous and there is never any traffic, which means that rather than being a chore, the journey to a new destination is all part of the fun, in fact it’s thoroughly enjoyable! Crank up that country music and sit back and relax under those big, open skies…

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Friday Thought #92 Travelling by train

Europe is a wonderful continent, endlessly beautiful, with ever-changing landscapes and enough different languages and cultures to fill a lifetime. However if you only ever travel by car, the majority of the scenery you will pass by will all blend into one, fairly uninspiring blur; edge of the motorway, fairly mundane and not worth writing home about. Now of course motorways are incredible, without them cross-country travel would be a nightmare at best, but there is no question that it is not the way to really see a country. You need to get off the beaten track, and while that may mean meandering off the main roads and winding your way through those B roads at a snail’s pace, a wonderful alternative is to travel by train.

Since moving to Austria, we have discovered the joys of superb, and remarkably reasonably priced, train travel, and these days we try and cover most of our long journeys by train rather than by car. For a start, it’s so much more enjoyable; you’re not stuck in a tiny box, or in traffic, you can walk around, eat in the restaurant and go to the bathroom at your leisure! You don’t have to concentrate; you can read a book, watch a film, catch up on work, or even go to sleep. But finally, and the best part for me, is that you become privy to, albeit only by a glimpse, secret parts of the country that only those privileged train passengers get the opportunity to see.

I recently travelled from Innsbruck to Geneva by train, crossing pretty much the entire country of Switzerland in the process, and what a delightful experience it was. Switzerland is a truly stunning country, with landscapes to rival the most impressive across the World, and what better way to see these beautiful lakes, mountains and villages? Why from the comfort of your train carriage, earphones in, gently rumbling through the countryside with not a care in the world!

The photos were taken with a phone whilst on the move, but hopefully they will capture some of the beauty and tranquility of the journey.

Friday Thought #91 Spring skiing in the sun

So the winter that never really started is drawing to a close. However, following several weeks of baking sunshine and temperatures in the high twenties, yesterday we awoke to a garden full of snow and a rather chilly shock of -1 outside. Just when we were about to let out a big sigh and put away our skis whilst tut-tutting but cheerily back slapping about how we’ve done our best to make the most of a poor winter, the almost forgotten winter seems to have staged a rather dramatic comeback. So the touring skis will stay out for a little while longer, and we will remember April as the month of surprises.

But before the rather bizarre and unexpected snowfall, we managed to get out and enjoy some cracking spring snow, and all under a big blue sky. At this time of year it’s important to stay as high as possible, mainly due to the distinct lack of snow lower down, so we decide to head to Ischgl, in the west of the country. Skiing off the back of the resort down to the Heidelberger Hutte not only provides a great lunch spot but also opens you up to a whole world of touring possibilities. With a number of peaks hovering around the 3000m mark and a ski track all the way back out to rejoin the resort at the end of the day, it was difficult to find any fault with the plan from start to finish. We opted for the Mottana Peak, around 750m height gain from the hut. We were the sole summiteers all day (it seems most Austrians just do the same tour as everyone else and ignore the alternatives!) so fresh spring skiing tracks all the way down and an uninterrupted view to rival most views. Not bad all round.

New addition to the book club pages!

Having left Chamonix over a year and a half ago, and therefore no longer being part of a book club, I have regrettably let my book reviews slide, but I have read a few cracking ones lately and have decided that I don’t need to be in a book club to review a good book, if it’s good, then the word needs to be spread!

So here’s my first review in a while, a superb book called Unbroken, by Laura Hillenbrand. Read the full review here.

Friday Thought #90 Romania’s dark history

To finish off our Romanian trip report, I must mention the political history of the country as it is one of the most extraordinary stories to emerge from a county so close to home, and in the very recent past.

Nicolai Ceausescu was Romania’s communist president from 1967 – 1989 and despite seemingly starting out as exactly what the country needed and wanted, it soon turned sour and Ceausescu became increasingly brutal and repressive. He maintained tight controls over the media, sanctioned a brutal secret police force and made decisions which resulted in extreme shortages of fuel, energy, medicines, and a nationwide famine. Finally, after years of growing unrest, unlawful killings and political demonstrations, Ceausescu’s communist government was overthrown, and following a dramatic helicopter escape attempt, Ceausescu and his wife Elena were subjected to a brief show trial and sentenced to death by firing squad.

We visited these sights in Bucharest and in Târgoviște, an hour north of the capital, expecting them to be busy and full of tourists with cameras, like any European capital, especially one with such a fascinating history. But what we discovered was quite the opposite, Bucharest was like a ghost town. We were seemingly the only tourists, and the only people paying any attention to these historic landmarks. We got the distinct impression that Romanians don’t want to commemorate the revolution or celebrate their freedom, they just want to forget that this ever happened.

It took us a long time to even find the Ceausescu Museum in Târgoviște, given that it had no signs, wasn’t marked, and has the incorrect address on the website. This crumbling and unremarkable building is where the Ceausescus were held, tried and executed. Eerie doesn’t even come close. You can sit in the chair where they were sentenced, see where they spent their final days, and touch the bullet holes which remain in the wall where they fell. It should signal the end of repression for Romania, a start of a new era, yet the guest book indicated that we were the only visitors in the last 10 days.

Another stark reminder of the Ceausescu’s rule, and one which perhaps the Romanians would like to forget, is the Palace of the Parliament in Bucharest. Ceausescu built this in the 1980s to try and replicate the regime in North Korea. In order to build this narcissistic monstrosity, a hospital was demolished along with several monasteries and around 37 old factories and workshops, and 40,000 people were kicked out of their homes. The cost of building it was estimated at around €3 billion, of public money. Today it is the fourth biggest building in the world and the cost of heating and electric lighting alone exceeds €5.5 million per year. Despite housing the entire Romanian Parliament and several museums, approximately 70% of the building remains empty. Just what Romania needs; a country which still has one of the lowest net average monthly wages in the EU, at just €540.

Romania was a truly fascinating place, and I am pleased that through visiting I was able to learn so much more about the dark history of this country. If you ever find yourself in Eastern Europe I thoroughly recommend a trip.

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thumb_IMG_5115_1024A surprising lack of pride on a national monument.

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The bullet holes remain, as do the original lines drawn where the Ceausescus fell. Eerie doesn’t even come close.

 

 

Friday Thought #89 Skiing in Romania

As I mentioned last time, my most recent eastern European ski jolly was to Romania; not a country renowned for its skiing, but somewhere with mountains nonetheless, plus with the added bonus of being a fascinating country, steeped in history and therefore with lots a exploring to be done. Unfortunately it has been a fairly dire winter across the whole of the European continent, and Romania was no exception, but despite the pretty minimal snowpack and obvious recent wind affect, with a bit of imagination and some searching, we managed to have some superb days out.

We were staying in the tiny village of Busteni, which does have a cable car, but no ski area. Theoretically the lift is for hiking and sightseeing only, but with a little internet research and a lot of map studying we discovered that there was a beautiful ski tour across the plateau at the top, with a potentially adventurous and exciting descent through a vast gully back down to the valley. It did indeed turn out to be quite an adventure, and we were slightly wary about the prospect of waking one of Romania’s hibernating bears…! But we had the place to ourselves all day in fairly wild country, and found some great skiing.

Despite day passes being disproportionately high in Romania (around the equivalent of €35/€40), one-way ski tickets are outrageously cheap (€5), leading us to wonder why anyone bothers buying a day pass, given the fairly limited lift-served skiing! So we generally got a lift bump at the start of the day, in neighbouring Sinaia and Azuga, and spent the day exploring with the skins. The weather was wonderful all week, so we may not have found powder heaven, but we saw some spectacular views and thoroughly enjoyed exploring and discovering some new mountains.

Friday Thought #88 Rescue Bears in Romania

At the end of February I had the opportunity to visit a country which has been on my hit list for a long long time. Romania has always fascinated me, everything I had heard about it seemed such a far cry from anything I knew, yet it’s just a short plane ride away, and in the very same continent I live in. The extreme poverty, the images of the orphanages in the 1980s, the horrific dictatorship, the hardships the Romanian people have had to endure; it seems like something that would happen in another world, far from privileged western society, and surely not in the modern day. Yet much of this dark history was during my lifetime, and since 2007 Romania has been a member of the European Union, the very same union shared by powerhouses such as Germany and the UK.

The trip was planned as a ski adventure combined with some culture and exploring of Romania, and I will share some of my experiences in Romania over the next few weeks, but I would like to start on a happy note. Whilst there we were absolutely delighted to be able to visit a rescue bear sanctuary in the town of Zarnesti, around 3 hours north of Bucharest, and we loved it so much, we visited again!

Horrifyingly, only in 2005 was it made illegal in Romania to take bears from the wild and hold them captive as ‘pets’ or tourist attractions, and thus the “Libearty“ sanctuary was created in an effort to try and rescue and care for the brown bears which had been mistreated and abused across Romania. Many were kept chained in front of restaurants, hotels, and gas stations as tourist attractions. Believe it or not, one bear was even rescued from a cage in a monastery.

Since the sanctuary opened, 95 bears have been rescued, and now live a life as close as possible to how they would be living in the wild, with 70 hectares of space to roam, hunt, swim and hibernate.

They run solely on donations and support from animal charities and supermarkets, and we discovered to our horror that the sanctuary’s running costs are a whopping €40,000 per month. It is a truly wonderful place and a remarkable achievement. I thoroughly loved spending time somewhere so selfless and so dedicated to others. I couldn’t recommend a visit more highly if you ever find yourself in Romania.

http://www.ampbears.ro/en/bear-sanctuary

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