Tuesday, October 30, 2012

This is Idaho

It’s hard to get to and politically backward, but it’s a great place to call home, is filled with beautiful mountains, and has some pretty awesome people, too.  Here are a couple of photos from around the state.

Twin Lakes in the Sawtooth Mountains
Bruneau River Canyon

Fall in Boise
Few people on this road in Southwest Idaho
Boise winter skyline 

Sawtooths with smoke from a bad summer fire season
Pioneer Mountains from Hyndman Peak, with smoke

Now encouraging 2013 visitors.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Links: the magnificence of luggage tags and more

A few interesting travel-related links that I’ve run across in the past few weeks:

In praise of the humble luggage tag (h/t Elsa).

It’s not just you; flying American Airlines really is miserable, but at least the reason why is interesting.

The eloquent American Airlines lament also mentioned in the last article (thanks Victoria!).

The latest TSA travesty (via James Fallows).

And finally an opinion:  wouldn’t life be much better (and travelers much more calm about delays) if there were free wifi in all airports?  Why aren’t airlines pushing for it?  Thank goodness for the airports that are already there--Boise, Phoenix, Geneva (one hour) and many more that I haven’t yet visited. 

Monday, October 15, 2012

A perfect day in the Alps

Last weekend, a friend took me on a beautiful hike to the Lac Blanc in the Aiguilles Rouges, mountains on the opposite side of the Charmonix valley from the Mont Blanc massif.  We were lucky to have a cool, sunny day with clear views on a weekend day in October.  The setting was splendid and the unforgiving-looking mountains across heightened my respect for the mountaineers who climb them.

Some pretty unforgiving peaks on the opposite side of the valley
View of the Mont Blanc and one of the Lacs des Chéserys
Our hike took about three hours on the way up and about two on the way down and had ladders to help  ascend/descend in some of the steep and rocky stretches.  At the Lac Blanc, which sometimes offers photogenic reflections of the mountains opposite, we had a picnic lunch.  It was too windy to get a reflection from the lake, but the setting was still stunning.

Lac Blanc, the surrounding mountains are beautiful on their own but have some stiff competition
After our hike, we met up with my wonderful Geneva hosts for a drink in Charmonix.  They had traveled up the cable car to the Aiguille du Midi that day and also had stories to share.  It’s hard to imagine a much more perfect day in such a magnificent place (though for several days after my calves argued forcefully for taking an easier route).  Thanks for taking me and I look forward to returning (and hopefully soon)!  

Monday, October 8, 2012

Le désalpe

It’s that time of year... (that is, if you live in northern hemisphere temperate latitudes) 
     ...when the days get shorter,
    ...the leaves start to change color,
    ...you can eat lots of pumpkin and squash,
    ...and the COWS come down from their mountain pastures!!

Ok, this last one happens mostly in the alps (where I’m currently hiding out), and here it’s celebrated with style.  The cows are decorated with flower headdresses and pine boughs and the goats wear leis of crepe paper flowers.  My Geneva-based friends arranged to check out the désalpe at Charmey (in the Swiss mountains between Montreux and Fribourg) the last weekend of September.  On the main street through town, an announcer called out each troupe as it passed by the keen crowds, highlighting the number of stock, the owners’ history in the region, their pasture and (for all of the groups) how their health and the quality of their pasture helps them produce such flavorful milk.  Some of the groups has been walking for hours before arriving in Charmey and occasionally were running slightly behind schedule.  A steady rain kept the crowds to a minimum but the atmosphere remained festive.  Alpenhorn players performed, as did a brass band and a group of teenagers walking with cacophonous cowbells.

Parading though Charmey

Throughout the town, there were handicraft and kitsch sellers and food stands offering sausages, local ham sandwiches, chalet soup ladled from huge cauldrons, raclette, and plenty of drinks.  The dessert on offer was merangues in heavy cream.  Most importantly, there were also quite a few local cheese vendors.  We picked up some gruyère d’alpage, tomme de chèvre d’alpage, and a fresh goat cheese.  The “alpage” cheeses are made with the milk that the goats and cows produce when they are in the summer highland pastures.  The quality of the grass makes these cheeses particularly perfumed and different tasting (even though it comes from the same animals) as compared to the milk produced when they are in lowland barns during the winter.

Soupe du chalet

After the festivities in Charmey, we stopped in the lovely medieval town of Gruyères.  The town buildings were picturesque and views out over the valley below were cloudy and misty, but usually you can see the surrounding mountains of the Gruyères region.  The désalpe (or démontagnée in France) festivities stretch over a couple of weeks around the beginning of autumn depending on the town.  Other festivals we read about this past weekend included ones dedicated to apple cider, donkeys, and cows sparring for troupe supremacy, so there’s plenty to explore even once the cows have come home.

View from Gruyères castle

Monday, October 1, 2012

Splendid Turkey

When my friend and I started planning a 10-day trip to Turkey, friends gushed about nearly every destination we were considering. Once I arrived, I understood why. People were extremely nice to us (as in over the top, give you anything you ask for nice). One hotel owner arranged for two express mail legs to help me retrieve my laptop power cord and another gave me his SIM card so that I could take a phone call for an interview (or offered to drive me to the town nearby where they were sold). I am deeply grateful to the people who made our trip so memorable, from the waiter who taught us a card game to the friends of my travel companion who took us to lovely local places for dinner and drinks on our last night. So now it's my turn to highly recommend a trip to Turkey.

It was hard to decide where to go within Turkey, as many destinations offer appealing combinations of scenery, history, and culture. We ended up dividing our trip into three days visiting ruins and the beach on the central Agean coast, three days in Cappadocia--an area of fascinating landscapes and early Christian history--and of course, Istanbul.

Library of Celsus, Ephesus
Izmir, Ephesus, and Çeşme - We flew into the lovely, modern airport at Izmir to visit the coast and Ephesus. The ruins are Ephesus are well preserved and definitely worth a visit. They are also the major tourist draw on the Agean coast, so be prepared for tourist and cruise ship throngs. Çeşme might have had this atmosphere too a week earlier, but when we arrived students were going back to school and the town felt perfectly like a resort area in the off season (with still-warm breezes and water). The Çeşme peninsula has several towns and even more beaches. We visited Altinkum (golden) and Ilica beaches and found good food and views everywhere we visited.

Cappadocia “fairy chimney” ancient dwellings
Busy ballooning morning
Cappadocia - Cappadocia has dramatic scenery with funky carved churches, underground cities, and hot air ballooning. In the beautiful tourist hub town of Göreme, many of the “cave” hotels are built into the valley walls and offer scenic views of the town. There are several valley walks around Göreme and the nearby hilltop town of Uçhisar. We visited the Göreme Open Air Museum, which contains cave dwellings and carved churches, and Uçhisar Castle, commanding a splendid view over the surrounding area. We also ventured to one of the underground cities, where thousands of people could defend themselves, living in the warren. It’s difficult to imagine what life must have felt (and smelled) like in these corridors. Taking a balloon ride was a highlight of the visit.

Hagia Sofia interior, Istanbul

Istanbul - The city is even more beautiful and interesting than I imagined. It is also huge and has a sophisticated transportation network and pretty bad traffic. The main tourist sites are concentrated in a small, walkable area of the city. I would recommend seeking out dining options outside of the Sultanahmed tourist center. The basic tourist sites easily fill several days (Hagia Sofia, Blue Mosque, Grand bazaar, Topkapi Palace, Roman cistern, Spice market, Bosphorus cruise, Galata Tower) and are beautiful and fascinating as one might expect, but we were occasionally overwhelmed by the crowds. I was surprised by how safe, clean, and organized the bazaars felt. We visited the hammam at Cağaloğlu, which was nicely restorative, but it seems its renown has undermined the need for service quality. On my last day, I visited Adalar, or the Prince’s Islands. The boat ride out showed me the extent of the city beyond the tourist center and made me want to explore the everyday Istanbul further. 

Practical information:
  • Turkey’s currency is the Turkish lira, but hotel prices are often calculated and charged in euro.
  • Several airlines fly a wide variety of domestic routes. We took three domestic flights with Pegasus and were pleasantly surprised to find online bookings easy, limited hidden costs (visible before you click to purchase; don’t bother to pay to select your seats), and good service on a low-cost carrier. They even let you check 15 kg of luggage. Other domestic carriers include Atlasjet, Onurair, Sun Express, and Turkish Airlines
  • Our bus experiences were very positive, with on-time departures and great prices. 
  • During high season in Istanbul, book lodging in advance. There are many small hotels, but many book up weeks in advance and you won’t want to wander around with your baggage to inquire as the museums and architecture beckon. 
  • Room rates generally include wifi access and breakfast. The quality of the buffet options ranges, but all seem to offer tomatoes, cucumbers, cheese, bread, boiled eggs, and olives. 
Friends recommended Bodrum and Pamukkule to us, but we didn’t have time to make it to either place. If you’ve been to them, please share! 

More photos