Tourist Info Desk

Welcome to Fernweh, a blog concerning the (mis)adventures of one Fulbrighter during a year spent in Europe teaching English.
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If you're wondering what the book reviews are about, I direct your attention to the reading list/classic lit challenge here.
Thanks for stopping by. I look forward to hearing from you!

Saturday, August 21, 2010


Originally written August 19th

One thing I discovered on my way to Keswick is that I'm a horrible liar. I don't have a story prepared, so if anyone asks me where I'm from, where I'm going, or what I'm doing, I automatically tell them the truth. In an age where my full name (or maybe even just first), the name of the scholarship, and the name of the country it's in is probably enough to find me in a Google search, I need to be more careful what information I give out.

This was driven home to me when I was killing a half hour waiting for a bus by exploring the ruins of a castle in Penrith. While I was sitting on a ruined wall, marvelling at the effects of the passage of time, two guys approached me, clearly foreigners. One asked to take a picture with me, and when, bemused, I assented, he sat right next to me, put his arm around me, and grinned at his friend with the camera. After the third or fourth picture, I was starting to get freaked out, and that was before he asked if I was married or had a boyfriend, and if not, if he could be my boyfriend.

I gave him my best, "Nice try but leave me alone" look, smiled tolerantly, and in my head started thinking unpleasant things like Soft spots: eyes, nose, throat, groin and How quickly can I get my walking stick unbuckled from my backpack? This was all totally unnecessary, as soon enough he got the message and backed off, although he and his friend stuck around to chat with me, inquiring repeatedly where I was going and where I was staying. I was as vague as I could be, but I simply can't come up with convincing lies under pressure.

(I should note that it was still late afternoon and we were within easy view and earshot of a major, busy road and bus stop, so at no point was I really in danger, just a bit weirded out.)

So. I've decided that I'm a university student from Canada (around the Vancouver area) named Jennifer Cumberbatch (after this guy). I'm heading from Edinburgh south towards London, and I'm going to be studying for a year in Austria. The details are sufficiently similar to the truth for me to recover easily if I slip up, and could be faked easily.

Of course, this is only the story for people that make me uncomfortable, like my two over-inquisitive new friends from Bangladesh. Oh, I forgot to mention that they invited me to go to Bangladesh, and as I made good my escape back to the bus stop, they asked for my e-mail or Facebook. I almost laughed out loud but got away without giving them, hopefully, enough information to find me.

Anyway. Penrith's only significance to me is that it's the nearest train station to Keswick, my next destination. The bus ride to Keswick was simply astounding: this is the first time I've seen anything in Britain that could be even remotely considered a mountain. Of course, in contrast to the Swiss Alps, they're basically greenish-brown, slightly pathetic foothills. But we're not in the Alps anymore, and everything has to be taken in conext; here, they're peaks, looming with a majestic, ancient, dignified air over the rolling, sheep-dotted countryside and placid lakes below. The Alps are the sort of mountains that you'd go bungee jumping with. The peaks here you'd be much more likely to invite round for tea and cakes.

In a variation on the FDR (First Day Rule, remember), I arrived around sunset and set off on a quest to find the lake. I was, after all, in the Lake District, and Derwentwater, by which Keswick nestles, is supposed to be one of the most beautiful. But I could not, for the life of me, locate it, and had to ask several people before I was pointed in the right direction. As it turns out, Keswick (pronounced KEZ-ick, by the way) sits back from the lake's edge, separated from the water by a sheep-covered hill known as Hope Park. I arrived on the hill, picking my way through a minefield of droppings and cooing soothingly at the wild-eyed sheep, just as the sun set. The lake spread out before me, flanked by those graceful green peaks, as pale gold and salmon pink light melted all over the purple-grey clouds.

I wended my way down to the shore, where the wavelets lapped and splashed calmly on the gravel, and struck up a conversation with a mother sitting on the beach as her two teenagers and their father threw rocks into the water. What began as a laugh about accidentally getting hit by a badly aimed pebble somehow turned into a wonderful conversation that only ended when darkness was falling and I realized that I hadn't eaten dinner yet. I walked back into town with this lovely family, said farewell, and ate fish and chips in the town square before trundling back to the hostel to bed.

This hostel, by the way, is the jankiest I've stayed in yet. (I'm not actually sure that "janky" is a word in common use yet. Sketchy? Spartan? Something like that.) I was given no key, and led through a warren of a long hallway to a small room filled with bunks in the back. The whole place was eerily silent, and remained so through my entire stay. Despite the slight creepiness, the place was actually very comfortable. They even had free tea and coffee out all the time, which I made good use off. I'm quickly becoming a tea addict--given the choice between tea and coffee in a coffee shop, I'll take coffee, because they know how to make it properly. But when it's tea or the powdered sand they call "instant coffee", it's tea all the way. Tea is nice.

I woke up the next morning to rain on the corrugated plastic skylights. (And you think I'm kidding...) I got a trail recommendation from the info center, a picnic from the supermarket, and then I set off into the hills. And let me tell you: anyone who claims that England is danky, dreary, and dull has clearly never been in Keswick on a sunny day. The path climbed up past babbling brooks and baleful-eyed sheep to a lookout atop a crag. From there, the azure Derwentwater, sporting tree-covered islands like emerald jewelry, spread out at my feet; to the right, crowned by a rainbow, the grey and white houses of Keswick sat swathed in rich green. Ahead, a valley led to another lake in the distance, while on all other sides rose green-brown slopes, like sentinels bathed in sunlight. I was reluctant to leave, but the wind was quite strong, and eventually my cold fingers convinced me to move again.

I continued along the top of the hills through vast patches of pale purple heather to Ashness Bridge, a cute little stone bridge over another sparkling stream, and from there down to the lakeside. I took my time on the walk back to Keswick, stopping to enjoy the view and admire the sunlight sparkling off the waves. By the time I returned to town, it was after 6pm. Now I'd promised myself afternoon tea when I got back, but at this hour, all the tea houses and cafes were closed. Hungry, tired, and with a headache coming on, I did the only sensible thing: went back to the supermarket and bought everything I needed to make afternoon tea in my hostel. And that's what I had for dinner. I made myself go to bed early, because I knew the next day--today--would be a big one.

And it is. Why? Because I'm going to Edinburgh. I've been thinking and talking about Edinburgh for, oh, almost the entire trip, and just about everyone I've mentioned it to has nothing but good things to say. I have a week booked there, but I'm not sure I'll stay the whole time; it depends on whether I'm enjoying the Fringe Festival, how much of the city I want to see, and how much time I want to spend in Ireland. Because as much as I try to ignore it, each day brings me closer to the moment that I'll have to leave the Sceptered Isle and return to Germany.

But enough of that. For the moment, I'm on my way to Edinburgh, the sun is (intermittently) shining, and all is well.

York. (Sorry, I'm getting lazy.)

Originally written August 17

There is something very, very strange about not knowing where you are.

I am currently in Lancaster. This is apparently in northern England, but, allowing for the possibility of teleportation, I could just as easily be in Pennsylvania for all I know. It's cool and partly cloudy, with large patches of deliciously blue sky, and I've just had a prefectly wonderful cup of coffee at Costa to kill time waiting for the train to Penrith. As far as I can seen, there's a fairly deserted road out one exit and a couple of buildings in that ubiquitous greyish tan stone out the other--no town in sight. Although I've just been informed that the town is not five minutes' walk down the hill in the direction of the buildings. Odd.

There's a sort of deep-seated terror of being lost that rises up in strange places like this. Obviously, there are people on the platform and in the shops, and I'm sure I could start walking in almost any direction and come across someone who could help me in minutes. I'm hardly, in other words, in the middle of nowhere. And yet, there's a sort of nervous itch that pokes at my spinal cord. What if the train doesn't come and I'm stranded here? What if I get on the wrong train and end up in Nowhereton-upon-Tinkle with no way of getting back? The unfamiliarity is disconcerting. It's the small, annoying Chihuahua cousin of the wolfish terror that preys on people lost in the wilderness with dusk approaching.

It's also wonderful. Familiarity, while comforting and snuggly and good for evenings in the winter, can also be frightfully dull. The sense of being, and going, somewhere new has drawn humanity forward for millennia.

And yet, this is all rather grand when you're sitting in a train station in a quiet town in northern English, waiting for a comfortable train to whisk you off to another quiet town in northern England. Or possibly Pennsylvania.

Anyway. I've just left York, which makes it somewhat fitting that I'm passing through Lancaster as well. For those not acquainted with English history (which includes me, but here goes), the houses of York and Lancaster fought for a good long while for the rulership of England in a conflict known as the War of the Roses. Before I'd made the connection between THAT Lancaster and the small, seemingly isolated train station I was sitting in, I'd asked a very talkative lady next to me if I was still in Yorkshire. Hah. Oops.

Keep getting off track. I shall tell you about York. Calling into effect the First Day Rule, I dropped off my stuff at my new hostel (which was, unfortunately, 20 minutes' walk out of town) and went to have a little look around. The sun was shining brilliantly, it was warm and lovely, and so naturally, the only thing for it was to find cafe with tables out in the sun and have afternoon tea, which I promptly did while planning my next move. This turned out to be getting a ticket for a local performance of Henry IV, Part II--an exciting prospect, since I'd seen Part 1 in London (as you may remember) and was disappointed that I wouldn't be able to see the end. Having got my ticket for that afternoon, I set off walking on a bit of York's medieval wall, a pleasant stroll made fantastic by the views of the enormous, creamy white minster looming in a dignified, meranguey sort of way over the busy town center. I'd intended to walk the town walls all the way round, but got easily distracted by Goodramgate, a street leading into York's center positively overflowing with charity shops.

Charity shops are a wonderful idea. Apparently, charities open a shop and ask for donations, and at least part of the profits they make selling people's unwanted stuff to other people goes to fund the charity. Basically, it's like Value Village, except small, English, and for the benefit of heart patients or orphans or something. Not needing clothes, board games, furniture, dishes, or jewelry, I always make a beeline for the bookshelves, because if I'm lucky, I just might find a book I'd like to read. I've already mentioned how I bought far too many books at an Oxfam store in Liverpool, and yet I just can't seem to stay away.

The interesting thing about these places is that you only find there things that people have at one point owned, decided they don't want or need anymore, and have accordingly given away. If you're looking for particular books, like I am, that are popular at the moment, you're not likely to find them, because they're popular, and therefore people are reading and keeping them. The great thing about this is that you can kind of get a feel for unpopular books by their relative frequency between stores. Find one copy of something, and one person doesn't want it; find ten or twelve, and clearly, a lot of people don't want it. This is why I laugh to myself every time I find a brand new hardcover of one of Jeremy Clarkson's books, which happens in about half or more of the shops I've been in. The only people who are ambivalent about Clarkson, it seems, are the people who don't know about him.

Incidentally, in almost every one of these shops, there is also a copy of Jane Eyre. But I digress.

I was doing really well in the not-buying-more-books department until I came across an honest-to-goodness Oxfam bookstore and found yet another book I can't live without. Ah well.

I returned to the middle of town for evensong at the minster. I didn't have much time to look at the church and was ushered straight into the choir, where a guest choir from Arkansas sang the service quite beautifully. I only had time to peek around a few corners before I was chased out of the minster again and was left staring up at the spires rising golden above my head in the afternoon sunlight.

I carried on wandering through town and finally made my way to the church that had been converted to a theater for the play. Although I was a little too cold, the play was fairly good, if still somewhat baffling. I was reminded of when I picked up third-quarter physics to complete a GUR when I'd taken the first two quarters at a different college two years previously: I had a vague idea of what was going on, but I'd forgotten some important details (like which names belonged on which side) and, of course, all the faces were different. So, frustrating, but on the whole not bad. On a random note, during the play they mention that the King's forces are divided because he's also fighting Owen Glendower; this made me smile, because Glendower's rebellion was in North Wales, where I'd just been, and I'd been hearing about the noble Welsh rebels' fight at Conwy castle. Nothing like a little personal connection to give a story some context. I left contemplating the nature of kingship, the passage of time, and the meaning of loyalty, but was quickly brought back to earth by having to walk around a man who was standing on the pavement outside a bar with his friends, laughing as he urinated on the wall. Turns out the theatre/church is right in the middle of the bar and clubs area, so I had to wend my way past scantily dressed girls and drunk men to end up, eventually, back at my hostel.

I made it into town the next morning after a nice stroll down the river just in time for a walking tour around the city. The tour covered mostly ground I'd seen the day before, but I was introduced to some new places as well as learning more about what I'd seen before. After the tour, I got lunch at Greggs (<3!) and popped into a small church in the middle of the bustling shopping area.

This was an interesting thing. The cars were whizzing by, the people hurrying past, and yet all of them seemed to be completely oblivious to or uninterested in the fact that there was a very nice-looking church right there in the middle of it all. I wandered in to find something I always treasure: a calm, cool, peaceful, beautiful santuary. The traffic was right outside, but inside the stone walls, it was quiet and unruffled--and totally deserted. A poster on the wall told the sad story of how the church had once been grander, with much more land, but slowly, bit by bit, it had sacrificed more and more to the growing city around it. It reminded me of the giving tree in a way: dignified but a little sad.

I made my way through the center of the town, taking some pictures of the Shambles--a narrow, shop-lined street dating from way back in the day, medieval times or something. The shops on the ground floor are modern, but overhead, the old houses lean and sag into each other with a sort of sleepy forgetfulness. Eventually I made my way around town to the Castle Museum, which had exhibits on things like washing machines and wedding dresses that were mildly interesting, and a recreation of Victorian-era street, down which I walked, pretending I was Sherlock Holmes. I also wandered through the '60s (it was scary) and York's old prison. I then spent far too much time on the Internet at the local McDonald's and finally made it back to the hostel late only to find a nice young lady from Japan with whom I had a very nice conversation before finally going to bed.

The next day, then August the 16th, was cool and cloudy, and that to me means museum, so I hung out in the Yorkshire museum look at the skulls of YOrk's citizens from thousands of years ago, old jewelry and pottery and a could of animal skeletons. I then finally made my way to York's Minster and wandered about with my head thrown back and my jaw hanging. The minster is enormous, and inside it feels huge, but it's also airy and full of light. I also paid a few quid extra to climb the tower, and peered through the wire caging to keep people from throwing themselves off (apparently) until the guard made me go back down. After dinner, I spent more time in McDonald's, mostly downloading a bunch of shows from the BBC to keep me occupied in my internetlessness.

My final day in York, I spend the morning running around doing errands. I managed to mail off most of my library and donate a couple books I didn't want to keep. As I keep mentioning, I've been compulsively buying books all over the place, and this has led to a rather heavy "travel library" that I don't want to keep carting around. Instead, I mailed them to myself in Germany, so I'll have my own library already started when I get there. In the remaining time before my train departed, I returned to the minster and had a quick look around the undercroft and treasury and one last gawp at the magnificence of it all before I had to book it to the train station for a very long journey to Keswick.

At the station, I got pulled in by the irresistable gravity well of a WH Smith and bought two more books. Facepalm.


Hello again. In case you forgot, we just got off the train in Hale, which is in Altrincham, which is near Manchester, which is in northern England. Got it?

Now, because I'm writing this much after the fact and I'd like to get caught up quickly so I can keep pace, I'm going to make this slightly truncated. This is also because, compared to my usual sightseeing pace, the next four days were very relaxing.

I met Elizabeth on the platform, and she kindly drove back to her house, just a few minutes away. We had wine out on her patio and chatted about what I'd been doing that summer; after dinner, we watched telly together before I headed to bed.

See? I told you this would be quick...

Next morning, Elizabeth--oh, wait, I should explain.

When my ex-roommate Shannon was looking for a place to stay in Vancouver, BC, last spring, she invited me to come with her and we made a day of it. One of the prospective places we looked at was in the attic of a nice English woman named Maggie, who was very eager to offer advice when she heard that both Shannon and I were going to England in the summer. She also happened to mention that her mother lives in Manchester and offered to ask her if she'd be willing to host me while I was traveling. Through Maggie, I got in touch with her mother, Elizabeth, who very generously took me in.

Elizabeth is an absolutely delightful 87-year-old lady who lives on her own in a frankly enormous (for one person) house in the quiet town of Hale. Besides being very fun to talk to, Elizabeth is fiercely independent. She still very competently drives a manual car, and she has a hydrolic crane in the back of her car to load her electric scooter. Her two-story house has one of those stair chair lift thingies, but she can still do the stairs quite easily. She absolutely refused to let me help with anything--cooking, cleaning, parking, whatever. Really, though, it was great to be mothered and taken care of for a few days!

Anyway, the next morning Elizabeth woke me with a cup of tea and we went off to the nearby town of Stockport. Stockport had two attractions for us that day: the hat museum (no, seriously) and the WWII bomb shelter tunnels. In the hat museum, I learned more than I'll ever remember about the process of making felt and hats, although it was rather fun to look at the museum's collection of all the straight-up ridiculous things that some people have actually had the audacity to wear on their heads in public. Naturally, they had some extras for the kids me to try on as well.

We stopped in a M&S for lunch and then went to the tunnels. These tunnels had been excavated out of the sandstone beginning in 1938 in preparation for the war brewing on the horizon. The atmosphere in there reminded me of the Cabinet War Rooms in London--anxiety and fear are still thick in the dank, cool air and the long shadows cast by dim lights. Brush your hand against the reddish-orange walls, look at the sand on your fingertips, and wonder who's stood in this same spot in the darkness with dirt on their hands, hearing the thundrous booms in the distance and trembling.

Anyway. We headed home and Elizabeth made dinner (of course) and we watched telly together for a while. This kind of became the tradition.

The next day, Elizabeth took me in the morning to an exhibit on the Bible, run by the local chapter of some or another Christian Brotherhood that I've never heard of. A few of the manuscripts were genuinely old and interesting, but many were replicas. Also, one of the attendants tried to convert me.

After the exhibit, Elizabeth was going to a birthday party for a friend, so I got on the tram and went to Manchester. Of course, in Hale it was sunny and clear, but by the time I arrived in Manchester, it was pouring. I wandered around in the rain for a bit looking for the Central Library, only to find that it was closed, so I headed to the Rylands Library instead.

The Rylands Library was build in memory of John Rylands by his wife, and is, for lack of a better phrase, frikken gorgeous. Built in the decorative style of a Gothic cathedral and packed to the gills with gorgeous books, I can hardly imagine a more wonderful place. I wandered through an exhibit on Elizabeth Gaskell, a local writer, and spent a long time wandering up and down the main reading room. The collection is open to anyone who wants to use it as long as they register beforehand, so the long, vaulted hall is lined on both sides by alcoves with tables for study. To top all this amazingness off with a cherry of squee, in the middle of it all were display cases featuring a bookbinding exhibition. I stayed there for a while, staring at the exquisitely crafted little books and watching the fitful sunlight try to fight its way in to light the gilding on the shelved books.

By the time I tore myself away, it was downpouring again. I toyed with the idea of slogging through the rain to the cathedral but decided it simply wasn't worth it and got dinner at Greggs instead. As I was taking shelter from the rain and eating my pasty, I was joined by a homeless guy named Dave. To my wary surprise, we had a very nice chat, and he didn't ask me for money once and instead told me about Jesus. It was really quite sweet.

Having run out of options, I took the train back to Altrincham and walked back to Elizabeth's house, where it was, of course, a beautifully sunny afternoon. Shortly after I got back, Elizabeth suggested that we go out for dinner, so we drove down the road to a nearby pub for some proper pub food! Then of course, wine, telly, and bed.

I'm sorry, but I honestly don't remember what we did the morning of the 13th. I think we went to the library so I could check my e-mail, and maybe that was it. Anyway. After that, we went to visit Tatton, the grounds and mansion of a local lord whose name I've forgotten. (You have Google. Look it up.) We took a tour through the sumptuous interior, and I'd've liked to have stayed longer, but we did head back after that. And I know this is awful, but I don't remember what happened after that, either. I think I spent the afternoon repacking my luggage and watching telly with Elizabeth.

The next morning, Elizabeth woke me up with a cup of tea as usual, made me breakfast as usual, and took me train station. We said a quick goodbye, then she was off to go see a piano recital in Leeds. What an absolutely fabulous lady!

I got on the train and was once again on my own. Next stop: York.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Wondering in Wales

Where was I? Oh, yes, on a small train platform somewhere in Wales.

Over the course of this trip, the First Day Rule has kind of transmogrified itself from a fun idea into a tradition. As I mentioned in the post on Venice, what it means is that, if I arrive in a new city with time to spare before bedtime, I drop off my stuff in my hostel and then set out with minimal use of a map and with no clear sightseeing priorities. The aim is to get a taste of the city just as it is--get the flavor and feeling of the streets, the basic city layout, the locations (although usually quickly forgotten) of important things like grocery stores, Greggs, and McDonalds--the latter for Internet, of course.

Conwy, my home from the 8th to the 10th, was no different. Having been unable to book a bed in the hostel, I'd instead gone for a B&B just outside the town. This was total luxury: a quiet, airy room to myself with an utterly enormous bed, my own bathroom (!), and free WiFi. Soon enough, though, I was heading back down the quiet country road to the town to have a look around--it's tradition.

Conwy, as it turns out, is positively delightful. There was just about nothing here until the time of Edward I, who decided to show those troublesome Welsh who was boss once and for all. To do this, he built Conwy Castle and the walled town of Conwy at the strategic crossing of the Conwy River, along with many other castles throughout the country. The point of the castle was to keep the local Welsh in line, and for its purpose, could be conservatively called "total overkill." The enormous structure, with drawbridges, portcullises, murder holes, fallbacks, moats and the like, was never taken by force, and you can see why: for the time, it was pretty much impregnable. Apparently, though, Owen Glendower, a Welsh rebel leader, bribed the gatekeeper and managed to take it in a brief uprising before he got squashed. (For the lulz, I'd like to point out a sentence from that Wikipedia article: "Glyndŵr was a descendant of the Princes of Powys from his father Gruffydd Fychan II, hereditary Tywysog of Powys Fadog and Lord of Glyndyfrdwy, and of those of Deheubarth through his mother Elen ferch Tomas ap Llywelyn." Yes, I've always wanted to be hereditary Tywysog of Powys Fadog. Note to self: learn Welsh.)

In any case, the town of Conwy inside the protective walls of the castle was set up for English immigrants, but it doesn't seem to have gotten very far past its original confines. A good word may be "sleepy." Sure, there are cars and Spar supermarkets and such, but walking down the streets, you kind of get the feeling that if you poked one of the buildings hard enough, it would wake up with a grumble and ask you if it was 1500 yet.

I found my way down to the waterfront as the sun was going down. The mighty castle, now crumbling but still standing tall above the roofline, dominated one end of the promenade, while the little boats anchored just offshore guarded the river. I strolled somewhat aimlessly along until I came to a mother, her teenage daughter and friend and tweenage son, doing something rather incomprehensible off the quayside. They had a small netting bag filled with raw bacon, which they threw over into the water and waited. After a few seconds, they'd pull the bag up, except now it would be covered with two or three crabs smaller than the palm of my hand, which hung on tenaciously until they were scooped up in a net and plunked into a bucket of water with their fellow prisoners. I stopped to inquire what they were doing, offered to identify the sex of the crabs (useful life skill, that) and ended up chatting and crab-fishing with them until after dark. When we split up, they counted out the seething bucket of crabs one by one as they tossed them back into the water, for a total of somewhere around 68, I think--a record for them. I said goodnightand made my way back to my B&B for some QI.

I came stumbling down the stairs the next morning just in time for breakfast, which was staggeringly enormous. I could hardly totter back up the stairs to get my stuff, stuffed as I was with grapefruit, eggs, bacon, sausage, beans, toast, and three cups of coffee. I made it somehow and headed for my sightseeing priority: the castle.

It is truly astounding to visit a place like this. On the one hand, you have the actual structure as it appears before your eyes which, although large, is really a whole lot of crumbly stone towers and lichen-coated walls with slots and holes in strange places. Within a few seconds, though, with the right slant of the sun and a dash of imagination, the old rooms come alive. Those grooves are where the portcullis slid down, and the big holes are where the big oak beams for the doors would slide in, or where defending soldiers could throw down stones or boiling liquid on potential invaders. The shelves in the walls of towers were where the wooden floors would rest, dividing towers into three or four floors while they're now open to the sky.

But one of the best things to do is find a quiet room, away from the tourists and family with howling three-year-olds. Although the sun is shining brightly, in the shade of the stones it's dim, cool and damp, so all you have to do is squint to rebuild the vaulted roof. Hang bright tapestries from the walls and add flickering candles; in the fireplace, build a roaring fire. Curl up in a wall seat and admire the room, well-furnished--it is, after all, one of the king's. And here he comes through the door, waving off an attendant, rubbing at his temples. The Welsh are unhappy, are grumbling, are planning rebellion. Something has to be done.

Then two children, chased by their mum with a pram, come in skipping and shouting and the whole fantasy evaporates into the sea air. Once again, you're back in the modern age, and you shake off the smell of smoke from the fireplace and blink in the sunlight. Slipping back in time is not hard in a place like this. In fact, it might happen if you just don't pay attention long enough. Make a wrong turning, find yourself in an abandoned passageway or chamber, and you start to wonder if the footsteps around the corner belong to a day-tripper from Manchester or a knight. The entire run-down, moss-covered ruin of former grandeur is still saturated with memory.

As you may imagine, I spent almost the whole day here. I left for a bit to get some lunch, came back, and ate my steak pie and vanilla cake at the top of the highest tower with a view up the Conwy, down the estuary toward the sea, over the tops of the castle walls, and out into the rolling green Welsh countryside.

I finally managed to tear myself away from the castle and wander around the town walls and down on the quay for a bit until a seagull pooped on me and I had to book it back home to wash it off. I changed quickly and made it into town, just in time for the start of a walking tour. The kind and friendly guide, Judy, took a very small group of us around town, pointing out details and telling us ghost stories. When we were done, I got a dinner of fish and chips and headed back to the B&B for some grease-soaked goodness.

After another enormous breakfast, I left the B&B the next morning and got on the bus to Caernarfon. Bigger, Welsh-er (apparently), and home to another huge castle from Edward I's time, Caernarfon is close enough to Conwy that I could day-trip there before heading to Manchester. Whereas Conwy feels like it could just as easily be in 2010 or 1510, Caernarfon is much more solidly modern. It, too, though, has a ruined castle, which was the purpose of my visit.

Now, Conwy Castle felt ultimately like a ruin: a dilapidated, sad, and strangely beautiful in its decay. Caernarfon Castle, on the other hand, felt somewhat strangely like a structure someone had built to look and feel exactly like a ruined castle but actually be a tourist attraction. Why this is I cannot really explain, although part of it might be the bafflingly nonsensical layout--there were some floors and hallways that I could not, for the life or me, figure out how to access, and long, curving corridors would end abruptly in tiny toilets--and part may be the converted sections housing a gift shop, video theater, and military museum. Nonetheless, I spent a couple happy hours here getting cheerfully lost before it was time to head back to the bus.

I trundled through town on my way to pick up lunch, which included a piece of cake covered in glitter. No, not sprinkles, glitter. Edible glitter. Yes, this was the only reason I bought it. Although it was delicious.

I said a sad farewell to the Welsh seashore that washed by my window. A few hours later, I stepped off the train to an unassuming platform in Hale, England, and met my new host. But that's a story for the next post...

P.S. Pictures coming eventually. :)

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Loving Liverpool

I woke up on the eighth of August in a quiet hostel bunk bed in Liverpool. The long journey lugging my pack through Venice, the interminable plane flight, and the late-night arrival at the Beatles-themed hostel all floated sluggishly back through my consciousness. I sat up in my bunk, careful not to hit my head on the bottom of the bunk above.

I remembered being slightly worried the night before. Despite the fact that I had arrived at 1am, the room, although containing shoes, backpacks, and rumpled sheets, had been devoid of human life--a fact for which I had been very grateful. It had, however, seemed odd. The whole room had seemed odd. But I'd been too tired to care.

Now it made sense. Because all five other beds in the room were now occupied by lightly snoring males.

I froze, like I'd woken up in a lion's den. I'd planned on just getting my stuff together and leaving when I woke up anyway, and now this sounded like the best idea ever. I locked myself in the bathroom to get ready, quietly packed up my bag, and booked it out the door.

At the reception counter downstairs, I handed in my key. There was a pause.

"You were in 104?" the guy behind the counter said.


"104? Not 105?"

"Yes, check the key."

He stared at me for a second, clearly trying to work out where the disconnect was. "But 104 is a guys' dorm."

"Yes," I laughed, "I noticed that when I woke up."

I finally got checked out as he muttered dire threats of tongue-lashings for the poor guy who'd given me the wrong key in the middle of the night. I left my baggage there and headed out to explore Liverpool for a few hours.
FISH! (World Museum)

I hadn't really expected much of Liverpool. I mean, put "liver" with "pool" and the best you can possibly get is a puddle of reddish-purple ooze. Surprisingly, I found it to be clean, respectable, and in many places, quite pretty. And quiet--uncomfortably quiet. This is because it was Sunday. This turned out to be a big problem, because I passed a BBC office building with an attached store that was, naturally, shut for the Sabbath, which meant I could only drool at all of the Top Gear and Doctor Who stuff through the window. Then again, this was actually probably a good thing.

I stopped first at the Central Library which, though impressive, was closed for renovations for pretty much ever. Next up was the World Museum, a kid-oriented but delightful place featuring a small aquarium, bug exhibit, ancient civilizations bit, and a natural history section. I breezed through it in an hour, but it took all my willpower.
See the cars? Yeah, thing's big.

I'd decided next to head toward the cathedral, but I detoured on the way through the pedestrian heart of the city and dropped into a Greggs for some lunch. (I <3 Greggs so much!) I got directions from some helpful locals and got myself reoriented toward the cathedral, only to get sidetracked by an Oxfam store. Inside, I found a wonderfully well-stocked books section, and only managed to escape after giving up £12.50 for two Clarksons, a May, a Hammond, and a add to the five books I was already carrying. I know, bad idea. But I'm an addict. I can't help it.

I finally made it (with a noticeably heavier backpack) to the looming red cathedral. This is one properly massive and intimidating building. It looks enormous on the outside, and then you wander in the unassuming doors and crane your head back for some truly staggering, holy-criminy-this-thing-is-ginormous awesomeness. I hope you can see in the pictures the people that I've tried to include for perspective. Besides the sheer bigness, it's also very lovely, although sometimes it's hard to tell because the stuff on the ceiling is so very far away.

Against my better judgment and time constraints, I took the lift up to the top of the tower for a magnificent view of the city in every direction. I had a nice chat with a couple from Manchester on the way up, snapped some pictures from the top, and then booked it back to the hotel, but I still missed my train by quite a bit. Never mind, I picked up my bags and took the next train to Chester anyway.

Liverpool from above!
I arrived in Chester with just over an hour to kill. My choices were 1) walk into the town with all my bags to sightsee for, oh, half an hour, and risk missing the once-every-two-hours train, or 2) snuggle down in the pub across the street for some late lunch. I chose #2, obviously.

An hour into the second train ride, things started to get interesting. Suddenly there was the sea, unfolding, untroubled, to the horizon, sparkling in the late afternoon sunlight. I disembarked on a tiny little platform in a tiny little corner of Wales. From cramped medieval canalways to metropolitan streets to rolling countryside and seaside in 24 hours...not bad.



Sorry about the prolonged silence. (Did anyone notice?) There's no better reason than to say that I had lots to do and didn't really feel like spending time writing. You may get an idea of why below.

I seem to recall in my last post that I said something about how Venice occupied a place of mythical, fairy-tale-epic status in my mind, and I was sure that the real thing wouldn't live up to it--classic Jennifer optipessimism. Well, let me tell you definitively, I was absolutely right and totally wrong. All cleared up? No? Then read on and I shall explain in a garbled and disjointed fashion.

The City
Somewhat incredibly, from above Venice resembles nothing so much as it does a first-grader's attempt at diagramming the digestive system of a perch. The island itself looks like a large fish with its head pointing west and its tail covered in parks; the Grand Canal twists through it in a backwards "S" shape, beginning near the "head" at Piazzale Roma and Ferrovia (bus and train stations) and ending out the bottom (*cough*) at Piazza San Marco. I encourage you to look up Venice on Google Maps, 'cause it's honestly true. Some basic geographical knowledge will be helpful in understanding my ramblings, but mostly I'm telling you this because I think it's delightfully amusing.

I walked into Venice with a huge grin plastered on my face. My hostel was on a different island very near the main island of Venice, just a short vaporetto ride around the head of the fish, so the first thing I did on arrive was plunk myself down in a boat and watch the city drift by. Vaporetti, by the way, are not flavors of gelato (as my sister believes) or drugs (the word reminds me of "vapor rub") but Venice's version of buses: big, lumbering boats to ferry passengers around the city's main waterways. Wonderfully, in contrac\st to the Brits, who are always reminding you to "mind the gap" and "watch your head", the Venetians get their vaporetti close enough to yellow-banded floating bus stops, loop a rope to hold the boat (vaguely) in place, pull the sliding barrier back as the boat thuds into the dock and bucks and rolls in other boats' wakes, and stare at you impatiently as you prepare yourself for the step from moving boat to moving dock over a foot of canal water. It's fantastic. I never saw anyone fall in, but the vaporetti drivers varied widely in the amount of grace with which they handled their craft. Some executed beautifully gliding manoeuvres and barely touched the dock, while others seemed to rely on the collision to stop the boat's motion.

Anyway. You could, I guess, get around Venice without using a boat at all; all the canals are bridged by anywhere from little concrete arches leading just to someone's front door to graceful spans of stone, like the Rialto, or steel and glass, like the newfangled bridge to Piazzale Roma, to wood, like that outside the Accademia art gallery. There are as many sizes, shapes, and styles as there are bridges; each one is different, and just about all of them are ridiculously picturesque and beautiful. So, you could get about entirely on foot, but although the island is small, it would be tough. The buildings are set close together, so most of the "streets" are more like alleyways, and since there are no really tall monuments at all (except, possibly, the Campanile near San Marco) it's impossible to navigate by landmarks. You can get a map, but most don't list the names of every one of Venice's tiny alleyways, which are just as likely to lead into a main square, a canal, or a dead end. The only real way to get around is by looking at the signs stuck on the sides of buildings reading things like "RIALTO -->" You just head that direction and trust that, since you're on an island after all, you can't wander too far without either a) finding something or b) drowning.

So, the best way to get around is on the boats. The vaporetti are great, but they only do the main drag and connect with other islands in the lagoons. For the small canals, you need either your own boat with an outboard...or a gondola. I didn't ride a gondola because I'd feel stupid sitting in one on my own (I didn't see any other single passengers) and they were generally very expensive. It was wonderful, though, to see the fabulously blinged-out gondolas float by with their dignified, graceful shape and bladed prows, as silent and regal as black swans, carrying slightly sheepish passengers and paddled along by a precariously perched man in a striped shirt.

However you get there, there are two main areas of interest: the Rialto bridge and surrounding markets, near the first major bend in the Grand Canal; and the Piazza San Marco and surrounding, including the basilica, the Doge's palace, and several museums. The two are connected by alleyways full of tourist shops (expensive clothes and handbags, jewelry, masquerade masks, trinkets, etc) swarmed by tourists. In this respect, my gloomy predictions seemed correct: like Prague, the tourists had taken over, turning a beautiful and historic place into a fakey shopping mall. But like I said, this was only half right.

The First Night
After I'd dropped my stuff off, I jumped straight back on the vaporetto to San Marco. I'd made a rule for myself the first night: no maps, no plan, no trying to find or identify anything. For the first evening, I was determined to simply experience Venice for itself.

This mainly involved getting away from the crowds, so I set off into the alleyways; whenever I found one of those "-->" signs I mentioned above, I'd pick whichever alleyway it wasn't pointing to that looked most interesting. In short order, I had no idea where I was--but that was fine, since the --> signs are everywhere. In this way, I found a wonderful place: Paolo Olbi's store.

Paolo and his sister run two stores, selling handmade books and paper. Paolo is a bookbinder who does hand-printing, leather tooling, binding, and all other kinds of beautiful, woundrous things. I couldn't just walk by, so I got sucked into the store and wandered into the room where Paolo was putting together some boxes. We tried to communicate, but he had next to no English and I next to no Italian (I tried to make it up with some halting Latin, which only sortofnotreally worked), so we stumbled along for a bit before his sister, who spoke some English, helped translate. When I told him I'd studied some bookbinding at university, he got excited and had me write down the name and address of my bookbinding teacher, telling me that he wanted to bring book arts students to his workshop to study and work under him. He was an absolutely delightful man. I hated not being able to talk to him myself. Now, at Western, my friend Dani and I often teased each other about our chosen languages--she was studying French and I German. I've never been too fond of French, but Paolo's sister spoke French as well as Italian, and right then, aesthetics of language and all that other stuff didn't matter. I'd have given a lot to have been able to speak to them in Italian or French instead of having to fumble around in English.

Anyway, I left Paolo's and broke my rules briefly to find an RFS-recommended gelateria, where I got a heaping coneful of delicious gelato before setting out again. This time I found another bookstore, tucked away down a quiet alley, that to my consternation I was never able to find again. The books were organized by topic, but that was about it; they lay on shelves, in stacks, in heaps and piles, from floor to ceiling, but the best part was that the open spaces between the walls were taken up by boats--gondolas and rowboats--all piled full of books as well. It was a glorious sight, and once again I was smarting that I couldn't speak Italian. I did buy an Agatha Christie novel--"Sparkling Cyanide", and if you just giggled, you're a Whovian. Anyway. Directed only by whim and imagination, I headed down a long, narrow, dark alleyway that deposited me, quite without warning, on a small dock that extended about ten feet into the Grand Canal just above the second bend. I took off my shoes and splashed my feet into the murky water, waved at passing boats, and soaked in the sunlight.

I wandered around until dark; I was footsore and exhausted but ridiculously happy, and this is why: I'd discovered that I'd been wrong about Venice. The bright lights and the tourist kitsch were there, yes. But just a few steps beyond--just a few turns down quiet alleyways, beckoning with an intriguing glimpse of color or the slant of the golden afternoon light--lay a city of unbelievable beauty and peacefulness. Still, deep turquoise canals, reflecting the reds and yellows of the walls above them and a splash of purple from a windowbox; the soft slapping of tiny waves against the hull of a lazily listing boat; the graceful arch of a deserted bridge illuminated by lanternlight; cobbled alleyways leading to anywhere, with a new flash of something fantastic catching your eye just around the next corner--it was utterly enchanting. It's like no other city I've ever seen. It's wonderfully safe and heart-achingly beautiful and hopelessly romantic. It's better than I could've imagined.

Some of the sights, in brief:

San Marco
I took RFS' advice and got into the basilica straightway, bypassing the long queue standing out in the rain the morning of my first full day in Venice. The interior looked rather like the aftermath of an explosion in a mosaic factory: every inch of every surface was coated in mosaics depicting biblical stories in amazing detail against a background of glittering gold, although the colors were hard to discern properly in the dimness. When we came in, our tour guide explained that this was "authentic" to how it would have originally looked with just a few candles for light. After a few minutes, though, the floodlights slowly warmed to life, and the slightly shiny shapes lurking in the murky darkness were illuminated. The whole church glowed with brilliant colors; in every direction, there was a story being told, symbolism to decipher, colors to admire. It'd be easy to put a crick in your neck in there.

There are many fascinating things in that church, but the beauty and intricacy of the mosaic decorations was far and away the best bit. The dedication and resources it must have taken are definitely worth the glittering, awe-inspiring result. I left feeling like I'd been wandering about inside a treasure chest.

Rialto Bridge
The Rialto itself is absolutely lovely. For a long time, it was the only bridge over the Grand Canal, so it's unsurprising that it's enormous, covered in shops, and swarmed by tourists. Despite the overwhelming rush of gelato-licking crowds, the bridge itself still manages to be graceful and poised. Perched at the top of the arch, you have a good view down the canal and the brightly colored, lavishly decorated houses that line it, assuming you can elbow your way past the other people trying to get a good picture.

The Doge's Palace
Felt like an enormous maze, and rightly so: the basilica was originally the Doge's private chapel. Far as I can tell, the Doge was the most powerful man in Venice, even given that he couldn't make any executive or judicial decisions on his own, couldn't recieve foreign dignitaries alone, and couldn't even leave the city without written permission. Anyway, his house is still quite impressive, looking like an overdone wedding cake perched right on the edge of the lagoon and the entrance to the main square. Inside are lots of paintings, ceilings decorated without any knowledge of the words "restraint" or "over-budget", and lots and lots of space. It's very impressive, but I can't even vaguely imagine living there.

And that's really all I have for you; I also visited the Correr Museum, but as a museum, there's not much to describe that you can't learn from a good encyclopedia. Like I said already, the real value and magic of the place was just the experience of wandering through the back streets and hidden bridges, marvelling at the history and beauty.

My last day, my plane to Liverpool wasn't scheduled to leave until past 10 pm, so I had the whole day in Venice. I got packed up and checked out of my hostel, but it turned out that I had nowhere to leave my bags for the day's wandering. This meant that I got to schlep all my stuff with me the entire day, which was frankly exhausting, especially since I was determined to follow my original plan, which was to walk basically across the city. By the time I was halfway there, I was tired and sore, and I really, really didn't want to leave that magnificent, magical city. When I stopped to order a cappuccino at a tiny little cafe in a back alleyway, the waitress noticed my distress and let me have the drink for free. It was only a Euro, but it was touching.

The flight to Liverpool was typically Ryanair: crowded, uncomfortable, and bursting with consumerism, but thankfully over quickly. Unfortunately, we were also delayed (not On Time!), so by the time I got my bags and emerged into Liverpudian air, it was a quarter past midnight and the last bus had already gone. I, somewhat nervously, took a cab into the city and finally arrived safely at my hostel, much to my relief. (The cabbie was really quite nice.) The guys behind the counter just handed me my key, telling me that they'd check me in in the morning, and I gratefully staggered up to my room and crashed.

Thursday, August 5, 2010


Originally written August 4th

The Italian countryside is rolling by out the train fields of grapes, distant mountains poking at the fluffy bottoms of fleecy clouds, tile-roofed churches and buildings in the strangely lovely shade of reddish-orangish-brown. I haven't been to Italy in almost two years, but somehow, you can taste the warm, fertile sunlight just looking at it out the window. Although once again, I'm in a country where I don't speak the local language, so I'm back to being an ignorant American tourist. Sigh.

Although, even in Switzerland, where I supposedly do speak the language, there was very little in the way of communication going on. As far as I could tell, they could understand my somewhat rusty attempts at Hochdeutsch, but the answers I got were generaly incomprehensible, if lovely. Such communication is composed less of words and more of making eye contact and smiling and nodding at carefully judged breaks in the linguistic flow.

For the most part, though, the language barrier was no problem. On the morning of the 2nd of August, while our hostelmates were still sleeping off their hangovers from the previous night's festivities, we packed up and took the cable car back over the edge of the cliff to the valley floor. From the station, it was a short bus journey to the town of Lauterbrunnen, where we dropped off our stuff in order to go look around. Specficially, we were heading towards the Truemmelbachfaelle, a series of glacial waterfalls that drained the Eiger, Moench, and Jungfrau mountains and passed through a series of spectacular caverns on the way.

On the bus ride to Truemmelbach, we ran into a older Japanese gentleman on his own, who, besides being unable to understand German, spoke apparently no English either, so although he kept asking for information, he couldn't understand what was said to him. Since we was going to the same place we were, we kept an eye out for him, and I got to speak to him a little bit in Japanese on our way up to the falls. Having long since forgotten most of the Japanese honorifics I've ever learned (and there are so many that I haven't yet!), I was a little hestitant to ask him any questions, but I managed to answer some of his without, I hope, sounding too vulgar.

A lift took us up through the mountain so we could view the falls. After all that wide-open mountainness, these caverns were tight, enclosed, and thunderously loud as they echoed with the roar of the falling water. The water had basically sliced into the cliffside like cheese wire, making the wonderful slot canyon-type hollows of smooth, twisting rock that I'd loved so much in Zion National Park. Slender bridges of rock arched over the tumult and the walls were curved and worn like the inside of a conch shell. Though we were inside the cliff, you could look up to see daylight shining down through the thin gaps high above and small plants clinging to the steep rock. The waterfalls themselves were silver-grey and very loud; they weren't enormous, but of course the enclosed space amplified their voices considerably. We got to have a peek at the ongoing process of forming those bowls and whorls in the rock as all that water when howling ferociously by, pulled inexorably down by inescapable gravity.

Having had three days of good, tiring hikes, we opted to spend our last two days relaxing. We spent a while wandering around Lauterbrunnen, looking for souvenirs and just enjoying the ambience of a little town in the shadows of such mighty mountains. I went out with my mother for one of our last dinners together for a long time. It seems strange--hard to imagine--how long it will be until we meet again. I miss her, and Janna, and all my friends, already. But I'm drawn onwards, further up and farther in, as if by gravity.

Our last day together, we moved yet another step out of the mountains to Interlaken. Bigger and more touristy than Lauterbrunnen, Interlaken is filled with shops selling watches, Swiss army knives, and every possible item of clothing, kitchenware, or easily transportable knicknack, all emblazoned with the white Swiss cross on a bloodred background. Again, we spent our time relaxing and wandering: shopping for new shoes for me (since my poor trainers had had it) and for souvenirs to take home to the families.

We also paused in the field on the west side of town to watch the paragliders land. I am simply determined to do this one day. It is basically all the joy and fun of skydiving without that whole bothersome jumping-out-of-an-airplane business. You just strap yourself into your parachute, run a few steps down a slope, and float away like a leaf on the wind. It's gorgeous to watch and, I'm certain, even more fun to do: just hanging in the air, totally weightless, marveling at the smallness and beauty of the world spread out below your feet. Perspective really is everything.

Speaking of nothing at all like that, on the way back to our hotel I caught a silver glint in the corner of my eye and turned just in time to see an R8 go purring by us like a stalking dragon. Dear me, but that car is pretty. It slithered off around the corner and I thought I'd seen the last of it, but once we got to our room, I found that it lives below an apartment complex that happens to be directly in line with our window. So whenever I looked outside, I was treated not only to the music of the river rushing by and the dramatic beauty of the towering green foothills but also to that beautiful car crouching in its lair.

There it is!
Since it was so close, while Mom and Janna took some time out to Internet (for reasons incomprehensible to me, right before dinnertime), I took the chance to (1) walk around Unterseen, the old town, and (2) visit the R8 at home. I only got a quick glimpse, since there were other people standing across the parking lot who were looking at me funny, but that was, for the moment, enough. I continued on to spend a few peaceful minutes looking around the deserted old town square and sitting in the flower-covered cemetery, watching the paragliders drift overhead. When I returned, the three of us went out for fondue for our last meal and spent the rest of the evening packing.

Now I'm on my own again. I've only about 40 minutes more until I reach Venice, and I can't tell you how excited I am. I'm not sure why, actually, but I'm really looking forward to this city. Maybe it's because Venice has about the same relationship to reality in my head as, say, Valimar. It sounds like a fantasy, a romantic dream of city, and I'm sure I'll be disappointed by kitchy tourist stores and hordes of khaki-shorted sightseers in long queues, but at the moment, I'm going to try to just savor the fleeting flavor of romantic, idealized hopefulness.

I'm not going to say too much about being on my own. "It's a long way home to Starwood in Aspen," John Denver is singing my headphones, and I understand the sentiment. I know where my family and friends are, and it comforts me that they're out there somewhere, but they're so far away. I have to take care of myself now. The advantage is that I can be completely selfish: I only have to consider what I want to see, eat, or do, without reference to anyone else's wants or needs. But I know it'll be lonely, too.

And on that note, though it's something of a flat to end on, I'm going to spend the rest of this long train journey looking out the window.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Mountain Vistas and Butterfly Kiss-tas

No, I just wrote that so it would rhyme. Because as much as I love alliteration, it's getting old.

Wow. So, um, okay. Switzerland, then, eh?

Here's the trouble. As you know, I can write and write about the spectacular mountains and the warm green smell in the air and the impossible snow-whites and azure blues and emerald greens, but none of that will even begin to do it justice. I can try again and show you some pictures, but as pretty as they are, they also won't do it justice. Why? Allow me to explain...

Many of the things I take pictures of are interesting because of what they look like: they're oddly shaped, or famous, or richly ornamented, or my face. Whatever. However, I'm willing to bet that all of you have seen mountains before. They are the really tall pointy things that are green on the bottom, brown in the middle, and white at the top. And no matter how much I describe the Alps or show you pictures of them, they will still just look like the sort of mountains you can see in the distance out your window.

Typical Switzerland!
The problem is that what I have here, shrouded in dark clouds on the other side of the valley just out of reach, are not just mountains. What you have in Washington, for example, are watered-down mountains, mountains where, standing on top with a spectacular view, the next closest peak is miles away in the distance. Here, from the top of the Schilthorn, even the Jungfrau, the towering mountain across the valley, looks close enough to touch if you just stretch a little. The Alps are mountains distilled down to their essence, to the fundamental elements of pure weight and sheer height. And all of the awe and majesty of these peaks lies in the acute and unavoidable sensation of being very, very, very small in comparison, and just feeling the depth and the height and the distance. Unfortunately, it is completely impossible to capture awe in a photograph, no matter how crisp; the perspective, the feeling of meagre smallness in the presence of something incomprehensibly mighty, can only be experienced by standing there and simply looking up.

Add this to the fact that no matter how eloquently I describe our adventures of the past couple days, it will inevitably come out sounding like "Mountains hiking wildflowers cows sunburn blah blah blah," and I've been somewhat unmotivated to actually any of it down. But by golly, I'm going to try.

The Jungfrau at sunset
Our first full day in Gimmelwald (July 30th) began inauspiciously: cloudy, grey, and rain rain rain. We hiked up to Mürren, the next town up, and took shelter in a cafe with some coffee until the sun broke through. After a mildly exciting funicular ride up a hill, we set out on a guided hike along the side of the valley so we could marvel at the views of the mountains whose north faces would've glared down at us, had they not still been wreathed in clouds. We had lunch at a hut in some little valley somewhere, crossed rivers, petted goats, and enjoyed the windchime-like music of cowbells in the valleys. Instead of finishing the hike the easy way, we cut down to walk underneath the Sprutz waterfall and ended up hiking a long way down a very steep hill. We made dinner with some nice people at the hostel and enjoyed the setting sun turning the white mountaintops magenta and gold.

Yesterday dawned (I assume; I was asleep, of course) bright, cloudless, and beautiful, so we rode the cable car up to Mürren, then to Birg atop a cliff, then finally to the top of the Schilthorn, which is an observation platform with spectacular views of basically all of Switzerland. Despite the altitude and the snow underfoot, the sun was bright and wonderfully warm, so we took the cable car one stop back down to Birg and set off to hike back to Gimmelwald. Our first stop was on the shores of a glacial lake near the mountaintop, an astoundingly deep turquoise, whereafter followed a very steep descent down a very steep mountainside covered in wildflowers into the valley below. On the way, we met a Canadian traveling alone named Janet and invited her to share our route with us, which took us across the valley to the ridge separating it from the next one. Instead of going down, we walked along the ridge, navigating around cows and doing our best not to fall to our deaths--which was not always as easy as it sounds. Our reward was a perch on top of the upwards-jutting end of the ridge overlooking Gimmelwald, Mürren, and the whole mountain range all around. At this point, we were getting pretty jealous of the paragliders drifting gracefully through the air, so we took the long way down back to Mürren and then the cable car back to Gimmelwald for wine and cheese for dinner and a relaxing evening.
Traffic jam

This morning, the weather was still beautiful, despite forecasts of thunderstorms. Now, since today (August 1st) is the Swiss national holiday, we decided to celebrate by hiking through the Alps some more! After the last two days, we were rather tired, so we decided to take a less strenuous stroll along the bottom of the valley upon the lip of which Gimmelwald is perched to the huge natural amphitheater at the end. We lay out in the sun in the enclosed meadow, playing with the butterflies that came to kiss our fingers and dipping our feet in the ice-cold rivers tumbling down from the snow far above. At the very end, Janna and I even climbed up to one of the waterfalls and got thoroughly drenched by the spray. We took our time coming back, made our last dinner in Gimmelwald, and waited for the festivities to start.

Butterfly kisses
This brings me to this evening. During our lovely dinner outside, we noted that the darkening blue overhead was slowly being clouded over, and there were ominous rumbles in the distance. Nevertheless, today is Swiss National Day, wherein the Swiss celebrate their...Swiss-ness (and independence from, I believe, the Austrian empire in about 1300) with fireworks, candles, flags, and parades. Therefore,as darkness fell, we broke out the lanterns: red, ball-shaped paper lanterns emblazoned with the white Swiss cross. The candles were lit and we all assembled with our glowing Swiss balls (as we affectionately termed them) to parade through Gimmelwald, but the moment the leader stepped out into the street, the first fat raindrops began to fall. We only made it about 50 feet before it was pouring in earnest and we had to take shelter under overhanging roofs. The Swiss balls, being paper, drooped, and the candles within spluttered, although many of them remained defiantly burning much longer than I'd given them credit for.

Swiss balls!
Some halfhearted fireworks were attempted in the rain, with moderate success, but it's hard to get excited about a sputtering firework when God's putting on his own, considerably louder and more flashy light show overhead while dousing you with more rainwater than Seattle gets in a month. The thunder we had heard in the distance was now drawing near, and unseen bolts of lightning lit up the sky that magical shade of amethyst. We decided to go inside.

Eventually I ended up here: alone on an outside porch in the dark. The rain has gradually stopped, which would have left that wonderful freshly-scoured smell in the air, if not for the fact that the (insert appropriate epithet here, I'm too tired) people the next floor down are smoking. The storm, which had passed so close that the thunder followed almost directly on the heels of the lightning's flash and made the whole building shudder, has gone now, but there is no blackness like that in the mountains. Beyond the few lights on the houses surrounding, the night is absolutely black, but rather than being thick, it feels thin and open and fresh. Every once in a while, the fireworks have gone off, but now they've decided to light off all the ones they couldn't before, which means the explosions are echoing in the valleys to mock the departed thunder. I'm going down to watch. G'night.