Posts Tagged With: view

Namiballoon

The Namib Desert is believed to be the oldest desert in the world, but I have not asked to see its driver’s license to confirm this. It is also one of the driest places in the world, which I can definitely attest to on the basis of my cracked leathery lips. It’s long and skinny in shape, paralleling the Atlantic coastline of the country and totaling roughly 4000 square miles (10,000 sq km) in area. With a sand covering that averages about 10 meters in depth, I calculate that it holds on the order of 100,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 grains of sand (yes, that is an actual calculation… it’s what I do), which is very roughly equal to the number of stars in the observable universe. (This is why I became an astronomer.)

Interestingly, it has several geological distinct areas with different surface characteristics. We are in the southern Namib, known for its dune fields, e.g.,

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More on those in a moment.

We flew into the Kulala region, in the south, on a pair of smallish planes over terrain like what you see above. The airstrip was, well, a desert airstrip:

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And here we are in the sophisticated VIP lounge of the main terminal building…

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(That is actually the entire airport.)  We loaded ourselves into our van and trundled off over the moonscape to a nearby hill, our 4×4 grinding through the steep sand to an outcropping at the rocky  summit from which we could watch this boring and not at all colorful sunset.02 Kalula Day 1 2017-090

I should emphasize that despite a healthy dose of self-congratulation and genial self-delusion, even given the stark and sere surroundings one would have a hard time making the case that we are roughing it. Our first evening’s hilltop “sundowner” (repeated each of the subsequent two nights) included the ever-affable Lloyd and our two drivers — Michael and Castro — serving us drinks and canapes as we marveled at what intrepid explorers we all were. (Side note: yes, “Castro”.  Cuba and Russia were big supporters of Namibian independence. We have so far on this trip had two drivers named Castro.) But hey, this is how we roll. Overseas Adventure Travel, our most excellent tour operator, caters to active, educated, affluent seniors or, as we like to call ourselves, “The Reason Our Children Won’t Have Social Security.”

But I digress. Another short 4 x 4 drive brought us to the Kulala Desert Lodge, our home in the desert. Our accommodations are notionally tents but are really comfortable cabins (electricity, full bathroom with shower, plenty of hot water, and marginal wifi) with canvas walls.

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Those are solar water heaters at far left. Notice also the ladder at the left side of each cabin, leaning against the adobe (I think) rear wall.  The top of that structure is a flat surface with a low wall, and upon request the staff will set up a mattress and bedding there so that you can sleep under the African stars. We did this last night, and it is quite the primal and even romantic experience to do so, especially when you wake up in the middle of the night and open your eyes to the vault of the Milky Way arcing overhead through the velvet sky. Though it is, admittedly, somewhat less romantic to then climb down the ladder in pitch blackness and work your way around to the front of the cabin in order to go inside to pee. Plus you run the risk of running into an antelope whilst doing so. We were actually awakened in the middle of the night by an oryx clopping around next to our cabin and brushing against the ladder. (Trust me, it puts a whole new spin on the old “Honey, wake up! I think I here something downstairs!” trope.)

Notice my clever segue into the animal life here. It is astonishing to me that many of the large African mammals — elands, oryx, zebras — have adapted subspecies of themselves to survive in a climate that gets bare millimeters of rain in a good month. They look like their savanna counterparts but have evolved sophisticated hydration and cooling systems to survive. The oryx, or gemsbok, is probably the iconic Namibian animal, a regal antelope that stands about 4 feet (1.3 m) high at the shoulder and can weigh up to 600 lbs (290 kg) or so. They are all over the place, including marching through our camp at night. The Hartman’s Mountain Zebra looks like your regular Kenya/Tanzania/your local zoo zebra but has adapted to survive on, well, pretty much nothing at all.

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There is even a species of bird in which the female absorbs water through pores in her breast and stores it there, then suckles her young (after a fashion) by allowing them to suck the water out through the pores. Such is life in the dunes.

Ah, the dunes. Massive, orange fields of them. This area, called Sossusvlei, is rich with them. The largest have numbers or names, the numbers representing their distance in kilometers from some fiducial measuring point. The tallest of them all in this area is aptly known as Big Daddy, towering at 1,066 ft (325 m) high. That was a bit too ambitious for us, and so we undertook instead to conquer the most popular of the touristic dunes, the locally-famous Dune 45 at a mere 100 m or so high. Up we trekked, along with dozens of others, on the ridge of the dune that in some places was only about a meter wide. When you crane your head to admire the view, or to let someone pass, there’s a real risk of tumbling off the ridge and rolling down the face of the dune, which might or might not be fun but would definitely obviate your upward progress.

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Hiking up a sand dune is hard, hard work. You’ve gotten a very small taste of it if you have ever run across a sandy beach — not the packed sand closest to the water line but the deep, loose stuff, say 15 meters further inland. Now imagine tilting that up to about a 30 degree angle. You take your stride, say 2 feet (60 cm) in length, plant your foot, start your step… and your leading leg ends up pushing a six inch depth of sand downhill towards your lower foot, so despite expending all that muscle power your 2 foot stride buys you about six inches of forward motion. It is slow and exhausting, pushing all that sand around for such slow progress, and you end up at the top with aching legs, heaving lungs, two shoes full of sand, and a satisfyingly spectacular view.

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Now you’ve got to get down, and you’ve got a decision to make. Your options are (1) go back along the ridge the way you came up, or (2) screw it and go barreling down the face of the dune like the two figures in the photo above. We opted for the latter, thus:

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That’s our travelmate Cheryl in the middle, on her butt. This was a deliberate strategy on her part because she has a bad knee and figured (correctly) that this would be hard on it. Her posterior technique was successful, in addition demonstrating that is possible to go for the better part of a day wearing a pair of underwear that holds over 3 kilos of sand.

The more traditional technique is being demonstrated by Al, in the white shirt on the left. You lean back a bit and step downhill heel first, which slides you down by several inches with the flat of your foot acting as a brake. Then you repeat the operation with the other leg, shifting your weight back and forth sort of like ice skating. It gets you down fast and is rather exhilarating. Then you spend the next twenty minutes shaking sand out of your shoes and socks, which is a lot harder than it sounds because the dune sand is as fine as dust.

Not far from Dune 45 is Deadvlei, another peculiarity of Namibian desert geography. It’s a former — very former, as in 800 years ago — oasis, now a hard clay pan because the river that fed it changed course. The dried clay has a top layer of white calcium carbonate (chalk, basically) and the bed is dotted with 800 year old dead acacia trees, making for an extraterrestrial landscape that has been the setting for a number of films and countless surreal photos, including mine:

02 Kalula Day 1 2017-245 The following day dawned dark and early as we awoke pre-dawn for the highlight of the trip so far. I’ll let the pictures tell the story.

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We were part of a flotilla of three balloons, each holding up to 16 passengers in a large waist-high wicker basket. Our pilot was the owner of the company, a genially cocky, ponytailed Jack-Sparrow-like native Namibian named Dennis. All of the women had a crush on him, and man, he controlled that balloon like nobody’s business, eventually setting us down at the landing site onto the back of a flatbed truck. (Admittedly with some help from the ground crew, who pulled us over to the truck as we hovered about five feet off the ground. But even so….) Here’s Alice with Dashing Dennis, along with the champagne breakfast in the desert that followed our successful flight.

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One of the many remarkable things about the flight — and if you’re bored by the images above, please check your pulse — was the bird’s eye view that it afforded of Namibia’s famous “fairy circles”. These are flat bare circular areas in the landscape, ranging from about 2 meters to 10 meters in diameter, ringed with tufts of grass, and of utterly mysterious origin. Here’s what some large ones look like from the balloon. (That’s a dirt roadway for size comparison.)

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Biological phenomenon or M. Night Shyamalan movie?

Explanations for their existence include fungi; termites; a complicated moisture feedback loop involving the surrounding grasses’ root systems; local radioactivity; and aliens. Pick your favorite.

It’s hard to overstate the sense of wonder and transcendence that this balloon flight affords. The scenery was beyond spectacular, the sense of scale and otherworldliness overwhelming.  When we first booked it, the flight seemed a little pricey at US$350 or so, not a small amount. It was worth it. If you ever make it to this region, bite the bullet and do not fail to do this with Namib Sky Balloon Safaris.  Tell them Rich and Alice sent you. They’ll have no idea who you’re talking about, but it’ll make us feel good.

Our final stop of the day was Sesriem Canyon, a sight that to be honest was so utterly anticlimactic after the balloon ride that my laptop is sneering at me as I write about this. In a nutshell, it is a canyon, about 100 ft (30 m) high, carved by a recently-dried-up river and composed entirely of knobbly conglomerate rock. When the river was flowing, local travelers used it as a water source, gauging its depth by tying lengths of leather thongs or belts together; the name itself means “six belts” (or “thongs”) in Dutch and Afrikaans.

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This fascinating geological phenomezzzzzzzzzz……….

We hiked down to the bottom and followed the riverbed upstream for a few hundred meters. The walls are dotted with rock pigeon dens (with corresponding collections of guano on the ground), and the ground hosts poisonous horned adders (sidewinder snakes) as a welcoming committee. We encountered a couple of these, which our guides herded out of the way with long sticks.

OK, better quit now as this post is clocking in at over 1900 words, about twice as long as usual. We’re out of the desert as I write this, having moved on to Walvis Bay and Swakopmund, both on the cloudy coast. About which more in the next day or two….

 

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Categories: Africa, Namibia | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

Running for Vancouver

We were in Vancouver, British Columbia for all of half a day before continuing on to Victoria to stay with friends, but even a whirlwind 4-hour city tour is enough to whet our appetite for the place. Vancouver is ranked as the 4th most livable city in the world (“Hey! Let’s move here!”)… accompanied by the 6th most expensive real estate in the world (“Hey, Let’s each sell a kidney and move here!”). So there went that fantasy in a hurry. Still, it’s a gorgeous, diverse, and generally interesting place.

Vancouver BC 2017-003-EditI shot the cityscape above looking across Coal Harbour from Stanley Park, one of the most popular green spaces in the city. It’s named after Lord Frederick Stanley of Preston, Canada’s first Governor General and the man after whom professional hockey’s Stanley Cup is named. (His lordship would not be pleased to know that it has been 25 years since a Canadian team actually won his eponymous cup.)

Stanley Park includes an aquarium, horse-drawn carriage tours, bike paths, and similar idyllic activities, none of which we had time for on our flash tour. It also boasts a pretty cool collection of nine totem poles, carved out of red cedar by artisans of several indigenous tribes (known in Canada as the First Nations) whose territory included this area. The totem-makers’ tribes include the Musqueam, Squamish, and Tsleil-Watuth, which I include because the names are cool to type and make me sound erudite. Here are a couple of examples from the park.

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In addition to Stanley Park, one of Vancouver’s other iconic locales is the Lion’s Gate Bridge, which connects the city proper to the mountainous area to the north. You can see the bridge for many vantage points around the city, but this one, near the north end of Stanley Park, gives a good sense of the stunning local geography. You can see the bridge on the right.

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As you look out over the bay, the sky is occasionally crisscrossed not only by the usual big jets, but but by small seaplanes ferrying passengers to Victoria (to the west), Seattle (to the south), and Whistler ski resort to the north.

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Vancouver is very much a city of neighborhoods, which include the original part of the city (Gastown, now a trendy, restaurant-rich area) and an extensive Chinatown, second only in size to San Francisco’s in the Western Hemisphere.  One could actually make a case that the entire city is Chinatown: due in part to a large influx of Chinese after the handover of Hong Kong to the PRC in 1997, nearly 30% of the 2.3 million population of greater Vancouver is ethnic Chinese. (If you include South Asian as well, e.g., Indian and Pakistani, the fraction goes up to 40%.) The suburb of Richmond, where the airport resides, is so heavily Chinese that almost all of the business signage is in both English and Chinese; as the airport shuttle took us to our hotel, I briefly wondered if we had been diverted to Hong Kong.

Sadly, among all this demographic tumult, only about 2% of the population is First Nation. Such is the way of the world, it seems.

Another trendy neighborhood is Granville Island, a former industrial area that has been hipsterized and gentrified till it begs for mercy, much like similar harbor areas in Baltimore, Cleveland, Capetown, and I suppose lots of other places as well. It was a fishing area for the First Nations but in the early 20th century became a factory area: machine shops, corrugated tin manufacturing, and other non-Starbucks businesses. Today the only remnant of that era is an appropriately — and literally — gritty cement factory immediately adjacent to all the shops, art galleries, and so forth.

Vancouver BC 2017-050But notice those cement silos to the left of the tower. They’ve gotten into the local artistic swing of things too:

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The local cafés and shops operate literally in the shadow of the Granville Street Bridge, giving the area an unmistakable but pleasant Urban Hipster Tourists Welcome vibe.

Vancouver BC 2017-056My snark notwithstanding, it’s a fun place, with a large indoor farmer’s market whose outdoor seating area is adjacent to the False Creek canal, bustling with colorful “Aquabus” water taxis.

Our final stop was the Vancouver Lookout, a 553 ft (169 m) tower and rotating restaurant that affords a 360° view of the city with its impressive mountain vistas. (The white tent-like structure in the panorama below is the cruise ship terminal. The fan-like white pattern at lower right is the heliport.)

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So there are our four hours in Vancouver. On to Victoria!

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Categories: Canada | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

A Gondola Ride, and Not the Ones in Venice

Balzano-1We walked around in Merano for a bit last night, mostly in an arduous search for an open restaurant, soaking up the odd hybrid Italo-Austrian ambiance. There’s a small pedestrian area near the heart of downtown, reached by walking over a small bridge over a wide but shallow creek. And should you find yourself on that bridge you will see a phenomenon that is gradually becoming the bane of city bridge-maintainers everywhere: padlocks, like the ones you see here. There are hundreds of them, some placed by lovers looking for cheap symbolism, others as some kind of memorial. Some are attached by the dozen to engraved sheets of aluminum, which are themselves then locked to the bridge railings. It is a particular problem in Paris, I have read, where some of the smaller bridges have so many locks that they are becoming a structural risk. Here it is just an oddity.

Balzano-2And speaking of oddities, the next one that we encountered in downtown Merano was some kind of art installation, a cylindrical wedding-cake like structure about 10′-12′ in diameter and a good 8′ high, made entirely out of newspapers. And I don’t mean papier-maché or anything like that: I just mean folded-up whole newspapers. Here’s a closeup. I have no idea what this means. Nor do I know what is going to become of it after a few heavy rainstorms, other than becoming an extraordinarily dense pile of cellulose mush.

This morning dawned clear and bright, despite an ominous weather forecast of mid-day thunderstorms, so we decided to take advantage of the nice weather, however temporary, to get a better view of the Dolomites. One of the best places to do this is in the nearby city of Bolzano, only about 15 miles to the southeast, a busy city of 100,000 best known for a large army base and, more interestingly, a “tram” — actually a cable car or gondola — that takes you up over the town and into the lower Tyrolean Alps.

The gondola ascends about 3,000′ starting from Bolzano’s central train station, up to a the small and appropriately-named village of Soprabolzano, i.e. “above Bolzano”. In German — and everything is in German here, about which more shortly — it is Oberbozen. The change in ambience over that 3,000′ ascent is remarkable. As you look back down the cable car path you see the urban center of Bolzano…

Balzano-12…and a few minutes later you are in Soprabolzano, where they could have filmed Heidi:

Balzano-4You can get some of the best views of the Dolomites not from Soprabolzano itself, however, but rather from the nearby village of Collalbo (Kolbenstein if you’re in a Teutonic frame of mind), which you get to by hopping on the cutest little one-car light-rail tram ever built. The tram leaves from Soprabolzano every half hour and pretty much follows the ridge line of the mountain, arriving in Collalbo about 15 minutes later. Along the way, and in Collalbo itself, you get views like these:

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Balzano-5…which are pretty remarkable considering that we were negotiating busy city traffic about an hour earlier.

Collalbo’s big attraction, aside from the obvious views, is a multitude of hiking trails, in particular one that leads to what they call the “Erdpyramiden” (“Earth Pyramids”), a type of geological formation found throughout the world and which in the US are called “hoodoos”. They are tall pointy formations, some with rocks balanced on top, formed by alternating periods of drought and rain that erode the ground around the rocks and eventually leave them balanced precariously on an array of pointy columns that make the hillside look like some kind of surreal convention of either Ku Klux Klansmen or Spanish Inquisitors. Here’s what the hillside looks like, reachable by a rather hilly half hour hike from the Collalbo tram station:

Balzano-7…and here is a closeup that shows some of the rocks on top:

Balzano-8We admired the geological weirdness for a few minutes, then headed back towards the tram station, pausing to stop for lunch at a hotel restaurant. The weather was still beautiful so we ate outdoors, where Alice increased her Italian vocabulary the hard way: the special of the day was polpetto, which Alice ordered, knowing that since the Italian word for “octopus” is polpo, polpetto clearly means “little octopus”. Octopus is a favorite meal of hers. And unfortunately for her, polpetto actually means “meat loaf”.

We would actually have figured that out if we had looked a little more closely at the menu, since underneath the Italian name it pretty clearly said something like Fleischstück in German, which would have been a giveaway that we were not talking about octopuses. (And yes, the correct plural is “octopuses”. I don’t want any comments demanding “octopi.”)

This brings me back to the whole Austrian-Italian mishigoss. (For non-Jewish readers, that’s Yiddish for “complicated mess”.) Merano, as I mentioned, is very much a bilingual city with the local culture tending towards the Austrian. But Bolzano, despite being slightly further from the Austrian border, takes a big step closer to its Germanic roots. There is little trace of Italy either in the architecture or in the language spoken in the streets: German is clearly more prevalent.

I mentioned last time that this is a consequence of the redrawing of Europe’s borders in the wake of World War I. Italy wanted this particular chunk of the Austro-Hungary Empire, and got it. (They also wanted scenic Dalmatia, spurred on by the ubiquitous ultra-nationalistic Gabriele D’Annunzio, he of the Addams Family mansion. But they didn’t get that, and it is part of Croatia today.)

But it was a near thing. German U-boats had utterly decimated British sea traffic by mid-1915, and, though hard to imagine today, Britain was only about three months away from surrendering when the US finally shed its neutrality and entered the war. It is interesting to speculate what would have happened had the US not done so, e.g. had the Germans not unwisely sunk the Lusitania the year before. Germany and Austria would have won the war in late 1916 instead of losing two years later. And that means that there would have been no onerous Treaty of Versailles, no Weimar Republic…and no rise of Hitler. In other words, World War II would not have happened or, if it did, would have been in a radically different form, e.g., Europe (including Germany) and the US allied against Stalin’s USSR.

It also means that we would have needed to get our passports stamped this week as we moved from Vicenza to Merano, and would have been a lot less confused as to whether we were still in Italy or had somehow wandered into Austria.

We headed back to Merano around 3:30, with a final stop of the day at Trauttmansdorff Castle, known for being the world’s least-pronounceable botanical garden. (It is actually one of the largest and most impressive in Europe.) We had repeated trouble keeping the name straight and eventually fell back on author Kurt Vonnegut, electing to call it Tralfamadore Castle. (If you don’t know what Tralfamadore is, you need to (a) look it up by clicking the link, and (b) reading more Kurt Vonnegut.) Jim sand Elaine toured the grounds, but Alice and I were just too tired and so just waited for them outside: she is still getting over a cold, which she has now generously shared with me.

Tomorrow we are off to our next destination: Modena, home of Ferrari and Lamborghini. Along the way we will visit the South Tyrol Archaeological Museum to call upon Ötzi, the famous 5500-year-old mummified hunter retrieved from a glacier in the Alps several years ago. He is widely known as the “Ice Man”. We, however, refer to him more familiarly as “Frozen Dead Guy”.

 

Categories: Italy | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Lauding Este

Most of our activity ­thus far has been in cities: Venice, Vicenza, Padua, et al. It has been our plan to see some of the countryside as well, and yesterday seemed like a good day to do it; the weather was overcast, and Alice is still fighting a cold and so was disinclined to do a lot of walking.  So a drive in the country seemed like a fine thing, and we set off to the outer reaches of Vicenza province, to the Euganean Hills.

The hills are low, perhaps 2000’ high at the highest, a collection of heavily wooded granite cliffs and old (very old: 35 million years) volcanic cinder cones, crisscrossed by hiking trails and traversed by a tortuous network of scenic if white-knuckled narrow hairpin turns that make driving something of a video game experience. I have been doing all of the driving thus far – Alice is too good a navigator to risk switching roles – and so found myself simultaneously trying to admire the view whilst maintaining laser focus on the next 180o turn in order to avoid driving us straight down one of those scenic, heavily wooded cliff sides.

The vistas are much as you would imagine, wide expanses of farmland (vineyards, of course) punctuated by villages of orange-tiled roofs, each of course with a bell tower. The overcast rendered the scene a little hazy, which added some nice atmospherics (and moderated the temperature), at the cost of making decent photography pretty much impossible.

After descending the sinuous road down the hillside, we stopped at the town of Este, a village really, whose principal attraction is a very large castle in the center of town.

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Its grounds offer a garden, statuary, and general strolling and meeting places for the local population, including this bicycle club:

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Notice the purple wisteria on the battlement walls. It is everywhere in the region, festooning stone and stucco walls alike and adding a splash of color to seemingly every structure. And speaking of adding a splash of color, here is Alice:

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But I am getting slightly ahead of myself by an hour or so. When we first rolled into town we were in need of two things: food and a bathroom. But we apparently arrived shortly after the Zombie Apocalypse. We cruised slowly down the deserted narrow streets, not a person or car in sight, trying to find an open restaurant or business of any sort or, indeed, any reassurance that the Rapture had not been visited upon the region whilst we sinners were up driving in the hills.

As the complaints from our stomachs and bladders grew more insistent, we finally in desperation turned through a metal gate into a small deserted courtyard that promised an open restaurant, only to find ourselves cruelly deceived. A decision was needed. Food was not a problem, as we had bought along an ample supply of cheese, fruit, crackers, and other goodies obtained on a supermarket run a few days ago. As for our bladders, well, I said the courtyard was deserted, so I’ll leave it at that.

It turns out that yesterday was Italy Liberation Day, whose particulars I will have to Google later. (I am in our B&B castle, sans Internet, as I type this.) But it is apparently celebrated by staying indoors. When we first arrived at the castle after eating, the courtyard was pretty sparsely peopled.

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Things came to life considerably by mid-afternoon, however. We walked around the grounds, climbing the steps up to the parapets to get a commanding view of the town below.

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It didn’t much more than an hour or two to see what there is to see at Este’s castle, and Elaine expressed a desire to do some hiking back up in the hills. She had picked up some brochures and maps identifying some hikes that promised to be both easy and scenic, and so we drove a short 10 miles or so to the Euganean hillside town of Teolo, which is sort of the epicenter for activities in the hills. It is heavily visited and was alive with picnickers, hikers, and bikers (both motor- and not) as we drove up.

(A word about the bicyclists. There are lots of them in the hills, often in groups, sometimes with helmets but frequently without. They all wear spandex, and they all work very, very hard. These roads are steep and twisty with barely a level stretch to be found anywhere, and although I enjoy biking I cannot imagine lasting more than five minutes in this terrain.)

Alice was still suffering from her cold, and Jim was feeling too relaxed to spoil the mood with any physical work, and so Elaine and I set out on the alleged easy, scenic trail, which turned out to be neither. It was in fact steep and occasionally rugged, the ostensible scenic panoramas obscured by the mountain on one side of the trail and the forest on the other. We gave it up as a bad job after 40 minutes or so, then turned around to rejoin our spouses at the trailhead.

We took an actual scenic drive back to Vicenza, Alice navigating us through the hills rather than on the Autostrade, and our last stop of the day was a church courtyard on the hillside overlooking the city that afforded these views:

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That’s Palladio’s basilica with the green roof, right in the center of town.

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These give a pretty sense of the ambience of Vicenza, just in time for us to leave it. We retreat from our private castle today, and at this moment I hear the clangor of the village church bells just outside our private hillside castle, as every local dog howls in protest. In an hour or two as I type this, we head northwest towards the mountains for two days on the shore of Lake Garda. The weather is looking none too promising but, well, it’s all about the journey.

Categories: Italy | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

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