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Markus' Travel and International Living Blog

Markus is an enthusiastic traveler, who lives in Houston, TX (USA) most of the time, but also spends some time in Saalfelden, near Salzburg (Austria). He is fascinated by travel and also by his experiences gathered by living in two different countries and continents.

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Wednesday, September 27, 2006
Are They Nuts in Vegas?

We used to go to Vegas a lot. Now, not so much anymore. Well, I still go there a few times a year, but mostly for work and not for fun anymore.

Now my parents are bout to come and visit us, and I know they like to go to Vegas, so I checked out some options. Flights are a bit on the pricey side ($350-$400 from Houston when we used to be able to go for $200 or $250), but the real kicker are the rooms! I remember going to Vegas and staying for $49 a night at the then brand-new Treasure Island hotel. "They just want you to come and gamble" everyone said, "they do not care to make money on the rooms". So I stayed at a really nice hotel with the best show in town (Mystere) for a really reasonable price.

But I guess something has changed and now they do care about making money with the rooms. A lot!

I can get a room at the "TI" (the new branding for the Treasure Island) for $299 a night. That is the cheapest room they have. And make no mistake: The TI is not a top property anymore. We have not stayed there in quite a few years (although we stop by on occasion) because it is such a rundown dump, and the whole re-branding didn't do it any favors either. We feel the same way about the Mirage, which was almost scary the last time I was there. The cheapest room available at the Mirage now goes for $329 according to Expedia. And other hotels really aren't that different. Even the Circus Circus is now over $100 a night, and I wouldn't stay there for fear the thing might just collapse on me!

There just is no way I am going to spend $1,200 or $1,800 just on hotels for 4 people for a weekend, even though I really like Vegas. Not by a long shot! Add the flights, dining, and other expenses, and I could fly to Greece and charter a boat for the same money. Who wants to go to Vegas to see the Venetian, when going to Venice is cheaper? Don't get me wrong: When I stay in a nice hotel, I do not mind paying for it. But the hotels in Vegas do not even have mini bars in the rooms for crying out loud!

I suppose I could look up some of the advertisements I keep getting all the time, with special offers for former guests and all that. But in a way, I do not even want to anymore. What happens in Vegas can just stay there for all I care. At this price, I am not interested anymore...



Posted @ 10:27 PM by Egger, Markus (markus@code-magazine.com) -
Comments (24)


Wednesday, September 27, 2006
Geo Caching

Have you ever heard of Geo Caching? No? Well, here is the scoop: Geo Caching is a hobby for people who look for ways to use their GPS. So it is for me. Basically, Geo Caching gives you a bunch of GPS coordinates that a Geo Cacher then finds. There is a little "treasure" at those coordinates. Nothing special. This is not about finding something special. It is about finding it in the first place.

Ellen discovered Geo Caching, and we have now gone to find a few things. It is silly in a way, because ultimately, it is quite a bit of effort (or it can be) to find trivial items. But in same odd way, it is extremely rewarding. And if nothing else, it is a little bit of extra motivation for a good exercise (assuming you go after some of the more difficult caches).

You can find out about Geo Caches on the official Geo Cache web site at http://www.GeoCaching.com. It has a list of all the caches worldwide and various ways of looking for them. You'll be surprised at how popular this is and how many caches there are.

The first Geo Cache we (actually Ellen, my dad, and myself) ever did was in Austria. Surprisingly, there are quite a few Geo Caches around my Austrian hometown of Saalfelden. When Ellen first looked this up on the web site, I would have expected there to be a handful of caches in all of Austria at best, but there are tons! Check out if you find anything for your own area. You will probably be surprised too.

The cache we did was a little unusual in that had a little riddle that sent you to a number of different locations. In fact, we had to do it twice, because the first time around I am ashamed to say that we didn't quite have the art of finding a location accurately down. It went well the second day though, and we were soon on our way through the Austrian mountains. One of the lessons we learned was that "being within a mile" doesn't mean you are really close in the alps. Throw in an extra 2,000 feet of elevation, and you have yourself a hike. But we had the time, and it was great! And once we got to the location, we still had to find the cache, which was pretty well hidden. I am glad we succeeded after a 10 minute search. I think not finding this first cache might have changed my opinion about the whole thing.

It was exciting to find the "treasure", because we were out in the middle of nowhere, yet we knew that quite a few people were there before us. There is a little book in each cache, where everyone that finds it leaves a little note, plus another little item. Nothing fancy. Just a little token to leave a trace. You also take an item out of the cache (a "rhythm egg" in our case) with the goal of depositing it in another cache at some point. The cache we found had perhaps 10 other items in it.

This cache also was a little special in that it had a "travel bug" in it. Travel bugs are items that have an individual tag with which they are registered on the Geo Cache web site. Travel bugs also have certain goals. In our case for instance, the travel bug was a soccer smurf ("Fussballschlumpf") who originated in Germany. The story that went along with it was that it wanted to stay in Germany during the Soccer World Cup, and then afterwards travel to the winner country. It had apparently already made its way from Germany to Austria. Unfortunately, we had no way to take it to another cache closer to Italy, but we attached a little token to it. I am not telling what it is (you will just have to find it for yourself), but it came from the World Cup match we watched ourselves. Surely, the smurf had to be excited about that...

We also took a few pictures. Here we are, holding the box that contains all the items:

I am holding up the smurf, but it is hard to see in this picture. We only let him out for a minute though before he had to go back into his water-proof box.

We took a few more pictures on the way back. Here is one that gives you a little bit of an idea of the area we were in:

The total endeavor took us about 3 or 3 1/2 hours (including the riddle-part). It was very enjoyable, and we will def. do similar caches again in the future. Maybe we will even establish our own cache at some point.

This cache was about medium difficulty. There are others that are very very easy and quick to get to. On the other end of the spectrum, you have caches that can only be reached with special equipment, such as hiking or scuba-diving equipment. Especially the later seems to be pretty exciting. I wonder if we sailed over any Geo Caches on our trip in Greece.

Since we did this in Austria (early September), we have found two other Geo Caches in a park in Houston. They were much easier to get to. However, crawling through spider infested Texan forests where you always might encounter a venomous snake wasn't nearly as enjoyable for me as the Austrian experience. What was neat though was that we were relatively close to other people, yet they had no idea that those caches were there. It is like being part of a secret society and only the initiated know of this secret world. And the readers of my blog of course. Well, and anyone who has a GPS and knows how to use Google. But nobody else. Really.

 

Posted @ 9:46 PM by Egger, Markus (markus@code-magazine.com) -
Comments (26)


Sunday, September 24, 2006
Salzburg - Hangar 7 - Ikarus (RedBull)

A few weeks back, we treated ourselves to a special experience. We went to the Ikarus restaurant in Salzburg's Hangar 7. Hangar 7 is owned by Dieter Mateschitz, the co-owner and founder of RedBull, so you can safely consider Hangar 7 a RedBull operation.

Hangar 7 is right next to the Salzburg airport, and it really is a working aircraft hangar, although an extremely fancy one that sports great architecture, and it is clearly built for show. Among other things, it houses the Flying Bulls, RedBull's own air-show team. When you go to Hangar 7, set aside some time to visit not just the restaurant or one of the bars, but the hangar itself, so you can see all the aircraft and automobiles they have on display. Asides from the fighter jets of the Flying Bulls, you can see other planes ranging from the RedBull Air Race sports planes to Tito's "Air Force One" Douglas DC 6.

In addition, all kinds of RedBull sports equipment and machinery is on display as well. In particular cars, such as many of the Formula 1 cars RedBull either owns (after all, they own two F1 teams) or sponsors. They even have an Indy Car. You will find some other oddities as well, such as Felix Baumgartner's wings he used to fly across the channel (UK to France) in one of his insane air-stunts.

Those things are all nice and impressive. However, we were there for the food. After all, Ellen and I had given my parents a gift certificate for Ikarus as a Christmas present. Ikarus is one of those few remaining restaurants where you really have to dress up. It is first-class dining of the traditional kind but in an ultra-modern setting. (It is also pricey... if you do not feel like spending 150-200 bucks or more a person, then you should not go there). It is the kind of restaurant that makes some people feel important and others uncomfortable. I think personally I fall somewhere in the middle there.

Ikarus isn't your average restaurant in terms of their menu either. One of the key ideas behind it is that there is a different star-chef from a different country every month, preparing a different "dream menu", in addition to the standard items. We were there in early September, which featured the Spanish chef Andres Madrigal, who prepared a spectacular menu that fused spanish dishes with many other concepts, each and every item being delicious and - to my delight - sidestepping many of those over-the-top fancy dishes that no normal human could possibly enjoy. The menu we chose had some 13 (or so, depending on how you count) courses. Each course is relatively small, since otherwise, it simply would be way to much food. And after about 10 courses, you realize that nobody leaves Ikarus hungry. At the same time, this isn't a knight's feast or a Brazilian Churrascaria, so you won't end completely stuffing yourself.

Here's the actual menu we had:

Beetroot with Bacalao-yogurt and vanilla oil
***
Spit of octopus with spicy corn sauce and baked leek
***
Sauteed prawn with tapenade of olives and marinated sprouts
***
Puree of chickpeas with cockles 

 
Tartar of red tuna with garlic sauce and “Osietra” caviar
***
Lukewarm egg yolk on potatoes, cheese sauce and Sobrasada
***
Sauteed goose liver on tarte tartin and Tempura herbs
***
Turbot cooked in salt with carpaccio of langostino and broccoli puree
***
Mille feuille of red mullet with purple potatoes and Thai sauce
***
Pigeon in redwine sauce with ceps, pearl onions and Pancetta
***
Roasted loin of lamb “Nice Style“ with anchovy oil and black olives
***
Delice of mango, coconut and lychee
***
Andi`s Tiramisu 

And of course there were various other little "snacks" mixed in, such as the freshly baked bread they make, or the pralines from Ikarus' own confiserie. We also went for the matching wines with each course, as well as an aperitif and a digestivo ("before and after" cocktails).

To give you an idea of what it is like during other months, the complete 2006 lineup features the following chefs: Juan Amador (Langen, Germany), Gabriel Kreuther (NYC, USA), Vivek Singh (London, UK), Gianluigi Bonelli (Hongkong, China), Frank Zlomke (Paarl, South Africa), Robert Feenie (Vancouver, Canada), Yoshii Ryuichi (Sydney, Australia), Roland Trettl (Salzburg, Austria), Andres Madrigal (Madrid, Spain), Jin Jie Zhang (Peking, China), Jean-Georges Klein (Elsass, France), and Alex Atala (Sao Paolo, Brazil).

I def. appreciate the professionalism, with wait staff who really knows what they are doing. Each table has a number of waiters assigned (I think we had as many as 5 or 6) with each of them being highly skilled. You want a certain wine? They can not only tell you what goes with your current course, but they can tell you exactly where each bottle of wine came from, what its characteristics are, what the area is like that it is grown in, and so on, and so on. I find this very impressive, because they have hundreds of wines, many coming from the region the chef of the month represents which is thus only available during that month. Waiters also know the same level of detail about every course and seemingly about every ingredient. The same is true for the hundreds of aperitifs, digestivos, and other kinds of brandies.

I found this to be a fantastic experience. If you are into food and do not mind to spend this kind of money, then you will enjoy Ikarus. I wouldn't want to do this every day  or even every week (I still prefer a Brazilian steakhouse, which - by comparison - is a bargain), but I can imagine dining at Ikarus once or twice a year. If you want to dine there though, make sure you have reservations well in advance, because Ikarus is usually booked solid months in advance.

 

Posted @ 11:27 AM by Egger, Markus (markus@code-magazine.com) -
Comments (28)


Friday, September 22, 2006
US Health Care Among the Worst...

Since it is easy for me to compare, I knew that US health care sucks by comparison (at least compared to my home-country of Austria... which is why I have extra insurance there and I do not use my US insurance if I can help it...). I am still surprised that it is confirmed that it's that bad. Read this: http://msnbc.msn.com/id/14928778/

What blows me away is that people here (in the US) still think US health care is good. "Not great, but still the best!" I often hear. It would be a good joke, if it wasn't so sad.

I think this article highlights some good points. Also, as long as there is a single uninsured child or adult left in this country, we have fallen way short of reaching even an acceptable baseline.

 



Posted @ 9:06 AM by Egger, Markus (markus@code-magazine.com) -
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Sunday, September 17, 2006
Hiking in Austria Again - Liedlalm

Austria is just great for hiking. It is hard to believe that I never hiked when I lived there, but now, I really enjoy climbing up some mountain, enjoy the view, spend some time at a cabin, and get a good exercise at the same time. So when Ellen and I spent a few days in Austria recently, we did a few hikes again. One of them was to a place called "Liedlalm" in Leogang, near Saalfelden. It is a nice hike. Not too long (took us about an hour and 20 minutes), and not too steep. Although it still was a good exercise. It is actually also a good place to mountain-bike to, although we hiked in this instance.

To get there, drive to Leogang and look for the signs that guide you to the historic mine. The mine itself is interesting too. It is a medieval silver and copper mine (among other things). It is very impressive to walk (and sometimes almost crawl) the tiny tunnels and see how they used to work back then. This blog is not about the mine, but for more information, click here.

For the Liedlalm hike, go all the way to the mine and the park at the area across the river opposite the assembly-house of the mine-tour. This is a great starting place for the path we took, which leads up over alpine meadows with great vistas. The alternative is to follow the path that leads to the mine-entrance. Some people prefer it, as it is more in the shade, but I do not like it very much (for the same reason). I prefer a little heat and great views and a gradual incline over a shadowy walk in a canyon with no view and a steep climb at the end.

This is an easy hike in terms of finding your way. Just follow the road and the signs and you can not go wrong. At the end of the hike, you get to a cabin that serves food and drink. Here is a photo, with Ellen sitting in front of the cabin:

As with all these places, do not expect a full restaurant. Instead, you will get served traditional food. I always enjoy a refreshing buttermilk, although Ellen thinks it is odd for an adult to drink milk. (We shall see who has healthier bones when we hit 100!). Liedlalm also offers a special treat: Try the awesome "Almwuzel". It is almost like a mixture between a "Kaiserschmarrn" and "Salzburger Nockerl". Probably terribly fattening. But hey, how often are you going to get the chance to try it?

Here is a view on the way to the top:

After our snack (which was really a meal, although we only paid 7 Euros for the two of us), we went back down to the car and drove home. However, if you were looking for a more serious hike, you can also continue on towards one of the summits nearby. We will leave that for another day though...

 

Posted @ 10:31 AM by Egger, Markus (markus@code-magazine.com) -
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Sunday, September 17, 2006
Orvieto, Umbria, and the Toscana

After our brief visit to the Amalfi Coast and to Pompei, it was time for us to return home, if not to Houston, then at least to Austria. We didn't have a ton of time for this, and it is a long way to drive, but we still wanted to see a few things on the way. So we ended up driving along the A1 Autostrada with some planned stops. Both the Umbria as well as Toscana ("Tuscany") regions of Italy are beautiful and deserve a trip of their own. Especially the Toscana is an area I am reasonably familiar with. This is one of those places where I could imagine buying an old (farm-)house one day when I am retired to slowly fix it up and grow some wine or something along those lines. Especially with it being close to Austria and all, it is very accessible. It has great scenery and great lifestyle.

I remember visiting thermal springs called "Therme di Saturnia". These springs were already used by the Romans 2000 years ago. There is an organized bath there, but one can also just swim in the thermal river a little further downstream, where it goes over a cascade of small waterfalls. You are likely to find some fellow bathers when you are there, but usually it isn't too bad, and you should be able to find a pool you can enjoy all by yourself. And if you are in the mood, fling some mud at each other. It is supposed to be healthy. I gotta say: personally, I prefer the natural, non-organized version over the bathhouse.

We didn't have time to go there on this trip however, and we didn't buy an old farmhouse either. So for the time being, the Toscana remained an area we drove through, not a destination. We did decide to stop at a small village just off the Autostrada called Orvieto. The Italians usually built their towns at the top of hills, which gives the area such a distinctive look. Orvieto is one of those towns:

You can get their by car and also by train, with the train station being at the bottom of the hill. If you come by car - as we did - just drive into town and park at one of the designated parking areas. As always when you park your car in Italy, give some thought to avoiding break-ins. Do not leave anything visible in the car as it may attract thieves. (A foreign license plate does enough of that already). Also, open the glove compartment, which acts as a sign that says “I know the rules and there is nothing in this car of interest to you… go and smash someone else’s window”.

The town itself is typical for the area, with lots of cute little narrow streets, tucked away restaurants, and numerous small shops. The biggest attraction in Orvieto is the Duomo (the dome) which is disproportionately huge for a town of this size. The reason is a supposed miracle that happened here in the 1260’s. A Bohemian priest on his way back from a pilgrimage to Rome worshipped in a place called Bolsena, near Orvieto. The reason of his pilgrimage was that he doubted the bread used in communion really was the body of Christ, and he hoped to be enlightened by such a journey. During his mass, he broke the bread, and to everyone’s amazement, the bread started to bleed on a linen cloth. The cloth was brought to the pope who happened to be in Orvieto at the time (as he had a residence there). The pope declared it to be a genuine miracle and proof of the bread being the body of Christ. I will let you be your own judge of miracles (there seem to have been a disproportionate amount of miracles in Italy of that time… Umberto Eco had an interesting take on that in his book “Baudolino” which was on top of the bestseller lists in Europe for months and months), but at the very least, it is interesting in a historical sense since this was a major contributing factor for communion being such a big part of Christian masses.

The bled upon cloth is on display in the Duomo, which was built specifically to house it. The Duomo is a beautiful piece of architecture, with one of the most impressive facades of any church. The interior is peculiar, as there are no benches or anything else to sit on. Either they have very few masses there (which would not be out of line with other European churches these days) or it is a “BYOC” (bring your own chair) affair. The cloth is off in a wing to the left of the altar. Note that the church seems to get closed for inexplicable reasons every so often. When we were there, they were just closing it. If you are going there for religious reasons, you may want to inquire about the schedule ahead of time, to avoid a serious disappointment.

The following are photos of the facade of the Duomo and the surrounding area: 

In any event: We were not aware of any of this before we went to Orvieto. Our main aim was to see a cute Italian town, have a nice walk, see some nice architecture, and have some good food. We succeeded in the first three and even partially in the fourth. I recommend that you do not eat at one of the tourist traps around the Duomo, but find a place off the beaten path. Aim for something that is busy and seems to have lots of local people eating there.

Orvieto is also well known for its wine as well as ceramics. To be the proper tourist, sample some of the wine and buy some pottery as a souvenir.  For the wine-part, I recommend that you do stick to the dome-square. It is a great way to sit back, enjoy the wine, and soak in the overall atmosphere.



Posted @ 9:51 AM by Egger, Markus (markus@code-magazine.com) -
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Saturday, September 09, 2006
Pompeij

After our drive along the Amalfi Coast, we decided to visit the site of ancient Pompeij. Pompeij is located in modern day Pompei (without the "j" at the end), which - somewhat to our surprise - is practically a suburb of Napoli (Naples). Looking at the map, and knowing about Pompeij what an interested traveler knows, I had envisioned that it was practically on the other side of Mount Vesuvius, and I guess technically, it really isn't part of Napoli, but in reality, it is just part of the sprawling Napoli metropolitan area.

In our great accidental tradition of visiting archeological sites when it is pouring rain (it has rained when we visited Delphi, Chichen Itza, ancient Rome, Indian cliff dwellings in Arizona, and more, and I bet when we visit the Valley of the Kings in Egypt one day, then it will be raining there too for the first time in millennia...), we arrived in Pompei just as dark clouds started to re-appear. We stayed in a nearby hotel and walked to the site, and by the time we got there, we were drenched. Nevertheless, it was still very impressive and the weather improved a bit as time went on.

Pompeij is very impressive. It is by far the largest archeological site I have ever visited. It is as big as a modern day town. We only allowed some 4 hours to see it all and it clearly was not enough. One could spend days in Pompeij. Usually, there are a lot of people at the site (more than 2 million visitors a year), but it doesn't seem crowded at all, since the area is so large.

The roman town of Pompeij was a rather important site. It is estimated that up to 30,000 people lived there before the town was wiped out when Mount Vesuvius erupted. In general, it seems that pompeijians were not blessed when it comes to natural disasters. Only a few years before the eruption, an earthquake caused serious damage (probably related to the vulcanic activity). Much of the rebuilding effort was not even complete by the time Vesuvius erupted. The eruption of the volcano was devastating, covering the city under several feet of ash, before it was re-discovered by accident more than 1,600 years later.

Here is a picture of the "forum" with Mount Vesuvius in the background:

The city of Pompeij was very advanced, with many places dedicated to trade, law, culture, and competitions. For instance, Pompeij had several theaters, one of which is still used for events today:

Pompeij also has a colosseum which was used for gladiatorial fights:

It isn't as large as the Colosseum in Rome, but it is still very impressive.

What really makes Pompeij unique is that it left a record that is not available anywhere else: When Mount Vesuvius erupted, Pompeij's citizens were caught completely by surprise and had no chance to escape. The 19-hour eruption covered everything in feet of volcanic ash, including people, houses, furniture, and other every-day items. Eventually, all organic material decayed, but since the volcanic ash had hardened by then, all decaying organic material left cavities. During excavations of Pompeij, these cavities were discovered and in a stroke of genius, it was decided to fill the cavities with plaster. This way, we now have plaster casts of all kinds of things, including people in their dying moments. The casts still show the expressions of people's faces. One can see the folds of their clothing, and much more. It is a very unique records, since normally, all organic material is lost.

Here is a cast that shows a person who died sitting down:

Here is someone who apparently fell down, perhaps during a futile attempt to run away:

And yet another cast of someone who appears to be lying on his or her back:

And the following is an up-close shot of a victim's facial expression:

Yikes. I guess being Roman wasn't all fun and orgies...

BTW: We stayed at a hotel very close to the archeological site. It was a nice enough hotel which featured private parking (which is very important in the south of Italy, if you intend to bring your car back with all windows intact). However, I would recommend that you do NOT stay in modern-day Pompei. Instead, stay somewhere further south on the coast. If you can, even on the Amalfi Coast. Pompei is a somewhat scary, run-down dump. There aren't any nice places to eat, and walking around at night is somewhat scary.

 



Posted @ 9:20 AM by Egger, Markus (markus@code-magazine.com) -
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Thursday, September 07, 2006
Costiera Amalfitana (Amalfi Coast, Italy)

One our way back from Greece (see posts 1, 2, and 3), we decided to take the short ferry (as in "the ferry that only takes 8 hours and doesn't get quite as far...". This is NOT the equivalent of a short bus...) from Iguomenitsa (Greece) to Bari (Italy). This meant that we were pretty much way down at the heel of the Italian boot and had to drive back. We did this deliberately, as we wanted to stop at a few places on the way back. The trip on the ferry was quite dreadful. It was windy as hell again (I am tempted to say "it was blowing bloody old boots" in honor of Neil - see the previous posts - but Ellen doesn't like me to use the "b-word", as she says it only works for the English...). When we went to Greece and thought is was a unique occurrence, it had somewhat of a "cool thing" to it, but on the way back, it was just plain annoying. I have second thoughts about the whole "sleeping on deck" thing...

The first leg of our trip back to Austria took us from Bari, which is located on the east coast of Italy, to Napoli ("Naples") on the west coast. We decided to take the scenic route along the Costiera Amalfitana (a.k.a. "Amalfi Coast" in English). This is one of those ruggedly beautiful pieces of coast that everyone who goes to Italy should visit. We drove to Salerno and then around the entire "finger". Almost but not quite all the way to the Isle of Capri. The coastal road is beautiful. Allow for enough time though, as the going is extremely slow. Also, the street is extremely narrow. I am used to Italian driving, but if you have never driven on a road that is hardly wide enough for one car, with oncoming traffic, cars passing, and scooters zipping in and out of traffic, then you are in for an adventure. We tried to take pictures of the traffic while driving, but during the hairier parts, we were fully occupied maneuvering. Here is a more relaxed shot:

This shot is taken from the passenger seat. So things got tight. (As a friend of mine says: "Italians are good at squeezing into tight places..."). When big buses or trucks came along, things got interesting. If this is not your idea of safe driving, you should let someone else handle that part.

We were not there for the driving excitement but for the beautiful scenery. Unfortunately, it is difficult to stop and take pictures, but we did get a few from a small town called Positano, which is built into the mountainside in a remarkable fashion:

Here's a closer shot:

It is a very cute place indeed. If you ever get a chance, make sure to set aside some time to stay there and soak in the scenery and atmosphere. It is very unique.

On this particular trip however, we didn't set aside much time for Positano. Instead, we just decided to take the scenic trip and leave it at that. The same afternoon, we arrived in Napoli. Or, to be more exact: In Pompei. But more about that in my next post...

 



Posted @ 5:41 PM by Egger, Markus (markus@code-magazine.com) -
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Friday, September 01, 2006
Sailing in Odysseus' Tracks (Part 2)

Previously on this blog: We engaged in a multi-day sailing trip around the Ionian Islands where we ate Octopus like crazy, sailed like crazy, snorkeled like crazy, and didn't sleep very well. Now the conclusion...

The next morning we received word about very rough seas around the Ionian Islands. They reported 25 knots of wind speed (which doesn't sound like that much to me, but I am more of a windsurfer than a sailor) and large swells (waves). We were advised to stay in port, but our skipper Neil just said "rubbish... these old chaps are just a bunch of bloody sissies" and off we went. And he was right: The wind was actually great for sailing, and I am not sure what waves they were speaking of. We had a great day of sailing and we actually reached our greatest speed of the trip, blasting along at a screaming 8.2 knots (about 15 km/h or a bit less than 10 miles per hour).

We went down the coast of Kefalonia with the goal of reaching Sami. However, winds took some nasty turns just before we got to Sami, so we decided to go to Ag. Efimia instead. Here's a sailing picture just before we entered port. It doesn't look all that windy here, but that has to do with the fact that the winds turned a lot in this area. You can see how windy it is by how Ellen's "big-balloon-shirt" (as she calls it) blows around and by how much the boat is leaning over. This was another day where we sailed with the deck in the water. As Neil said: "It was blowing bloody old boots!":

 

Once we went ashore again, we got a taxi and drove off to see the caves of Kefalonia. They are a major tourist attraction and a nice diversion after a few days on the boat. But do not expect mammoth cave! The first cave we saw has a lake in it. It is quite nice, but it is also expensive and our guide didn't say much besides giving us 3 depth readings of the lake (one goes on it in a rowboat). I think he didn't speak much English. I am glad I did it, but it def. is one of those "yup, there it is... we saw it, now let's move on" sort of experiences.

 

The second cave has tons of stalactites and stalagmites. I liked this one better than the first, as it seems more impressive and one has the freedom to walk around in it. When we entered, they told us that "it was OK to take a few pictures, but not TOO many as it is forbidden by the Greek ministry of culture". That's the spirit! We of course went right along with it, and to stick to the overall philosophy, we took a bunch of photos, but mostly blurry ones. That gotta make the ministry of culture happy!

 

On our way back to the boat I noticed I sign that pointed to the "ancient acropolis of Sami", so we hijacked out taxi driver to take us there. Unfortunately, this was quite a bit out of the way, and it was not very "acropolisish" at all, since hardly any of it is preserved. However, we had a great few of the island and of Sami bay:

 

It got quite late by the time we got back to the boat (in part because by now Neil was so engrossed in Sudoku that he didn't want to hear about sailing). We had originally planned to go back to Kalamos or Meganisi, but it was too late for that, so we enjoyed some excellent sailing up the west coast of Ithaka, were we ended up spending the night in a lonely bay together with two other boats. I like spending the night out on the sea rather than in ports. It was very quiet and relaxing. We simply anchored out in the bay, and I swam ashore with a second rope, just to make sure things wouldn't get too bad in case the anchor didn't hold. We enjoyed our first dinner on the boat under another amazing sky full of stars (well, I suppose it was the same sky actually, but it just never grows old).

The next day, after enjoying a nice swim and some handfeeding the fish, we sailed north towards Lefkas and the port of Vasiliki. On the way, we decided to have a bit of extra fun, threw out a rope the back of the boat, and surfed on the inflated dingy-bottom. Here is Neil going at it:

 

In general, we had lots of this type of fun on the boat. One day I jumped off the front of the boat at full speed and tried to swim around the back of it to climb back up the ladder before it passed. I failed to do this and the boat almost sailed by, leaving me in the middle of the open sea, but I managed to hang on to the dingy at the last moment. Ellen was nice enough to throw me a rope (ruining her chance of getting rid of me). We also enjoyed hanging off the ladder at the back of the boat while we were sailing about. I really like this about the Greek island. There just isn't much to worry about when you jump in the sea, since there are no sharks, even if it is out in the open. I wouldn't be nearly as comfortable trying this in Hawaii or other places.

Vasiliki was a special stop for me, because it is known for windsurfing. And in fact, it was a windy, although not too constant day. Neil dropped me off at the shore, and I rented some nice and brand new F2 gear. The board was a little different from what I was used to, and it took a while for the board and I to bond, but after 20 minutes, it went quite well. Here I am, zipping by our boat:

 

I can guarantee you that I went faster than 8.2 knots on the windsurf board. By a lot!

Vasiliki was another great stop. In addition to the windsurfing, we had some excellent food again. This would have also been the place to party, as Vasiliki is very touristy, and has a lot of bars. I originally planned on that, but then was just too worn out from the windsurfing, so we only had a drink or two before we went to bed.

Our trip was now rapidly coming to an end, with only two days left. The next day we sailed around the south tip of Lefkas towards Meganisi. It was a nice sailing day again, and Neil thought we were going along at a speed that was "just bloody marvelous". After spending our afternoon at a nice and sheltered bay (with some fish to feed and some cave-snorkeling), we went to the north side of Meganisi which has some very sheltered bays. We grilled our Souvlaki (a greek skewer speciality) on shore and had a great time. There were quite a few boats in there, but it was not too bad. We grilled our Souvlaki on shore, which I enjoyed a lot (Ellen tolerated it since she knew I was looking forward to it).

Later that evening, Neil and I went skinny-dipping with a voluptuous French woman. Well, in fairness the (presumably) French beauty skinny dipped on the other end of the bay some several hundred yards away, but it was in the same area nevertheless. Ellen for some reason didn't want to partake.

Here's a photo of where we anchored in Meganisi. Don't get your hopes up (or should I say "don't be afraid"?), there are no skinny-dipping pictures ;-)

 

The next morning, we vent to Vathi, got some fresh bread, and set off for our last day of sailing. At first, there wasn't much wind, so we just sailed downwind into a nice bay and went swimming, but later that afternoon, a little more wind came up and we decided to sail upwind to Nidri and go for some ice cream. This was rather exciting since we decided to sail into the bay of Nidri and through the port, rather than motoring up. There must have been over a hundred boats in there and we crisscrossed (tacked) up wind through them going 6-7 knots. They must have all thought we were nuts. But Neil is an excellent skipper and I can pull ropes like crazy, so we all got a good laugh out of it.

Here's a picture from Nidri on the way back out:

 

This was the end of the trip. That night we sailed back to Lefkas. We did pretty much everything we wanted, except we didn't see the dolphins Neil promised. Dang sales people! ;-)

Here is the course we took:

 

Different days are shown in alternating colors, starting at the very top, roughly clockwise, except for the part between Kefalonia and Ithaka.



Posted @ 3:41 AM by Egger, Markus (markus@code-magazine.com) -
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