Dispatches from the top of Europe

We focused our summer holidays this year on tourist activities around home. Because why go so far afield when we have some great things to do within a few hours of us? So we made the most of a visit from my mom to tick some big ones off our bucket list. And this was a big one both figuratively and literally – Mont Blanc, the highest peak in western Europe!

Mont Blanc is home to the steepest vertical ascent in a gondola in the world, which takes you up to the “Aiguille du Midi”, a mountaintop viewing point at (nearly) the summit of the mountain. It starts in Chamonix, a little French tourist town at the base of the mountain, about an hour’s drive from our place.

When we arrived at the Chamonix kiosk, it was already packed. People of all kinds were milling around – some with full mountaineering gear. I was feeling a bit underdressed in jeans and a sweater, even though it was one of the hottest days of the year: we had escaped from temperatures nearing 40C back home.

We bought our lift tickets and were told to come back for boarding in 2 hours. The town didn’t hold much excitement on an early morning, but we managed to fill the time wandering around, checking touristy shops and grabbing a couple of crepes at a cafe patio that we shared with a bunch of wasps. Some North American tourist at the next table over said “I can’t wait to get home and eat inside for once” – because a couple of wasps outweigh a beautiful outdoor mountain vista patio? Dude.

Back at the line up, we waited another 20 minutes owing to delays. At last it was our turn, and we were driven through the doors and jammed like sardines into the gondola. We were the last ones on, with standing room only and nowhere to hold on – but we lifted off safely and flew up into the sky, watching our car get smaller and smaller in the parking lot below. Once or twice the gondola shuddered, throwing us around and eliciting “whoas” from the group. I’m not good with heights and might have peed a little.

The first leg of the trip took us over the tops of trees and grass, landing at a midway station at the base of the glacier field. We were already nearly 2000 m high and the air was fresh as we exited the lift to transfer onwards. We stopped at a viewing platform to look out across a sweeping wall of rockfall and dusty glaciers. And to take some selfies.

We boarded like sardines again onto the next lift, this time getting a coveted spot at the front of the chariot, where I was able to get a video of the ride (sorry about the reflection of my hot pink phone cover). This was the leg that took us nearly vertical, up another 2000 m into the clouds.

We arrived at the peak and stepped out onto a walkway in the sky, officially 3800 m up. And wow, could we tell. The air was thin and cold, gusts of wind whipping up from the glacier peaks and misting us with droplets of clouds. It was challenge to walk up the few flights of stairs to the viewing platform, suffering from a lack of oxygen and our legs feeling like lead. But we made it, looking out from the top of the world at the nearby frozen giants and into the etched valley below. A plane flew by, well below us.

So once we had our fill of taking panoramas and selfies, what else could we do but visit the cafeteria at the top of the mountain? So we spent the rest of our visit snacking on some overpriced sandwiches and drinks before heading back to the gondola for our scheduled ride home. It was another long wait in an overcrowded hallway, this time punctuated by mild dizziness, and I’m pretty sure it also gave one of the kids a chance to let off a bunch of farts, because some vapors were following us around and it wasn’t pleasant. But we eventually re-boarded and floated back down through the clouds, as our magical trip to the highest food we’ve ever bought was over.

Mont Blanc panorama

Tuscany towns – cookies and more

The great thing about being in Tuscany turned out not to be just the heavyweights, Florence and Pisa, but the other wonderful little Tuscan towns around the area. We made it to two others that were perfectly charming and not as overwhelming – Lucca and Volterra.

Lucca is one of the best preserved medieval towns in the whole province. It managed to survive the centuries of war and destruction that most other areas suffered under, and as the regional capital for many decades, it has a lot of lovely buildings, churches, and piazzas to enjoy. It is also now known as the place where most European toilet paper is made – this was the most exciting thing for the kids, although we didn’t make to the TP factory… But we did eat lunch in an old Roman amphitheater, wandered the winding streets and fortified walls, and ate some disappointing gelato.

Volterra was my favorite. Although we arrived on a rainy mid-morning, we spent a few hours wandering this hilltop town boasting more ancient churches and adorable twisty alleys. It’s known, among other things, for its alabaster and some unique cookies called Ossi di Morto cookies (bones of the dead). They were surprisingly similar to the texture I would imagine dried up skeleton bones would actually have… After a delicious lunch at a cafe, it was time to go.

We also managed to fit in a day at the beach. The air and sand were hot, but the sea was cold, cold, cold. So, of course, only the Cayas were in there (well, B and the kids), and a random other kid from Northern England who was so happy to swim with someone else because his parents refused to go in. Soon we headed back up over the Alps, just in time for a last snowstorm of the season.

Dungeons & towers: Chateau de Chillon

Spring finally arrived in April, and my parents came to stay over the Easter holidays. The plan was to take a road trip through Italy, but before that, we had time for some sightseeing around home.

And who doesn’t love a trip to a castle?

At the top of Lac Leman, in Montreux, there’s a real honest-to-goodness chateau – Chillon castle. I had heard it was a fun family trip, with a bit of something for everyone: secret passageways, history and art, princess towers, dungeons… So we were excited! Ok, I was excited. We packed the kids into the car and drove up the coast.

All the other times we had been in the area, it was covered in fog. Honestly, I questioned whether there was actually anything to see. But this time, it was clear day and the views were incredible! You really can see all across the water to huge alpine slopes and glacier-capped peaks, and the lake was a vivid blue in the sun. Finally, Switzerland!

The castle is adorable, too, rising up from the edge of the water with spires and arches just like a fairy tale. We walked along the water, enjoying the view.

Inside, the castle is exactly how you imagine: lofty ceilings, stately rooms, twisty passageways, hidden courtyards, tower peaks. And cold. So very cold. No wonder the fireplaces were as big as my living room.

The main rooms had window bays looking out over the water, the perfect place to sit and pretend to be a princess or a page, daydreaming away the afternoon of stuffy lessons. And a rickety ladder took us up to the highest tower, which of course J freaked out on halfway up and I had to coax her back down, backwards, through the streams of people coming up. LittleB and Grandpa said it was cool at the top, but I’ve convinced myself it wasn’t worth it, right, right?

As for the kids, I think their highlights were, obviously, the dungeon and the latrines. There was a fancy outhouse for the royals, way at the top of the castle, so their leavings could fall farther than the commoners, I guess. And I can check off my bucket list another amazing phrase spoken in earnest: LittleB, don’t drop your camera down the king’s poop hole. Also, the room was filled with poop jokes. Ok, maybe that was my highlight too.

The dungeon was dark and damp and creepy and (nowadays) filled with wine. So basically it was the best place ever! Actually, it turned out there was a famous story I didn’t know about before: “Chillon’s most famous prisoner was François de Bonivard, a Genevois monk, who was imprisoned there in 1530 for defending his homeland from the dukes of Savoy. Over his six-year term, de Bonivard paced as far as his chain would allow, and the chain and rut are still visible. Lord Byron wrote the poem The Prisoner Of Chillon (1816) about him.” We totally saw that spot.

Too soon, we had cranky hungry kids and it was time to go. But of course, not before we stopped in the gift shop to tell the kids they couldn’t buy all the kitschy magnets, books about medieval recipes (in French), or 15th century antique armor. Note to self: Gotta stop going into gift shops.

We stopped to take some lovely family photos along the water, which ended as you can imagine, with some more whining and blurry final images. And then we got back to the car before LittleB realized he lost his camera somewhere (probably in the king’s poop hole, seriously), so he and I had to go all the way back to look around. No luck. So I carted a devastated, crying kid back to the car, only to get there and see that he had put it in the trunk already and just somehow forgotten within 2 seconds of doing it. Sigh.

Blurry family
Blurry family

Anyway, the castle was fun, you should go!

Springtime visitors

At the beginning of this year, B was doing a lot of travelling. The best thing about it was I had plenty of visitors coming to stay while he was away. It might not have been the most amazing vacations for my visitors, but it was great for me! I got to work as usual while someone else was doing chores and kid care and I had the added bonus of enjoying their company. Well, I guess that’s how it is with B at home anyway, but, you know, that gets boring after a while.

First, Grandma came to stay in February. The city was just barely starting to wake up – the winter fog was still hanging around, and it was hard to convince her that there were actually mountains across the lake. Luckily the sun came out for a short moment and we managed to catch a few photos on the water’s edge. We took a day trip into Geneva as well, but we mostly just saw swans and ate some chocolate… Actually, that sounds pretty good!

We also took the kids up to a skate park, where LittleB mostly looked at the jumps and J slid on them like slides – no extreme scooter athletes in the making, clearly. And J, turning into a bit of a pianist, got an early birthday piano. I had to drive into Geneva to pick it up, to an apartment right near the UN, and I managed to get a quick picture of the building from the car. There are so many tourists that there are permanent police stationed at the intersection out front, directing traffic so the bus loads of clueless visitors don’t get hit – luckily they didn’t see me taking this photo while driving!

A few weeks later my sister came to stay. It was meant to be a repeat of sister trip 2015, but when B had to travel again suddenly, she was gracious about being my housewife for a few days instead of seeing the country. She also got the wonderful fog and rainy days, but we tried to make the most of it: with a trip up to Saint Cergue and a tour around the Prangins museum, she managed to see more than Grandma L. And we capped off the week with a fun night of make your own sushi.

So the short version is, come and stay with us to watch our kids and see lots of fog! It’ll be great, we promise!

Winter magic in the rockies

Well, New Year’s was quite some time ago – but it’s never the wrong time of year to share the glory that is winter in the Rocky mountains.

We spent three lovely nights in a Canmore condo with our friends, enjoying some incredible snowshoeing in the Sunshine Valley, watching a snowstorm blow across Lake Louise, spending frosty evenings in the outdoor hot tub, sharing wine and games into the night warmed by the cozy fireplace, and having delicious dinners of both homemade and restaurant variety to top it all off.

Our snowshoeing trip stole the show. It was a perfectly crisp, clear day, with the bright sun glinting off the fresh snow. The light and air were magical, the trees perfectly framed by clumps of pure white.

We journeyed along the Sunshine Valley floor for hours, taking photos and getting lost in the glory. And that night, we rang in the new year with good food and laughter. It was a perfect New Year’s Eve.

The next day, we drove up to Lake Louise so A could teach J how to ski, while B and I photographed everything in sight, went tubing, drank beer and hot chocolate, and drove around the Lake. So, basically the perfect New Year’s Day.

It was all over too soon! But we’ll always have these gorgeous memories. You’ll want to look at them babies in full screen:

And if those glorious views were not enough for you, here’s a message we recorded for the kids from the valley lookout:

Plus – bonus video of B and I tubing at Lake Louise, with a surprise ending (for me, at least!):

Happy (belated) New Year!

Aussie Adventure Part 1 – Blue Mountain Christmas

Our first day in Australia, we woke to a grey Christmas Eve morning, but excited to pack up the van and drive a few hours west into the Blue Mountains. The Blue Mountains are not exactly mountains, rather a higher-elevation chain of sandstone foothills just outside of Sydney. Indeed, I was expecting something a bit more… mountainous… but actually the region is almost tropical. I guess having driven through the Canadian Rockies many times makes other mountains just look like adorable little hills. The Blue Mountains are still beautiful, though!

The drive up was rather uneventful. The day stayed rainy and misty, so we didn’t manage to do any kind of sightseeing along the way, even though the route we took was apparently teeming with “breathtaking views” of valleys, forests and cliffs. Mostly we just saw fog, clouds and mist. But before long, we made it to the cottage and settled ourselves in for a cozy few days.

We rented a lovely little cottage in Katoomba. It was a large enough town to have decent shopping and restaurants, but small enough that we had a nice break from big city life. The cottage itself was just the right size – room for six to sleep, a modern kitchen, woodstove in the sitting room, and an updated bathroom complete with a claw-foot tub. Perfect for a Christmas getaway!

Even though we had celebrated an early Christmas before the trip, we still had another Christmas Eve birthday cake for LittleB and little visit from Santa the next morning. I guess he figured out that we were travelling… Us parents and grandparents celebrated Christmas Eve festivities with a fridge full of wine and beer, a BBQ full of steaks and an all-night game of Hearts.

The gloomy weather stuck around into the afternoon of Christmas Day, but we decided to try a bit of local sightseeing. Our cottage was situated directly on a tour route with many lookouts and famous sites – like the Three Sisters. The first stop we made was at the Cliff View lookout, so we were, understandably, excited for some cliff views. Not so much.

Next, we drove down to Echo Point to see the Three Sisters. But we could barely see the parking lot. We didn’t even bother stopping. Instead, we headed back to the cottage for an afternoon beside the fire!

Fortunately, the next day, the weather cooperated and we managed to do several hours of touring and exploring within Katoomba and beyond. First we revisited the Cliff View lookout and saw many lovely cliffs. We also ran into some bush firefighters on patrol, and they told us a cool story about the Dog Face rock. Then we took a peek at the Three Sisters, along with several bus loads of tourists.

That afternoon, we drove further west to check out the Blackheath area and beyond, seeing many more cliffs and some fire-ravaged hillsides. Most memorable, we took a tour off the beaten path to visit “One Tree Hill” – the highest point of the area, and we were looking forward to a view from the top. Well, it turned out to be a water tower and some scraggly trees, without any view at all! We also checked out an area that had suffered from wild fires in November – the burned trees and colours looked almost like Autumn. Only, you know, burned up.

On our last day, we packed up and shipped out, stopping at two more lookouts on the way. At the last site, we spent nearly an hour watching the morning mist burn off as the sun heated up the valley below. It was magical.

At the end of the road, we passed back down the mountain and into Sydney for a week of sightseeing.

Sri Lanka part 3 – the hills

Our last two stops on the trip were to Ella and Kandy before returning to Colombo and home.

Ella is a beautiful little village in the high tea mountains. We stayed at a boutique hotel which had a single-family bungalow perched on the edge of a cliff overlooking “Ella Rock.” We arrived in the early evening when the fog had rolled in, so we weren’t sure at first whether or not the location was very good. But then suddenly the mist rolled away and we saw a beautiful view across the mountains and valleys. It turned out to be another perfect few days.

In the morning, we visited a heritage tea factory and saw how the leaves went from green to tea. They didn’t allow us to take any photos, and although B snapped a few illicitly, they didn’t turn out. Suffice it to say that making tea is a rather labour-intensive process. And honestly, the tea we drank in Sri Lanka was the best I’ve ever had in my life. Also, we drank so much of it so often that I felt like I was living with my mom again. We bought a few boxes to bring home with us, so if you are lucky you might get to try some.

We enjoyed the rest of the day wandering down the (very small) street of Ella village and stopping for some lunch and snacks. That night, we played cards on the balcony and watched the full moon rise and light up the mountains.

The next day, we said goodbye to Ella and hopped on a train to Kandy. The views of the countryside were astounding. In fact, it got to the point where we just had to literally stop taking photos because it was so exhausting. It was a long trip, but we enjoyed it. The windows opened and we could watch everything passing by. The train only travelled at about 15 km/h, so it was easy to see it all.

We arrived in Kandy around dinnertime and made it to our hotel. Luckily we had booked into a very new, higher-end place with western-style amenities. We were all ready for a warm shower and a night of TV watching. So we ordered some room service sandwiches and hunkered down.

In the morning, we headed into the city to wander around. We walked through markets and temples, and it was Easter Sunday that day, so there were a lot of festivities happening. I guess even Buddhists like Easter. Well, there were a lot of churches too. Anyway, we bought some snacks and checked out some stores. We unsuccessfully tried to find a cool colonial graveyard I had read about, but the day was still fun. We spent the afternoon back at the hotel enjoying the pool.

The next day, we checked out early and backpacked our things back through the city (our train didn’t leave until the evening). At last, we managed to find the graveyard we were looking for, as well as a great batik store that is highly rated. After a picnic lunch beside the lake, we headed to the Botanical Gardens for the afternoon. The gardens were large and lovely. We saw flowers, ferns, cactuses, trees, lakes. At one point, J fell and hurt her hand, so we stopped to bandage her up and grab a snack. A herd of monkeys came through and started aggressively circling us. They were getting between me and my cubs, so I sort of yelled and stomped at them and almost started a human-monkey turf war. We GTFO of there right away, luckily no harm done!

We carted a pair of tired kiddos to the train, and after a couple of hours on the train to Colombo, we flew home early in the morning back to real life.

We’ll miss you, Sri Lanka!

End travels

We’re home!

We had a fantastic time. Look forward to an extravaganza of pictures in the coming weeks (because I’m too exhausted to load many tonight!).

Some of the highlights of our trip include: a perfect day on a deserted beach, off-roading in the jungle, visiting an elephant orphanage, beautiful evenings in the mountains, a heritage tea factory tour, releasing baby sea turtles into the ocean, taking the train through tea country, being chased by an angry elephant, a colonial graveyard, and about a hundred tuktuk rides.

Bentota market, every Monday
Bentota market, every Monday
A beach all to ourselves, with man-sized waves. B was pleased.
A beach all to ourselves, with man-sized waves. B was pleased.
Go baby, go!
Go baby, go!
Our trusty 4x4 - we spent 3 days in this sucker.
Our trusty 4×4 – we spent 3 days in this sucker.
Mama elephant
Mama elephant
Welcome to Ella - the view from our bungalow
Welcome to Ella – the view from our bungalow
Plowing rice paddies the traditional way
Plowing rice paddies the traditional way
Train ride through the mountains
Train ride through the mountains
Passing through the tea highlands
Passing through the tea highlands
Goodbye Kandy!
Goodbye Kandy!

Retreat in tea country

While many of you were filling up on turkey and pumpkin pie, I was spending a few days on a work retreat. Our group hasn’t done this very often (so I’m told), and it was a nice way to wind down the annual meeting.

We drove up the mountains from Bogor, into an area called Puncak, where there are many tea plantations and the air is cooler. We spent the night in a resort hotel that caters to large groups and corporate sessions. Basically, it was a chance for my team and our division to brainstorm about what is working well, what’s not, and what will be our priorities for the coming months. It was perfect timing for me personally, since it really helped me get to know my colleagues and employees, and invest in the start of our relationships.

The resort ran a number of team-building sessions which were actually quite fun, despite being mostly in Bahasa. We ended the day today with a hilarious game of “dress the cowboy”, where your team takes turns gathering clothes for your cowboy (another team member). The previous day, we played a bunch of observation games and outdoor activities. Then we sang the night away in the karaoke bar. I don’t have pictures of the fun stuff, and I probably wouldn’t have posted them even if I did, but here are a few shots of the drive and the hotel grounds (from the moving car – sorry!):

Unfortunately, I was on the other side of the car from this view, so I had to get someone else to keep taking pictures.
You can start to see the farmed fields of tea bushes. And the picturesque cell towers.
It was a bit hazy, but I managed to finally get a good shot of some of the local mountains. We’re headed into the Puncak pass now.
The nice thing about being management is the fact that you get a room to yourself! By the way, that bed was about 3 metres wide… I slept diagonally because it felt so silly to be crammed to one side. And the other side was feeling left out.
I always like to judge a hotel by the quality of its bathrooms. This one was reasonably good. At least the hot water was plentiful.
This was the patio connected to my room
A fountain in the hotel courtyard
This is where we had lunch – that’s the pond at the top of a little waterfall.
There’s a reason why all the rooms and restaurants were named with “bamboo” in the title
Some of the friends I’ve made.
Heading home. Another perk of management: I got to ride in the director’s car instead of the group bus. This was a lucky shot of the beautiful mist gathering before an afternoon storm.
Around the other side of the mountain

So now I’m home safe and sound, with two days’ of work and emails to do tonight. So I’m posting on here instead. I’m going to leave you with a little peek into the true horror of surprise banana – caught on camera for the first time!

Mmmm… a delicious pastry with chocolate on top. What could go wrong with that? Looks perfect.
Wait, something’s not right… Damnit, surprise banana!!