Sunday, January 15, 2012

La Plagne: those dreaded diamonds

[It's been a busy time. After hosting a great crowd at Christmas, we made our way to Edinburgh for New Year's celebrations. (You should check out Jodi's post on the trip too!) We pick up my journal mere days later, in the French Alps.]

January 8, 2012: 4:20 p.m.

Just woke up from a most luxurious nap. We had our first time on the slopes this morning.

It was like skiing for the first time.

Yes, I've skied in Canada. But this scenery must be unrivalled the world over. The way you'd see these incredible peaks around you, and then the sun would break through the clouds, putting far, distant peaks in glorious relief, was, well, simply stunning. I just found myself holding up, having these moments of feeling ever so small on such a truly awesome planet.

Of course, I'd be stretching artistic licence to breaking and beyond if I didn't say that utter exhaustion held me up just as many times, particularly as the morning progressed. And while I certainly didn't have my Wheaties this morning, it's my conditioning (or lack thereof) that's landed me in this pickle, I'm fairly certain.

Before leaving, I was chatting with a friend who's a big skier, and amongst his excitement and envy, he asked:
So, you've been doing a lot of squats and whatnot, getting ready? When did you say you're going again?
Uh, Mike, I'm leaving tomorrow. And, nope. Nothing.
(With the utmost sympathy and lament) Oh, JJ.

My quads aren't feeling it just yet, Mike, but I know I don't have long; oh, no. (And I did pack lots of Ibuprofen, as you advised, a la Plan B.)

This UCPA... community, for lack of a better term, is fantastic! (I was going to say 'resort' because it goes with 'ski' like peas 'n' carrots, but that's the last word you'd use to describe this.) The communal eating -- including clearing away your place afterwards, loading the dishwasher rack, etc. -- communal places to socialize, store your ski equipment, play video games, the list goes on, is truly wonderful. Everyone is so friendly, helpful, and patient with our limited French. My rental equipment, while clearly well used, is in good condition, and, thanks to their well-oiled machine, took no time to procure and fits me perfectly.

I should probably hold up here and point out something I mentioned to Tea earlier: while these facilities are certainly clean and functional -- I would definitely recommend this place to friends -- I am aware that they probably don't warrant so much gushing. Clearly I have some sort of deep-seated need to belong that this place is filling admirably. (For context, I did no extracurricular activities in school, be they band, sports of any sort, clubs, etc. Probably a lesson in that.)

Oh, I haven't mentioned the food: French and fantastic! Simple, delicious stuff, done so well -- for so many! The bread is great, of course, but also the ratatouille and gammon I had for lunch, for example. And the cold stuff is great too: I had this delicious goat's cheese at lunch as well, and an excellent bow-tie pasta salad with smoked salmon throughout; it's those little touches that impress me. There aren't enough hot drinks, though; that'd probably be my one, minor complaint. (See! I'm objective!)

The drive up yesterday was gorgeous. We flew to Geneva and met up with Tea's friends, then took a bus to Aime, France. It went past Lake Annecy, which was spectacular, and reminiscent of our trip to Lake Como last summer. Similarly, the second bus we took up to La Plagne could've been driving through Mittenwald or Innsbruck -- with more snow than that German and Austrian odyssey of 2010, mind. [Speaking of Innsbruck, La Plagne hosted Olympic events as well, in 1992.]

So many good memories. I'm so... blessed, really, to have had all these opportunities. I dreamed about going so often, and yet Europe is all that I imagined and more, as it turns out.

Ski lessons start tomorrow. Wish me luck!

* * *

January 10, 2012: 4:40 p.m.

Man, I'm pooped! There's nothing quite like exhaustion after exercise, particularly when you can reflect on the sorts of vistas I've taken in these past two days. You know that backdrop to the Paramount Pictures logo? It's real, and probably near here, if I'm not smack in the middle of it, with Mont Blanc there, out my window. [Yes, I now know that that's actually the Wasatch Range, and part of the Rockies. Sort of obvious, really, but I stand by the resemblance.]

Thankfully my performance on the slopes is now well above that disaster of a first day. I'm putting that down to my terrible diet on the travel day. I've been stuffing myself three times a day -- plus snacks -- since, and it seems to be doing the trick.

I know I've been saying this a lot over the past year, but I truly believe this is one of the best ways to spend a week. Those moments on that first day have continued, with my jaw dropping at the surrounding scene: snow-covered mountains as far as I can see -- which is pretty darn far with these clear blue skies; most unmarked, or sprinkled with animal tracks, like great ridges and mounds of meringue. (Others are covered in these hypnotic patterns cut by the off-piste skiers.) We're talking about trying to return regularly once we're back in Canada. We'll see.

Well, gotta grab a shower. Can't believe it's only hump day tomorrow; we've done so much already!

* * *

January 11, 2012: late

Wow, long day: we were out by half nine this morning, went straight 'til half one, then had a 90-minute lesson starting just after three. What an amazing day! Just gorgeous weather again. [We later learned that this season is their best in 20 years(!), and that it'd been snowing for a month straight prior to our arrival. All 134 runs were open most of the week! Talk about timing.] Our bodies seem to be holding up as well, I'm happy to say.

We started at La Grande Rochette this morning, the gateway to the other side of the mountain we've played on these last three days. From the plateau at the gondola drop-off, the blue run quickly fell away along a narrow course; a bit of a tough proposition, first thing out. I could hear our instructor Yann's "Courage!" (coo-RAJ) as I went over the lip. The course then continued in curves around small peaks, still narrow. At each turn, I'd drift, like some human rally car; it was awesome! I was shaking from the adrenaline at our first stop, sucking down wind and laughing alternately.

Liv and Tea walking to the Grotte (3250 m)

[So ends my notes. Between naps and Hearts -- that's the subtitle pun, by the way: we had the Queen of Spades go out on the 4♦ three times in one evening's session alone -- there was little time off-slopes for writing. But what a trip! Two more days of great skiing, then the bus, a quick flight back to Brum, and a short drive home.]

Check out our Picasa album for more pictures from the week.

Monday, January 2, 2012

Edinburgh: can you say Hogmanay?

December 29, 2011

The bar at the Dome
The day started brisk, but nothing like our arrival by train last evening. ("B'ys, she was blowin' a gale," I'm sure Granddad would've said.) We went out with a childhood friend of Tea's who happened to be in Edinburgh at the time, and the words were torn from our mouths on more than one occasion. (My favourite moment of the evening was when Tea and Anna reminisced about seeing the Eurythmics when they were 10.) I'll take these blustery showers, particularly kitted out as we are with base layers and rain trousers.

Silly sods that we are, we wondered how we'd breakfast after our nice, long lie-in. Look no further than the Christmas market one street over from our hotel, on Princes Street. (Tea's like a bloodhound when it comes to them, I'm sure you've realized by now, dear reader.) Before long we were sated on ridiculously chunky seafood broth, toasties made with Isle of Mull cheddar, mulled wine and mead. (I feel that sentence needs a "Huzzah!")

Did someone say toasties? NOM.

Outside BrewDog Edinburgh
From there, it was on to our first BrewDog pub, ever! I know you're probably shaking your head in wonder, given how I go on and on about them, but they've only been around since 2007, and, based in Fraserburgh, Scotland, their pubs are understandably out of the reach of all but the thirstiest of Gloucestershire folk. We sampled half pints of their Christmas Porter and Scotch Ale, and both were excellent: the former was nicely spiced -- you could really taste the chillies -- and the latter had some nice toffee undertones.

In front of Edinburgh Castle
After a wander, taking pictures of the castle in the dying light -- barely gone 4 p.m., mind! -- we made our way down Grassmarket to a Chinese restaurant Tea had wanted to try for ages: Chop Chop. It wouldn't open for another hour, so we killed some time in the nearby Thomson's Bar (found with Tea's handy CAMRA app.). This one-room pub managed some real character, its walls lined with history. I was telling Tea that the various McEwan's, Younger, etc. beer ads, for sweet stout and other wonders of another time, were all chronicled in the Pete Brown book I'd started on the train ride up. (Tea's pint of Fyne Ales' Piper’s Gold was nice, but couldn't compete with my pint of the lovely Hophead by Dark Star that I'd first tried a few months ago in that absolute star of a pub, Cask.)

M'm, dumplings
Chop Chop immediately struck both of us as utterly professional. With no reservation, we worried that we might not get a table; and with good reason. Still, they squeezed us in a 90-minute slot, serving us efficiently, without rushing us. And the food was out of this world; it certainly opened my eyes to the possibilities in Chinese cuisine: pork and coriander dumplings; tasty, tangy cucumber salad; aubergine salad with lemongrass, garlic and other awesomeness I couldn't hope to identify; garlic lamb with cumin. Just amazing. And because we'd ordered the "Banquet for two," we could order more of any of those dishes at no extra charge (which we did, of course).

* * *

December 30, 2011

Arthur's Seat (to the left) at dawn
We got up early (for us) to have plenty of time to catch our tour bus at the Royal Mile at 9 a.m. Our destination: the Scottish Highlands. Tea had picked Rabbie's at random the night before, and in short order it was clear she'd hit the jackpot: Euan, both our driver and guide, was enthusiastic, engaging, funny and knowledgeable. Plus, he kept us to a schedule without being overbearing, invited questions throughout while keeping an eye on the road, and was perfectly calm in the proper snowstorm that threatened to ground us in Pitlochry.

Dunkeld Cathedral
Our route took us over the Firth (fjord) of Forth, past Fife and through Perth, to Dunkeld, notable for its proximity to Birnam (and the famous wood of the same name) and, despite a population of little more than 1000, its cathedral. After wandering the grounds of the latter and stopping for a quick bite to eat in the town itself, we hopped over to the Hermitage for a longer walk. While stunning, its beauty was marred by a recent hurricane. A local news story from mid-month explains:
After shutting down the Dunkeld woodland site, North Perthshire property manager Ben Notley explained: “The Hermitage took a battering with yesterday’s winds and unfortunately we have lost a lot of trees. Some of these are very large, root systems have been uprooted and the area is very unsafe... We hope to reopen in time for the Christmas holidays.”

Thank goodness they succeeded! Still, memories of touring Point Pleasant Park after Hurricane Juan followed me back to the bus.

Snow's arrived!
Next up was the Victorian spa town of Pitlochry. As we toured one of the town's two distilleries(!), Blair Athol -- whose single malt isn't sold beyond their shop, but makes up much of the Bell's blend -- however, the stormy weather caught us, cutting our route through the Highlands a bit short. Still, it made for a fun lunch stop: Tea's app. pegged the Moulin Inn and Brewery as our best bet, a mere two kilometres from the town's thoroughfare. What we failed to realize was that it was uphill, over a good layer of snow by that point. True to our heritage, we made it, scarfed down a delicious roast pork dinner, sampled all four of their brews(!) -- their light ale was the recommendation, and the best -- and made it back to the bus with minutes to spare. Tea even pushed out a stuck car on the way back! (Where was I, you say? U'm, well, I'd run ahead to flag down Euan, convinced we were late.)

At the Moulin Inn and Brewery
That roast pork was even tastier than it looks

Aside: the other distillery, Edradour, was a tantalizing few hundred metres beyond the inn. Ah, for more time. And I've never seen such a selection of their whisky as was behind that bar! Bottles of 'Straight from the Cask' I'd never heard of, tall bottles(!) -- I know them for their stubby bottles; there were easily a dozen varieties on display. I shall return!

Euan brought us back through Aberfeldy and Crieff as the snow gave way to rain. As we drove by Stirling Castle, the fog obscured all but a few lights at its base.

* * *

All the streets around the Royal Mile were closed in preparation for Hogmanay, but our cabbie managed to thread a route from our hotel to our apartment for the next few nights, near the foot of Arthur's Seat. Once there, we quickly dropped our bags and headed back in for the Torchlight Procession.

If you haven't heard of it, look it up! It - blew - my - mind.

The only other time I've been surrounded by that much open flame was at the candlelight service every Christmas Eve at Wesley United Church in St. John's when I was a kid -- where the colossal responsibility of tempering flame and wax barely left me breath to sing -- and these were flaming brands of wood, rope and wax longer than my forearm! The street was full of them! As far as the eye could see! And there was danger on the wind, for surely so much wood-smoke is no campfire, but a raging inferno, my brain would periodically pipe.

And as if that weren't enough, they closed it with fireworks right overhead, almost asking to be cupped in our upraised hands.

We truly were drunk on it. Back at the fair and Christmas market by the Scott Monument, we sang, can-can'd, and pole-danced, sanity be damned! Then, exhausted, we supped, and drank mulled whisky from a fish bowl. As Cassie would say, "Awww, yeah."

* * *

December 31, 2011

After the lie-in of champions, we seized the day, moving our New Year's Day walk up Arthur's Seat ahead. Our ambition knew no bounds as we tackled the steepest route, our breath ripped from our mouths by the gales, even as we needed it most. Still, we conquered, carefully celebrating amongst the jagged rocks and pooled water whilst being buffeted. The descent offered little respite, and while brown bums and scrapped hands surrounded us, we eventually emerged unscathed, largely thanks to the course struck by 'Billy Goat' Button.

[After a quick stop for groceries, it was time to prepare for the imminent celebrations...]

* * *

January 1, 2012


Last night was a blast! So much goodwill and bonhomie. And it was really well organized as well: lots of toilets, and plenty of police and staff to answer questions; you could tell they'd done this before. To feel so safe amongst 80000 people is truly a testament.

The fireworks display, mirrored at Holyrood Palace and the castle, blew my socks off! And while things dispersed shortly thereafter, our band of eight kept the party goin' a good while longer.

Good times!

Check out our Picasa album for more pictures from the trip.