In the last 10 years, travel within Europe has become so much easier because of the Schengen Treaty. It's the reason you no longer need to pull out identification at many border crossings within Europe. It's also the reason you feel like a leper when you fly to the UK from continental Europe: after clearing security, you must go through passport control and then you are quarantined in a separate glass bubble. At least, that's the deal at the smaller airports which do not deal with a lot of out-of-Schengen flights. At the hub airports like Frankfurt, you hardly notice the post-security passport barrier because there are so many flights going to points unknown. There you notice the *third* hurdle, the flying to the U.S. additional security. Once, back in January, I was flying (literally and figuratively) through Frankfurt, and as I was sprinting to get my next plane, I was subject to the U.S.-style security because the airport was in hyper-secure mode. If the flight I was connecting to hadn't been late, I would have missed it. Another time, in Stuttgart on my way to the U.K.-bound bubble, I made a cranky comment that you'd think the U.K. wasn't part of the E.U., at which point the very serious-looking man from the Bundesgrenzschutz (how's that for a German word, eh... one word, made up of words for federal, border and protection, in that order) made a snarky remark about the U.K.'s opinion of itself...
But leaving airport sprinting, snarky officials and similar drama aside, the best thing about Schengen? See that picture? Of the apple strudel and the ice cream? That was taken in Sulzberg, Austria, after a day of hiking on the German side of the border. With no more border controls, it is entirely feasible to just pop over to another country for really good apple strudel. And that's what international treaties come down to for me: the ability to eat apple strudel in Austria without any hassles.
Eating is something I've done plenty of this past week. See, when I am in Wangen, two particularly dangerous for moderation factors combine: all the things that I love and cannot regularly eat here (like the special mountain cheeses, Rita's potato salad, Leberkäs, the plethora of "little bread", chanterelle mushrooms and and and...) are available, and then there are celebrations of all sorts where the tables groan with all of this. And I will happily park myself in the middle of it and eat it all, and then I will complain about being too full.
Seriously, I can write a blog entry that is supposed to be about a hike in the Allgäu, and ends up being all about food. But then, the hike sort of was all about food. Let me back up and tell you all about it, ok?
On Friday morning, I was eating breakfast (bread! cheese! chanterelles, fried in butter!) with a lovely aunt when the door buzzer went. Christel looked at me, looked at the clock, and went to answer to the intercom. Walter and Anka announced themselves, and Christel - about as ready to start the day as I was, as in, neither one of us showered, though Christel *had* gone for a nordic walking tour while I puttered around in my pajamas - asked me if *I* remembered making plans. Nope, but within about two minutes, Walter and Anka were enthusiastically talking of stomping through the hills, something about conquering Hoher Häderich (which Christel noted was considered difficult) and did we want to come. And we did, as did another aunt, Mary, who chose that day to break in new boots (an idea I thought nuts, but she managed to do it blister-free).
So, to Oberstaufen we went, to catch the bus (the roads up in the higher parts of the Allgäu are gated - you have to have special permission, meaning live there, work there, or be renting a room there - to drive on them. For the rest of us, it's the bus. This makes perfect sense - the roads are tiny and narrow and there is noplace to park except at the Alp dwellings). And we missed the bus. But that was ok with me, because it's only a half hour walk from Steibis to the top of the Imbergkamm.
The Imbergkamm is not that high, as far as the northern limestone alps go. At 4281 feet, it doesn't have any alpine - but it's a nice ridge hike. And that's what we did. Well, ok, first we stopped at the inn at the top for some snacks... But then, then we started hiking along the ridge. We chose a very gentle route, one that would keep us just south of the crest for most of the way. When we were almost at the Austrian border, we turned sharply south and crossed a peaty area to start ascending toward the next ridge, which contains the mountains I love the best because I can identify them on the horizon, they are the scenic backdrop to Wangen - the Hochgrat, the Rindalphorn, the Selekopf, the Falken. Collectively, they're called the Hochgratgruppe (because the Hochgrat, at just over 6000 feet, is its biggest mountain - and it has alpine). Years ago, I did a ridge hike starting at the Falken and coming down at east of the Hochgrat, but that was a long summer's day with some very fit cousins... not this day. After crossing our bog, we stopped at another inn for lunch! And then, we were next to the bus stop.
That's one of the cool things about the Allgäuer Alps (which are the largest mountain group in the northern limestone Alps, and whose really tall mountains - the 8000 footers - are all in the Austrian part), there are roads to the isolated Alps. Even though you're not actually allowed to *drive* on the roads, their being gated makes sense because otherwise this whole area would be clogged with cars full of people doing the oooooh look thing, but during the snow-free season. But the bus - the same one that we missed on the way there - runs from Steibis to the base of the Hochhäderich. Our lunch stop was near the end of the bus line.And after lunch, we realized that we'd just missed the bus *again*, and there wouldn't be another one for an hour, so I agitated that we continue to hike to the end of the bus line. And we did. And we even resisted the temptation to eat some more when we got there (truth be told, we were still too full from our lunch. After all, we even ate cake!)
But our temptation- resisting only went so far: when we got back to the car, Christel started telling us of this terrace in Sulzberg with a fantastic view and the world's best apple strudel. And, though Sulzberg is in Austria, thanks to Schengen, that's exactly what we did. A most satisfying end to the day (and a good last day in the country).
I've been back in Ontario since the weekend, and the general Novemberness of it is depressing me. I know it's still October, but it feels very much like November: overcast skies, piles of decaying leaves, rain, cold, and gloomy. Much as I love living in a place with defined seasons, I dislike this time of year. It is worse, even, then the March-April mud season, because then at least the days are getting longer and the sun shines more frequently. There hasn't been a sunny day - or part of a day, even - this week.
It's been two weeks since I left Toronto for Germany, and since then I've had little time or inclination to write a blog entry. I've done some rather standard tourist things, like look at big churches and drink beers in overpriced tourist-oriented beer gardens. This is not interesting, I don't think. I've also had a whole host of wonderful experiences, many of whom involve people from all sorts of places other than Germany, and made wonderful new friends and been exposed to exciting ideas. It hasn't been boring.
So, I shall sum up a whole week in Bonn with only one anecdote. We - our group of people from all over the world - were staying in a youth hostel, in the Bonn suburb Venusberg. Venusberg is lovely and all, full of stately houses on a wooded hill. However, it is not exactly a convenient place if you are interested in things other than sitting in quiet gardens drinking tea, and thus we were rather fixated on the bus schedule. There is one bus, the 621, that goes directly past the youth hostel and downtown. On weekends, it runs twice an hour, except after a certain hour of the night, when it runs only once per hour. The last bus leaves downtown at 12:30. The doors of the youth hostel are locked at 1:00. Not exactly a delightful situation for people who are used to being in control of their own transportation, with apartments and houses of their own...
But, take the bus we must. So we did. A whole lot of us, to go to Bonn on Saturday night. Three of us split off from the larger group, seeking a quiet patio with beer and conversation. We ran into a large group of the others at the bus station, waiting for the 10:30 bus. The 10:30 bus never came - instead, an official-looking but rather belligerent sounding man stood where the bus should have been, and announced - in rather rapid German - that the 10:30 bus would not be appearing due to lack of personnel. We could wait for the 11:30, or we could take the 630, which runs "almost the same route". Note that we had neither route map, nor time to consult - the 630 was revving its engines. Of our group, I alone had access to this information, since I alone spoke German.
Impusively, I hopped onto the 630 - as did a good dozen others, since speaking German = knowing where one is going, presumably. The 630? Does not go anywhere near the youth hostel. It skirts the base of the Venusberg, before veering off into parts unknown. Rodolfo had a tourist map of Bonn, and we were studying it when we realized that the direction of the bus was about to go horribly wrong for us. A quick consultation with a local revealed that we had best get off *now* unless we wanted to be well south-east of our goal. So we did. En masse.
Now, we are in a quiet suburb, but not our quiet suburb, with a tourist map, one German speaking person, a good dozen non-German speakers, a handful of cell phones, and a compass (though I did not at that point know about the compass). I commandeered the map, and started navigating. Very soon, we had a choice: cut across the woods, which are criss-crossed by walking paths, or follow a busy road around and up. Andrei pointed out that it would be difficult to find our way through dark woods. Amir argued that the woods would be more of an adventure. The map said the distance was about the same. I, true to my nature, chose the "adventure" option, and merrily skipped off into the woods. The skipping, however, had to be abandoned rather quickly: it was a dark night, what starlight there might have been was blocked by the leafy canopy, and I needed to cautiously feel the path with my feet to see if I was even *on* the path. Consulting the map was no longer possible.
Amir immediately pulled out his cell phone, and lit the way with his LCD display. Several others did the same. On a very dark night, having a 2m radius weakly illuminated is much better than feeling one's way by the touch of feet. With some inner trepidation and outward bravado, I led the way deeper into the woods. My logic was, if we keep going up, we will get there. I didn't have access to any other decision support tools at the moment - Amir's GPS was out of batteries, and I did not know there was a compass. So we stumbled along, amidst cries of slow down from the rear of the pack. And eventually, I saw a street light in the distance, and my recollection of the map was that if the streetlight was due south of us, we would have found the way. I was not so sure we had found the way, and, when asked if we were in the right spot, said "how would I know when you forgot the compass?" to the enquirer. Only then did I discover that someone had a compass all along, that we were headed south - and that, consequently, we had guessed right. I was proud.
It wasn't until the next day, when Andrei, Eliezer, Rodolfo and I decided to walk the same paths in reverse that I realized just how much guesswork there had been, and how lucky we were. The woods are a veritable maze of paths, and in broad daylight we were stumped as to which route to follow several times. How we made our way through in the dark I'll never know. By the light of the cell phones, we found our way somehow.
And that was Bonn. It was a surprisingly fun city, but that could be more connected to the fun people I spent time with than the city itself. I will say, however, that in my mind it had been a rather dull government sort of town - and in reality, it was a lively, English-speaker friendly city with beautiful cafes and interesting restaurants. I liked it very much. And while there was not much time for touristing, I did some things that are likely on every tourist's list: I hopped on a train to go to Cologne and look at the vast Dom, the church you may be familiar with from beer coasters (and these I had plenty of opportunity to see, having consumed some quantities of Kölsch). I went to Beethoven Haus, and looked at Beethoven's hearing aids and listened to a simulation of what his own music must have sounded like to Beethoven at various stages of his hearing loss. I went on a boat cruise on the Rhine.
And that was as much of the week as I care to write about. After that, there was Saarbrücken with HP, and then there was a train ride to Wangen, and now Freiburg, and then there will be some more trains and back to Wangen and then back on a plane and home. But no real adventures to report on. I think it's time for an adventure, though. And, due in large part to the very cool new people I met, my list of places I want to go has become longer yet again.
Late in July, I announced to May that she was fun and I was going to stalk her. May didn't waste a lot of time making up excuses: she simply informed me that she was moving far away and thus stalking would be difficult. Clearly, "far" is relative, since I think Deep River is close enough to go to for a fun weekend - and I was undeterred. I informed her that I would show up in late September and expected fall colours, good weather, and for her to cook me dinner. If you don't ask, you don't get...
I got. I got everything I wanted: absolutely perfect weather (daytime temperature in the low 20s with clear skies, fall colours at their absolute peak, and a host who not only didn't have the heart to tell me to make my own damn dinner - no, she even made sure there was beer there even though *she* does not drink. And she made up a bed with a fluffy comforter, and organized a canoe, and piled some maps on the kitchen counter.
We'd both heard so much about the Barron Canyon in Algonquin Park, and we'd both been there on foot at other times and agreed that we needed to canoe it. So, on Saturday morning, we strapped the canoe on the car and went. We weren't doing the "loop", just the easy daytrip which has you putting in at Squirrel Rapids and canoeing upstream through the canyon and back down (actually, the suggested daytrip requires a car shuttle and doing this in only one direction, but I deemed two cars and a 7 km route rather ridiculous - we could easily do 14 km in a day, after all, and use only one car - and pay only one vehicle permit. This is park-rules-land, after all.)
The route really is ridiculously easy - only one portage, and it is short and fairly easy footing (says the girl who carried paddles and a daypack - May *insisted* on being the one to carry the canoe all weekend. I did not argue much, if she needs to prove that she's tougher than me, I'll happily carry the paddles and act girly. Because who wants to carry the canoe? Not me! But I will, if need be...)
It was pretty. We saw two enormously large groups of high school students, and many daytrippers. On our way upstream, we drifted for a few minutes before we could get into the portage. The Canyon itself was nice, though shorter than I'd imagined it when I saw it from the observation platform years ago. We ended up in a rocky bit upstream, having missed the next portage (we were too busy giggling over something, I'm sure - there was much giggling). I thought I was brilliant because I took off my boots and socks and tried walking in the river - but my bare feet did not agree. I quickly changed from giggling to whining. May was much tougher than I was, but even she got bored with lining the boat up a river that was kind of pointless because there was nothing *past* the portage except more and more river. We sensibly abandoned the plan and started looking for a lunch spot - which we found, on some massive blocky stuff at the upstream end of the canyon. There we sat and returned to giggling, and were joined by a little chipmunk. We watched group after group pass by. It was, after all, Algonquin Park, and it was the peak of fall colours, and this is a much-hyped route (though I feel the need to add: this is not a route I'd recommend for fall colours. There aren't really any in Barron Canyon, because there aren't that many deciduous trees and no sugar maples from the look of it).
The trip back was uneventful, save for 15 minutes of moose cow observation - she refused to show herself well enough for a picture, so we finally dismissed her with a sulky "cow!" and took off. Besides, we remembered that we needed to go to the grocery store before it closed, so we could eat more! And that we did...
On Sunday morning, I sat at the breakfast table and commented that I'd thought Barron Canyon was maybe a bit overrated - May agreed and, clever woman that she is, charged me with the task of finding the day's activity. I booted up my computer, and found this website. Since we hadn't taken the canoe off the car the night before, I clicked on the canoe tab - but then discovered the waterfalls section, and combined the two to decide on Grants Creek. Before 9 a.m. we were on the road with the directions.
Grants Creek was so totally worth it. We started off in a lazy meandering marshy river, and had to cross two beaver dams (at full ram speed!) in the first few hundred meters. I expressed doubts that there would be much of a waterfall of note on something so slow and lazy, but then we found the first set of rapids, coming dwon from Logslide Lake. The looked rather impressive for rapids - I would have designated them as a waterfall. May hauled the canoe to the end of the portage, and off we skipped into the undergrowth to check out the full length of the cascades. We were pretty impressed, and even speculated that we had somehow missed the rapids and this was the waterfall.
But then, we looked across Logslide Lake, and saw the waterall. And as soon as we got a few meters away from shore, the roar of the waterfall was louder than that of the rapids. We went to the base of it and ooohed and aaaahed and realized there was much more to the waterfall than you could see from the lake - so May tackled the steep and rocky portage and dumped the canoe at the top - and then we scrambled down the full length of the falls on the wet rocks. It was great fun, and these falls would be even more spectacular during spring runoff: at this time of year, there were dozens of little cascades in the woods beside the main falls, and the falls themselves sent up some impressive spray. With more water, the whole thing would be an impressive roar.
Not content with these discoveries - and with the canoe already on Stewart Lake - we canoed to the next set of rapids. We went a bit further than the portage-builders would recommend, apparently, because where we landed was definitely not the portage. Unwilling to backtrack, we bushwhacked with the canoe. At one point, May was making her way up a fallen tree to scale a small cliff with the canoe balanced on her back. I tried to help her, but she shooed me away - she wanted me to take pictures, not help! After I captured her glory, she consented to taking the canoe off her back and letting me help her haul it up - but that was so much work that I suggested we park the boat and scout the actual portage. This we did, and we found it, and we walked it to the end to see Grants Creek Marsh. After all the waterfalling, waterstagnating didn't do much for us: it didn't look like the marsh was even all that navigable in these water levels, and we were lukewarm on the prospect. We were even more lukewarm on hauling the canoe up that way. So we abandoned the project and returned to Stewart Lake for lunch. During which time there was much giggling, and then - with the long distance stalker who had to make her way home in mind - we returned to the car and the weekend was over. I'm working on my next assault on Deep River already...