11 July 2015

Erfurt

Erfurt is capital of, and largest city in Thuringen, Germany. Founded in the year 742, Erfurt grew because it was at the intersection of two major European trade routes. Erfurt lies along the Gera river. The town was named after the river, which was originally called the Erfluss. Despite being along a major river, the last time the city of Erfurt flooded was in the late 1800’s. 



Erfurt was successful during the Middle Ages, for example, at one point there were more than 580 breweries in town. In fact, with so many breweries, not all were allowed to brew daily. As a result, it could be hard to keep track of which brewery would have fresh beer, so all breweries had two circular holes above the door, which were filled with straw when fresh beer was available. Today, there are no large breweries remaining in Erfurt.



Erfurt was also successful in Middle Age trade. During the Middle Ages, the only point in the town where Kram could be sold was on the Krämerbrücke. While today, Kram is considered junk, back in the middle ages it was valuable. The Krämerbrücke, or bridge is a unique structure that still continues to foster trade in Erfurt. The bridge itself is the longest bridge in Europe to have buildings on both sides of the bridge. There are 64 buildings on the bridge, which is only 125m long and 46m wide. When one is on the bridge, one does not realize it is actually a bridge, as it just appears to be a street. However from below or beside the bridge, one can see the water flowing underneath. 





Erfurt was also known in the Middle Ages as a university town. During this time, all students were required to speak only in Latin. The part of town which housed these students is still known as the Latin Quarter. Originally one could study only 4 subjects at the university in Erfurt: Theology, Law, Medicine or Philosophy. Both Erfurt and Heidelberg claim to be home to the oldest German university. During the 1300’s, to officially open a university, permission from the Pope was required. At the point that Erfurt wished to open it’s university, there were two Popes. They were unsure which Pope to request permission from, so they requested from both. In 1379, the received permission from one, but to be sure, they waited on the second one. It arrived ten years later in 1389. During the interim, Heidelberg University opened. Martin Luther studied in Erfurt and completed his Masters degree. According to legend, Luther came to Erfurt because he promised God he would be a Monk if he survived a particularly harrowing thunderstorm. He studied in Erfurt between 1501 and 1505. 




Martin Luther called Erfurt the Rome of the North. During the Middle Ages, Erfurt was home to over 40 churches, today it is still home to 24. Two of these include the St. Mary’s Cathedral and the St. Severi’s church which are located 5 meters distance from each other. These two in particular kept trying to outshine each other. Today approximately 80% of the cathedral’s windows are original, dating back to the 1400’s. 



Erfurt was also home to a large Jewish community in the 1000’s. The old synagogue, which was built by the end of the 1000’s has gothic windows. During the 1300’s the Jews were run out of town and the synagogue was sold. When some returned later, they had to build a new one. During construction in the 1990’s, some treasures from the original Jewish community were found, including coins and a wedding band dating back to the 1300’s.

Overlooking the town of Erfurt is the Petersburg fort. This fortress was built to protect the city from unrest within. These issues stemmed from religion and the fact that most of Erfurt became Protestant after Martin Luther and his 95 Theses. 



Today the town of Erfurt is trying to make itself known as a child- and media friendly city. The German children’s channel, KIKA has it’s main office here. Walking throughout town, one encounters many life-sized models of childrens’ cartoon characters. 






Moray Firth Dolphins

There are many legends in Scotland that are unbelievable, such as that of the Loch Ness Monster, but some stories are absolutely true. You may find it hard to believe, but the largest population of bottle-nosed dolphins in Europe are found near Inverness, Scotland. 



The dolphins are said to come into the Moray Firth with the tide, but many locals will tell you that they can be seen at just about any time of the day. They are best viewed at the narrowest part of the Firth, Chanonry Point. 



It was my last day in Scotland, Frances and I only had a few morning hours before we had to catch our train back to Edinburgh. Thus we decided to go hunting for dolphins. (To shoot photos with our cameras - nothing more!). We took the local bus over to the town of Fortrose, about 30 minutes from Inverness. Once in Fortrose, we briskly walked about 30 minutes out of town to the Point.



We arrived at the point, on the rocky beach. Our luck with the weather had been holding and we’d experienced very little rain. It began to spit as we arrived, but that let up after a few minutes. The Firth, like most of the water I’d seen in the Inverness area, was a dark color due to high quantities of peat in the soil. We walked out on the rocky beach, taking care to avoid slipping on seaweed, and commenced watching for dolphins. After about 10 minutes, I saw a head poke out of the water. I had not imagined this, Frances saw it as well. However neither of us could confirm what animal it was. In addition to dolphins, many seals are in the area. 




We watched this creature move across the water until it got close enough to identify. While we never saw more than just it’s nose and eyes, it was definitely a seal. Unfortunately our time at the point was short, and we had to return to Inverness for our train. We didn’t see any dolphins, but the point was well worth the visit. 

Hunting Nessie

Loch Ness, mysterious, dark waters, hiding a monster or an overhyped lake in the Scottish Highlands? Perhaps a bit of both.



Loch Ness is a huge loch {Side note: Don’t call it a lake, you will offend the locals!} just outside of Inverness. The loch is full of cold, dark water. The water is dark because of the peat in the soil and the water temperature never rises above 7 degrees C. While the loch varies in depth, at it’s deepest, 66 double-decker busses could be stacked, nose to nose and only then would one reach from the bottom to the top of the loch. It’s deep. Legend has it that Nessie, the Loch Ness Monster lives in the lake.




Frances and I headed out to see if we could catch a glimpse of Nessie, or just see the loch in all it’s beauty. We certainly succeeded at the latter. To get to Loch Ness we took the Jacobite Temptation tour. Our tour began with a bus ride to the ferry. During the 35 minute ride, our tour guide, Sue, told us history of the town, river and loch. Then we had a 30 minute ferry ride across the loch. Earlier in the day it had been rainy, but during the ferry ride the rain mostly held off, although it did spit on us some. Clouds hung low in the sky, the water looked dark and foreboding; it was eerily beautiful. 



Our ferry docked at Urquhart Castle and we got off to explore. The current ruins of the castle date back to the 1500’s, but history shows that there has been some sort of a fortress at this site since the 300’s. We had nearly an hour to explore the ruins and appreciate the beauty of the stones against the water. 






After an hour, we boarded our bus back to town. On the way back, we were able to spot the shaggy highland cows that the locals call Heighlen Kuhe.

In the end we didn’t see Nessie, of course that means I’ll need to return and try again!

Inverness

After a three week seminar in Leipzig, I headed across the North Sea up to Scotland. I was joined by my friend Frances in Edinburgh and we headed further north to Inverness. 




Inverness, best known for Loch Ness and the Loch Ness Monster, Nessie, is a small city (it’s official - they’ve reached city status with 58,000 inhabitants!) with lots of offer. Flowing through the city is the River Ness. In fact, Inverness’ name comes from old Gaelic, meaning at the mouth of the river Ness.




Inverness is a very walkable city and walk we did. Our first full day we set out to explore. We headed first down the river away from the city center to the Ness Island. This island in the middle of the river is accessible from both sides by bridges. The island is lined with walking trails, fairy lights and full of natural beauty. A bit of rain didn’t keep us from enjoying the island.



Speaking of bridges, Inverness has a number of them criss crossing the river. The most favorite bridge is the bouncy bridge. While it has an official name, it’s locally known as the bouncy bridge. As our Loch Ness tour guide would later tell us, this bridge allows one to feel the effects of whiskey for free! It’s fun to walk across. Luckily for us, it was the bridge we had to take to reach our B&B.



Inverness has a castle on a hill overlooking the river. In order to enter the castle, one must be quite naughty and sent to trial. Today it is a working courthouse. We were not naughty enough to enter and thus only spent time walking the grounds.



Inverness is truly a 9 - 5 town. After 5pm most establishments close and the town seems vacant. However the truth is that nearly all of the 58,000 people have packed themselves into Hootenannys Pub. (Okay perhaps that number is exaggerated, but it is quite packed!). Known for it’s live Scottish music, it is the place to be. In the center of the pub is a large oval table, reserved for any musicians who wish to play. The only caveat is that they must play traditional Scottish music. Our first night there, we heard a guitarist and a violinist. The second night included an accordian player, flutist and guitarist. The atmosphere was great as was my shandy! 

05 April 2015

The ABCs of Salkantay

A: Alpaca Expeditions

This was the amazing tour company with which I booked my trek. They took care of us and                   made sure we had an amazing experience.

 



B: Boots

For a trek like Salkantay, my boots were my lifeline. Mine were made  by Keen and well broken in. They were waterproof and comfortable. I bought some moldable arch supports to make them even more  efficient for me.

 

C: Coca

Served as tea or just chewing the leaves, the Coca helped with  acclimation to the altitude. The flavor was a lot like green tea and we  were awoken every morning with a steaming, hot, sweet glass to get  our day going.

 

D: Diamox

Worried about altitude sickness, I went to my travel doctor before the  trip and he prescribed me Diamox to help combat the symptoms. It  worked wonderfully and the altitude caused me very few problems  throughout the trip.

 

E: Elevation

Our Salkantay trek ranged in elevation from 5,971 feet (1,820 meters)  to 15,157 feet (4,620 meters).

 



F: Five / Four

The Salkantay trek lasted for five days / four nights.

 

G: Guide

The guide on my trek was Simon Puma. Puma was an amazing trail  guide, he taught us so much, encouraged us and was a friend. Plus he  played  his Peruvian flute for us.

 

H: Hiking Poles

I was able to rent these from Alpaca Expeditions. They were, for me,  absolutely vital for all of the downhill switchbacks.

 

I: Insects

Some of the hike is in the jungle and insects (especially the biting  kinds) become an issue. I used a natural insect repellent made with  Eucalyptus and suffered one bite. Many of my co-hikers used Deet- laden repellents and they were bitten up. I also pre-treated my outer  layers of clothes with repellent designed for clothes before I went to  Peru.

 

J: Jungle

The hike took us through many terrains including the jungle. In the  jungle the humidity was high, plants overgrown and insects were  active.

 

K: Kitchen

We may have been hiking in the middle of nowhere, but we had a Chef  and 3 porters with us. Our Chef, Herman, was able to concoct the most amazing dishes in the primitive kitchen space he had available. I felt  like I was eating at a 5 star restaurant for every meal.

 



L: Layers

The weather on Salkantay changed frequently. Sometimes we were  freezing cold, wearing gloves, hats, scarves and several fleeces. Other  times it was hot and the sun was beating down. For that reason, I  always dressed in layers. To further protect my skin from the sun and  insects, my innermost layer was always a long-sleeved, white wicking  shirt from Patagonia.

 

M: Machu Picchu

This ancient Incan city was the goal of our journey. Being on the  Salkantay trek, not only did I get to see it up close, but also I saw it  from afar, from an side most tourists rarely view it from.

 

N: Nature

Going from the rocky high-altitude Andes to the Cloud Forest to the  Jungle, the nature we saw was so varied. I got to see Citronella  growing wild, bright colored flowers, butterflies, chinchillas, coffee and  coca plants as well as raging water, mountain peaks and panoramic  views.

 



O: Only Ones

 During the trek pretty much the only people we saw were those in our group, we rarely saw others. The day we arrived in Hidroelectrico and saw other tourists our solitude ended. I missed it.


P: Porters

Alpaca Expeditions provided us with 3 porters (and 2 horsemen for the  first half of the trek) to carry our gear. These men were amazing – not  only did they carry so much more weight than we did, but they arrived  at our site faster, set it up AND cooked our meal – usually before we  had even arrived.

 

Q: Quechal

This is the native language of many individuals in Peru, especially those  who live in the Salkantay area. We learned how to say ‘hello’, ‘let’s go’  and ‘thank you’.

 

R: Rain

My trek took place at the end of the rainy season. It was still quite  rainy. We experienced rain daily and most nights it rained on our tents.  The rain also caused landslides, mudslides, rockslides and washed out  trails and roads. We did have magic ponchos - every time we put them  on, the rain stopped! 




S: Sun

Yes, of course we had rain, but we also had sun. As Peru is near the  equator, the sun was intense. I wore a lot of sunblock, SPF 50. I also  wore long sleeves even in the warmer, more humid climate of the  jungle. I only ended up with a small bit of sunburn on my ears, nothing  more.


T: Terrain

The terrain we traveled was varied. We started at very high altitudes  and rocky trails, we moved into the cloud forest and then into the  jungle. Trails were often muddy, rocky, slick or all three. 


U: Untergrowth

While hiking we saw so much undergrowth on the trails around us. As  a result, we could also see how easy it was for a city such as Machu  Picchu to be completely hidden for centuries.


V: Views

On this hike, the views I had were unlike any others. Our third night  campsite was on a cliff with a panoramic view of the mountains.  During the third and fourth days we had views of Machu Picchu from  the side, unlike those most tourists have.




W: Water

Water is vital to survival. Out in the mountains, we had water all  around us in the form of rain, waterfalls, rivers and more. However  drinking water had to be boiled. Before every meal and every morning  upon awaking, we were given a small bucket of hot water with which  we could wash our hands.




X: eXceeding eXpectations

My Salkantay expedition was amazing, it exceeded my expectations  and pushed me to exceed my own expectations of myself. I am so glad  that I took this opportunity! 


Y: Yucca

Peruvian dishes are known for containing potatoes, and when  potatoes were not used, yucca roots were eaten like potatoes.  Sometimes we even had both.


Z: Zig-Zag

Our trails were full of switchbacks that zigged and zagged up and down  the mountains. 

Salkantay Day 5: Machu Picchu


4:27am, my alarm went off and the day began: Machu Picchu  day!! This was the first morning since the trek began that I was not woken up with a cup of hot Coca Tea. I missed it. 
 
We headed up early in the morning. Clouds hung low in the sky as our bus  headed up the mountain. We arrived at Machu Picchu just as the gates opened, letting in what I thought of at that time as throngs of tourists. Puma led us around the ancient city, telling us it’s history. At one point he completely fooled our group into thinking that a small room in the entry  way of the royal chambers was for hanging criminals, but he did tell us the truth about the architecture and irrigation.
 


The Incas used trapezoidal shapes as well as making connections between stones by using concave and convex masonry. These walls were built sturdy and withstood earthquakes as well as  providing for irrigation. We visited the Suntemple, whose windows were situated so that for the winter and summer solstices it would be filled with light. We also saw the stone sundial and so much more.
 



It was amazing what all the city actually contained, and I was floored by how massive it was. By this time the city was filling with tourists and we were all so glad we had had our tour earlier. The five guys from my hike had booked extra tickets to climb Huayanpicchu Mountain. They headed off and would later report it was terrifying but worth it. Sandra and I had tickets to climb Machu Picchu Mountain. She really wanted to summit, so she raced off ahead of me.
 



The path was made of rocky stairs. I climbed about 20 minutes until I could see Machu Picchu from above, but then because of blister pain I returned back to the main part of Machu Picchu. At this point even more tourists had arrived (where did they all come from?!?) and it took such a long time to get through all the groups. Finally I made my way through the crowds and found a rock to lean against and people watch. I did that for a while and then headed back to Agua Calientes by bus. On the bus I met a nice Brazilian, Nylson. He and I chatted about the ancient city and travel in general.  Upon arriving back in Agua Calientes, I spent some time wandering the markets and finally met up with my group when they returned. Everyone was exhausted.
 



We traveled then via train from Machu Picchu to Ollantaytambo. In Ollantaytambo, we boarded a mini-bus back to Cusco. Around 6:30pm we arrived in Cusco and said goodbye. Our adventure had come to an end. 
 
 

29 March 2015

Salkantay Day 4

Today was the hardest day. It took a lot of grit, determination and a few tears to get through. We woke up to rain on our tent (like every other morning). In fact, due to the sloped angle of our campsite it would be more accurate to say it rained on and in our tents. Breakfast was our last sit down meal cooked by the amazing Herman. After we appropriately thanked Herman and the three porters, we headed off towards Aguas Calientes.




Our first hour repeated the hike we had taken yesterday to see the view of Machu Picchu. Luckily we had been able to see it yesterday because today the sky was heavy with clouds. We continued another thirty minutes until we came to the Incan ruins of Llactapata (8,758 feet / 2,700 meters). Puma told us all about these ruins and hiked us through the undergrowth to see just how big this former city had been. This area, now covered in greenery, including bamboo taller than I, had been used for storage and as a “hotel” for travelers headed to Machu Picchu. The walls were completely covered and other than one small area which was completely exposed, it would have been easy to miss. 





We watched as the clouds moved across the sky through the mountains and eventually exposed Machu Picchu. Once again we were privileged to have the side view of Machu Picchu that most visitors don’t see.




After visiting Llactapata, we continued on, coming to a beautiful open space where Alpaca Expeditions used to camp, but due to governmental regulations no longer can. As much as we thought it was a nice space, we were glad that we had camped on the edge of our cliff last night. 




We then started what a sign claimed to be a 2 hour hike to Hidroelectrico. It consisted entirely of switchbacks, muddy, steep downhill switchbacks. I was going as fast as I could, but still my group, with their long legs, were way ahead. Quite frankly, it felt less like I was hiking and more like I was semi-controlling a downhill fall.  Speaking of falling, my butt hit the ground A LOT! 


Towards the end of this downhill switchback route, my guide Puma was playing his Peruvian flute for inspiration and I had the silly “just keep swimming” song from Finding Nemo in my head. 


Eventually I made it to the bottom and rejoined my group. We walked across an amazing, long suspension bridge over a raging river. The rainy season is nearly at it’s close, so the rivers and waterfalls are powerful, full and brown with sediment. Apparently this year’s rainy season was drier than normal, so I can only imagine what it must be like during a typical rainy season! 




We continued on our hike, taking an alternative route because the river covered some of our intended trail. We passed a massive brown waterfall that was feeding the river and finally we made it to Hidroelectrico.




At this point we began to encounter other tourists. Before this point we had seen very few Quetzal who live in the mountains and even fewer tourists. We had to cross through a barb-wired fence and a group of Israeli youth helped us. I must admit that as much as I appreciated their help, I immediately missed the solitude of our group and the trek.


Hidroelectrico (Hidro) is the checkpoint for entering the protected Machu Picchu lands. We checked in, then stopped to eat our packed lunches. After eating, we headed out for the final leg of our hike to Agua Calienties, also known as Machu Picchu town.



I blister quite easily and I had come well prepared to deal with them. I also have well broken in hiking boots. Over the last 3.5 days of the trek, my feet had touched a variety of terrain and had gone through a lot of mud and water. Despite this, I had only three small, well-managed, pain-free blisters. I was quite happy with this.


The three hour hike from Hidro to Agua Calientes changed that. Nearly 4 days of hiking behind me, up and down mountains, cold, heat, humidity, pouring rain and blazing sun; I had loved every minute of it, even when it got tough, I loved it. I hated the last three hour hike. We had faced danger with rushing water and falling rocks, but the last three hour hike had four bridges that I would say were not safe. The last three hours was, for me, miserable. This hike was alongside the railroad tracks between Hidro and Agua Calientes. Sometimes there was an established path, but often we were simply only the small, pointy, ankle-rolling, blister-causing rocks that lined the trail. We encountered the first bridge, it spanned the raging river below and was probably 50 feet long. Several of us immediately though of the train scene in the movie Stand By Me. There was a footbridge that ran alongside the tracks. One side had a rusted railing and the other was up against the trestle. Some of the metal planks were solidly welded, others had connections made by spot welding or twisted wire. Some of the planks were solid, others had rusted holes and/or ‘popped’ as we walked across. All of us were glad to get over and off the bridge. Later on we would encounter three more spots where the tracks crossed the river. These did not have set footpaths, instead we walked over active tracks and step from wooden beam to beam. Not all of the beams were equidistant and one was extremely high up. Like the first bridge, all of these crossed the raging river. Quite frankly, these bridges scared me.




By the end of the hike my feet were a mess. I had gained four new blisters and enlarged an existing one. They were aflame. I really wished that the last group hike had not been one that was miserable, especially after everything else had been so wonderful. We finally made it to Agua Calientes (6,561 feet / 2000 meters)




Throughout the journey, Puma had spoken highly of the hot springs we could visit in Agua Calientes. We were all looking forward to it. We arrived at our hotel (a hotel? Yes, a real bed and not a tent in the rain — but let’s be honest, I knew I would miss the tent in the rain!), I quickly rinsed off with a hot shower and then Sandra and I headed to the hot springs, excited to soak. Much to our chagrin, when we arrived they were closed due to natural disaster. That’s right, the rain, mud- and rockslides had struck again. We returned to our hotel, and later met up with the guys for some Pisco Sours and Cervezas. Later that evening we had a celebratory dinner at a nice restaurant and were given “I survived Salkantay” T-Shirts. We headed to sleep, excited for our next day - our visit to Machu Picchu!