Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Winter in the Alps? Yes please!

If you’ve accompanied us in Europe, then you know how special a hiking tour in the Alps can be. Hiking across mountain passes by day, relaxing in bucolic villages by night, and connecting it all with modern conveyances; it’s not a stretch to say that Europe is a hiker’s utopia. But what are the Alps like during winter?

Ryder-Walker’s veteran trip leader and head guide, Ken Fuhrer, weighed in on the topic. When he’s not leading summer hiking tours for Ryder-Walker, Ken helps people realize their dreams of a European skiing vacation with our sister company, Alpenglow Ski Safaris. Enjoy.

It was the guiding in the summer that made us dream of winter. Each day we’d look up from the deep carved valleys, or down from high on the trail, while Daniel Sundqvist continually pointed out ski runs on the distant mountain slopes. Just as the first summer tourists from a century ago returned to the Alps for winter, we, too, longed to ski the snow. Thus it happened that our winter ski trips were borne of the summer treks.  

The feeling is so different in the winter. It starts in the morning, when we board the giant trams. There is a certain excitement that you feel during lift-off while clutching your skis! The day is spent high on the mountain, far above tree line. We glide along wide open terrain and gaze at the endless panoramas. Then it’s time for lunch, which is an absolute pleasure during the ski season. Almost all the alpine restaurants feature ample decks filled with an international crowd relishing the sun. 

Quality seems to be a point of pride and that is what makes the greatest difference during the winter. The food simply amazes, and, for whatever reason, it seems like European chefs pull out all the stops when visitors come to ski. We often smile at the groups of tourists that come just for the food and the winter experience, dead set on whiling away the entire afternoon eating, drinking, laughing and just relaxing on the sun deck.

We join in the revelry too, before turning our attention to the long ski runs and deep powder, often skiing past snow-covered farmhouses on the way back to town. Entering our charming village, we feel the chill in the air as the last rays of sun crawl up the mountainside. No matter; our mouths water as we stand in line for the warming burn of plum schnapps and hot spiced wine. 

Après-ski in the Alps is something that is unique to winter, and must be experienced to be believed. Spirited groups of happy people clamber down the cobblestone streets, still wearing their ski boots, as dusk settles in. Then it’s off to dinner to taste the elegant Swiss white wine that is so perfectly suited to fondue and raclette. The winter air nips a little after dinner, but we welcome it. The fluffy down comforters that feel so cozy during summer’s cool evenings are tailor-made for the Alps’ crisp winter nights.  

Peter Walker first brought us to St. Anton, Austria, and it was good. St. Anton showed us everything wonderful about the Alps, but more importantly, it revealed that our dreams had finally come true. Alpenglow Ski Safaris came together during that first ski trip in Austria, and now, six years later, we are truly proud of our winter schedule of ski trips. This year’s snow pack in the Alps is far, far above average, so the conditions promise to be great.

Daniel just finished guiding a trip in the Arlberg last week, but our March tour in Stuben and Ischgl, Austria, and the April trip in Val d' Isere, France still have availability, so please do not hesitate to contact us for more information.

-Ken Fuhrer

Top photo; Trail signs get a little shorter during winter. What is normally a 20 minute hike to the train during summer will take Ken Fuhrer about 7 minutes by ski during the winter.

Middle photo; The same trains that deliver hikers to the high alpine meadows during summer, also drop skiers to white, fluffy playgrounds during the winter.

Bottom photo; There's no need to stay on a single path during winter. Feel free to make your own!

Friday, January 25, 2013

We may even become friends!

“Perhaps travel cannot prevent bigotry, but by demonstrating that all peoples cry, laugh, eat, worry, and die, it can introduce the idea that if we try and understand each other, we may even become friends.”

-Maya Angelou

This is one of my favorite quotes, and it came to mind the other day as I shared a chairlift with a woman that said she was afraid of going to Europe because she’d heard that Europeans didn’t like Americans.

It was Saturday morning. Six inches of powder lay on the slopes, and as we boarded the lift, I asked the woman if she’d ever skied in Europe. “Heavens no,” she replied. “Aren’t Europeans rude to Americans?”

I would like to say that I was taken a back by her statement, but the truth is, I wasn’t. I’ve heard statements like this many times before.

I don’t know who started the idea that Europeans don’t like Americans, but in my experience, it’s simply not true. I won’t lie, I’ve encountered a few less-than-amiable Parisians in my day, but I’ve also met rude people in towns across the United States. Rude people exist everywhere, and just because somebody is rude to you in New York City, doesn’t mean that all Americans, or all New Yorkers for that matter, are rude people as well. I experienced this lesson first hand when I traveled to Europe for the first time many years ago.

Before I left for Europe, I heard all the stereotypes about European culture. The French stank and were rude to Americans. The Italians cooked great food, but they liked to argue, and the Germans were, supposedly, really hard to get to know. What I discovered, however, broke down every stereotype. The French didn’t stink, and they welcomed me into their homes. The Italian women tried to set me up with their daughters, and of all the people that I met overseas, the Germans became, and still are, some of my closest friends.

On one occasion, two friends and I traveled around the Greek countryside with a complete stranger. We didn't speak a word of Greek, and the stranger only new three words of English; hello, wait and friend. With those three words, however, he took us on a nine hour sightseeing tour, fed us local food, introduced us to exciting people, and showed us a warm side Greece that we probably would have never experienced on our own.

What I've learned since those early days of traveling is that after you strip everything down, after you silence the incessant chatter of everyday happenings, you find that the same golden thread connects us all. We laugh. We cry. We eat, and we die. We all share the same necessities of life regardless of where we’re from. At the end of the day, we’re all just human beings sharing space on a tiny piece of rock hurling through the great unknown. French, Bhutanese, Indian; it doesn't matter where we're from. There are some really wonderful people out there. You just have to go out and say “hello.”

Of course, the only way that you can know this is to experience it for yourself. Get out of your chair. Turn off the news. Shut down the computer (including this blog), and go someplace that you’ve never been. Talk to people. Whether it’s hiking through Europe, or visiting a new shop across town, as Saint Augustine (354-430) used to say, “The world is a book, and those who do not travel only read a page.”

Get out there and discover it for yourself. Meet someone new! You might find that Europeans aren’t as rude as you’ve been led to believe. In fact, you may even become friends.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Legend of the Tiger’s Nest (Bhutan)

Taktsang Monastery, the ‘Tiger’s Nest,' is a legendary icon of Bhutan. It could be argued that no other image appears so frequently in Bhutan slideshows and travelogues as this dramatically situated temple perched 2,700 feet above the Paro Valley floor. Just like Machu Picchu is a ‘must-see’ for every visitor in Peru, the hike to the Tiger’s Nest is a ‘must-do’ for every visitor to Bhutan.

What is the story behind the Tiger’s Nest, and how did it get its name?

The legend of the Tiger’s Nest goes back to the eighth century, when the Guru Padmasambhava flew from Tibet on the back of a mighty tigress to the temple’s present site. It is said that Padmasambhava subdued a demon, mediated in Taktsang Senge Samdup, one of the cliffside caves, then emerged in the form of eight different manifestations and blessed the place. Guru Padmasambhava, also known as ‘Guru Rinpoche’ in neighboring countries, is widely credited for introducing Buddhism to Bhutan, and it was his flight on the back of the tigress that earned the site the name of 'Tiger’s Nest.'

Spiritual leaders built the monastery 1692, and centered the complex upon the original cave where Padmasambhava meditated. Today, the Tiger’s Nest attracts visitors from around the world, drawn by the temple’s architectural beauty, inspiring location and spiritual significance. 

We hike to the Tiger’s Nest on day two of our Bhutan Chomolhari Trek. Read more about the trip by clicking here

Tuesday, January 08, 2013

Croatia Photos | Finding Dubrovnik (and Christopher Columbus?)

Was Christopher Columbus Croatian? Maybe a Croat bought his boat! Ken Fuhrer shot this photo of the Nina while putting together our new Croatia hiking tour.

The town in the background is called Dubrovnik. Also referred to as ‘The Pearl of the Adriatic’, Dubrovnik is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and one of the best-preserved walled cities in all of Europe.

While the Nina certainly grabs your attention in this photo, it’s the tiny glimpse of a mountain in the upper left-hand corner that interests us. Dubrovnik has a number of peaks that rise above the city. We’ll hike to the top of Srđ Mountain, the prominent local peak, for a bird’s eye view of Dubrovnik’s old town, a medieval walled city replete with Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque churches; monasteries, palaces and fountains; and some of the oldest, continuously operating establishments found anywhere in Europe. The Friars Minor Pharmacy (the Old Pharmacy), for example, a drug store set within the cloisters of a fourteenth century Franciscan monastery, continues to do business after 700 years.

Notice, too, the palm trees that line the promenade in this photo. You can almost feel the warm sun, smell the salty Mediterranean breeze, and hear the gentle waves lapping against Dubrovnik’s ancient shores.

Interested in a brief history of Dubrovnik? Check out the Old City of Dubrovnik at unesco.org.