Monday, February 20, 2012

Skiing and snowboarding in La Molina (Spain)

Our ski gear has been moldering away in the closet despite the pain in the butt it was to bring here. Rich's got some use at a "conference" in Austria last year which oh-so-conveniently doesn't schedule talks in the afternoon so as to take advantage of the powder. However, mine hadn't seen the light of day for ages.

La Molina is a ski resort in the Pyrenees near the French border. You can buy a "skitren" pass through the Catalunya train authority, which includes the roundtrip train ticket (2.5 hours each way), bus transfer to the resort, and a lift ticket for the day - all for 42.50€! To put this into perspective, the lift ticket alone is 39.50€. We also knocked off a little more by taking advantage of a 2-for-1 rental deal Rich found. Toma!

The conditions for skiing have been pretty miserable this season, across much of Europe and even in parts of the U.S. We knew going into it that any snow would be man-made, and riding the train up through a green and muddy brown landscape seemed to confirm everyone's dire predictions. The resort itself is not huge, but for a day or weekend trip, it's not a bad option. There were a few greens, some blues, and more reds and blacks (European for black diamond and double black diamond, respectively). The slopes were pretty empty because of the conditions, but this was fine for me. Ever since nursing a pair of injured knees back to health (one from a skiing injury), I've been pretty shaky on skis. Short, leisurely trips are just what the doctor ordered for building my confidence back up... and to not get re-injured. In the meantime, Rich channeled his inner Shaun White to practice some tricks and even took his board down some of the rails and jumps of the snowboard park. Apparently, La Molina even hosted the World Snowboarding Championships last year.

During our surprisingly reasonably priced lunch at the lodge (unheard of in the States), the unthinkable happened. It started snowing! The snow was coming down so thick and fast that even one of the cafeteria workers was warning some people who had driven up from the city to leave early due to the road conditions. Finally, the entire slope was covered with a nice blanket rather than just the sad little strips confined to the runs in the morning. Visibility was even becoming an issue even though the fresh powder was thoroughly agreeable. Eventually, we called it quits as Rich's rental board started to ice up, and we needed to catch the train to get home at a reasonable hour. We'll just have to go back!

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Rome (Italy) and the Vatican (Vatican City)

Only a 2 hour flight away, Rome seemed like an excellent choice for a weekend break on the continent. Unfortunately, we seemed to have selected the one weekend when the Eternal City got hit with snow, the likes of which it hasn't seen in almost 30 years.

Ever the optimists, we traipsed around the streets, encountering one closed door after another. The results were an excellent tour of the outsides of many of Rome's most famous sites - the Colosseum, Forum, Palatine Hill, Pantheon, and the Borghese Gallery. The weather also put a damper on the cafes in the Piazza Navona (although there were a determined few huddling around the heaters in the terraza), but the Spanish Steps and Trevi Fountain were still experiencing brisk tourist traffic.

We had already discovered when we tried to book our tickets earlier in the week that the famed collections of the Vatican Museum and the Sistine Chapel were closed the entire weekend for some holiday that was completely unrelated to the weather. But we headed to Vatican City anyway to check out Saint Peter's Basilica, figuring they couldn't possibly close church, THE church no less, on a Sunday. We were in luck! We arrived early, and the stoic Swiss Guards let us pass into the cordoned section near the altar with the magic word, "Misa?" just as mass was beginning. Rich, who giggles whenever he sees clergy doing everyday things, was absolutely delighted when the nun in full habit in front of us started snapping pictures like she was at Disneyland... which it was, I'm sure, for her.

Our luck held upon leaving the Basilica, when we noticed the people amassed in Saint Peter's Square all seemed to be focusing their attention on a certain little window. Sure enough, the pope himself appeared! Pope Benedict XVI trotted out to give his Sunday blessings. I felt bad when I saw a religious coach tour breeze by with what I'm sure was a busload of angry pilgrims demanding it to stop so they could listen to him speak.

The other bright note in our trip was, of course, the food. We managed to avoid the most touristy spots and get some really good grub. The pastries for breakfast - or whenever - were divine concoctions. The cappuccinos were deserving of their reputation. A couple of tiny trattorias gave us beautiful, fresh pastas and simply prepared meats. I did have a slight misstep when I ordered what I thought was probably lamb (the word looked similar to the Spanish one), and instead, received a plate full of organs... with artichokes, at least. Rich then cheered me up with gelato from Fassi, a.k.a. Il Palazzo del Fredo Giovanni Fassi. The oldest gelato place in Rome once counted Mussolini and Hitler as clients. Rizo, or "rice," as in rice pudding - complete with bits of rice in it-, is a flavor I've never seen elsewhere. It was so good that we had seconds!