Tuesday 28 February 2006

Skiing the 3 Valleys

We're back!  Actually, we got back yesterday afternoon, and very reluctantly.  For 3 days we did nothing but eat, sleep and ski - phenomenal.  Turned out that we had booked more of an organised group trip than we originally thought, which actually turned out to be ok, as they arranged everything for us: transfer from the airport to the hotel (which turned out to be a good two hour drive), skis and boot rentals in the hotel itself, lift tickets ready on arrival, breakfast downstairs, transfers to and from the gondolas (walking in ski-boots is NOT fun), everything except lunch and dinners was already done and paid for.  The only real downside is that somewhere along the way we got signed up for a twin room instead of a double, which meant two dorm room sized beds instead of one large bed and the hotel was full, so no way to change.  Not a huge issue, but not ideal either.  The hotel itself was standard ski resort fare; nothing super luxurious, but very simple, clean and accessible.  A solid 2 star hotel, which suited us just fine.   Our room though, did have a very nice view, looking out over the little town of Brides-les-Bains.  

The ski area itself covered three HUGE valleys (ironcially called The Three Valleys, pdf map is <a href="http://www.courchevel.com/img/leski/domaine/plan-3v.pdf">here</a>), supposedly the largest skiable area in the world, and I certainly believe it.  We had access to all of it too. *insert big grin here*.  The heart of the resort is Meribel, which the gondolas from Brides-les-Bains, the little town our hotel was in, arrived at.  From there you could head East across the first range into Courchevel or West into Val Thorens or Les Meniures.  For the first day, we decided to stick to Meribel, since that's where Stephen's lesson would be based.  We got there as soon as the gondolas opened and skiied several green runs to get warmed up, remind Stephen how to do a wedge, turn, and generally avoid other skiers/obstacles before sending him off to his lesson, while I sought out some of the blues higher up the mountain.  The weather was just ok - rather cloudy and the runs were a bit icy, which was something of a bit of a disappointment, but worked ok for the first day.  We got to talking with some of the other skiiers and heard that the snow in several of the other valleys was much better, so after looking at the map we decided that Courchevel looked the easiest to get to, so we resolved to head over there for day two.  Wow, were we glad we did!!  Not only was the weather better (sunny, and rather warm), but the snow was much better, helped by being much higher up than Meribel and getting several inches of snow the night before.  Not only that, but the views were AMAZING.  We got up to the top and just gawked.  

After picking our jaws up off our skis, we headed off for our first full day.  We skiied mostly blues, staying in the central part of the valley and had a grand time.  In fact, the skiing was so good that we decided to head back for day three as well.  Again sunny, a bit colder than the previous day, but with the same great snow.  We spent the day in the far east corner of the valley, tackled several really fun red runs (equivilent to an easy black or blue-black in the Rockies) and generally had the best time.  The latter two days we brought lunch with us - oranges, local cheese, salami and freshly baked bread from the boulangerie around the corner from the hotel.  Talk about fabulous.  The second two days we made a short pit stop at the base for mulled wine and a bit of a rest in mid-afternoon.  We skiied until we could ski no more.  

After skiing our little bums off, we headed into town for food.  This took a bit of adventuring, but we did hit one gem in particular.  It was Saturday night, and we had originally planned to do a bit of apres ski organised by the tour company, but there was some sort of mix-up with the venue, so we had a couple of extra hours to kill.  We hadn't had great luck with food so far, nothing really terrible, but very touristy.  Stephen was particularly set on finding a REAL french resteraunt, and after walking through the town several times, we found one tucked away on a side street - Val Vert.  The menu was entirely in French with several set meals that looked quite good.  So, in we went and it turned out to be fabulous!  It was a bit of a marathon though, we were there for over three hours and five amazing courses including wine, dessert and digestifs, and practically rolled out of the resteraunt.  The service too was brilliant - the perfect balance between attentive and giving us plenty of time to work our way through the meal.  I couldn't have asked for anything better.

All in all, it was exactly the kind of trip we needed, and we were able to come back completely relaxed and rejuvenated.  We couldn't have asked for a better vacation.

Sunday 12 February 2006

Weekend in Canterbury

So we decided to take an early Valentine's Day and head off to Canterbury for a few days.  We arrived Friday evening around 8pm, checked into our B&B (<a href="http://www.yorkelodge.com/">Yorke Lodge</a>), and then headed out for a pint and a late night snack.  We found a delightful pub called the Unicorn just on the edge of the city centre, and one of the local brew-masters was in the pub, so we had a pint of his ale (quite good) and chatted with some of the locals while watching the opening ceremonies.  A quick bite (generic Italian) and then back to the B&B for an early night.

Saturday wasn't terribly sunny and a bit chill, but other wise a great day for sight seeing.  Our first stop was to the church down the street from the B&B, which turned out to be St. Dunstan's, the burial place of the <a href="http://www.apostles.com/thomasmorehead.html">head of St. Thomas Moore</a>!  Talk about a surprise!  The church itself is quite humble, but with a very warm and welcoming air.

We hung around for a bit, noting the irony that the church is now Anglican, and then headed off into town itself.  We next found the <a href="http://www.eastbridgehospital.org.uk/pages/eastbridge_introduction.htm">Eastbridge Pilgrims' Hospice</a> not far down the street.   They had the main chapel closed off, but the Undercroft -- where the 12th century pilgrims would have slept -- had a great exhibition on the history of the building.  Most of it is currently used as residences for retired citizens of the Canterbury community.  A very suitable use, we thought.  The interesting thing was the number of icons and Eastern Orthodox influenced works being used in the various chapels.  The guides didn't really think much of it, but mentioned that the residents liked the symbolism and found it helpful to their prayer lives.  

The guides themselves were very helpful and kind, pointing us over to one of the oldest Franciscan orders in the country, <a href="http://www.eastbridgehospital.org.uk/pages/greyfriars_introduction.htm">Greyfriars</a>.  The chapel is the only building of the original 12th century abbey still standing, and was unfortunately closed.  

Around the corner, we came across Canterbury's <a href="http://www.canterburytrust.co.uk/schools/keysites/castle.htm">Norman Castle</a>.  The local historical authority had lots of informational points put up around it, but it seems that previous care-takers were not so concientious.  We learned to much dismay that the building was in fairly good repair up until the Victorian times, when it was used alternatively as a store room for <i>coal</i> and the city's water supply.  This meant the interior was completely gutted and various bits of piping were attached.  Talk about a travesty!!  

Then it was off across town (with a pit stop for lunch at Cafe Saffron, great carrot and coriander soup) to the famous <a href="http://www.canterbury-cathedral.org/"> City Cathedral</a>.  As the story goes, it was founded by Saint Augustine himself.  This is the fourth building to stand on this site, but quite a few of the original walls were used in the many phases of construction, which gives it kind of a matroshka feel.  We were quite fortunate in that while we were there a choir and orchestra were in the middle of rehearsal when we came in.  They only had the central Quire closed, everything else was open.  My favorite way to tour churches is when someone is practicing in them.  You get so much of a better feel for the character.

From there it was getting on fairly late in the afternoon, and it being the off season, we had to make a mad dash to the <a href="http://www.canterbury.gov.uk/cgi-bin/buildpage.pl?mysql=113">Westgate Towers</a> to be there before it closed.

Much like Marble Arch in London, it sits in the middle of the main roundabout in the town.  Easy to find at any rate, it serves as the western boundry of the old Roman wall and the main gate pilgrims had to pass through.  For most of its modern life, it served as a jail, and the top portion of the gates has a little museum and observation deck.  

At this point, we were quite tired, and so headed back to the B&B for a nap and some relaxation before heading back into the city for dinner.  It took some doing, as most places were booked up with people (like us) celebrating Valentine's Day early.  We did find this fantastic gem - "Tapas" off of Palace Street.  Not only was the food great, but it had THE BEST service we've yet found anywhere in England.  We stayed until they closed and tipped well.

Sunday was a bit more relaxed.  We got up fairly late to a wet and dreary English day.  A great day for staying indoors, but not especially for being out and about.  We had plans for going out to St. Augustine's Abbey, but after the walk to town and getting quite damp, we decided that being out on an exposed hill in abbey ruins wasn't exactly what we were up for.  So we spent some time poking around in various shops and tea rooms, getting lunch at Marlowe's, a restaurant dedicated to the playwright Marlowe and his theatre in Canterbury.  We then picked up our bags and headed back to the train station for the afternoon service into London.  

So, here we are, rested, enriched and ready for the week ahead.