October 19, 2009

Stuff I need to take to Norway

The following are useful but difficult or expensive to get in Norway compared to the UK.

  • Rubble sacks
  • Primark clothing, esp long sleeve tops
  • Flip flops
  • 4.5 volt battery
  • C type batteries
  • Big torch
  • Mach 3 blades
  • Plasters
  • Wellington boots
  • Scrabble
  • Baby wet ones
  • Tea
  • Subaru Impreza
  • 2 Mountain bikes

August 12, 2009

Brasov and the Southern Carpathians in Romania

Romania still has a lot to offer to tourists willing to do a bit of independent travel, however, it is not like the Borat film I had imagined. Romania is as advanced as anywhere else in Europe in many respects. There is no problem at all finding people who speak English, getting mobile reception, cash from local cash machines and so on. About half of the taxi drivers do their best to rip you off, but not much more so than in the Baltics. Also, transport is seriously limited. No motorways and trains are often cancelled or run at a snails pace.
I spent most of my time in Brasov which is a pretty good place to base yourself for hiking in the Carpathians. Brasov itself is a nice enough Medieval city with lots of restaurants, accommodation and bars. There is an absurd proportion of pizza restaurants. Two other things that struck me were the sheer number of taxis and pensiunnes (guest houses) and that Romanian is reasonably easy to understand when it is written down.

Walking from Brasov

This is what I recommend you do if you want to go hiking in the Sourthern Carpathians with Brasov as a base.
Day 1: Walk to Poiana Brasov. There are two routes that link up. You can either walk straight out of Brasov, up through the Shei district and into the forest or get the cable car to the Hollywood sign and walk from there. I doubt there's much difference, but I've only done the former. In Poiana Brasov you can stay at the mountain refuge ('Cabana') Postavaru, which is massive with loads of facilities, a nice bar a good food.
Day 2: Walk to Timisu de Sus. I didn't do this but the surrounding area looked excellent. I don't know anywhere specific to stay there but there are definitely several hotels down there. A few km up the road is Dimbu Morii, where unfortunately the main refuge is now derelict but there's loads of other options and places to camp.
Day 3: Walk to Piatra Mare Cabana. This is very small but in a stunning location. There's a variety of scenes along the way from canyons to medows, pastures and a small waterfall (Cascade Tamina). They only have one dormitry at the cabana and when I was there the only food they could offer was 'some soup from beans' but they're nice people. Anna Maria ('Mary') speaks English.
Day 4: Walk down to Dimbu Morii. This features the 7 steps water fall, which is good fun. From hear you can walk about 3km back into Brasov and get the 17 bus back into town.
If you've got more time you could head off further into the Carpathians from Piatra Mare, but I don't know anything about this. It looked excellent from the cabana, and in theory you could walk to Poland with little interuption.
If you need a taxi driver in the Brasov area or need a Brasov to Bucharest transfer I recommend Gabi Rosu. He speaks very good English and will not rip you off. His number in Romania is 0721 123360.

February 13, 2009

Weekend skiing in St Moritz 4th - 9th Feb 09

Last weekend I visisted my Italian friend, ex-room-mate and all round carving maestra Valentina in St Moritz. I wasn't there long enough to really say I know the resort but some of my preconceptions of the place turned out to be definitely wrong so I thought I'd report a few of the more surprising facts here:

1. It takes quite a long time to get there. Unless you have a private jet, you're probably going to fly to Zurich, as I did, and get a train. The trains are excellent but the journey time is about 4 hours.

2. The main ski area isn't that big. St Moritz actually consists of several ski areas, Corviglia being the one that can be accessed directly from St Moritz town. Corviglia isn't small but it's certainly not massive. The 400 kms of pistes that St Moritz claims on paper is a reference to the combined area of 4 mountains, but it's not a truly linked up area. You can technically ski from Corvatch to Corviglia on some days but that's about it. Otherwise you have to take buses in between. It was pretty similar to skiing in the Jungfrau region in this respect.

3. It's not outstandingly expensive for Switzerland. Having skiid in Jungfrau at xmas, I was conditioned to Swiss prices. To me, St Moritz felt about the same as Jungfrau for food, drink and ski pass. I stayed at Valentina's appartment so I can't comment on hotels, however, I would say that there's not really any need to stay in St Moritz . Celerina and Samedan which are just up the road also have pretty quick access to the slopes. You could even head further afield and take the regular as clockwork Swiss mountain trains in.

4. It can be really cold. Obviously you can get cold skiing, but I was surprised by this. It was -15 during the day, and can reportedly get down to -30 which is way colder than anywhere else I've skiid, but I pretty tame if you're Canadian.

I would definitely go back if I had the chance but I wouldn't recommend it ahead of the other Swiss resorts I've been to. I was pretty lucky because there was so much snow when I arrived that most of the Swiss weekenders couldn't drive in, giving the impression that St Moritz was a skier's paradise, but I expect you could equally go when there's less snow and masses of crowds.

January 11, 2009

Skiing in the Jungfrau region, 19th Dec 2008 - 4th Jan 2009

The Jungfrau region is, as far as skiing is concerned, a series of loosely connected resorts in Switzerland, the resort towns being Grindlewald, Wengen and Murren. Also very conveniently located is Lauterbrunnen, and less conveniently, Interlaken, which is where we found ourselves this xmas.

On piste skiing is excellent on all mountains for skiers, but not so good for snow boarders. There's a couple of huge runs (1500-1600m verical drop) that you can do uniteruppted, but they all involve a bit of a cat track at some point, usually at the bottom. Two outstanding runs are from the top of Schilt down to Grindlewald and from Kleine Scheidegg or the top of Mannlichen down to Grund.

Across the three resorts you could easily spend a week just skiing on piste without much repetition, if that's what you're into. If you want to learn or indulge in carving there's a couple of ideal intermediate slopes that are long and wide. Uberjoch and Mannlichen are particularly good for this. There's quite a few black runs, the best being in First (Grindlewald). Black runs are tricky in ice and lots of fun in powder.

Off piste
As with all ski resorts, when there's a big dump there's a lot of off piste. In the two weeks we were there we had two pretty substantial snow falls. All three mountains offered excellent off piste on a powder day, but the top of the Schilthorn (Murren) was definitely the best for powder longevity. In my opinion there's enough challenging off piste for anyone of any level, assuming you get the snow.

Grindlewald - A large resort town with a mountain railway station. Good access to the 'First' ski area (the principle cable car is in the middle of Grindlewald). Good access to Mannlichen (a gondola to the top of Mannlichen starts on the outskirts) and Kleine Sheidegg (25min train ride from Grund station). Grindlewald is probably a great place to stay in low season, but it's main elevation attractions (Mannlichenbahn and Firstbahn) are a nightmare in peak season.

Wengen - A medium size resort town about a third of the way up a mountain. From here you can get straight on the train to Kleine Scheidegg (20 mins or so) or, depending on where in the town you may be able to get on a chairlift and ski some of the lower areas. There's also a big cable car from Wengen direct to Mannlichen. If you can take the train down to Lauterbrunnen (10mins) you can can then get the Murren Cable car.

Murren - a small and posh ski town with quite a few lifts going straight out of the town up the Schilthorn. Very quiet, somewhat isolated. Very expensive.

Lauterbrunnen - A superbly located town but with no actual skiing of it's own. The train station connects you directly with Interlaken, Wengen and Kleine Scheidegg, you can also get straight up to Murren on the cable car. From Lauterbrunnen you could be skiing in Mannlichen or Kleine Scheidegg in about 30mins. The cable car up to Murren is also pretty quick during off peak times.

Interlaken - A summer resort with train and bus links to the ski resorts. The quickest we managed to get on the slopes was 1hr,5mins. There is a theoretically quicker means. The 9am ski bus takes you in 25mins direct to Firstbahn, the main cable car from Grindlewald up to First. This is fine except for in peak season when the queue for Firstbahn is a disaster (we queued for an hour one day).

Ski areas
There are four ski areas, First (also known as 'Grindlewald First') which is good for intermediates, Murren (slightly more advanced), Murren (excellent for beginners) and Wengen (which we referred to as Kleine Scheidegg to distinguish it from Wengen the town) which has a variety of skiing but is probably the busiest area. Wengen and Mannlichen are just different sides of the same mountain so you could consider them the same ski area.

Getting between ski areas
Other than skiing both Mannlichen and Wengen (which are kind of the same place), it's not really worth skiing more than one area on the same day. In theory you could start really early and ski all of them, but there's no point - you'd waste a couple of hours gaining altitude and sitting on trains and busses.

Switzerland is very expensive, especially for food. Jungfrau is no exception. We saved money by staying in Interlaken but spent a long time getting to the resorts. Lauterbrunnen might be cheaper than the main resorts but probably not by much.

Noteable tourism features
The revolving restaurant at the top of the Schilthorn, which was used in 'On her majesty's secret service' as Blofeld's lair, is definitely the coolest of the attractions. It's no more expensive than other nice restaurants in the area and has one of the best views I've seen anywhere in the world. Go either very early for the 007 breakfast (a 20 quid buffet) or late afternoon and have the daily special (better value). Queueing for cable cars is a bit annoying at other times.

The views from Kleine Scheidegg are spectacular. You can see the North Face of the eiger, and two other larger mountains from pretty much everywhere. You can also ski down the Lauberhorn downhill world cup run and eat at the Bellvue hotel, where Montgommerry once stayed.

Interlaken has some beautiful lake scenery. There's a rip-off train from Kleine Sheidegg to 'the top of Europe' which you could do if you you'd rather do that than go skiing.

Nothing worth mentioning that I saw.