Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Castle Building in Southern France

How could a volunteer trip that involved helping rebuild a medieval castle turn into a lesson in Zen? That's what happened to me when I journeyed to a town not far from Avignon to spend a week with the group La Sabranenque that's noted for its restoration wook. I just guest blogged about this enlightening experience for Got Saga. They wanted to know about my favorite travel story that I enjoy telling and retelling. This is definitely it.

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Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Visiting Davos, Switzerland Without Downhill Skiing

Though I downhill ski, when I travel to ski country, I like to find options that don’t lock me in to nothing but a week of high-priced lift tickets, expensive food at mountain resorts and dealing with everything from out of control skiers to long lift lines. Of course, everything is a little different in Europe but, still, I prefer varying my activities when visiting a ski resort.

And that’s what I did when I visited Davos, Switzerland. This is, of course, a mega resort and yet there is plenty to do that has nothing to do with downhill skiing. Here are some of my favorite activities plus additional options:

1. Cross country ski

More than 45 miles of trails beckon, some for those, like me, who prefer classic Nordic skiing, and others for skiers who like to skate. Many trails wander through peaceful valley. And you hardly have to be an expert: there’s a ski school, a place to rent equipment and, even better, the trails are free! Plus, you’ll find a two-mile trail that’s available for night Nordic skiing.

2. Ice skating

I’m not a big fan of indoor skating but, in Davos, you have your choice: If you prefer the relative warmth of an indoor rink, you’ve got it here. But Davos is also home to Europe’s largest natural rink. This is where I skate when I travel to Davos.

3. Hiking

Just because there’s snow on the ground is no reason to stop hiking. And Davos, with it’s well-marked trails, makes it easy to either work up a sweat on a strenuous trail or just enjoy the scenery. When I don’t have a lot of time to get to a trailhead, I walk around Davos Lake. Otherwise, there a lovely 2+ hour easy walk from Ischalp back to Davos that meanders through a dense, snow-coated forest and then along a wide trail to Calavadel with its scenic valley views, finally following a river to Davos.

4. Snowshoeing

I actually prefer Nordic skiing to snowshoeing which I find nowhere near as smooth and rhythmic. That being said, Davos offers some pristine showshoe trails, including those that make a loop from the top of the Pischa cable car station. There you’ll maybe have the well-marked trails to yourself as you wander along sunny slopes. And, of course, like most things in Davos, you can sign up for a 1+ hour showshoe trek by moonlight.

5. Tobogganing

Though I’m not the biggest fan of careening downhill at high speed with no chance of slowing down before hitting the bottom, families love tobogganing here, especially nighttime adventures along the curves of Davos-Schatzalp.

6. Horsedrawn carriage

This is definitely a more mellow alternative that can be perfect for couples who want a romantic ride by moonlight.

7. Wellness & Pleasure Pool Centre

After all these workouts, mellow as many may be, your muscles are bound to become weary. That’s why you’ll want to spend the afternoon at the Wellness Center where you can opt for a hot stone massage or an interesting acupoint massage (it’s based on acupuncture meridiens). You’ll also have your choice of treatments and rooms, like found in the Saunarium and Silent Room, with gorgeous mountain views. A Finnish sauna, foot pools, hydrotherapy pool and cold surge shower are all meant to stimulate your immunity and your circulation.

8. Museums

Davos is not all about action. The town is chock full of cultural activities. Among the museums that I love because I enjoy checking out vintage artifacts include the Winter Sports Museum where you’ll find displays of old ski bindings, sleds and skates; the Toy Museum with its teddy bears, doll houses and other items from a private collection dating from the 18th century; and the Museum of Medicine -- because I have a medical background, I can’t pass this up -- where you’ll find artifacts that make you glad you’re seeing a doctor in the 21st century.

In addition, because I enjoy checking out art, the Kirchner Museum is a must see for those who enjoy this German artist’s colorful landscapes. His work is said to have inspired Expressionism and this museum is the largest collection of his work in the world.

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Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Mexico's Day of the Dead Festivities

For many of us, it might seem scary to tell stories of the dead to very young children or to allow them to play with skeletons and skulls. But in Mexico during the Day of the Dead festivities,it’s not only perfectly natural and appropriate but these and other activities are a celebration, where everyone spends time remembering their relatives who passed away. They honor them by setting up elaborate altars with items their relative liked when they were alive, whether it’s a favorite food or beverage or other items.

And they add candles, fruit and flowers (the marigold in the flower of the southern part of Mexico) to tempt the dead to pay them a visit.

Recently, I had the opportunity to visit Xcarat, an eco-archeological park in Mexico’s Riviera Maya. And, though at first this sounded like one big amusement-type park -- which I’m not a fan of -- in fact, it’s an entertaining educational experience year-round, but especially during the Day of the Day -- really referred to as Vida y Muerte or Life and Death, which they celebrate from October 30 through November 2.

In the following photos -- most taken at Xcarat and one during a private ceremony in Coba -- you’ll see some of the colorful, lively and life-affirming activities.

This tiered cemetery is set on seven levels representing the seven days of the week and contains 365 faux graves that reflect actual tombs and the amusing epitaphs found all around Mexico. During the Day of the Dead, anyone can place offerings and a photo of their loved one on any of the graves.

Xcaret offers a number of special workshops and displays for children to celebrate the Day of the Dead, and that includes a visit with a very evocative storyteller who goes under the guise of La Catrina, the signature Lady of the Dead, wearing her traditional upper class dress. She tells stories of the dead that captivate children and adults alike (including me).

Another Day of the Dead specialty is mucbi pollo in which a chicken dish that can be prepared different ways is cooked by burying in the ground. I was able to attend a private village ceremony in Coba where I watched the locals prepare the mucbi pollo almost like a chicken pot pie -- they made the pie of corn meal, wrap it in banana leaves and bury it in the ground along with hot coals. The burying is accompanied by music played on traditional percussion and wind instruments. The highlight was when it was uncovered two hours later, accompanied by a shaman who blessed the food and offered it to the spirits.
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