Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Relaxing in the Italian Alps

Late last November right before Thanksgiving, Kyle had four days off.  We wanted to take an easy road trip with Gizmo, but November does not really have the best weather for travelling.  It's not snowy enough yet for a "winter fun" trip, but it's pretty cold and wet in the big cities.  For this trip, we decided to find our destination based on finding a nice, cozy hotel within driving distance where we would enjoy ourselves, even in bad weather.  We decided on a beautiful bed and breakfast called Les Trompeurs chez Odette in the tiny town of Cogne, Italy among the Italian Alps.  It's on the edge of the Gran Paradiso National Park, and it was a peaceful, relaxing place to visit.

Cogne is in the Aosta valley, which is very near Mont Blanc and the French border.  We couldn't be that close to the highest mountain in the Alps without seeing it for ourselves, so we stopped in the town of Chamonix, France on our drive down to check it out.  Chamonix is a beautiful little town, with Mont Blanc as an impressive back drop.  It reminded me of France's version of Garmisch, Germany, which has the Zugspitze towering above.

From Chamonix, we took the Mont Blanc tunnel under the mountain to reach Italy.  The tunnel is almost 12 kilometers (just over 7 miles) long.  It made the trip an hour shorter than it would have been had the tunnel not been there, since you would have to drive around Mont Blanc instead of just going under it.  The catch was that the toll for the tunnel was a whopping 42 Euro! We definitely didn't expect that!

We made it to our town very easily and made ourselves comfortable.  The town already had a decent amount of snow that had begun to melt in warmer temperatures.  We relaxed a bit before having a fantastic dinner at a cheese restaurant called Le Bar au Fromage.  It had a cozy and rustic atmosphere.  We had a beautiful charcuterie platter of typical Italian cured meats, followed by a delicious goat cheese raclette.  Raclette is somewhat similar to fondue, but the cheese is just melted in a different way.  They put a wedge of cheese in a heating device, and as it melts, you scoop it off onto bread, potatoes, veggies, etc.  It was very good!

The next day, we did a short hike from the town above that had beautiful views overlooking the valley.  We then drove down into the Gran Paradiso Park for a nice valley walk.  The park was created initially by King Victor Emmanuel II to protect the Alpine ibex population that was in decline due to hunting.  We were lucky enough to see a large group of the ibex feeding on the hillside as soon as we entered the park!  Gizmo loved our valley walk since we let him off of his leash.  He frolicked around, sniffing and having a good old time!

The next day we drove to the larger part of the Aosta valley to check out a castle and some Roman ruins.  We went to see the Fénis Castle, which dates back to sometime before 1242.  It is such a picture perfect castle!  We took a walk around, and Kyle got some photos before we headed on to the larger town of Aosta.

Aosta is a decent sized town.  It's not the prettiest Italian town we've ever seen, but it had a nice pedestrian street with some fun shops and restaurants.  The most interesting thing to see, and the reason we stopped in Aosta, are the Roman Ruins.  The town has many Roman ruins spread throughout the town.  We were both very impressed by the theatre ruins.  We had lunch at a nice microbrewery and brasserie called B63.  (Microbreweries aren't all that common in Europe, so we were excited to find it!)

After dropping Gizmo off at our hotel and getting our swimsuits, we headed back towards Mont Blanc to visit a wonderful thermal bath and spa right at the foot of Mont Blanc on the Italian side.  (We weren't driving back through that tunnel!)  It's in a beautiful historic villa and was a very nice setting for relaxing outside in the thermal baths, enjoying the views of Mont Blanc.  There were many different indoor and outdoor baths, saunas, treatment rooms, relaxation rooms, etc.  It was a nice way to end our trip!

We made the drive back the next day, heading through a mountain pass between Italy and Switzerland.  It was a simple drive back, with some very pretty mountain, countryside and lake views through Switzerland.  It was a very nice cozy, relaxing, with no expectations kind of trip.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Turkey Part II: Lunar Landscapes in Cappadocia

Back in November, Kyle and I finally made it to Turkey, a destination that was high on our list for a long time!  We started our journey in Istanbul, and then ventured into the central Turkish region of Cappadocia.  This part of our trip was done as a group tour.  We figured that a tour would be the least stressful and most efficient way of seeing the region.  We had a great experience with the tour company, and had a wonderful time in the lunar landscapes of Cappadocia!

The first day of our tour, we were picked up at our hotel in Istanbul at 4:30 in the morning (ugh) and were taken to the airport to make a quick one hour flight to Kayseri airport in central Turkey.  We were then picked up at the airport, and took a shuttle bus to the town of Goreme, where we were dropped off at our hotel to leave our luggage.  As we first drove through the town, it seemed so unreal.  Throughout the town are scattered "fairy chimney" rock formations and caves that are used for homes, hotels, etc.  It was so unlike anything we've ever seen!  We stayed in a cave hotel that was pretty cool!  We were then picked up at 9:30am to begin our tour.

Our tour was small and had only about 12 people, which is so much better than being on a huge charter bus tour!  We had a wonderful tour guide that was from the area and very fun and knowledgeable.  We started our day at Pasabag, or Monks Valley.  This area is known for it's fairy chimney rock formations, created by the erosion of volcanic rock.  We also saw early Christian cave dwellings, which were homes carved into the rocks by early Christians in order to hide and escape persecution. 

Our next stop was a walk through the Devrent Valley, also known as Imagination Valley.  The area is full of uniquely shaped rock formations that look like all sorts of things if you use your imagination.

I spy a camel

Of course no tour is complete without souvenir shopping.   We stopped in the town of Avanos, an area famous for it's terracotta and ceramics since 3000 BC.  We visited the studio and shop of cermic artist Galip Körükçü.  We were given some demonstrations by a couple of his students before we met the famous artist.  (He was on Martha Stewart, so he must be famous, right?)  He asked me to stand on one of his pieces to show how sturdy it is, and then I got to keep the signed piece that I stood on!  (Glad I didn't break it!)  The shop and gallery had some gorgeous ceramics, but they were a bit out of our price range!

We then went to the town of Uchisar to see the incredible castle rock, which is also the highest point in Cappadocia.  The massive central rock has tons of rooms and caves dug into it, and was once used as a castle.

Nazar charms, to ward off the evil eye

Our last stop of the day was at the Göreme Open Air Museum, a monastic complex of churches and living quarters carved into the soft volcanic rocks.  Most of the churches from the complex are from the 10th-12th centuries.  Many of them still have beautifully painted frescoes adorning the walls and ceilings.  (No pictures were allowed for obvious reasons!)

That evening we went to a wonderful hamam, or Turkish bath, at the Kelebek Cave hotel in our town.  An exfoliating rub down and full body massage in a gorgeous, serene cave was exactly what we needed!  We also had a great dinner at a neat little restaurant in a cave called Sarahne.  The owner was so kind and made a special Turkish yogurt drink for us to try called aryan.  (It was interesting, but not something I would order for myself!)

The next morning we were picked up at 5:30 am for our sunrise hot air balloon ride, something you have to do if you visit Cappadocia!  Hundreds of balloons rise over the lunar landscapes every morning.  It was neat to see the balloons being blown up all over the area, and so surreal to see them start to quietly rise with the sun.  It was so peaceful, and such an incredible experience!

We warmed back up over breakfast at our cave hotel.  Breakfast in Turkey looks a lot like a salad bar, with tomatoes, cucumbers, cheese, olives, cold cuts and hard boiled eggs along with yogurt, cereal and bread.

We headed out for day two of our tour, starting in the underground city of Kaymakli.  The huge underground city has 8 floors below the surface, although only 4 of those floors have been uncovered and are open to tours.  The city dates back to the Hittites around 1200 BC, and was used  when they needed to escape and hide from many different groups.  They could stay underground for months at a time.  The city has everything they might need, such as stables, storage areas, oil presses, wineries, kitchens, apartments, churches, etc.  The city was used until the 13th century AD, after which it was just used for storage.

There's always room for ice cream!  Turkish ice cream is extremely thick and almost looks like taffy.  The guys selling it like to trick you, flipping and doing tricks with the cone.

The last part of our tour was a hike through the beautiful landscapes of the Red and Rose valleys.  We enjoyed the beautiful scenery, the only blue skies and sun we had seen all week, and chatting with our new friends from Brazil and the Philippines.  We ended at the old picturesque cave city of Cavusin with a beautiful 5th century cave church and wonderful views of the surrounding area.

Pigeon houses, used to collect the droppings for fertilizer


Kyle and I with our lovely tour guide

Kyle and I had a wonderful experience in Cappadocia.  We met some really great people from all over the world, and we really enjoyed sharing travel experiences with them.  The landscapes of Turkey are out of this world and truly unique.  We never regret getting a little bit out of our comfort zone to experience new things.  We definitely had to limit what we saw with only 5 days in Turkey, so I think we have another Turkey trip in the future, possibly including beautiful beaches!