Daily Archives: June 7, 2014

Spring Break 2014 – Climbing in En Vau: Take 1

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Sunday, 18-May-2014

Location: Cassis, France – Les Calanque D’En Vau (pronounced “onn vow”, if I got it correct)

 

En Vau is a Calanque right near the house we were staying at – literally only a walk away.  Thus, it was the first one that we headed to (And the last, though that story hasn’t been told yet), so after breakfast on Sunday everyone packed up their gear and started the walk over.

“The walk” consisted of maybe 5 minutes on the roads of Cassis, before we found the official parking lot for the trail head and started into the Calanques themselves.  We had to pass through a small one labeled Port Mieu, though the trails in that area were rather light and easy, before we actually broke into the real trails that worked their way through the mountains toward En Vou.

See, a Calanque is very similar to a Fjord, in that it’s a small strip of ocean that pencils in through cliffs and spires.  I think the technical difference is that a Calanque was carved by riverwater, but you’d have to check with a geologist for the actual information.

All I know is – the hike?  It was steep, and long, and really fun. The rock in this area isn’t the usual New England granite – instead, it’s a softer sort of rock (I believe a form of sedimentary rock).  That means that it wears a lot easier… which means that the thousands of people who hike these trails and climb these routes have slowly polished the rocks down – there are places where the rock is literally gem-level polished.  Kind of nice on the feet, but not really ideal for rock climbing… especially when that hold that you need is roughly the texture of oiled glass.

But we persevered – the hike down part Port Mieu into En Vou was fraught with peril and tourists (literally dozens of people clogging the trails), but once we made it in… well, the pictures describe it.  Jaw-dropping is a good term too. We set up out gear at the base of one of the larger spires, a good multi-pitch that comes highly recommended, and started up…

Climbs:

  1. La Saphir – five pitches (officially), ranging from 5.3 to 5.8
    1. Pitch 1 – 5.5 – Lead = Daniel.  This was a very fun route, though a lot of the rocks were super-polished from so much traffic going up and down the route.  It’s even got a nice little concrete basin at the bottom, so we could keep all our gear out of the wind
    2. Pitch 2 – 5.1… if that – Lead = Ben.  Just a simple traverse with 2 bolts, though it was a bit run out, so rope-drag actually became annoying
    3. Pitch 3 – 5.4 – Lead = Daniel.  Again, a simple traverse, not really much to say about it
    4. Pitches 4 & 5 – 5.7 & 5.9 – Lead = Ben.  I spun these two pitches into one, since the middle belay stance wasn’t particularly good.  17 quickdraws worth of climbing, maybe 30 or 40 meters high, and nice and steep.  Very small and polished holds throughout, but it was a really fun lead for me.  I think there may have actually been two belay anchors, but… yeah.  Better just to finish it all as one go.
  2. Descent – This is where everything went interesting.  Erin, Daniel and I got to the top.  Then Bjorn and Rebecca got to the top.  Then Johan and Magnus got to the top.  Then another two teams got to the top.
    Why didn’t we rappel off, you ask?  Well… the rappel anchors were being used by the main belay, and we were originally going to just descend the same way that we came up.
    But… that was obviously getting a little unlikely, since we were now looking at a third team coming up the face.
    So, shivering from the cooling breeze (we all had neglected to wear shirts, you see) we set a rappel down the main face with Daniel and Rebeccas ropes – a full 70m and an 80m, so we were quite confident that they could make the complete drop.
    Which, thankfully, they did!

Spring Break 2014 – Living in Cassis for a week

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Saturday, 17-May-2014

through

Saturday, 24-May-2014

 

Ben, Where do you stay when you do these crazy trips of yours?  Do you have to stay in some horrid hovel, just so you can afford to pay for the flight? Or did you sell your kidney before you left, so that you can stay in a hotel like most tourists?

Well Ben, I stay in excellent houses.  And they’re not even that many Dollars, thanks to a trick I’ve learned called “Let Daniel deal with it, because he’s great at this stuff!”

 

Seriously – I don’t know how he found it (actually, I do know.  He looked online, in French, and used some version of AirB&B), but Daniel found an amazing villa for us to stay at while we climbed in Cassis.  It was right near the entrance to the Calanques, maybe a ten minute walk to the parking area.  Less, probably.  And to keep things symmetric, it was roughly a ten minute walk to the good restaurants in town – five minutes to a small pebble-beach where we could dip into the Mediterranean.

Most importantly, it has an infinity pool – heated to a perfect 25 Deg.C, just below 80 Deg.F.  And a grill, and three bedrooms.

And it was just over $400 USD for the whole week.  Roughly two nights in a Boston hotel.  That doesn’t have an infinity pool.  Or a grill.  Or three Bedrooms.

 

How was the stay, you may ask?  Well.  Thankfully, someone invented bullet points, so I can mark down exactly how the stay was…

  • The view.  Ohh man.  You don’t even know.  The back yard looked out over the bay, and a huge Massif (a large mountain with an exposed rock face on one side) rose over the waves in the distance.
  • The sleeping – three bedrooms, where I got my own little room with my own little bed and my own little creepy rabbit doll.  It was quite nice, and while the bed was a bit hard I got used to it quickly, and had some of the best rest I’ve had in ages.
  • The bathrooms – were a bit strange.  There was a shower and sink in Daniel & Erin’s room, a toilet (without a sink) in its own little closet, and a full bathroom with a tub, two sinks, and a toilet, but no shower.  That bathroom was huge.  My bedroom had a sink and what may have been a bidet… though I don’t really think it was, since the spout looked exactly like a sink (versus a spraying thing)… so who knows what it was.  But it was cool.
  • The eating – we had a full, if small, kitchen in the main portion of the house.  We also had a grill out back, a table inside and a table outside, and all the silverware and glassware that we could ever want.  Seriously… so many plates.  It was a bit intimidating.  Thankfully, the kitchen also came with a small little dishwasher that could handle the crazy number of plates.
  • The relaxing – like I mentioned, we had amazing views off the back porch.  This was accentuated by the full garden, cool benches, stonework, and general “holy crap this place is awesome!” that we had going for us.  Lots of sitting by / in / around the pool occurred, as well as utilization of the couch for reading and chilling out after long days of climbing.

 

 

But Ben, that’s all well and good, but it doesn’t tell me anything about the actual town of Cassis!  This is France!  Didn’t you go out and party it up?  Check out the local bars and restaurants and people and places and things?!?!

Well Ben, we did a bit of that.  But honestly, not as much as one would expect.  You see, the main point of this trip was adventure, and climbing… and restaurant owners don’t look kindly to us climbing their walls.  Ask Daniel how well doing pull ups on a building goes. (Ed Note: See “Camping and Kayaking – Aug 17th and 18th)

 

We did eat well, however.  France has some amazing food, and their grocery stores aren’t an exception to that rule at all.  And the bakeries… well, there’s a reason that my Grandma recommended that I get fresh Baguettes every morning.

  • Breakfasts were uniform the whole week we were in Cassis – Coissants / pastries with Eggs and Bacon, orange juice and coffee.  Simple, efficient, and a good way to kick the day into drive.
  • Lunches we packed up, with the exception of the one rest day that we took.  We would pick up Baguettes from the corner shop, one per person, and then combine that with some cured ham, Brie, and apple slices.  We even bought ourselves some Baby Bell cheese, and small snickers bars to give that little bit of energy throughout the day of climbing.  I’m seriously debating doing this for lunches now that I’m back in the states – the Brie wasn’t cheap, but having small snacks throughout the day really does help keep me going more efficiently.
  • Dinners… now dinners, those were a different thing.  We ate well, we ate heartily, and we enjoyed ourselves immensely.
    • Saturday night we took to the grill like only Americans can.  Sausage, chicken, zucchini and asparagus were all prepared by the talented Rebecca, and damn but it was amazing.  Loved every bite; garlic, salt, pepper and oil make for very good marinade, especially with spicy chicken!  We were assisted in this consumption by Johan and Magnus, who brought us lots and lots of amazing Danish beer.
    • Sunday night we headed into town finally, taking a quick look around before settling in on the second place we saw… primarily because it was still open and we were extremely hungry after a long day climbing.  Turns out, Cassis is on the sea.  Which means seafood is very popular.  Which means Salmon is super cheap.  Which means I was in heaven.  Even though I couldn’t speak French, and couldn’t order anything on my own in their language.  Aww… Thank you Daniel…
    • A rainy day is a day to explore and drive around the French Countryside!  Since were in Avignon, we ate our dinner there – Salmon with rice and deliciousness, and even stealing some wine and Pizza from the rest of the table!  Interesting fact I learned – Apertif’s are not dessert wines.  They’re appetizers.  I believe I have been using the term wrong for the last few years.
    • Tuesday and Wednesday we rocked the grill again – Sausage and Chicken and veggies one night, and then Surf & Turf the other.  Interesting factoid – France doesn’t really do beef.  I guess most of Europe doesn’t; the grazing area required just isn’t viable in their area, unlike the USA.  So the “turf” part of surf & turf was less than stellar… vacuum sealed packages of thin steak passed off as ribeye.  Thankfully, Rebecca hadn’t stopped being an amazing chef, so they turned out quite good… even if they were only a few millimeters thick.
    • Friday found us exploring Cassis again… correctly, this time.  We got home early enough that we weren’t dying of hunger, so we took our time exploring the restaurants and picking out a place we wanted to eat.  It was a quite… colorful little shop, with plates and napkins and silverware and placemats all different bright pastels – but when the food came out, we could barely notice the colors.  It was amazing!  Bjorn and I shared a pizza & sea bass (originally it was going to be Tuna Steak, but they ran out), and Daniel and I started out with a plate of calamari.  Interestingly, they don’t really hold to the “bring all the food out at once” rule that US restaurants do… instead we got a trickle of plates, which caused some of us to look on longingly as the others ate their dishes.  But the wine was excellent, and that made up for it all.
    • Friday also found the girls heading back to the house early, to pack up their stuff.  Us guys stayed out a bit later instead, stopping in at a Grand Marnier creperie.  Seriously.  They made crepes.  With Grand Marnier.  I had nutella.  I also used their massive, 2+ liter bottle of cognac to sprinkle more than a little extra on top.  Holy crap.  Crepes.  Nutella.  Cognac.  Yum.

 

What else can I say about our time in Cassis?  We never really met too many locals, since we spent so much time climbing and steering away from the restaurants in order to conserve a bit of money on the trip.  Those that we did meet were just as likely tourists, though everyone was quite friendly and polite.  At no point did I really feel the “disdain of the French” that I hear so much about.  It may have helped that I learned a few small phrases, and that Daniel spoke conversational French… but honestly I think it was just the attitude.  We weren’t there to gawk at people, and we were as culturally sensitive as we could be.  And since we didn’t go out a ton of times, we sort of minimized the chances that we could shove our feet into our mouths.

Spring Break 2014 – A rest day in France

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Monday, 19-May-2014

Location: Cassis and the Provence region in general, also Avignon!

 

My second full day in France, it rained.

 

I woke up being a little surprised – We had spent a lot of time planning climbing the previous night, but I couldn’t hear anyone else around the house getting ready… as I left the room, everyone was sitting on the couch looking a bit dejected.  The rain pattering against the bay window told me why.

So, instead of heading directly to the climbing, we took a light breakfast at the house and then all rain-geared-up, and jumped in the car to look at Lilac fields.

 

The first stop?  The Abbaye Notre-Dame de Senanque, a small Cistercian abbey that’s known as one of the best examples of it’s style of architecture.

On the way over, we stopped in the small fortified town of Gordes first, to grab ourselves a bit of lunch and exploring before we subjected ourselves to the silence and reverence of walking through a working abbey…

  • Gordes is an old city… it was founded far before Roman times, but the majority of the architecture still shows the Roman influences – it’s tight up on a hill, full of narrow streets, winding staircases, and fortified walls.  Some of these walls even have cacti growing up around them… though whether that was a defensive measure or simply nature reclaiming it’s own I couldn’t tell.
  • Walking around the city was beautiful – we did stop into the castle / Chateau quickly, but it was honestly a bit of a let down.  It had some history, but not really all that much.  I found the real joy in just wandering around town, looking at all the little doorways, small corners, and little streets.
  • Lunch!  Always a good thing to have when it’s lunch time, and we had ours on one of the mid-layer walls, overlooking the fields and a whole bunch of cacti.  Panninis were the word of the day, from a little shop in what looked like an old wine cellar.  So good, though it did remind me how little French I understand, when I had to ask Daniel how to find the bathroom :/  Slowly but surely, I’m picking up what I need to know…

 

After exploring Gordes we made our move on the abbey – there was some debate about walking over to it, instead of driving, but time constraints kept us in the car.  Hindsight showed that to be a very good decision, as the road down to the abbey was rather terrifying to drive down… though the trips to Luminy and Morgieu would show us just how bad French roads can actually get…

  • The Abbey is Catholic… though you’d never guess from looking at it.  Ornamentation is strictly forbidden here – the only “pretty” things here was a statue of Mary & Jesus, a small demon-face to remind the abbot about the stakes of his work, and the cross itself.  Beds were far too luxurious for these monks, as was finished walls – the dormitory simply had straw mats and rough, unfinished stone walls.
  • The tour was conducted solely in French… very interesting for Daniel, but not so much for me.  I admit that I may have gotten a little bit bored while listening to our guide discuss the intricacies of the courtyard and the numerology inherent in the number of arches, but it was still quite a relaxing time, and a good chance to take many interesting pictures.
  • The grounds were amazing!  The Lilac’s weren’t in bloom just yet, but the whole area was just… serene.  The monks definitely chose a good valley to build their abbey in all those years ago…

After the Abbey tour was done, and we successfully navigated our way back up the terrifying road out of the valley, Daniel turned the wheel toward the old city of Avignon, where we were planning on doing a bit of exploring, and a bit of dining… But the drive took a bit longer than anticipated.  You see, the GPS system that Daniel got for his iPad has a double-negative for the “do you want toll roads” setting.. it asks “would you not like to avoid toll roads?”, and we may have chosen the wrong option… which led us down a horrible series of tiny little back roads.  Somehow we survived though, and saw the walls of Avignon ahead of us…

  • We drive through a tunnel through a fortified wall, and park underneath a castle.  Dude.  USA?  This is why everyone thinks Europe is cooler than you.  Back in the States we have oil fields and McDonalds.  Can you feel the difference here?
  • The castle we parked under was called the Papal Palace… unique, because no popes ever lived here.  One’s buried here though, so it’s a very popular pilgrimage site I guess.
  • Pictures!  So many pictures!
  • Walking through French cities is a bit amazing – the buildings are these contrast of gigantic and imposing stone structures on the main boulevards, and then tiny little streets with tiny little houses and shops on the side streets.  I’m sure some cities in the US are the same way, but it’s just so… old, here.  People never spread out, and so much effort was put in to fit so many houses within the walls of the city…
  • We scouted a ton of places for dinner – starting on the main drag, then following a few small streets, before we finally settled in to eat at one of the earlier places that we saw.  As is traditional in this area, fish was a big part of the menu… so I ended up with Salmon again – not a bad thing at all.  A quick walk found us gelato, and a quick purchase found that I can almost order stuff in French!  If I watch three people do it first.  And memorize how much it costs, so I already know how to give him change…  aww.
  • So I never took French in school… but if I had, I guess I would have heard some poem / song about a bridge?  In Avignon?  Daniel and Erin took French in school, and they’d heard a song about a bridge in Avignon.  The song is about dancing, so… off we go to Dance!  Nope.  Bridge is closed for reconstruction.  So instead, we all dance UNDER the bridge!  Aww yeah Chili Peppers.

Thankfully, the drive back to the Villa was a lot less… adventurous… as the drive to Avignon.  We got the GPS working right (after a few miles…) and made a beeline on the main roads back.  Nice, simple, and efficient.