Duomo’s Rooftop, A Sculpture Garden In The Sky

My favorite part about visiting the Duomo was the rooftop.  I’ve been to cathedral’s (like Strasbourg) where you can visit the bell tower, but I don’t know of any where you can visit the roof.  The Duomo’s is filled with statues (there are over 135 spires and 10x more statues), making the rooftop a sort of sculpture gallery with a stellar view of the city.

We always try to take the stairs, so we bought a ticket for the stairs instead of the elevator.  On a 35-degree day, it was an economically good, but exceptionally hot choice.  With views like these, who cares?

I brought my big lens with me and had a blast playing with it.

All of the statues are different.  Many of the ones that depict martyred saints were a bit gory.

The perspective was fascinating.   It was like walking through a forest of spires and statues.  I don’t like open heights, but there was no way I was missing this!

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Camels And Falcons And Henna, Oh My!

Okay, okay, I know it is cheesy and a bit hokey, but I couldn’t help but enjoy myself at the “Arabian campsite” on my desert excursion.  I wish I’d been able to stay the night out in the desert, but settled for a sunset dinner.

Even with those sweet eyelashes and innocent eyes, I was glad that he had his muzzle on so he didn’t spit on me.

There were camels to ride outside the site and I immediately did it.  I couldn’t pass up my first (and perhaps only) opportunity to ride a camel.  Someone had warned me to hold on tight as the camel got up so it was surprisingly easy.

Falconry is popular in the region and we were treated to a falconry demonstration.  It was impressive.  After learning about raptors at the Carolina Raptor Center, I find them interesting, impressive animals.

The falconer takes off the mask, releases the bird, and swings the meat around on a string for the hawk grab.  Falcons come back for food.

Some people took advantage of the henna painters.  Others enjoyed smoking sheesha pipes.  A traditional pastime in Dubai, sheesha (also known as narghile in Turkey and hookah in India and Pakistan) is a long-stemmed smoking pipe packed with flavored tobacco.  I didn’t partake in that either, but I heard that Strawberry is the most popular favor.

I love middle-eastern food more than just about any other cuisine and was super excited for the spread.  In fact, I was so busy scarfing it down that I didn’t get a picture.  Sorry.

Luckily I was done eating by the time the belly-dancing started.  I love belly-dancing and the belly dancer was much better than I expected.  She performed in the heat for over a half an hour and had people mesmirised.  It is easy to see why.

Kicking Up Some Sand Dune Bashing In The Desert

I couldn’t visit Dubai without making a quick trip to see the desert.  On the way out, we passed a camel racing track.  Camel racing is huge in Dubai.  The season runs from late October to early April so we weren’t able to catch any races.

Dubai received bad publicity for the abduction/enslavement of boys for use as jockeys in camel races (the lawsuit was dismissed). To avoid using child jockeys, at least in part because of the inherent danger of the jockeying, Dubai now uses robot jockeys.  They look pretty sweet.

A visit to the desert isn’t as peaceful as you’d think. The desolate Sahara this is not.  We dove out the busy highway connecting Dubai to Abu Dhabi.  It is also a dangerous road; driver’s have to watch out for high-end sports car’s flying down the road.  I heard that you have to constantly be on the lookout for them coming up behind you and they expecting you to get over.  You also have to be on the lookout for camels.  As all camels in the United Arab Emirates are privately owned, hitting one, even if by accident, exposes the driver to massive fines, restitution and jail time!

In the distance you can see a bedouin village. They now pitch their tents and sit on rugs inside air-conditioned buildings.

What I did out there, dune bashing, wasn’t exactly peaceful.  It was exhilarating and tons of fun.

We followed a caravan of Toyota Land Cruisers out to the Arabian Desert.  Our guide told us these were the best vehicles for desert driving, although they continue to test new ones every year.  You might catch a glimpse of the test vehicle in some of the photos.  Once we were sufficiently far out and had deflated our tires for the desert driving, our guide pressed play in the CD player and gunned it.  I loved being thrown around the sand with the music blaring.

The sand differs in each Emirate. The redder sand blew in from another Emirate.

It was great fun and I was even able to sneak a glimpse at the sun setting over the stunning sand dunes…when sand wasn’t splashing on the windows.

After a couple of stops to take in the beautiful scenery, aka photo ops, we piled back into the Land Cruiser and headed toward our “Arabian campsite” for a sunset dinner.

Saas (Not SaaS) Fee, Another Cute Swiss Ski Town

Sorry, this post about Saas, is not about Software as a Service (SaaS), but about the town of Saas Fee, Switzerland.    While there are several reasons to go to Saas Fee, the real attraction is its location surrounded by some of Switzerland’s tallest mountains.  Saas Fee sits at over 1800 meters ( 5,905 feet, 1.18 miles) and is surrounded by over 13 peaks of over 4000 meters (13,123 feet, 2.485 miles)!

Like nearby Zermatt, it is an adorable car-free ski town with gorgeous views.   Because it doesn’t have a view of the Matterhorn (only other giant, stunningly beautiful mountains) and doesn’t have a rail stop, Saas Fee is smaller and slightly quieter.  As a result, it is a bit more of a family destination.  Don’t be fooled into thinking Saas Fee is quiet or sleepy.  Whether it is an apres-ski bar or clubbing at night, you will be able to do it in Saas Fee.

Until a two-lane road linking Saas Grund to the village of Saas Fee was completed in 1951, Saas Fee was inaccessible by car.  The buildings are a mix of modern hotels, shops and small traditional, weathered farm buildings.

We enjoyed strolling Saas Fee’s car-free streets.  It was great fun to look at the at shop windows.  Although shops keep typically Swiss hours (with the exception of ski shops), there are many and varied.

If skiing isn’t your thing, you can try curling, ice skating, indoor swimming, mountaineering, sleigh riding, indoor tennis/badminton, dog sledding/mushing tours, sledding, night sledding, snow tubing, snowshoe trekking, or ice climbing (which sounds both dangerous and beautiful).

Saas Fee is where Wham‘s “Last Christmas” was filmed.  Just click on the link to enjoy (and search for a new hairstyle).

An Underground Lake!

When we went to the Matterhorn, we saw the geology of Switzerland firsthand.  On the way back, our quads were sore and we weren’t up to another big hike.  As a result, we decided to see the underground lake at St. Leonard in Valais.  It was touristy, a bit cheesy, another geology lesson and cooler than I am making it sound.  

The lake was discovered in 1943, during a the search for water in a drought.* In 1946 an earthquake opened some more fissures that lowered the water-level.  This made it accessible.   We entered down the stairs and climbed into these large rowboats.  Sorry if the pictures are blurry.  The low light and the movement of the boat (and the other 41 people on it), made them challenging to take.   They definitely do not do its beauty justice.
The water in Switzerland’s lakes is lovely and crystal clear.  The water in this cave is even more so.  It is a constant at 11 °C (52 °F) and it is always 15 °C (59 °F).
 

How can there be fish in this lake you ask?  So did we.  They are Rainbow Trout.  They have no natural food source and no predators so they were HUGE.  The guide feeds them from the rowboat.  They were pretty cool to see up close.  I’m not sure who was more into them, the kids in the boat or their parents.

The lake was closed from 2000 to 2003, to improve the cave’s stability.  Clearly, they put in tons of ceiling support.  If I remember correctly, each side of the cave is a different type of stone and the ceiling is a third.   Unfortunately, that one is softer (I don’t want to give you the wrong type so I won’t name it).

*St. Leonard lies in an area of Valais that is the sunniest part of Switzerland.

“Cheese – Milk’s Leap Toward Immortality”*

Skanky B, Homie G, MC Roni and I toured the Cheese  Factory in Gruyères.* The highlights were:

  • the free samples of cheese,
  • the scents of all the wonderful alpine plants the cows eat in the mountains, and
  • the demonstration.

For more information on the tour and the town, check out The Swiss Watch Blog’s Gruyères post.

What is the logical follow up to such an adventure? Fondue, of course.

Check out the cow bell and the view
Sooo tasty

If you are visiting the greater Geneva area and are not a hiker (there are great places to hike near Gruyères), you can take the chocolate train.  It is a great way to see beautiful scenery, the cheese tour, Gruyeres and the Cailler chocolate factory in a single day.

*I just learned that there is a second cheese factory in the mountains around Gruyères. Don’t worry about being uninformed, I will try that one for you too.





Beer Tours – If You Want To Improve Yours, Just Ask Us?

We’ve had a beer or two on our day and have been on a few brewery tours. While we were in Copenhagen, we toured Carlsberg.
Carlsburg had several things going for it.  It has decent beer (sorry Heineken). It has a nice campus. It has a decent place to sit and drink your free beers.  One of the best parts of the tour was the Guinness (ironic) Book of Records certified world’s largest collection of unopened beer bottles (currently +/- 20,000). The other nice part was the history of the company and it’s role in Danish society.
Sorry, I couldn’t fit them all in. Not even close.
They have a copy of The Little Mermaid Statue. The family commissioned the one in the harbor.  You get to see a bunch of old machinery and, like the Budweiser tour, there are stables with horses (no horses in the stables on the Heineken tour).
 

Several things go into making a good tour.  We enjoy a tour and here are some easy ways to make a factory/product tour better:

  • Show funny old commercials. Even ones that the suits setting up the tour don’t think are funny.
  • Have a location with a view.  Look out over mountains, the sea, the city, even a garden. Guinness does a good job with this.  Their Gravity Bar has the best view of Dublin.
The second best part of the Guinness tour
  • Provide plenty of silly photo ops.
  • Try not to be as obvious about making it a giant commercial for your product. Yes, Guinness Tour I am talking to you. Miller, please pay attention as well.  World of Coca-Cola in Atlanta, you might be a lost cause.
  • Have knowledgeable people who can actually answer questions about the product. Olde Mecklenburg, Thomas Creek and lots of American microbrews do this well.
  • If at all possible, try to show production.  We eat it up. I’m not sure if you can still do it, but you used to be able to do this at Yuengling and some of the Milwaukee breweries.

 

Chocoholics Anonymous

Skanky B, Homie G, MC Roni enjoying hot chocolate
Yes. It really was this cool (despite what the lady in pink thought).
Skanky B, Homie G, MC Roni* and I toured the Cailler Chocolate Factory (located in Bulle, near Gruyeres). When you walk up, you smell chocolate. They must pump the smell out there because it was ridiculous. If only I could smell that good…
While waiting to start the tour, we had hot chocolate in the cafe. Yes. We were coloring. My drawing is up on my fridge. After color time, we went to the movie theater (with chocolates purchased from the gift shop) to watch old commercials. They were quite entertaining, perhaps even more so because they were in French.  You go through a Disney style telling of the history of chocolate before getting to the star of the tour, the chocolate itself. There is a room where you get to learn about, smell and touch the ingredients.
The tour just kept getting better and better. Next, you got to see a sample production line for Cailler’s Branches.
What do they do with that freshly made chocolate? They let you eat it! This is where the tour started to get really good. At this point, we were pretty much thinking that this was the best tour ever. We camped out here for a good five minutes eating.
Then, we went to the next room and the tour got even better! They had a giant room with all of their delectable products. You could spend as long as you wanted there and eat as much of it as you wanted!!!This is where we did America proud. We gorged ourselves. It was gluttony at its finest and also a bit embarrassing (not that we minded because our mouths were full of chocolate). They were not going to hurry us out of there or limit our consumption. Nevertheless, we were like Augustus Gloop at Mr. Wonka’s chocolate factory stuffing our faces as fast as we could.

 

My personal favorite
You can’t see our teeth because our mouths were full.
We stumbled out of the tasting room in a chocolate haze. Here are some photos from the gift shop:
You can scroll to the top to see the before.  This is the after.
 
Clearly, we were on a bit of a sugar high.
By the way, if you come to visit, the factory also has a kitchen where they give chocolate cooking classes. They fill up so be sure to pre-book well in advance.
*Names have been changed to protect the not so innocent.