Tuesday, 31 January 2012

Snowboarding at Bansko, Bulgaria

We have just finished 3 days of skiing and snowboarding at Bansko Ski Resort in Bansko, Bulgaria. Bansko is one of the premier ski resorts in Eastern Europe and there were World Cup races here in 2009 and 2011. It was a very fun trip and we had no injuries, except for sore muscles! Bansko is a village about 5 ½ hours from where we are staying in Greece, although it took us about 8 ½ hours to get there through the mountains. We came with Andreas and 2 of his Greek friends and we had 2 apartments in the same building. They were located about 200m from the base of the slope. The village is at about 900m and the main gondola lodge about 1635m. The highest chairlift goes up to 2700m and there are lots of different lifts and runs.

Driving in Greece was fine but once we crossed the border it was a whole new experience. Narrow, winding mountain roads over a mountain pass where we saw horses and cattle loose and grazing on the road/roadside. Stephen and I learned a new winter driving skill – how to put chains onto tires – once we hit the snow in the mountains. We followed Andreas on the drive home and discovered that we had take the scenic route over the mountains to get to Bansko on Thursday. There was a relatively flat highway that we could have followed all the way, thereby eliminating the need to put on the chains and the scary driving in the dark, but then we wouldn’t have seen the cows and horses on the road. 

To get to the main ski lodge, you had to take a gondola ride that took about 15 minutes. The view was unbelievable – huge, tall trees and mountain peaks in the distance. Friday was sunny and relatively warm but Saturday, the weather got colder and Sunday, it was even colder and snowing.  I did go up to the top on Friday but wasn’t cold anymore by the time I got down with the increase in heart rate and blood pressure caused by the descent.

The boys meanwhile had very little trouble on their snowboards and after a few runs getting comfortable they were back to last year’s form. Saturday and Sunday, I had to let them go off with Stephen and find an easy loop that I kept doing until it felt easy and then gradually added more difficulty. The problem is that there are only 3 grades of difficulty and the 5km descent from the top gondola station down to the village gondola station (700m drop) is classed at easy, but so is a run that has a big wall in the middle.
We met people on the chair lifts and gondolas from UK, Rochester NY, Serbia, Turkey, Greece, Israel, Bulgaria, and Russia. The Europeans like to come here because it is cheaper for them than going to the Alps. The food is relatively cheap and the village has lots of tourist shops and restaurants for the evening.  We all got a little sun, so we are looking tanned and fit again. Monday we will drive home and Tuesday, it’s back to school and gymnastics.
In the meantime, today (Sunday) is the World Championships cyclocross race back in Koksijde, Belgium, so shortly before 1600h local time Stephen and the boys started developing nervous tics due to the fact that the apartment has no internet nor any way to see the race!
Anyways, we are home in Trikala now and the weather here had taken a change in the chillier direction and there are even snowflakes in the air this morning. 

Wednesday, 25 January 2012

Anyone Want a Velodrome?

The Greeks are crazy. On the grounds of the sport sciences department here in Trikala, there is a never-completed velodrome (bicycle racing track) sitting all by its lonesome! Apparently, a company donated it for here to be used as a training centre for cyclists prior to the Athens 2004 Olympics, but the facility was never finished. I might need to go at it with a big power sander and fix it up myself!

And yes, those are big snow-covered mountains way beyond. I rode out to the mountain village of Kori last Sunday, with a HARD 10% grade for 8km, with switchbacks lying one of top of the other and rocks from mini-rockslides all along the road. Made for really tricky descending! Photos coming soon. Lots and lots of quiet roads with maybe 2 cars passing me in an hour, and I get the treat of not needing long gloves or to bundle up like crazy even in January! The roads are also very smooth, and the main hazards consists of wild chickens and dogs roaming the roads!

We're heading to Bansko resort in Bulgaria (Euro country #11!) Thursday-Monday with Andreas to get in our snowboarding fix. Have a great weekend!

Tuesday, 24 January 2012

Our New Classroom

For the first time in their lives, Zachary and Jacob have started to go to school every day! Since we have no internet at the apartment in Greece, we  have started going in to the office with Stephen. He is at the University of Thessaly, Department of Sport Science located in Trikala. There is only the Sport Science Department located here (the rest of the university is in Larissa, 60 km to the east!) and it is comprised of 3 buildings and is about 5 minutes walk away from the staff offices where we work.

We have a classroom all to ourselves. It has about 10 computers and Wifi and a nice big table to work at. Outside we can see the other offices and the courtyard where people bring their dogs to work with them. So the good thing is that we can all be doing computer stuff on big computer screens instead of a laptop or the little Hac!

We even get to eat at the cafeteria! They provide lunch and dinner every day. It's a rotating menu and I'm sure that we will be tired of it by the time we leave the the idea of not having to shop and cook for 2 months has me really excited. See the fancy tableware! The price is insane: 4.4EUR ($6.50CAN) for the four of us for lunch AND dinner!

Here's the courtyard of the small primary school annex where Andreas and other staff have their offices. There's a kitchen area here, complete with a Nespresso machine for that all-important midday coffee. The washrooms are half outdoors but at least they're not latrines!

Monday, 23 January 2012

Strength to our Friends Afar

One of the challenges of a vagabond lifestyle is that we have friends all around the world. So when something happens, we can only send our best thoughts from afar, and can feel really helpless to actually help out in any real or physical way. My ISU pal Olaf, who we spent 3 wonderful weeks with in August, just emailed that his beloved mother Julie passed away. Olaf awes me with his dedication to his family and we have so many great talks about life, so I can only imagine how hard this is for him. Olaf, the whole Clan MacCheung loves you, and sends our deepest condolences to you and your family.
We also wish the best for Zachary and Jacob's friend Scott Gemmell back in St. Catharines. To their family's shock, Scott was just diagnosed with leukaemia and is starting four weeks of chemotherapy at McMaster University Hospital in Hamilton. We hope Scott fights as hard as he plays in football, and also wish for strength for the whole family.

Friday, 20 January 2012

The Three Musketeers

We are going to the lab every day to do our school work because we don't have any internet at our apartment. The offices are in one section of a primary school, so after all these years of homeschooling we're now attending school every day! We have a classroom in the main computer lab all to ourselves, but the good part is that there are four cute doggies at the lab. Their names are Danna, Molly, a pug named Pooka, all three of them are 2 years old. Later we learned that there is another dog named Vavu who is 5 years old. Out of all of them Pooka likes to play with the toys the most but sometimes a few/all of them are fighting over them at once. For some reason Danna and Molly are the most playful in the evening. Out of Molly and Danna, Molly seems to be the boss.

On The Left is a picture of Molly and on the right is a picture of Pooka, with all his toys (which consist of a ball and a rope toy).
Here is a picture of Danna with Jacob

Thursday, 19 January 2012

Killer Trip from Brussels to Trikala

We left Brussels on Monday morning after our 2 ½ month stay there to head to Trikala, Greece. Thanks to Maija Besky for picking us up and driving us to the airport. We left home at 9:00AM and arrived at the airport quickly despite busy traffic time. Clear sailing through check in and security but once we got through security we found out our 12:00 flight had been delayed to 1:00, then 2:00, then 3:00 then 5:00 and finally 7:45. The plane was apparently held up in Strasbourg, France for uncertain reasons. The only consolation was that we were given vouchers for 2 free flights.  Then after boarding, there was a man on the plane who was sick (throwing up sick!) and of course he was seated right in front of us. There was a delay until airport staff came to remove him from the plane and for other staff to come in and clean.
So our 4:30pm Athens arrival turned into a midnight Athens arrival. (The second time we have flown into Athens at midnight this year!). We had planned to try to find a hotel to stay the night and then get the car from Petros’ wife in the morning but of course more complications – wee missed the last airport train of the night which went at midnight and there was a general transit strike scheduled for the next day.  So we decided the best course of action was to take a taxi to get the car and head for Trikala and drive during the night (at least there was little traffic). The taxi took us to almost the right address but not the right street so Stephen had to walk to meet Maria and get the car. I think we finally headed out of Athens at about 2:00am. The 4.5 hour drive to Trikala was quite smooth but when we got there Stephen’s Greek sim card had run out of credit and we couldn’t call Petros to let him know we arrived and Stephen didn’t want to go knocking on unknown apartment doors. Finally about 8AM we met up with Petros and got into the apartment.
Despite all that we can be thankful that Zachary and Jacob were incredibly patient and got some sleep on the way. At the airport, we met a young man named Rico from Holland and spent a good amount of time chatting about travel, bicycle design, cycling in general, watches, computers and he loaded up Stephen’s hard drives with some Greek audio lessons and movies. Also, the apartment here is really nice – it is large, new and very homey. It even has 2 large balconies, which the boys liked and it has a view of the Pindos Mountain Range – the peaks are snow covered right now. It is very cold here today (-1C) but hopefully it will warm up soon. 

Wednesday, 18 January 2012

Omega Pharma - Quick-Step Cycling Team Launch!

Part of my not-so-hidden agenda when planning out this whole sabbatical year was to be locate myself in the heart of cycling-mad Belgium during the fall cyclocross season. As you've seen, that's worked spectacularly well with our getting to the cyclocross races in person and also becoming a rabid fan watching TV on the weekends.

One final bonus to our time here was getting the invite to the big team presentation for the Omega Pharma - Quick-Step professional cycling team. Under various sponsors, this team has been around for twenty years at the very highest level of the sport, and has won pretty much everything short of the Tour de France itself. I ended up having lunch with Zdenek Stybar, two-time defending World Cyclocross Champion. A fun way to wind up our Belgian experience!

BTW, Stybar's stylish outfit is because the team is sponsored by Pablo Nero, a fashion house from Antwerp. Sure beats the typical sweats and hoodies cyclists get sent by their team! And lucky me, the loot bag I was given for attending included a Pablo Nero tie, cuff links, and pocket kerchief in the team's light blue colour, the same as what the directors and team bosses get - I might have to dress up more at work now! That's team boss Patrick Lefevere modelling my fancy new tie and handkerchief.

And here's my PezCycling News article on the team launch!

Tuesday, 17 January 2012

Great Snakes - it's Tintin!

Besides Manneken Pis, Tintin is of course Brussels other famous resident, in case you haven't noticed from how many blogs we've devoted to the intrepid reporter. On Friday me, Mom and Jacob decided to go and find a Tintin statue. It was a life size statue of Tintin and Snowy and it is at the Uccle Cultural Center. it was made by Nat Neujeun who is a Belgian sculptor. It was commissioned by Raymond Leblanc who is the publisher of the Tintin magazine, 'Le Petit Vingtieme.'

Mommy with Snowy (Milou in the original Francais). He's a fox terrier and loves his bones.
On the left is one of several Tintin murals throughout the city. On the right is a cafe named after Tintin's adventures in China.

So it's time to say "au revoir Brussels!" Onwards to Greece! (postscript: we have now arrived in Trikala safe and mostly sound but sleep deprived). Well, maybe a couple more Belgian posts still to go...

Sunday, 15 January 2012

The Cannibal

In case you haven't been paying attention, Belgium is truly nuts for cycling, so I fit in perfectly here. How nutty? Along with Manneken Pis and Tintin, my podium for top 3 most famous Brussels resident is the one and only Eddy Merckx, the greatest cyclist in history . Racing from the mid 1960s to 1978, Eddy won over 500 races! This included 5 Tours de France, 5 Giri d'Italia, and 1 Vuelta d'Espana, along with 3 World Championships. Add to that repeatedly winning just about every race worth winning, and his nickname became the Cannibal.

So you want proof that Belgium loves cycling? Eddy even has a metro stop named after him on the #5 metro line! And at the metro station is his bike that he rode to the world hour record (longest distance you can ride in one hour), the most prestigious record in the sport. He did this in 1972 at Mexico City, an effort he prepared meticulously for and said likely shortened his career by a few years.

The record was broken in 1984 by the Italian Francesco Moser, using the first aerodynamic time trial bikes and disc wheels. Ultimately, in the late 1990s, aerodynamics had created such a backlash that the UCI (Union Cycliste International) "reset" the hour record guidelines to what's popularly called "Eddy Merckx" rules. This mean not more aerodynamic bikes, wheels, or even helmets.  So what happened then? In 2000, even with 3 decades of improved sport science, athlete support, nutrition, training, and bike technology, the great British cyclist Chris Boardman (who owned the "non-Eddy rules" hour record at 56.375 km), just managed to better Eddy's 1972 mark of 49.431 km by TEN metres, and where it still stands today!
The bike is painted "Eddy Merckx" (Eddy started his own bike company after his retirement) but was made by the famed Italian frame maker Ugo de Rosa (I also own a De Rosa!). How cool is it? The bike has pictures of Eddy on the head tube and seat tube! It's also painted orange to match his sponsor Molteni. And check out the chainrings on the right - they're stamped with "E-D-D-Y"! Even though the record is done on a cycling track where light weight isn't a huge issue, you can still see Eddy's passion for the lightest equipment in the cutouts on the cranks.

Thursday, 12 January 2012

Stefan's Visit

This is a picture of Stefan in front
of the Tintin store.
Over the Christmas break, we had a visit from our big brother Stefan.
I only remember Stefan with long hair, my first thought was how was he covering all his hair with his hat but then I realized that he had a hair cut.
Some of the things we did with Stefan was,
-see Manikin pis
-eat waffles
-watch "The Iron Giant"
-played a lot of games
-saw his pictures from Mongolia
-Stefan also made pizza for all of us, and
-He came to watch us at gymnastics

Here is my first cross stitch with some chocolate for Stefan.
Here we are eating our first meal with Stefan after  3 and a half years.

Wednesday, 11 January 2012

The Artist as a Young Man

A gallery of Jacob's recent masterpieces from his "Belgian Phase"

The modern classic "Ducks in a Pond." A clue to its being completed during the Belgian Immersion period of Jacob's career are the multitudes of cobblestones on the right, which are nicknamed "kinderkop" (children heads!) in cycling parlance.

The inspired "Lego my Apple" combining both still life of an Apple logo with a portrait from Lego Heroica. Very few artists have been able to master either style, let alone combine them in a single drawing that, with its sword flying through the heart of the apple, also raises a cautionary tale for our times.

The artist fuelling himself with turbocharged Nutella Pizza (not a typo - Nutella Pizza!) at Mamma Roma's pizza parlour on the left, and rocking my Smith shades and his Eneco multipurpose thingy (how else to describe that bit of fabric that you can turn into a bandana, headband, balaclava, scarf, and whatnot?). PR folks from Eneco (energy company) were giving them out at the Zolder CX race if you answered a survey, which Debbie did to get one. Later on, they saw me and realized I was hopelessly non-Belgian and gave me one, helped by Jacob batting his long eyelashes at the girl!

Monday, 9 January 2012

ABBA Overload!

Over the holidays, we watched the DVD of "Mamma Mia!" The boys thought bits of it were funny and such, but of course Debbie and I rather enjoy the ABBA songs. With Jacob and myself at home alone this  (Monday) evening, we were walking around La Cambre park in the late afternoon when both of us started getting "Waterloo" stuck in our heads, probably due to the actual original Waterloo town being so close by. Next thing you know, we spent the evening in full ABBA overload mode, listening to the entire ABBA "Gold" greatest hits album and rewatching "Mamma Mia!" I'll put it down to retroactive Swedish music appreciation lessons!

Manneken Pis

Can you believe that it's pretty much our last week in Brussels and we're only now posting about its most famous resident?
(By Debbie)
I don’t quite understand it but one of the most famous landmarks in Brussels is the Manneken Pis. I think there is scarcely a tourist who comes here who doesn’t make the pilgrimage to find this little boy peeing in a fountain. The fountain has been here since 1618 (it's been stolen a few times and the original is now at the Royal Palace, with the currently replica there since 1965) and the statue is remarkably small (about 61cm). It is surrounded by a little greenery, a wrought iron black fence and security cameras. 
The Manneken Pis is a surprisingly well-dressed statue. He owns over 600 outfits and many of them are on display at the City of Brussels Museum. He can be an astronaut, a cowboy, a hockey player, a policeman and English bobby, a Native American and the list goes on and on.
I must admit that we have made a few trips to visit him. When we are in the neighbourhood of Manneken Pis we will wander by to “see what he is wearing today”. We have seen him with no clothes on, as Santa Claus, a baker, with a knitted condom for AIDS awareness day and as a blind person for Louis Braille’s birthday on January 4. Of course, the 1EUR waffles across the street from him couldn’t be contributing to our fascination to the site, could it?
Of much lesser known fame is Manneken’s lesser known female counterpart – Jeaneke Pis. She is much newer, only being built in 1985. She is located at the end of a short dead-end alleyway and there is no sign indicating the way. She is protected by a locked wrought iron fence, doesn’t have a working fountain and isn’t surrounded by the crowds of tourists that Mannekin usually is. Although the day were there, a large guided tour came along just when we were trying to get a picture. There are other Manneken Pis statues in other Belgian towns too.
There are lots of stories explaining the history and origins of Manneken Pis but no consensus. Some stories involve a boy peeing on a lit fuse to prevent a big explosion, another about peeing on a fire to save the Royal Palace (that'd be one big bladder!), even about a boy plugging up a leak in a dam with you know what!