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A Cyclist Without His Wheels


A hiker’s signpost. Copyright: Tyson Brooks.A cog train traveling at a 45-degree angle slowly groaned up a steep slope, taking me high into the Swiss Alps. It had taken eight trains to reach Gimmelwald in the Jungfrau Region of Switzerland from Bingen, Germany, but it was well worth the effort. Waterfalls cascaded thousands of feet down to lush green valleys. Villages of half- timbered houses stood high above the valley on grassy slopes.

 

The Swiss commute mainly on foot, using small but tough 4x4s to cart supplies around the local towns. Cows with oversized cowbells were kept in their huge pastures by electric fences. Other local transportation was by gondola. In the winter, cows ride down the mountain in these gondolas to be made into steaks and rib roasts.

After a 500-meter descent down a steep switchback road from the town of Murren, I arrived at Gimmelwald. The hostel there had a great view and an even better band: two yodelers playing accordion.

The Alpine village of Murren. Copyright: Tyson Brooks.The hiking around Gimmelwald was superb. Heavy fog and clouds would open briefly to reveal fantastic peaks and breathtaking valleys. The Jungfrau Region could be seen all around me while the Schildhorn rose above. Cowbells jingled and clanked as I walked blindly through the fog. Occasionally I would get a glimpse of a set of horns, or hear the sound of a Swiss farmer herding his cows to be milked. One Swiss fellow apologized profusely for the thick fog and lack of a view. Despite the continuous veil of mist, I consider the Alps to be the most beautiful region I have ever visited.

That night I moved over to "Sleep in the Straw" in Gimmelwald. It is a working barn that houses cows in the winter and sleeping tourists in the summer. I slept in a stall on straw. It was one of the best sleeps I had enjoyed on my trip so far, despite the strong barn smell. In the morning the owner provided a delicious breakfast of fresh milk, home-baked bread and fresh eggs from the chicken coop out front. He explained how the cement and building material had been flown up by helicopter from Interlaken. Life is hard for the locals. They cut hay by hand (it is too steep for tractors) and work non-stop to make ends meet, but the Swiss government still subsidizes life on these high slopes.

The Sadly I had to move on. I took a train to Milan, a rather ugly Italian City known for its fashionable chic. The locals were dressed to the nines but there was little else to see. I caught the overnight train to Brindisi. The train with its old compartments and fully-opening windows was filled with Italians leaning out waving to friends and family. I found a compartment with a fairly quiet father and his two adult sons. We communicated solely by mime as they spoke no English and I even less Italian.I noticed that some Italian families would close the compartment doors and draw the curtains even though there were extra seats. This effectively ensured most tourists slept on the corridor floor.

Somehow I had lucked out with this kind Italian family – or so I thought – until their grandfather slowly took over my space. He started by watching me from his seat, studying me in an eerie sort of way. He then put his feet up on my armrest as I countered his move with a stare of distrust. He returned a gesture that implied it was okay. I relaxed reluctantly only to lose a little more space. Eventually deciding that enough was enough, I abandoned my seat to the grandfather and forced the other two Italians to vacate the middle two seats. I stretched out, claiming these middle seats as my own. The grandfather seemed content with his two seats, so I promptly catnapped while secretly keeping an eye on the situation and my belongings.

The train chugged along and a hot wind whistled through the cabin. At sunup we stopped in Brindisi. After an afternoon catamaran ride to Corfu (I was slyly upgraded for an extra fee), I boarded a bus to the infamous Pink Palace, too lazy to sort through the sea of information the Greek touts were offering me about other accommodation.

The Pink Palace is a sprawling pink hostel that rambles down a mountainside to the breathtaking blue of the sea. It is essentially a poor man's all-inclusive resort. A terrible breakfast, a worse dinner and a smoky nightclub are all included in the US$20 a night price tag. North American backpackers checked in by the hordes and watered down, pink ouzo flowed for free. Many stayed here for up to a week, with the unofficial record being 41 days. Guests would admit to missing entire areas of Europe to spend more time in the very American Pink Palace. It was easy, cheap and homelike; a big draw for the often-homesick masses.

The view from Corfu’s storied Pink Palace. Copyright: Tyson Brooks.An hour scramble up an impressive limestone pinnacle above the Pink Palace brought solitude and a great view. Those that I had convinced to join me returned bloody and tired from fighting the brambles and thorns on the way up, but all agreed that the incredible view had been worth the effort.

Corfu's port city is a cheap bus ride away. The old town is wedged between two fortresses and the sea. Many of the roads are too narrow for cars so vendors line up to sell trinkets, unique Greek treasures and delightful food.

The third night in Greece my parents arrived and we stayed in the Bella Venesia, a colorful and unique hotel. The "musak" in the rooms consisted of disco or traditional Greek while the air conditioner went on and off at the whim of a timer. Walls were bright yellow with pink trim. Such bright color was unusual in a town so colorless it looks like a black-and-white photo. Corfu city with its abundance of cream and gray is a pure delight to wander – to lose yourself among the narrow alleys and bustling streets.

The landscape of Corfu. Copyright: Tyson Brooks.

I noticed that some Italian families would close the compartment doors and draw the curtains even though there were extra seats. This effectively ensured most tourists slept on the corridor floor.

Somehow I had lucked out with this kind Italian family – or so I thought – until their grandfather slowly took over my space. He started by watching me from his seat, studying me in an eerie sort of way. He then put his feet up on my armrest as I countered his move with a stare of distrust. He returned a gesture that implied it was okay. I relaxed reluctantly only to lose a little more space. Eventually deciding that enough was enough, I abandoned my seat to the grandfather and forced the other two Italians to vacate the middle two seats. I stretched out, claiming these middle seats as my own. The grandfather seemed content with his two seats, so I promptly catnapped while secretly keeping an eye on the situation and my belongings.

The train chugged along and a hot wind whistled through the cabin. At sunup we stopped in Brindisi. After an afternoon catamaran ride to Corfu (I was slyly upgraded for an extra fee), I boarded a bus to the infamous Pink Palace, too lazy to sort through the sea of information the Greek touts were offering me about other accommodation.

The Pink Palace is a sprawling pink hostel that rambles down a mountainside to the breathtaking blue of the sea. It is essentially a poor man's all-inclusive resort. A terrible breakfast, a worse dinner and a smoky nightclub are all included in the US$20 a night price tag. North American backpackers checked in by the hordes and watered down, pink ouzo flowed for free. Many stayed here for up to a week, with the unofficial record being 41 days. Guests would admit to missing entire areas of Europe to spend more time in the very American Pink Palace. It was easy, cheap and homelike; a big draw for the often-homesick masses.

The view from Corfu’s storied Pink Palace. Copyright: Tyson Brooks.An hour scramble up an impressive limestone pinnacle above the Pink Palace brought solitude and a great view. Those that I had convinced to join me returned bloody and tired from fighting the brambles and thorns on the way up, but all agreed that the incredible view had been worth the effort.

Corfu's port city is a cheap bus ride away. The old town is wedged between two fortresses and the sea. Many of the roads are too narrow for cars so vendors line up to sell trinkets, unique Greek treasures and delightful food.

The third night in Greece my parents arrived and we stayed in the Bella Venesia, a colorful and unique hotel. The "musak" in the rooms consisted of disco or traditional Greek while the air conditioner went on and off at the whim of a timer. Walls were bright yellow with pink trim. Such bright color was unusual in a town so colorless it looks like a black-and-white photo. Corfu city with its abundance of cream and gray is a pure delight to wander – to lose yourself among the narrow alleys and bustling streets.

The landscape of Corfu. Copyright: Tyson Brooks.