Welcome to SKJ Travel ... my narrative blog where you can join me vicariously as I adventure around the world. In the archives you'll find posts from some of my travels ... these are very casual "letters to home" style accounts of what I did, with lots of photos. To read my formal articles, they're listed in each archive home page, or visit one of the blue buttons above: Articles/Guest Posts, Interviews, or Literary SKJ, or see the Travel Essays section (right side below archive -- mostly documentaries). Friday Photos are updated weekly, and Tuesday Tales are updated sporadically. You can follow SKJ Travel on social media at:
Updated Tuesday May 26, 2015 Updated Friday November 20, 2015
Most recent blog entry: "Day Trips into Spain from Andorra" (below)
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About equidistant between Andorra and Barcelona is the renowned Montserrat. It would be easy to visit as a day trip from Andorra; as it happened, we stopped by on our way back to Barcelona. Erik asked me, "So what is this place?" I'm not sure he was thrilled with my answer of, "I don't know, but everyone talks about it." And they said things like, "Oh, you must see!" And my Barcelona guidebook listed it as a top day trip to do from there. It just seemed there was a lot of hubbub around it, and I put it on our itinerary on that flimsy knowledge alone. I didn't research it beyond reading it was a place of pilgrimage for some, and that there was hiking involved in seeing it. I just noticed it was directly on our route and figured I would be silly not to stop by, at the very least so I would know what it was!
In our ignorance, we also had some confusion about where to go once we got off the highway and where to park our car. But we decided to just keep driving up and up the mountainside that rose abruptly and dominated over the plains. Imagine our pleasant surprise when we discovered Montserrat for ourselves. Now, some might call me a poor traveler for being so ill-informed. But this method of travel is a lot of fun, oh detractors, for the thrill of discovery. With no expectations, mediocre sites are cool, and amazing sights are overwhelmingly awesome and joyful to explore. Plus, there are no expectations to turn into disappointments. And so I present to you our happy trails around Montserrat.
Upon arrival, you see the Benedictine monastery nestled into the imaginative rock spires and shapes of the mountain ridge. It's like Mother Nature cupped her hands just to hold this work of man.
We decided we should do hiking first as it was already afternoon when we arrived, figuring we could see the inside of the monastery as the last thing in the day, needing neither sunlight nor warmth to enjoy. When we discovered the next funicular (yay! love funiculars!) up to the trails at the top was arriving in the next 10 minutes, we decided to head straight up, disciplining our growling tummies to have a bit of patience while we exerted ourselves. The tummies weren't overly thrilled with our decision, but we managed. At least we had a water bottle!
There are trails all along the ridges and cut into the sides of the mountain. It reminded me of visiting Huashan in China, with it trails along its five peaks and occasional hermitages for its Taoist monks to engage in spiritual contemplation. Here, a little church-like hermitage perches, kind of lonesome, on a ridge ... sandwiched between overlooking a vast plain and loomed over by a vast sky of clouds.
Paths cut into the rock are fun to walk along.
Making our way across the paths and up through the crevices in the rock -- which, to be honest, were a little arduous and slippery heading straight up the natural cuts in the rock -- rewarded us with some spectacular views. For a sense of scale of the mountaintop rocks themselves, notice that the two little colored dots on the rock directly below are people. (open any pic in this post in a new tab to see at larger size)
Inside the courtyard of the monastery ... one of those shots that took some patience to grab in the couple seconds in which there were no people in it. Even though I'm no professional photographer, it's still fun to pursue one's own idea of the photograph they want to get. Patience paid off.
And more patience inside the church ... Fortunately, worldwide, people tend to clump into herds at tourist sites, so almost always there will be a break between clumps if you can just wait it out. Pretty much the only word that comes to mind for most of the tour around the sanctuary is "gold gold golden gold." OK, if you've been there, you'll call me out on the fact you're not supposed to take photos inside the church. But you know, when you are surrounded, literally, by people snapping pics on their cell phones and cameras, you almost feel like a chump for being the only person sporting a camera around your neck who's not using it, just letting it hang there like a dead chicken. So .....
One day from our mountain base in Andorra we decided to strike down into Spain to see what we could find. Our only real destination in mind was the city of La Seu d'Urgell which is the home of the Bishop of Urgell, who is the co-prince of Andorra, as explained in "Ambling Through Andorra." We knew this wouldn't take the whole day, so we remained open to any sights that caught our eye to explore spontaneously. This day, Erik was the champion at noticing fun activities. On the way to La Seu d'Urgell, he noticed a sign along the road that said "Castellar de Tost." Seemed to us indicative of a castle, perhaps, and Erik was particularly drawn to it on account of it sounding like "toast" ... we have to check out the castle of toast!
So up the exceedingly narrow and twisty road we drove until we came to a lovely ruin, which though not a castle, we had all to ourselves. It reminded us of some of the ruins we explored in Ireland, just lying around so casually and randomly in our modern landscape. Such ghosts. Such fairies. You heard -- fairies. We're not new-agey people who see spirits and nymphs and angels and whatnot, but Erik will swear he was surrounded by a swarm of fairies at an ancient ruin we were given secret directions to on a napkin from a guy we got drunk with at a pub (see "Passenger" in my travel essays section for more on this). Anyway, the ivy-covered lonely ruins of Castellar de Tost gave us a distinctly similar feeling, though we did not actually see any supernatural critters. Yet, we did get an odd craving for a piece of butter-slathered toast.
By now we had learned that in this region, restaurants close by 3:00pm until about 6:00pm. So there is no such thing as a late lunch. We learned this, of course, through lessons the hard way. So as we were getting close to La Seu d'Urgell, Erik noticed the car's clock and had the astute and timley realization that if we didn't pull over at the nearest restaurant, we'd be going hungry. Fortunately, there was a huge restaurant kind of randomly just off the highway. Looking almost like a truck-stop, but it was just a large restaurant ... there were cars in the parking lot -- a good sign. We rushed in the door practically wringing our hands with anxiety wondering if we were too late. Nope, we were seated and menu-ized; we chose one of the lunch specials, which included appetizer, main course, dessert, and a bottle of wine (each) ... for a stupendously reasonable price, considering it's Western Europe. We kind of expected truck-stop quality food for such a price. But the appetizer alone was as large as a main course ... I had a delicious meat and bread tray that was so overwhelming, I can't even remember now what I had for the main course even though I did, in fact, stuff one down my gullet. Along with a bottle of wine. At 3:00 in the afternoon.
Then on to La Seu d'Urgell. A nice town in a wide, high valley among the Pyrenees.
There wasn't too much to see in the town, mostly I was interested in seeing where the bishop lived and ministered, since he is the co-prince of Andorra. I expected that the cathedral and abbey where he resided would be really opulent. I don't know why, just somehow having the additional secular power with his religious Catholic power, I envisioned a place of luxury. Like how popes, although leaders of a religion that teaches piety, live among one of the largest treasure troves on the planet in the Vatican. But no, his digs are very modest indeed.
The skies started to cloud over and we decided it was time to head for our home base in Andorra. On the way to La Seu d'Urgell, Erik had noticed a go-kart racing track along the highway. He said that on our return home he wanted to stop there, and I was all game. In Cabo San Lucas (Mexico) we had a blast riding 250cc karts on a track, and that's what they had here. Though the people didn't really speak English, and we no Catalan, we managed to understand each other on the important points through Spanish, hand signs and our familiarity with the basic process. Fortunately, we accepted the option to wear rain suits, because on our second race it starting raining vigorously. This ended up being a good lesson in how severely wet roads can adversely affect your vehicle. The first few laps in the rain, I was convinced there was something wrong with my kart. I beat Erik in the first race and now I was pulling the wheel the same way and yet spinning out left and right, and crashing into the median while Erik zoomed past me. It took me awhile to figure out what was causing the kart to behave so differently and then to learn how to compensate for the wet pavement. So, we did two races and split the wins. It was a lot of fun.
Here are a couple window shots from the car to give you an idea of some of the landscape we drove through.
Here is a little photo tour of one of my favorite local haunts. I live in the middle of what was once a large network of gold and silver mines in the Colorado Rocky Mountains. Every mountain town near me, including my own (Nederland), was founded as a mining community, centered either on a mine or a processing mill. There were large mines as well as individuals mining their own small claims. The last house I owned in Nederland, every year debris from the 1800s would surface in my driveway as rain and snow washed away dirt from the cut. I once learned how to date old tin cans and glass, so I could identify most of the artifacts in my driveway to the late 1800s and early 1900s. Old cabins and mills lie in melancholy dilapidation everywhere, deteriorating more each year. By now, most of the mine shafts in the area have been capped or covered with metal grates, but when I first moved to Nederland over 20 years ago, you could still walk into some of them.
One mine very close to me is the Blue Bird silver mine, which now lies inside the Caribou Ranch Open Space, managed by the Boulder County Parks and Open Space. Happily, the Parks department took the effort to stabilize several of the buildings at the old mine and also some old ranch buildings in the valley. Walking to them is both very scenic and super-duper easy. Why so easy? Well, besides the fact they lie in a broad valley rather than over hill and dale, the trail also largely follows an old railroad grade.
Back around the turn of the 20th century, Colorado enjoyed a reputation as the "Switzerland of America." Capitalizing on this, an extensive narrow-gauge railroad system was constructed to choo-choo tourists through our lovely mountains. It was an important improvement to the residents as well, providing a much easier and faster way to transport goods and supplies to and from mining towns than treacherous wagon roads through the mountains. The route was known as the Switzerland Trail. Well, it still is called that, but the tracks have all been torn up and the grades are now either 4x4 roads or hiking / mountain biking / horse riding trails.
Most of the photos I've taken of this space are in autumn (this collection is from several different years) when the aspen leaves are turning color. The area is closed February through June because the large valley is an elk calving area. So allow me lead you down a portion of the Switzerland Trail .....
This year I found lots of aspen leaves on the ground sprinkled with dew. I'm really partial to leaves and flowers with water and dew droplets on them.
And here's one shot I got in early summer of the trail ... this section is rife with daisies in summer -- from afar, it looks like a field of snow, then magically resolves into hundreds of individual daisies. Not an awesome picture, but you get the basic idea.
Along the way to the Blue Bird mine, you pass the wide valley (where the elk calve). In it is the historic DeLonde homestead. The DeLondes first moved here, as nearly everyone did, to be involved with mining, but eventually became ranchers, and they sold the land to another ranching family who raised Arabian horses. The next sale was to a Mr. Guercio who was in the record business, and beyond view, in an area restricted from the public, is the old Caribou Ranch recording studio where the likes of Elton John, Joe Walsh, Chicago, Steven Stills, Waylon Jennings and many, many others recorded albums -- even John Lennon came here to record a song with Elton John ... kind of a random tidbit about tiny little Nederland that we had so many famous people stay here and make an album in the middle of the Rocky Mountains. The first house I owned in Nederland was apparently partied in on occasion by Mr. Steven Stills. Check out this brief video about the recording studio.
Part of this valley is filled with a wetland habitat which was "constructed" by some industrious beavers who have built dams which have formed a series of ponds. I have never seen a beaver around here even though there are many beaver ponds in this region. I am just dying to spot one in the flesh!
And now we arrive at the old Blue Bird mine. It wasn't christened as such for the bird or the fowl's melodious name (I like the word "bluebird"), rather for a type of blue mineral, azurite, found inside the earth along with the silver for which the mine was established. According to the Boulder County Open Space website, "Azurite was known to the Ancient Greeks as kuanos, which means 'deep blue,' and is the root of the English word cyan." Here are a few pics of the mine itself, though the entrance is blocked, you can feel the cold air coming from inside if you stand next to the grate, and the mining cart tracks still emerge and lead into a pile of tailings.
This building was originally the bunk house for the working miners. When the mine waned at the advent of a crash in silver prices, the Switzerland Trail railroad began bringing tourists to the area. The Blue Bird mine became a whistle stop on the train route and the bunk house was converted to a boarding house for visitors over-nighting. I love the assortment of artifacts people have found and assembled at what I believe is the old ticket window for the train.
The 1965 remake of the movie, "Stagecoach" was filmed here and the bunkhouse was depicted as a stagecoach stop. So in addition to the musical artists who visited here, Bing Crosby and Slim Pickens also left their footprints.
The chicken coop is still intact as well as some outhouses and sheds, all of which are wooden. Most of these were built in the late 1800s, but the caretaker's abode built later was a solid structure of stone and brick. The mine ran on and off over nearly 100 years, closing forever in 1964. In an amazing coincidence, I met a man whose family was the last caretakers and he spent part of his childhood here at this house in the summers in the 1950s. He doesn't live in the area and I met him through a friend who lives on the East Coast whom I met in Prague. Random, small world! I don't have a photo of it, but in front of the house is a large cement pit for a pool which was eventually used just to hold trout.
Just behind the bunk house runs the North Boulder Creek, and the hiking trail that leads from the Blue Bird mine to the DeLonde homestead parallels the creek for awhile. So this is just a delightful and easy hiking loop that I recommend to all who visit me here in Nederland ... you have beautiful landscape with dynamic seasons, a creek, a valley, mountains; and you have many historical components that gave our little nook of the world its multi-faceted vitality.
A little end-note ... every year Nederland hosts our town's heritage weekend, called "Miner's Days." When I first moved here it included a parade and everything, and most of the athletic competitors were aging local miners. Now, there's no parade, only the athletic competitions, but what's cool is that even though the old "real" miners have dropped out of the competitions or passed on, there are a lot of young competitors. This year (2015) there were up to 10 entries in the events and also a women's competition -- they did all the same events as the men. The competitions are all activities that miners of old did every day ... such as mucking, where you shovel dirt or rocks into a mining cart as fast as you can until it's full then push it down some tracks and empty it; spike driving, where you pound railroad spikes into a wooden trestle with a sledgehammer to secure a track; hand drilling, where you use a hammer to drive metal spikes into solid granite rock as deep as you can in 5 minutes ... this is how holes were hollowed out in the rock to put dynamite in to blast the mine tunnels and also build the railroads. We're a very small town but take pride in our founding heritage.
Another of our favorite 3-hour tours from my home in Nederland, Colorado, is the 4x4 route over Kingston Peak pass. This one is a bit of a doozy in places -- definitely the most difficult terrain we have yet explored. Well, save one stretch of trail we did years ago in Jenny Creek that took us about 45 minutes to move about 3 feet forward. Our 4-Runner, Trusty Trudy, was precariously balanced on only two wheels -- one front wheel and one back. As we inched forward, literally inch by inch with me spotting continually and Erik getting out to survey and strategize every few inches, I also had to hang off the outside of the opened driver's-side door with all my weight to ensure Trudy didn't tip over on her passenger side. It was clear from various forms of evidence that previous travelers had spent a long time trying to get past this spot, as well.
The first time we attempted Kingston Peak with Trudy, we were turned back by one egregiously large boulder on a steep skree slope. Later that summer we made a second attempt and met with success. This year we have a new ("new" 1999) 4-Runner named Chewbacca. Chewy is a beast on this terrain with higher clearance than Trudy and a mean grunt in low gear. We love him. We started trying to get to Kingston Peak early in the summer. Every two weeks we went out, as the snow melted we got higher and higher each time. It was I think our fifth outing when the snow had finally melted enough for us to summit. We just chugged right over that boulder that had given Trudy such a headache. We then went over the route a second time in late August when we took a friend out to show him what our backyard had to offer in 4x4 trails. As you may have read in the Gamble Gulch post, most of these trails originated as old mining roads ... people were crossing them in wagons.
So by now we have crossed this terrain in early, mid- and late summer. So I present to you a little photo tour through the seasons. If you are thinking of trying this route yourself -- from Mammoth Gulch Road over Kingston Peak to Fall River Road -- know that I'm not understating the requirement of a high-clearance vehicle with low-4 gearing.
The wildflowers along the lower part of this route (upper Mammoth Gulch) are spectacular. The season begins with a sea of yellow pea in bloom dotted with clumps of our state flower, the blue columbine.
Next, the red spikes of Indian paintbrush take over the landscape, and these can last most of the wildflower season. (FYI: Cozy & Quiet B&B is my guest studio I run in Nederland ... some of these pics were posted to its Facebook page, hence the C&Q watermark)
We love collecting wild raspberries from this area. I'll keep it a little secret precisely where we go ... there are many side roads. :) The character below is our new guy, Chewbacca.
Our first attempt with Trudy ... you can see her hood just peeking up over the horizon of the trail and Erik walking back toward her after we left her temporarily to see if there were any other show-stopping obstacles ahead.
Our second attempt with Trudy ... success and the reward of copious wild bluebell flowers, also called harebells, which I absolutely love. As you can see, we were traveling at our usual time of late in the day.
After crossing the pass above timberline, the route drops into Fall River Road beside St. Mary's Glacier near Idaho Springs. (these days, we call it more of a glacier-ette)
This year when we made our first crossing, I was very excited because it was a rare blue sky above the mountain peaks and we could clearly see the layers and layers of mountains heading back into the heart of the Rocky Mountains. I had brought my camera and as I clicked the shutter with glee for my first pic, my smile turned a little upside down when I realized there was no memory card in the camera! I had left it in my computer from downloading some other pics. So the beauty of that day is just in my private memory. The next time we crossed it with our friend in late August, we had pretty much the polar opposite sky ... low and heavy with fog and rain. But it lent the route an air of secrecy and mystery. By now the green grass was largely turning to gold and red.
Chewy seems like such a sizable truck until you get a little perspective of his place in the mountain landscape.
I've never been to Scotland, but I envision its highlands somehow like this, maybe just because of the low, heavy mist so iconic to that part of Scotland. The red and gold grasses had a lovely rich color in the rain and midday diffused light. (we started earlier than usual on this day)
We got out to hike a little ways to see the mountain lakes below (my friend is a marvelously accomplished photographer and was very keen to walk about with his camera). You can just spy him and Erik as little black pixels off on the upper right-hand side of the photo. It started raining quite substantially and I stopped to try to get some pics of my beloved harebells without kneeling in the soaked grass, as my feet and head were already soggy. Sort of got a pic ... In standing up I banged my shin on a rock and between that pain and being wet and cold, I didn't forge on to see the lakes. That will be a gift for me another time. (p.s. you can view all these pics at larger size by opening in a new tab)
Once you start descending the other side down toward Fall River Road, you are treated to a Seussian forest of wind-sculpted trees. Can you guess which direction the wind blows? :) Some day I would spend more time exploring this little forest that marks the beginning of treeline. Such fantastical shapes and colors in the trunks.
The doors of summer are closing already this year. But I imagine, as we've become quite fond of this route, that we will be back soon. And maybe my memory will allow the inclusion of a memory card inside my camera!
Check out the excellent photography of my friend, Garett Gabriel, much of it taken in Colorado in the Nederland area.
While we stayed in Andorra, we breached the border a few times (as it is so quickly and easily accessed at either end of the country) to see some sights in the surrounding countries of France and Spain. I'm making this post about day trips to France with pretty much one single motivation ... which is simply to share some of my photos from these sights, as I was having so much fun with my wide angle lens (10-22 mm). It's more fun to share the fun -- haha -- than to keep it locked in my own little computer. Plus, maybe it will inspire you further to visit this delightful corner of the world. So, without further ado or much accompanying text ... I give you a slice of the French Pyrenees and the Languedoc region.
So ... we found ourselves in Villefranche de Conflent at the meeting of two rivers in a valley in the gorgeous snow-capped French Pyrenees Mountains. This region is culturally and historically part of Catalonia, even though I typically think of that as a Spanish region. Catalan was the language spoken in Villefranche de Conflent. Because of it's geographical misfortune or fortune, I'm not sure which you would consider it, the town was often fought over between the neighbors -- France and Spain. And so it evolved a stout defensive wall around it and a military fortress on the hillside above it, Fort Liberia. Now a small population keeps the town alive mostly for tourists. But alive, indeed -- cafes and souvenirs shops, a train station and of course the fortress. It's roughly a 2-hour drive from here to Canillo, where our home-base was in Andorra.
We spent the afternoon inside the fortified medieval town of Carcassonne, which has been impressively restored to provide the experience of an ancient European walled city. The only part you have to pay money to see is the actual fortress part. You can stroll the quaint cobblestone streets inside the walls all you want, otherwise. The restaurants are pricey, being such a tourist zone, but I had a delicious lunch of duck, which frankly, was totally worth the price to me. The "beer," however, was not. haha. The French aren't really known for a beer-making prowess. But their breads and pastries and duck are divine.