Tuesday, November 30, 2010

CERN – A Universe of Particles

CERN - Universe of Particles
The Universe of Particles is an exhibit a CERN that you can visit for free. The exhibit is housed in the Globe of Science and Innovation across the road from CERN reception (location). How ironic that the size of the globe is about that of Saint Peter’s in Rome and that CERN chooses to use that analogy, at least on their web site. One structure stands as symbol of an organization that asks questions about the universe and puts the answers through rigorous analysis. The other structure stands as quite an impressive architectural feat from an organization that took 359 years (with a 13 year investigation!) to acknowledge that Galileo was right: the earth revolves around the sun. Sorry, that still makes us wince here at Travelmarx. We hold grudges.

Back to the goodies at CERN. Also accessible from the CERN reception area is the exhibition Microcosm that helps give you the background you need to understand what goes on at CERN. It is free to visit as well. A good order would be to visit Microcosm first and then go to the Universe of Particles exhibit. Okay, back to religion. While at the Microcosm exhibit, we wandered around, mostly alone with the exhibits and then suddenly a small group appeared and gathered in a corner to hear a presentation that what is being discovered at CERN was in fact in harmony with religious belief. We listened for a few moments and then left to head over to the Universe of Particles. At the exhibit in the globe, we found our own kind of prophet, a docent who had worked at CERN for many, many years. He didn’t turn any water into wine, but was able to talk about what was going on at CERN very articulately, enough for us.

The Universe of Particles has lots of cool information on very mod looking information stations (globes) with innovative touch interaction methods. The overall experience, changing colors, periodic mini-shows and the occasional docent-prophet is worth a visit. For details on the guided tour at CERN, see this entry.

More Views of the Universe of Particles and the Ever-Changing Show
CERN - Universe of Particles
CERN - Universe of Particles
CERN - Universe of Particles
CERN - Universe of Particles

The Globe of Science and Innovation – Outside

Exploring at the Universe of Particles Exhibit

A Docent Talking Physics

Visiting CERN

A CERN Guide Discusses the Inside of a Collider Section
CERN guided tour
During our week in Morges we encountered snow that eventually postponed our flight from Geneva to London for two days (not so bad – more time with Wild Dingo) but also opened up other possibilities. One of those possibilities was getting on a guided tour of CERN. On the CERN web site it suggests that tours should be booked in advance and when we inquired the day before we actually go, there was no space. We didn’t think about touring CERN before we left on the trip, it only occurred to us while we were in Switzerland. A little disappointed with the availability of the tour, we decided to visit CERN anyway and at least see the Universe of Particles exhibit. But, the weather played in our favor it seems because there was space on a group tour – no shows. Hah, we were in luck.

CERN stands for Conseil European pour le Recherche Nucléaire, or in English, the European Organization for Nuclear Research and it is headquartered just outside of Geneva straddling the Swiss and French borders. At CERN, particles are smashed together in high-energy physics experiments to understand questions like how the universe began. The building blocks of matter and the forces that hold them together are studied with particle accelerators. In accelerators, particles reach speeds near that of light and are smashed together or against a target to see what results. The main accelerator these days is the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) which is housed in a tunnel 27 kilometers (16.8 miles) in circumference and 50-100 meters (164 - 328 feet) underground. The tunnel runs under Switzerland and France.

So we lucked out and caught an English tour that is usually booked out months in advance. On the tour a guide takes us step by step through step through the construction of an accelerator section such as the section that would make up the Large Hadron Collider (LHC). We don’t actually visit the LHC which is operating, but a facility that tested the sections. The tour is great – geek heaven. It lasts from 10:00 to 12:00 and then we spend a few hours at the Universe of Particles. For details of that visit, see this entry.

CERN General Brochure
CERN brochure
CERN brochureCERN brochureCERN brochure

Large Hadron Collider Brochure
LHC brochure
LHC brochureLHC brochureLHC brochure

CERN – Testing Facility
CERN tour

CERN tour

Friday, November 26, 2010

Mount Blanc Tunnel

Last Chance Pasta
Mont Blanc Tunnel - Pasta
After our two nights in Pontboset, it was time to head out of Italy to Switzerland, specifically, Morges (outside of Geneva). Morges is the European operations of Wild Dingo and it was time to pay tug. When we looked at routes from Pontboset to Morges, the quickest route is through the Great St. Bernard Tunnel, but people advised that us to not go through that route for snow reasons and to take the Mont Blanc Tunnel. The St. Bernard Tunnel is about 1500-1600 feet higher in altitude. So we opted for Mont Blanc since we weren’t pressed for time. The difference between the two routes was 15 minutes and about 25 miles so not a hard decision.

Both tunnels are named for nearby geographical features, the St. Bernard Tunnel for the Great St. Bernard Pass (at 8100 feet) and Mont Blanc Tunnel for Mont Blanc (at 15,782 feet). One of my favorite memories was a large postcard I received from my grandparents from the St. Bernard Pass featuring a St Bernard dog in laying a meadow of alpine flowers. I can remember that card like it was yesterday. The pass is named for Saint Bernard of Menthon who founded a hospice for travellers and used dogs for rescue that came to be known as St. Bernard.

Before entering the Mont Blanc Tunnel we stopped and parked and went into the rest area where we were confronted with a large display of pasta. Last stop for pasta before you go to France where pasta just ain’t pasta! We passed up the deal. We didn’t think Wild Dingo would need that much pasta. Besides, we were carrying a booty of fruit we got from Cascina Bringin (details).

Drilling for the Mont Blanc Tunnel was started in 1946 and opened to traffic in 1965. The tunnel is a single gallery with a single lane going in each direction. The Italian side of the tunnel is in Courmayeur, Aosta Valley and the French side of the tunnel is in Chamonix, Haute-Savoie. As you enter the tunnel you are given a card that can be attached to the rearview mirror and explains what you need to know to drive in the tunnel including distances between you and the vehicle in front of you (150 meters or 492 feet), speed limit, and what to do in case of fire. After the terrible 1999 fire incident in the tunnel it makes sense for drivers to pay attention to the warnings and understand what to do. But honestly, the “red” side of the informational card takes some time to decipher. Is it to be read as a continuous sequence of events or separate triggers for actions? Probably the latter. If smoke is coming out of a car, stop. If you turn off your car, put on the car’s hazard lights. If you see smoke coming out of a vehicle, stop at least 100 meters (328 feet) from it and flee. Flee to the nearest emergency chamber. Look at the card and decide for yourself. Also check out this article on improvements made to the tunnel.

Thankfully, we passed through the 11,611 meter (7,215 mile) tunnel with no incident. We exited into a snowy Chamonix and made our way to Morges, but not before a surreal lunch in Annemasse France where all our French escaped us and we could only mutter in Italian.

Approaching Mont Blanc Tunnel on the Italian Side
Approaching Mont Blanc Tunnel - Italian Side
Mont Blanc Tunnel Entrance – Italian Side - 12:05pm
Mont Blanc Italian Side

View Back over Courmayeur, Italy
Courmayeur View from Mont Blanc Reststop
Inside the Mont Blanc Tunnel – Heading Toward France
Inside Mont Blanc Tunnel
Exiting in Chamonix, France
Chamonix France, Exiting Mont Blanc Tunnel
Mont Blanc Tunnel Information Card
Mont Blanc Information CardMont Blanc Information Card

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Two Nights in Pontboset, Valle d’Aosta

Pontboset Bridge

Le Moulin des Aravis

We were staying in Mondovì, Piemonte and our next major stop was in Morges Switzerland (outside of Geneva) and we wanted to get one hike in the Valle d’Aosta region. What to do? So we poked around a bit and found the Le Moulin des Aravis in Pontboset (Fraz Savin) on the Torrent Ayasse. We arrive at Le Moulin after a little trial and error (okay, a lot, it was dark) and we get situated. It's cold outside – or maybe it isn’t and we are not used to it? The owners Piera and her husband Mauro are busy making sausages in the kitchen with their son and some friends. The air smells like mustard. We have a dinner reservation for 7:30 at the restaurant. It looks like we'll be the only folks here. Before dinner, we get on line - good connectivity here in the midst of the mountains. We could live here. 7:30 comes and there is our table set for two and the table set for the family and friends for six. Piera serves us and it is all wonderful. We start with hot, stewed castagna (chestnuts) served with pads of butter. Piera then sneaks us an ample taste of the raw filling (beef) for one of the sausages, with some pepper and other spices added – piccante and delicious. For the primo, we have risotto with wild mushrooms (called chiodini - nails) and parsley and blue berries and it tastes good. For a secondo, we have pork and roasted potatoes, followed by a sampling of cheeses – all local of course. A dessert of apple strudel that was staring at us all through dinner is next and then some after-dinner drinks and then to bed. Wow, what a great welcome. Simple food, well done.

Hike Overview

Our intended hike for the only full day in the area is to the Santuario di Retiempo. After breakfast at Le Moulin we set off for the hike that starts about 3 km down the road in Pontboset town. (The frazione or neighborhood of Savin where the B&B is located is part of the commune.) In Pontboset there are two public parking areas, one at each end of the town. We find parking easily – but then again we are very off season.

The hike from Pontboset is about 6 km (3.7 mi) round-trip. The elevation change was about 702 m (2,303 ft). We started at 784 m (2,572 ft) and ended up around 1486 m (4,875 ft). We leave the car at 10:30am. The hike in the beginning is steep but dry as we follow an old mule trail which then merges into a narrow road. In the middle of the hike as we gain some altitude and the sun shifts in the sky it becomes sunny and warm. Toward the end of the hike it becomes more difficult as we are hiking in snow up to our knees and we are not equipped. Jeans frozen and feet cold but we reach the sanctuary. We relax and eat lunch for about 30 minutes. For lunch we snack on many things we’ve accumulated in the last few weeks including some sweets from Cascina Bringin consisting of rice paper sandwiching caramelized nuts and honey – named after for a saint whose name escapes us.

The Santuario di Retempio was closed (it closes in late September). That is always the Travelmarx style: visiting on off hours and nobody around, but we prefer it that way usually. We head back and arrive in Pontboset (or Pont Bozet) at 3:30pm. The town is deserted on this weekday afternoon. Stone houses clustered together with those big flat stones for the roof, clinging to the hillside. In the steep mountain areas here the position of the sun is so critical to what you experience. We see on the north side of mountains that seem to get no or very little sun in the winter. Note to self: pick a village on the south side.

Le Moulin des Aravis Near the Torrent Ayasse

Bridge in Pontboset

Near the Start of the Hike Retempio Hike

View from the Hike – Near Crest

Looking Back and Down on Pontboset


Along the Hike

Steps Up to the Santuario

The Santuario

The Santuario Up Close

View form the Santuario

Description of the Mountain Ranges to the North

View Northwest into the Valley and Strada Regionale di Champorcher

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

The Savoy Castles (Casa Savoia)

Castello Racconigi
Castello Racconigi

The House of Savoy (Casa Savoia) grew from a small noble, family in the 11th century, with land holdings west and north of Torino (Savoy region), to rule the Kingdom of Italy from 1861 until the end of World War II. The dynasty relocated its residence in the late 15th century to Torino where it remained until the unification of Italy. It is around Torino that the Savoy refurbished old castelli and constructed new ones, described as “delizie e capricci”.

In 2002 on a previous trip, we were in Torino and were able to visit the Palazzo Reale and Palazzo Madama. During this trip we saw three more Savoy residences, two intimately and one from outside. The first we saw on this trip was Castello Racconigi. While we were staying in Mondovì, we took a trip to see Racconigi. We were the only ones on the last tour of the day. Unfortunately the gardens were closed which would have been wonderful to see. (The downside of off-season travel.) Inside there was a lot to see, historical features of the castle mixed with contemporary installations. A very nice guide, Nanni, answered all our questions as he showed us around and listened to our bad Italian!

As we made our way from Mondovì to Pontboset in the Valle d’Aosta, we stopped at the Palazzina di caccia di Stupinigi but it was closed for restoration. So, we saw it only from the outside. Luckily, we just had to go a few more minutes north to reach the Castello di Rivoli. Rivoli is fun because of the outstanding contemporary art museum that is located inside the old residence, Museo d’Arte Contemporanea del Castello di Rivoli, and the strange unfinished bits of the structures that make up the complex. Castello di Rivoli is a great place to spend a half a day or more.

We must also mention the Savoy residence, Castello di Govone, not because we visited it, but we drank an interesting 1971 Nebbiolo d’Alba, Castello di Govone recently that was given to us by relatives in Piemonte. It was delicious and as we made handy work of the bottle (back in Seattle) we were wishing we were back in Piemonte!

Palazzina di caccia di Stupinigi - In Restoration

Palazzina di caccia di Stupinigi - Details

Castello Rivoli - View Into Twilight

Castello Rivoli - Castle Structure

Castello Racconigi - Art Installation, Antlers
Installation in Castello Racconigi

Castello Govone Nebbiolo Wine
Wine - Castello Govone Nebbiolo