Sitting in the USAirways Envoy lounge, waiting for our flight, enjoying a nice glass of Bordeaux with some brie and grapes, I am thinking about two things that are taking off today.
The first is our flight to Europe. At the Gibson’s, we were treated to excellent food and entertainment. After a bounteous breakfast by Chef Preston of pancakes and sausage cooked on the grill outside on the deck, we were invited to attend a critically acclaimed and charming play by Miss Abigail Gibson, age 10. The play, Prom Dance,starred Miss Gibson as a beautiful, yet lonely, girl at the dance, surrounded by couples dancing, as seen drawn on the chalkboard set behind her. The plot thickens as her co-star, Preston Gibson (otherwise known to Abby as “dad”) notices her from across the room and walks up to her, introducing himself, and inviting her to dance. They talk and dance a scintillating box-step around the floor. The prom dance is a success! We laughed, we cried, and walked away with a feeling that we need not be lonely, after all.
After a somewhat tearful goodbye to Anna from her sibs, we head to the airport. Anna is holding up well, a little nervous, understandably, for her first trip abroad and the longest she’s been away from her immediate family. Morgan has fallen asleep, tired after a long, late, night of playing video games with Jon. We check in, get through security, and now we’re in our lovely lounge. We tell Anna that George has upgraded her to first class, leaving Morgan and I back in coach. Nice. The flight will be taking off soon.
The other thing that’s taking off is my business. Probably most of you know that I’ve written and self-published a book (the definitive book on women’s self-defense, if I say so myself) entitled DEFY The Bad Guy, Powerful Practical Self-Defense Strategies for Women. I sent out advance copies at the beginning of the year and have edited and added testimonials since February, finally culminating in an improved Second Edition printed just a few weeks ago. It will be available as a print-on-demand selection on Amazon sometime in August. The goal of my business, Julie Greene Personal Safety Solutions, is to get this “Self-Defense 101” information out to as many women and girls as possible, by book sales, seminars, and eventually, an at-home DVD program.
Marketing the book has been problematic with all the traveling I’ve been doing. However, our lovely Anna has been taking Freestyle Martial Arts and mentioned my book to her Sensei. (Thanks, Anna!) He read the book and thought it had valuable information that he could use to supplement his curriculum of hapkido, taekwondo, kickboxing, Shotokan karate, and grappling. Julie (Anna’s mom) took me to meet him this morning, we talked, and he bought all of the books that I brought! He is considering making my book required reading for all of his adult and teen students. I will also be working with him in the future to update his self-defense curriculum. Yay! This is a market I had not thought of as I was writing the book, although I certainly wrote it because many martial arts classes who claim to be “self-defense” classes really don’t include much on self-defense, focusing on the rules and style of their particular art. So, maybe this means the business is finally taking off as well.
Time to fly!
Up and at ‘em 6am, breakfast and a taxi to the airport gets us to the check-in counter a little early. Normally we print out our boarding passes, but the Holiday Inn where we are staying can’t help us easily do this. We get boarding passes and go hang out at the Star Alliance lounge. We can come here because we have flown over 50,000 miles last year on Star Alliance airlines like US Airways and Lufthansa. They have 3 kinds of champagne, and it’s sort of a ritual to have a farewell mimosa before we leave Europe. There’s an Airbus A380 on the runway. We fly to Frankfurt, then to Philly, then to Norfolk.
We board as soon as we can and stow our luggage. The handle on my carry-on red bag is broken and won’t go down all the way, sticking out so that I have to load the luggage the long way in the overhead instead of wheels in first. The flight’s not full, though, so there’s no problem. We get to Frankfurt and visit the lounge for one more mimosa and some spargel suppe.
On the international flight, I am sitting in a window seat, 9A, with George and Morgan in front of me. Usually, I have pretty good luck with seat partners this way, but there’s a guy in 9B who is from North Carolina. When he finds out that George is from Morganton, he launches into a 20 minute history lecture telling me who the Morgan of Morganton was. OMG, it’s interesting, but I’m not in the mood. While he is talking, I get my iPod and my earphones out, hoping he’ll get the message. Nope. I get my pillow out and blow it up. Will he get the message now? No. I know I should just tell him that I would like peace and quiet, but I just can’t, I really believe that he’ll be done soon. Finally the story ends, we take off, and I fall asleep.
The best plan for the westbound flight is to wait until the meal is served, watching a movie at the same time, sleep for 2 hours, then wake up and watch as many movies as you can until we hit Philadelphia. Due to the annoying seatmate, I fall asleep early, wake to lunch, and fortunately, I can watch a movie. My seatmate advises me on which movie to watch, and when I watch it later in the flight, he has to make comments on what is going to happen. I want to punch him, but restrain.
Our flight arrives in Philly, we breeze right past the baggage claim and see that our flight is delayed, but the earlier flight is also delayed, so we get on that one and head on home.
We get home around 7pm, and Morgan wants to go to Target to get Super Mario Galaxy 2 for his Wii. Sure, gotta drive my car, which has been sitting in the garage. The Mini won’t start, bummer. The van goes, though.
At 9pm, it’s like 3am, and the goal is to try to stay awake til at least 10pm. Our cats, Shadow and Smoky are glad to see us, but were rather upset at us being gone. There is cat pee on the comforter on our bed (George’s side) so the bed must be stripped and made. They have also left tons of cat hair everywhere and I’ll deal with that later. In my own bed for the first time in 33 days. Good night!
Note: I’m going to take a few days break from the blog. When not traveling, I’ll catch up with you all just a couple of times a week, for the two weeks. See you then!
Hitting the Wall, Part 2
One day left in Berlin; flying home tomorrow. Since we didn’t see the sights yesterday, we are starting early today. Morgan is better and we are hitting the wall today, the Berlin Wall, that is.
First, we visit the Reichstag, Germany’s House of Representatives. Burned mysteriously right after Hitler became Chancellor, it members of the opposing Communist party were blamed, jailed, and then were the first sent to the concentration camps. It is recently rebuilt with a modern clear dome. On top, looking around, you can see the entire city, looking down, you can see the members of the Bundestag as they vote bills into law.
Next, we go to Germany’s Holocaust memorial, also new to the city. Looks like graves from the street, but when you wander between them, you find it’s a dark maze. We move on to the “Topography of Terror”, where Hitler’s bunker and the headquarters of the SS were located. Just an empty lot with some rubble, it’s the first time we actually see what’s left of the Berlin Wall, running down the street. This area was bombed to smithereens at the end of the war, so there’s not much left.
We follow the footprint of the wall to Checkpoint Charlie, the most famous gate in the wall between West Germany and East Germany. There’s a little museum here, built on the Western side, opened in 1962, right after the wall went up, documenting the travesty of the wall and the different ways people have escaped through it.
After an excellent lunch of pho (soup) at Viet Bowl, it’s museum time. I bought a museum pass yesterday and the goal is to get to as many as we can for the rest of the day. Here’s where we went and the high points:
- The Jewish Museum, which not only documents the Holocaust, but the lives of Jewish people since the time before Christ. The Holocaust memorial is quiet and a little creepy.
- The New Museum, which has a 3000 year old sculpture, a model of Queen Nefertiti, in full color.
- The Pergamon Museum, where they have moved entire temples from Greece and Babylon and built a museum with an extra-high roof to accommodate them.
We close them out at 6pm, and then make one last trip to the outskirts of the city to see the Berlin Wall East Side Art Gallery, a part of the wall that they left standing and now adorned with paintings from artists from all over the world. Very cool.
We get back to the hotel. George is working and Morgan is not sure he wants to go out to dinner. I must go out tonight, my last night of this fantastic European trip, and I’m dining alone if I have to. Morgan changes his mind, and we go out for the meat platter at the local pub. In the German restaurant, a Spanish singer plays for us. We have berries and vanilla sauce for dessert and go back to the hotel to pack, happy.
Glad we hit the wall today!
Hitting the Wall, Part 1
First full day in Berlin. I’ve never been here before and have a list as long as my arm of things to see. Good homeschool stuff, too. I try to wake Morgan up at 830am, ready to go. He rolls over and says he was out of bed last night at 1am, throwing up. Poor baby. He did say last night that he wasn’t feeling well. So I let him sleep….. and sleep…. And sleep.
I think we have both hit the wall, figuratively. I’m tired myself, but there are just two days left of my European odyssey, and I do not want to waste them. While he was sleeping, I caught up on my blog writing, photo uploading and some email. If I was home, I’d be lying on the couch all day, watching the results of Dancing with the Stars and American Idol. However, I’m in Berlin, so I feel like the last leg of a marathon, I can do this, I can do this. I could take a nap, but need to catch up on the blogs. When the blogs are caught up, I try, but I can do this keeps me from relaxing. I need to get out there. It’s 1:30pm, I’ve wasted the day so far, and need to wake the boy up. I put on “Satellite”, the song that won the Eurovision contest the other night and play it on my computer. (Google Eurovision Germany Lena to see who won the European version of American Idol – Germany! Front page material yesterday.) Morgan hates this song, so he wakes up.
After verifying that he is ok, just needs a day in, I’m out at 3pm. Hopping the bus, I go to the Gemaldegalerie, Berlin’s excellent museum on 14th through 17th century art. The audioguide comes with admission, and I am in art heaven, getting details on paintings that neither Morgan nor George care about. I love the 14th century painting of the mother smooching her son. I have intimate moments with Rembrandt and Gainesborough.
When the museum closes at 6pm, I head back to the room to see how everybody is. George has a dinner meeting and Morgan is happy lying low. Great! I head back out and buy myself a ticket for the Berlin Symphony in their amazing acoustically perfect hall. Mozart! The conductor is energetic, jumping up and down at times, and I can see the hot pink lining in the tails of his black jacket. I am thinking that one thing about the city is the incredible sheer talent that you can find when you have a larger population to work with. I have Prosecco and a little lox on a cracker to celebrate, my tiredness of the morning disappearing. Hit the wall? Me? Never!
If it’s Monday, this must be Berlin
After a hearty Braunschweig breakfast brunch we are in the car and heading to Berlin, the last leg of my European odyssey.
It’s raining as we drive through once was behind the Iron Curtain. Not much to see but fields interspersed with wind generators. We’ve seen them all over Europe, but they are out in full force here.
Arriving in the city, we return the car and George goes off to his meeting and Morgan and I do some sightseeing. It’s cold rain, not even 60 degrees. We can see our breath and Morgan is complaining of cold. Unusual. We get a transport/sightseeing pass, grab some noodles in a box from a stand on the street (Berlin is known best for it’s ethnic, not German, food) and head off for some sightseeing.
The bus we take is a double-decker and we drive down the Kurfurstendamm, past the bombed out church left standing as a memorial, past the former Royal Park, past the President’s house, to the Reichstag. This is the building that when it caught on fire (nobody claims to know how) and Hitler blamed the Communists, his main political opposition. People believed him and gave him enough votes rise to power and open the camps to jail said Communists, then any opposition, then anybody different. This building has a new dome and has a line that stretches almost back to our hotel. We have two more days to visit, so we pass it by.
The Brandenburg Gate is nearby and we stand in the former “death zone” inside where the Berlin Wall used to stand. Standing here 30 years ago, we would have been shot. The gate was first built in the 1800s to represent peace. Napoleon stole the statue at the top, the Prussians got it back and named it for Victory. There is a room of silence built into the gate where you can ponder the effects of peace and/or victory. My stomach growls loudly, interrupting everyone’s meditation, and we have to leave.
We walk down Unter den Linden, the gorgeous (Linden)tree-lined boulevard lined with embassies, department stores, cafes and car dealerships. It’s the Champs D’Elysees of Germany. We see the hotel where Gloria Swanson said, “I vant to be alone”, not impressive to Morgan until I also explained that this was the hotel where Michael Jackson dangled his baby over the balcony to the delight/horror of the media below. We visit a VW dealership and Morgan finds a girlfriend (the best kind, tall, sporty, and plastic). We find the square where the Nazis burned the books. Next door to that was the Opera’s fabulous pastry shop, the longest dessert counter in Germany. It is 5pm, but we’ve gotten into the habit now of tea time treats, so we ruin our dinner with some of the best desserts we’ve had this trip.
Walking a little farther, we find the Radisson hotel with a cylindrical aquarium in the lobby. For about $17, you can ride an elevator through it. We pass and get on the bus back to the hotel. Morgan is really slowing down, says his stomach is upset. Unusual.
Back to the room, we connect with George back from his meetings. Nobody is really hungry, especially Morgan (unusual), so George and I go to the supermarket to get some water, wine, and dinner. I get a pre-made salad and some rotisserie chicken. George gets a sandwich. Back in the room, we watch tv, the movie Galaxy Quest, with Tim Allen. It’s in German, it doesn’t matter, it’s funny in every language.
I think we’re all slowing down on this last leg…
Lazy days with Friends
When was the last time you didn’t get out of bed until 10:30am? Well, for us, it was today. Ten hours of sleep were interrupted by church bells from at least five different towers calling the faithful on Sunday morning. Morgan spent the night with Leo and it is luxurious just lying in bed, talking. A little blogging gets done, then we go to brunch at the hotel before we head up to Frank and Suzanne’s for one of their famous walks. It’s alternating sun and rain through the parks and nice neighborhoods.
We knew Suzanne and Frank when they lived in Hampton; they were friends of friends. Even though we didn’t know each other terribly well in Hampton and don’t keep in touch between visits, we are the best of friends when we come to Braunschweig. Whenever George has a meeting within two or three hours from here, we come early or extend our visit so that we may visit. Their son, Leo, is Morgan’s age, and they have a younger son, Georgie, who is eight. I like to get the boys together with the future hope that maybe one day Leo can come to visit us or Morgan can go to spend some time with them, a foreign-exchange, if you will.
There is a rhythm to our visits, we take them out to dinner (we’re on per diem, after all) and they take us on amazing walks through the parks and fine neighborhoods of the city. Morgan spends the night. We have cake and coffee/tea at 4pm then go out to dinner about 8pm.
Last night we went to an Italian chain restaurant called VaPiano. There are no waiters, just stations for salad, pasta, pizza, and drinks. You bring the card, like a credit card, they give you at the door and it is swiped for everything you order. They make everything fresh at each station and you stand there and watch while they create your dinner(except for pizza, they give you a beeper). Sort of like Subway, but not with sandwiches. Prices are reasonable and the atmosphere is fun. Some tables are taken up by bumblebees and cowboys.
Tonight, Frank is cooking good German food. Braten (roast) with gravy and semmelnudeln (dumplings made with old bread), plus red cabbage and salad. So nice to have a home-cooked meal! Rotekrutze (berry compote topped with vanilla sauce) is for dessert. We enjoy dinner with their view of the town and church towers.
Nice to have a lazy day.
Braunschweig: Party Town
We’re in our apartment in Hahnenklee and the innkeepers said that they would bring our breakfast to the door at 9am. It’s 9:05 and nobody has knocked. Did they forget? I open the door investigate and find a little trolley cart, covered with a lovely embroidered cloth sitting outside the door. Whoa. I wheel it to the dining room and we get plates, cups, and silverware. We lift the cloth and find a breakfast feast: meats, cheeses, yogurt, eggs, cereal, breads, fruit salad, coffee, milk, and juice. We are loving this place even more. We set it out on our table and breakfast with a view of the garden and mountain.
We check out (sad face) and walk over to the skyride. It’s just like Busch Gardens, but slower, because some of the “cars” are bike carriers. In the line are some extremely muddy young men, waiting for other muddy young men to bring their bikes so they can go up together. I’m sure Morgan would really want to do this, but we don’t have the time. We just go up and then take the 30 minute walk back down to our hotel. We can’t find the pedestrian trail, so we walk down the ski run. We find a smaller trail, the mountain bike trail; there is padding on the trees. George slips and ends up stepping in the mud. Oops. Morgan and I laugh, inappropriately.
Back to our car we drive down the hill to Goslar, a beautiful medieval village not bombed in WWII. We are pretty much half-timbered out by now, so George doesn’t even want to stop. I jump out of the car and take pictures of the main square, full of action on a Saturday afternoon, people eating and drinking outside, walking their dogs, and watching some kids compete in a soccer game in a fenced-off area. As we drive away, we follow streets full of old half-timbered houses until we get to the old wall.
Tonight we’re staying at the Movenpick, the Braunschweig edition of the ultra-modern Swiss hotel chain. Braunschweig used to look like Goslar, but was bombed heavily during WWII. It was a center of German industry and didn’t stand a chance. Most of the architecture is post-war, although there are pockets of medieval and belle-epoque here and there. It’s a university town, though, so there’s a lot going on.
The funniest thing is the walking parties of young people. I don’t know if there is anything like this in the US. There seem to be two types of groups: the ones are getting married and the ones that (for shame!) are not. They roam the streets of Braunschweig like gangs looking for trouble, but really, all they want is to complete silly tasks, drink (a lot), and maybe sell you some trinkets, to earn money for their upcoming married (or single) life. In the daytime, they are fairly serious, but in the evening, they are quite um… happy.
On the steps of the city hall, a young woman is diapering a baby doll, surrounded by her friends wearing leis of polyester flowers. There’s a custom that, if you aren’t married by your 30th birthday, you must perform some silly act like this. However, before you think how sexist this custom is, you should know that the guys get in on this, too. A herd of guys dressed as cowboys dragging a covered wagon full of beer is led by the celebrant wearing a skirt. We saw groups of girls with angel wings, guys carrying brooms (they have to sweep the city hall steps), and girls with bumblebee hats. Often, the bumblebees will flirt with the cowboys and a bigger party will erupt in the middle of the street.
A group of people whizzed by on what looked like a big table with a roof on wheels, pedaling and drinking and singing. It’s hard to tell now, which are the bachelor/bachelorette parties and which are the singletons who must do penance. Some sell trinkets or small bottles of local alcohol for 5Euros (about $6) on the street to strangers, supposedly to pay for their upcoming wedding, which for some, will be sooner than others. Frank bought some body cream for Suzanne from some very cute, rather drunk girls dressed in black.
Party on, Braunschweig!
We are really ready to leave Strasbourg. Up and at ‘em and out of the hotel at 9am, we walk to the train station where our car awaits. We’re on our way to Braunschweig to visit our friends Frank and Suzanne and their boys, but today is Friday and they’re busy until after lunch tomorrow. After the stress of the city, we need some serious nature. I have found us a place in the Hartz Mountains, about an hour south of Braunschweig. The GPS says it takes us 4 ½ hours to get there. Off we go.
The GPS is accurate as long as we follow her directions (it’s Jill, the American voice) and maintain the speed limit. She’s been pretty reliable so far. Although she’s a little shaky in the cities, she excels in finding us the most scenic (and, I like to believe fastest, although George will disagree) way to get from one place to another. For example, we had a little trouble (that is, me reading the GPS and interpreting it for George while he’s watching traffic) getting on the Autoroute and ended up in a hospital parking lot. Lost 5 minutes there, but got back on track quickly.
There is a fair amount of construction going on and traffic slows to a crawl. No worries! I just hit “Detour” and we’re off this Autobahn (Germany, now) and onto another one, but lost 10 minutes. Around lunchtime, more traffic. I restrict the GPS to avoid highways and we’re off the Autobahn and into fields of grain and flowers. We find a cute little town with a bakery and have a sandwich and pastry for lunch. Nobody speaks English here, but it’s easy to communicate.
Finally we arrive at our destination, Hahnenklee. Not even our German friends have heard of this place. It’s a little town in the mountains (not Alps, more like Appalachians) with a tiny cable car (just like the ones at Busch Gardens or Disneyland!!) that seats four and goes to the top of their mountain. In the winter, there are easy ski runs, but when there’s no snow, the mountain bikers take over.
I reserved what I thought was a room in a bed and breakfast, but it turns out we have a 2 bedroom apartment, complete with living room and kitchen. We have a patio with a meticulously landscaped yard and can see the top of the mountain above. We’re just on the edge of this sweet little town so it’s as quiet as can be. And, there’s homemade cheesecake right inside the front door with a sign that says help yourself, just don’t eat it all. It’s the best cheesecake ever.
For dinner, George has schnitzel and I have spargel (the huge white asparagus in season here). Back to the quiet of our apartment, we sleep well. Thank you, GPS, for getting us here safely.
Biking to the Rhine
It’s just Morgan and I today, and he is fairly non-committal about plans. Since he got to go paragliding last week, he is lackadaisical, as if he can’t imagine there will be anything else fun to do for the entire trip. In a monotone, he says he will do anything that I want to do since he got to do what he wanted already. I know he wants more excitement, which cannot be found in museums or boat rides. I’m trying to get him excited about a half day bike rental. No response. Not even the idea of biking to the nearby Rhine River excites him. Nor does climbing the Cathedral or going to the Modern Art Museum. However, sometimes you have to actually start doing a thing before you decide that it is fun.
First, we try the bikes. Can’t rent until 130pm for a good half-day rental. We climb the Cathedral. I am slow, taking pictures along the way. We time it so the bells are ringing when we are up there. It’s not as loud as you would think. There’s lots of graffiti from the 1700s. Morgan is unimpressed.
We walk to the art museum, wait for it to open, then go around the building to find a sign saying they’re closed for the day. Neither disappointment nor joy from Morgan. We go back to the room, killing time for an hour, waiting for the rain to abate (it’s been on-and-off all day) before we try the bikes again. It’s hard to leave the pull of YouTube on the internet, but ok, whatever I want, let’s bike ride.
The bike place has easy-to-pedal one-speed bikes and the city has excellent dedicated bike trails. I find a route to the Rhine but Morgan flies ahead on a straight stretch, and by the time I catch up with him, we’ve passed the turn. We’re making good time, though, and so continue along the Ill River around Strasbourg out of town.
After about 20 minutes of riding, we find parkland. It’s starting to rain, but we continue pedaling. It’s a huge forest park, and Morgan wants to take the street rental bikes down a deer trail. I veto the idea and we stay on the bike path. We come to a little lake off the main path and leading away from it is another path, not as big as the bike path, but big enough, and with hardpacked dirt. Morgan begs, I allow, and we are really in the woods now.
This path is for walkers, I think, but it is raining pretty hard now and there is no one fool enough to be walking the nature trail in this weather. We bike past swampy areas and have to walk our bikes over steps and bridges. A friendly muskrat is in the lake. We’re soaked, I have no idea where we are, and pray to find the proper bike trail again. Fortunately, we were following a circular trail and here’s the little lake again. A little farther out, we follow the trail pointing to the Rhine, and come out at the great river.
We return the bikes covered with mud (not to mention ourselves), get some ice cream and meet George back at the room. After a long hot shower, it’s off to a weinstube (a wine pub/restaurant) for an excellent meal. The former lackadaisical kid can’t say enough about how fun the bike ride was. My butt hurts and my legs are sore from three hours pedaling, but all in all, it was a great day. Score one for Mom!
In the Shadow of the Cathedral
I sit up in bed and type to the sound of flute out of the window. It’s coming from the square in front of the Notre-Dame de Strasbourg Cathedral outside my window, right in front of our hotel. For the last couple of posts, I’ve been complaining about the noise from the people walking by, the dishes clinking in the kitchen across the way, the garbage and delivery trucks that come (so George says) at 5:30am. But, the square in front of the Cathedral also has been the source of some very delightful music and sounds.
First, starting at 7am, the bells in the high tower of the cathedral ring in the hour and then every 15 minutes in between. Then the delivery trucks come, bringing wine and food to the surrounding restaurants. The first people you see are quickly crossing the square heading to work or school, then the individual early am tourists come, walking slowly, eyes raised to the spires. Clumps of older folks following a closed umbrella raised into the air mean the groups from the tour buses have arrived. The walls around the Cathedral reflect the multitude of voices.
About that time, maybe 9am, the musicians show up. Now the place has the feel of a medieval market. Right now, it’s the flute, but I’ve also heard violin and acoustic guitar. They seem to be the warm-up acts for the loudest musicians, a trio of bass, accordion, and horn who show up from 12-2pm for lunch and 7-10pm for dinner. They play “Hello, Dolly”, “Strangers in the Night,” and “La Vie on Rose.” Very Parisian. They will often play right under my open window.
Finally, the rains have come. The pollen count and temperature is down. I let Morgan sleep til 11am while I catch up on blog writing and email. We’re supposed to meet our friends from Seattle, Adele and her son Bergen, at the Cathedral to see the Astrological Clock work its magic. Every day at 12:30pm the mechanical cock crows. Jesus blesses the apostles (12 – one for each hour). Underneath them, the skeleton rings the bell with an extra bone as figures representing childhood, youth, middle age, old age, and death shuffle past. This was high entertainment in the 1400s and I imagine the wonderment of the pilgrims who saw this hundreds of years ago.
In the shadow of the Cathedral is the former palace of the Cardinal (Napoleon slept here) and the archaeological museum with a 600,000 year-old rock from which someone back then chipped a piece off and used it as a tool. I think this is the oldest thing ever touched by someone else that I have ever seen. Fragments of pottery tell us that before the Cathedral, this square was the center of a Roman village.
There’s a bench under some trees between the palace and the Cathedral. We sit and chat. It’s nice to chat with Adele, because they travel more than we do, and we share plans and stories. It rains, but we stay dry under the trees and the Cathedral blocks most of the wind. Who else has sat in this place and what did they talk about?
Back to the room, nobody’s really hungry except me, but I don’t have enough energy to get out and go find food. I scrounge for a pear and some pastry I kept from breakfast for Morgan to eat and wish for a better dinner as I watch Gordon Ramsay in French buying steaks for a restaurant in New York. I’m tired, though, and don’t have the energy to go out. It’s finally cool enough to close the curtain for some privacy from the chefs across the way. I can hear the accordion trio and am glad to be in the shadow of the Cathedral tonight.
Cooking in Colmar
In Strasbourg, France, we wake up to a fantastic view of the cathedral, but we haven’t slept well. Tried to close the window against the noise and got hot. Tried to open the window to cool down and got woken up by the garbage truck at 6am. The cathedral is lit up at night, though. Magnificent.
Morgan is awake early, so we get an early start on the day, grab some breakfast, and head to the train station to visit Colmar for the day, one half hour away. Colmar was the largest town on the Alsatian Wine Road from yesterday, one of the few saved from WWI and WWII destruction. We are here to see the half-timbered houses and excellent medieval museum and churches.
We buy our tickets at the train station and have some time to kill before our train. Stopping at the tourist office to buy the museum/tour pass that will keep us busy for the next 3 days, we find out that Lady Gaga is in town, tonight. We rush back into town to see if the ticket office is open yet. It’s not. We rush back to catch our train to Colmar, vowing that we check the ticket situation there. We do, and find out that the concert is sold out. Oh well.
It’s sweaty hot today. Not only that, but Morgan is allergic to something in this part of France and has been sneezing, snorting, and snuffling since we got here. Hot, sweating, and eyes watering, he tours with me through the streets of Colmar until we hit the cathedral. Cool. No pollen. No mom asking questions about half-timbered houses. We sit and he leans on the pew in front, ostensibly praying for a cool rain and a nap. After about 10 minutes, I need to go. I’m getting hungry. I try to whisper to him to get him up, and get shushed over the P.A. system by the church lady. That got his attention and we slink out the door.
Lunch is the best quiche (onion tart) I’ve ever had. Comes with 2 kinds of cabbage salad and beets. Normally, beets are about the only thing I will not eat, but these are good. We tour the museum, see the magnificent medieval altarpiece in the old abbey, and head back.
Back in Strasbourg, we check the local Lady Gaga ticket situation. We find out that there are tickets available, about $120/each. We are too hot and tired and it just seems like too much right then, so we pass on the deal.
The room is still hot, so George and I take a river cruise around Strasbourg. We see our friends Don and Adele, their son Bergen, and Don’s colleague, David already on the boat. How nice to have company!
Dinner is take-out Indian. I steal forks from the breakfast room downstairs, lay out a towel, and we eat, picnic-style, directly from the containers. Yum.
Trying to sleep, the light from the kitchen across the street is bright, but if we close the curtain, we will certainly broil to death. It’s gonna be a rough night.
Welcome to Stress-bourg
Warning: This post may be a little cranky. Such a shame, with such beautiful scenery!
It all started with Morgan. Yes, let’s blame Morgan. He was the one who borrowed the SD card for my camera and did not return it in time, so that when we went to tour the cute little town of Eguisheim last night, there were no pictures. Such a cute little town, too. Stressful. But here’s what I learned. You can go to www.google.com/images and type in the name of the town: Eguisheim. Then you can see the narrow streets, sweet square, and half-timbered houses still standing from days of old. You can’t see the (very mild) sauerkraut and five kinds of meat that I had for dinner, but I’m sure you can imagine it.
In the morning, we had breakfast with everyone else who is staying in our little bed-and-breakfast. All French, and only our hostess, Marie-Therese, speaks halting English. She tries to include us in the conversation, and I understand a lot of what’s going on, but it’s coming so fast, that I can’t translate properly to George and Morgan. Stressful. Marie-Therese and her husband took a trip to San Antonio, Texas a couple of years ago, where they have family. Turns out there is a pretty decent community of Alsatians in Texas. Who knew?
At 10:30am, we get in the car and try to follow the Alsatian Wine Road, using the sporadic signage, a sparsely sketched guidebook map and the GPS. We keep getting off track. Since it is a holiday and the first sunny weekend in weeks, everybody is out sightseeing. Forget about going into the small villages on the route. Stressful. We look upward to see a castle decide to drive to it. When we get there, it takes us 15 minutes just to drive in, decide not to stay, and out of the parking lot. Stressful.
Still, it’s only 12noon. We ask the GPS to give us a route to Strasbourg without highways or toll roads. She takes us in the totally opposite direction, a 2 hour ride up and down mountains and through passes, instead of one hour on the Autoroute. Nice drive through the woods and lovely small towns. We finally hit the flatland, and after getting gas for the rental car we must return, we head into town. First, we try to get to our hotel by the cathedral. GPS gets us to the huge square the hotel is on, but way on the other side. You can’t get there from here and there are a million people walking all over the place. Stressful.
We decide to just drop the car at the train station, a 20 minute walk away. On the door of the rental station office a sign says they’re closed and please return the car to the airport, 15 minutes out of town. I swear I confirmed that we could return the car here, even though it was a holiday. Stressful. Oh, and George has to get to a meeting at 5pm near our hotel in town and it’s after 3pm. We drive to the airport, to find out that we could have indeed returned the car in town and do we want to drive it back. No, we most certainly do not. We leave the car there and, since there is no time to take the train back into town, we take a $50 taxi ride to our hotel. Stressful.
Our room is on the square of the cathedral. I booked it because I loved the view of the cathedral from the room and it had air-conditioning. However, we are disappointed to learn that the hotel has not turned the a/c on because it hasn’t been hot until the last 3 days. It’s pretty hot now, and we have to leave the windows open to get any relief. Unfortunately, we can hear every person on the square, the cooks in the restaurant kitchen across the street from our room, every time a waiter stacks dishes from the diners on the street, and the occasional car from around the corner. Sometimes herds of students come through and we might as well be in the midst of Grand Central Station. George is severely unhappy about the hot and noisy room. Fortunately, there’s a nice Alsatian dinner to be had and we have only the main course and head back to the hot, noisy room with the chefs across the way watching me fall asleep.
Welcome to Stressbourg.
Bravo for the Bernese Bears!
Eguisheim. That’s the name of the village that I can see from the terrasse of my gite (country bed and breakfast). We arrived here, driving from Bern, hungry at 4pm and walked down the hill to town to find a bite to eat before dinner. There is no restaurant serving any type of meal until 7pm, so we have to survive on pate and wine.
Euro food timing is often a problem for us. We can’t seem to make it down to breakfast before 9 or 10 am and eat way too much because we’re hungry. We are not hungry for the traditional lunch time from 11:30am to 2pm, but get hungry around 3 or 4pm. Unfortunately, by then any type of decent restaurant is closed. You can always get sandwiches or maybe doner kebab if you can find a place, but for something other than fast food, you need to wait until 7pm. If you are farther south or in a bigger city, restaurants don’t open until 8pm. In a small village like this, the only thing open is the patisserie (bakery) and the charcuterie (where you can get meat, quiches, and maybe a sandwich). The boys got a meat pie shaped like a turtle and I got bread and pate. We did a petit wine tasting for $5 bottles of local wine and pick two. Our little house we are staying in has a porch which overlooks the Rhine valley below. Heaven! The Gewurztraminer wine tastes like candy, perfect with my $3 worth of pate and $1 bread. Who said Europe was expensive?
It took us about three hours to get here (on the non-highway route thru the north Jura mountains, where Susie and I had been just a couple of weeks before) from Bern. In Bern this morning, I led the boys on a nice walking tour, direct from my favorite travel author, Rick Steves, visiting the hot spots. Although we missed the jester-dancing-litte-man-hitting-the-clock-tower-bell-with-a-hammer animation at the old clock, we did get to the cathedral just as church was letting out (it’s Sunday!). We went around the corner to enjoy the adjacent park when we heard music. Live music, like chamber music. At first, we couldn’t figure out where it was coming from, until we looked up. There were musicians on the balcony of the tower 200 feet high! How cool is that to be serenaded from on high as you are leaving the service?
We had to see the bears, the living symbol of Bern. When I saw these bears 20 years ago, they lived in this barren, concrete pit next to, but not in view of, the Aare River. It was incredibly sad. However, just a couple of years ago, some concerned citizens made the town build the bears a new, beautiful, open enclosure on the hill that goes down to the river, with trees, dirt, and even a fishing canal. Hooray for Bern citizens and bear freedom!
So for now, we are just killing time until dinner, me blogging away and George working on equations. Not a bad place to work!
Was it really 20 years ago?
We left our Alpine home of Chamonix this morning to head north. George’s next meeting is in Strasbourg, France, but not until Monday. So we have two days to get, if we drive on the Autoroute, about four hours away. It was my intention to stay and explore the wine country about an hour south of Strasbourg for both nights, but Monday is a holiday (Whitsun or Pentecote, depending on who you talk to) so it was too hard to find a place to stay for tonight (Saturday on a holiday weekend). So I looked farther south, and thought it might be fun to spend one more night in Switzerland with the boys instead of Susie.
I’m back to Switzerland in more ways than one. Since we had lots of time, we made a detour to Morgins, a little ski village above Lake Geneva across from Lausanne, where I taught 3 students how to be travel agents for 6 weeks in February 1990. In fact, I celebrated my 30th birthday catching some ice skiing, rolling about 200 feet, and visiting the Swiss doctor for a torn arm muscle.
You really can’t go home again; to me the place seemed much less magical than it was 20 years ago. The Bellevue Hotel where I lived was still the biggest thing in town, but there were many more buildings there. The landscape was green and not white. However, the everlasting mountains, the “Dents du Midi” that I could see out my window every morning were still there, big and white as ever.
We drove back down the mountain and around Lake Geneva to Chateau de Chillon (visited there with Susie and Patricia) and continued to Lausanne, where we had lunch by the lake. A shimmering day, we could see mountains across the lake and down the Rhone valley that were not visible a couple of weeks ago in the rain. Over the hill and through the countryside we drove on the same routes Jean-Pierre and Patricia took us. Two weeks ago, we marveled at the gorgeous farms and valleys. Today, I could see that these were surrounded by white Alpine peaks which were invisible to us on the rainy days Susie and I were there.
We programmed the GPS to skip the highways are were richly rewarded with lots of small-town Switzerland. (We also skipped the highways because we could not figure out where to buy the sticker for your car that signifies you’ve paid the toll for those routes.) George saw a hat in the road and turned around to fetch it, never even getting out of the car. We finally make it to Bern despite several detours and are in a pension just across the bridge from the old town.
It seems like most of the restaurants in Bern are Italian, and all of them have a big tv showing a soccer game. We succumb and have pizza, so much better than pizza at home, with thin crust and fresh sauce. On the way back to the room I see the sign for Kursaal, a big entertainment complex and remember going there with one of my students 20 years ago
It’s bittersweet to go backwards, but for me, I prefer going forward.
The Highest Massage in the World
“Run, keep running, keep your knees up, run as if you are running all the way to Chamonix. Good, now sit back between my legs. How is that, Cherie?”
I am flying in the lap of a French paraglider named Frank (pronounced “Fronk”). We just ran in the snow with a wing on Frank’s back and with Frank on my back off the side of a mountain at 7300 ft, the tree line. The town below looks like a relief map. The snow-covered mountains tower to my right. I can almost touch them. An avalanche has just thundered down above us. It is sunny and clear, beautiful weather, and I can see forever.
I am in awe, soaring like a bird on the currents. Then his hands were on my shoulders. “This is the highest massage in the world,” he murmured into my ear. Oooh la la, keep going, I’m thinking, but he needs to use his hands to pilot the paraglider. I think I need a cigarette, and I don’t even smoke. I ask him to go slow, take his time, we have all day. We chat about flying to Grenoble. Turns out he’s been the French champion of cross-country paragliding. Trees below, then high-altitude farms, then I can see between my feet that we’re over the town, directly over cars and streets and hotels. With a final swing around, we land in a field, “light as a butterfly,” he said. I have never felt so exhilarated, wanting to go back up again, from a higher point this time, for a longer ride.
We started out today with an 830am trip to the top of the mountain, to see the world at its most clear and fresh, sharing the cable car with skiers and climbers and their gear. We came back down for breakfast, then turned around an hour later to meet Sean Potts of www.fly-chamonix.com and his paragliding team at the base of the cable car for our flight. The guys get boots and I get gaiters as we have to tramp through the snow a bit at the top to get to the take-off spot.
At the 7300 foot level, we watch as another tandem paraglider team who arrived before us tried to take off, but couldn’t catch the air in the chute right, so fell back in the snow. They tried twice, then it was my turn. I received the running instructions and got ready. One, two, three, go and my legs are flailing in the snow as the wind turns us sideways, the chute collapses, and I end up in a face plant in the snow with Fronk on top of me. Hmmm… not the best start.
George and Sean give it a try. They go up, up, up, and away. My turn again. We run, run, run, then liftoff. I sit back. Amazing. Not scary at all, soaring with my Frenchman above the valley. We catch currents and go up a bit, then turn, back and forth, lower each time, until we land.
The girl who was trying to go before us took off, then it was Morgan’s turn. While George flew with Sean Who Could Explain All the Scientific Details and I flew with the Sexy Frank, Morgan got Baptiste the Acrobat, who dusted the tops of the trees with the bottom of their feet, let Morgan steer, and came down fast in a “death” spiral before landing perfectly spot-on in our field.
We help our guys pack their wings away in their huge backpacks and get a ride back into town. We are too excited to go back to our room and a little hungry, so we use our 2 day cable car pass one last time go back up the mountain, past our paragliding take-off spot, to the 12000 foot level to celebrate with lunch and beer. The clouds are coming in now and only Mont Blanc is visible. Suddenly, we are extremely tired. It’s all we can do to get down the hill and back to our room, totally spent. Everyone is satisfied. It just doesn’t get any better than this.
Peaks and Glaciers
In Chamonix, a resort town in the French Alps, we wake up to the view of the highest mountains in Europe. This little village in the valley between two huge sets of mountains was the site of the first Winter Olympics. We have parked the car on the street (safely, we are told) because our hotel is smack right in the middle of town, on a pedestrian-only street.
The thing to do here is get high. NO, not like that – what are you thinking?? We go to one of the highest spots in Europe to view Europe’s highest mountain, Mont Blanc. After arranging our excursion for tomorrow (just wait and see) we find the cable car along with a couple of busloads of tourists, and squeeze in. The sign says 72 people fit in this thing, but there must be 73 because I ended up in the middle of them and don’t need to hold on to anything because I am a standing sardine. It takes 2 cable cars to reach the tippy-top and on the second one, I am smashed into the front window. Nice!! I take a video of our ascent.
When we get to the top, whew! Amazing view, amazing altitude (12,605 feet – is that higher than the top of Mt. Hood, my Oregon friends?), and everyone is feeling a little woozy from the lack of oxygen. We climb 20 steps to the terrace and we’re breathing hard. At the top of the world, we can Alps, Alps, and more Alps all around. Mont Blanc (because it is always white) is shining above us. Somehow, we see the occasional skier or hiker down below on the glacier. There are no real “runs” so they just ski down this massive expanse. It’s about 10 degrees and the wind alternates between caressing us and trying to blow us over the railing. Good thing we brought our long underwear, hats, and gloves. Chamonix is far, far below. Everything is snowy white. This is the closest to heaven I’ve ever been.
At the bottom, we grab a sandwich and head to the other biggie attraction in town, the Mer de Glace (Sea of Ice) Glacier. A cute little red cogwheel train takes us up the other side of the mountain to find Europe’s longest glacier (8 miles long). The length is impressive, coming from the mountains above, but where we’re at, it’s covered in dirt. We have to take a little gondola down from the train station and then walk down 350 steps (more steps every year) to get down to it. Back in 1909 when the train was first built, there was no gondola or steps, just step off the train and touch the glacier. Is it global warming or just the glacier’s normal cycle? As we descend to the ice caves that they carve out of it (we can walk inside a glacier) there are signs saying where the glacier was… 1980, not far from the bottom of the gondola. One hundred steps later, 1990, and so on, till we reach the bottom of the moraine and enter the ice cave. They have lights in the walls and are playing some new agey music. Very surreal.
The clouds are starting to roll over the peaks above. Time to descend to our (comparatively warm in the 60’s) valley. We have gotten high, but feel pretty tired. Like we climbed a mountain?
Roman around France
It’s a beautiful day in Provence. The sun is shining and it is windy, but not cold. I get a chance to do some yoga while Morgan and George are online. It’s supposed to be raining in the mountains where we’re headed, so we’re hanging out at our chateau as long as we possibly can.
The town of Orange, our first stop, is just a 15 minute drive north of the chateau. It’s a homeschool day as we explore a 2000 year old Roman amphitheatre with its wall still intact. There are a lot of Roman amphitheaters around, like the pics of the one I posted from Lyon. This one is special because not only are the seats saved, but the huge wall that formed the back of the stage for performances is undestroyed.
We take an audiotour and learn that Orange was a big outpost of the Romans, where many of the soldiers retired after their 20 years of service (relatively young retirees need to be far from the emperor). They first used the theatre for Greek tragedies, but over the years lighter drama and then comedies became more popular. By 300AD, the audience wanted more and more bawdy spectacles, and it wasn’t unusual for women to come on stage naked for a pornographic performance in front of the 9000 plus people who would attend for free.
The Christians put an end to that (I always wondered what the problem was with Christians and theater back then). Trashed by the Saracens and other invading tribes, it became a hospital, a prison, and eventually a neighborhood. People built dwellings in it and lived there until around 1850, when an enterprising and artistic Frenchman decided that it needed to be a theatre again. It took 20 years to evict everyone and then longer to restore it, but by 1890 it was the place for all types of performances, particularly opera. Now all kinds of music and theater are performed here. Sure would love to attend something, anything here, for the acoustics are amazing.
It takes about 4 hours to drive to our next mountain home, Chamonix, in the French Alps. By the time we get here, the wind of Provence has blown all the rain and clouds away and the mountaintops are mostly visible. I can see Mont Blanc, the highest mountain in Europe, from my bed.
Queen for a Day
Ah, to be Queen!
This morning I wait in bed while the King goes off to fight the dragons. The Prince is still sleeping.
After my morning ablutions, I find the Prince has arisen. We go downstairs to breakfast set out for us. Yogurt and fruit, a chocolate croissant, and coffee for the Queen. We ride back up to our chambers and listen to recorded music while corresponding electronically with our peers. We pack for our upcoming journey.
Lunch is at Restaurant Michel Sarran. It has earned 2 stars in the Michelin Guide and every once in a while, we go there to dine. There are 6 people waiting on us, the bread girl, the wine guy, the waiter who takes our order and brings our check, the girl who brings the food to us and explains it, the guy who takes the empty plates away, and the silverware girl who takes away the inappropriate silverware and brings the perfect utensils for each course. They created a splendid mix of artistry and food. For your pleasure, I have included photos of each course below.
The Prince and I then stroll along the bank of the Garonne River, visiting a cathedral and finding the perfect place to sit on this sunny day under the weeping willow. We get the call that our coach is ready to travel and find the King and the coach (a Renault) ready to go. We drive through the countryside, admiring the various chateaux and landholdings.
Finally, we arrive at our own chateau, the Chateau Beaupre (www.chateau-beaupre.com). The tower is 14th century, but our rooms are in the more modern 16th century section. The Prince has his own loft for sleeping. Everything is closed in our little village, so we visit the nearby village Chateauneuf-du-Pape for a late evening pizza at the local pub. Of course, even the cheapest wine is of the best quality.
We are thankful that our Chateau has wi-fi and enjoy the connection before we retire. All is at peace within the Kingdom.
Window Shopping and Fresco Admiring
It’s raining in Lugano, the city advertised as the sunny Italian-speaking Mediterranean part of Switzerland. Thunderstorms shook our room for hours last night.
We had big plans today, Susie and I, a walk around town, a bus to the botanical garden over the hill, past San Salvatore. The weather report said 20% chance of rain at 11am, however, that was when it switched from sprinkling to pouring.
We aborted our walk around town for a nice lunch in a wine cellar. Local Ticino merlot, risotto with gorgonzola sauce, vitello con tonnato, and expresso. No English spoken. Lots of pointing and smiling.
Fortunately, there was a nice shopping area with covered galleries. We did some window shopping, pausing to buy Swiss chocolate and toiletries. At the end of the shopping area was the Church of Santa Maria of the Angels, with frescos dating from 1519 of the Last Supper (with a very clear Mary Magdalene next to Jesus) and the story of the Crucifixion. Multo bella.
Too wet to venture further, I stopped at the charcuterie and bought myself some homemade ravioli and bread cake to heat up for dinner later and took the funiculare up to the hotel. Actually, the Hotel Montarina is an old mansion, part youth hostel (a couple of rooms with nine or ten sets of bunk beds each on the first floor and dorm-style bathrooms) and hotel. Some rooms like ours are “classic” with high frescoed ceilings, big windows overlooking Mount Bre across the lake, and a little marble fireplace next to my bed. There is a big sunny “living room” next door with tv, long tables for eating, and internet access. The toilet room is beyond the living room and the shower is through the kitchen.
There are groups of teens and younger that are staying here. It’s pretty noisy next door when they are having their meals of spaghetti cooked in the little kitchen. Otherwise, like now, it’s quiet at almost 5pm. This place would be amazing when it’s warmer as it has an outdoor pool surrounded by grapevines, palm trees, and lounge chairs. Too rainy for that today, though.
Going to retire early tonight. It’s a big travel day tomorrow heading to Zurich for Susie’s last night in Switzerland before she heads home.
From Mishaps to Montarina
Editor’s note: For those of you who like to go straight to the pics, just scroll down to the bottom of the post. I’ve lowered the resolution so it will be faster to download when you click on it for a bigger view.
Today we leave our mountain home of Gimmelwald. It’s raining a bit, which seems fitting for the sadness we feel. There are so many hiking trails, paragliding adventures, and fresh cheese from the village that we didn’t get a chance to try. Next time, I guess. As we dragged our luggage down the gravel path to the cable car, our sheep neighbors stuck their heads out of the barn and maaaa’ed us farewell.
Ever have one of those days when things don’t work out how you would like them to and, even more, when just plain bad things happen? Well, today was one of those days. Lots of mishaps. Check it out:
First mishap: We travel via cable car to bus to train to train to train. We had planned to take the famous Glacier Express train on our way to Lugano, our next destination. However, when I checked with the train guy in Interlaken, he said that yes, we can use our pass, and no, no reservation is required. Our train to catch the Glacier Express was running late, so when we got to Brig to board it; it was pulling out of the station. It stopped for us, but the conductor woman said that without a reservation, we could not board. We should have listened to Rick Steves, of the Rick Steves guidebook, who told us that a reservation was mandatory. Lesson learned: always ask at least 3 people when you don’t know something. I put more credence in the train guy than in Rick. Who knew?
So we took the next train. Not an express, because it is stopping at every little hamlet going up the pass. However, it turned out well, we have the entire car to ourselves and can move about freely instead of being confined to a reserved seat. I figured out how to open the window for fresh air while Susie is in the bathroom, and can’t wait to tell her when she gets back.
Second Mishap: Susie returns and is ecstatic about how the windows slide down to open. We open every window within reach, so excited to get fresh air and better pictures. While we were basking in the breeze, I heard Susie exclaim “Oh no!” and saw part of her windbreaker flapping in the open window. The windbreaker that was under her quilted jacket. The quilted jacket that was sucked out the window as the train was travelling through the countryside. Buh-byeeee.
Third Mishap: We got in to Lugano a little late. We rolled up to our hotel, checked in and left our bags, then hurried down to catch one of the last lake steamers for a nice cruise on the lake. As we were running to catch the boat that was closing it’s gate, I tripped and fell flat on my face on the cement sidewalk. Ow. Good thing I knew how to breakfall – landing on my forearms with no scratches or bruises, just wounded pride.
Fourth Mishap: We made the ship and cruised to this lovely little town. Walked around a bit, then tried to find a place for a glass of wine on the lake. It’s low season and all the restaurants are closed but one. That one had a closed in terrace over the lake and it was filled with smoke and smokers. Bummer. Our wine and appetizers we were looking forward to became an apple and leftover packaged cheese from the USAir lounge.
Fifth mishap: Turns out the cable car we were going to take up to San Salvatore closed at 6pm. We were too late.
We ate our leftover bread, cheese, and dessert on the patio of our gorgeous little hotel. It rained.
I’ll include pics of our room tomorrow, when the sun is shining.
All in all, for me, I still believe that the worst day travelling is better than the best day sitting home.
The Hills are Alive… with the sound of… Susie and Julie!
Thought I’d offer a little variety today. Susie is filling in as guest blogger on the mountain. Enjoy.
Happy Mother’s Day! Our last day in Gimmelwald.
We awoke to surprising sunshine! The tip-tops of the snow-capped peaks outside our window were visible for the first time since we arrived. Walter (85) served breakfast: kaffee, juice, bread with jam & butter, & 2 chunks of Swiss cheese to all 9 of his guests. Then Julie & I gathered knapsacks for hiking. We planned to hike up to Murren (@ 45 minutes), exchange some $ at the Tourist Office, and get on the Funicular Train. It would take us up steeply to the next peak, and we could spend 2 hrs walking down….
However, we couldn’t find anything open on a Sunday morning in the off-season. So we perused our hiking map and decided to try our luck with the Flower Trail. We ascended steeply out of Murren on a path through the spruce forest. It was very taxing on our cardio systems, but the spruce/larch hillside was sprinkled with blue Hepatica, lavender Soldanella, and yellow & purple violets. After almost an hour of this steep climb, the forest opened onto a rolling field covered in white and purple crocus! A ski lift was operating in the distance, culminating on the snowy peak above us. We took a small break to change the camera battery, sip some water, and gaze at the gorgeous crocuses. We had reached the snow line with our hefty climb and could look directly across at the high peaks across the chasm.
As we continued on the “Flower Trail”, we left the crocus fields and began another ascent through deep snow. Rather uncomfortable in tennis shoes! After another hour, my right knee rebelled and decided not to bend anymore. We aborted the ‘peak’ Julie had aimed for and began our slippery descent. Luckily, we were moving slowly along the icy route when we came upon a gorgeous Chamois. He was dark brown with a striking light-brown face, curved antlers and a butt like an elk. Beautiful!
After yet another hour, we made our way down into Murren, found the $ Exchange machine, and headed toward our village of Gimmelwald. Being rather tired and hungry, we found a restaurant open and decided to sit on the veranda overlooking the valley. Paragliders were taking off from the hillside across the road, leaping into the air thousands of feet above the valley floor. We chose to share ‘Roesti’, another traditional Swiss dish made of ham, potatoes, cheese, and pears baked & served in a ceramic skillet. Yum! Cold beer washed it down as rain sprinkled on us. Julie still had some urge to follow more trails, so I chose to return via the roadway alone. It was a fortunate choice, because I could walk without having to bend my knee very much AND I saw another Chamois!
I spent the intervening ½ hour before Julie’s arrival back to our room searching the ID of birds and wildflowers on the internet. Now that it’s approaching dinner time, we’ve been privileged to watch the speedy ‘rush hour’ sheep parade for the final time. A young couple from the village sits their two young daughters in front of the little barn across the street, gets a bucket of food, and heads up the street to a fenced pasture. They corral 30 sheep & goats and lead them down here to the barn…running at breakneck speed with the wife in front with the bucket and the husband cheering the herd from the rear. Several adult animals have bells around their necks, so the cheerful, swift parade has music. Once the animals are securely closed in the barn, the couple heads back up to the pasture for the second herd. We get to see a repeat performance! I’ll miss the morning and evening show tomorrow.
Sadly, we say Auf Wiedersehen to this precious village tomorrow after breakfast…hiking to the cable car, hopping on the bus, and finally boarding the train – er, make that 6 trains, to the Italian part of Switzerland. Luckily, it will be a day of mostly sitting, so we can recover from today’s ‘stroll in the Alps.
A Vacation from my Vacation
Exhausted! After going full-out the week before departure, busy every single minute at Jean-Pierre and Patricia’s, and getting to this mountain, there is nothing left.
Today I stayed in bed all day, except for meals. I had 5 days of writing to do for you all, 5 days of pictures to download, edit, and get ready to post, and needed to figure out how to do it all better. I’m still trying to figure out how to move the pictures to the bottom of the post easily. Glad you’re bearing with me!
Can’t complain about the view, though. The mountaintops are playing hide-and-seek with the clouds. I was going to listen to some music on my Ipod, but then I wouldn’t hear the sheep bells clanging, the birds singing, and the hum of the cable car as it whizzes up the mountain. Thunderstorms rang high above in the cloud-covered peaks.
The funniest thing was watching the farmers run the sheep out of the barn and out to the pasture. I posted a video of that on my Facebook page? Go to http://www.Facebook.com, look up my profile, and check it out. Become my friend if you’re not already.
I can’t believe that we were actually warned not to come up here, since the weather was going to be so bad, snowy and rainy like in Zermatt. Thank goodness we didn’t listen and came up anyway!
Susie got a chance to enjoy some walks on her own, searching for new Alpine wildflowers.
At dinner, we had a new batch of dining companions. Two couples from Cincinnatti, one couple from Minnesota, and a young woman from Florida studying hotel management in the Valais part of Switzerland. The evening was filled with Olie and Lena jokes, tales of (mis)adventures, singing Eagles hits, and lots of laughter. Fun group.
Tomorrow I’ll get out of bed and explore the area, but today, I’m taking a vacation from my vacation.
Railroad days and Whiskey nights
Today we have to leave our sweet Swiss family. Heartfelt hugs and goodbyes all around before we head to the train station. Our railpass is for 3 days out of the month and when we don’t choose to use one of our days, we get 50% off any other rail journey. It’s relatively not that far to our next destination, Gimmelwald, so we choose the 50% off option, but have a bit of a tough time explaining this to the teller-in-training at the ticket office. After 3 different people weighed in on the matter, we got our tickets and hopped on the train.
We traveled to Montreux, then changed to the Golden Pass train heading north. Our “classic” train had hardwood ceiling and beautifully upholstered seats. After switching back and forth ever higher over the city, we enter the tunnel that takes us from the 19th century back to the Middle Ages. Ancient farms perched on the hillsides, then ski resorts, then the lake. Another change of train, which we barely miss after a quick hop to the store for a bottle of wine (no stores where we’re going), then a bus, and finally a cable car gets us up the valley to Gimmelwald, our mountain destination.
Gimmelwald is perched on the top of a cliff, elevation 4500 ft. Visitors park their car at the bottom of the cliff and take the cable car straight up. This is not a touristy town or ski resort, but a real farmer’s village, saved from development when the locals pulled some strings to put Gimmelwald in a bogus “avalanche zone”.
We climb the hill to our hotel, dragging our rolling luggage up the gravel path. Thank goodness it’s not raining. Walter, the 88-year-old inkeeper is not in, but leaves us a note. room number 2 has a spectacular view. The tops of the mountains across the valley are obscured by the clouds, but it’s still incredible to be eye-level with the snow line of the vertical rock face. The toilet is down the hall, but we have a little fiberglass cubicle that is connected to a black box on the wall. For 1 Swiss Franc we get 5 minutes of shower. I hope the water will be warm. The walls are thin and we can hear every word and voice inflection of our neighbors.
We pull some chairs up to tables overlooking the valley below. Lunch is our wine, an apple, and the cheese samples from Gruyère. We can hear the bells and the bleating of our neighbors the sheep below and enjoy the aroma from the three donkeys in the small barn above. An Alpine cat winds his way between our legs.
It takes us an hour to walk up the hill, but only half of that to come down. Dinner at Walter’s is less than $15 with 3 courses and all the Italian Merlot you can drink. This place has been made well-known by guidebook author Rick Steves, so all of our dinner companions are American. The company is convivial, a family of 3 from California, 2 brothers from different parts of the West Coast meeting up, one single woman who seemed a little drunk, and us. We chat about our travels, homeschool, and marvel that the brothers are riding mountain bikes up here.
We have been busy every single minute up til now, and I’m looking forward to an early lights-out. But no. The brothers next door (in normal voices, talking through the wall) want to know why we’re so quiet and if we can hear them. We reply that we are waiting for a juicier topic to come up. They invite us over for whiskey. In our pajamas, we chat and laugh, trying to solve life’s problems while talking about books and some card game called Magic. The whiskey runs out so we head to bed. I wake up to find Susie with the computer in her lap and fingers on the keys, sleeping. What a night.
When I looked up the weather forecast on the internet (www.wunderground.com) it said that the temperature in Lausanne had been in the 60’s. Nice, partly sunny, partly cloudy, Spring temps. And it was fairly nice the day we got there. However, there is a weather phenomenon in that part of the country that they call Les Saintes de Glaces (the Ice Saints), where, after warm and sunny days in late April, on or around the days of Saint Mamert, Saint Pancrace, and Saint Servais (May 11, 12, and 13), wintry, icy weather will make its last stand. Les Saintes have hit us hard this weekend, and I’ve worn the same two long-sleeved shirts and the same pair of jeans (and long underwear to Zermatt) for the last 4 days. Good thing I brought gloves and a snow hat.
Today we head down the hill to Lausanne with Jean-Pierre for a tour of his beautiful city. We visit the largest cathedral in Switzerland, the square where Jean-Pierre, as a boy, touched Winston Churchill’s arm as the statesman was walking back to his car, and the walkable downtown pedestrian shopping area. I see Mephisto shoes on sale, but don’t have time to stop. We stop by the hearing store (L’Audition – have you ever noticed that the word “audition” comes from auditory – to hear?) where Jean-Pierre gets his hearing aid with the 27 different microphones in it fixed. That thing works like a dream.
Back up the hill and after another delicious lunch served by Patricia, only the girls pile in the car to see the Jura, the older, lower (Jura comes from Jurassic) mountains on the French border. Rolling hills instead of jagged peaks, it reminds us of the Blue Ridge, just a little higher. However, the Blue Ridge does not have 1000 year old abbeys nestled in the valley with hidden upstairs chapels to keep the tithe-tax grain and other goods from unwanted visitors.
We head to the top of the hill in the cloud, looking for the little farmhouse restaurant that will serve us tea (it is 4 o’clock, after all), but they are closed and remodeling. We marvel that they work in the sleet, making boards from whole logs right on the spot.
You know, when I travel with Susie we lean more toward the pursuit of nature. At home, she knows all the trees, flowers, bushes, and birds. When we travel, we are always on the lookout for the local flora and fauna. It’s my job to find the nature zone, then I just follow behind Susie with my camera, snapping photos of leaves, flowers, and moss. I have enough photos now from around the world to choose some of the most striking, print and frame them, and put them up on the wall, one of these days.
Our Swiss hostess stops to see the Alpine wildflowers. We are unbelievably lucky to have such a well-versed nature guide. Her father was a botanist, so she can tell us the common, as well as Latin, names for each little dot of color. We leap out of the car with excitement (well, two out of three of us) in the sleeting cold without our gloves to document flowers tinier than my little fingernail.
Down the hill, past the lake, we stop at the Jurapark, home to wild Polish horses, bears, bison, and wolves, and Ovaltine. Actually, here it’s call Ovalmaltine, and is quite the popular drink, maybe more so than hot chocolate. Not too malty, either; it hits the spot. On the way home, Patricia regales us with stories of her fox- and stag-hunting days in England. Jolly good fun.
Back at Le Renardier, it’s Raclette for dinner. A special grill is heated up. Each person gets a 3-in square Teflon tray and scraper. Special cheese is cut up to fit the trays. The trays are inserted under the grill and rest there until the cheese bubbles. While you are waiting, you smash up a small boiled potato and collect some dried meat, pickles, onions, and tomato. The melted cheese is then scraped onto the potato and garnished with some or all the collected foods. Yum. No water is served with this dinner, only the local white wine, Fendant, and lots of it. Fresh rhubarb tart (I must find the rectangular sheets of premade dough rolled up between sheets of paper that can be patchworked into a pie pan) and tea finish the evening. Christine, one of Jean-Pierre’s students (he’s a French tutor on the side) joins us for dinner and we hear stories of her father the veterinarian and how Patricia served as assistant to him during their visit to Germany last year.
We have officially decided to adopt Jean-Pierre and Patricia as our Swiss parents. We hug our Swiss mama and Swiss papa goodnight before the BBC news broadcast. Seems like the Iceland volcano is acting up again and they’re concerned for their flight from Geneva on Saturday.