Bon Viatge!

Meg and Grant go to Barcelona & beyond

Month: July 2015

Visting Kat in Milan

What happens when two Davis girls get together in Europe? Lots and lots of laughter. I’m not sure Europe could handle all three of us at once.

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Grant and I traveled to Milan to visit Kat, who is temporarily there on a work assignment. We had traveled throughout Italy during our honeymoon, but we never made it to Milan. It was fun to explore a new place with family and watch Kat try to interact with the locals using her Spanish, with a distinctly Italian lilt, and ridiculous over-the-top hand motions.

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Kat immediately greeted us with some aperitivos drink when we arrived at her apartment. Grant especially loved this drink (by loved I mean he poured his into my glass when I was in the bathroom). You’d be surprised at how quickly one acquires the bitter aftertaste of aperitivo, though. We decided to hit the big sites during the weekend while Kat didn’t have to work. First stop was the Duomo area. We walked through the large outdoor shopping center, and we each tried to make 3 turns on our heels on the famous mosaic with a notch in the bull’s testicles. None of us succeeded, but we did look really cool trying.

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Next was the Duomo cathedral itself! It is enormous (I mean check out the size of that door!). It was one of our favorite things during the trip. The tickets allow you to walk along the roof, which gives an up-close view of the architecture and all the details of the facade. There is also a pretty good view of Milan from the roof.

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IMG_3314I have to pause here to say that visiting Milan in July was literally the hottest I have felt in any recent memory. Barcelona is warm right now, for sure, but it has ocean breezes that keep it bearable. Milan is just plain hot. People in Milan also don’t use their air conditioning if they have it, so that means it seems even hotter. I say this because you can assume between every activity that we did in Milan there was a pause for a drink, a granite (delicious slushy drink, my favorite flavor being mint), or gelato.

Saturday evening we went to a burlesque circus dinner show, at which we got to observe all the bachelor and bachelorette party traditions of Italians (the place was crawling with something like seven different parties).

On Sunday, many things are closed in Milan (as they are in Spain and throughout Europe). We walked through Chinatown first, which was an interesting contrast to the rest of the city. Kat had started me salivating about salsa, since she offered to make us some, so we picked up a cheap blender and some dubious looking peppers for salsa later. On a side note, good salsa is one of the biggest things we have missed in Spain. Salsa and burritos.

Then we checked out the Milan canals area, called the Navigli District. There were pretty shops and artists set out along the canal. Of course, halfway through, we had to duck into a dark bar to escape the heat. That evening, we bonded watching Silicon Valley, which is a hilarious HBO comedy about a 20-something who starts his own business in the Bay Area. It is freakishly accurate.

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One of my favorite memories from the week with Kat was a simple memory of going with her to get her laundry done. None of us knew Italian, so getting around was a rather interesting affair. We did discover that they could pretty much understand our Spanish, and we could get the drift of their Italian. Anyway, we walked in with Kat, and Kat immediately asked if they could speak English (which they couldn’t). Then began this electrifying conversation, conducted more with hands than words, in which Kat and the lady at the laundromat tried to communicate what needed to be washed, how long it would take, and how much it would cost. The back and forth conversation just got more animated and louder as time went on, and Grant was fearful of what would have happened if we had stayed another five minutes. It was hilarious to watch as Kat subconsciously took on these Italian inflections of speaking to communicate. Needless to say, the lady at the laundromat was extremely kind and patient. And Kat got her laundry done. No matter the situation, Kat always seems to find her way – which makes her a great traveling partner.

While Kat was at work during the week, Grant and I did a few day trips from Milan. I’m working on a different blog post to cover the laughably disastrous Cinque Terre experience we had, but our trip to Lake Como was very beautiful. Lake Como is about an hour North of Milan, and it is easily accessible by train. I found this church that I really wanted to visit around Lake Como, which has been named by the Pope as the church of the patron saint of cyclists, Madonna del Ghisallo! I got this idea in my head that we could rent bikes and bike up to it. What I didn’t keep in mind was: a) how hot it was and b) how high the church was located. In the end, we took a train to a ferry to a bus that took us right up to the little chapel. After having ridden on the air-conditioned bus and seeing how it precariously maneuvered the hairpin curves of the switchbacks climbing up to the church, I was very glad we had opted to take the bus (and not been run down by the bus while cycling!).

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The church was the most unique one I have ever been in. It was set up high on a mountain overlooking the lake. The church itself was filled with bike paraphernalia that famous cyclists had given over in faith. There is an eternal flame that is there for cyclists who have died. It was a very special place for me – having grown up Catholic and now loving cycling so much. I took a saint card for Madonna del Ghisallo and plan on carrying it with me on every ride I do moving forward.

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O Mother of the Lord Jesus, We pray that you kindly assist and protect us in our cycling activities.

We ask that you keep us strong and healthy in body, pure and fervent in spirit and keep us away from dangers both in training and in races.

We ask that you make the bicycle a tool of brotherhood and friendship, which may serve to elevate us ever closer to God.

We pray for our dear friends who, torn from our company, you wanted with you in the kingdom of your Son: he gives them the joy of Thy bliss, and allows their families to accept this ordeal with faith and resignation.

Amen

I think the church meant even more to me because someone I was riding with a few weeks ago was in a bad cycling accident. I know it can be dangerous, especially in the city around cars, but I typically take my safety for granted. I’m usually more preoccupied with whether I’ll be able to do a climb in a certain amount of time than I am preoccupied about safety. Anyway, I’ll hold this church in my heart for future rides.

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The towns around Lake Como were made of twisting cobbled streets that followed the curve of the mountain they were built on. They were charming just to stroll on. We got to enjoy a ferry ride back to the train and the shining blue water in front of the bold blue mountains in front of the clear blue sky. I would highly recommend Lake Como – it definitely exceeded my expectations. Not only was it naturally gorgeous, it was also uncrowded. Let’s just keep this secret between you and me.

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It was sad to say farewell to Kat (although we are crossing our fingers that she will be able to visit us in Barcelona in a few weeks!). We needed a dose of family time, complete with homemade salsa and Italian wine.

Thanks for hosting us Kat! Drink up some granites for me!

¡Gora San Fermin!

When we first decided on Spain as a place to live for the next year, I immediately marked the Running of the Bulls on our Google calendar. This weekend I got to check “watch crazy people run in front of bulls” off my bucket list, but more importantly, I got a better appreciation for the Sanfermines festival and the Basque culture.

No, we did not run with the bulls. I am much too clumsy and anxious to handle a mob of people scrambling towards me.

We took a six-hour bus ride northwest from the capital of Catalan country to the center of the Kingdom of Navarre and Basque culture – Pamplona. Pamplona is nestled among rolling hills and mountains, and a river runs weaves town. The old city walls are excellently preserved and are integrated directly into the a park that runs the length of the riverfront. The city is green this time of year, and there are still cool breezes in the evening. In short, Pamplona is beautiful.

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I was not expecting how beautiful Pamplona would be, and Grant and I wished we could see it when it is not in “festival mode.” The whole city was in full-on party mode. The closest parallel I have to draw on is New Orleans’ Mardi Gras. Everyone was out in the street drinking and partying all day and night. I mean everyone – grandparents all the way down to grandkids. One of the things that I love about Spanish culture is that all ages are included in celebrations. This means the family stays together and everything is more family-oriented in general. You will see school-aged children wide awake at 11 PM. We noticed this at the FC Barca football game, as well. You rarely see sloppy drunk Spaniards celebrating. People enjoy their drinks, but they don’t overdo it. That isn’t to say that there weren’t enough tourists here to stumble down the streets sloppily with drink in hand for everyone in Pamplona!

Since the streets of Pamplona were ripe for people-watching when we arrived in town around 5 PM on Sunday, we grabbed what turned out to be a very expensive beer (3 euros for what amounts to be Bud Light equivalent) and hit the cobble stone streets. In many ways, the Pamplona streets reminded me of the Gothic Quarter in Barcelona. However, instead of Catalan flags, there were Basque flags, and instead of Catalan translations, there were Basque translations. The streets were filled with tourists, and rather unfortunately, covered in trash. All the restaurants and bars had their doors flung open on their hinges and were serving copious amounts of beer. There traces of the bull run everywhere – bull cardboard cut-outs and street signs indicating the route.

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IMG_3089We stuck out like a sore thumb because both ofus were wearing dark grey/black shirts. The traditional outfit of the festival is white shirt, white pants, red belt, with a red bandana around the neck. I had seen photos, but for some reason, I thought it was a gimmicky thing. No, it turns out everyone who is anyone wears this outfit. Lesson learned! We stopped by some tents selling festival gear and got ourselves set with red bandanas for the next day.

That is when I saw …. the shirt. The funniest shirt! It’s Grumpy Cat wearing a red bandana for the festival. I fell in love, and the deal was sealed when I found out that the woman selling the shirts had designed them. Done and done.

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We walked to the bullfighting arena (the third largest in the world), where the bulls from that morning’s run were set to bullfight. I was open to seeing a bullfight until I read in detail about exactly what would happen. I decided that was not something I wanted to support, as every bullfight ends in the bull being slain, and the whole thing is really a ritualistic killing. Bullfighting is actually very controversial in Spain right now. Catalonia has led the way in outlawing bullfighting due to animal cruelty concerns, but it is still a central part of other parts of the country. For example, ninety percent of the seats in this bullfighting arena were owned by local families and passed down generation to generation.

We headed to bed early that night, since we had to be up by 6 AM the next morning to walk into town for the actual running of the bulls event. From July 6 to July 14, every day at 8 AM, six bulls are run from one part of Pamplona through the streets to the bullfighting stadium. It is a different six bulls every day. People run the few street blocks in front of the bulls for as long as possible to show how brave and daring they are. At the last second, the goal is to dive out of the bulls way. My understanding is that it really only counts to run with the bulls if you have touched the bulls or been within touching distance of them. This tradition literally started when they had to move bulls from one place to another and cocky men started jumping in front of the bulls to show how brave they were. Now, it is known worldwide.

Bleary-eyed, we started walking into the city center around 6:30. I had contacted a local resident and arranged for us to rent their balcony to watch the running of the bulls (la encierra) that morning. The apartment balcony was in the middle of Estafeta, the longest and straightest street on the bull run. As soon as we were situated in this nice woman’s house, I had deja vu that we were about to watch the Thanksgiving parade in New York or something. The lady had the TV on with coverage, and we had a great view over all the preparations for the event. The TV camera actually ran right past the balcony we were on. Once we got some coffee in our blood, we started waking up. The anticipation leading up to the actual running was, dare I say, more fun than the actual event!

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The lady whose balcony we were on helped to explain some of the traditions of the preparation. First, they clear out the people from all the streets and set up the fences that keep the bulls running towards the stadium. Then, there is an inspection of the streets by the event coordinators. Finally, the pastores, people who follow the bulls with wooden sticks to make sure they keep moving in the right direction and aren’t agitated by the crowd, walk backwards down the path to the applause of all the people along the way.

IMG_2995The streets started to flood with white and red clad people minutes before the event. What happens is that people are released onto the roads and can choose wherever they want to start their run with the bulls (whether it’s at the beginning or towards the end). I think this is necessary because of the sheer number of participants. It made me realize, though, that this is a “choose your own adventure” scenario. You can definitely take an easier way out depending on where you start.

A rocket at 8 AM (maybe the only thing ever in Spain to be on time) indicates that the corral gate where the bulls are kept has been opened. A second rocket a second later notifies the runners that all the bulls have left the pen. We watched the first part on the TV as the bulls tore out of the pen and up the streets. Through the TV, you can see the fear raging in the people’s eyes as they position themselves directly in the bull’s path for their thirty seconds (if they’re lucky) of fame. Then the bulls started to turn the corner, and we flung ourselves on the railing of the balcony to see the infamous Mercaderes-Estafeta corner, la curva, where the bulls tend to slip as they maneuver  around the sharp curve. A chaotic wave of red and white pulsated towards us and only when they were almost beneath us could we see the bulls themselves.

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Almost directly in front of us, a runner tripped and fell. The man curled quickly into the fetal position, protecting their head and stayed there as the bulls raced directly past and on top of them. I am told that this is the only way to survive a fall during the race – if you get up, you will likely be gored by a bull. When the dust settled after the crowd had passed, the man got up and was ok.

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The encierra literally lasts 3-4 minutes. It is quick. You barely see the bulls before they are well past you. Some runners seemed to thrust themselves in the path of danger, some simultaneously amidst three of the bulls, while other runners seemed to shy around getting close to the bulls at all. After we saw the encierra, I asked Grant if he wanted to run it now that he had seen it. His answer: “I mean I would do it if you wanted but it doesn’t particular call to me.”

The shop windows were filled with TV’s with replays after the running was over. There were a few close calls, but it didn’t look like anyone was getting major medical attention today. Apparently, between 200 and 300 people are injured every year. Those aren’t good odds. Honestly, it seems like the biggest danger is from the other runners and the mob mentality than from the bulls.

A nap was in order before we went to a pinxto restaurant for Basque-style tapas. We had some creamy, rich seafood tapas and fruity white wine in the sunshine before we got back on the bus to take us home. We saw one Camino de Santiago pilgrim as we were heading out of the city center and he was arriving. Pamplona is one of the stops along the Camino de Santiago, the religious pilgrimage route over which people hike for 30-40 days. I attempted to look up the history of Pamplona while we were eating, thinking it would give us more insight into this city. However, it has quite a lengthy history that I was not able to follow well at all! It started as a Roman camp for General Pompey in 75 BC – I can’t even fathom that far back in time.

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Our 24-hour trip to Pamplona was quick, but we got to see the event we were really looking forward to: the encierra. Maybe our future trips will bring us back to this lovely city to enjoy her when she is not stuffed with tourists wanting to have the claim to fame that they ran with the bulls. As for us, all we can claim is that we did dress the part.

Our first visitor in Barcelona

We were very fortunate to have my friend Melissa come visit us in Barcelona a couple weeks ago! We have been in Spain for about three months now, and it was nice to spend time with a familiar face (and discuss our American reaction to Spanish culture). Fourth of July was right after Melissa’s visit, and Grant and I realized that we really only know one other American here that we would call up to hang out with on the Fourth (and as it turns out, she is really Russian, but grew up in America. So it only sort of counts). Most of the people we have met here are expats from other European countries. All this to say that we had a really fun time with Melissa and got to play tourists in our own town. It was about time that we stepped into Sagrada Familia, anyway.

We covered a lot of ground while Melissa was here, so I thought I’d try to break up the visit into a series of short stories of some of my favorite moments. Here goes!

Cable Car of Doom

On the first day, we walked all around the Old City and the beachfront (I think that day we had the highest number of steps according to Melissa’s fitbit). We decided to take the cable car from the beachfront to Montjuic, because we’d heard there were some great views from there. It was such a clear day with a bright blue sky! There were indeed great views, but the cable car ride itself was a bit nerve-wracking! First, it started with the elevator, which was pretty shaky. Then, once we were on the car itself, It jittered on the cable. But we survived! We got some spanning views of the city and shared our inaugural pitcher of sangria at the top of Montjuic (that made the ride down a little easier). Not a bad way to start the trip off.

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Giving light and music to the common man

One of the things I enjoyed most about the visit was that I got to learn some historical tidbits that have given me a new way to view Barcelona. We took a guided tour of the Palau de Musica, which was a music hall built very specifically for the common working man in Barcelona. The music hall was built was to give respite to the laborers with a venue that was accessible, light-filled, and exposed them to music, which was a luxury. The architect not only envisioned the space in detail, but he also delegated out specific parts of the building so that it was finished in three years (NOT like Gaudí, as our tour guide pointed out). Once you start to look at the detail of the building, it gives you new appreciation of the mastermind who could balance out so many symbols of music, Catalan culture, and worldwide influences. I also learned recently that the Barcelona neighborhood Exiample was likewise designed deliberately with more space between the blocks to give the common man seemingly more space. The block intersections, which are shifted 45 degrees to open the space between streets up, are a striking contrast to the small streets of the Old City.

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Lolea wins again!

Grant and I discovered sparkling sangria, called Lolea, at a restaurant, and we have been obsessed with it ever since. Naturally, we had to share this obsession. 🙂 We went back to Elsa y Fred to share this beautiful bottle of sangria. Come on, I know you can’t resist the cute polka dots! I think it’s safe to say it’s Melissa-approved (and so were what some would say are the city’s best patatas braves!)

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Forget the bars: The best rooftop view in Barcelona is Catedral

I have seen many churches in Europe, but I was genuinely surprised at the magnitude and grandeur of the Catedral in Barcelona. It definitely holds it own. One of the highlights of our visit there, though, was going to the rooftop. A theme of this trip was finding the best rooftop bars to get views of the city. What we discovered, though, is that the best views of Barcelona are actually closer in than the very high buildings, like on the third floor. From the Catedral roof, for example, you can actually look out and see Sagrada Familia at eye-level, as well as many of the other landmarks. Once again, we were amazed at how little guardrails and safety precautions there were on the roof, but then again, this is Spain.

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Rooftop jazz at sunset

What is better than sipping a glass of cava and watching a live jazz performance with friends on a rooftop at sunset? Enjoying all of that on the rooftop of La Pedrera, Gaudí’s apartment building masterpiece. La Pedrera runs a special series of jazz performances on the roof during summer. When we first stepped onto the roof at dusk, I felt like we had stepped on to the moon – Gaudí’s architecture takes on an ethereal, other-worldly quality in the dim light. It was a surreal experience to be able to enjoy the excellent jazz music, cool night air, beautiful architecture, and view of the city. That is my happy place.

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Gaudí for Days (“I’m a Gaudí girl in a Gaudí world”)

IMG_2625Barcelona offers so many opportunities to experience Gaudí’s work – some of the buildings are open for touring, and others are not. I think there are 8+ major Gaudí works, at least. I have to say, I wasn’t convinced that seeing all of them would be very interesting, but the more Gaudí we saw, the more we appreciated his philosophy and approach. Gaudí’s buildings, especially the facades, look like they are out of a Dr. Seuss book. However, once you understand his intentions, his designs suddenly turn from the silly to the inspirational. I would highly recommend that you see several of his works to scratch the surface of what was going on in his head and what he was trying to achieve.

Part I: Colonia Guell

We knew we had tickets lined up for Sagrada Familia the next day, but we had read about Gaudi’s crypt at Colonia Guell as we passed through an exhibition at La Pedrera. We decided to go check it out. It was commissioned by the Guell family to be the church of what was essentially an industrial community – all the people who worked at the Guell factory lived in a compound with medical care and education provided by the company. More interestingly yet, Gaudí intended it to be a mini-Sagrada Familia, so many of the concepts that he used in Sagrada Familia are displayed here at a smaller scale. Albeit left unfinished, the church did showcase Gaudí’s ideas – and as a visitor, you could actually touch the arches and sit in the pews. Of all the Gaudí works, it was the most accessible, the one where I didn’t feel I was so much in a tourist attraction as I was a participant in Gaudí’s experience. Rather unfortunately, the industrial colony around the church was well-preserved but not well curated. I think this was one of the hottest days, and we were all wiped after being in the heat for the day.

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Part II: Casa Batlló

Doing the audio tour of the house Gaudí designed for the Batlló family on the Block of Discord was a last-minute decision, but as it turns out, a really good one! The audio tour for this was fantastic and really helped to break down Gaudí’s vision. Two things made this stand out: 1) It is finished and preserved and 2) It showcases Gaudí’s interior design and furniture design, which shows his attention to detail on a small scale as well. We got to take our photo on the outside facade with the beautiful mosaic tiles. Now, we were finally prepared to see the Sagrada Familia.

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Part III: Sagrada Familia

So, I don’t know how this happened, but I literally had not seen a photo of the interior of Sagrada Familia in the recent past (or since I can remember). I always thought it was famous for its exterior facades. This heightened the experience of stepping into the illuminated, canopied interior for the first time. The Sagrada Familia is truly unlike anything I have seen in my life, yet utterly familiar due to Gaudí’s design based on nature. It felt to me as if I was standing in the Garden of Eden before the fall to sin. Having visited the other works of Gaudí, we knew what to look out for and found ourselves acting like “Gaudí experts”, telling each other “…and did you notice the way the columns look like tree trunks?” We took a guided tour, and then got to walk up to one of the towers to see the ongoing construction up close. We didn’t expect the narrow winding staircase at the end, but we justified it to ourselves by pointing out how Gaudí must have been inspired by a seashell or snail to create a staircase like this.

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Part IV: Park Guell

We were in for another treat going to Park Guell, because we got to meet up with our friends from San Francisco, Pat and Christine, who were in town on vacation. Strolling through the park, we got to catch up and share the experience of Gaudí’s landscape design. Afterwards, we went to the top of Mt Tibidabo to have a sunset dinner overlooking the whole city. It was a special night to share with friends!

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Sitges: Vacation from the vacation

After several days tromping through the the hot streets of Barcelona, it was time for a little beach vacay. We took the train 30 minutes outside the city to a small coastal town named Sitges. Not only is it known for its great beaches, Sitges is also known for being a center of gay pride (unfortunately we missed the pride celebration by a few weeks). In fact, it kind of reminded me of the Castro in San Francisco. We got to enjoy relaxing time laying out on the beach, and the water was warm enough to get in as well! The town itself was very cute with white-washed buildings and romantic doorways. Being in Sitges called for indulging in some fresh pina coladas and gave us a small taste of nightlife in this town. This mini-trip was a perfect way to wind down after several packed days of sightseeing.


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We ain’t classy enough for the W

On Melissa’s last night in town, we wanted to go to the rooftop bar at the W Hotel on the beach. However, we were denied entrance because of what we were wearing – apparently, yes, they have a dress code at 6 PM in the evening for drinks. Flip-flops nor shorts were acceptable. So we took a walk down the beach and enjoyed a drink at a beachside chalet instead.

All in all, a trip with some great memories! We were delighted to experience all the sights for the first time with Melissa. As our first guest, Melissa can vouch for our small side operation of a bed & breakfast for friends and family. A huge thanks (and hug!) to Melissa for coming to visit! Hope you had as a great of a time as we did!

Switzerland

The Alps: Are you thinking of blue snow-capped mountains hugging small green towns in their valleys? Are you thinking summer hiking and outdoor adventure? So were Grant and I when we booked our tickets to Switzerland! Our nature-oriented itinerary didn’t exactly work out as planned due to weather, but in the end, Switzerland redeemed itself with her lovely chocolate, cheese, wine, and small towns.

Our original dream for Switzerland was to hike part of the Via Alpina from Engelberg to Lauterbrunnen (close to Interlaken). Switzerland an extensive network of accessible hiking trails. Our plan was to fly into Basel, train to Engelberg, hike to Lauterbrunnen, then train to Zurich and fly out. The highlight of the trip we planned was to experience the top of the world while through the Alps. Alas, it was not meant to be.

Arrival in Basel

We arrived in Basel on a dreary Monday afternoon. Basel is a city at the corner of Switzerland, France, and Germany. Even in the airport, there are signs to either exit on the France or Switzerland side of the building. The first thing we did was get a Swiss SIM card for Grant’s phone so that we could access data in the country if we needed to. In every way possible, Switzerland is the exception to other European countries. For example, our phones with the Spanish SIM work in all the countries for a reasonable rate but not Switzerland. Switzerland still uses Swiss Francs as the currency, so we were constantly carrying around two sets of currencies.

We visited two unique museums in Basel: the Vitra Design Museum, the factory of famous Swiss furniture maker, and a museum dedicated to Jean Tinguely, an innovative artist and inventor. The Vitra Design Museum was a factory complex made up of architectural masterpieces. We were very confused when we couldn’t find a museum building, per se, until we realized that the whole group of building were indeed the showcase. We were especially fascinated by the Vitra Haus, which is a building that is filled with delicious discoveries of staircases, rooms, and passageways. Just walking around it was an experience!

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The next day we visited the Jean Tinguely Museum, which showcased moving and interactive sculptures from everyday objects. I have never seen anything quite like it! Below is a taste of some of the exhibits.

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Train to Engelberg

We had bought our train tickets and booked our hotel in Engelberg ahead of time to keep costs down. Unfortunately, when we woke up Tuesday morning, we realized that the weather in the Alps was most likely not going to cooperate for hiking. We decided to head to Engelberg anyway, and check it out for ourselves. We knew we’d be kicking ourselves if we didn’t make sure the hike was not going to be possible.

Engelberg is primarily a winter sports town, and it is folded in the valley between two ski mountains. In fact, it’s a rather recent phenomenon that it’s open in summer at all. Much of the town was closed down, save for a fromagerie, a monastery, and the lifts up to the top of the ski mountains.

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We decided that while we were there, we might as well go to the top of one of the ski mountains. It was pretty expensive, so we weren’t sure about it, but we took our chances. And boy! Did we see a view!  A view of the inside of a huge cloud covering up the top of the mountain!

Haha, joke was on us! We couldn’t really see anything from up there. This cemented our decision that the Alps hike was not going to be pleasant nor pretty. The only part of the entire country of Switzerland where it would not be raining for the next five days was Geneva – so we switched gears and headed there! Thank goodness for the reliable and convenient train network of Switzerland that got us to Geneva within 4 hours!

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Geneva

I have to admit, at this point in our journey, I was feeling a little grumpy. I was really looking forward to getting out in nature instead of being in big cities. However, the train ride vistas wrapping around Lake Geneva on our way into the city tugged at the corners of my cheeks and made me smile. Could it be there were other parts of this country that were equally gorgeous in their own ways?

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In Geneva, we strolled along the lakeside, meandered between independent chocolate shops, and flexed our worldly citizen muscles in the United Nations and Red Cross Museum. As it turns out, the tour of the United Nations was composed mostly of covert glances into conference rooms and meetings. I did learn quite a bit about which councils meet, how often they meet, and the origins of the U.N. from the League of Nations.

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The crown jewel of Geneva for me, though, was the Red Cross Museum. As a UX designer, it was a treat me for me to experience interactive exhibits and appreciate the clever details of the design. For example, they had life-size video projections of people who have benefited from Red Cross work to explain the extent of service. You could walk up directly to these projections and touch your hand to theirs to start them talking to you. I also learned about a whole arm of the Red Cross that I wasn’t aware of – Reconnecting Families, which keeps records of prisoners of wars and helps to facilitate communication between them and their family.

Although Geneva had some interesting landmarks, the region around it won over our stomachs (and therefore our hearts!)

Chocolate and Cheese Trail

Yes, there is indeed a hiking trail in Switzerland called the Chocolate and Cheese Trail! Naturally, when I discovered this was a mere two hours from Geneva, I insisted that we go! For Grant and me, the two days spent in this region were the very best of the trip. The hike started in the charming village of Charmey, crossed over a dam, weaved through a lush gorge, stopped over in Broc at a Cailler chocolate factory, and then continued through cow-dotted pastures to the castle of Gruyeres and a famous fromagerie.

The hiking trail was marked very clearly. Unfortunately, it was also marked as “closed”. Being the adventurers we are, though, we decided to ignore the signs and go through the trail anyway. It certainly was a fun way to pass the time guessing why they had closed the trail (was it the fallen tree over the path? the fence that was broken? or the bridge that was crippled from a recent rock slide?).

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IMG_2602We started to smell the roasty chocolate in the air as we climbed out of the gorge into Broc. Grant claims he has never seen me hike so fast (what can I say?). Unfortunately, we were 15 minute too late to go through the chocolate factory; fortunately, the gift shop with copious variations of chocolatey goodness was still buzzing with sugar-frenzied people. We each got some chocolate – for sustenance for our hike, of course. Then it was off to the land o’ cheese!

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This stretch of the trail was distinct for the soundtrack of heavy bells echoing off the mountains from cows along the path, as if they were playing an elaborate chime piece for us. We were back in the creases of the mountains and headed straight for a striking castle town in the distance, which seemed to be floating on its own island of a mountain: Gruyeres.

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The castle of Gruyeres provided stunning views of the surrounding countryside and walking through the main street of the village transported us back in time.

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We are really good at getting to places at ALMOST the right time. This was the case again with the fromagerie in Gruyeres (just closed!) and subsequently the bus we needed to take to the neighboring town to get to our hostel. We found out the bus schedule we had on our phones was wrong from a friendly man whose shop we wandered into in order to kill time waiting for said bus. Upon calling the hostel and asking if they could pick us up in a car, we were notified by the hostel manager that we could walk 3 miles up the mountain to get there instead. Thankfully, the shop owner took us under his wing and offered to give us a ride to Moleson and our hostel. We stocked up on dried meat, cheese, and wine at his store as a token of our gratitude. As we winded up the mountain road to Moleson, the shop owner led us through his life experiences as a chef aboard a cruise ship (sometimes docked in San Francisco), a restaurant owner, and finally most recently as the owner of the town’s train station. He had such an interesting story, and I don’t know what we would have done without his kindness!

At the hostel, I leaned in to give him the Catalan familiar salutation of a kiss on each cheek. In this part of Switzerland, though, I learned, they give three kisses – one on the left, one on the right, and then one on the left again. We were also informed that in France it is four kisses. As if I wasn’t confused enough by this time about which language people spoke! In this region of Switzerland, the prominent language is French but in other parts, it is German.

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When we woke up the next morning, my hankering for fondue had grown overnight into an insatiable monster. I had to have fondue before we left Gruyeres. Grant looked up the highest-rated fondue restaurant, and of course, it was one we had dismissed as a tourist trap on our way into town. We decided to hike back down to Gruyeres to catch the train back towards Lake Geneva. As we are avoiding cow paddies in the path and crossing through pastures, we stumbled upon a mountain shack restaurant selling fondue on our way down. It was owned by this cute elderly Swiss couple who only spoke French. We were the only ones there – save their Bernese mountain dog who greeted us enthusiastically. We had an interesting time ordering without knowing what we would get, but I don’t think we could have gone wrong there. We had the freshest goat cheese fondue I have ever tasted in my life, with an incredible view overlooking the valley.

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All cheese’ed up, we were ready to head back to Lake Geneva and check out the World Heritage Lavauex vineyards terraced along the lakefront. These vines have been around since Roman times. You can hike among the vines between tasting rooms. The vines are built into the slope of the land and are organized thoroughly with rows and steps for care and hand-picked harvest. Grant was especially fascinated by a machine that resembled a small roller coaster to let wine makers harvest hard to reach areas of grapes. The wine was a wonderful way to cap off our food adventure.

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On our last day, we visited the Chillon Castle in Montreux, which was occupied by various families that controlled trading routes through Switzerland. The castle is built right into rock in the water and is in very good condition.

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While our trip to Switzerland wasn’t exactly what we had envisioned, we were won over by the beauty of the southwestern corner of this mountain-adorned country.

Note on Expensive Swiss Livin’

One thing we (should have) but didn’t anticipate was how expensive Switzerland was! Not only is there not a very good exchange between the swiss franc and the euro, the actual price of items is also marked up. It is a beautiful country, and it is very safe – but you pay for it. I had an interesting conversation with someone who worked at a hotel we stayed at. He told me that every 3 months, he would drive across the border to France to go clothes shopping as to avoid Swiss prices. Hilariously, he and his friend flew to Madrid, spent a few days there, and got a tattoo for cheaper than just the cost of the tattoo in Switzerland.

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