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Postcard from Switzerland: Places the guidebooks don’t tell you about

17 Oct
17 October 2018.
Travel guidebooks are a favorite genre for me and I am a voracious consumer of their wisdom. Go to Europe without Rick Steves? I think not! Fodor’s, Frommer’s, Lonely Planet. and Cicerone guides also populate my Kindle.
Sometimes, though, guidebooks exclude the good stuff and include way too many formula places. We found two worthy outings near Lausanne that Steves’ and Fodor’s books barely mention. In fact, Rick Steves poo-poohs one of them. It was only because I picked up a brochure locally that we were clued in.

Les Pléiades 

We are drawn to high places that include trains and that is what led us to explore this area above Vevey just a few kilometers from Lausanne. The name Les Pleiades refers to the star cluster that is also called the Seven Sisters. I’ve no idea why this mountaintop is so named, but they have incorporated an exhibit called the Astro Pleiades to teach some basics about astronomy. It is dedicated to Claude Nicollier, the first astronaut from Switzerland. It’s actually a clever exhibit, but the draw on this sunny day was the view.

Me on the trail, Les Pleiades.

We found a bit of fall color at Les Pleiades.

Lake Geneva sparkles 1000 meters (3280 feet) below while there is a peek at Mont Blanc 60 miles away. (We stayed in Chamonix, at the foot of Mont Blanc, for 3 nights in 2016 and never saw the damn thing!) The train ride up is charming, a bit of a commuter route to outlying residential pockets from Vevey, but as the train winds higher, it becomes more and more rural. Each stop is on-demand only. At the top, trails abound along with a full-service restaurant. We took a very early train and enjoyed complete solitude for an hour until the next train pulled in full of day hikers young-and-old as well as a half-dozen mountain bikers.

Lac Leman/Lake Geneva far below on a stunning day at Les Pleiades.

You can just see Mont Blanc’s snow-capped peak. Hard to tell it is almost 16000 feet high.

Rochers-de-Naye

This is one of the most fun trains we have ridden outside of the Berner Oberland. A narrow-gauge cogwheel train transports you from urban Montreux through forests and tunnels, to 2042 meters above sea level, about 6700 feet. There were stunning views on each side of the train as we chugged ever-upward. Stations served everything from the Swiss Hotel Management School to middle-of-nowhere cabins.
At the top, we found a tunnel to a viewpoint and a restaurant only open on weekends. There was also a cafeteria not-yet-open even at 10:30 and “Marmot Paradise” without marmots. The perils of off-season travel. But again, the views: stunning.

The alps as seen from Rochers de Naye above Montreux, Switzerland.

The marmots must have been in paradise because they were nowhere to be seen at Rochers de Naye this October day.

There are a number of short hikes available as well as long, challenging ones. You can hike up part way or down a very long way if your knees can take the beating. I think it would be beautiful in springtime although the fall color was not bad. A clear winter day would be spectacular and apparently, there is a Santa Claus themed event for the holidays. For the adventurous, there are yurts to overnight in.
At 11:00 a train pulled in packed with daytrippers, apparently arriving in time for the view and lunch. We were glad we came up early even though the marmots were hiding and there was no coffee available.

A fork in the lake, outside the Nestle Alimentarium in Vevey.

Lausanne and environs were fun to explore. The city itself reminds me a bit of Paris, although without as much charm. I have to keep reminding myself that we are, in fact, in Switzerland. We liked the waterfront in Vevey and if we returned, that is where we would lodge. Chateau de Chillon in Montreux was interesting enough, and we did take a boat trip to France for lunch, which was easier on the budget than dining in Lausanne.

Sunday lunch along the lively lakefront in Vevey. Did I mention how terrific the weather has been?

Another activity we enjoyed that is in the guidebooks was a saunter through the Lavaux Vineyard Terraces, a UNESCO site. You take a modern, sleek, SBB train to a hamlet, then make your way through the terraced vineyards and other small towns on paths, roads, and the terraces themselves, ending up in a small town beside the lake where another train takes you back. In season, one can do a gastronomic tour as well as sample wines in small vineyard huts. Alas, the harvest is long over and we hiked sober.

Walking through the Lavaux Vineyard Terraces UNESCO site.

Little villages and grand chateaus with vineyards growing right up to their walls.

Tomorrow we fly home, so no more postcards for now. Maybe a miscellany/catch-up piece once I get over jet lag!

So long!

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Postcard from Switzerland: Pontresina, Graubünden

21 Sep
21 September 2018.
The signs in Pontresina are mostly in German, but we are hearing – and speaking – Italian as much as we did in Ortisei. We’ve moved out of Italy, stopping at Innsbruck, Austria for a couple of nights, and now we are in the part of Switzerland wedged between Austria and Italy. I am speaking as much Italian as English. The other night the waiter thought we were French as we mashed up English and Italian in response to his preferred German. The French would be appalled. We don’t dress that well. 

The morning view from our apartment.

Most everyone is multilingual. A young grocery store clerk moved seamlessly between German and Italian, hesitating only slightly to engage her English when needed.
Our time in Ortisei went by too fast! A final night of pizza at Maurizkeller with new friends (and fans of our book!) Cathy and Gene was a fitting end. We said reluctant goodbyes to Justine, Siegfried, and Minno the cat. Always best to leave while you are still enjoying.
Innsbruck was a convenient stop to avoid a 7-hour train from Bolzano to Pontresina. (Nothing is easy in the mountains.) It was fine, certainly a pretty alte stadt and some dramatic lifts, but nothing as pleasing as our beloved Val Gardena. And it was hot. Had some decent Nepalese food for dinner. You won’t find that in Italy.

So here we are, high above St. Moritz at 8,156 feet, and I am served chamomile tea — loose tea in a basket mind you — on a wooden tray, already steeping with a timer set. #ThingsnotfoundinUSA

The funicular arrives at Chantarella above St. Moritz. Lots of cyclists surging down mountain trails.

Pontresina is very pretty and we are enjoying our junkets. The weather is cooler than it was in Italy and Innsbruck, so I might need to break out the gloves and a jacket is a daily requirement, at least to start.
One day we took a horse-drawn omnibus through a glacial valley for lunch at a hotel, then enjoyed a peaceful 4-mile walk back to town. This may be the ultimate easy-hiker hike. Of course, there was great food at the hotel by the glacier.

The horse-drawn omnibus is an easy-hiker solution. Take the carriage up and walk 4 miles back.

The Roseg Glacier from the trail. Hikers, bicyclists, and horses share the path.

The path along the Roseg Valley stretches alongside a glacial stream.

When hiking in Switzerland one must always watch out for the “suckler cows.”

Another fun transportation thing to add to the journal: we had to signal for a train to stop at a somewhat remote station. If you don’t signal, they fly by. Works for getting off, too. The transportation system is a miracle here with prices as high as the heavens that support the system. Pristine cleanliness and timeliness have a price and the Swiss are willing to charge for it.

Just across the river from our hotel is the Surovas station. Trains stop on demand only.

Surovas station. See the little red train through the trees? They glide by so quietly we have to be watching for them.

The Morteratsch glacier easily accessible by train and on foot.

This part of Switzerland, so famous for winter sports, is less refined than our beloved Val Gardena or Berner Oberland as far as hiking and transportation. It is actually very quiet now in September. There are, however, many mountain bike trails and these are very busy. I cannot imagine hurtling myself down these mountains on skis nor on a bicycle!
See you in Lauterbrunnen (The Berner Oberland) next week!

Dash across Germany

16 Sep
16 September 2017.
Relatively speaking, that is, we dashed across Germany. Eight-and-a-half hours by train from Amsterdam to München. Seems long, but it is not much slower than flying when you consider time to-and-from airports, security, waiting time, etc. And it is far more relaxing. I’ll take a train over a plane any day. We read, napped, chatted, and snacked. The only challenge was the six-minute change of trains. Six minutes! We had to go from the end of one very long train, down from the platform through the very busy Hannover station, up to another platform, and run several car lengths. We made it about 60 seconds before they closed the doors. Note to self: never let Trainline.eu schedule our connections. Should’ve bought directly from Deutsche Bahn. The price was great, though.

This passed for a snack in first class on our second DB train. Expected beer and pretzels.

Germany wasn’t really in our plan, but we needed to get from Amsterdam to Ortisei and it was not feasible to do in a day by train. I last visited München in 1972, a few weeks before the ill-fated Olympics. Ric had never been. In order to make the most of our time there, we hooked up with Taff Simon (not yet born in 1972, he observed) of Dark History Tours. Taff is an archeologist and life-long student of history. He shared with us not only the highlights of München (Marianplatz, Frauenkirche, Hofbrauhaus, and so on) but afforded us an insider’s view taking us into places big groups would never go. For example, the big meeting room on the top of the Hofbrauhaus where in February 1920 Adolf Hitler and the National Socialists held their first meeting. Taff led us through historic sites related to the rise of the Nazi party and Hitler’s activities in München prior to WWII, and we were also privy to his insights on the culture, the Bavarian royal family (think of the “Kings Ludwig”), and of course beer.
Click on any photo for a larger view and caption.
We visited a bierkeller our first night, but the stand-out meal we enjoyed in München was Lebanese at Baalbek. What a delightful change from pork, red cabbage, and dumplings! Served with fine Lebanese red wine, we could not have been happier. We are also happy to be back in the habit of walking everywhere. A 20-minute walk before and after a dinner like that is so preferable to dropping into a car and carrying your new fat right to bed.
We are now in Ortisei and delighted to be back in Italia. It feels like coming home. Had great weather Friday morning, if cold (32 F/0 C), so we got in a great hike. We had to go buy fleeces: Didn’t pack them as we had not expected such cold to hit already.

 

In Amsterdam, get away from the damn Damrak!

13 Sep
13 September 2017.
Katerina, Deb, and Catherine will be sad to hear I really did not care for Amsterdam: at least until we got away from the damn Damrak. Our first day wandering this bastion of all things commercial I was almost sorry we came to The Netherlands. The Damrak was crowded with trams, buses, bicycles, cars, and clueless pedestrians maneuvering helter-skelter around one another. It is a wonder more people are not taken out by cyclists. The mayor is now actively discouraging tourism and suggesting people go to Rotterdam instead.

Sunday by the Canal, Amsterdam. Locals kick back with coffee and a newspaper.

Amsterdam, awash in tourists and their trappings, does have quiet sectors where one can appreciate the history, the beauty, and the determination of the Dutch. Like other great cities, one must leave the main arterials funneling tourists who have not done their homework and find the neighborhoods where dogs are walked and Sunday papers are read on sunny benches along quiet canals.

Love the old tile work in the Haarlem station. “Washroom First Class.” 

We stayed in Haarlem, which is quite charming and untouristed as far as we could tell this first week of September. At least the only English we heard was from the Dutch who can switch languages in mid-sentence, so used they are to dealing with non-Dutch speakers. We were quite flattered to be mistaken for Dutch a couple of times having used a rudimentary “Morgen” or “Guten Abend,” in greeting. Even Utrecht, a day trip destination for us, seemed to harbor more travelers than Haarlem. It also harbored a terrific railroad museum where we whiled away a couple of rainy hours.

Haarlem is much more laid back. Even cyclists are less intense.

Most mornings, we traveled the 15 minutes to Amsterdam from Haarlem via commuter train with students and workers who had parked their bikes in front of the station in confusing swarms. In the evenings, we traveled “home” with the same crowd, enjoying the feeling of being temporary locals who lived in the small town of Haarlem.
We could walk a few minutes to the Albert Heijn market and try to decipher labels to stock our kitchen. We wandered the back streets of Haarlem and took in the history thanks to an obscure book of walking tours I found. The cafes and restaurants of Haarlem were excellent and frequented by the Dutch, not our own ilk. This endeared us to The Netherlands.
The Van Gogh Museum, though lovely and certainly with an incredible collection of the master’s works, was horribly crowded even on Friday night at dinner time. (My introverted and crowd-avoiding self specifically booked tickets for an evening opening that was said to be less crowded.) To our amazement, the museum was not full of English speakers, but mostly Dutch, with some German and Italian sprinkled in. I guess the American kids hanging around Dam Square had little interest in Vincent.

Rijksmuseum before the masses descend. If you go, get a ticket in advance. I cannot believe how many people miss this simple trick at museums all over Europe.

By contrast, the Rijksmuseum at opening on a Monday morning was accessible. We almost skipped it based on our Van Gogh evening. Proving again that getting out early pays, we sailed in shortly after 9:00 and after a highlights tour returned to the main hall to find a rising tide of people as 10:30 approached. The line for those without advanced tickets was a block long outside when we left at 11:30.
We found the Joordan neighborhood as well as the area around the Stopera and Zoo to be peaceful places to roam on a Sunday morning. Re-emerging in central Amsterdam after wandering the Joordan was startling. Much like walking the Champs Elysees in Paris or making the march from San Marco to the Rialto in Venice, if you do not leave the Damrak, Spui, or Leidseplein, you miss the character of Amsterdam, and getting completely out of Amsterdam allows at least a  glimpse into how people live.

This is half of our Indonesian Rijsttafel.

I did not have high expectations for food. Outside of Italy, it can be a struggle for us to be truly happy with meals, so I must comment on some of our best meals here.
  • We were stunned to discover a truly Italian pizza in Haarlem at Pizzeria Back-to-Basics . The owner, Francesco, is a Neapolitan who came to Haarlem 30 years ago. He produces masterpieces from a tiny wood-fired oven and kibitzed with me in Italian. Even the wine was a good Italian negroamaro. (More on that soon at www.OurWeeklyPizza.com.)
  • Another night we experienced the Indonesian rijsttafel, an experience we’ve not had prior and would not mind repeating. At Restaurant Flamboyant, an array of 12 dishes was not unlike a Lebanese mezza. Each dish presented a different flavor palate from mild to spicy, from sweet to savory. Deep-fried tofu, stewed lamb, tender braised chicken, fried bananas, coconut vegetables, zippy sautéed eggplant: too many to name and each a bit of heaven on the tongue.
  • On a stormy night, we arrived soaking wet and found a cozy yet trendy interior and non-traditional menu at Popocatepetl. Pollo asado was served with sweet potato fries (side of mayo, of course!) and Ric’s birria, a lamb stew, was something we’d not seen before on a Mexican menu. The playlist varied from jazz to Mexican and the hang-out factor was huge. No wonder the place is always crowded with the young Dutch.

Happened upon a wedding party celebrating in a little side street.

We did not get to see as many places in The Netherlands as we had hoped. The weather was terribly unsettled and wet for much of our stay so we did not venture to some of the other spots on my list of possibilities. Funny that we timed this trip so we’d have some warm late summer weather in Northern Europe. September is usually amazing. But watching what happened with hurricanes in the U.S. and downpours flooding Italy, we are feeling pretty darn lucky.
Off to München!

Can you tell why this train is called a “dognose?”

I love the little sheep. If I had room in my luggage I’d place one in our yard at home.

16 things I will miss when we leave Italy

7 Oct
7 October 2016. I have received many comments on Facebook, here, and via email about our impending departure from Italy. Some people are shocked as we are “living the dream.” Why give it up? My next few posts will address the good and not-so-good about both the U.S. and Italy, as places to live. Living somewhere and traveling there are entirely different things. First, what I will miss about Italy, i.e., the good stuff!

1. €1.00 shots of espresso and high-quality €1.20 cappuccino served in seconds at almost any bar.

Notice the cappuccino is not a Big Gulp, but a sensible size. Not so many calories so you can have cake, too.

Notice the cappuccino is not a Big Gulp, but a sensible size. Not so many calories so you can have cake, too.

Why does it take an American barista so long to make a coffee? An Italian has it in front of you in seconds! And it is good! No funny flavors, no 20-ounce mugs, and no paper cups! Even in the tiniest mountain hamlet, in a museum, or in a castle on a hill, you can get espresso. In a real cup. I love my coffee in a ceramic cup and a small cappuccino is just the right amount. 

2. Bars on every street where you can get the aforementioned beverages and good sandwiches for under €3.00.

Fast food is a sandwich you pick up in a bar for €2.70-3.00. Many varieties on a fresh panino with the best ingredients from prosciutto and formaggio to a vegetarian’s dream combo including my favorite, cicoria, They warm it and hand it to you. Maybe you sit down if it is your neighborhood place and not a tourist zone. It’s simple, fresh, delicious, and mostly healthy.

3. Trains

The train we take most often, Italy's Frecciarossa (Red Arrow).

The train we take most often, Italy’s Frecciarossa (Red Arrow).

OMG we love to travel by train. Go to Torino for a day? Sure! Venezia overnight? Why not? We have flown on only three trips in 4.5 years. Love love love the trains and the early-purchase discounts!
See Ric. Ric is happy. Ric in on a train in a sleeper compartment, How civilized!

See Ric. Ric is happy. Ric in on a train in a sleeper compartment, How civilized!

4. The ability to go almost anywhere in Europe with little planning

Instead of mounting an expedition from the U.S., we can explore Europe so easily from Base Camp Barton in Roma. Thank you, cat sitters, for making this possible!
Luscious, tender grilled octopus.

Luscious, tender grilled octopus.

5. Seafood

I always hated anchovies until I had them fresh, marinated. A plateful is a perfect antipasto. Mixed into fresh pasta they are heaven; with mozzarella, a delight! I love pizza Napoletana for its simplicity. Then there is calamaro. Not deep fried little Os, but lovely, fresh, grilled squid. Or polpo (octopus), gently grilled or sliced paper-thin as carpaccio. How about a hearty bowl of mussels in wine sauce? Good reasons to come back to Italy.

6. Wood-fired pizza

One of our four favorite pizzerias, La Pratolina. Smoked salmon and arugula with perfect mozzarella and no "sauce." Divine crust, wood-fired oven.

One of our four favorite pizzerias, La Pratolina. Smoked salmon and arugula with perfect mozzarella and no “sauce.” Divine crust, wood-fired oven.

Yes, there are wood-fired ovens in the U.S. We will seek them out. But simple Italian pizza will be hard to replace. Especially at Italian prices. Will I seem a pig when I order my own pizza in the U.S? Here it is the norm. To not order your own pizza is boorish.

7. Fresh mozzarella available in almost every little store daily

No pre-shredded Kraft plastic, please! Fresh mozzarella, whether mozzarella di bufala or fior di latte, there is no room in our lives for anything less than fresh. Praying that Pastaworks in Portland has it!

8. Wine that does not blow the budget

We spend 75% less on wine here than we did in the U.S., and that is not because we are drinking less of it or drinking bad stuff.

9. Being greeted warmly – even with un bacio – at places we frequent. Loyal patronage is recognized and rewarded.

My buddy il Commandante, aka Marco, and me.

My buddy il Commandante (The Captain), aka Marco, and me.

Yesterday I called one of our two favorite restaurants, La Fraschetta del Pesce to make a reservation. Il Commandante (The Captain) recognized me immediately, was delighted to hear we were coming back on Saturday, and I know we will be personally welcomed as friends. From the second time we dined there, we were “regulars.” This happens at so many places: the delivery guys from DOC, the bar at Piazza Buenos Aires, the salumeria in Campo dei Fiori. You feel like you — and your business — are appreciated. 

10. Our portiere. What a wonderful tradition this is! Someone to take care of the building, help the tenants, keep things safe.

There are no doubt fancy buildings in big North American cities with doormen and building supers, but we are privileged to have a portiere in even middle-class buildings in Roma. What does he — or she — do? Takes in the mail; holds packages; lets tradespeople in; ensures security by not letting solicitors in; cleans; welcomes; takes care of (our) cats for short absences; gathers intelligence. The portiere is the go-to person for neighborhood news. The portieri in both of the buildings we’ve lived in have been true blessings. They have helped me with Italian and befriended us. We shall miss them.

11. Produce that tastes like what it is and that will spoil in a few days because it isn’t treated with chemicals.

Ths bounty in the market in autumn.

The bounty in the market in autumn.

Carrots taste like carrots, but they only last a few days, turning limp soon after purchase. Peppers are sweet and crisp and add immense flavor to anything you cook. Apples are a miracle of flavor. How can the fruit be so darn good? I bought a red pepper in San Francisco last summer. It was organic. It tasted like cardboard.

12. August in Roma

We will not miss the heat, and August is somewhat a month to be endured, but it really is fun to wander around the neighborhoods when so many people are absent. Pedestrian crossings are passable as they are not needed for parking. “Rush hour” on our main shopping street is Christmas-morning quiet. Buses are empty and we get to sit down. It is a culturally significant event, this exodus.

13. The passaggiata and the business in the street, the sociality of it all, even if you don’t talk to anyone.

Getting out for a walk every day is part of the Italian lifestyle. So smart to stroll through the neighborhood, see what is new, pick up some ingredients for dinner. Maybe have a coffee, a gelato, or un’apperitivo. See and be seen, enjoy the weather, then go home to make dinner. Eating before 20:00 is declasse.

14. So many kind people and interesting acquaintances: Our doctors, our landlords, the Embassy people. 

Especially my friend Eleonora. Ele patiently tutored me in Italian until I am finally at the point where I can have a reasonable conversation. Now we are “just” friends and that is the best! We play Scarabeo (Scrabble) together and laugh a lot. She tries to explain Italy to me. I will miss her dearly! 

15. Speaking Italian

Tiring as it is, I do like to speak Italian and I shall miss that daily possibility. My comprehension has grown by leaps and bounds in the past 18 months outside of the Embassy. 

16. Telling people “We live in Rome!”

Piazza San Pietro at Easter. We've had a marvelous time here!

Piazza San Pietro at Easter. We’ve had a marvelous time in Roma!

When fellow travelers hear our English they inevitably strike up a conversation with “Where are you folks from?” We are proud to be Americans and Oregonians, but what a joy it has been to say “We live in Rome!”
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