96: Mulling around in Mulhouse, France

He was a big Frenchman in a wrinkled militia-styled jacket, shaved head and stubble-shadowed jaw. As we threaded through the medieval square’s cafe’s tables, he blocked David’s way, smiled and said something in French.

Dave tried to turn the rugged and somewhat aggressive panhandler away, but before things could get worse, and by worse I mean us not getting a table, I jumped in and told the man we prefer to sit in the sun.

Our French maitre'd did not look so scary once he took off his scrappy jacket and shed the shades, but he still has a bar-bouncer physique. We dared not leave any food on our plate, lest we insult him or his establishment's chefs.

This is the problem with not speaking the local language – all a person has to draw on are appearances and my beloved thought the man was about to demand his wallet, although in a very engaging and musical way because after all, this was France, the land that we cannot stop loving no matter how many times it offends our sensibilities.

The rough-cut maitre’d somehow blended coquettish charm with a bullish demeanor. Don’t ask me how. It is a mystery. After delivering us to our table au soleil, we watched him marshall the area with a militaristic machismo. When a motorcyclist parked his bike in a spot deemed inappropriate, the maitre’d took on the appearance of a gendarme. It was impressive.

The funny thing in France is that they all seem to have a good understanding of English, but they refuse to speak it. And while they are famous for being snotty on this point, our experience is that they are quite gracious. In fact, the only place where the French have gotten uppity with me over language is in Canada, which is ironic given what an old-French pioneering family I come from.

But enough rambling. Our Swiss watchmaking town is only 100 km away from France, so given that by this time next year we will be 100 km away from Vancouver or Chemainus, we decided to take the opportunity to visit the French.

Mulhouse's Rothus Museum has some cool Neolithic skeletal stuff in it (some in orange ochre soil, excavated from local tombs). Small towns in France and Switzerland all seem to have their own tiny museums with really amazing collections, the likes of which would be unthinkable in comparably sized Canadian cities. How do the Europeans do it?

Mulhouse is famous for its many museums, some of which focus on specialties that would never occur to anyone else as collectible items of interest. There are museums for textiles, railroads, cars, electricity (yes, electricity), art, artifacts, history and that killer of all museums, a museum of wallpaper. It’s a pity that I loathe museums with such intensity that my entire objective in visiting Mulhouse was to avoid all of them.

It was not possible. We accidentally stumbled into one that appeared to be a tourist office-combination-hotel in Mulhouse’s central square. Once inside, the suave French smiled and charmed us into visiting their museum in the upper stories of the building, which happened to have the unbeatable attraction of free admission.

It turned out to be a lovely place to spend 30 minutes, which is the outside limit of my attention span. As we asked for directions out of the building, a burly French guide took us to another room where he opened the window and pointed the way to the Musee’ des Beaux Arts, extracting from us a promise to visit there next, but which we never did.

I feel bad about that, but if we did not make the promise, we ran the risk of insulting our French hosts, and yet, if we kept the promise, I might have dunked my head in a bucket of water just to avoid the prospect of more of my life lost to museum-trolling.

Tomorrow: More on Mulhouse and the wonders of France’s relationship with sugar, butter and chocolate

Dave reckons medieval key chains must have required a lot of muscle.

 

 

 

Good things come to an end, Part Two

We are about to give up the greatest ground-transport deal going in Europe: Our beloved SwissRail half-pass cards.

These blue translucent pieces of plastic have been with us on all our travels, halving our transportation costs, thereby giving us the endless impression of getting a great deal, and so travelling even more. And more.

In fact, we have been to so many places that my achilles are in a permanent state of near-rupture and my knees are filing complaints daily – because along with train-transport comes trekking a la foot once we arrive at our destination. We love walking, but in this case, the saying “love hurts” applies.

The half-pass, available to Swiss citizens and foreigners bearing a residency card, costs 165 CHF for one year. We handed our 330 Francs over (U.S. dollar equivalent $589,000)* for two cards on April 2nd last year, and through the magic of a rigorous touring schedule, quickly recouped the cards’ cost.

Those happy days are coming to a close as our cards expire in three weeks. To quote Prince Charles: Gloooooom.

As an example of how lovely this card is, our four-hour trip through France’s countryside to Paris cost about 600 Francs for two comfy first-class seats with an elegant supper service. Without our cards, the cost would have been 1,200 Francs. The card extends to bicycle rentals as well, so when we go out for a pedal, it costs us 25 CHF for the pleasure of a day on the bike trails instead of 50 CHF each. Not bad. A quick zip to Bern costs about 30 CHF return for the two of us, instead of 60 CHF. I have not tabulated how much we have saved over the past year, but it has been considerable.

The card can be renewed, but only in 12-month or greater increments, so it is a wash as to whether we will make up our costs by the time we depart this lovely continent in a few month’s time. But if the above math creates this air of sorrow, maybe some more math is the fix. **

Our little town is only 40 km from Bern, about the same distance as Sooke is to Victoria back in Canada, which we used to drive in about 40 minutes.

Biel to Bern via train:             $20 x 2 passengers = 1 return trip @ $30

Sooke to Victoria via bus:     $5  X 2 passengers  = 1 return trip @ $10

Sooke to Victoria via bike:   $0 x (infinite number of pedaling passengers) = $0 return trip ******

Sooke to Victoria via car:      $40 for a tank of gas x (1 to 5 passengers) x (8 to 10 return trips) = Feathers! The Swiss are ripping us off!

Now I feel better.

$589,000 is a joke. All other figures in this post are real.

**All currency in Canadian dollars as it is near par with Swiss Francs at the moment.

*** CHF is Swiss Francs. How do you get a “CH” from Swiss? By calling Switzerland’s currency by one of the country’s many names, in this case, the Confederation of Helvetica. Yes, Swiss Cheese, Helvetican Cheese – go on, make your cheesy jokes. 

**** Switzerland – German: die Schweiz; French: Suisse;  Italian: Svizzera; Romansh: Svizra; in its full name the Swiss Confederation (Latin: Confoederatio Helvetica, hence its abbreviation CH). 

***** In high school history classes, our teachers often lauded Switzerland’s neutrality as though it were the only well-behaved child in a class of fractious European nations. As usual, it turns out closing the geographical gap between us and Switzerland reveals that maintaining neutrality was not a given, but a hard-earned negotiated position. Switzerland shot down both Allied and Axis fighter planes during WWII, and at one point were so sure the Germans were about to invade that they were preparing to literally head for the hills, that is, a portion of the Swiss Alps that they were more likely to be able to defend from attack. There are still people alive here who remember that. 

****** Bicycle travel drawback: It takes five hours to cover the 100 km/h trip, which is a lengthier Sooke-to-Victoria trip through Vancouver Island’s Galloping Goose trail, a trip that is so enjoyable that it is one of the first things I plan to do when I get back to Victoria.

******* I just like asterisks. 

Free Plane Ticket Home Comes with Cuffs and Diapers

It's immature of me to think this, but what the heck. If I saw these costumes coming at me from over a ridge, yes, I would be easily subdued, mostly because I'd be blinded by tears of laughter. No disrespect to the Swiss, a fierce and highly organized warrior state.

Through the magic of poor research by elementary textbook authors and a marketing/public-relations campaign that included the export of copious amounts of Swiss chocolate and cheese, the entire world skates along on the notion that the Swiss are neutral because they are just so danged nice, and they happen to inhabit an impassable mountain range that no other country really wants.

It is true the Swiss are very nice, but it is not true no one else wanted their territory. France, Germany, Austria/Hungary, everybody has tried to take a bite out of Switzerland. They probably could smell the chocolate. They were all, however, ably rebuffed by the people who were in the middle-ages renowned for being a “warrior nation.”

Not much has changed with Switzerland’s national character since then. It’s not an accident that the Pope is still guarded by the Swiss. They are a precise no-nonsense lot, and if you don’t think so, talk to Geordry

Geordry, a Cameroon refugee who overstayed his welcome, was summarily diapered, handcuffed, helmeted, and tied inside a special flight taking him home to whatever uncertain future awaited him back in the country being run by the man who was Geordry’s assassinated father’s political opponent.

Of course, you cannot talk to Geordry any more. He’s been swallowed up inside one of Cameroon’s prisons that is allegedly notorious for torture. (Note: I am awaiting a response on Geordry’s current status).*

The Swiss government does not speak specifically about Geordry, but it doesn’t deny it orchestrates forced deportations. In September 2011, Swiss Minister of Justice and Police Simonetta Sommaruga explained its deportation procedures that are alleged to have played a role in three deportee deaths to date, including one that occurred on an airport tarmac.

Sommaruga is quick to point out that Switzerland does not drug its detainees to subdue them, and it now allows impartial observers to monitor the practice. She says Switzerland gives illegal residents ample opportunity to depart voluntarily in the form of the usual administrative reminders, a free flight out of the country, and that the incarcerated deportees can leave the facility with police escort to depart the country any time they choose. The implication is that the manacled and diapered deportees are those who physically resist boarding the airplane.

Sommaruga emphasizes that the forced evictions are a last resort and the only way the country can preserve the integrity of its refugee system.

Why am I writing about this now? I just realized I’m an idiot to have paid for our return tickets out of Switzerland. They would have flown me home for nothing – although, I’d be risking the diaper-and-handcuff special. Dave thinks we shouldn’t chance it, but it would certainly liven up this blog.

Learn more about Switzerland’s deportation facilities and procedures here. 

An unconfirmed annual estimate on the cost of deportation is at almost 2-million Swiss Francs. Detainees can be held on administrative detention for 18 months without a hearing.  Switzerland’s deportee legislation won widespread support in a 1994 referendum.

 

Switzerland’s see-through public washroom + toilet tips for travelers

Lausanne see-through washroom - at least it appears clean, probably because no one will use it.

If there’s one thing I learned in my ten years as journalist, it is that there’s no telling which stories will capture the reading public’s interest.

That has been true in this blog. The posts that I found somewhat ordinary have turned out to garner the largest number of hits. As unexpected, see-through washrooms, changeroom etiquette and French cuisine topped the lists.

Here’s the glass-walled public washroom post. It is not, by the way, the only somewhat exposing washroom archetype in Europe. We’ve seen a few that have led to bladder-freeze. But enough about that.

________________

Switzerland’s See-Through Loos

 

I’m sure the Swiss have a perfectly good explanation for installing a see-through public washroom in Lausanne, but I cannot imagine what it is.

Don’t believe me? See the 17-second video here. 

I haven’t actually seen it in person, and if I do find it on one of our weekend jaunts,  it’s a good bet that I will not use it, because even though the crystal-glass walls can be made opaque with the touch of a button that allegedly sends an electric current through it, I don’t want to be in there should the city’s power grid fail at the wrong moment.

I don’t want to be walking by it either when someone else is using it, because apparently the opaque-function is optional. It seems like a voyeur’s dream, a voyager’s nightmare. Ugh.

A similar transparency idea was floated in the internationally acclaimed Basel Art Fair in 2004, when a one-way-glass public bathroom was installed outside of the gallery so that people could use the washroom without “missing a thing,” on the street said the Basel Art people, who we now suspect of living a seamy underworld life after-hours.  I can’t prove anything – I’m just saying. And what is going on in the streets of Basel that one can’t his eyes off the street for even a minute?

City of Victoria, British Columbia public urinal

The Swiss are not the first to come up with the idea that they are missing some great show when they are ensconced in the private walls of the lavatory. The City of Victoria in B.C. installed a door-less urinal to offer a less offensive option to its public-urinating night-time bar populace.

The idea here, one can suppose, is that this washroom is not likely to become a shooting-up zone for the city’s drug population, and users (bathroom-users, not drug-users) can keep a watchful eye for any would-be approaching muggers.

Cottagers have long had an affection for outhouses with a view – a troll through cottage-country will reveal a few outhouses with half “Dutch” doors or generous screen cut-outs.

I also own a cottage, but I enjoy the views when I am on the deck or looking out the living room window, boating, swimming, and so forth. I don’t see the need to expand the number of minutes-per-day I get to stare at trees, water and squirrels.

The problem with looking out is that others can look in, so I’m hoping the Lausanne see-through unit doesn’t catch on. I still dread visits to Australia where multi-stalled public washrooms are not always gender-specific – a situation that also exists in some parts of France, we recently discovered. No details will be provided here on how we found out.

Everyone needs public washrooms, but no one writes enough about them, much to the frustration of travelers trying to anticipate foreign bathroom customs.  I am about to change that, at least for those visiting Switzerland.

Look at that beautiful outhouse with a full-door and no windows! I'll bet it cost less than Lausanne's glass monstrosity.

Pay washrooms can be found on the streets, sometimes in shiny stainless steel stalls with a vending machine-style pay pad. Train stations frequently have them as well, and any bitterness a Canadian or American might feel about having to pony up a franc or two for a washroom quickly dissipates when inside the stall. They are kept spotless. In fact, the Bern train station has staff on hand, constantly rotating through the stalls in an never-ending sanitizing cycle.

I would not like that job, but I am happy to see someone else do it. I hope they are well-paid.

Washrooms on trains are free, but as trains are heavily used, they are not as clean as one would like, especially when trying to manage while the train rocks and sways, sometimes in unpredictable ways. I will elaborate no  further.

Tourists can get by without using a pay washroom – in fact, we’ve used them only a few times in our travels over the past few months. Many towns have free public washrooms in parks, along promenades and trails, which are kept to a high standard of cleanliness.

If these cannot be found, stop in for a break at a street cafe’ – for the price of a cup of coffee, you can use the restaurant’s washrooms, which we have also found to be unfailingly clean.

Sometimes only pay-washrooms will be located near cafeterias and malls, however, these provide a voucher for a ‘free’ coffee in the cafeteria.

Museums and art galleries generally have free washrooms.

So far, we haven’t found a pay-washroom charging over two francs, so carrying just a few one and two-franc coins should suffice.

A rumour circulates that it is forbidden to flush a toilet during certain night-time hours, out of courtesy for condo or apartment block neighbours. We haven’t heard anything about flushing restrictions yet, but have heard that running a bath late at night is frowned upon.

In the bathrooms-worth-visiting category, when at the Aescher cliff restaurant at Ebenalp, in Switzerland’s eastern Appenzell region, check out the washroom architecture. The mountainside wall of stone is exposed, allowing visitors both a view, and privacy.

Good to know if you go:

  • Carry one and two-franc coins for public washrooms.
  • To see the mountain-wall washroom, which is presumably not the only reason you would visit Switzerland, click here for hiking information about the area and mountain.

Thun, beautiful but often ignored

If this were Winnipeg, the residents would be sandbagging like mad. But it's not. It's Europe and so having water right up to the building's foundations is just fine.

Thun sits within sight of Switzerland’s spectacular Bernese Alps, which means that it is much-ignored as people speed on past to get to the mountains. It’s name is no help: Pronounced ‘toon,’ it struggles to be taken seriously, and fails to inspire curiosity the way that a name like Zermatt, Zürich or Neuchatel might. Poor Thunites.

But their town is lovely, with the River Aar running through it, the classical cobblestone streets, covered bridges, a castle, and scores of outdoor riverside cafes.

Once you make it up the steep stairs leading to the castle, you're rewarded with a maze of these lovely cozy walled cobblestone lanes.

Our first clue the town is somewhat overlooked came when we stopped in at the visitor information centre. These are often found in train stations and usually attract a lot of traffic as tourists flood up from the station platforms, but when we arrived we increased the office’s tourist population by 100%. The agent was so happy to see us that she came around from the booth to greet us, bidding us welcome in such a way that it was clear our presence was her only hope for job security.

The truth is, Thun would not rank high on any tourist guide’s “must-see” list, but that is because it has such fierce competition. As Dave has noted, while B.C. has one Victoria, Switzerland has about 500, or one every 10 minutes. How can a place stand out with competition like that?

Thun. Ugh. What a horrible place.

If you go, make sure to take the walk up to the castle. The stair-climbing will just about kill anyone – and as proof, not long after we arrived at the top gasping and clutching our chests, a woman not 30-years-old came up behind us, panting and red-faced. So it wasn’t just us. You will be rewarded with a stroll down some stone-walled, cobblestoned lanes that afford a lovely rooftop view over Thun and onto the Bernese Mountains, which everyone else has rushed off to see, leaving you with Thun all to yourself.

Thun has spectacular views of the Bernese mountains, including Jungfrau.

Music that needs to be explained along with the wreckless abandon of the Swiss

What is this swan thinking? Swans usually paddle languidly through calm waters, but this one must have been a teenager thrilling to the dangers of Thun's fast-moving waters.

The castle in Thun against a lovely blue sky.

Thun may not be the name that comes to mind when one thinks of wandering Swiss towns, but if you have the time, it is a lovely place with covered wooden bridges, and a sparkling clear river – the River Aar in fact, which runs through so many villages that we are suspicious that instead of one river, it is actually about 10 with the same name. It is possible the Swiss were tired of naming things. They have a lot of mountains to name, so why not just paste the same moniker on a bunch of waterways? Am I joking? See below. ***

The town has at least two dams on it, and we watched swans bobble through in the churning waters of one, not really sure they would make it. The current is seriously scary and so, of course, it attracts the human young as seen in this video clip (click here). As is customary with the Swiss, the surfers seen in this clip have no protective gear – no helmets, no life jackets.

This is the oddity with the Swiss – although they apparently strap on endless harnesses when scaling cliffs, they are otherwise unconcerned with drowning, head injuries, plummeting tremendous distances down mountainsides, ramming their bicycles into cars, and so forth.

They are a wonderful people, but I’m sure their mothers are all exceedingly nervous.

This explains the Red Cross, the Swiss organization that provides emergency response across the globe. They have developed a heightened emergency-response infrastructure, methinks, because they are a little weak on disaster-avoidance while also being  strong on adventure-seeking. No wonder they’re good at bandaging wounds.

In the meantime, I made a promise to post a video clip of Swiss street musicians that may be good, or not. I am at a loss to explain it. We came upon these men in yeti-costumes on the streets of Thun, singing in pained voices and playing wind instruments that made my ears hurt. If any Swiss person can tell us what this is (click here for a short video clip), please do

*** I make joke about many rivers being named Aar or Aare. It is actually one heck of a long river that begins and ends in Switzerland, running about 295 km (183 miles), and is the funnel through which all the water of Central Switzerland drains (17,779 square kilometres or 6,865 square miles).

Tomorrow: More Thun along with more photos

More street talent

Rob van Wely and his travelling audience.

Biel is a small place in the grand scheme of all things Swiss. It’s not Lausanne, Bern, Zürich, Lucerne, Geneva – all of which have the air of international cities.

It certainly lacks the grandeur of Zermatt or the Alps, which are further south, but it is charming nonetheless, and has so many festivals that any North American city of a similar size appears comatose.

It also attracts a fair number of street performers. It is hard to qualify the value of these musicians. We’ve seen some in Victoria that were raspish to the point where listening to fingernails screeching along a chalkboard seem like a pleasant alternative.  In Switzerland, thus far, the street music has been very good. Maybe the old stone buildings add a particular acoustic value, but every weekend we are amazed at the performances so much that we-the-cheap regularly drop money in their upturned caps.

Here in Biel, we ran into a James-Taylor-ish street performer, Rob van Wely, a modern-day troubadour with a silky voice. In his limited English he told us he’s from Holland, and didn’t seem believe his voice was so nice. Decide for yourself. Check out his performance in Biel by clicking here.

“I whistle better,” he said. He was told 25 years ago that his voice is bad, and he admitted that to be heard over a crowd, he tended to yell. It stole away the gentle nuances of his voice meandering up and down the scale, and so he worked on his guitar-playing and whistling, but then discovered the magic of amplification and brought his vocals back to his performance.

Tomorrow, I’ll post another video of a street performer in Thun that could change my mind about the quality of street music. I just haven’t decided yet.

New links:

  1. Look here at AngloINFO, a Geneva-based website with some handy data for foreigners living in Switzerland.
  2. Look to your right to see a new weather box on HoboNotes. It’s a graphic that depicts the local weather reports (as they come from Bern, we’re too small here in Biel for our own weather reports). It is very cool, thank you to my friend C.A. for pointing it out to me. 
  3. For those who prefer the real thing, go to the Blogroll box to the right and click on “See it now” to go to a webcam showing you a view over Lake Biel, updated every 15 minutes. 

Leaving Leipzig

Leipzig Nikolaikirche, the birthplace of the teardown of the Berlin Wall.

Some bad things have happened to my family in Germany, like European airlines extorting money from us in $500 chunks to let our dog or a bike pass through Frankfurt airport, and then my Dad was arrested there for refusing to be an informer for the Soviets. Tough luck, that.

The Berlin "Wall" as it appeared around the time my father tried to cross into West Berlin.

But none of those things occurred on this trip to Leipzig, so hopefully our bad run with Germany is over, which is a good thing because, gosh, their food is much better than expected, and certainly better than what they fed my Dad in that jail.

Leipzig has some sadly decomposed old grand buildings, such as the Astoria, which are almost as interesting to look at as the medieval quarter of town. The city’s northern outskirts are somewhat depressing, stretching out in decayed old industrial zones perhaps still lagging behind due to Communist rule even 30 years after the Germans gave the Soviets the boot. Nevertheless, the city centre outside of the historic quarter is lined with beautiful old architecture.

Leipzig's Astoria hotel, a grand old dam now in serious disrepair.

Less well-known to North Americans (but very well-known to Germans, I imagine) is that Leipzig was a beachhead of sorts during the Second World War. The Brits and Americans were busying themselves with bombing Berlin, when one night the Germans launched a significant concentrated counterattack, punching a big hole in the Allied Forces air fleet. The next night, the Nazis readied their forces for a repeat performance only to have the Allied fighter planes skirt around Berlin and hit Leipzig hard. It was a shock to the Germans, as the Allied Forces had never gone that far into Germany, and in fact, it was thought at the time that such a distance was out-of-range and safe from airstrikes.

Leipzig also housed a concentration camp. As the Allied Forces moved in, 12 Nazi guards torched a bunker with 500 prisoners in it, many of them Russians and Czechs. As some prisoners escaped the flames, they were gunned down by the 12, and those that escaped the bullets died in the electric fencing. Very few lived to relate the story. It’s the sad and shocking history of Germany, and another testament to the fact that there is no army so savage as a defeated one.

Hard to believe the culture that nurtured those 12 guards is the same one that was home to Bach, Mendelssohn, Goethe, as well as being the birthplace for Schuman. Leipzig still has a vibrant arts community, a university and parks, although I only walked into one park and immediately turned around as it seemed to have a derelict population. Probably nothing wrong, but why take a chance?

Bach statue outside of Thomaskirche where he is buried.

Bach's burial site in the austere Thomaskirche. We hung around outside the building one night, listening to an organ playing. Most of the lights were out, and the church was dark. It was beautiful and haunting.

If I had learned German instead of French, I would know what this inset statuary is all about at Thomaskirche. As it is, I don't know a thing.

Leipzig, a past that is dark and light. An amazing place, and worth the trip.

Lovely affordable Leipzig

I was a little harried after a few hours on Germany's warp-speed highways, but my nerves would soon be settled by fabulous German/Italian cuisine.

European travel tends to have an eviscerating effect on the wallet – it can be very pricy, however, our limited journeys thus far have taught us that getting off the beaten track changes that.

In France, we choked on Paris’s restaurant prices, but in Besançon, a small French village near the Swiss border, we found the architecture stunning and the food just as good at only a smidgen of the Parisian cost. We have not seen enough of Germany to draw the same conclusion, but our three days in Leipzig suggests the trend might continue there.

Along Leipzig’s lovely cobblestoned avenues are scores of open-air cafes. It is possible that some of them served substandard food but we did not find any such establishment.My restaurant advice to anyone visiting Leipzig is this: Dive in. The food will be lovely. If you find a lousy restaurant, let me know. I don’t think you will, though.

San Remos vegetarian ravioli

I dined in the San Remo street pavilion under a towering heater and square umbrellas during a brisk windy day and didn’t feel the bite of the cold at all, so enchanting was the meal, the second-best ravioli I’ve had over the past 40 years (the best was at a Winnipeg Folklorama festival pavilion in a Grant Park arena, where scores of Italian mammas slung out homemade ravioli to die for, this was back in the mid-1970s – since then, I’ve not found any pasta that rivals it).

At San Remo (why are so many good restaurants named San Remo?) at Nikolaistrasse 1, (www.sanremo-leipzig.de), for the meagre price of 8-Euros, you get a fetching plate of vegetarian ravioli with a butter-cream sauce. The pasta’s filling suggests squash, a hint of garlic, and some kind of lentil, although the waiter informed me with his limited English that it was probably chopped carrots that offered the slight crunch.

This restaurant boasts that it won Germany’s best ice cream in 2010, although it is not clear to me what contest gave them this title. Nevertheless, more convincing was the endless line-up that formed at this restaurant’s outdoor ice cream kiosk all day long, no matter the weather. I walked past the restaurant kiosk numerous times in the days that we were there and never saw it wane. And so naturally, I tried out their ice cream for dessert, even though the generous plate of ravioli had left little room. The ice cream had a soft homemade texture and supported the “best of” boast. It was delicious.

We dropped in twice at Bitt-burger, which I think is also on Nikolaistrasse, but might be one block west. It’s famous for its beer and has a distinct Germanic look and name, but has fabulous Italian food. Give it a go. You’ll love it.

Night dining in the rain at "Barf Street" - my translation of this Germanesque-tagged avenue. It is absolutely fabulous. Do not miss this spot if you're in Leipzig.

The entire lane that is regrettably named Barfußgäßchen is packed with restaurants of many types. We had a lovely evening meal there at a place I cannot name, but you could probably safely land at any table and come away gastronomically content.

As always, watch the other patrons to see whether they have any food in front of them, or if they wear peeved expressions – we did see at least one restaurant over which the clientele were casting a foul mood, so we assumed the service would be slow there and kept our distance.

This brings me to a piece of Dave-advice on selecting a restaurant. Besides the above (checking for the demeanor of patrons, as well as making sure there are patrons to start with), he favors going to restaurants populated with middle-class middle-age-and-older clients. He said they’re old enough to not try to impress anyone, they know good food and they’re not inclined to overspend just to say that they did.  It’s a method that has worked for him so far.

Leipzig Zoo, better than you’d think

Two giraffes vie for a choice mouthful of greenery within a few feet of the viewing deck. Zebras and other ungulate species as well as ostriches shared the sweeping pastures..

I’ve been to the San Diego Zoo, the Sydney Zoo, too many aquariums to mention, and all kinds of fun places, none of which makes me an expert on how to rank a zoo, but if I were an expert, I’d rank the Leipzig Zoo way up there.

It is the first zoo I’ve visited that was as intriguing for its landscape and architectural design as it was for the critters that live there. To begin with, taking a quick glance up and down the pathways, you wouldn’t be sure that animals do live there.

That’s because all the enclosures are shielded from the walkways with bamboo and forest greenery. To see the animals, you have to step off the trail and into an auxiliary path, or an enclosed hut that features a soft bed of bark mulch to quiet your footsteps. In many instances, the humans seem more enclosed than the animals, as they view the animals through glass windows, which further dampens the sound of human traffic.

The thoughtful set-up of the enclosures doesn’t end at the viewing platforms. The enclosures themselves are well-treed, and often you see the animals peeking around the greenery, and I’m sure they like it that way.

The giraffe and African plains enclosure differs, and reasonably so. Here the giraffe feeding troughs are placed at elevated heights, putting the giraffe’s heads just a little below a wide viewing platform and restaurant, giving everyone a great close-up of these lovely graceful creatures. The giraffes didn’t seem to mind the gawkers at all and moved about lazily, occasionally “fencing” with their necks over the meal which appeared to be large bunches of parsley. I could be wrong about that, but it sure smelled like parsley.

The Leipzig zoo is worth a visit, even if its pricey. It has endless structures for children to climb, plenty of coffee and food kiosks, lots of benches, shade, and abundant parking one block over.

Adult price: 17 Euros, ouch. That said, by the time I finished walking through the zoo (by the way, I got lost and had trouble finding the exit, so make time for that when you’re planning your day) I did not feel ripped off. It is worth every penny.

Children price: 10 Euros.

Food prices inside the gates: Reasonable. No need to pack a lunch.

Washroom facilities: Plentiful, clean and some are done in funky hut styles.

Time to walk through whole site and see almost everything if it’s just adults going through: 1.5-2 hours.

At an all-out sprint: 35 minutes

With children under the age of 8: Three days (okay, seriously, it is an all-day zoo trip. Plan to be there for 3-5 hours).

Special tip for elephant fans: Line up at the zoo gates before its 10 a.m. opening and sprint for the elephant enclosure once you get through. Do not stop to look at the weird bearded bears. The elephants bathe/swim at about 10:15 a.m. You can watch them either above water or below. It is very cool. They might bathe more often in the summer, but in October, when I was there, they skipped their afternoon bath.

How do I get there? Click here for the map, and scroll to the bottom.

A word to the wise: The zoo features a huge jungle greenhouse called Gondwanaland. Do not go inside unless you don’t mind walking in a slow river of humanity for upwards of 45 minutes through jungle heat and humidity.

Do not turn your camera on, the humidity will mess with its lenses. The path winds through the forest where monkeys swing loose, and if they land on you, don’t make a fuss, just wait for the monkey to move along. There are plenty of signs warning against feeding or trying to interact with them.

Also, beware of dropping bird poop.

The path eventually winds up to the rooftops. It is very cool, but also very hot so I put on my reporter-face and zoomed through the crowd to get the heck out of there. It also features a river boat ride, which looked good if you wanted to melt off about 17 lbs. in 30 minutes.

It all looked amazing, but the only drawback is that it’s difficult to find a shortcut out, although I eventually did do just that. If I had not, my estimate is it would have taken 1.5 to 2 hours to make it through the building.

My only criticism: There should have been more staff in Gondwanaland to direct the crowds. Sometimes it wasn’t clear which way they should go, and certainly it was nigh unto impossible to find an early exit.

You can learn a lot more about the zoo by clicking here. Get your Google page to translate it if it turns up in German or Ukrainian.

Click on a gallery photo to get an enlarged view. 

Morning in Leipzig

When prayer meetings go viral .....

When prayer meetings go viral ...

I’m just back from a two-hour stroll through Leipzig, now seated in our rather functional and tiny hotel room at the Ibis on Bruhl, munching on fresh strawberries purchased at the local open-air market for the amazing price of 1 Euro – about 1/5th of what I pay in Switzerland for strawberries of a similar quality. They are delicious.

A Syrian sold them to me. He runs what looks like a very profitable produce stand, his name may be Mr. Lofo, but I’m not sure about that. He was a friendly chap. Told me he had been in Germany for 15 years, and that Syria is in a bad way. That’s an understatement.

Does he miss home?

Yes, he said.

Would he go back if he could?

Not even a heartbeat passed and he said yes.

Although, he looked very healthy, very well-fed and by the line-up of customers, I would say he’s doing brisk business. His produce was the best stock I’ve seen anywhere. There wasn’t a bruise in the bunch.

I visited St. Nicholas Church – a place famous several times over, first for its association to Johann Sebastian Bach, whose work played and premiered there, and then more recently in 1989 and 1990 when it hosted Monday night prayer vigils at 5 p.m. An innocuous sounding hour and day of the week, but they prayed and prayed about freedom and East Germany’s political oppression.

More people gathered every week, until the authorities did not know what to do, the numbers were so large – reaching as high as 320,000 with some reports saying 500,000, from a city of 600,000. It happened shortly after Tiananmen Square and the possibility of a wide-scale slaughter of the citizens loomed, but the military held back, with there now being some debate on who ordered the troops to withdraw and just watch.

Churches all over reportedly started Monday night pray meetings and the crowds were huge, eventually leading to a spectacular goof-up where a reporter asked an Eastern Bloc bureaucrat when movement restrictions would be loosened and the bureaucrat mistakenly said, “Immediately.”

Next thing you know, Tom Brokaw, U.S. television journalist gets a message that the Berlin Wall is opening, and he broadcasts that erroneous message, which was picked up by the Eastern German population who then flooded and overwhelmed the checkpoints. The soldiers, unsure of their orders did not shoot.

At least, that’s what I’ve gleaned from various sources (media, etc.).

Standing in the alabaster pews of St. Nicholas Church where it began with a prayer meeting, I was struck by a song I heard a long time ago with words that went something like this,

“Not by might, not by power, but by my Spirit says the Lord.”

Indeed, not a bullet shot and the wall fell, freedom was achieved. An amazing testament to the power of God.

Christopher Hitchens, my favorite atheist curmudgeon who claims that the world is the worse for having religion in it, can put that in his pipe and smoke it.

Photos to come later in the week. Leipzig is lovely.

Bi-polar Basel

Looking north from a bridge over the River Rhine.

Despite the many beautiful medieval sites to be seen in Switzerland, it is a modern country loaded with modern industry including two of the world’s five largest pharmaceutical companies – Novartis and Roche, which happen to have their headquarters in Basel, a split-personality city that is perhaps best seen from this bridge where a look northwards shows a modern city, and a look south reveals a medieval metropolis complete with the red sandstone Basel Munster.

Looking south from the same bridge and it's like being in a different century, as well as a different city.

Instead of launching into my usual diatribe about the horrors of modern architecture, even though my point is so well-illustrated in these photos,  let’s discuss the church.

The Basel Munster was originally built between 1019 and 1500, and  if you’ve ever served on a church building committee, you are now reeling back in horror at the thought of how long the Baselite building committee meetings must have lasted. There must have been some argument over the colour theme in the stain-glass windows.

It didn’t matter anyway, because it all came down in a massive earthquake in 1356, which may have been an Act of God of which the Swiss took note because they hurried up the rebuild and consecrated the church’s new altar by 1363, with much of the building proper completed by 1500, which is still more than a 100 years in the making, but a darn sight faster than the first 337 years of construction.

Shard from the pre-earthquake church that stood on this site. We don't know what that inscription is beneath it - possibly it marks a crypt. If you speak German or Latin, please enlighten us.

For those surprised to learn of a 6.2-richter earthquake capable of taking down a stone church as well as reportedly every castle in the area, occurring right in the middle of Europe – me, too. I was stunned. Hence, Switzerland has a Seismological Service, because if the Swiss are capable of anything, it is being prepared for the next natural disaster. They don’t have enough of their own, which is how they come to export their disaster teams/philosophy in the form of the Red Cross.

There have been 10,000 earthquakes here over the last 800 years, say the Swiss seismologists, that’s about 12 a year or one a month. We have not felt any as yet, although of those 10,000 only six have registered over 6.0 on the Richter scale.

Jesus with a shovel. Someone please explain this to me.

Speaking of stain glass windows, we found one depicting Jesus holding a shovel, and while Dave and I are not Bible scholars, we have both read the Bible making us something of a rarity in some social circles, and we cannot bring to mind any scriptural reference to Jesus shovelling, gardening or ditch-digging. And yet, here in a medieval church that started out as Catholic and eventually moved on to become Dutch Reformed is Jesus with a shovel. I can’t explain it. If you can, please comment.

Looking for your thoughts

Jet-lagged, sleep-deprived and totally time-zoned out, I got to wondering whether I should change the “theme” on this blog, mostly because my brain can’t yet stretch itself to comprehend anything beyond our hotel room, such as Switzerland, or perhaps even Europe.

Generally speaking, a big switch is considered a no-no in blog-world, but then what’s the point of having all the options out there if we don’t try a few on for size? If layout, colours, photos and typeset matter to you,  cast your vote in the comments section as I fiddle with the look of the blog this week. Come next weekend, I may just put it back to the way it was, but for now, let’s play.

The top of Europe? Not quite.

The forecast was for sun, but heavy cloud-cover cancelled our final leg of the journey up to the "top of Europe."

We arrived at the end of the Kleine-Scheidegg trail and discovered the “top of Europe” was obscured in fog. Hand it to the Swiss, they won’t try to sell you a ticket to nowhere. When we queried the ticket agent on whether it was worth taking a chance on the $100 one-hour train trek up to the top, she looked at us as though we had lost our minds. Don’t go, is all she had to say.

At another time, we planned to go to Zermatt to see the legendary Matterhorn, at which Daniela, our hotel concierge said, “Do not go there! Do not! It is covered in snow and fog! Do not go!! Achtung!”

Actually, she didn’t say “achtung,” but we find her hilarious for the way she speaks politely in English to us and then sternly in German to someone else,  such as the time the hotel was a little slow on securing our room’s safe to the wall.

When we alerted her that our request had been unheeded for a few days, she gently said, “Oh, I’m sorry. I will take care of it.” Then she picked up the phone and spit a few sharp German words into the receiver. When she was finished, I asked if I should meet the maintenance man up in the room, to which she replied. “He is already there.” And then she sent a translator along to make sure there were no language gaps between me and the maintenance man.

Daniela is only 22-years old, but if I were embarking on any business venture, I would hire her in an instant. She is a “get-it-done” kind of gal.

And so, we put off our trip to the “top of Europe,” but we still came back with these lovely photos.

Looking south from Mannlichenbaln toward the Lauterbrunnen valley, which you may notice has nearly perfect vertical walls. It is the site of 10 beautiful waterfalls, as well as the Trummelbach falls, which we hope to visit.

Heading down Kleine-Scheidegg.

The rare Alpenkuchenschelle flower. I did not make that name up. Another hiker with a flower guide book let me photograph the page identifying this rare blossom. At least, she told me it was rare. The book was in German, so I couldn't verify anything, but she looked honest.

More heavy equipment along the Kleine-Scheidegg trail - this one looks a little worse for wear. What the heck - are the Swiss using the Alps as a backhoe-graveyard?

This house needs a new coat of paint, but there's no denying the occupants enjoy a lovely view.

We did not expect to find a Canadian icon at the end of the Kleine-Scheidegg trail. What the heck - teepees!

The roof on this mountainside cabin appeared to be made of irregular shale sheets.

Good-bye to the Swiss Alps. We hope to visit this region again - there is no end of amazing sights here.

Higher still in the Jungfrau mountains

The view from Mannlichenbaln looking south toward the Jungfrau mountain range.

Stepping off the gondola that runs from Wengen to Mannlichen, one turns right and is immediately confronted with doors to washrooms. This is a pleasant surprise and likely a necessity for anyone suffering an intestinal reaction to the gondola’s final bump and sway before docking.

A chunky wooden bench outside the station allows visitors a moment to pause and reflect on the heights they have attained. How high were we? We were looking down on Murren, where we had lunched weeks ago, and at 1,660 metres, we then thought that was pretty darn high. Mannlichen’s upper station is at 2,230 metres, and from this vantage point, Murren looks like a pretty play village of the sort that can be purchased to accompany miniature train sets.

Appearances are deceiving. A wide mostly even surface makes it look easy, but this trail is at a rather steep pitch.

The air thins out here, which is unfortunate, because a steep uphill climb to Mannlichenbaln still waits for those intrigued by a nearby look-out and if ever there was a need for oxygen, this is it.

Here is an important note for travelers making decisions under the guidance of Rick Steves, our favorite travel guru. Steves’ guidebook says the walk is 10 minutes, which sounds like a breezy lark, but it’s closer to 20. Now 20 minutes still comes across as a brief stroll that is worth the price of seeing the Unesco-marked site at the top, but it is a steep climb, made all the more tricky by the fact that it appears to be a friendly gravel road.

Do not be fooled. This is no mountain back lane. As we made our way slowly up the mountain, I thought of important things I had left behind at the hotel, things like steroid inhalers, Aspirin and nitroglycerin, all handy in the event of a heart stoppage – mine or some fellow hikers.

Of course, while I cautiously paid heed to internal signs of protest from my heart, I watched with great annoyance as chunky elderly Swiss with those cursed walking poles strode about. They are everywhere, vigorous, mountain-climbing, cross-country-bike-riding, cheerful Swiss. How they sicken us all with envy.

We could discern no actual use for this piece of equipment except to signal that the Swiss have no problem plunking heavy equipment anywhere, even on mountainsides.

While en route, we came upon a loud piece of heavy equipment strung with hoses – we peered over the edge to see what the contraption could possibly be siphoning or pumping out from such heights where there were no signs of any buildings, but the hoses disappeared down the slope. The only hint of its function was a lingering septic aroma wafting in with the mountain air. With no machine-operator in sight to explain this, we shrugged and continued the near-death march up the mountain.

If you stumble, these will stop your fall. Note: The challenges of capturing perspective on camera means that this slope is much steeper than it appears. Yes, as much as the fall will hurt, the landing will be worse, but still better than going the whole 2,300 metres down to the valley floor.

The final 40-60 feet of the climb is over uneven rock so the Swiss have fashioned a few metal poles strung together with rough rope for visitors to grasp for safety. Those fearful of plummeting need not fret – they will soon be caught in the teeth of steel snow-stoppers that flank the mountainside like the brims of stacked hats, and so the fall will be brief, but likely still fatal and certainly extremely painful.

At 2,342.6 metres, we rounded the top and were treated to a lovely 360-degree view stretching all the way to  the waters of Brienzersee and the Lauterbrunnen Valley. This is not the top, of course. The enormous mountain peaks of Jungfrau, Jungfrauloch, Monck, Eiger and Schreckhorn still towered beyond.

Tomorrow: The Mannlichen-Kleine Scheidegg trail. 

Alpine flowers at Jungfrau.

Looking north toward Lake Brien or also known as Brienzersee.

At the look-out - benches, another trail to another look-out, not a single safety fence in sight. This is not Canada. If you fall off, it is no one's fault but your own. The Swiss say: You knew they were mountains, right?

The things you bring back home

This is not the prettiest photo. It was taken on the sly in the grocery store where I have been scolded for photographing the goods before. This tiny container that fits in my hand cost 4.10 francs, which is way to much to pay for anything that has margarine in it.

In every international move, we have packed along some of the comforts of home, and in every move back home, we pack along some of the discovered comforts of life abroad.

In this instance, I’m bringing back a spice called Cafe de Paris, which I’m hoping is the genuine spice and herb mixture for Cafe de Paris sauce.

You might think that this is French, not Swiss, but you would be wrong about that. The Swiss, like Canadians and Americans, pride themselves on adopting the best from other countries, and that extends to names, even if the sauce was first concocted and served in Geneva. The Swiss have a knack for marketing, and they correctly detected  Cafe de Geneva would fail to rise to the elevated notes of this delicious sauce.

It is incomprehensible that France lets Switzerland get away this, especially as that while the Swiss take the French name, they give nothing back, keeping the ingredients a trade secret. This explains all those French invasions on Swiss villages back in the 1400-1600’s.

We first learned of Cafe’ de Paris sauce at a restaurant in Montreux. Recommended by the waiter, it came in a scoop nestled in a small gravy boat with my steak dinner.

Is this the transportable good stuff? My summer cottage guests will test it.

It was a pale green, not a very inspiring colour  and despite being listed on the menu as a sauce, it came in solid form.  It had the consistency of  a heavy mousse.

One nibble and I, too, believed sauce could be a solid, powder or vapour. It didn’t matter. Cafe de Paris was beyond delicious.

When I thanked the waiter and asked him what heavenly plateau of cuisine I had just ascended, he waved it away as a mash of minced parsley, butter and a little garlic. Clever waiter. He’s in on the secret, too, and was not about to share.

Several publications have claimed to unlock the secret to this sauce, but the Swiss just shake their heads and say, “Nope, not it.”

Since then, I have been in pursuit of Cafe de Paris. I have discovered a spice of that name listing 15 ingredients, some of which look like something the Swiss would make up.*

Dollops of Cafe de Paris are sold in stores in tiny egg-carton-like form, but one of their ingredients is margarine, proving that the Swiss are still being secretive. Margarine as a base is an abomination, every good cook knows this and even us poor ones are well-aware of it.

*Here are the spice ingredients. Some are easy to figure out – basil, tarragon, pepper, but a few are beyond my resources.  Help me if you can:

German: salz, paprika (ungarn), knoblauch (agypten), petersilie, basilikum, schnittlauch, estragon, zwiebein, pfeffer, liebstockel, majoran, andere krauter und gewurze, pflanzl, fett (gedampft), lauch, karotten.

French: sel, paprica (Hongrie), ail (Egypte), persil, basilic, ciboulette, estragon, oignon, poivre, liveche, marjolaine, autres herbes et epices (curse the Swiss for using this catch-all phrase), graisse veg (vaporissee), poireau, carottes.

Warning: Cafe de Paris sauce is loaded with almost 600 calories in a single serving size, which is about the size of half-an-egg. This, too, is a miracle – to pack so many calories into a dollop that can be taken in one swallow.

Swiss people and parks

Biel/Bienne beach gets a summer face-lift.

We took a 15-minute stroll down to the lake last night and discovered it had gone tropical.

Ordinarily, the waterfront looks similar to North American urban shores with wide green stretches of parkland, towering leafy trees, shrubs hugging wood benches and paved promenades.

BEFORE: How the park usually looks - asphalt, lawn, shrubs, rock-line shore.

Last night, we found a corner had been barricaded behind unpainted plywood walls, its pebble and asphalt ground topped with 132 cubic tonnes of fine quartz  sand four-inches deep. The park benches had disappeared, to be replaced with potted tropical trees and rambling open-air wood cabanas serving up food and drink.

Wood boardwalks already made gritty with foot traffic led past a discreetly tucked-away public washroom trailer. The sandy spans between the boardwalks were furnished in wickery loungers, tables and chairs, as well as what can only be described as beds. It was all lovely.

AFTER: Palm trees, sand, lots of people.

I am not enthusiastic about alcohol-service in a park, however, the clientele looked dignified and sober, but that was at 9 p.m. I cannot say what it looked like at a later hour.

For those Victorians reading this, imagine the screaming that such an undertaking would create back home in Victoria where a good stretch of the urban waterfront is paved parking lot, and should an ice cream kiosk dare to brave the virgin cliffs along Dallas Road, it would be met with the city’s version of a lynch mob, that is, a preservation society that would quickly douse the vendors in letters-to-the-editor and petitions.

While we’re on the topic: Victoria and its neighbouring communities are home to almost 100-km of trails that run through rainforest, oceanside and farmland vistas, and yet only two public washrooms can be found along the trail. It’s as though the whole population gets by without bladders.

Meanwhile, the Swiss look at a beautiful lake, and think “wouldn’t sand be nice right here, along with some place to get a snack,” and then they do it.  No protest, just plenty of Swiss out along with two Canadians,  enjoying the lake air on a hot summer evening.

Addendum: I have since learned that the city of Biel/Bienne funds this seasonal oasis. It is set up every year and taken down in the fall. The city usually removes the sand, but sometimes spread it out over the pebble base, instead of trucking it away.

Large cabanas with long ship-hull-inspired bars serve food and drink.

Dave wanders into the park and wonders, where the heck did all this sand come from? And the beach furniture? And the hot dog stand?

Switzerland’s see-through public washroom + toilet tips for travelers

Lausanne see-through washroom - at least it appears clean, probably because no one will use it.

I’m sure the Swiss have a perfectly good explanation for installing a see-through public washroom in Lausanne, but I cannot imagine what it is.

Don’t believe me? See the 17-second video here. 

I haven’t actually seen it in person, and if I do find it on one of our weekend jaunts,  it’s a good bet that I will not use it, because even though the crystal-glass walls can be made opaque with the touch of a button that allegedly sends an electric current through it, I don’t want to be in there should the city’s power grid fail at the wrong moment.

I don’t want to be walking by it either when someone else is using it, because apparently the opaque-function is optional. It seems like a voyeur’s dream, a voyager’s nightmare. Ugh.

A similar transparency idea was floated in the internationally acclaimed Basel Art Fair in 2004, when a one-way-glass public bathroom was installed outside of the gallery so that people could use the washroom without “missing a thing,” on the street said the Basel Art people, who we now suspect of living a seamy underworld life after-hours.  I can’t prove anything – I’m just saying. And what is going on in the streets of Basel that one can’t his eyes off the street for even a minute?

City of Victoria, British Columbia public urinal

The Swiss are not the first to come up with the idea that they are missing some great show when they are ensconced in the private walls of the lavatory. The City of Victoria in B.C. installed a door-less urinal to offer a less offensive option to its public-urinating night-time bar populace.

The idea here, one can suppose, is that this washroom is not likely to become a shooting-up zone for the city’s drug population, and users (bathroom-users, not drug-users) can keep a watchful eye for any would-be approaching muggers.

Cottagers have long had an affection for outhouses with a view – a troll through cottage-country will reveal a few outhouses with half “Dutch” doors or generous screen cut-outs.

I also own a cottage, but I enjoy the views when I am on the deck or looking out the living room window, boating, swimming, and so forth. I don’t see the need to expand the number of minutes-per-day I get to stare at trees, water and squirrels.

The problem with looking out is that others can look in, so I’m hoping the Lausanne see-through unit doesn’t catch on. I still dread visits to Australia where multi-stalled public washrooms are not always gender-specific – a situation that also exists in some parts of France, we recently discovered. No details will be provided here on how we found out.

Everyone needs public washrooms, but no one writes enough about them, much to the frustration of travelers trying to anticipate foreign bathroom customs.  I am about to change that, at least for those visiting Switzerland.

Look at that beautiful outhouse with a full-door and no windows! I'll bet it cost less than Lausanne's glass monstrosity.

Pay washrooms can be found on the streets, sometimes in shiny stainless steel stalls with a vending machine-style pay pad. Train stations frequently have them as well, and any bitterness a Canadian or American might feel about having to pony up a franc or two for a washroom quickly dissipates when inside the stall. They are kept spotless. In fact, the Bern train station has staff on hand, constantly rotating through the stalls in an never-ending sanitizing cycle.

I would not like that job, but I am happy to see someone else do it. I hope they are well-paid.

Washrooms on trains are free, but as trains are heavily used, they are not as clean as one would like, especially when trying to manage while the train rocks and sways, sometimes in unpredictable ways. I will elaborate no  further.

Tourists can get by without using a pay washroom – in fact, we’ve used them only a few times in our travels over the past few months. Many towns have free public washrooms in parks, along promenades and trails, which are kept to a high standard of cleanliness.

If these cannot be found, stop in for a break at a street cafe’ – for the price of a cup of coffee, you can use the restaurant’s washrooms, which we have also found to be unfailingly clean.

Sometimes only pay-washrooms will be located near cafeterias and malls, however, these provide a voucher for a ‘free’ coffee in the cafeteria.

Museums and art galleries generally have free washrooms.

So far, we haven’t found a pay-washroom charging over two francs, so carrying just a few one and two-franc coins should suffice.

A rumour circulates that it is forbidden to flush a toilet during certain night-time hours, out of courtesy for condo or apartment block neighbours. We haven’t heard anything about flushing restrictions yet, but have heard that running a bath late at night is frowned upon.

In the bathrooms-worth-visiting category, when at the Aescher cliff restaurant at Ebenalp, in Switzerland’s eastern Appenzell region, check out the washroom architecture. The mountainside wall of stone is exposed, allowing visitors both a view, and privacy.

Good to know if you go:

  • Carry one and two-franc coins for public washrooms.
  • To see the mountain-wall washroom, which is presumably not the only reason you would visit Switzerland, click here for hiking information about the area and mountain.

Hotel-living

A local jazz band performs at our hotel's fundraiser for a horse camp for children with disabilities.

Our hotel threw a fundraiser to  send kids to camp this week. I am all in favor of sending kids away, but am fundraiser-event averse – that is to say, I would rather throw money at a cause than throw away a perfectly nice quiet evening at home in support of it.

It’s partly due to my feeling that the amount of money spent on throwing a party or auction is wasteful; that all that money should go directly to the needy organization.
But I am wrong about that, and I know it, because as a sometimes-reluctant fundraiser, I have seen the payback on gimmicky auctions, balloon-lotteries, bake-sales and so forth.
This does nothing to alter my affection for avoiding fundraisers so I can devote my evenings to other worthwhile endeavors, such as watching the entire 30Rock season on DVD without interruption. Is there something wrong with that?
Nevertheless, when the hotel staff invited us to their fundraiser, we had to go.  While our relationship is essentially a business one – they provide us with a hotel room and we provide them with money – these are still the people with whom we have the most contact. They are in the most practical sense, our neighbours.

I was going to order BBQ pork steak, but the staff talked me into a Swiss favorite - Tarte flambe', which is not a tart at all, but an oval tortllla-like shell topped with bacon, onions and sour cream. It was pretty good.

When I leave my room, Theresa and Isabelle, our floor’s cleaning staff, coach me in French, much to my agony and their despair.

When I hit the street I pass a favorite smoking-break alcove and the staff (who shall remain nameless on this point because what is spoken of in the alcove stays in the alcove) always invite me to stop for a chat, the latest topic of which was marriage: Whether one staffer should do it and why another’s failed.

The overall professional distance adopted between hotel staff and clients evaporates when you check in for over a year. It is still there, but when the manager is not around, the staff relax their language, displaying an impressive command of English expletives.
And so we gave up an evening for the fundraiser, which turned out to be more fun than expected, possibly because it was held in the hotel, and therefore, we did not really  have to leave home to go to it.

Biel/Bienne Market

We made up our minds where to go yesterday, but no time to write about that. We’re off to Bern and Fribourg in a few minutes. Before we go, here are some more photos from the colours at yesterday’s Biel farmer’s market.

The contrary thing about the Swiss is how they support their local farmers’ markets, not out of a sense of duty or economic inbreeding, but because of an ingrained belief that no product, grown or manufactured, can best a Swiss one. I say it’s contrary because buying local food in Canada is an act whereby the buyer is making a statement about themselves, more than saying what they actually think of the product.

I could be wrong about this, but also, I could be right.

Consequently, in Switzerland’s stores the high-priced local Swiss strawberries (5.50 to 8.50) appear to sell out as fast as the lower priced Italian/French/Spanish ones. (2.50 to 4.50), and so it is for everything else – at least, that’s what I’m told.

We haven’t visited the local farmers street market in more than a month, and it seems to have grown as summer nears.

Later this week, we’ll tackle the question of whether Dave really has a job here.

Buckets and buckets of flowers.

Carrots caked in Swiss dirt.

I've never warmed to the idea of dining on meat left to hang out on a hot day for hours. Also, what the heck is that amber coloured stuff on the right?

An IBM Selectric - vintage 1978, if memory serves. We saw a lot of old junk at the market, but not a lot of people buying it.

I would love to bought this Monarch typewriter with a French keyboard, but that would have gone against our "pack light" motto for our time here.

The market has expanded higher up the 16th-century cobblestone streets as summer nears.

The grey metal roundish thing on the right is an old-fashioned bed heater/water bottle (for only five franks). Oooh, comfy. The market has many vendors selling old stuff - some looks vintage, some looks like junk.

Biel/Bienne's farmers market.

Three varieties of cherries at Biel's Saturday farm market.... they are probably all Swiss, but it is possible they allowed a few Italian or Spanish ones in.

In Switzerland, the garlic knows enough to fall into formation.

I don't know what the 3.50 is for, but we saw loaves priced at eight franks. Yikes.

No live plucking

Pillows: You can't have too many. This photo, taken years ago, is of when my pillow-compulsion was under restraint. Only 30% of this bed is now visible, thanks to pillows!

In a foreign environment, you notice things.

For example, the last time I read  the tiny print of a manufacturer’s pillow label with any degree of scrutiny was in 1968.* Feathers, down, synthetic – what else is there to note? Since the advent of Martha Stewart, Nate Berkus and their legions, pillows have become more sophisticated, but not enough to attract my attention for longer than 0.7 seconds.

Sure, their thread-counts are ever-escalating, they boast various origins of cotton, hemp or bamboo, they have adopted political mantras, and they no longer content themselves with merely  snuggling your head, they promise a better life through better sleep. Okay, I’ll buy in.

And I admit it, I’m a pillow nut. Dave sleeps with one skinny prison-issue pillow that is flat, hard, punishing. I sleep with a carousel of pillows: Feather, down, square, rectangular, memory foam, enormous, not-so-enormous, decorative, functional, neck-soothing, pillows designed to stay cool, pillows that insulate. The list is endless.

I have never counted my assortment, but I have so  many that there aren’t enough beds for them all, so I rotate them through storage closet to bed and back, depending on the season and my mood.  A conservative  mental tally leads to a 50-count, not including the ones I hide on my sofas by stitching them into decorative cushion slipcovers. My husband will back me up on this.

Obviously, pillows are the comfort-food of bed linens. That is, until now.

Dieter Sprockets is alive and working in a Swiss 'house & home' department.

As mentioned before, we live in a hotel, so we are sleeping on hotel pillows. In North America, this suggests New Yorkish elegance, but the industrious Swiss have discovered sleep is economically unproductive so they do what they can to discourage it. Bless their hearts. If you are from the southern U.S., you will know that when I say “bless their hearts,” what I really am saying is, “What the heck? Who thought of this?!”

So our pillows here are closer in dimension to Dave’s single prison-issue pillow back home than to the generous, plump pillows that I crave.

This sent me into our town’s quaint shops in search of a single giant pillow, one pillow to compensate for all the pillows I am doing without. I found such a pillow on sale for about $40, and I was about to buy it when a sales clerk descended upon me, horrified that I would lower myself to the sale-price pillow, and ready to hold an intervention right there on the store floor.

He had a Sprockets wardrobe, accent and demeanor. For those too young to recognize this NBC show Saturday Night Live reference, click here.

“Yooo do not vhant dese pillow,” said Store-Sprockets smacking his palm against the pillow as though to punish it, his dark eyes wide in horror. “Dese pillow has Scheeneese feathers und down. It ees not Sveisse! You! You vant Sveisse!” Okay, so Sprockets doesn’t like Chinese feathers and even suggested through a series of eye rolls, nostril flaring and upward-chin-tilts that Chinese feathers were plucked by Chinese inmates, possibly from other Chinese inmates.

He went on to show me a wonderful selection of Swiss pillows, the cheapest of which was over $100. The most expensive I cannot print here, because it doesn’t seem possible to charge that much for what really is just leftover material from a roast goose dinner.

Right: Swiss concept of adequate pillow. Left: Joanne concept of adequate pillow.

Recognizing that to purchase the cheapest pillow might cast aspersions on Canadians everywhere,  I left the store empty-handed.

Culture Clue: Sprocket quickly deduced my Canadianess when I reeled back at the most expensive pillow. This is how Europeans differentiate between Canadians and Americans – by how much money we are willing to spend. Note: Not how much money we have; but how much we spend.

In the weeks that followed, I was at the mercy of our tiny hotel pillows, that are, by the way,  large by Swiss standards. I have seen small square pillows in the stores that measure 12 x 12 inches. One sales clerk said, “Your head is not so big, so why big pillow? Wastes space.”

I wish I was making this up, but I am not.

Eventually, I returned to Sprockets’ store, sneaking to the sale bin again. Even from the linen department, I could hear Sprocket lecturing another customer who was about to make the fatal fashion error of purchasing an unreliable lime-green hand mixer from Germany, when a perfectly good Swiss brand was right next to it.

Thus able to deduce Sprockets’  location and so avoid a follow-up intervention, I plucked the pillow from the bin and snuck off on an evasive route through the toy and sports departments. At the check-out, as I slid my debit card into the slot, I heard Sprockets approaching.  Sweat erupted all over my face. This was no mere hormonally induced hot flash. I grabbed the receipt and fled the store.

At the hotel, I chuckled to myself at getting the pillow I really wanted.

No live plucking!

Then I looked at the label.

Label-reading is part of my informal language-immersion at which I am doing very poorly, so when I saw the words “pas plume’ a vif,” I was sure I was reading it wrong.  A quick online trip to Google translate showed I was not. The label reads in German, French and Italian: No live plucking.

I did not know such a practice existed as plucking a bird while still alive. I am hoping it is a translation problem, and not a fact, but I am afraid to do an online search for fear of learning of new horrors in the world.  In the meantime, I should comfort myself that this pillow was not made from tortured birds.

This is what you notice in foreign countries: Labels. Fear them.

* 1968 is not a randomly picked number**. That’s the year I realized  my grandparents had a bunch of pillows with no labels. They were homemade, from their own poultry stock. I still have one, but keep it in a closet for fear of the bacterial count that could be living inside it. It could be 50-70 years old.

**Okay. Maybe it wasn’t 1968. It could have been 1965.

Lazy stroll turns into hike of horror

Saint-Pierre Church in Besançon.

Being a city of ancient origins, Besançon has history, lots of it, and not all of it so nice. The weird thing is that they choose to display that history in the middle of a children’s zoo.

Citadel entrance.

We made the uphill climb to Besançon’s Citadel – a Unesco World Heritage Site that was built between 1668 and 1688 on 11 hectares of high ground that culminates in a cliff overlooking the river Doubs.  It is a fortress of spartan stone structures and walls, standing in sharp relief against the city’s other Romanesque, Classical and Baroque architecture.

Stark architecture caps the citadel's naturally advantageous military position.

After entering the gates where we paid 9 Euros each for admission, a process that is weird in that you weave off the path into a fortress gate office where they take your money and subject you to a sales-pitch to buy guides, a history book, audio and more. I could be wrong about this, because the clerk only spoke French, but every time she pushed something at me, I asked “Combien?” and there was a number in her every response, indicating a price.

I don’t mind the sales pitch, but if they are going to have clerks rattling off at tourists, wouldn’t it be nice to have a few who can speak English? I can imagine some sad sap saying “Oui,” to every question just to be friendly and then discover he had purchased $113 worth of history books in a language he cannot read.

The fun was not over yet, as we still had to march up a hill to a second fortress gate that also pulled us through a gift shop where smiling clerks stood ready to entice us to open our wallets. But it was a hot day and our wallets were pasted to our pockets, so we were spared.

We then walked over a stone bridge that rose above a dry moat populated with baboons who were  in a screaming fever over some argument that led to a chase where the loser was forced to  scamper up the vertical walls such that we flinched instinctively, ready to flee should the baboon clear the walls, which it looked like he was about to do.

Even though the baboons terrified us (see silky-haired creatures in the lower right corner), we later saw the keeper hand-feed them.

He never did, although his proven ability to eat up vertical space told us he could easily have landed in our laps, and so we concluded there must be an electrified barrier. At least we hope so. If we open up the news one day to learn of a tourist having his hand eaten by a baboon, we will not be a bit surprised.

From there we made our way to the goat pen, but first we thought we’d stop in at “The Museum of the Resistance and Deportation,” which we thought was some kind of funny translation for something else, but it turned out it was almost exactly the correct name for the stone building, except that it should have also included the phrases, “The Rise of the Nazis,” and “Holocaust,” and “How Hitler Prepped an Entire Nation to Kill Six Million and Mutilate Many More.”

I am capitalizing every word on purpose, to emphasize how graphic this museum was, and so it should be. Wouldn’t you agree, however, that while it does belong inside a military fortress, internment camp and execution site, as the citadel is, perhaps it should not be lodged between the baboon cage and the goat pens? The children’s’ zoo aspect does nothing to prepare visitors for what lies inside the museum’s walls.

Libyans seeking signatures supporting the ousting of Gaddafi.

The museum left us mute and the rest of our tour inside the citadel was done on autopilot, without much enjoyment.

This was all after we had stumbled across a group of Libyan men, standing silent in the plaza overshadowed by Eglise Saint Pierre. They held up photos of their murdered relative’s bloodied corpses, reminding us that while Nazi atrocities had abated, new ones were ongoing at that very moment.

We were in need of emotional resuscitation, so we went to the Musee de Beaux Arts, on the grounds that anything named so cheerfully had to be good, unaware that it housed a section on Goya’s black period where he painted works depicting familial cannibalism.

And that is the essence of Europe: Awesome architecture, horrific history.

I am going to include a gallery of Besançon’s prettier parts, just in case this post leaves you in a dour state.

Click on photos to enlarge, click twice for close-ups.

If you go to Besancon, you can skip the uphill march that Dave and I made. Tour buses will ferry you uphill (in the summer season only) or you can take a car and leave it at a paid-parking site, although spaces are few. Learn more at www.citadelle.com.

We do most of our touring on Saturdays, hence we often happen upon weddings, photo shoots and receptions. We have not ever eaten at any of these weddings. Really.

Metallic directional arrows are imbedded in Besançon's sidewalks to help tourists find their way around town, however, we found this particular set pointed in the opposite direction indicated on our map. Coincidentally, it points toward the casino. Coincidence?

Besançon is one of France's undiscovered beauties.

A children's carousel in the Saint Pierre Church plaza.

If you go to Besançon, make sure to explore these unmarked gates that lead to intriguing private courtyards. Do not get arrested!

We found these scoured steps up to legal offices inside one of the courtyards. Maybe lawyers aren't so well-paid in France.

Inside a courtyard. These are hidden neighbourhoods nested inside the city streets. They surprise visitors - sometimes leading to parks, sometimes to hotels, sometimes to private fountains.

After the holocaust museum, Libyan tragedies and Goya's cannibalistic works, Dave finally finds something to smile about - a Picasso!

Eat on the street at Au Grill’on

Photo captures male diner's facial expression as he absorbs yet another insult from his haughty French waiter. He revels in the satisfaction of knowing he is paying for the best arrogance France can deliver.

Dave and I arrived in a famished state at Au Grill’on, a corner cafe that wraps around  Rue JDV Proudhon and Rue Francois Louis-Bersot in Besançon’s old quarter.

As is our custom, we first whetted our appetite by scrutinizing the menus and clientele of about 12 restaurants beforehand, deeming each one unsuitable, until we arrived at Au Grill’on too tired and hungry to care about the quality of food or service. This was France, after all, where there is no bad food, theoretically speaking.

We parked ourselves at a table at the point of the corner to enjoy a commanding view of the pedestrian-fashion show going up and down both streets.  I stepped away to discreetly take a few photos of said fashion-show and when I returned Dave was seated at a new table.

The waiter, a young man who when he first appeared wore an expression so disinterested that it took a few minutes for us to conclude he was not a loitering Dylanesque artiste, had moved Dave to another table hemmed in on one side by what appeared to be a trash bin and on the other by an ad board.

Dave, being of English stock, did not realize the waiter was asserting dominance. I, having a good measure of pre-Revolutionary French blood, appreciated the artistry woven into this insult and drew my sword, figuratively speaking.

I moved us to another table. True, it was worse than the one the waiter chose, but there was no time to quibble. Dave, seeing he was but a pawn in our power-struggle, sighed and took up his newly assigned post. I wonder if we had kept on like that for 20 minutes or so how many tables we could have made Dave sit at. I would guess at least five.  He is a very good sport.

The view from our table.

The waiter, seeing he had a rogue diner on his hands swept by our table as though we did not exist, a sort of shot-across-the-bow move, then returned to our table and assumed a bored posture – his weight thrown to one side, shoulders slack, chest cratered inward and head slightly tilted as though falling asleep. I managed a few French words at which his eyes flickered with hostility.

Some say that everyone under 25 in Europe has a working knowledge of English, but the waiter gave no recognition of our English and even less of our French. We would have done just as well in Hungarian, even though neither of us speak it.

The waiter communicated in one-syllable words so low that they could have signaled a digestive complaint, but he toyed with our hopes by allowing a slight intonation of language into his grunts. He was a good-looking kid, but he somehow transformed his eyelids into shadowy hoods and his lip curled slightly upward while the rest of his facial features took on a gargoyle-like profile.

The view on the other side of the street - sure the avenue is jammed with tables and pedestrians, but why not drive a sports car through it? We've seen this in Switzerland and France - owning a sports car is apparently a license to drive anywhere, any time, any way at all.

You have to hand it to the boy. He should not be in some provincial backwater, but instead be waiting on tables in Paris where he could contribute to France’s international reputation for waiter-haughtiness.  We were delighted to finally get our money’s worth in cuisine culture.

Even though we communicated our order caveman-style, that is,  by pointing on the menu, le garcon brought me something somewhat different – and more expensive – than what I had ordered. He correctly detected Dave’s likability and first brought him his exact order – chicken breast, which came sans bone and skin in a  mallet-flattened filet along with a square of delicious scalloped potato.

Hopefully no waiter-spit is in here. This tasted a lot better than it looked, although I could not detect any garlic. The waiter must have reported my misdemeanors to the chef!

Then he brought my steak, which I had ordered, topped with what appeared to be giant raisins, which I had not ordered. I would have put up a fight about this, but I am still waiting for the day that a European waiter brings me the correct order, so I just picked up my knife and started hacking at it only to see my plate transform into a murder scene, complete with red blood pouring out into the beige-coloured sauce (a nice complementary colour scheme, by the way).

The waiter was winning.

I sent the plate back to the kitchen where for all I know the entire staff gathered around to spit on it.

When the steak returned, it was still rare, but it no longer flinched under the fork. It was perfectly tender, a good piece of meat, and although a little lacking in the usual hint of garlic for which French chefs are famous, it still was delicious.

The waiter, as is almost always the case with European waiters, had exacted his revenge by making sure I did not escape the region without dining on the local delicacy, morilles mushrooms, which is the name for the raisin-like globules atop the steak. It is hard to hate a waiter so wise.

The morilles added nearly 10 dollars (Cd) to the price, but were worth the freaky experience of having their raisin-ribbed surface tickle the inside of my mouth. Did I say it was freaky? It’s worth saying twice.

Sadly, their flavour is weak as compared to more common mushroom varieties.

Despite our waiter’s lofty ways, he was very quick with bringing the food, and I’m fairly certain he did not spit in it, although with all that sauce and crumpled morilles, who can say for sure?

Out of 10, with 10 being the top:

Service: 4

Cultural service experience: 10

Food:  Chicken:  10  Steak: 8

Price: $12 for the chicken, $24 for the steak.

Ambiance:  8

Besancon: French, German, Austrian, Spanish, Roman, Hungarian, then French town.

You don't expect to see an elaborate Egyptian display at a small French city with a population of about 120,000, but the French are known for their elegance, so why not?

A four-day weekend, such as we have just had, is a great time to take off to places further afield, but we did not do that.  Not because we didn’t want to, but because we have not fully adjusted to the vigour that Europeans apply to their “mini-breaks.”

In other words, by the time we got down to booking train tickets and hotels, there was not a seat or a bed available. We could not have gotten onto a train to Vienna unless we were prepared to ride Tom-Cruise-style, that is, on the top, while engaged in hand-to-hand combat with a John Voight look-alike.

We should have remembered this from our time in Madrid, when we discovered that six-hour, two-hundred mile traffic jams on the highways leading out of the city over long weekends was a normal event.

And so we satisfied ourself with shorter jaunts – the earlier trip to Neuchatel being the first. That turned out exceedingly well, and so we braved the French border once again (you may remember our last venture into France started with getting electronically kicked out of three hotels, before landing in an expensive Waldorf).

We headed to Besançon, an ancient town settled by Gauls in the Bronze Age (1500 BC) in the oxbow of the river Doubs, and, because its location presents such a strong military advantage, Julius Caesar’s boys naturally showed up and said, “We’ll take that.” Which they did.

We think of modern Europe’s borders are being permanently marked with indelible ink, but the Europeans did not treat it that way.

Besançon was part of the Holy Roman Empire, then was accorded independence, which is a way of saying no military power would defend it, and so it subsequently came under the Habsburgs (through marriage, not war, although some would say the two are the same).

Museum of Fine Arts and Archeology with origins dating back to 1694, although this building, a former grain hall, only dates back to the 1800s. In the 1960s its interior was completely refurbished by Louis Miguel, a man who is forever doomed to only be addressed as "a student of Le Corbusier." He deserves better. The interior is spectacular. Did I mention this town has only 120,000 inhabitants? And yet they somehow pulled this off. We mock the French, but we have to hand it to them. They have culture.

That means the Austrians – or was it the Hungarians – were in charge, and then, in some kind of closet-cleaning decluttering exercise, they handed it over to Philip II, King of Spain.

Spain is nowhere near Besançon, and as soon as the Spanish realized the inconvenience of managing such a far-flung district, they tried to hand it back to the Austrians via marriage, but the Austrians were not to be fooled for long and less than a hundred years later, the Spanish discovered Besançon had somehow crawled its way back into their closets.

That was in 1667, but whether it was French, Spanish, German, Prussian, Hungarian, Austrian or just plain Catholic was not decided yet,  because French monarch Louis XIV fancied Besançon and claimed it, but then lost interest and within months ‘forgot’ it on Spain’s doorstep.

It boomeranged back to the French, then in 1814 the Austrians had a change of heart and bombarded the city. Finally, the Germans, probably sick of all the back-and-forth, grabbed it, but finally it ended up back in French hands after the Nazis were routed out, but not before executing 100 French resistance fighters there.

What all this leads to is that Besançon has a fascinating museum with great archaeological finds, including an intact Roman soldier’s helmet and a second-century BC Neptune mosaic. The museum is 100 years older than the Louvre, and is a good place to see the works of Matisse, Goya, Picasso, as well as an Egyptian mummy display.

Egyptian stone works are right out in the open, and I couldn’t resist drawing my hands along the pharaoh profiles, touching the same granite and sandstone as the long-ago artisans, which I really should not have done, at least that’s what the museum security detail told me, but the rebuke was brief, as though the French are resigned to their collection of sculptures and hieroglyphics getting pawed by Americans.

Which I am not. I am Canadian, but why tell the French that when they are so happy to think otherwise?

Knowing gnomes

Gnomes dig ebony-haired gals in long flowing gowns.

The modern garden gnome springs from German ceramic artists (circa 1900), but a lesser known fact is that  Swiss doctor Philippus von Hohenheim (1492-1541) revived ancient mythologies around goblins and dwarves in the form of gnomes,  that he asserted moved through earth in the way that humans move through air, and were possibly always at war with migrating cranes (the birds, not the machinery).

This illustrates how messed up the medical establishment was in the 16th century.

Please write to me if you see any paint splotches in this wall of fishscale shingles.

We ran into a few gnomes in Appenzell. Not as many as that which  populated Canadian gardens in the 1960s, but a few. We did not like them then. We don’t like them so much now, but they are okay if they stay in Switzerland where they match the decor.

But we liked Appenzell, which differed markedly from Switzerland’s big-city architecture that is dominated by stone (we like Switzerland’s big cities, too).  Appenzell buildings were almost all wood-clad, many with round shingles that I scrutinized for paint dribbles. I couldn’t locate so much as a thumbnail-splotch. Coincidentally, Switzerland has the world’s 23rd highest suicide rate.  These two factors may be related.

Appenzell is called cowbell country, and rightly so, because there are lots of beat-up cowbells in baskets outside gift shops, but not so many on the cows, who were mostly naked.  Had these bells ever seen the underside of a cow’s jaw? My skepticism kicked in and I sniffed one of the bell’s weathered leather collars and did not catch the tiniest whiff of barnyard life. Dave made sure to stand far away while I smelled the collars, as though there was something unusual about this.

We also saw sheep with bells, but could not find “sheepbells” at the gift shops.

Dave says go big or go home!

Most Swiss fountains are topped with statues of local heroes or historical figures. Appenzell has a cactus. We don't know what to make of this.

The Hotel Santis paint job looks a look like British Columbia's Coast Salish murals. I'm just saying.

No one can compete with Switzerland's patriotism and flag-waving - not even the U.S.

Even beaten-up buildings retain their charm.

After a three-hour train ride, we did not visit the cow museum, but we did go into the lobby and take a photo of this cowesque art.

Humble buildings line the village streets, but they are no less charming than those found in bigger cities.

Entrance to hardware store ... looked like the way to someone's garage. We don't know how this affects their business.

Aha! The paint job is not so perfect at the hardware store.

Another clock tower. We are still in Switzerland, the land where tardiness is without excuse.

Eating like Europeans

A rarity in Europe: Water served automatically. Usually it must be ordered and it costs as much as any other beverage.

We stumbled into a delicious find while visiting Appenzell, a village in the Alpstein limestone range, near Mount Santis  in Switzerland’s Northeast corner.

We arrived off the tram from Kronberg hungry, as we always are after an invigorating ride over the rails, so finding a restaurant was foremost in our minds. There are different ways to find restaurants, and we have developed our own methodology. We check our favorite travel guide-book – Rick Steves’ Switzerland, then wander the cobblestone streets in a confused manner as though we don’t have a guidebook at all, all while staring at the guidebook’s map, then at the buildings.

Lokal takes its gelato seriously. Mmmmmm .... gelato.

As though foreordained, a shop catches my eye and Dave, trying to hold to our original gastronomic purposes, waits outside to study the map/guidebook while I peruse the store shelves where I always find everything is much too expensive. It is true, I am cheap, but when I find a pair of shoes that sell for $267 while I am wearing the same make for which I paid $110, I am none too impressed. Shopkeepers perceive this and pretend to speak no English. Either that or they are insulted by my harmless questions about their retail ethics.

By the time I exit the store (or stores), our hunger reaches the fussy level, our pace increases, my interest in shopping diminishes and our path takes on a pinball trajectory, that is to say, we hurry from one Rick Steves-recommended restaurant to another, finding some minor flaw with each one that sends us on our way again.

We go through about a half-dozen restaurants in this manner, judging them by the shallowest, yet truest of means: The customers at the outside cafe look sick of each other’s company and there is no food in front of them, suggesting a long wait and tardy service; a funny smell comes out of the kitchen; the posted menu is only in German, stoking our fear that we will accidentally dine on horse or rabbit meat; the place is empty; the low lighting through amber glass windows prohibits suitable scrutiny of the food and the list goes on.

We look for places populated by locals on the grounds that they are the best judges of a restaurant’s fare, so it may be that a bistro we came across named “Lokal” twigged a subliminal familiarity, predisposing us to looking favorably on it, and then we found a mention of it in our guidebook, where Rick Steves labels Lokal’s offerings as the opposite of Swiss fare. That seemed like an endorsement to us fearers of horse meat, so in we went.

At this point, we were starving and a little glassy eyed, which the server may have recognized because she spent a lot of time explaining the menu to us, which was very kind, however, it prolonged the ordering process and we weakened even further. Eventually, I ordered a crepe filled with banana gelato, which shows just how vulnerable we had become.

Dave using the classical pointing method to order his lunch. He has no idea what he is pointing at.

Dave pointed out sandwich fillers from the display case in such a random manner that by the time we sat down he could only identify his sandwich contents by their colours – “red things,” “green stringy things.” If there was horse meat in it, we would not have known because we are unfamiliar with the colour of cooked horse meat (when raw it has a burgundy tone not often seen in beef).

So we sat down and accepted our fate, only to find that it was all good. Lokal happens to specialize in its focaccia bread, and it was superlative, soft and not too chewy as is too often the case with North American focaccias. The preserved tomatoes and peppers were lightly seasoned and bit back just enough to tease the tongue.

The crepe was perfect, although I did feel weird having a frozen dessert wrapped inside a hot crepe. Maybe this exists elsewhere but I don’t think I’ve ever ordered it. This is the beauty of being a fussy eater – I’m easily impressed and look on old staples as crazy new concoctions.

We took on the attitude of Europeans who when they take a table are practically leasing it. We ate everything, then jumped up and ordered some more, lounged, ate more, enjoyed the relaxed atmosphere along with other loafing diners as though we were hanging around in our mothers’ kitchens. The two women servers – who may have been proprietors, they looked that engaged in their work – were pleasant and helpful, unobtrusive, but ready to deliver more goodies at the slightest sign of hunger pangs.

The gelato is made in-house of local dairy and “Alpstein” water, which pours down from the limestone Santi Mountain  – and is without any artificial dyes. I sampled the chocolate, walnut and banana. The chocolate was fabulous, but I am a chocolate addict so am rarely disappointed. The banana gelato was strikingly intense; the walnut gelato was unique, subtle, and very very good. In all, Lokal offered about 16-20 varieties and if I lived there, I would have tried them all.

Check out the restaurant’s (German only) website here or enter Lokal Appenzell into Google and click on “translate this page.” I give this understated eatery the thumbs up. Sandwich: 8 out of 10. Gelato: 10 out of 10 (yes, a 10!). Crepe – undecided. It wasn’t really filling as a lunch item, but it was delicious. Price: $37 for a continuous stream of food for two, very reasonable for Switzerland.

Weekend wanderings – Off to Appenzell, also known as cowbell country

A Swiss cow, WITHOUT a cowbell. What is the land of cheese coming to?

I did not make up the nickname “cowbell country” for Switzerland’s Appenzell region. The Swiss did that all by themselves.

How the cowbells earned higher billing than the cows themselves is beyond me, but we aim to find out. In the meantime, we wonder what kind of conversations dairy farmers have out there. Instead of discussing how many heads of cattle they oversee, maybe they discuss the pitch and tone of the cowbells.

“Good chiming on the up-pasture trip yesterday,” Franz says.

“Yah, yah, it vazt gutt!,” Johann replies.

My goal will be to see the cow museum. Woo hoo!

Dave’s goal will be to get me to ride the Kronberg bobsled ride. Click here to see it. Skip to the 20-second mark to get straight to the ride. Skip to the 1:20 mark to see how close the “bobsleds” get to each other at the bottom of the ride.

Dave says, “What could go wrong?” and I have to admit it looks not-so-bad, except that is the same thing he said just before I slid down an enclosed waterslide tunnel at Whitewater in Atlanta, minutes before I got lodged in said tunnel, which eventually spit me out in a tangled glob of humanity. I will only tell you what that ride was like if someone asks me. It’s better not to ask.

In the meantime, this blog will likely pass the 3,000 mark some time today. As one editor told me, “It’s the photos, dummy. Nobody cares what you write. They care about the pictures.”  Editors. You gotta love’em.

Happy weekend!

Rain

Rain, rain please do stay. I can't take another hot day.

In non-news, yesterday we watched a never-seen-anywhere-else-we’ve-lived  weather-induced phenomenon (I am trying to break a hyphenated-sentence record).

While out on our evening stroll through downtown, heavy rain started pouring, driving many shoppers to line up execution-style, their backs pressed tight against the buildings for shelter in that miniscule 18-inch ribbon of dry pavement next to the wall.

Witnessing this led me to reflect on what this unique behavior would lead to in other parts of the world.

Do this in the Pacific Northwest and you’ll be waiting for the weather to clear from November til April. Try it in Manitoba or North Dakota and soon a sheath of ice will form over you, rendering you immobile until spring.

Lining up in this fashion in a giant American metropolis will lead criminals to assume you are volunteering to be relieved of your wallet or purse, getting you mugged within two minutes. The good news is that ambulance attendants will arrive to get you out of the rain, although you will be in a prone position, likely for quite some time. If you are single, this is even better as you are about meet a lot of doctors, just as your mother always hoped. You might not look your best, but the doctors will be too busy checking your intubation tube to notice. See how a little rain can change your life?

In Victoria, British Columbia, muggers are more polite and will ask for your money instead. Many would-be robberies are aborted in this way as the prospective victim is often unaware he has a role to play. And in true Victoria form, the mugger will be too polite to point out this faux pas to the victim, and let it pass. This happens dozens of times a day there.

In Australia, line up against a wall and someone will hand you a beer. Do this in Spain’s Plaza Mayor and locals will assume you’ve had too much beer,  search you for it and take it away.

Our view: Not very attractive, but not so bad. The buildings absorb the sound of ambulances screaming down our street. I'm not joking. We rarely hear them from inside our courtyard-flat.

I did wonder how long the Swiss would stand there, but as it turned out, the locals knew what they were doing. Within a few minutes, the rain paused in an orderly polite Swiss manner (just  as it started, quickly and on time) and the crowds meandered back onto the roadway. I should point out, this area is a no-car zone, so no tremendous traffic excitement ensued.  In the meantime, the Swiss had a sociable time chattering with their fellow rain-refugees,  presumably about the weather.

In other news that matters to no one in particular, yesterday I was told twice that I speak French very well, proving that you can get by in a foreign language on only two sentences, as long as you pronounce them very well.

And finally, I’ve been told I am living a rich-lady-life, which sounds pretty glamorous, but in the interest of truth, allow me to dispel that myth by sharing the view outside of our flat.

Plants that I plan to neglect.

Say Cheeeese

The source of so much goodness: Cheese, fondue, ice cream, taco fillings ...

I’ve been rough on Swiss cuisine, writing some very nasty things about their chocolate, their cheeses, their ice creams, their relaxed attitude toward refrigeration. Today, Switzerland fought back.

Well, at least one block of cheese bought at a Swiss store fought back by stumbling out of the refrigerator while I was going in for the strawberries, nearly striking my leg, but it was a soft cheese, so not much harm could have been done. Seeing as it volunteered, I decided to take a slice, and steeled myself for the usual olfactory horrors to unfold when the plastic wrapping came off.

This did not occur. The cheese was almost odor-free, and even as I cut into it, I could tell this was going to be different. It did not embrace the blade as would a gooey Brie; neither did it fight back in the way of a stiff cheddar. It was in the middle, resisting a little, with the edges crumbling away in niblets, but still cutting rather clean.

The taste was mindful of butter and cream, which turned out to be correct as the cheese is 75 per cent fat, a content earned by the addition of extra-heavy cream during processing. You might be able to find a chunk in North America – it’s called St. Andre’s and it is made in France.

Which means that I just wrote something nice about French cheese, as opposed to Swiss cuisine, the latter of which being where I was going in the first place. But to be fair, it was purchased in a Swiss store, so that has to count for something.

The Swiss are big on beef, cheese, chocolate, fondue, muesli, quiche and tarts. I love all of these. They also steal a lot of ideas from Italy and France, whose foods I love, and from Germany, whose foods, their sausages in particular, I do not love so much. Actually, I really dislike those fat-chocked sausages. And yet, I know so many great Mennonite cooks – they must be of Russian extraction.

But to get back to the Swiss: Their strawberries are now in full season, which means the prices are dropping while the quality is rising. They are fabulous. Fabulous Swiss strawberries. See,  I can say nice things about Swiss food.

And I did say nice things about Movenpick ice cream, although that was before I sampled their cashew cinnamon ice cream, which had a lot of cinnamon and not so much cashew. It didn’t help that the cinnamon was augmented by some unknown spice, possibly curry, that made the whole experience a deeply moving one of disappointment; this especially after trying their chocolate ice cream, which was divine.

You may remember I had nothing nice to say about Polarfuchs ice cream, but I’m still looking to try their fresh strawberry flavour, which may have redemptive qualities. Nevertheless,  I can’t find it anywhere, even though there are strawberries everywhere at the moment.

Clearly, I have mixed feelings about Swiss food. This is where many food writers would make a joke about having to keep testing more food so as to more fully comprehend the breadth of the national cuisine.

I can’t joke about it, because I can’t promise it. I approach every plate with trepidation.

We had an unpleasant experience with Swiss ground beef early on, and it took me seven weeks to brave it again. The good news is that the second attempt was greatly improved, leading me to believe that the first clump of ground beef I cooked was on the edge of spoiling, which returns us to my first paragraph and my biggest beef with Europeans, and that is their lack of regard for refrigeration.

In the meantime, I just learned the St. Andre’s cheese in my refrigerator is highly perishable, so should be eaten as soon as possible. That, I am going to do.

Mom told me not to talk to strangers

Every day from 1960 to 1976, my mother warned me against talking to strangers, sometimes upping the warnings to four-times a day. She knew I wasn’t listening. Then between the years 2003 and 2010, on more than a few occasions I saw Times Colonist columnist Jack Knox exclaim, “Stranger danger!” before fading chameleon-like into the walls, making himself invisible to newsroom visitors. I suspect he was on my Mom’s payroll.

Despite these admonitions,  I keep talking to strangers, but now, I’m thinking of quitting.

In a downtown grocery store, I was minding my own business when cold chalky fingers snaked around my forearm. It would appear there was no one there, but when I looked down I saw a withered white-haired woman with large brown eyes standing next to me. I want to point out: I was looking down.  The number of times I have looked down to see another adult is embarrassingly low, and in fact, it only happened twice in North America. The other three times were here in Europe, where women smoke a lot, leading to stunted growth.

The woman rattled off something in French, shaking her cane menacingly at me, then, with her hand still cuffed around my forearm, she led me to another aisle where she used her cane to point out items from the top three shelves that she wanted. It’s a rare experience to be the “tall” person in the crowd, so I didn’t protest. I retrieved the items, she released me, and I went on my way.

Only, I was flummoxed. I left my grocery basket in the aisle where she had abducted me, along with my senses, forgetting what I was at the store for in the first place. I picked up some yoghurt, just to look like I was there on legitimate business and headed to the line-up where I found the old woman in front of me. Again, she took charge, demanding in French that I go in line in front of her with my paltry purchase, but I, in a bid for self-determination, steadfastly refused.

“Je suis un idiot,” I said, “Je ne comprends pas.”

She was somewhat crippled, frail-looking but obviously used to being in command. I’ll bet she had 15 children and they are all still terrified of her.

A tall, lean couple shuffled into the line-up and I thought I heard them speak English. I turned to them, indicating the old woman and said, “She’s a feisty one,” so they would understand that I was a total stranger to her and not her mentally deficient grand-daughter.

The couple glared at me, and I realized they did not speak English, but that might not have made a difference anyway.

The woman, her long hair dull and scraggly, motioned toward one arm as though injecting a phantom syringe, let her tongue loll out, wagged her head back and forth with her eyes careening about in their sockets. It was the international sign for, “I am a heroin addict, I’m out of my mind, and I don’t know what you’re saying.” The man, tattoos covering his arms, grunted in agreement.

Okay, Mom. You win. No more talking to strangers. At least, not for today.