Watch your step

The Swiss version of Inukshuks - a more stream-lined design, lacking in pretension.

We turned away from the Mannlichenbaln look-out with the satisfaction that came from knowing that the rest of the hike would be a gentle downhill stroll,dropping from 2,342 metres to 2,061 metres over a 4-km (2.5 mile) trail.

The problem is that a good piece of that drop appears near the beginning of the journey.

I could be wrong about that – the pitch might be only a 30-foot drop over about 50-feet, but as a borderline acrophobe, it looked pretty bad to me. Remember, I’m only five-feet tall – the slightest undulation in the earth’s surface looms larger at my height, or lack thereof.

Every time Dave sees an Inukshuk, he threatens to kick it down. It is his schoolboy playfulness that makes him say that, but as soon as he got within range of a stone-statue field at Kleine-Scheidegg, he started fixing broken statues. What the heck!?

Dave quickly covered the worst of it owing to his long legs and impeccable sense of balance. I, meanwhile, scurried down crab-like, sideways with my fingers clenched to the rope bordering the steepest part of the slope. I would have got down on all fours and crawled, but there were Swiss everywhere and I was mindful that they not see me fall to such depths symbolically, even as I feared falling to worse depths literally.

The path gradually tilted back into a reasonably level grade as we headed south.  Looking back from the glory of relatively level ground, the pitch did not seem so bad, and I decided to adopt a non-chalant attitude towards this mountain-hiking business.

The trail winds along the ridge, without benefit of a single guard rail, which as I pointed out before, is how the Swiss “thin the herd,” and also thumb their noses at safety-conscious Canadians.

I am not wrong about Canadians and their national obsession with safety. As a three-term parks commissioner, I had the unfortunate experience of sitting through meetings listening to shrill arguments against accepting a particular piece of oceanfront parkland from a developer because it featured a narrow rock gorge, the very thing that I asserted made it a steal-of-a-deal while other commissioners fretted over how to protect the public from it by installing concrete blocks, high fencing and an abundance of bright yellow signs depicting human figures falling from great heights with a crown of exclamation marks about their heads as they contemplated their surprising and very imminent deaths.

To listen to the phobic commissioners, one would such think such a fatality occurred weekly, but there have never been any recorded deaths at that site.

I lost that vote, but I am not bitter.

I do wish, however, the Swiss considered guard rails with a more generous eye.

The beetle was clearly coming after me!

As we made our way along, we spied a sparkly hued beetle picking across the path. As I photographed the beetle, it crept gradually in my direction and so I took a step backwards, then another and still one more.  At that point Dave started to twitch and say “Jo!” with an air of urgency.

We have raised two boys, one of whom put us on a first-name basis with the emergency room staff at a hospital in a town where we had then lived only eight months, so Dave and I have both developed immunity to airs of urgency, not because we don’t care, but because they are so common and the ensuing trips to the hospital so much a regular and predictable part of our lives.

I was unknowingly within a spit of going over the edge, and as is always the case in these matters, things got complicated. An elderly undoubtedly Swiss couple – and I say “undoubtedly” because people of that age from any other nation would wisely stick to golf or some other sport that keeps one within a reasonable proximity of sea level – where was I? Oh, the couple – they were just readying to pass between us, and Dave wasn’t sure if any sudden movements on his part, such as grabbing his wife before she started a new life as a quadriplegic, would cause everyone to flinch and thereby more assuredly send me, and maybe a few others over the edge.

He repeated “Jo!” to which I said “What!?” in irritated tones.  I did not see anything to worry about, but then I never do, primarily because I never look where I am going. I leave that to Dave, so you would think I would listen to him. But I don’t.

It suddenly occurred to me that we were in the Swiss Alps and that if Dave thought I should stand still, it might be a fine idea, so I stopped and disaster was averted. The Swiss couple passed by, commenting that the beetle was of the Schoenborgh valliagnachtunggesselschaft variety, which I asked them to spell, but they only repeated the name as though its spelling was as self-evident as the spelling for the word wow. I suppose they did not want to embarrass me by treating me like a second-grader incapable of mastering a simple 17-syllable word.

We did not expect to see cyclists up on the Kleine Scheidegg trail, but there they were.

We made it to the end of the trail, once having to duck out-of-the-way of speeding cyclists, their presence and velocity suggesting their own ends were nigh. One bump of the wheel and that would be it, although they appeared to be Swiss, and so having attained adulthood, were likely not of the accident-prone variety.

By way of interest, while the Kleine Scheidegg trail is long-famous for its dramatic mountain topography, this has been added to in more recent times as it is the model for the Gran Turismo video race-driving game series.

If you go: The trail is mostly level with a well-maintained gravel-and-soil-packed surface that would likely hold well even in wetter seasons. Hiking boots are recommended, but sports shoes are okay. Going at a relaxed pace owing to my burned-out achilles tendons, we covered the 2.5-mile trail in 73 minutes.

Food & Water: Eateries are plentiful at the base of the gondola leading up to the Kleine-Scheidegg trail, however, stopping in at the local grocer “Coop” to purchase a submarine sandwich and a bottled beverage is recommended, particularly if you choose to hike the trail in the hotter season. Cafeteria-style food is available at the end of the Kleine-Scheidegg end of the trail, but not at the Mannlichenbaln gondola station.

Curious about the cost? 

  • 95 CHF Return train travel from Biel/Bienne to Wengen
  • 25 CHF Gondola between Wengen to Mannlichen
  • 16 CHF Two sandwiches purchased from the grocery store
  • 20 CHF Two more sandwiches purchased at another grocery store
  • 22 CHF Lunch at the Crystal Bar Cafe Wengen
  • Total: 178 Swiss Francs (CHF) – or $204 Cdn or $211 US

Tomorrow: More photos from the Kleine-Scheidegg trail and the cogwheel train trip down the mountain.

Dave does not trust me near steep drops. Yes, he is right to not trust me.

Kleine-Scheidegg trail, Swiss Alps, Jungfrau region

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?

Not so scared any more

What the heck? This isn't Kansas.

As prairie gal, I have a natural distrust of heights, depths, ditches, anything other than the level plain. It is therefore something of an accomplishment that Dave got me to board the gondola at Wengen without me leaving clawmarks on the door frame signifying that I had to be dragged in.

It’s a sign that Dave’s campaign to overcome my fear of heights by overwhelming me with a carousel of gondola rides up unthinkable mountain pitches is working.

I should point out that a wariness of inclines is a naturally protective inclination, and one that was amplified when in Victoria last year giant rocks fell from a cliff into a suburban home, rendering it unsuitable for habitation. Earlier, giant boulders were dynamited from the mountain side near our home, landing on a road where they could have easily crushed any passing Hummers.

You know you're in Switzerland when .....

This never happens in Manitoba or the parts of North Dakota with which I am familiar.  You might get flooded out or snowed under in these regions, but those are disasters you can see coming from a distance, and so make necessary arrangements. Falling boulders lack any sense of courtesy and give no warning of their impending arrival.

But that has nothing to do with this. It is but a mere side-note that perhaps explains my near-phobia of vertical stretches.

We boarded the spacious gondola at Wengen with about 15 others, and were able to roam from side-to-side taking in the beautiful views all around us, feeling quite relaxed until the gondola lurched and skipped suddenly upwards, then swayed in such a way that I readied to sprint in ever-accelerating circles around the gondola while screaming “We’re all going to die! We’re all going to die!, but then the gondola docked into the station at Mannheim and  my planned panic attack suddenly seemed quite silly.

North Dakota: No falling boulders or steep cliffs here. Phew. Courtesy U.S. Fish & Wildlife.

That does not mean that my war with heights was over. Far from it.

But that was on the weekend. I will write more about that tomorrow. In the meantime, our town is undergoing another heat wave, so I’m sitting in the dark, with curtains drawn, fans swiveling, trying to understand how it is that today in Atlanta, Georgia, it will be 32 C, while here the forecast is for 33 C and if our past heat waves are any indication, it will get hotter than that.

Our hotel is without air conditioning, so there’s nothing to do but tough it out. I also erroneously reported last month that local stores are also without air-conditioning, but happily I was wrong about that. It appears that some were merely exercising a policy to not cool their air until past some arbitrary timeline. I have found three stores with lovely cool artificial climates and I intend to patronize all three today.

Here are some photos from the train ride up and down the mountain.

Cogwheel trains at Scheinzernfreaualdjgblergessellschaft. That is not its real name. It's real name is Scheidegg, but all German sounds like an endless waterfall of syllables to me.

Yawn. Another mountain view from the train.

Dogs of all shapes and sizes are welcome on Switzerland's trains.

Trains need help to climb up and crawl down Jungfrauloch's steep mountains. Here's a close-up of the cogwheel track that serpentines along the ridges. On the ride down, the braking action is palpable. A derailment here would be a flung-from-cliff disaster.

Jungfrau's cogwheel trains are charming with large windows and surprisingly comfortable wood-back seats.

The Swiss are always ready for action, as you can tell by this train passenger car that has fold-up seats and plenty of floor space for bicycles, skis and other sporting gear.

Swiss cheesecake

On the cogwheel train ride up from Lauterbrunnen valley to Wengen in Switzerland's Jungfrau region.

This place is makes me feel good about myself, mostly because I’m running into people more abrupt than me.

Saturday, Dave and I returned to Switzerland’s Interlaken region to see what was on the other side of the mountain range we had admired weeks ago and to see if we could make it to the “top of Europe,” that is “Jungfraujoch,” which stretches 3,454 m into the sky.

It’s  a mystery why Jungfrauloch is called the top of Europe when it sits in the shadow of  Jungfrau, a 4,158-metre colossus. My only reckoning is that the cogwheel train that grinds its way up this mountain only goes as high as Jungfrauloch, so it might as well be the top.  I can imagine the railworkers reaching the tip of Jungfrauloch, only to see greater heights beyond them, and in their exasperation they put in the last railway spike as a way of saying, “What taller mountain? We don’t see any higher mountains around here. This is the top of Europe and if you want to say any different, you pound a rail track to it. Until then, this is it.”

I don’t know this for sure. I am only guessing. Another mystery is why the region is called Jungfrau, which translates into young woman, or someone told us “virgin.” Perhaps it was virgin territory at one time, but now it is a playground criss-crossed by tour buses, trails, trains, gondolas and the like. Nevertheless, it is massive enough to absorb these human tracks without losing it’s grandeur.

Hildegard, hard at work. Time waits for no man, and Hildegard waits for no customer, although technically, she is a waitress, so you would think she'd wait around while we figured out our order.

We got off the train in Wengen and stopped in at the Crystal Cafe Bar, a place that looked and felt eerily like Hideaway Tavern in Redditt, Ontario, which is run by a robust family of Icelandic extraction.

Hideaway no longer functions as tavern, although the family is still there and they still run hunting and fishing excursions, as well as rent cabins. We half expected to see them when we stepped inside Crystal Cafe’s honey-beadboard wood interior with plain, sensible furnishings. I am not making up Hideaway Tavern, which is now known as Hideaway Outfitters. Click on Hideaway to check it out.

The operator, an older woman who looked as though she might have just topped the mountain herself that morning and would do it again at the slightest suggestion came to our table. Let’s call her Hildegard.  I asked for a croissant and Hildegard said, “No croissants! All gone!”

Okay. So I asked about danishes and she said, “No!”

A little abrupt, but not in a rude way. I suddenly realized I was staring at a person who had taken my level of abruptness and doubled it up. She was to me, as I am to most Canadians, that is, just a little sharp. It was refreshing. After all, I am in some oblique way related to these quasi-Germanic tribes. Obviously, the plain-spoken gene is dominant.  Hildegard tried to escape then, but we hailed her back and managed to put in an order.

Cheese cake in theory; quiche in fact. Lousy cheesecake. Good quiche.

We watched her work other tables and she had the same manner, which roughly went along the lines of  “what do you want?” and if the customers didn’t know what they wanted right away, she wasn’t about to coach them along. She would just leave while they sorted out their problems on their own. She had enough work to do without babysitting customers.

Dave ordered a grilled ham sandwich, which was good, and I ordered cheesecake. Cheesecake is not exactly recommended for lunch in accordance with the Canada Food Guide, but it is loaded with protein and I am ever curious as to the form cheesecake takes in other countries.

As a side-note, about 28 years ago Dave and I sublet our townhouse to a Swiss family. The wife invited me over for cheesecake one afternoon, and what with her being Swiss, and this being a cheese-laced dessert, I expected great things. What a disappointment. It was the worse cheesecake I had ever had. I think she was from the German side of Switzerland and so did not brook any nonsense that would dilute the cake’s cheesy character, such as by adding whipping cream, eggs or sugar.

We were surprised by the dimensions of the ketchup packet. We think it says, "If you don't like your lunch, just spray it with this."

But no mind. After a 28-year interval, I was ready to try another Swiss cheesecake.

Hildegard returned with two small cheesecakes with scorched black tops. This made me feel at home and I silently blessed Hildegard for correctly reading me as a person familiar with burnt offerings.

As cheesecakes go, these were infinitely worse than my last Swiss cheesecake. In fact, they were not cheesecake at all, but quiche. Very cheesy quiche. And, as such, were excellent. It was exactly the right thing before trying a mountain hike.

Tomorrow: Heading up the mountain.

Swiss sticker shock

I whine a lot about the high cost of living in Switzerland.  I’m not alone. A few weeks ago, I watched a young couple with their toddler son do a slow march through a nearby grocery store. Their eyes had that sick look people get when they’re doing math in their heads, trying to figure out if they will make their next rent payment.

They were speaking English in that unguarded way we foreigners do when we’re pretty sure no one else around us has a clue what we’re saying. I almost said hello, but stopped when the husband said, “We can’t afford this,” after scrutinizing  a wedge of cheese the wife had just dropped into their cart. He returned it to the shelf. “What can we afford,” she asked. “I don’t know,” he said.

Their eyes scanned the shelves and my heart pulled. I was standing right next to them, but even if I wasn’t, I would still have heard it all as their volume was set to ordinary.  They had taken me for a German-speaking local, unaware that I was an all-too-comprehending audience to their shock on what must have been their first venture into a Swiss grocery store.

Wishing to spare them the knowledge their naked fiscal pain was out in the open, I moved on.

We’ve been here three months, and the price of food is as mystifying as it is annoying.  On the same shelf, a box of 10 eggs sells for $8.40 and another for $2.40. I’ve purchased both and can’t find any substantial difference in their expiry dates, source (they’re both Swiss) or taste. The $2.40 eggs are supposed to be small and the $8.40 large, but lay them side-by-side on the counter and I can’t tell the difference.

In one week, our food costs added up to 506 Swiss francs. 130 francs  (CHF) of that were for dining out (remember the 65-franc cheese fondue lunch?), bringing the grocery bill itself to 376 CHF. It is probably a little higher. As I watched the numbers mount, my accounting grew more sloppy as a self-protective measure. I didn’t really want to know how much I was spending on food. Are we really paying about 1,600-2,000 CHF per month for food that I can’t even cook properly (owing to my challenges with high-tech state-of-the-art kitchen appliances)?

As much as that thought hurts, it gets worse when I put it through a currency converter. In Canadian dollars, that’s $2,359.67. In U.S., $2,392.80.  Swoon.

On the up-side, Switzerland prides itself for its comparatively high wages.  In Switzerland in 2004, the average monthly wage in U.S. dollars across all sectors  was $6,385 (32 per cent would be siphoned away through taxes). In 2005, in Canada, it was $3,156, minus 28 per cent tax, and in the United States it was $2,821, minus 18 per cent tax. *

I’m not sure I trust that $6,385 average, though. Switzerland has a robust technology and financial industry, which might pull the average up.  Nevertheless, even hotel/restaurant staff here make a good wage at $4,139 a month, compared to the U.S. ($1,749) and Canada ($2,151).

I just hope that young couple’s fiscal pain was short-lived.

* Source: International average salary income database, which gathers data from federal government agencies. Check it out at

Chatting in English

This shop clerk might flee if we speak English to her.

Conversations go in funny ways when in a foreign land. That is normal when I attempt French, but even more so when I give up and stick to English. It marks me as an outsider, thus casting my conversational partners into the role of cultural interpreters. No one seems to mind this.

At a designer discount shop yesterday,  a clerk greeted me in German (I guess I don’t look French), to which I smiled warmly and said, “I don’t have the first clue what you just said.”  That may come across phonetically in strange ways, but so far, everyone responds in a friendly manner, so I’m pretty sure it does not sound to German ears as  “Hand over all your money.”

More than once it has sent clerks fleeing out of the store, after hastily explaining in French or German they’re going to retrieve someone fluent in English.

It is awkward when I dart into a shop for a quick peek with no real intentions of committing to a retail relationship lasting longer than a minute, and suddenly find myself  managing the store by default, because I am the only one left. It gets worse when new customers come in and ask me questions, as though I would know the answer in any language. They might be saying, “What is your return policy?” but all I hear is “Achtung scweizzergesselschaftundlannder!”  They’re probably puzzled to find a uni-lingual shop clerk in the middle of a famously multilingual country. That is not my problem.

And then there’s the weird feeling of being taken seriously as a shopper, when I am merely a browser. I can’t seem to find a way to prevent this misapprehension on the part of the shop clerks, so I just wait for the staff to return, who sometimes come back with the store owner who was having lunch in the cafe next door.

I’m actually getting the impression that this is what store owners do – eat. They are always nearby and always seeming to have more fun than their staff.

Maybe this is the staff’s way of getting back at their bosses – by forcing them to work.

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.


Courtesy Wikipedia

Saturday, standing in the audience taking in African drummers backing up a Mexican guitarist (how’s that for multiculturalism), I noticed a wasp perched on the protruding shoulder-blade of a young woman, a dancer attached to the African musicians.

Dave and I glanced at each other wondering what to do.  We looked at other bystanders, hoping someone owning a broader linguistic catalogue than ourselves, would intervene, but no one did. The wasp’s legs splayed minutely as though it had found its sting point, so I waved my hand a few inches above it, not touching the blithely unaware dancer.

My hand’s small shadow chased the wasp away, but the girl – she did seem a girl hovering somewhere in that 16-to-18-year-old niche – sensed something had occurred. She spun her head around, searching the audience, and when her nervous eyes landed on me, I gave a small smile and said “wasp.”

For all I know, “wasp”  translates phonetically into “I am a psycho freak about to embark on a 40-year career of stalking you.”  As the Mexican singer strained to throw his voice over the crowd, the dancer’s ponytail flickered as she guardedly monitored me for further encroachments on her personal space.

It was a new sensation to be looked upon with some suspicion, and even though the musical show was engaging, I whispered to Dave and we left. Language is what makes the difference: She was reasonable to be suspicious, because pickpockets do work crowds that are distracted by street performers. And I was reasonable to leave, given that I could not be sure that this little thing might not escalate into something big, like an awkward conversation with a police officer, if indeed we could converse, what with the aforementioned language issues.

Swiss street music

This Saturday, we did something we’ve not done ever before. We stayed put.

Instead of taking a train to another quaint Swiss village, we stayed in Biel/Bienne and discovered it has quaintness in significant measure, much of it expressed in local street bands.

In the square, one band took a stage and fumbled so badly that we couldn’t tell to which genre they subscribed. Passing by, they appeared to be a rock band, but not one so familiar with its instruments.

Further down the road, thick-armed coffee-black African drummers played behind a large troupe of pale dancers in loose black sweats and tight sun-hued tank tops. They coiled their torsos around the beat and  pounded barefoot on the cobblestone. About an hour later, the same large group relocated to the town square, but this time the dancers stood still while the Africans accompanied  a Mexican vocalist on guitar.

An earnest smiling jazz quartet searched for a better audience, too, moving from outside a bar popular with the town’s youth, to a straight street lined with both regular shops and street vendors. They drew a large crowd. The trumpet player repeatedly paused to re-position his horn’s microphone. It was hard to say if these little interruptions were timed to the music or if they were random and disruptive, but while I found it irritating, his band members smiled on, so what do I know? Perhaps, later on the way home, they beat him  in some dark corner. Click here to see a 46-second clip of the jazz players.

All this reminded us of other Swiss street musical performances, such as this marching band in Solothurn click here.  I could be wrong about this, but the Swiss seem to have a heightened appreciation for music, not only at the esoteric professional level, but at the fun-let’s-jam outside-even-if-we-totally-suck level, as well. I can’t count the times I’ve passed smiling middle-age accordion players, who probably don’t know that in Canada they might be a source of amusement. Here, I’ve learned a new appreciation for this amazing instrument and those able to master it.

This ragtag assemblage of different musical styles, with a widely varying skill set, makes the street entertainment all the more fun, like American Idol early in the season when the train-wreck performers make the show as riveting as the gifted ones.


Swiss misdirect night-time marathoners, cut race short by 7.5 km

Somewhere along the way, the Swiss noted the growing popularity of marathons. Factoring in that as many as  a half-million Americans complete them in a year, and about 500 marathons are held worldwide annually, our local Swiss decided 42 kilometres must be too easy.

And so the Swiss of Biel/Bienne introduced a 100-kilometre race, and to protect against it growing too popular, and therefore, easy, they run it at night. It is going on right now, as I write this, although it is just after noon here, but that is what happens when you run a ridiculously long race – it becomes an around-the-clock event.

Runners were here.

If history is an indicator, somewhere in the neighbourhood of 4,500 runners took off from downtown Biel, running right past our hotel, so at a few minutes before 10, Dave announced it was time to go downstairs to watch the runners. At precisely that moment, my Skype box popped up, showing a friend who has been wrangling with a head injury was online.

“You go ahead,” I said. “I’ll just see how the head injury is coming along.” I said this because I believed it would take the runners 10 minutes to get to our corner and that it would be the same as past races I’ve attended or covered as a reporter – in other words there would be at least 10 solid minutes of human flesh pounding the pavement.

It turns out I was wrong about that. Before I had gotten a full report on my friend’s condition, Dave returned to the hotel room. The runners had surged past in one giant overflowing bubble, instead of the long train we had expected.

This is a good time to point out that Dave has scored a victory in the “Hurry up, Jo, we’re going to miss it” department of our marital history. Good for him. He wins. I have learned my lesson.

The runners were supposed to loop around our area twice, so I abandoned my friend and raced down to catch the second surge.

It never appeared. Police officers controlled the intersections with gates, the roads were closed to traffic and down the road we could see throngs of spectators. But no runners. We wandered a block down, and saw a few stragglers on the course. We waited. The crowd’s energy flattened, although music still blared over the loudspeakers.

Then two front-runners came into view, whipped around the corner decisively and were gone. Ah, the pack must be coming soon, we said.

We were wrong about that.

After more than 10 minutes a single runner came down the street that was flanked with overarching balloons and marathon paraphernalia, which suddenly looked like a lot of fuss over not much.

I readied the camera for him to turn the corner, but then instead of turning he went straight. No one stopped him. Not speaking the local languages and unable to discern whether the idiots were us or the race-marshalls, we shrugged and waited.

Minutes passed, the spectators started to break up, and then another lone runner appeared. This one turned the corner where the front-runners had and we surmised that the earlier lone runner had made a dreadful mistake, or perhaps he was on one of the shorter races that runs concurrent to the 100-km race.

Then this last runner turned back, ran up to one of the reflective-jacket-wearing race marshalls who directed him back up the road.

A runner going in the opposite direction of other runners at the Biel/Bienne 100k on June 17. Either he is the only guy to memorize the course and so he's ignoring the race marshalls, or he is but the first of many on a misdirected course.

As we neared our hotel we saw another lone runner, but this one running in the opposite direction of the other runners we had seen. I snapped a photo and we continued to puzzle over the mysterious disappearance of thousands. We walked along dark barricaded roads, passing officers, who we suspected might be thinking the same thing as us, that is,  “Where is everybody?”

It turns out we were right about that.

This morning I checked the race website to see an announcement that gosh-darn-it the organizers are blushing, but it seems that the entire field of runners was misdirected, thus cutting seven kilometres off the race.

Here is the Google Translate version: As a result of a misdirection in the city of Biel (crossing road freight / Murtenstrasse) the runners of the marathon, half marathon and walking without additional round was conducted directly on the route.This lack these routes around 7.5 km distance.

I don’t know yet what this means for the 100-kilometre runners, but some marathoners are going to be mighty pleased with their race times.

Update: Race officials are giving affected runners’ vouchers to waive fees in their events (marathon, half-marathon and walking) in  the 2012 100 KM race, along with a “letter of excuse.” 

What I can’t live without

It is often said that the cultural isolation of international travel teaches a person a lot about herself. It’s taught me something, namely, that I cannot live without a good sharp knife.

In theory, we live in a fully stocked hotel suite.

In fact, something is always lacking, usually a quality butcher’s knife.

Our current suite came equipped with brand new IKEA knives. I love IKEA, I do, but these knives fail to meet  minimum standards. Their blades are not sturdy enough.

I blame my father for this.

When I made my first house purchase, he surveyed my kitchen and said that all a good cook needs is an butcher’s knife and frying pan.  My countertop was choked with small kitchen appliances and there was some evidence I had fallen prey to a convincing Tupperware saleswoman, as revealed by the waterfall of plastics that spilled out when some unaware guest opened a random cabinet door.

Over 20 spatulas reside at my cottage kitchen, which is only a two-month home, but I can defend that on the grounds that it is shared by many guest chefs over the summer. Well, maybe there are 30 spatulas.

In my city home, until I did a little purging before moving to Switzerland, over 60 people could have showed up unannounced for lunch and not one would have eaten off a plastic or paper plate.  That’s how many ceramic dishes I had.

So yes, I overstock. Just a little.

Dad’s subtle point was that I did not need so much, but what do I need? I revisit that question every time we move, which is a lot of times. In some way, he programmed my brain with that comment, because as I look back over the years, in every new allegedly fully stocked kitchen, the first thing I do is add a good-quality butcher’s knife.  I only just realized it today.

But his message to live sparely did not stick: The knife-purchase is only the first sign that the floodgates are about to open. After the knife comes frying pans, bowls, organizers, snap-top plastic bins. I’m trying to not buy such things, and yet, I do.

I admire my friends who live with whatever they can fit into a knapsack as they trudge around Asia for months – or years – at a time. But I do not want to be one of them, so help me Martha Stewart.


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.

Welfare + free bikes = $63 cheese sandwich

Free bikes!

There is no free lunch in Switzerland, but there are free bikes.

You can rent bikes for 25 to 50 Swiss Francs a day from many train stations across Switzerland, or you can get a bike for free through Suisseroule, a loaner program offered at multiple locations across the country.

Why anyone would pay to rent a bike when there are perfectly good free ones? Because the free-bike kiosks are harder to find, that’s why. This is how Switzerland protects its bike rental market.

We would never have known about loaner bikes, except that a Swiss co-worker of Dave’s gave him a few brochures and some advice on trails, adding to the evidence that every Swiss citizen studies tourism as a requirement for graduation.

Free bikes sounded too good to be true. Then we discovered that the free-bike stations are staffed with welfare recipients.

Sabrina, our friendly free-bike-loaner agent. She looks normal.

The Swiss will not tolerate slackers in any form, as we learned when their tax officers discovered an unemployed person within their borders, that is, me, upon whom they have set their sights, first by trying to make me fill out a French/German multiple choice form that did not include “unemployed” or “retired” among the options. We are not sure that the Swiss even have a word for someone like me.

So if I, a foreigner, cannot escape notice, there is no way a Swiss-national is getting off easy, and so welfare recipients have jobs, too. We are not sure if this means they are still welfare recipients, or government employees. I will let you argue over the difference.

In addition to the welfare recipient staffers (which, it turns out, is true), we heard a rumour that ex-cons and parolees also staff these places  To borrow a bike, would we have to give up our residency cards, which could then hit the seamy underworld market for  few hours and be returned to us with exciting new criminal records attached? Note: Could not find any reliable information on the ex-con/parolee rumour. Probably not true. 

We were nervous about this, but what could we do? We are cheap and the bikes were free.

In Neuchatel, we found a friendly young woman seated in the trailer next to the bike racks. She did not look likely to sell our residency cards on the black market. She lacked the bureacracy-tortured visage of Canada’s welfare populace and if she had a criminal bent, we could not discern it.

You see some crazy stuff riding along Swiss bike trails.

We were relieved to discover that we would only have to show our  identification and leave a 25-franc deposit per bike. The bikes are free for the first four hours after which the brochure said we would be charged a franc an hour, but the woman said the hourly  charge would be five francs.

We did not know what to make of this disparity, but neither did we care because if we were on the bikes for longer than four hours, we would probably be near death anyway.

The bikes are replaced every year, well-maintained, light and comfortable. Again, we were in awe of how well the Swiss do these things.

As we rode along the beautiful shores of Lac Neuchatel, we exclaimed over what seemed to be our cheapest travel-day in Switzerland. That was until we stopped for lunch at what may have been a yacht club for Swiss bankers.

Among the 32-45-franc meals, we saw what appeared to be a 22-franc cheese fondue lunch for two. Perfect. We ordered the fondue, which featured the famous local Corgemont cheese, which when served cold has a strong aroma and aftertaste, but when melted down in a fondue is absolutely sublime.

A deconstructed $63 grilled cheese sandwich, also known as cheese fondue.

We ate until we fell into a stupor, which was a good thing, because it turned out we were wrong about the price. It was 22-francs a person on a two-person minimum, and so with our bottled water (eight francs) and coffees, our “cheap”  lunch came to 63 francs.

We laughed about this. Remember, we were in a cheese stupor. Then, realized we had eaten bread cubes and melted cheese – that’s basically like a deconstructed grilled cheese sandwich.

It turns out the Swiss know what they’re doing when they offer free bikes. They know pedaling will make us hungry and that here, there is no free lunch.

To learn more about Switzerland’s free bike program, click here. 

This link should take you to a Google-translated Suisseroule website, but if it does not, search for  Suisseroule, then click on “translate page.”

Dave discovers Neuchatel’s tourism office is closed!

The perils of public transport

Train-traveler packs one, two, three bottles/cans in full view for the trip.

Drunks were everywhere this weekend.

At the Bern train station,  a dread-locked man bark loudly in the face of passengers stepping onto a train.

The passengers stoically looked the other way while he pressed in, determined to make his presence known, if not felt.

Drunks upset the delicate social balance where we all agree that when we venture out, we not bark at others, and if we cannot stop ourselves from barking, then at least we should stay far enough away so that our victims are not soaked in our saliva spray.

Is it too much to ask? Apparently so.

This guy must be going on an overnight trip.

Staggerers,  shouters, boorish keg-carriers –  I judge you all.

A red-faced young man carried on what could have been the longest yodel ever as he stood on the train platform. A few minutes later, he smacked himself down in the quadrant of seats behind ours on the train, still yelling. He could have been singing, or bragging, or screaming ‘Help me, I am about to fall into an alcohol-induced coma.’

Given the unpredictability of drunks, especially that their moods  switch swiftly from party to sour to let-me-punch-someone-in-the-face, we quietly moved to another car.

At Fribourg's covered bridge. Isn't it charming? We could barely notice it, thanks to booze-soaked wanderer.

Last week, on the train to France, a tattooed scramble-haired man in an agitated state sat across the aisle from us,  hissing into his cell phone. Was it a drug deal gone bad? Was he going to take it out on us?  It did focus our minds, but not on the French countryside.

This weekend, as we got off  the train at Fribourg, we were happy to leave the drunken yowler behind, but after we made the walk down Fribourg’s plunging cobblestone streets and through its rustic wood-beamed covered bridge, we heard a familiar sound.

The skinny yowler staggered into view. How was it that he was still standing?

Eroded limestone hangs over the river at Fribourg. See the fisherman in the lower right corner. He is having a good day, because he has not met our drunk.

We had just taken out our map to plot our course, but the yowler, not the map, was going to decide where we would go.

He turned away up a narrow side road, his arms flailing, his head cocked oddly, while he continued in that strange thin bellow.

We took the road that he did not, and it was an enchanting road, but it lost some of its allure as we kept an ear open for the yowler.

For the first time since arriving here, I missed my car.

Fribourg's 40-metre long covered bridge, called the "Bern Bridge," dates back to the 17th century and is made of stone, wood and dirt. Yes, dirt, which is also the reference that I make to drunks.

Does Dave work?

Today’s topic: Does Dave work?

For decades, I have asked him the same question every weekday: “What did you do today, Honey?”

Undone again by the Swiss rail system.

The answer always sounded something like, “We couldn’t get 1100 01010011 111011010000 to 0001 01011 and 000111 was really nasty 000011 010101.”

Dang it. He was speaking in binary. Things didn’t get better as new computer languages evolved: Cobol, SQL, CSP, DRDA – they were all French to me.

The truth is, I have never fully understood Dave’s work.  He traveled a lot, dressed in dark  three-piece suits and carried a black leather briefcase. He could have been a hit man for all anyone knew.

Fearful, I sent one of our boys off to university, ostensibly to study computer science, but really, he was there to acquire enough knowledge to investigate his father’s occupation.

Then he graduated. He started wearing designer jeans, taupe popped-collar jerseys, and carrying an expensive backpack – the latest uniform of computer tekkies.

“What did you do today at work, Mark?”

“%: post.php?post=1543&action=edit&message=10,” he replied. “Boy, I am tired! I’m going to unwind with some rlz=1C1SKPL_enCA410CA410&aq=f&sourceid=chrome&ie=UTF-8&q=nintendo.”

Dang. They got to him.

Turning aside from the huge investment of time (raising child) and money (partial payment of university tuition, room and board) I had invested in my now-double-crossing spy, I recognized I would have to investigate Dave’s work myself.

Dave “workplace” is a 25-minute train-ride away, so after obtaining detailed directions from Dave (my first mistake),  I set out determined to uncover the truth. I arrived at the station just as a sleek train pulled in. It was on the first platform, as per Dave’s instructions, and it was marked for Chaud de Fond, just as Dave said it would be, although that is not the name of the town where he “works.”

I was suspicious, but he assured me the town is too small to merit a sign on the train, but it is on the same route as the Chaud de Fondue train.

I had nestled in for a pleasant ride when a young man took the seat across from me.  I asked him if this train stopped in Corgemont. It turned out he is one of the few under-25-year-old Swiss who cannot speak English, either that, or he is a Frenchman. His response did not include the words  “c’est bien,”  “oui” or “d’accor.”

After getting lost on the train to Murten/Morat (click here for a refresher), I promised myself I would never again leap up from my seat to race up and down a train frantically pushing random buttons in an attempt to stop the train. It turns out I was wrong about that.

What a cute train station. What a pity it's not the one I wanted.

A young man of Arabic descent pursued me … this is the great thing about Arab boys, they really do love their mothers and by extension are disposed to helping hysterical women in the over-40-years-old age group, which would be me.  As I clawed at the auto-locked door, he assured me that the train would stop in the town before my destination, where I could get off and wait for the next train.

It’s hard to regain one’s composure after such a public display. The rest of the passengers gave me sympathetic smiles as I returned to my seat where my not-so-helpful French companion eyed me warily, weighing the odds that I might burst into another psychotic episode.

The Arab boy helped me off the train at Sonceboz-Sombeval and explained the next train would arrive in 40 minutes.

“Just stay right here, here on this platform and it will come. Do not go to any other platform or get on any train other than the one arriving here at 4:10 p.m. ,” he said, looking at me with the earnest anxiety of a man about to leave his grandmother to fend for herself at a giant international airport and not in a three-track Swiss village train station. “Remember, the train will be going that way,” he added, pointing in the direction of the train we had just left, as if I did not already know that.

Lost among livestock in a Swiss village.

He left, looking behind him several times as though I were a dog that did not often obey the command “stay.”

Which I didn’t. I popped out the cell phone and called Dave (the rogue) and informed him of my misadventure.

“It’s only a 30-minute walk away. Take the road that runs along the train track,” Dave said. Forgetting his track record – no pun intended – I decided to walk.  I meandered past a cowyard, some horses and goats and found a pothole-pocked yellow gravel road next to the tracks.

Funny thing is, Swiss roads don’t have potholes. The Swiss are picky about these things.

The road is long, with no real winding turns, but it turned out not to be a road at all. Dang.

I went along, hoping to not run into any territorial farm dogs, until I saw a large barn-like building in the distance. Weird that a barn would look as though it is at the end of a road, but the Swiss like to arrange things compactly, so maybe it was just right next to the road.

As I drew near, I saw that I was wrong about that. I was not on a road at all, but a long driveway. There was no road beyond it. There was no road on the other side of the tracks either.

I checked my watch. The next train was due in about 13 minutes and I had been sauntering for about 25 (including the time I stood on the train platform debating whether to walk).

I booked it, making it on to the next train just as I had got off the last one, hair frizzed, sweat pouring down my face, laboured breathing, leading my new fellow passengers to give me a wide berth.

I arrived in Corgemont to see snug barnyards, dairy cows, chickens and geese – hardly the setting for the international giant firm that allegedly employed Dave.

Dave appeared on the platform, apologetic for the train mix-up, and admitted he had left out some information from his directions on the grounds that it might confuse me. I will get him for that, but first, I wanted to see his place-of-work.

Dave and his boss model what an ordinary work day looks like for Dave, but let me point out - they are posing, raising the question: Does he really work? Or are the people I met all hired actors? A hit man could afford that.

Dave led me past more livestock and gently aged Swiss village buildings  to a modern facility where he introduced me to people who looked like they knew him, and then to a friendly Swiss-German who claimed to be Dave’s boss, along with a Croatian coworker. There were computers, timing devices, a massive shipping department. It seemed Dave’s story checked out.

“You really do work,” I said.

“Does he?” muttered the Croatian. “Have you seen him actually do anything since you got here?”

It’s a good question, but I am not chancing another solo train ride to find out.

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.

Weird weekend

What to do, where to go? We can't make up our minds.

This is an unusual day. It’s almost 10 a.m. as I write this. We have to vacate the suite as the hotel is sending painters to do some work on the balcony and we still haven’t decided where we’re going today.

The choices are

  1. Take a 15-minute train ride to Neuchatel, hop on some free bikes and pedal along the lake shore to neighbouring villages, which we have been assured are absolutely charming.
  2. Take a 30-minute train ride to Bern, Switzerland’s capital city full of old sandstone buildings.
The first is attractive because it will give my old injuries a reprieve. We’re walking miles and miles these days and it has led to a double-achilles flare-up.
The second is attractive because you just can’t spend enough time in Bern. It’s a beautiful city. It also has an IKEA, but I have not told Dave yet that finding it is on my “hidden agenda,” should we go there.
Tomorrow, we hope to take the three-hour train trip to the Italian border to see the Matterhorn, if the weather clears. Otherwise, all we will see is fog. The forecast says sun, but today it is rainy and cold. Who can tell what the weather will be like tomorrow – or where we will be?
Here or there; this or that; east or west, we just don’t know where to go, but we better make up our minds. We have about 5 minutes to vacate our place.

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

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 Bits

12th Century portion of Besançon's Cathedral Saint Jean. At least, that's what the guide inside the church said.

As is our custom on most of our travels, we made our first stop at Besançon’s tourist office so Dave could pose by it with a frustrated expression at finding yet another French tourist office closed on a weekend. They say retired couples should find a hobby they can do together and this is ours.

Dave expresses his opinion of France's tourism bureau, which laughingly seems to be closed just when visitors are most likely to show up. To be fair - this office was open the following day.

Then we made our way across the bridge to Besançon’s Ancienne Ville, an old-town that dates back to the 16th century, and even older is Besançon’s outstanding St. Jean Cathedral, parts of which herald from the 12th century.

Despite the fact that Besançon’s national identity eddied about in the streams of conquest (last post), it appears that its conquerors did more to build it up than to tear it down, and so for a small city, it has the pricy ambience of a large one. Some writers have described it as a miniature version of Paris, and rightly so.

Like Paris, it has broad pedestrian avenues flanked by stone buildings ornamented with elegant woven wrought iron balconies. Unlike Paris, its old town is impoverished when it comes to trees.

The stone streets are just that – horizontally laid stone blocks trimmed with the vertical stone of the buildings. On our first walkabout in the evening, it felt barren, but when we returned Saturday morning, the French compensated for the shortage of shrubs by filling the street with colourful bedecked citizens, caravans of cafe umbrellas and quirky street

Besançon's Revolutionary Square, which is a lot bigger than it looks in this photo.

vendors. This is not to say the city didn’t have greenery – it had plenty, just not in the old quarter.

Unlike Paris, Besançon does not strip visitors down to the last penny.  Visitors can sip on an espresso at a sidewalk cafe in the town’s broad Revolutionary Square for only 1.50 Euros. We almost fell off our chairs when we saw the bill.

And for those on a budget, a cheap lunch can be had at Besançon’s “Subway” sandwich restaurant – and before you turn up your  nose at eating at an international food chain, the French do things with bread even in a franchise operation  that seem impossible in North America. We handed over 12 Euros for a fresh lunch for two, thus allowing us to splurge on our supper bill.  Whether the supper was worth it, I will tell tomorrow.

A church in Besançon. Wouldn't it be nice if I knew its name?

Knocking on Victor Hugo's door - or at least, the door to the apartment building where he was born on February 6, 1802. See how I hang my head? It is from years of knocking on doors as a reporter, steeling myself for abuse. Let's face it, I deserved it.

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?

Shuffling closer to the French

Entrance to Chateau de Neuchatel; which dates back to the 12th century and is the current seat of the cantonal government and law courts so as you stroll through its ancient halls, you pass by modern work spaces. Cool

On Thursday we prepared ourselves for a trip by France by edging closer to the Swiss/French border by spending a day in Neuchatel. You can’t just show up in France out of nowhere. The shock can kill you. A gradual entry is required.

Neuchatel is only a 15-minute train ride from where we live, (and 12 miles from France) so we have swept past it many times while en route to other places, skipping by it without a thought, all because it is so near.

If familiarity breeds contempt,  proximity breeds boredom and so it follows that in some strange way, Neuchatel’s nearness became equated with a certain ennui, a “we’ll see it later” attitude, only whenever we say that about a place, we almost never do see it.

The laws of devaluation and proximity are ancient. Jesus said “A prophet is without honour only in his own hometown,” and it is true. When someone comes from afar, we attach a certain aura of importance to them. When they are from nearby, we shrug.

Think of how Canadians are always exclaiming over Sweden’s government, social programs, and so forth, while Sweden’s bordering neighbour, Norway, recites Swedish idiocies with such regularity that it is a form of national liturgy.  It should be pointed out that Norwegians know a lot more about Sweden than do Canadians.

This is only an observation and is not meant to denigrate Sweden, although I hear their cuisine is lousy.

All this is a long way of saying that we grossly under-estimated Neuchatel. It has a rambling Ville Ancienne full of Gallic architecture in golden sandstone – a luminous contrast against Switzerland’s usual dark quarried stone. It is a little Paris, a kiss of Spain’s glowing Salamanca, a sandy tropical beach – we loved it. And we nearly missed it, only because it is so easy to get to.

If you go to Switzerland, this is a good spot to hit. It has everything: A sweeping lakefront with a generous promenade, a 12th-17th century castle, ancient church, cobblestone avenues, shops, cafes, funky storefronts and free bikes.

Yes, free bikes. While waiting at the train station we ran into one of Dave’s co-workers. While informing us of more details about his personal life than we were prepared to hear, he also mentioned that Neuchatel maintains a fleet of bicycles that anyone can sign out.

Trust the Swiss to make a library out of bicycles. They are indeed a wonderful people.

The practice is to sign out a bike, then pedal along the lakeshore promenade, past vineyards and presumably dairy cows, to neighbouring villages where the Swiss hope you will stop at a Swiss inn, spend piles of money on an overnight stay and if that works out, pedal to the next Swiss village. By these means, the Swiss tourism industry stands and falls, and if we have learned anything about the Swiss, it is that they are better at hosting international guests than they are at exporting watches, and that is saying something.

We have not checked out the free bikes yet, although we saw a few while walking the promenade. We plan to test the Neuchatelese Swiss on their bike plan and let you know how it goes at a later date, but we can’t say when, although we’re sure we will do it because it is so convenient and, as I pointed out earlier, very near by.

Click on photos to enlarge.

Ebenalp: Weddings, large dogs + hotdog soup

Our gondola did not plummet to the earth and so with my worst fears unrealized, we got off the gondola and were rewarded with a fabulous view over Appenzell’s picturesque valley.

Uneven path surface strewn with cantaloupe-sized rocks to weed out the weak.

In case the random rocks don't trip you up, the Swiss imbed steel bars. "That will fix them," say the Swiss.

We walked over some very uneven mixed asphalt/stone/steel bar path, so we could barely take our eyes off our feet for fear of falling. To the Swiss, this was probably a bonus feature. To the rest of us, it was disconcerting.

After a short steep walk we arrived at the massive mouth of a cave that spiraled down into the mountain. Clinging onto the railing (the trail is wet,  steep and poorly lit), we arrived at the hermit’s cabin made of sturdy timbers with rough cobblestone floors. It was a meditative place, but not for long. I opened a door to get outside and the door made such a grinding screech that a bunch of Swiss leapt up in terror that the giant bear skeleton (on display inside the cabin) had come to life. At least, that is what they told me.

Bears (real skeleton) once inhabited the cave at Ebenalp. Later hermit monks lived here (1658 to 1853). The 'wildkirsche' (church cave) nearby is 400 years old.

It’s possible the door was not “meant” to be opened and it was the first time it was set ajar in maybe … I don’t know, a couple of years, but there were no posted signs reading “verboten,” so I just shrugged and left the Swiss to perform CPR on one another.

We resumed the trail walk, which was now just a narrow goat path on the mountainside, and came upon a second cave, the church (Wilderkirsche) where a wedding was underway. We captured a wonderful moment when a small a capella choir gathered and started singing – the stone acoustics sending their crisp voices out over the valley below. It was lovely, although I’m not sure the wedding couple was so thrilled to see us.

We then walked a narrower path to Ebenalp guest house, which is built underneath a walloping rock overhang, and does not look like the kind of place anyone would want to be sleeping in should an earthquake start up.

Half of the patio tables were soaking wet from ground water dripping from the overhang, but we managed to squeeze in with a friendly rugged crowd of hikers, one of whom may have mistaken me for someone else when I said, “Why helloooo Sweetheart,” but then relaxed when he saw I was talking to his white German Shepherd who was sprawled out between the crowded tables.

It's not just the camera angle - that huge hunk of rock overhangs the 170-year-old Berggasthaus Aescher, an inn that once housed pilgrims seeking spiritual guidance from the mountain's Catholic monks and now serves as a guest house for hikers.

I felt it best to say something endearing to the dog as I would have to step over him to get to one of the few dry empty seats left on the patio. I wanted him to understand that we could be friends. He did, and let us pass without sinking his massive jaws into our shins. What a relief.

This post is already too long, but I will add that Dave ordered soup, which came with two hotdogs in it. He gave the soup the thumb’s down – it was thin, watery and not very flavorful.

But this was all last weekend – today we are in France’s Franche-Comte region checking out some elaborate stone architecture the Spanish built here when they were in charge of the place – yes, the Spanish messed up France. The more we learn about Europe’s small places, the more we realize how its national borders have wiggled around under the pressure of conquest…suggesting that medieval Europe was not too far removed from modern-day Palestine/Israel’s border argument. More about France later. In the meantime, here are some remaining shots of Appenzellerland.

This was not Switzerland's finest cuisine hour.

Fearless Swiss build into the side of the mountain.

Dave inspects cave timber supports. Not really confident these toothpicks can keep mountain from collapsing on us. Shrugs shoulders. Continues inside.

Yes, it's a little steep. Why do you ask?

Hermits cabin at Ebenalp, built right into cave. This would never pass code.

You wouldn't think a path so skinny it needs a boardwalk to bridge the gaps would be so crowded.

Awww, sheep. They were grazing just below the restaurant.

Wildkirschi (or Wildkirsche?) altar

Wilderkirsche - once again, the Catholics get there first and get the better church location.

Wedding guests dressed in proper wedding traditional Swiss attire.

The newlyweds head down from the cave church to the inn for their wedding feast, which will be held under a megatonnage of overhanging rock. If their relationship can handle this stress, they will be okay.

What's this? Is the bride changing her mind and bolting back up the mountain? Or just avoiding pesky wedding crashers (ie. us, who were on our way back from lunch at the inn).

Ebenalp: Mountains and the importance of footwear

The view looking down from the gondola ride up Ebenalp.

Strengthened by Appenzell’s focaccia and maybe a little too much gelato, we hopped onto the train for a five-mile trip to the end of the line, literally, at Ebenalp, a mountain so high that it has two valleys, one at the bottom and the second about halfway up the 5,380-foot gondola ride, so that just when you think the ride is over and you can breathe again you crest a ridge and see there is more to come.

At first sight,we assumed this photocopied photo taped to a fence at the edge of a cliff was of a couple who had unwisely ruined their hike by pitching over the mountainside and the photo was a reminder to the rest of us to be careful. We were wrong about that. They were getting married in a mountainside cave - a wedding that we inadvertently crashed. Don't they look happy? That's because at the time this photo was taken, they had no idea we were on our way to their wedding. Bwahahaha!

The Swiss are a sturdy lot, and they know that a mere gondola ride where life hangs suspended in mid-air by a series of thick steel cables cannot possibly inspire a suitable level of terror, and so they packed the gondola so tight that I dreaded my body’s cells might try to jump ship in a last-ditch bid to get off the overcrowded gondola, which might only lead to DNA-blending with the other passengers through the inevitable osmosis that would occur from cell-leaping.

If that last paragraph makes no sense, blame the gondola ride.

The whistle sounded and as if on cue, another 12 people jumped onto the gondola, squeezing us in such that I could no longer fully inflate my lungs. I wish I was joking about this.

I felt some degree of comfort in knowing that should we plunge to the ground, my fall would be broken by about 4,000 lbs. of mountain-hiking Swiss – who were very bony, but who also carried massive backpacks. I don’t know what was in the packs, but I hoped they were soft. There was no guarantee of it. The Swiss are so vigorous and such enthusiastic mountaineers that they probably carry about 200 lbs. of stones in their packs to ratchet up the agony of the hike, which would heighten their level of enjoyment.

I worried about the possibility of stones, but there was nothing I could do about this, and so it was into these packs I put my trust.

But I get ahead of myself. Our intention was to take the ride to the top of Ebenalp, then hike down the mountain, which was billed as a 60-90 minute journey. Knowing my propensity for stumbling, I calculated a 20-minute tumble downhill, so I dressed appropriately and left the hiking boots at home in favor of some very nice sandals.

These people could be washing their hiking boots or they could just be bending down to kiss the creek on the valley floor, which they thought they might not ever see again after the ride up the gondola.

My first hint that this was a mistake came when we got off the train where we immediately saw people huddled over the creek (straight and orderly, as are all Swiss creeks), washing their hiking boots. So, I should have brought my boots, which happened to be in Canada.

And then I noticed the temperature.  Ebenalp is in an alpine region, of course, and it was very cold.

The cold would ordinarily have been disastrous, however, I am in the grips of an unrelenting menopausal fever, so while others walked around bundled in layers of Goretex, I embraced the mountain chill in light cotton attire.

Nevertheless, I was worried about the trail mud ruining my nice sandals. I pointed out my footwear to the non-English-speaking desk agent and he cast a gaze of respect in my direction. As a Swiss, he had to admire my apparent attempt to make my mountain trek more rigorous than even the other Swiss milling about the gondola launch, although he must have wondered where I put my knapsack of small boulders.

My willingness to invite hypothermia signaled that I might possibly have some Swiss blood, although that is unlikely although there is a good chance I am related to the French who roguishly invaded Switzerland again and again over the past 1,000 years. Haha! Those French. Invading Switzerland when they should have been watching out for Germany.

And so we cancelled the hike, which made me very happy because now I would have no reason to ride that gondola. I was wrong about that. Dave pointed out the main point of the trip was to see Ebenalp’s mountain-top cave church, hermit’s cottage and sip on some beer at the Ebenalp guest house from where we could see Bodensee (also known as Lake Constance).

So up the gondola we went, with it swinging more than I would have liked, but there was nothing I could do about it but pray that God did not want to play a big joke on me, who has a fear of heights, by making a 5,000-foot plummet part of my exit from earth. I would have arrived at the pearly gates in a very ticked-off mood.

Tomorrow: Cliff-gripping trails, caves, weddings and the worst soup ever.

Where to next?

Can we get to here?

Dave is huddled over his Acer netbook at the dinner table, taking a grueling online tour through rail and hotel websites to find out how to get to a place only 60 miles away from us.

The trouble is that we are without car. Not that we could not have a car – we could buy one if we liked, but in the spirit of sparing ourselves the nuisance of making our presence known to more bureaucracies, we are doing without.

Bureaucracy-avoidance is paramount, because as we have learned in past international moves, bureaucrats live on the flesh of foreigners, and as proof of this, just yesterday I received a formal tersely worded notice from the Swiss tax offices demanding to know the name of my employer so that I can stop evading taxes.

I don’t have an employer – that has been clear on all our documentation, and was actually a condition of my admittance to this lovely country, but the tax people are raking about for more revenue, as is their custom. I will take care of that next week. In the meantime, challenges loom over our next trip.

This is the truth about public transport: It works beautifully between major cities, not so much for little French villages just over the border, and so a train ride to Besançon, France (53 miles) can take as long as one to get to Paris, France (250 miles), that is, about four or five hours. Dave has been wheedling away at the keyboard and discovered a 2.5 trip to Besançon, but it is an awkward midday journey, necessitating an overnight stay.

We’ve grown attached to our day-trips that have lapsed into a lovely routine where we laze through a pot of coffee and late breakfast, leave at a civilized hour on a morning train, that is sometime between 10 a.m. and noon, and return on an evening train. A four-hour afternoon stay seems to be about as long as we can stand to stay in one place, even if it is laced with cobblestone avenues flanked by 16th-Century stone buildings. There is only so much of that one person can take.

It looks like we will take that overnight trip to Besançon – a perilous venture on this four-day long weekend when Europeans flood the trains, highways and airports in an obsessive dash to get somewhere, anywhere but where they are. They are like Winnipeggers racing to their cottages on a long weekend, which is what we once were, so we fit in quite well.

We want to get somewhere, anywhere, but here, although really, here is very nice, although it has cobblestone streets, so naturally, we can only stand it in small doses.

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.