96: Mulling around in Mulhouse, France

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

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Good things come to an end, Part Two

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Now I feel better.

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

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

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

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

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

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

******* I just like asterisks. 

Paris food – can you eat lamb’s kidney without having to sell your own?

Sweet treats and good rib-sticking eats all in one shopping spot at French bakeries and patisseries.

This post dating back to the Easter weekend 2011 repeatedly floats to the top of this blog’s hits (scroll down).

Staring at the text in the file listings, it made no sense to me, but now that I’ve opened the post and seen that it comes with a photo of a lovely pastry display case on top, the world has once again fallen into its correct order.

In the meantime, our little plateau in Switzerland is experiencing the spring-like joys of the Canadian prairies, that is to say the sidewalks are ankle-deep in grey ice and slush.

Yesterday, I met another writer for the literary version of a jam session, and uncharacteristically, the Swiss railway system failed, so she had to complete the last part of her journey by bus. That was okay, until she landed in our little slush-ville.

As it happens, both she and I are from Winnipeg, although we met here, not there.

This is another oddity of Winnipeggers – they/we are everywhere, and strangely, we all recognize one another. I think it’s because we smile so much.

Why do we smile? Because we’re not in Winnipeg, the hometown everyone loves to hate but will die defending.

And so, the two of us pretended the weather was just fine, even though we both had slipped into some decline by the time we connected at the train station with our moppy hair and weather-mashed countenances.

We entered into the Women of Winnipeg pact, which is that it was a ‘given’ that we both had started our day with fabulous hair and in the most beautiful of states, regardless of all the evidence to the contrary. She shared that while waiting for the bus she had met another Winnipegger. Neither of us is surprised by this.

Then we marched through the slushy streets, pushing against the wind and pelting snow, feeling the slush ride up our pant legs and ooze ice particles into our shoes. Actually, I’m speaking for myself here, but I have to assume she was experiencing similar discomfort, but, of course she did not complain because she is from … Winnipeg, and by all bio-bred Winnipeg-weather standards, this was still a fine day weather-wise, although a little too warm for cross-country skiing. Pity. If only the temperature had dropped another eight degrees, it would have been a perfect day.

By the time we arrived at Starbucks, my jeans were soaked up to my knees and I couldn’t feel my ankles.  We were both in high spirits, and not just because of our proximity to caffeinated products and cheesecake, but because there’s nothing like an ice-dousing to make a prairie gal feel alive, or at least so numb that the absence of pain makes us feel alive.

It took me about six  hours to bring my core body temperature back up to normal. I should point out that in Winnipeg, it would have taken me six days.

But enough of that. Here is one of Hobonotes’ top five postings – actually, it is usually in third spot, but I just can’t believe it.

Dining in Paris: Can you eat lamb’s kidney without having to sell your own?

The first question is why would you want to eat a lamb’s kidney anyway? Gross.  That aside, French food enjoys a reputation that tops all others, but do they deserve it?

It’s easy to trot into France’s finest restaurants and emerge satisfied that the nation’s cuisine is all that is claimed. But what about those of us who blanche at $75 lunches? What is French food like for the mid-to-low range diner? Does Paris even have a mid-to-low-range dining echelon?

We-the-cheap conducted an in-depth 48-hour study on this topic. Here is what we found.

Patisseries/boulangeries, that is, combination pastry and bakery shops, are great sources for not-so-expensive, but still delicious, day-time meals, and these shops are everywhere.

Aux Armes de Niel, the  boulangerie (photo above)  at the corner down from our hotel sold soup-bowl-sized take-out quiches and other sustaining  foods (mini-pizzas, although I don’t know if they called them that) for under $10 each.  The alternative was our hotel breakfast at 20 Euros, that is,  over $30 Cdn. each. No thanks.

400-year-old French cafe. No one was there. We're not saying this suggests that its age corresponded to the length of time customers waited for a meal, but you have to wonder.

It also sold fabulous overfilled cream pastries, if such can be said to be truly over-filled. After all, this is whipped cream. There’s never too much of it, so the French seem to think and, after sampling the goods, we agree.  The pastries themselves were heavenly- flakey, light, everything Pilsbury dough-boy claims, but is not. French pastry is a perfect jacket for French fillings and toppings.

If you’re deciding between French ice cream and French pastries as your guilt-food for the day, pick the pastries. The ice cream is good, but ice cream tops out at a certain point anywhere in the globe and I can prove it by producing homemade ice cream at my Ontario cottage that could stand up alongside the French’s. Note to cottage guests: But I won’t do that, because summer is the time to laze on the dock – not a good place for churning ice cream.  Note to those searching for the greatest scoop of ice cream: Head to Atlanta, Georgia. Break into any home-kitchen and demand the contents of their churn. Seriously. You will not be disappointed.

San Remo Pizzeria in Paris; artichoke, olive and pepper pizzaBut I digress.

We scoured the streets for under-$30/person fare and found a few places, such as the San Remo’s Pizzeria near the Place de Marechal Juin roundabout and Pereire metro station.  There, I had a delicious vegetarian pizza with artichokes that did not appear to have ever graced the insides of a jar.

Dave had the grilled salmon and spaghetti alla chitarra, a substantial thick spaghetti noodle cooked to just the right degree of resistance and subtly seasoned.

With a glass of the house wine and a beer, the total came to $36.90. Shocking, all the more so for having been so delicious.  The atmosphere on this Paris sidewalk cafe was great, too. The staff (probably Italians) were nowhere near as snooty as French servers’ reputation suggests.


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

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

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

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

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

________________

Switzerland’s See-Through Loos

 

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

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

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

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

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

City of Victoria, British Columbia public urinal

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Museums and art galleries generally have free washrooms.

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

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

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

Good to know if you go:

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

My beloved niece and random travels

Now this is a proper Swiss "river," running straight and orderly as all Swiss waterways should. Note: An untamed creek/river ran alongside it. The Swiss are not to be outdone, they will have every kind of waterway.

TAUBENLOCH, BIEL/BIENNE, SWITZERLAND  I received a note from one of my darling nieces this week (I have 11, no wait, that’s 12 nieces, plus one genius-Goddaughter), asking for my advice on where to travel as she’s planning to trot across Europe next spring.

The thing is, there are so many places to go that she could play pin-the-tail on the European map and land just about anywhere interesting, except for Olten, which we have already established is not worth visiting.

The Taubenloch gorge trail criss-crosses the Suze River as it falls from the Jura Mountains down into Lac Biel/Bienne.

But, Olten aside, we have done some random drop-in touring and been pleasantly surprised, as we saw on our trip to Thun, the not-so-well-known Swiss settlement north of the Bernese Mountains. Although it receives as little attention as Olten when it comes to tour guides and online searches, it turned out to be a fabulous place. Click here and here to see past posts and pics on Thun.

Europe is full of such lovely finds and not just in medieval villages, cathedrals, castles and pastries. We discovered a treasure in a canyon trail just north of our town of Biel/Bienne.

It swoops down into a steep limestone carved gorge that bellies out in a fast-moving river, or maybe creek. It’s not clear to me what qualifies as a river, as I’ve seen “rivers” in Spain that had all the panache of the ditch that ran in front of our small-town-BC home back in the 1990s. Yet the Spaniards called this worm of a waterway a “river.” Fascinating people, the Spanish.

You can understand that when someone describes something as “fantastic” to me, I reserve judgment until laying my own eyes on the thing. This is what happens to people who have lived in Spain. They are forever sceptical about everything.

Check out the metal railing, bowed by falling rock. The Swiss know how to add excitement to a cliff-side trail.

But the Taubenloch trail is nothing to be sceptical about – it turns out that it is a charming, although sometimes alarming stroll. The alarming part is the ample evidence of landslides as can be seen by security tape and warning signs around badly deformed metal railings where the falling boulders have messed with the trail. As late as 2009, the trail was cut off due to a number of landslides. This makes walking it a very exciting venture, indeed.

A southerly portion of the trail scoops out of the limestone walls of the gorge, such that walkers are directly underneath massive overhangs of rock, overhangs that have visible stress fractures in them. It quickens the pulse as well as the pace.

There are gorges and waterfalls more grand to be found south of us in the Swiss Alps, but I am a scaredy-cat, so this was just the right start for me. I’ll try the big stuff later.

To get to the Taubenloch trail,take the train to Frinvillier (less than 10 minutes from Biel/Bienne or 30-40 minutes from Bern, or with train switches, about 90 minutes from Zürich). When you get off the train turn right, heading down to the underpass where you will make another right, going under the underpass that now is an overpass to you, until you come to directional signs in a small Swiss village. Take the sign pointing left (downhill) called Gorges du Taubenloch. It will look like you’re heading off to nowhere, but eventually the road leads to a skinny trail alongside a raised walled canal. This is the northern end. The trail meanders at a

The prospect of this stone ceiling caving in on us did not bother Dave's coworker, Mike.

gentle downhill in a southerly direction, crossing the Suze River several times via walking bridges. At a slow pace, you can cover the trail in 45 to 60 minutes. It is reported to be only two-kilometres long, although with all the winding and such, my pedometer showed it to be much longer.

Cost: We didn’t pay a cent, although as we exited the trail on its south end, we went through a gate, along with some signs in German or French, so it is possible there’s a donation box. The trail is said to be maintained by a non-profit society.

Taubenloch is full of tunnels and caves, some natural, some carved. Locals tell us caves were/are used as potential sniping points in case of invasion, and are also used to stockpile weapons all over Switzerland, which does not have an army per se as the entire male population is required to take military training and serve 3 weeks a year until age 34, although some are required to go til 50 - I would imagine they are 'special-ops.'

One other thing: The southern end of the trail comes out right into a Biel/Bienne suburb, and you can walk all the way back to the train station or look for a bus. I can’t give any advice on the bus, because we walked back home, which took less than an hour, although we did have a leisurely browse through an outlet store along the way. No nature hike is complete without at least one stop in a shop.

Xenophobe’s note: I mock the Spanish for their idea of what constitutes a river, but in all fairness, the Swiss would probably mock me or my fellow Canucks for finding Taubenloch to be awe-inspiring. This is because the Swiss own Switzerland, a pretty fabulous place in every way. 

Autumn is a lovely time to walk Taubenloch.

Thun, beautiful but often ignored

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thun. Ugh. What a horrible place.

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

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

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

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

The castle in Thun against a lovely blue sky.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tomorrow: More Thun along with more photos

Still trying to figure out this country, the sweet and the sour

 

It’s funny what thoughts the town drunk will inspire.

For a teensy weensy little nation, Switzerland occasionally shows up in the top 10 richest countries in the world, which is something when you consider that it is competing against Qatar and the U.S.  In fact, according to Business Insider, it even topped the U.S., coming in at #6 over the U.S. at #7, based on GDP per capita.

Of course, where a country ranks depends on how the ranking is measured. For example, if a country’s riches were determined by the quantity of chocolates it produces, you would think Switzerland is #1, but guess what, it is not.

The top chocolate confectionary producer title goes to a U.S. company, Kraft Foods Inc. As a top consumer of chocolate products, I am stunned by this revelation from the International Cocoa Organization, a very real entity that I would love to work for.

Biel the beautiful.

Switzerland is the third-largest chocolate producer with the Swiss Nestle’ corporation placing it there, just behind “Mars,” a U.S. company. The U.S. is home to three of the world’s top-ten chocolate-makers.That is pretty impressive, but consider that Switzerland has two companies in the top ten, then compare the two  nations’ population and geography (the U.S. is gumpteenzillion times bigger, for one), and Switzerland is all the more outstanding. You have to think that if the U.S. applied the same degree of diligence that the Swiss do, we would be swimming in chocolate. This would be okay with me.

When the GDP alone is tabulated, Switzerland sadly gets bumped off the Top Ten list (the U.S. wins that one, even beating the legendary industry of the Japanese and the population-giant China who come in second and third respectively (according to 2008 GDP figures).

Switzerland still makes #21 on GDP alone, a real feat for a country that is one-tenth the size of Montana.

Thoughts of Switzerland’s relative wealth came to mind as I walked past Biel’s preeminent town drunk, a roguish, handsome white-haired man with an unfortunately crushed nose.

He is the fellow of whom I wrote early into our stay here, the same man who urinates openly in the square in front of the train station. He usually keeps to himself, and everyone gives him a wide berth, what with the urination thing, but lately he’s started lurching at passersby. It unnerves everyone, but he remains a fixture at the train station. He is the same fellow, by the way, who made loud freaky sounds as he walked behind me on one of the canal walkways.

Back in Canada, I’ve interviewed lots of homeless people, drunks, mentally ill, and so forth. People always talk about how harmless they are, but that is the same kind of wisdom that says bears are more afraid of us than we are of them, in other words, it’s bunk.

I’ve never felt completely safe in the presence of those who hand over their sensibilities to a bottle of booze or the drug-confection-of-the-day. These are ridiculously unpredictable people. As a reporter, where my job was to face up to them and engage in conversation, I found them somewhat fascinating, mostly because they weave such great fictions.

I know it’s politically incorrect to say so, but the volume of lies told to me by street people is amazing in its pure bulk, and mostly I discovered those lies by standing around long enough for the drug addict/drunk/street person to forget their original story and start into a second one.

On one occasion, I interviewed a man who alleged he had been roughed up by the police. I asked for his name. He gave it. Then he waved some kind of summons or ticket in my face to prove he had interacted with Victoria’s finest. I asked to see it and saw the name on the summons differed from that which he gave me. When I asked about this, he grabbed the summons and quickly fled on his bike. At least it may have been his bike. Give the high rate of bike theft in Victoria, I would guess he had “borrowed” it. This was not an unusual exchange.

Where this all goes is this: Switzerland is rich, and with a lauded social safety net, and yet we still have citizens veering on the streets with open beer cans in hand.

Yesterday, outside of a grocery store, I watched a few of the town drunk regulars (who have not risen to preeminent status) heckle a white-haired woman, her back a badly disfigured mountain range curved over so that she was a virtual comma when in her best upright position. She pulled her grocery cart past them, stumping along with her cane and unable to effect any getaway should one be needed. She kept her gaze fixed resolutely ahead while they shouted at her. I am not much in the way of personal protection, but I rushed up to walk just slightly behind and alongside her, signalling to the vagrants that perhaps she was my aged relative and my glare silenced the drunks who turned their attention in the opposite direction, as though perhaps they had been yelling at the crows.

Smarter people than me have puzzled over the problems of deviant behavior, drug addiction and such, but it seems that a crippled senior should be able to fetch some milk and eggs without having to run a gauntlet of yahoos.

We haven’t fixed this social ill  in Canada, but we shouldn’t feel too bad about this. If the Swiss with their smarts, industry and attention to detail haven’t figured it out yet, how could we?

Leaving Leipzig

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bach statue outside of Thomaskirche where he is buried.

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

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

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

Lovely affordable Leipzig

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

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

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

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

San Remos vegetarian ravioli

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Leipzig Zoo, better than you’d think

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Children price: 10 Euros.

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

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

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

At an all-out sprint: 35 minutes

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

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

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

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

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

Also, beware of dropping bird poop.

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

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

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

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

Click on a gallery photo to get an enlarged view. 

Chocolate Champions

German chocolatier working at his craft.

Mercy is called for when judging chocolates, because all chocolate is good, aside from some hideous holiday-related confections that seem to be made primarily of wax and some brown food colouring poured into bunny and poultry moulds.

If you grew up in the United States or Canada, you will know of which chocolate brand I speak, but because I am a trained journalist and therefore familiar with the laws and statutes under which I could be sued, although unsuccessfully, because I know I’m dead right about this, I am not going to reveal the manufacturer who may or may not be based in Mississauga, Ontario.

So, to all the chocolate manufacturers of all nationalities who did not win my The World, Nay The Universe Best Chocolate Ever competition, don’t feel bad, and if you do feel bad, eat chocolate. It ups your serotonin levels, leading to a feeling of well-being. And while you’re feeling so good about yourself, maybe you can concoct a better chocolate recipe for the next time I’m in your country.

And the winner is: Leysieffer of Germany, with Canada a close second.

Leysieffer’s every chocolate is a revelational experience  from their champagne white chocolates to their mocha truffles and onward. It’s the sort of chocolate that can make a person rethink their life goals. They have even redeemed orange-cream chocolates, a flavour to which many chocolate-makers add too much sugar.

Leysieffer had some tough competition in the form of Canada’s Chocolat de Chocolaterie’s caramel-filled chocolates, which by themselves are better than anything Leysieffer has to offer, but when taking each chocolatier’s ‘menu’ as a whole, Leysieffer has the broadest selection, all of which are very good indeed. At Chocolat de Chocolaterie, anyone not a big fan of caramel will still come away happy with the other offerings, but not quite as much as if they had jumped on a plane and headed to Germany, or maybe just gone online and ordered some at Leysieffer’s website.

The French, whose Paris and Besançon chocolates were sampled, will also be very ticked off to learn that not only are the Germans amazing with chocolate, they also make the best croissants on the continent. Possibly, they stole a few French secrets during the Second World War, showing that the real reason Germany invaded France was not in a bid for global domination, but to grab their recipes. But let’s not mention The War.

Judging criteria included texture, taste, body and flavour mixes.

The runner-up is Canada, with Chocolat de Chocolaterie* at 703 Fort Street in Victoria, British Columbia serving the best chocolate in that nation, with their buttery caramel chocolates melting so blissfully in the mouth that it is not safe to operate a vehicle while enjoying them. Even people who do not like me become fast friends when I feed them Chocolat’s caramel-filled chocolates.

Sorry Quebec, but Chocolat de Chocolaterie is Canada’s best, after a three-decade-long, coast-to-coast taste-testing tour. Quebec can take consolation that they had the best cheesecake in Canada, found at Dunn’s Famous restaurant in Montreal. To be truthful, though, that part of the taste-testing tour took place at the beginning of the tour in 1981, so things might have changed since then. **

Switzerland is a natural home to fabulous chocolates, but testing the products of numerous independent chocolate shops in countless Swiss villages, as well as giving their top name brands a fair test (Merkur, Cailler, Lindt), nothing could be found to carry the same fine balance of sweet against cocoa on a bed of creamy fats.

Further testing of Swiss product is ongoing.

It should be said that even though Switzerland did not obliterate the Germans in this contest, Swiss chocolate is still mighty fine, and there is no question that the widening distribution of their homegrown brand, Lindt, has upped the chocolate experience of North Americans who up to recent times were making do with some rather diluted product.

I won’t name names. Remember, I am avoiding a lawsuit.***

*Canada owes its second-place finishing solely to Chocolat de Chocolaterie. Its chocolate are better than any we’ve found in Switzerland, however, Swiss chocolatiers beat all other Canadian chocolates.

**France and Quebec can still claim a moral victory, because I suspect the owner/operator of Chocolate de Chocolaterie is actually French. I don’t know this for sure.

*** In my last post, I promised to reveal a never-before realized source of unbelievable chocolate. Here it is: The Church of Jesus Christ – Latter Day Saints in the little town of Kenora, Ontario, Canada. Yes, the Mormons. They’re not just good at choral singing. This church at one time had a women’s fundraising group that produced boxes of homemade chocolates that could make a Baptist rethink their views on Mormon theology.

Morning in Leipzig

When prayer meetings go viral .....

When prayer meetings go viral ...

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

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

Does he miss home?

Yes, he said.

Would he go back if he could?

Not even a heartbeat passed and he said yes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bi-polar Basel

Looking north from a bridge over the River Rhine.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Alarming art in Basel

Dave trying out Rodin-inspired man-yoga move.

Growing up in Canada afforded me a culture-enriched education filled with lots of art, music and museums.  So many museums that just typing the word flattens my brain waves, introducing the early stages of what I am sure is a coma.

The problem is that we were not allowed to roam in museums owing to our generations large numbers. We were part of the baby boom, which meant there were a whole lot of us and not many adults, ergo, the adults in our lives, ie. teachers, kept us tightly reined in, especially when on field trips where they feared a few of us might wander away. Thus, we were forced to sit in the bus while they counted us, then stand outside the bus in line while they counted us, following which we would then stand in the museum lobby for as much as 90 minutes for the teachers to count us and then recount when they discovered that Pierre Vaisy was missing, as he often was, then do another count after Pierre was retrieved from the coat room where he had busied himself with inserting chewed gum into the coat pockets of miscellaneous classmates who had called him names. Pierre is not his real name.  It is ToadWart.

Eventually we would be escorted into the first display where we listened to a very old person, someone who was at least 45 years old, drone on about the American bison and why it was not a buffalo, and so on. This was wonderful for those interested in wild bovine creatures, but not so great for those eager to get on to the railroad history section. Sometimes the old person would have us stand near a display that looked very interesting, like the one of Native Americans bearing very cool-looking weapons, but instead the old person would want to talk about a single arrowhead discovered along the banks of the Red River. The arrowhead held our interest for a nano-second, only because we were sure it was an introduction to the battling aboriginals in the next display. Alas, our guide found the arrowhead topic inexhaustible, which meant that he talked until we were tired to death of the thing, and if one of us, perhaps ToadWart, had wrenched the arrowhead from the display to plant it into the carotid artery of the museum guide, not one of us would have stepped forward as a witness to condemn him.

Dave, pretending to paint a Salvador Dali painting.

Which explains why in Basel, an international Swiss city famed for its galleries and museums – numbering at least 30 of note – we only visited one, although to be fair, we did stand outside of a second one and admire its moving-art water display. I simply can’t stand museums, and neither can my husband, which probably explains our very happy marriage where we have spent most of the last 30 years skirting around museums but rarely entering one. When we cannot avoid a museum, we sprint through it. We once went through the Museo Nacional del Prado in Madrid in less than 20 minutes. If you have seen some of the Goya paintings in the Prado, you will appreciate that 20 minutes is about the right amount of time anyone should linger there.

As appalling as sprinting through a world-class museum may seem, it should be noted that the Prado recently stole our idea and introduced time-based tours for those trying to get out as fast as they can. The tours are one, two and three hours long, which is not quite as efficient as our 20-minute tour, but then these are the Spanish and it is likely that they have inserted a siesta into their tour schedule.

Basel’s Kunstmuseum (literally translated means art museum) is one not to miss. Not because of its exceptional collection of Rodin, Cezanne, Monet, Picasso, Dali, Renoir and van Gogh works, but because all of those are protected with an alarm system so that stepping up too close to a painting (we think four inches is the mark) causes a series of loud beeps to play out over a sound system, attracting brow-furrowed, annoyed art-appreciating Swiss guides and security staff. They invariably raced past us, because we are middle-aged and therefore somewhat beyond reproach, especially in a museum as these are known to be the natural gathering-places of middle-aged art connoisseurs except for the middle-aged who grew up in Canada as part of the baby-boom, but I’ve already mentioned that.

It took us about seven alarm soundings before we realized that we were the source of the noise, leading us to experiment with the alarm system. In addition to warning patrons to keep their distance, it also sounds when a camera flash is fired. Fascinating. How do the Swiss do it?

After an hour of wanderings, we left the building, apprehensive they might seize my camera or make us stand in line to count our heads and make sure no one was missing, but that did not happen.

The top of Europe? Not quite.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Heading down Kleine-Scheidegg.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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?

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.

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.

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.

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.

No live plucking

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

In a foreign environment, you notice things.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No live plucking!

Then I looked at the label.

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

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

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

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

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

Lazy stroll turns into hike of horror

Saint-Pierre Church in Besançon.

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

Citadel entrance.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Libyans seeking signatures supporting the ousting of Gaddafi.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Besançon is one of France's undiscovered beauties.

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

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

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

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

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

Eat on the street at Au Grill’on

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The view from our table.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The waiter was winning.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Out of 10, with 10 being the top:

Service: 4

Cultural service experience: 10

Food:  Chicken:  10  Steak: 8

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

Ambiance:  8

Besancon 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?

Knowing gnomes

Gnomes dig ebony-haired gals in long flowing gowns.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dave says go big or go home!

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

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

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

Even beaten-up buildings retain their charm.

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

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

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

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

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

Eating like Europeans

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Happy weekend!

Rain

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Plants that I plan to neglect.

Say Cheeeese

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Montreux

The wet walk between Chateau de Chillon and Montreux, along Lake Geneva.

Bus or boat will take visitors from Chateau Chillon to Montreux, but why bother when a world-famous “Swiss Riviera” promenade waits just outside the castle drawbridge?

Whether we actually voiced such a lucid question is a mystery even to us, as a cleaving wind and pelting rainfall drowned out our conversation. Despite the storm, we decided to walk. The word “decided” is loosely applied here.

A mansion overlooking Lake Geneva on the riviera promenade toward Montreux. Why do the Swiss call this is a "riviera" when it is on a lake?

Part of the problem lies in the “Well, we’re here, why not do it?” syndrome that besets Dave and I in all our ventures.  It eclipses all cognitive thought, which means that we rarely decide anything. Dave knows this, and he uses it to his advantage as was seen when he got me onto the Gondola-Ride-From-Hades up a mountainside. I put my foot down, declaring that said foot was staying within reach of the ground no matter what, but Dave slyly coaxed me into walking near the gondola, hence I ended up on it, because of the dreaded “Well, we’re here …” travel tic.  I wish there was a cure for this.

A sign outside the château claimed the walk to Montreux was 45 minutes, which might be correct, if you’re going at a good clip and not leaning into gale-force winds while keeping a watchful eye on Lake Geneva for signs of rogue waves that might sweep you away to the French side of this massive body of water, all while keeping your ear tuned to the tree branches above for the sound of cracking limbs that might break off and grind your body into the quaint promenade pavement where the Swiss might mistakenly leave you on the assumption that you are some form of modern art. The Swiss do love statues.

Even in the storm, the promenade is worth the walk – it starts out narrow with an uneven surface and rather ordinary hedging, but quickly opens up to a wide mall flanked with mansions on one side and a trim botanical garden on the water side. My guess is that this walk is packed on a sunny day, but with the storm in full voice, Dave and I found ourselves alone but for the occasional daring youth biking past and one very wealthy looking man walking his golden retriever, who gave us a friendly (by Swiss standards) hello, probably on the thinking he might see us at “the club” later, because who else would volunteer for this walk but a well-heeled and eccentric local?

Even the public bathrooms have a stately look in Montreux.

By the time we found ourselves alongside the wharf from which we had started our day’s journey, we had walked a total of 5.5 miles weighted down with rain-soaked clothing (the distance includes tramping through Chillon castle) and were ready for some real food. We stepped up to the restaurant La Metropole, also oddly signed “Caesars” by the wharf, where we had earlier seen a rather elite-looking crowd noshing away at tantalizing dishes. If the rich eat here, we thought, the food must be reasonably good.

As we folded our badly abused umbrellas, a very French-looking waiter rushed out from the restaurant and motioned us towards one of the outdoor cafe tables, even though the weather was still rather exciting. A glance through the windows told the story – the interior showed off elaborately set tables, sparkling wine glasses, perfectly starched tablecloths, while the reflection in the glass informed us of how poorly equipped we were for such surroundings, my hair whipped into a Medusa fright, Dave’s tanned face now bearing the weather-worn visage of a salty sea-captain. We humbly took our place outdoors, just like the dogs we appeared to be.

We counted out our children’s inheritance and figured there was just enough to pay off one’s law school debt and enjoy a steak lunch at this establishment, so we braved it. I am not exaggerating when I say “braved it.” We had an earlier unpleasant encounter with Swiss beef, an experience that surprised us both as the Swiss enjoy a cultural association to beef that is perhaps unparalleled worldwide, except in those countries where the cow is looked on as a deity. Consider the widely known Swiss cheese and Swiss chocolate, and the less-famous Swiss fighting cows (a true phenomenon according to guide books), and so forth.

The delicious "Steak de boueffe" grilled to "medium" at Montreux's "La Metropole" restaurant, which also has the sign "Caesar's" above it. We think the dual-name is a byproduct of multilingualism.

I passed up the $45 filet mignon, on the grounds that no one can grill a tenderloin better than my husband and it was unlikely the chefs would let him into the kitchen, and opted for the $35 steak lunch. Dave, still mindful of  our children’s inheritance, wisely ordered a sandwich. We then settled in with our lattes to wait the requisite four hours for the meal to show up. Imagine our surprise when our waiter swept up with our dishes before I had worked a quarter-way down the cup.

The waiter had taken matters in hand and ordered the steak doneness to medium, which meant that it still quivered on the plate, and chose as its companion, a Cafe de Paris sauce. There are waiters whose instincts are unfathomably correct. This man was one of them.

The meat was perfect, tender, and seasoned just so. The Cafe de Paris, which appeared in a dollop of green aspic in a gravy boat carried the steak’s seasoning from wonderful to beyond-heavenly. Our waiter waved away any notion the sauce was extraordinary. “Just parsley, garlic, butter and (indecipherable spice name),” he said. The grilled vegetables were cooked to perfection, lightly buttered, the red-leaf salad was crisp, and the roasted potatoes, which came in a separate bowl, were as good as potatoes can get, which is just to say that no one recognizes a truly great potato dish, yet one only makes note when it is done wrong. This was done right.

A pricy meal, but very enjoyable with excellent professional service overlooking Lake Geneva. It was a perfect end to our blustery walk, and restored our sensibilities and bravado so that we were able to march up Montreux’s steep slopes to enjoy its 16th-century quarter.

What do you think? Does our waiter look French? I think he does and he had a decidedly French accent.

The requisite pose with Freddie Mercury statue.

Chillin at Chillon

Chateau de Chillon

As cottage owners, and therefore owners of an old-fashioned outhouse, we were fascinated to learn of 700-year-old toilets inside a Swiss castle near Montreux. What design, what wood choices, what the heck …. how did the French/German/Swiss make a toilet last this long when all over Canada, wooden outhouses are sagging at the floorboards?

And so we went to Chateau de Chillon, built on a rocky island on the shores of Lake Geneva (locally known as Lac Leman) over the centuries. The site was held by the French Savoys since the 13th century until 1536, when they skittered away in the night after the Germans shot two rounds at them.

Dave checks out secret exit through which French escaped. They had to have run right by their torture chamber prisoners to do it, among whom was Francois Bonivard (1493-1570)who was jailed for being a political upstart. He was made famous by English poet Lord Byron in the poem "The Prisoner of Chillon."

The French, some how forgetting their position’s military advantage (the castle was considered impenetrable), decided they needed to be elsewhere and snuck out through a secret passageway during the night, effectively  handing the keys over to the Germans who must have been a little disappointed to have dragged their cannons all that way when they could have simply showed up and shouted up the castle ramparts.

The castle is the melding together of a conglomeration of structures, and it shows as it weaves and bobs around the island. Despite it’s four grand staterooms, it lacks the palatial air of Spanish castles. Nevertheless, it was more fun to troll through because it had the air of a real working fortress, although that unfortunately included a torture chamber, complete with original etchings of biblical figures on the wall, scratched in by the hapless victims imprisoned there.

Pretty sober stuff that struck home as we toured the castle during a smashing thunder and lightning storm, with waves crashing outside against the island.

Rugged, beautiful, cruel.

But definitely worth seeing. Admission is only $12 an adult, a very decent fare.  It took us two hours to tour the entire castle, which appeared small, but it curves up and down, to the point that visitors quickly lose their orientation, and the only way to be certain of your location is to keep checking the numbered rooms, all 46 of them, which are handily described in a brochure that comes with admission.  According to my pedometer, we walked about 2.5 miles, which doesn’t seem possible, but my pedometer hasn’t lied to me yet.

Yes, I photographed the 700-year-old toilet. I have no class.

The toilets, by the way, were indoors, and simple wood planks set into the stone walls. The “refuse” would tumble down a large stone chasm that curved and eventually opened to daylight, by which we can only assume the refuse ended up in the lake.

Indoor plumbing was tricky back then, because the opening into the wall could be used by an attacking army as a way to crawl inside.

Maybe it was the thought of soiled Germans emerging from the latrines that made the French think they would just as soon not fight, which some might say, has become intrinsically entwined in France’s military history.

If you go, a happy little sign outside of the castle says it’s a 45-minute walk to Montreux along the waterfront promenade. It took us 60-minutes in a pouring rain and cutting wind, however, it was invigorating. For one thing, we were the only tourists on the promenade, which meant we didn’t have to do a two-step to navigate through a crowd. Secondly, it’s a lovely walk that starts out through some nondescript

Charming little courtyard. Must not have been so charming though, when the torture sessions were on downstairs.

hedges and eventually opens to a wide path flanked with mansions on one side and botanical gardens fronting the water on the other.

You will pass a casino made famous by Deep Purple’s song Smoke on the Water, which refers to the time it burned down in the 1970s when a patron lit it up with a flare gun. You can go in there to eat, but they will want to take your belongings, your coat, and seemingly your identification while you’re inside. Dave and I measured the wisdom of leaving our valuables with the sort of people who run casinos and decided we’d rather brave the storm outside. It was only a 5 or 10 minute walk from there to a McDonalds, which we did not stop at, although we thought of it because it is the only affordable “Swiss” restaurant we have found so far. Instead, we went onto a pleasant lakefront cafe, which  I will write about tomorrow.

Click on photos for close-ups! 

Tourist burn-out in Montreux

A classic Montreux old-quarter building. How it disgusted us.

It may have been the hosing-down rain, the blasts of wind intensifying as it whistled in through the castle’s torture chamber keyhole openings or the fact we have been in Europe for six weeks now, but at about 5:23 p.m. May 14th, we reached saturation point.

Walking the deserted narrow cobblestone streets that braid their way down the steep-pitched Montreux mountainside, we looked on fairytale clusters of stone buildings, accented with aubergine and cherry shutters, inviting shop windows with unique teacup and hen pottery figures.

It was then that we reached the conclusion we were not suitably amused by the famous enclave that has been home to Shania Twain, her notorious ex Mutt Lange, Freddie Mercury, Bill Gates, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Ernest Hemingway and other luminaries. What did they see in this place that is called the “Swiss Riviera.”

When tangerine-coloured buildings no longer appeal to you, it's time to take a break.

Looking at the photos this morning, I realize it was all fatigue and no-common-sense that put us in that dour mood. The place is lovely.

We got off the train at Montreux during the lunch hour and made the steep walk down to the water for the requisite visit to the tourist office, which I am pleased to report was actually open. We have found a surprising number of tourist offices that are closed on weekends. The one in the Paris train station read it was “exceptionally” closed the Saturday we were there – by exceptionally they may have meant it was unusual to be closed that day of the week, but we think the French just like to polish up their every move, hence their tourist office closing stands out from all other tourist-office closings by being “exceptional.” In retaliation, we were “exceptionally” put out.

But to get back to this weekend’s wanderings:  Montreux has two “old towns,” a 19th-century quarter and further up the steep slopes, the 16th century village where our appreciation for old-architecture topped up. Looking at the bell tower of a stone church, I felt that my ancestors were absolutely right to leave this  continent at about the same time this place was laying its foundations. Who builds up this high, I wondered?

Of course, building among the clouds was likely part of why this settlement succeeded. They could see trouble coming from a far-off distance and plan their defense accordingly.

It was around 6 p.m. when we trolled these streets, which were empty due to torrential rainfall. Either that, or they knew we were coming. Why did this not enchant us? Tourist-burn-out.

Montreux is on the waterways that connect England and France to Italy, hence it has always been an important trade route and is home to a castle that has been part of that history for a thousand years.

I will write more about that tomorrow, but for now will leave off with photos that demonstrate the little-recognized phenomenon of tourist-burn-out, a condition that can only be treated by gazing on 1970s architecture, horrifying a remedy as that may be, it is the only thing that will recapture our appreciation for ancient European architecture.

Real travel tip: Montreux’s slopes are not only heart-stoppingly beautiful, they are also capable of stopping your heart. A 12-week cardio-and-strength-training regimen is recommended as preparation to walk these cobblestones. I wish I was joking about this.

We will have to stare at this modern monstrosity in order to regain our appreciation for 16th-century architecture. Ugh.

Hopefully this child never has to know the horrors of living in a modern apartment block, where the word "block" truly applies. See right.

On the cusp of villainy … or at least drunkeness

The neighbourhood where we normally walk ... fa la la la ...

We have only four channels on our television, and this paucity of choices has knocked us right off our evening television habit.

Happy streets, shining homes.

Happy Swiss walking to work.

We can’t just sit in the suite and stare at one another, or even out the window where the view is other windows like ours. Might as well paste a mirror up there.  And so, we’ve fallen into the practice of taking an after-supper stroll. Normally we head west, not because we are following an innate migratory desire to head back home to Canada, although that would be okay, but because it is the direction of the lake, not to mention a number of lovely waterfront cafes.

The trees along the way are huge with oddly rumpled trunks, and the canopy is thick owing to the town’s vigorous amputative pruning program that chops off branches so burly that the sight of it would trigger environmentalists into action, raining press releases down on the media, chaining themselves to shrubs, complaining about the effect on fish habitat and marmot reproduction rates.

Where was I? Oh yes:  The wide walkways west of our place follow a network of open canals that lead down to the lake, making it a happy walk, but last night we decided to venture east.

What harm could come of that?

Early clue that we weren't in Kansas anymore (North American cultural reference to being really lost)

Not a third of a block in, we noticed an open produce market. How delightful. But we did not check on it, owing to a number of loitering males. We avoid loitering males, especially in the evening hours. We always suspect they are up to no good, especially if their hygiene regimen appears substandard.

A few feet later, three chums – two men flanking a corpulent woman –  spanned the breadth of the sidewalk. It is difficult to describe them now because we averted our eyes so as to not call attention to ourselves, but it didn’t work. They did not so much walk as lurch, beer cans in hand (very likely as a balancing mechanism), eyes glaring wherever they landed, which was on us.

I’ve noticed this about the town drunks – they look right at passersby menacingly, as if to dare them/us to point out their inebriation.

It’s a little different than Canada’s street drunks, a vigorous lot who spend daylight hours in the courthouse challenging city hall for looking down their noses at addicts and alcoholics pitching tents in parks (I know this seems like a pejorative statement, but I’ve gone and checked, and haven’t seen anyone in those tents who looked much different than what we saw on the seamy side of the street last night).

Nevertheless, at least our Canadian drunks have some gumption. And lawyers.

We passed the wild-eyed, teetering trio, then turned a corner, thinking a one-block walk was sufficient exercise, when we spied another staggering fellow. Apartment buildings took on a blemished look, their balconies curtained in makeshift bamboo screens, and in the narrow walkways and alleys, waves of debris piled up against the buildings.

I went back the next day - this is the seedy mafioso-looking cafe, although really, it probably isn't that. Just looked like it after treading Intoxication Promenade.

We rounded the corner and came upon a scene that looked right out of the Godfather – the early New York ghetto scenes, not the later rich-crook scenes: An assembly of dog-eared cafe tables filled with somber middle-aged men with greasy combed-back hair, shaking hands formally in introductions. It could have been the Knights of Columbus planning its spring fishing expedition, or it could have been the Mafia, plotting what to do with all these foreigners wandering into their turf.

A few metres later, we were back on our street where pedestrians walked in straight lines without the balancing benefit of beer cans in their hands, the alleys were clear, the streets charming enough for a movie set, and the trees appropriately park-like and trimmed. What a difference a simple left or right turn can make.

It is fair to say that we are not ordinarily so jumpy, and in my work I engaged street people in conversation many a time, but there’s a new dimension at play when the street-folk speak another language altogether.

It can be socially awkward. For one thing, you have no idea if they’re asking for the time, or your wallet.

One wrong turn, and the scenery changes. Even Swiss towns have a wrong side of the tracks, although, technically, this is on the same side of the tracks as our neighbourhood, just one block over.

Switzerland’s “Toronto”

Zürich police station. You know that if the police station, usually the most functional of buildings, looks like this, the city is going to be spectacular.We said we wouldn't go to Zürich, in light of the recent terror-threat a la bin Laden's demise, but woke up Saturday morning with the day stretched out in front, shrugged our shoulders and said, "Why not?

We said we wouldn’t go to Zürich, owing to the terrorist-threat associated with the demise of Osama bin Laden, but then we shrugged and said, “Why not?”

These two words might be the famous last words of many, but not us, at least not this weekend.

We were partly intrigued by the number of Swiss who almost, but not quite, spit upon the mention of Zürich. They hate it.

Marcel, a well-traveled Swiss geography teacher, told Dave if there’s any part of Switzerland that can be missed, it is Zürich. Our concierge shudders at the mention of it.  Our most helpful front desk clerk, Daniela who scales glaciers and thinks cliff-climbs are a leisurely way to get from one point to another, crinkles her nose and rolls her eyes when she hears its name.

“The place is full of bankers running around,” she said.

And that is the clue to Zurich’s low-standing in the eyes of the Swiss. It is to the Swiss what Toronto is to Canadians, what New York is to Americans and what London is to everyone. An expensive, over-rated, self-absorbed metropolis.

Grossmunster Church profile,which I originally posted incorrectly as Fraumunster. Thank you to alert blog-reader for the correction!

But we didn’t think so. First of all, we showed up on a Saturday and no bankers were in evidence. They were likely resting in Monaco from their week of racing  from one financial institution to another, clutching fistfuls of lucre as they went.

It was an amazingly beautiful city with a train station that rivals Paris, but much less smelly. It fronts onto Lac Zürich, that on Saturday was dotted with white sails and swans so big that they have to gate the boat launch lest the things pad their way up onto the streets and take over the city.

The river that flows from the lake is a clear jewel-green. Its cobblestone streets roll up and downhill, meeting, then fanning out in random directions, none of which that can be said to be “right” or “left,” making following the guidebooks suggestions somewhat difficult, except that it turns out there is no wrong way to go. Every lane is charming.

The fabulous Fraumunster Church.

I couldn't resist photographing this street-side kiosk - is it the adult Lucy's "The Psychiatrist is In" booth, a la Charlie Brown?

It’s older “tourist” district is so large that it is something like seeing eight heritage districts at once. It goes on and on.

We visited massive stone churches, one with 1970s stained glass windows (Fraumunster), which might sound like a mistake, but these windows are perhaps the only artistic/architectural feature hailing from that decade that are worth saving. They are vibrant and unique.

We dined at a street cafe, trolled through shops, some so well-laid-out with such fascinating goods  that to buy something would throw the whole decorative ambience into disarray. It was just perfect as it was.

Fraumunster Church, which still has its mid-13th century presbytery, along with these 1970s stained glass windows by Marc Chagall. It's a wonderful trans-centurial marriage.

Dave checks out a three-wheeled car. What is the point of that?

Zürich's river front, not far from where it opens to Lac Zürich.

Europe's ugliest bridge, according to travel guru Rick Steves. And yes, it is.

Unusual ornate architecture in Zürich, Switzerland. Stood out among Zürich's Gothic and Baroque architecture.

Zürich police station. It is possible this is a torture scene, or a possible warning about how one's lawyers are about to excise one's property to fund a defense, but it sure is different.

Riverside park in Zürich's tourist district. Plenty of quaint, expensive shops that are worth browsing just for fun.

Wandering puppies

Puppies!

We’ve been reduced to wandering the streets like lost puppies.

Our Swiss town shuts down on Sundays, so after a morning of lazing around doing nothing (reading books, surfing the internet in a brainless manner, organizing our single clothing armoire), we headed out to check the town’s movie theatres for listings.

We could just look them up on the web, but roaming the streets without some sort of purpose feels weird to we who are accustomed to striding hurriedly to our next destination, so we seized upon our task, pointless as it may have been.

All the theatres in our town seem to be owned by the same company, so each one’s front door is pasted in white pages that list its own movies, as well as all the other movie-houses’ showings.  There’s no need to check every individual theatre’s listings, but that’s what we do anyway.

If anyone had a bird’s-eye view of our Sunday morning roamings, they would assume we are idiots, going from theatre-to-theatre, checking the identical postings as though it mattered that we’re at the Lido, the Apollo, the Rex or the Beluga (its real name, don’t ask us to explain, we don’t know the answer).

If anyone could eavesdrop on us at every stop, they would hear us re-enact the exact same conversation at each one, puzzling over whether the movies are in English, German, Italian or French, or what manner of subtitle they have. I tell Dave every single time that “Alleman” means German, not “all-languages.”

That we can repeat the same conversation without breaking into hives is evidence of marital fog, a condition that allows us to forget what was said one to another only minutes earlier. This amnesic state preserves marital stability and social order. We would get checked for early signs of Alzheimers, but to this day, neither of us has thought to bring it up during doctor visits.

What was I saying?

Oh yes, we were wandering like panhandlers, minus the begging, when we happened upon two churches in a neighbourhood of old apartments fronted by wrought-iron fences and elaborate tiny gardens with unreliable-looking wood patio chairs. As we stood outside one church debating whether it was English, French or German and I reminded Dave again that “Alleman” does not mean “all-languages,” a couple emerged from the church, smiled at us and let loose a stream of what I can only assume was German.

“See, that’s ‘Alleman,'” I said, never missing a beat on my campaign to achieve ultimate know-it-allness.

As it happens, I was correct, but now we were on the street chatting with people who didn’t really speak our language and neither did we speak theirs. It could have been socially awkward, but we relaxed, comfortable in the knowledge we would forget about the exchange in a few minutes anyway.

That did not happen. Within seconds they retrieved a fluent English-speaking man from within, who invited us in for coffee and sweets. His name is Daniel, a multi-lingual Swiss missionary. Mercifully he did not introduce us to the 100 or so smiling German-Swiss inside, because it would be pretty tiring to explain repeatedly that we didn’t have a clue what they were saying and that we just hoped this wasn’t some kind of cult that would club us senseless before drugging us into shaving our heads, wearing robes and loitering about airports.

We left a little later, emails and phone numbers exchanged, along with a few plans for expanding our small little English enclave.

One could suppose that with a paucity of homeless people in Switzerland, churches have taken to combing the streets for foreigners, but in truth we had happened upon a particular hybrid – Swiss Christians – two very friendly groups mixed into one. It was inevitable that we would be drawn inside, caffeinated, fed with appropriate doses of sugary/buttery goods and then dusted off and returned to the wild. These are the people who brought the Red Cross to the world, so why not rescue a few Canadians?

When things go right

Solothurn's St. Ur's cathedral roofline. We climbed up 250 poorly lit, uneven wood and stone steps to the top (see people there on the right tower - they look like ants. 15 minutes later, that's where we were). Because this was the trip where nothing went wrong, we did not plunge to our deaths. Nice.

My albatrossness began in early childhood, when my Uncle Guy gave me my first lesson in the fine art of fishing.

At 4 a.m. we hiked out to a sparkling clean river with rock waterfalls. At 5 a.m. we returned to the camper. Uncle Guy sported a hole in his ear lobe … this in the day before men got their ears pierced except in fishing accidents … his favorite childhood lucky fishhook was somewhere at the bottom of the river and my right leg was scraped up and down from plunging into a hidden rock crevice as we crossed the waterfalls, bringing the water right up to my chin.

Uncle Guy fished me out – the only catch of the day and one he restrained himself from saying he’d like to throw back.

A year or two later, my Aunt Rosie listened to Uncle Guy’s account and determined that the flaw was in the teacher, not the student. She took me fishing at Rainbow Falls in the Whiteshell. It was the first time she had ever seen anyone hook a seagull.

Fast-forward a few decades and my older brother brought his boat out to our cottage for a fishing excursion. It was the first time he had seen someone hook a loon.

The common thread in these accounts is not fishing, although that might seem reasonable. It is travel. In every instance, bags were packed, gas tanks filled and coolers jammed with sandwiches. It makes my one-city-four-hotels story of Paris appear in a new light.

Solothurn's main promenade.

It’s also why I’m a nervous traveler. I don’t think things are going to go wrong. I know they will.

This is what makes the last weekend so amazing. We hopped the train for a short 15-minute ride to Solothurn, a village so un-noteworthy that even Rick Steeves (our travel guru) gives it no mention in his guidebooks.

It turned out to be the best day-trip yet. And nothing went wrong, ergo I have nothing to write about it except to say that Solothurn, despite it’s somewhat weird name, is outstanding for its baroque architecture, narrow cobblestone streets, Italianesque styling and museums where entrance is by donation (we figure $10 is about right).

Click here to see a 54-second video of Solothurn’s marching band – sorry that my videography skills are substandard. I’m working on it. As Dave says, much would improve if I would just stand up while videotaping. I was standing up.

Solothurn's clock tower.

Dave's ancestor? We don't know. Solothurn art museum held an original Van Gogh, Cezanne and Picasso - not bad for a village of 15,000 and canton (state) of about 245,000..

Are you British?

Swiss village.

We shuffled out of our little English-speaking community of two last week to look further afield for other Anglophones.

Not that we’ve been in total linguistic isolation –  many of the hotel staff here speak English very well and use it to good effect to pump information out of us about Canadian tourist destinations, either that or they are spies.

Normally we seek out an English-speaking church, but the town where we live has none – the very first locale we’ve been where this is the case.

In the past, all we’ve had to do to make friends was show up at a church and let divine intervention take place. Our faithful brethren would size up our  ineptitudes immediately and take us under their wings.

Americans are especially quick to do this, instantly recognizing bumpy roads ahead as they wearily assume a degree of responsibility for acclimatizing me to my host country, knowing full-well I would get pegged as “another obnoxious American.” They are sick of getting grief for the stream of faux pas I commit wherever I go.

Dogs welcome. We kept tripping over someone's little dachshund who roamed the bar/restaurant freely with his leash in tow, felling customers with hardly a wink.

They are not wrong about this. I have a lingering southern accent, the roots of which lie in the fact that for most of my life I have spent a lot of time with Americans from Massachusetts all the way down to Florida. I also was a big fan of the American sitcom Green Acres, but for some reason I did not pick up Zsa Zsa Gabor’s curly Hungarian accent.

All this leads up to our recent appearance at a meeting of a 100-year-old English club. We arrived at Les Caves restaurant where they were gathering to mark the nuptials of Prince Will and Kate. The group looked shocked to see strangers waltz in, even though they invite newcomers on the website.

One of the senior members recovered; eyed us up and down and demanded to know, “Are you British?”

She looked crestfallen when we identified ourselves as Canadians. Just the colonials, that’s all. She turned away in disappointment, mumbling that we might want to speak to an American they kept over in the corner.

Nevertheless, we hung around and soon the wine began to take effect on the club members, who grew more welcoming. By the time we left, they were dragging assurances out of us that we would return.

See. This is the unheralded danger of over-imbibing on spirits… it makes me look socially graceful (I don’t include Dave in this – he is unfailingly polite wherever we go – I’m the one who has foot-in-mouth disease).

We’re going back to the next meeting, which is tonight. We’ll see how that goes.

Dining on the Champs

Our exceedingly snotty French waiter at the Cafe de Musee, who may have been right to hold the butter on my croissant order.

Paris’s Champs Elysees, home of Louis Vuitton, Sepphora and Swarovski flagship stores, is an avenue that prides itself on excising as much capital from tourists as possible.

Fiscally speaking, we are diametrically opposed to this, so we would not have been surprised if when we first stepped onto the Champs, a black hole had torn open and swallowed up the whole of France. Seriously, we are that cheap.

But even the cheap have to eat, especially after the grueling march down the Champs that is filled with one amazing scene after another – and all of these being of towering women teetering on five-inch stilettos, their upright state only ensured by keeping their designer shopping bags equally weighted.

We stumbled from one sidewalk cafe to another, holding back our gasps at the posted menu prices of 50-Euro ($70 Cdn.) prices.

Fois gras? Or Klik?

We settled on the L’Alsace restaurant, which boasted a steal-of-a-deal tourist special at about $20/person. It seemed too good to be true and we braced ourselves to be fed horse or goat meat. Inside, the waiters waved their menus and delivered subtle scowls at any suggestion we were of such low-class as to dine on so humble a meal as their lunch special, but we happily took our place at the bottom of Pari’s culinary totem pole and ordered the special anyway.

Dave had the mashed duck liver, more appealingly tagged Pate’ de Foie Gras, which arrived looking like it had been sliced right out of a can of Klik. Were the French punishing us for our fiscal frugality? Mais non! It turned out the pate’ was quite good.
I had the sautéed goat cheese, which was a meal in itself. It came folded in phyllo, lightly turned in a pan of butter with a splash of sweet sauce – delicious. The main course – roast chicken breast on rice was plain in appearance, but tender and nicely seasoned. For the poor-man’s dinner on the sidewalks of the Champs Elysees, it was pretty good.

Goat cheese, along with an understated green salad.

On or off the Champs, Parisian cafes are a delight, although sometimes the scene of cultural clashes. 

This is because European waiters are not only the bringers-of-food; they are also the guardians of cuisine culture.

At lunch outside Napoleon’s tomb, I ordered a croissant “avec buerre,” causing our waiter’s nostrils to flare and his brow to furrow.  He corrected my faux pas by bringing only the croissant. Having dueled with European waiters on points of dining etiquette before (eg. never order coffee at the beginning of a meal in Spain), I shrugged and ate the croissant sans butter.

It was just as well. It was gossamer-light, free of the slippery butter texture of its North American cousins, not that there’s anything wrong with buttery croissants.

At another cafe, a compliment on the quiche earned an introduction to the chef who painstakingly described how to repeat the feat.
I am now armed with his secret recipe, but it’s in French, and only scribbled into my memory, so our guests will have to be satisfied with the quiche recipe we got from our neighbour Dan (the insurance man who wore a suit while he built our garden shed, but that is another story).
The frugal can find food in Paris without hitting a McDonalds (yes, McDonalds is in Paris – but not on the Champs – and I regret we didn’t give it a go, because we’ve seen curiously culturally altered McDonalds at other places).
Average expenditure per person per day: $80-$100. Could we go cheaper? Yes, we always can.
Apologies: WordPress is exhibiting some formatting problems. My apologies for the paragraph-jams. 

Paris food – can you eat lamb’s kidney without having to sell your own?

Sweet treats and good rib-sticking eats all in one shopping spot at French bakeries and patisseries.

The first question is why would you want to eat a lamb’s kidney anyway? Gross.  That aside, French food enjoys a reputation that tops all others, but do they deserve it?

It’s easy to trot into France’s finest restaurants and emerge satisfied that the nation’s cuisine is all that is claimed. But what about those of us who blanche at $75 lunches? What is French food like for the mid-to-low range diner? Does Paris even have a mid-to-low-range dining echelon?

We-the-cheap conducted an in-depth 48-hour study on this topic. Here is what we found.

Patisseries/boulangeries, that is, combination pastry and bakery shops, are great sources for not-so-expensive, but still delicious, day-time meals, and these shops are everywhere.

Aux Armes de Niel, the  boulangerie (photo above)  at the corner down from our hotel sold soup-bowl-sized take-out quiches and other sustaining  foods (mini-pizzas, although I don’t know if they called them that) for under $10 each.  The alternative was our hotel breakfast at 20 Euros, that is,  over $30 Cdn. each. No thanks.

400-year-old French cafe. No one was there. We're not saying this suggests that its age corresponded to the length of time customers waited for a meal, but you have to wonder.

It also sold fabulous overfilled cream pastries, if such can be said to be truly over-filled. After all, this is whipped cream. There’s never too much of it, so the French seem to think and, after sampling the goods, we agree.  The pastries themselves were heavenly- flakey, light, everything Pilsbury dough-boy claims, but is not. French pastry is a perfect jacket for French fillings and toppings.

If you’re deciding between French ice cream and French pastries as your guilt-food for the day, pick the pastries. The ice cream is good, but ice cream tops out at a certain point anywhere in the globe and I can prove it by producing homemade ice cream at my Ontario cottage that could stand up alongside the French’s. Note to cottage guests: But I won’t do that, because summer is the time to laze on the dock – not a good place for churning ice cream.  Note to those searching for the greatest scoop of ice cream: Head to Atlanta, Georgia. Break into any home-kitchen and demand the contents of their churn. Seriously. You will not be disappointed.

San Remo Pizzeria in Paris; artichoke, olive and pepper pizzaBut I digress.

We scoured the streets for under-$30/person fare and found a few places, such as the San Remo’s Pizzeria near the Place de Marechal Juin roundabout and Pereire metro station.  There, I had a delicious vegetarian pizza with artichokes that did not appear to have ever graced the insides of a jar.

Dave had the grilled salmon and spaghetti alla chitarra, a substantial thick spaghetti noodle cooked to just the right degree of resistance and subtly seasoned.

With a glass of the house wine and a beer, the total came to $36.90. Shocking, all the more so for having been so delicious.  The atmosphere on this Paris sidewalk cafe was great, too. The staff (probably Italians) were nowhere near as snooty as French servers’ reputation suggests.

Tomorrow: Dining on the Champs Elysees – Can it be done for under $70 a person? 

The poor you will always have with you

Jesus’s words about the ever-present poor hover about wherever we go, although each country seems to have its own particular type of impoverished.

This panhandler near the Georges V hotel in Paris remained motionless with her hand and cup outstretched. Completely cloaked, we couldn't be certain of her age, if she was conscious, or even a she. The still prostrate posture was common among Parisian beggars.

In Madrid, we saw them lean, their ragged clothes drifting over their hollow rib-cages, camped in low-lying creek valleys and ditches, living in makeshift box and sheet-metal ghettos invisible to the eye until the passerby almost stumbles in to them.

In Atlanta, a woman and her eight-year old son lingered at a downtown parkade’s exit, looking for some change. Dave drove them to a Burger King. On the way, he offered the child a piece of gum. Instead of chewing it, the boy gobbled it down – a sobering vision of hunger in America.

In Victoria, B.C., the poor lack the hollowed-out visage common to the poor of other countries. On Douglas Street at a poverty protest, a group of “homeless” panhandlers assured me that they had food aplenty. What they really wanted were cigarettes.

And in Paris the poor sometimes lay prostrate on the pavement only a few feet from where people lined up outside designer stores where women’s summer pumps sell for $1,500.

The most well-fed beggar we saw had a corner on the Royal Pereire Cafe near the metro entrance. You can even catch a glimpse of him on Google Maps here.  (the link will not take you directly to him, but if you check the pavement in front of the cafe, you can see him – he’s obviously a fixture).  Locals stopped to chat with him, and except for the upturned cap on the pavement, his calm demeanor would have been just about right had he been seated a few feet away at a cafe table.

Security manages the line at the Louis Vuitton store on Paris's Champs Elysees - the couple at the front stood patiently, their faces befuddled and frustrated while he let other customers walk right in ahead of them. Nevertheless, when he waved them in they were all smiles. I think they're called "marks."

Many beggars in Paris were women dressed in burqas. We don’t know what to make of that. We didn’t see any of the drug-induced lurching and mentally ill erratic manifestations of Victoria’s street population.

Nevertheless, in Paris’s underground, there were signs of possibly drug-related poverty: On the metro, a man appeared in one of the cars, mumbling, his head swaying rhythmically while passengers studiously looked the other way. When he turned to leave, his shoulder blades jutted in sharp profile against his beige sweater that was tucked into loose slacks, revealing his skeletal form.

Out on the broad promenade at the Champs Elysees, people were practically begging to get into the exclusive designer house stores. At Louis Vuitton, two security guards kept the line-up roped in a New York club-style. The line inched slowly along while the occasional “well-heeled” customer walked right up to the security guard and was let in without even so much as a glance at the waiting masses, much to the disgruntled expressions of those  in the queue. It was a statement of class, money and power.

I made my own statement by not trying to get into the store, although I doubt that Louis and his cohorts missed me much.

Those familiar with the title of this post as coming from the New Testament, the seventh verse of the 14th chapter of the Book of Mark might know what comes after – that Jesus goes on to say we  “can help them (the poor) anytime you like.” We can. We’re just not sure how.

Here are more images of Paris’s down-and-out population – and for something a little more upbeat – here’s my not-very-good vid of a Paris busker who was fabulous. His singing starts at the 39-second mark.

A man sleeping the doorway of a commerce building facing the Seine River.

A panhandling woman looks around, seemingly bored with her line of work.

Not technically a beggar, but a street-performer. It was the worst show on earth - for a coin or two, she would nod, then go back to this position. Nevertheless, as a hot-flash-enduring middle-aged woman who cannot keep make-up on my face, I want to know her secret. It was scorching outside, yet her gold patina was flawless.

Another beggar, keeping her face down, kneeling motionless and silent on the Champs Elysees.

One panhandler was nowhere to be seen - must have run off for a cafe' au lait, although he still left his post open for donations.

Amazing that he was comfortable leaving his stuff unattended on Paris streets while nervous tourists clutch onto their bags in fear of robbery (quite rightly).

Sleeping on the job., but with the cup still in full view.

Paris thieves – prettier than you would expect

Gare de Lyon Paris train station on a slow day.

The girl was wide-eyed, frantic. About 20 years old, fresh complexion, dressed in clean, crisp spring colours, with her hair pulled back into a girlish pony tail; her words spilled over themselves as she rolled a smart-looking suitcase up to the cafe table just behind us.

We were at Paris’s Gare de Lyon train station, which sees something like a 10 million passengers a year. I could have made that figure up, but actually, I read it somewhere, but cannot remember where at the moment, so cannot vouch for its accuracy.

She hoisted an expensive-looking camel-and-turquoise-beaded leather handbag over to the man seated at the table behind us. She spoke French but it was clear she was asking him to watch her baggage, while she accomplished some errand. At that moment, it did not occur to us the errand was to escape capture.

Gare de Lyon train station, Paris. The launch site of many exciting travels as well as thefts.

He said no as he passed the handbag back at her. It was then that her purpose became clear. She punted the suitcase to the next table, but instead of beseeching anyone else’s help, she took flight, the handbag under her arm, and the suitcase abandoned.

Even then, we were too baffled to shout “Stop thief,” although I’ve wanted to do that all my life. The man she had approached got up and rolled the suitcase away, presumably to security. Later, we realized how dangerous this situation could have been – a girl fleeing luggage – the case could have held a bomb.

As it was, we lamented some poor woman who would likely get her suitcase back, but not her purse and whatever possessions or passport were inside it.

European thieves – who knew that in addition to being conniving and criminal, they’d also be cute.

And now for a few well-worn travel tips:

  1. The money belt is your friend, even if it makes you look like you’ve put on a pound or two: Could a pickpocket worm his/her way through your shirt, belt, pant-waistband to get at your money belt (which is where you should keep your passport)? I don’t know, but it would be interesting to see them try.
  2. Spread the cards around: Carry credit/identity cards in different spots, so that if you do get robbed, you will still have some resources.
  3. Do not carry valuables in a knapsack on your back. Those are just open store shelves to thieves.
  4. For those who are live in a world dominated by Murphy’s Law: If you’re travelling as a couple/group, both/all should wear money belts (there’s no reason why only one person should look plump). While one of us carries the passports, the other carries photocopies of the passports, just to make life easier when we show up at the embassy, in the event we do get robbed.
  5. Be cautious of any attention-grabbing event, however innocuous it may seem. Dave’s work-colleagues put their luggage up on an overhead compartment on a Swiss train from Geneva. A person came down the aisle and “accidentally” sprayed coins all over the floor. Dave’s colleagues, nice guys both of them, obligingly helped the person retrieve the coins. Later they discovered their baggage had been pilfered. In another more gripping incident, a woman faked throwing a baby off a bridge, after which she disappeared and so did the wallets and valuables of the onlookers/rescuers. The “baby” was a bundle of rags.
  6. Don’t stand on the street when opening a map: Find a seat in a cafe or a bench.
  7. This is not the time to exhibit your hugginess. Anyone coming close to you is suspect, but it is almost impossible to avoid physical contact while getting on or off a train/subway, which is why those are prime pick-pocketing times, so the best you can do then is be aware of your surroundings and make sure your valuables are not in easy-to-access spots.

A French garden and an Italian squabble

A giant circular pond of green brackish water in Tuileries Garden attracts sunbathers.

As I sit here in our Swiss flat with the patio door open, an Italian domestic spat is going on downstairs.  It’s what we call a “breaking story,” so I’ll report on it in italics (how suitable) as I enter today’s scribblings on our trip to Paris.

It is a testament to spin doctors of all generations that the word “garden” is imbedded in the name Tuileries Garden, which are the grounds outside the Louvre.

I use the word “grounds” deliberately, because it suggests a flat, uninterrupted horizontal space, which is what we found, instead of the expected cultured urban forest.

The woman’s voice climbs upward into an elegant aria, accented by a few words here and there from the man. I have no idea what they’re saying, but it sounds like an argument over him spending too much time on the phone with his mother. 

A 19th-century sculpture, or a modern-day visitor in Paris's midday sun?

Who would have thought the French would lay a belly of gravel as a garden centerpiece?

The garden (term loosely applied) is almost 500 years old, so we looked forward to strolling beneath broad sweeps of mature shade trees. It was not to be.

Paris must have a very hostile climate, because in its few scattered groves, the trees that it did have were about the size of the cherry trees we planted in our backyard in 2004.

The woman lectures at machine-gun speed, the man responds in short resigned sentences.

A later generation of Tuileries’ garden planners circa 19th-century, probably seeing the trees were not doing so well,  trimmed the gravel flats with stone sculptures of human figures in various stages of angst, foreshadowing the postures of modern-day visitors withering under the sun.

The Louvre, the mobs and some guy on a horse trying to get through it all.

A door slams! The woman has left! 

How did the sculptors know? We were fascinated by their foresight. Either that, or the heat stroke brought on by standing in the furnace of a stone-and-gravel chamber has rattled our senses.

We now understand the French Revolution in a new light, which had some of its most poignant events occur in the summer heat. Of course the French were cranky. What else could they be?

As for the Italian revolution downstairs, the woman is back. I knew she would be. She tells the man she loves him. He tells her the same. She says something else. He grunts. Her voice goes up – yes, they’re back at it again. 

The "garden" outside the Louvre.

Someone comes into the room – the mother-in-law perhaps? She has a more mature voice. The couple’s tone softens. The woman takes a few cloaked stabs at the man, then, the sound of cutlery, and the older woman’s voice.

Ah, she is solving their argument with food, the force that has sustained Italian culture over the centuries. 


 

Tomorrow: More Paris – the homeless, the fake riot and train-station thievery. 

And now,  in the spirit of fairness, despite my whining over their parks-board decisions, Paris is beautiful. Here’s the proof:

Charming little cafe near the Notre Dame Cathedrale. According to its signage, the cafe has been in operation since 1594, ie. shortly before my ancestors decided they had enough of this place and bolted for Canada. This in no way should be taken to reflect my family's opinions on French food.

Pont Alexandre III: Beautifully embellished bridge, and like so many Paris sites, built for the 1900 World Fair. Cannot imagine what a dull place Paris was, architecturally speaking, before the World Fair.

Grand Palais des Beaux Arts: Art nouveau iron and glass structure erected for the 1900 World Fair.

A rental bike post outside of our hotel (Waldorf Arc d'Triomphe on rue Pierre Demours). These stands were all over Paris. We didn't rent any bikes, owing to our terror of French roadways and the drivers that populate them, but saw quite a few being ridden by tourist-types.

I have no idea what this is.

Cathedrale Notre Dame de Paris: Christian site since 250 AD, church building started of one sort or another existed on or near here since the 4th century. This building's construction began in 1163.

The cemetery at Montparnasse, burial-place of many notables including Emile Durkheim (pioneering sociologist), Simone de Beauvoir (French philosopher, author), and the Roy family, of which we may or may not be related through my maternal great-grandmother.

Cop Shop

As a reporter,  I maintained a no-sweat policy at police stations. I refused to race into them, because it seemed unwise to arrive in a sweat, possibly raising suspicions that I was fresh from a bank heist, thereby triggering the police’s “arrest-and-detain” instincts. ***

A police station in Lauterbrunnen, not the police station that I had to visit to get our residency cards. I took this photo because its unassuming appearance suggests Switzerland's low crime rate.

But I did break into a sweat when my husband suggested that I go all on my own to the police station here in Switzerland to pick up our residency cards.

The last time I went there I was accompanied by a tri-lingual corporate agent and Dave, my hubby who everyone likes “on sight.”

Dave is the guy who strolled through Heathrow’s security detail without earning even a second-glance from the guards, meanwhile, I had to remove my shoes, which I admit that when the border official said, “your shoes” to me in that stern voice, I mistook her intention and replied, “Oh, do you like them? I got them in Canada – they’re Skechers. They’re great, although I really should have worn my Merrills cause they’re better for long hikes through airports.” Apparently, she was not interested in their retail history.

But I drift from my point, which is that I do not possess “on-sight likability,” making all ventures into police or foreign-government premises tricky business.

It is a serious handicap.

To prevent the dreaded sweat-syndrome, I dressed in extremely light summer clothing, such that by the time I made the walk to the police station in the brisk morning air, I could no longer feel my hands. Excellent.

However, I arrived 15 minutes before opening so I settled down on an inside staircase with a book, not realizing that sunlight was pouring in through a window above me. Within minutes, the sun’s amplified warmth, coupled with an anxiety-related hot-flash did its work. I was mopping my brow when the police station door opened.

I mumbled my way through in French, whereupon the clerk informed me I belonged in the office one-flight-up. Upstairs, the second clerk looked at me with a deadpan-bordering-on-openly-hostile expression.  I knew my unlikability-ness was oozing into the room, but there was nothing I could do about it. She sent me to the back of the line to wait for the only English-speaking clerk.

I panicked and phoned Dave, in the hopes that I could absorb some of his charm via the wireless. It worked! When I saw the third clerk, she recognized our names and handed over our residency cards.

Witness the awesome power of Dave’s likability – he doesn’t even have to be in the room to make it work.

This ends our bureaucratic visa-scramble until next year, when we have to re-apply.

***The no-sweat policy, however, did not apply to Central Saanich’s police station, because I have gotten lost several times in that outlying municipality of farmlands. Many times, Central Saanich’s media officer had to “talk me down” over the cell phone, giving me step-by-step directions to get to the station. It is to her credit that she never directed me to Sooke, which she easily could have done. I would never have known.

What’s wrong with Switzerland

This is not me. Judging by the dozens of paragliders floating over the valley, the Interlaken is an excellent place to catch an updraft. Dave spotted one glider just jump up on a mountain side and take off. Not jump "off," just jump "up." The laws of physics and gravity appear to be suspended in Switzerland.

What’s wrong with Switzerland is that it has mountain peaks that stand on tiptoe at over 13,000 feet above sea level. I’m only five feet above sea level. You can see how scary the Alps can be for someone like me.

We decided to check out (not go up) some of those mountain heights in Switzerland’s famous Interlaken region. After two hours of travel via Swiss Rail for the return-ticket price of $80 for two of us, we arrived at the valley floor of Lauterbrunnen, a quaint Swiss village surrounded by quaint Swiss farmyards that looked very much like Vancouver Island’s Saanich Peninsula, except where the peninsula is surrounded by the Pacific Ocean, the Lauterbrunnen valley is surrounded by mountains.

Dave calls this a “material” difference.

Lauterbrunnen cemetery - placed suspiciously close to Lauterbrunnen gondola

We began what appeared to be an aimless stroll by admiring the Lauterbrunnen cemetery, without argument the tidiest, least-scary graveyard I’ve ever seen, except that only six kilometres away is what I call the Gotten Himmel gondola ride, a five-minute 1,600-foot sweep up from the valley-floor to the mountain-clinging village of Gimmelwald (4,593-feet).

Gotten Himmel means “God in Heaven” and certainly my mind was on spiritual matters, being so close to the resting place of the dead and the gondola, an efficient agent of death if ever I saw one.

The enchanting stroll along the Lauterbrunnen valley, that ends at Recipe for Death gondola ride.

I started to climb the wrought iron fence into the cemetery, reasoning that I might as well just lie down and take root, rather than go through the heart-stopping gondola ride, but Dave convinced me we would just walk the valley and see its famous 10 waterfalls. That the gondola was at the end of the valley and we were walking in its direction did not mean we had to get on it.

The sun was hot, the views hypnotic and the walk long, so that by the time we arrived at the gondola site, I had temporarily lost my mind, which is the only explanation for how I found myself standing in line with a gondola ticket in hand.

I made the ride, without screaming, which proves that living-in-denial is the roadway to achievement, even a modest achievement such as getting through five-minutes of this (click to see 54-second clip of end of ride).

More to follow, including a mountain-side restaurant review.

Murrenbach waterfall plunges 417 feet to valley floor. Lauterbrunnen is a classic glacial valley with near vertical cliffs on both sides.

Travel travails continued


Arc de Triomphe, commissioned by Napoleon in 1806, and new symbol of our goal to get to Paris. Will we triumph? In a side note: We have several Spanish coins dated to 1802 with a Napoleonic visage on them. Must remember to get them appraised.

As I made my way through throngs of commuter passengers at Biel’s train station, a middle-aged man in a tan jacket and faded denims unzipped in the train square and let’er rip.

I’ve lived in Spain, so I’ve seen public urination before – usually on the side of the highway where the Spanish men do not give passersby the courtesy of turning their backs to the road as they empty their bladders.

A location for public urination? According to one fellow, it is. Yuk.

This fellow, who stared straight ahead and otherwise appeared sober, had opted for what must be Biel’s  most public venue for such a private act. It was only 6:30 p.m., still broad daylight and the square was jammed.

Maybe he had just come off a day of dealing with a cantankerous travel website, or perhaps he had just discovered his train ticket cost double what he expected.

So I walked on by, noticing that no one else seemed to notice or care much about Mr. Public Urination.

A few minutes later, after meeting Dave inside, we/I learned our train costs will be over $500, according to a different booking agent than the one who earlier in the week had quoted $260. The agents had a good belly laugh when we mentioned the $260 quote.

Because we are Canadians, we did not shout or make any display. We simply groaned inwardly as we felt our stomach ulcers dig in deeper.

At that point, we were still in recovery from the lastminute.com fiasco and it seemed that as Tuscany was for Seinfeld, so Paris would be for us (click here to find out what I’m talking about). It has become our “white whale.” We must get there, and so we ponied up the cash, realizing that we are already at over $1,000 for two days in that famed city.

It goes a little over budget for we frugal types, but we are rapidly losing the ability to care … at least about that. I’d still rather men chose more discreet locations to relieve themselves.  After all, this isn’t Spain.

Postscript: And now a well-traveled friend warns us to stay away from Paris over Easter.  Cue the Jaws theme music.