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. 

Free Plane Ticket Home Comes with Cuffs and Diapers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

________________

Switzerland’s See-Through Loos

 

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

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

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

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

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

City of Victoria, British Columbia public urinal

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Museums and art galleries generally have free washrooms.

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

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

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

Good to know if you go:

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

Thun, beautiful but often ignored

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thun. Ugh. What a horrible place.

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

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

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

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

The castle in Thun against a lovely blue sky.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tomorrow: More Thun along with more photos

More street talent

Rob van Wely and his travelling audience.

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

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

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

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

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

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

New links:

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

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.

The top of Europe? Not quite.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Heading down Kleine-Scheidegg.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Higher still in the Jungfrau mountains

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tomorrow: The Mannlichen-Kleine Scheidegg trail. 

Alpine flowers at Jungfrau.

Looking north toward Lake Brien or also known as Brienzersee.

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

The things you bring back home

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Swiss people and parks

Biel/Bienne beach gets a summer face-lift.

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

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

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

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

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

AFTER: Palm trees, sand, lots of people.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

City of Victoria, British Columbia public urinal

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Museums and art galleries generally have free washrooms.

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

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

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

Good to know if you go:

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

Hotel-living

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Mom told me not to talk to strangers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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..

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. 

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.

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.

Making friends fast

As in so many places in the world, it is in Switzerland: It’s easy to make friends when it appears you’re carrying a 24-pack of beer.

This isn’t to say the quality of friends is that which your mother would approve whole-heartedly, but friends all the same.

It started when I gave  into my very North-American vice and picked up a 24-case of Coke Zero for about $13 – quite a bit more than in Canada, but as I said, it’s a vice and today I am missing a few of those.  With the case propped atop my right shoulder, I made the short walk back to our hotel.

Swiss soldier on the look-out for beer.

I didn’t get there before I heard two men shouting at me in German from a car waiting at a red light. The two, dressed in army fatigues  were waving me over enthusiastically, asking me to spare a beer or two for a soldier.  I look German, so I got away with laughing derisively at them before they drove away, all smiles, but no beer (or Coke).

The hotel manager, Reiner, and our helpful front desk clerk Daniela were on their break by the side of our hotel, and as I approached, their wide smiles and exultations expressed their mistaken belief that I was carrying some brewskies. Their faces melted in dismay when I came near enough they could identify the Coke Zero.

The dismay turned into shock when I told them that a. I’ve never carried a 24 of beer and b. generally, speaking I avoid alcohol.

“How can you live this way, how can you be happy?” they demanded to know.

“In wine is a cure for all things,” Daniela said, ” You don’t need vitamins, just wine.”

I can’t say that I agree  – too many tragedies, traffic fatalities, high levels of stupidity start with the bottle, but I’ve got nothing against the occasional glass so I promised to test Swiss wine at the coming autumn festivals.

In the meantime, Dave is spending his evenings reading to me from our favorite travel guru Rick Steves’ guide book, suggesting that this weekend we head up to one of Switzerland’s mountain-peak chalets where sixty beds are jammed into a four-bedroom house with shared baths, but the views are spectacular.

“Just pretend I’m Leslie,” I say.

Leslie is an Atlanta friend of ours who emancipated me from all socially induced pretense back in 1996 when she said to me, “Let’s not pretend that I will ever cook anything,” and “Camping? Never.”

Switzerland's famous Interlake region

Up to that point, I was under the delusion that a love of camping held some mystical virtue and cooking was a necessity, but happily Leslie showed me another way, and that way started with a firm  “No” to crazy ideas that would have me doing either, or anything even remotely resembling such. That includes booking into hostel-style accommodation.

So, no. We are not heading up to any mountain peaks this weekend, but instead will enjoy a train ride through the mountain range’s valleys. Much more civilized.

Luscious Lucerne

Saturday we took the 90-minute train ride east to Lucerne, past lush, meticulously kept pastures, rolling hills, quaint farms with cows lolling about, a trip made sweeter because we now have our Swiss Rail resident half-price cards.

It looks like a great deal, bringing the price for  two return tickets down to $78. We were pretty pleased with that until we realized that we were travelling only 48 miles – what the heck? That’s like a $1.50 a mile.

Swiss comedians? Or the Swiss version of a chain gang (ie. not breaking rocks, just colouring on them).

We arrived in Lucerne to discover the city in the throes of an international comedy festival called “Fumetto” – at least, that was the explanation we got for the men in orange suits studiously scratching a chalk path into one of the cobblestone squares, which didn’t look funny at all, but I’m sure something hilarious was about to happen. We had our doubts, because orange suits are prison gear back in the U.S., so we were suspicious this was the Swiss version of a prison-work program.

We checked out a kitchen store where laundry bags sold for $99 and shoe stores, at one of which I found a pair of  loafers priced at $269… others were priced higher, but my brain could not compute such numbers well enough to recall them now.

Lucerne is, after all, Switzerland’s Monaco, and the well-heeled were in ostentatious abundance from stylish couples strolling the lakeside promenade to high-end sports cars inching through narrow cobblestone streets that until their arrival, we thought were pedestrian-only. Maybe the rules are different for those driving Bugattis and Lamborghinis.

Even the McDonalds restaurant was high-end with vintage ceiling tiles, orange cube leather seating and a McCafe pastry bar. Ooo la la! It was a beautiful city. I’ll let the photos speak for it. Click on photos to get a larger version.

At a swank chocolate shop called Merkor - I think it translates into "No chocolate under $40"

About half of the chocolate in Merkor's main showcase, and I do mean "showcase." The word "display" just doesn't quite make it.

Lucerne's waterfront. Not so bad.

The inside of Lucerne's Jesuit Church. Very white. Very bright.

Lucerne. Very pretty.

Lunch for the uber-rich - also, where they are on display for gawkers like us.

 

Many of Lucerne's Old Town buildings sport frescos (murals) - this one depicts the city's Mardi Gras celebrations.

A wall mural depicting the building's former street level cafe-owners in Mardi Gras celebrations.

Lucerne has two homeless men. We found them both. It's noteworthy that this man's wardrobe included a colour (red/orange pepper) that matched many park benches, and that is also favored among the rich (see other photos). Even Lucerne's homeless fall under the dictates of fashion.

The photo quality is not very good, but this stylish 8-10-year-old girl's pic is worth posting - we saw fashion-conscious kiddies everywhere. What is this? France?

A woman parading her control over her husband on Lucerne's Promenade - his attire matches hers right down to his shoes. Somebody help this guy.

View over Lucerne Lake with the Alps in the background. This body of water is also called Vierwaldstattersee. Yes, it is.

Why is moving so exhausting?

Whether packing up two giant suitcases and shuffling them a matter of a 100 metres of so falls under the classication of “moving,” I do not know, but I know I am getting tired of moving, even if they are micro-moves.

How did we get this way? Here is how:

Before arriving in Switzerland, we had emailed back-and-forth with the hotel about their long-stay suites  that had been recently renovated and did not require a lease. Leases are an issue when one arrives without a residency card, but one cannot get a residency card without a lease/permanent address. This Catch-22 is a modern form of torture that leaves no outward bruising.

Our previous apartment.

Our new apartment.

But when we arrived, the suites the agent showed us  were nothing like the ones on the website.

We shrugged.  We’ve been overseas before and cheating, fooling and/or overcharging North Americans is standard, so we were just glad to get a place with hot water.

The city-street view outside our previous apartment. It is a popular ambulance/emergency route.

Several nights sleeping by the corner of a downtown intersection, however, wore on us, so I returned to the hotel desk to ask if there were any other suites. Daniela, the front desk clerk, said yes, and then showed me two absolutely fabulous suites that matched up with the website photos we had seen from Canada.

How can this discrepancy be explained?

The two suites – the noisy one we were in and the courtyard one I quickly snapped up yesterday are in the same building, owned by the same company, however, the ugly ones are sub-leased to a rental company. Our corporate rep mixed up the two.

Our employer had already signed a long-stay lease with the ugly-apartment agency – were we trapped?

Happily not. Our corporate rep, who is redeeming the reputation of bureaucrats everywhere, quickly negotiated a solution and in the space of 45 minutes we moved to the new suite.

Our snazzy little kitchenette with some high-end appliances I do not understand, but I love them all the same.

Daniela, the front desk clerk, is a wonder. She came over after her shift, dressed in her street clothes and ready to head home, but insisted on helping me move, then refused to take a tip.

I am beginning to think the Swiss are practically perfect in every way.

This weekend we head for Lucerne. Or Lausanne. I’m not sure which.

How friendly are the Swiss?

When the woman took a seat across from us on the train ride back from Murten, she looked normal.

She had come on with a pack of senior citizens, all rattling in lively conversation. She hovered over some people who we thought must be old friends, clutching about half-dozen twigs in her hand. They were only about two feet long – too short for basket-weaving.

Snug alleyway in Murten.

She then eyed our cluster of seats, flopped down with an exaggerated gasp of exhaustion, and appraised us silently with her enormous brown eyes. Her chin-length hair was auburn brown and her posture suggested she was fit, but she had bags under her eyes and what looked like a patch of skin cancer on her cheek – she could have been 55 or 80.

She addressed us in German, then raised her eyebrows at our fumbling response: “No German,” not meaning that there are no Germans, or that we refuse to associate with Germans, much less attempt the language.  She leaned closer, waved at the bundle of twigs and said in English,  “I put sticks  in and get wine. You know, sticks, water.”

No, we didn’t know, but we were sitting knee-to-knee within grabbing distance so we nodded politely and mentally calculated how long to the next train stop.

Was she insane? Would she pinch one of us by the arm and force more alcohol-related recipes on us?

As she pressed us into conversation with her not-totally-broken, but not quite all-there-English, we tried to not look like we were thinking about the distance to the next train station, but it didn’t work. She somehow deduced that our estimation of her mental faculties was not as it should be, even though neither of us gave into the rising urge to claw madly at the stop-buttons and demand the train doors open (we had already done that earlier on the ride into Murten).

She returned to the wine-twig topic and elaborated until her meaning became clear: That she would stick the twigs (dried vines) in the ground, water them, and eventually they would take root, produce grapes and then wine. She was not expecting to get wine from them that evening.

Swiss trains are spotless, their schedules and routes relatively easy to understand, but be ready for a sociable time as the Swiss love to chat.

Her mental stability established, we relaxed.

We have seen signs of such friendliness before. The day earlier,  in a grocery store line-up  a woman discerned our foreign-ness and invited us on a boat trip over Lake Biel. Suspicious North Americans that we are, we politely evaded the question, but we can’t help noticing that overall the Swiss are extraordinarily friendly.

Either that, or they are all stalkers-in-waiting. We shall see.

What’s in a name? Murten or Morat?

The view from Murten/Morat's castle ramparts where on June 22, 1476, 2,000 Murtonians/Moratians beat 20,000 invading French back into the lake, causing many of the armor-clad French to drown. The townspeople were aided by about 10,000 neighbours. This battle is considered seminal to the creation of the Swiss Union. Note: The French were hungover from partying the night before. True story. Also of note: The Swiss are famous for their mercenary soldiers. By this we conclude that it is not the legendary Swiss neutrality that protects against foreign invasion, but Swiss ferocity.

It began with us sprinting through the train much to the horror of our fellow passengers, but it wasn’t really our fault. We blame multiculturalism and its child, multilingualism.

In Canada, multilingualism earns high respect, but here in Europe it leads to high-annoyance. My international readers will correct me if I’m wrong, but even the multilingual Swiss can have trouble clearing language hurdles.***

As an example, the lease negotiations between Dave’s corporate rep and our apartment’s leasing agent were conducted in English, although they both spoke French and German. So why English? Because it was their strongest common language and to use the descriptor “strongest” is stretching it.

We, the mute, listened as they waffled back and forth in three not-very-good languages, hearing one question spawn the response “yes” at one moment and “no” in the next. Consequently, the terms of our lease are a mystery to us.

It brought back memories of my multilingual European father who back in the early 1960s decided we would speak English only, saying that it was better to be eloquent in one language than an idiot in many.

Before you write your angry letters, let me say I know there are people out there who are masters in many languages. I just have not run into many yet.

But I drift from my topic, which is Murten/Morat and how we got lost trying to get there. I don’t drift too far, though, as language formed the foundation for our trouble.

Medieval castle ramparts in Murten/Morat.

We got on the right train, heading in the right direction. As Biel fell behind us and the Swiss countryside opened up, we paid attention to town signs and watched the villages for castle ramparts and ancient churches – the attractions that were bringing us to Murten.

After what seemed a reasonable interval, we began to worry that we had missed our stop.

I recalled hearing the train’s recorded announcement heralding “Morat,” which was not on the map or in the train schedule. As it turns out, Morat is the French name for Murten.

We learned this later – that Swiss villages/towns frequently have both German and French names, but for some reason hidden in Swiss Rail’s corporate headquarters, they switch languages in a sporadic manner. Maybe it prevents invasion from foreign armies, or too many tourists amassing at any single point.

In any case, that is how we missed our stop.

Looking out from Cressier's rail station, Switzerland. April 2011. Clearly, we were in trouble.

We got out at Cressier, which by Swiss standards is absolute Heck as you can see by this photo (right), and then feared that this being a Sunday, there might not be a train for hours. Stuck in Cressier! Switzerland’s “Brugge.”

We were wrong about that and with some help, soon boarded a train returning to Murten.

But our travel-nerves were jangled, so we watched anxiously for signs of Murten – or Morat, call it what you want cause that’s what the Swiss do –  and the minute we saw something that remotely resembled the pictures in our guidebook, we got on our feet. The train came to a stop, but the doors wouldn’t open. We don’t know how trains work here, so we sprinted in a frantic manner through the cars looking for an open door, like rats stuck in a  trap.

One of us may have shouted, “Stop the train! Let us out, let us out, we want to go to Murten,” but I’m not saying who. At that point, a passenger said, “We’re not there yet.”

It is comforting to know that we gave our fellow passengers something to laugh about on that otherwise quiet ride. It is also comforting to know that we will never see any of those people again.

As it happened, the doors did not open because we weren’t actually at a station yet. If we had gotten out, we would have plunged down a steep incline. So sorry to have missed that.

By the way, we have also learned that the buttons we thought were for opening doors were actually emergency-stop buttons.

Eventually, we found our way to Murten-Morat, a charming medieval village by any name at all.

***This is a rant, and so is not bound by logic. If my Dad had decided to school us in European languages, our little sprint could have been averted. But where would be the fun in that?

A few things I’ve noticed in Biel

 

A secondary canal in Biel. Locals here think this town is trash, but I don't see anything wrong with it.

It is our first Monday in Switzerland and Dave’s first full day at work, and so now we settle into whatever normal looks like for our time here.

 

Of course, there is no “normal” yet – there’s too much we don’t know about this country, mostly because we are arrogant Anglophones and not very good with the local languages, although, I am improving.

I managed to tell a shopkeeper her wares were too expensive (tres cher), but only for today  (seulement pour aujourd’hui) because I had topped out my shopping budget and I would be back (retourner moi – although, I’m not sure about this particular phrase, maybe it is retournez moi).

No one has slapped me or thrown out onto the street, so I suppose my French is not so bad.

Shoes, shoes, shoes and more shoes.

I’ve also discovered that  European arrogance about fashion is well-deserved. Ordinary shops here carry fascinating clothes – some too fascinating for me, and others that are very forgiving for my middle-aged figure.

And for reasons I cannot yet unearth, shoe stores are everywhere, even in the farmers market.

Farmers market shoe sales. Go figure.

Within a few blocks of our home are three large grocery stores, making downtown living very easy. To put that in perspective for Victorians, imagine seeing a Safeway at Broughton, Fort and Pandora, or for Winnipeggers, grocery stores at Portage, Donald and Hargrave.

The police here are invisible. Where Victoria Police can be seen biking down Wharf  Street, Saanich Police cruising down Tillicum, and the RCMP just about anywhere at any time, we’ve only seen the Swiss police on the streets twice – at the Tamil demonstration in Bern and a few blocks away corralling an intoxicated man outside a grocery store.*

I don’t know what this means – if Switzerland has low crime rates or underfunded police departments, but I am not going to think about that. I am going to think about how to explain how we got lost on the train ride to Murten, which I plan to write about tomorrow.

* It may look odd that I list three police departments when describing Victoria, B.C.’s policing, but that is what there is. Victoria-regional law enforcement is made up of multiple municipal forces.

Bern, pronounced Behhhrrn

Telling any Swiss person that we were travelling to Bern (burn) produced puzzled frowns. Now we know why. We were saying it all wrong. We would feel bad about this, but how can the Swiss expect us to grasp place-pronunciation when they themselves can’t make up their minds what to call anything.

Bern: This clock tower was once a gate in the town ramparts, however, the city outgrew its boundaries twice.

We are sitting on a French-German cusp, and to keep everyone happy, every place has both a French and German name, such as our current place of residence Biel-Bienne.  Murten is also Morat. All along the train tracks are villages and towns with German names such as Mongbratzverstenspiel and a corresponding French name that doesn’t bear any resemblance to the German counterpart, such as Le Bleu. Okay, I just made up both those names, but if I had the strength to look at a map, I could pull out a few excellent examples.

Bern, happily, seems to run along on a single name, perhaps because it is the nation’s capital and they can’t afford to have a Franco-Germanic squawk about it without creating terrible unrest. I don’t know that. I am still making up things, owing to the linguistic spaghetti forming inside my brain.

Dave seated at Albert Einstein's desk when he worked at the patent office in Bern. Einstein is said to have made his greatest discoveries while living in Bern between 1901 to 1909. Then he left his wife and married his cousin. Ugh. In the meantime, Dave developed several new theories while seated at Einstein's desk.

A 30-minute train ride from Biel (pronounced Beeeel), Bern’s historic quarter covers over a peninsula formed by a bend of the Aare River. It was founded in 1191 and is built of porous green-grey sandstone that, like Spain’s famous golden sandstone buildings, can be scrubbed away rather easily, hence the Swiss have built into the walls to create what they call “arcades,” broad covered walkways drawing pedestrians behind the exterior, theoretically preventing them from touching the sandstone portions.

Of course, the first thing we did on our arrival to Bern was to head to the sandstone walls and scrub away,  just to see if our guidebook was right. It was. I should say, Bernese sandstone is not as delicate as Spanish sandstone. Nor is it as pretty. The entire town is a murky gray-green, but this does not take away from its impressive architecture.

While there, we saw a large group of dark-skinned people filling the town square as Swiss police took positions and parked paddy wagons around.  I approached the Swiss police as though they were Saanich police*, ie. friendly, non-combative and wishing something would happen.

“Is this a concert?” I asked. They laughed heartily while tasering me a few times before throwing me into the paddy wagon.

No, they did not do this, but can you imagine if they did? Now this would be one heck of a blog. In fact, they gave me some evasive answers (a la Victoria police, aka VicPD**), so I did the only thing I could and that was walk into the midst of the protesters and look for someone who did not look away as I approached.

Bern Munster Cathedrale, dating back to 1421. While we were inside, the organist kicked the massive pipe organ into gear. Stunning.

This is what retired reporters do – look for trouble. Although, we don’t know it, because years of angling to get as close as possible to ground-zero of any event has numbed our common sense. We are in a stupor.

I found an affable 35-40-year-old man, rather pudgy who looked like someone I could possibly outrun and asked him “what’s up.” He very kindly explained this was the Swiss Tamil community and they were demonstrating to dissuade the Swiss government from deporting Tamil political refugees, also sometimes known as terrorists.

My sons later scolded me, saying that walking into a large group of black people surrounded by police never ends well, but they are wrong. It ended well, with me unharmed, except for my arm which is a little sore from my  husband dragging me out of the crowd.

Bern is, by the way, highly recommended as a must-see on any trip to Switzerland. It is truly outstanding.

* Saanich Police is one of the many police departments covering the southern tip of Vancouver Island. Their area is generally considered a low-crime one, but I don’t actually know for sure. Because of this, they are constantly getting teased as “soft” by …

** Victoria Police, the department that covers the urban centre of Victoria, which is full of gritty stuff – drugs, homeless, homicides, and the like.

Leg One Okay, Leg Two, not so good

Leg One: Neighbour Dan arrives in his posh Ford Flex hybrid to drive us to airport.  Traffic congestion – moderate. Arrival at airport – on time.  On-ride conversation: Politics and general grousing about stupid decision to put McKenzie overpass at McTavish (yes, that is the McKenzie overpass, just put in the wrong place – sorry only Victorians will know what I’m talking about here).

Why I carry a lime-green suitcase - here is the last place we saw it at Victoria Airport. Poor little suitcase. Will we ever see it again?

Leg Two: First flight to Vancouver delayed; we may not make our connection to Toronto.

Leg Two the second: One flight from Victoria to Vancouver cancelled to mechanical issues. Crowd at Gate 6 searches under seats for pitchforks, farming implements. Finding none, they shrug and line up like Canadians, wearing their sternest frowns of disapproval.

Leg Two the third: Arrive in Vancouver and as per instruction, race to Air Canada service desk to join fray of angry/annoyed/resigned passengers whose trips have taken unexpected turns/delays. Not us. We’re happy that a. no planes have crashed (so far) and that b. I decided to wear athletic gear instead of 3″ heels and dress clothes.  Feeling exhilarated from sprinting up staircase.

Leg Two the fourth: Rerouted to Heathrow. Stuck in Vancouver Airport for six hours. Not so bad. Air Canada is buying us lunch and we’re sitting at Monk’s restaurant where a greasy guy with too many beer bottles at his table is staring at me.  Has he mistaken me for 24-year-old blond.  Not likely. Creepy.

On the plus side: Air Canada staff were delighted to hear my suitcase is lime green – making it much easier for them to find and redirect.

Latest development: We had to switch tables so Dave could plug in his laptop. Am now seated next to creepy staring guy.  Stay tuned.

Check out our restaurant review on Monks Grill @ YVR at https://hobonotes.com/dining-recipes/

Packing day

It takes me two hours to  leave the house, ergo with a little application of mathematical principles (multiplication, the most complex math I know), it would appear it will take me three weeks to leave the country. We fly on Tuesday, so I’m already behind schedule.

Quasi-moving packing is not the same as three-week excursion packing, but with nowhere else to go, I turned to Rick Steves, American travel guru to Europe http://www.ricksteves.com/plan/tips/packlight.htm. Steves recommends packing no more than 20 lbs. in a carry-on bag and to prove it can be done, his website has a video tape of him unpacking his stuff.

It looks like a bit of a magic trick – he puts the suitcase on the bed, opens up the top and like a magician pulling rabbits out of hats, pulls out a stream of clothes and travel gear. I suspect there was a hole in the bottom of the suitcase  and all that stuff really had been hidden in the mattress below.

When we moved to Spain in 1999, we were each allowed two pieces of luggage weighing in at 75 lbs. each, if my memory is correct. We packed to maximum capacity, dragging our aggregate body weight overseas. Occasionally, we were upgraded to executive class, allowing us to pack three bags – or was it four?

Our luggage-weight ballooned to the point that when our younger son and I landed in Chicago we had to hire a porter. I felt like Elizabeth Taylor, minus the striking beauty and wealth.  Nevertheless, the porters’ expressions when they saw us coming down the ramp at O’Hare was a sight to behold. We may have had to hire two, but I can’t remember for sure, mostly because I couldn’t see above the luggage, which included a large crate with an 80 lb. dog.

On that round-the-world excursion, we landed in Australia with a baggage-load  so extreme, we had to mail several hockey-bags worth of stuff back to Canada at a cost exceeding $400 (in 2000 dollars – which would probably be about $408 now). That’s a lot of postage stamps.

I’m trying to avoid all that by sticking to the strict dietary-packing guidelines Air Canada is forcing on me now, but packing for four seasons and more than a year overseas is tricky business. I managed to get everything into one suitcase, except for my winter gear. I’ll still be able to do it, but it will take two trips (one suitcase apiece) instead of one.

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And now for the serious middle-age traveler who is mildly curious about real luggage advice:

  1. Expensive versus cheap luggage: Go with cheap. We’ve hauled Wal-Mart-issue suitcases around the globe without any seam-ripping, zipper-splitting, contents-bursting effects.
  2. But what if the cheap stuff breaks anyway: It is more fun replacing a $40 suitcase than a $697 suitcase.
  3. What if I’m still nervous about my luggage’s durability? Luggage shops sell luggage straps for about $4 that you can secure around your bag just in case the zipper does give way. Airlines usually provide giant heavy-duty plastic bags with postage-standard tape at no cost so at check-in you can bag and seal your goods.
  4. Hard-case or softshell luggage: Go with soft-shell. In a non-scientific survey of two (my cheap luggage versus my friends’ high-end/status luggage, my soft (hockey bag or fabric suitcase with frame) luggage was able to take the squeeze of the luggage compartment.  Hers cracked, spraying blueberry jam over all their clothes.
  5. Who carries blueberry jam on a trip to the tropics? Despite what North America’s eastern Maple Syrup lobby tells you, it is blueberry jam, not maple syrup, that sets us apart from other countries, therefore, all North American cottagers carry wild blueberry jam on out-of-country trips. It is currency in foreign lands.
  6. Carry-on luggage: Wheeled suitcase or backpack: If possible, take a hybrid that does both. Touring calls for stair-climbing (think of all those beautiful hilltop villages in Spain) and pulling a wheeled case is like sightseeing with a stroller, ie. it’s work.
  7. What to pack: As little as possible. It’s better to pack light and buy whatever else you need at your destination, even if you have to discard it or give it away to strangers before boarding the flight home, or do what I do, which is
  8. Pack heavy: But engage in a year-long weight-training program to bulk up so you can sling 50 lb. suitcases with ease.

Face-to-face with a government bureaucrat

Have just finished reading up on friends’ travels through places tropic populated with elephants and water buffaloes and have to say: Glad I’m not there.

Her hubby had to run back to Canada to deal with errant tenants, leaving the wife in a village hut with a sheet for a door. She was recovering from Dengue fever, which made her feel as though her bones were broken.

I suppose it’s part of the adventure, but if Dave left me in a remote village with cantankerous ungulates and a fabric lock-less door, heck would follow.

But she is having fun, if catching tropical diseases can be called that, and good for her.

Me, I’m still comfy in my home with plenty of solid doors, but not for long.

The trip to the Swiss Consulate was a disappointment.

The traffic into Vancouver was non-existent and we virtually whisked our way down to Canada Place on the shores of the Burrard Inlet. We found the Consulate with only a little fuss, were admitted immediately and met with a polite and exceedingly helpful bureaucrat who in under 15 minutes gave Dave his visa and said I could get through the border without trouble and finish up my visa application while in Switzerland.

“It will take about a week,” she said.

This ruins everything.

I’ve set my expectation-o-meter to “appalled” and having reality smack my worldview around requires that I get a new attitude. Matters worsened on the ferry ride home when we ran into friends returning from holiday and passed the 90-minute journey over coffee discussing how their car got broken into while on their week away. I loved this story. It was proof that travel is annoying.

The car-break-in, however, was interrupted by security and so the car was undamaged and nothing was stolen. More proof that I am wrong that travel is just asking for trouble.

This has put me in a dour mood, but things are looking up: It appears that the amount of stuff I need to pack will exceed the space available in our suitcases, thanks to the airline’s recent baggage allowance changes.

Ah, something to be miserable about … that’s the stuff.