Friday, July 8, 2011

Germany and Luxembourg

We took a beautiful drive through Switzerland into Germany. The lakes, chalets and weather all cooperated to give a wonderful impression. We stayed one night in Freiburg, a little city known for its environmentalism. The area has lots of sunshine so many of the barns in the countryside have huge solar paneling on the roof. We discussed where all the electricity goes but only theoretically. The next day we were on to Bacharach, a small medieval town on the Rhine River.

Bacharach reminded me of Rothenburg, although not as well organized. Rothenburg was entirely redone for tourists where Bacharach was a bit hit and miss. Apparently, when Napolean rolled on through, he widened some of the streets for his cannons. You can see which side of the street got it. The oldest house in Bacharach dates to 1348 or something like that. What a great place. We had dinner there and I am pleased to report the food did not taste like it was from the 1300’s.

The next day we cycled along the Rhine River. It was a 32 km cycle round trip so we took it as training for our big cycling trip coming up. We were all pretty tired by the end but we made fairly good time so I am encouraged we’ll be okay in France. There are endless castles stuffed along the banks of the Rhine. Most of them are abandoned and only a few are open to the public. They all sprung up when the barons realized they could make money by taxing the river traffic. They’d string chains across the river to prevent boats from passing unless the captains paid a fee. Needless to say, the river barons were not overly popular.

One of the best stories I read was about a river sprite named Loreley. She was a very beautiful woman and would tempt sailors as they rounded a particularly difficult turn in the river. More than one boat succumbed to her until finally a king, who had lost his son to Loreley, sent a group of soldiers down to find and kill her. She called to her father (Rhine River God) for help and he dragged her away never to tempt sailors again. Gotta love the male psyche at that time. They couldn’t get through the river pass so it had to be a woman’s fault. Fortunately for the threatened males, a stronger male was able to rein her in and save the gender from further trials. Couldn’t possibly have been the ineptitude of the sailors on the boat. Sheesh.

The next morning we made another run from Germany into Luxembourg. Luxembourg is a beautiful city with no one outstanding site. We wandered the old town, the new old town, the casemates and the riverside, relaxing and enjoying the town. It was interesting to note that people here are noticeably taller on average. We really noticed how short people were in southern France, Spain and Italy, especially some of the women. Northerners must be a taller breed.

The city of Luxembourg is built on and around a big rock. It was easy to strengthen it because of the natural geography. We spent an enjoyable hour or so wandering through the tunnels bored into the cliff around the city. I thought it would be fun to visit where my cousins had lived when they were here ages ago but didn’t get myself organized enough to have an address. We are all battling a nasty cold now so much of our past week has been spent in and out of a sort of stunned fog.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

The Swiss Alps

I can barely believe we were in the Swiss Alps. We were only there for a couple of days but it seems like such an exotic location. I can attest that it is a great place to visit in the summer. I have to admit, though, that seeing all those green ski runs made me long for some colder weather and a couple of boards for my feet.

If you are planning to come this way and you are trying to decide between the French Alps and the Swiss Alps, here is my advice. Chamonix, France is wonderfully located and has a real resort feel. It is in a valley between two mountain chains and is less expensive. The lifts to Aiguille du Midi and then on to Helbronner, Italy are THE best for Wow! Factor. You can also get a lift pass for a couple of days and hike both sides of the valley and ride a variety of fun rides for one price. In the Swiss Alps, you pay per ride and the rides add up fast. Kids under 16 pay one time ($35 or so) and then ride free with an adult. However, the views while strolling through the meadows here are unparalleled. They blow the very scenic Chamonix hikes right out of the water.

We drove from the overpriced, ho-hum hostel in Montreux to the charming, delight of a hostel in Lauterbrunnen. Lauterbrunnen is up the valley a ways from Interlaken. It is very small and has a magnificent waterfall cascading down over the town. No, you cannot feel the spray. The picture on the left is the view from our hostel room. We even had a little balcony where we could sit in the afternoon sun looking this way. It almost looked like a model train set-up with the cute little trains below our room. Rhys, Tom and Julia were all sick when we arrived so we tried to keep our day quiet but we didn’t want to miss the Alpine experience so they dragged themselves along the trails gamely.

We took a bus to another little town further along, then a lift up the mountain to Gimmelwald. This is a town you don’t want to miss. It is an old alpine farming community and is just as cute as they come. Can you say, “Heidi”? You could almost hear someone shouting, “Riccola” in the background. We took Rick Steve’s self-guided walk through the tiny village, admiring the “honesty” store where you took what you needed and left the money in a cashbox. Have you ever seen that? Anywhere? One of the buildings was from the 1600’s but you really couldn’t tell. The buildings all looked the same. The only difference was the colour of the wood. They had a few old cheese sheds on stilts above the ground and a school where all of the students have their own website. The cows in the field all wore collars with big bells hanging down. The collars made the cows look like huge pet dogs. We decided the bells must all be different so the farmer knows which cow is which by the sound. It was very musical as they ate their grass.

From Gimmelwald we took another lift to Murren and then walked the gentle slope beside the train tracks down to another town whose name is too difficult for me to spell at this time. The walk was not the most scenic as we were in the trees most of the time. It felt a lot like BC. We took a lift back down to Lauterbrunnen when we reached the unpronounceable town and called it a day.

The next day we got up at 6am to catch the “good morning” train. It was a difficult morning for the sicko’s but they insisted on doing it. It was a cost savings of $100. We couldn’t have asked for a nicer day; not a cloud in the sky. The temperature was cool so we were dressed in winter gear but you could see forever. The train ran all the way up the mountain to a peak over 4000 metres in the air. Much of the ride was tunneled through the rock. The train stopped periodically to let us jump off and run to a window in the rock for a peek at the scenery. At the top, it was majestic.

We were between the peaks of Monsch (the Monk) and Jungfrau (the Maiden) and could see down both sides of the mountains. It was breezy and very cold which was surprising given how lovely it had been in Chamonix at the top of Aiguille du Midi. Aiguille du Midi is about the same height. Here, the snow hadn’t been cleared and it was treacherous walking on the icy inclines. We did stay up top long before heading down into the mountain and out another rabbit hole. We looked around their ice palace which was similar to the one in Chamonix except this one had better ice sculptures and the floor was ice as well. It even had ads in the walls frozen into the ice.

Another of the little rabbit holes led out onto the glacier where they had sledding and zip-lines set up. We sat in some loungers on their “beach” waiting for the zip-lines to open but after about an hour we decided we’d waited long enough. The views from the lawn chairs were spectacular and I’m pretty sure that’s where we got our second burn of the trip. We descended by train to the mid-point at Kleine Scheidigg and stopped for lunch. They had grilled brats cooking and we couldn’t resist. We sat next to a Japanese couple who took an instant shine to Julia and offered her and Rhys Japanese cookies. We gave them Canada flag pins and they put them on their hats, then hauled our more Japanese goodies for the kids. It was a fun lunch.

After refueling we hiked to Mannlichen. This is a hike you cannot miss if you are here. You hike around a mountain from one set of spectacular views to yet another. The white jagged peaks rise above and the valley floor dotted with chalets sinks below. You are nestled in the flowering green meadows where you can drool over the numerous ski-runs cascading down the side of the mountain dressed in their green summer suits. Mannlichen is straight out of a Swiss brochure. You can see down to Lauterbrunnen off one side and to Grindelwald off the other. The Eiger, Monsch and Jungfrau tower over it all. The Monsch (Monk) is between the Eiger (Ogre) and Jungfrau (Maiden), protecting her from harm. We took many, many pictures here and stayed awhile in the meadows. I think this was my favourite scenic point, although it has stiff competition. We took the lift back down to Wengen and from there to Lauterbrunnen by train. It was another spectacular day.

Monday, July 4, 2011

Cheese and Chocolate

We spent a lovely day touring the Swiss countryside around Montreux. We visited the little town of Gruyere first. You may recognize the name. Their big claim to fame is cheese. However, the town is also adorable. It is set amongst some craggy peaks and brilliant green countryside around a restored castle.

The castle had a multimedia show on the history of the place which was kind of fun. My favourite part was when the women of the town defended the town by tying branches of fire to the horns of their goat herd and chased them down the hill towards the invading knights. It was a resounding victory for the goats… and a wonderful barbecue feast to celebrate. Just kidding. I’m not sure what happened to the goats.

The town also boasts artists who embrace fantasy as their theme. H Giger, who just had to have designed the alien in “Alien” had a gallery there and a bar as well. We didn’t go into the expensive gallery but managed to get several pictures of the weird bar. The castle is also decked out in fantasy works from other local artists. It is a strange coupling of quaint little traditional village and fantasy artwork. The actual tour of the cheese factory was also well done. For your viewing pleasure, we took a little video of the cheese robot dusting and turning all the cheese in the warehouse.
Things I learned about cheese:
1. The flavours in cheese are enhanced by the cow’s diet. Gruyere has up to 75 different essences in it as analyzed by scientists.
2. Cheese was a way to preserve milk back in the day.

After Gruyere, we drove over to Broc where Nestle/Cailler has a chocolate factory. They also give tours. I didn’t know that Nestle was a Swiss manufacturer of chocolate. Nestle joined Cailler a long time ago when Nestle invented condensed milk for infants. It was just what one of the Cailler inventers had been looking for to mix milk with chocolate. This was how milk chocolate was born. The tour was great and the robot manufacturing was fun to watch. The best part, however, had to be the samples at the end of the tour. They had a dish of wrapped chocolates from the machine we just watched. One of the ladies ahead of us grabbed about half the bowl! Then we rounded the corner and there were trays and trays of samples of every kind of chocolate made by Cailler. We were allowed to sample as many as we wished! This lady kept grabbing handfuls and dumping them in her pockets! The chocolate wasn’t wrapped and the day was hot so I believe she may have ended her greedy behaviour in some regret. I know WE didn’t ever want to SEE another chocolate after we left. I didn’t eat many chocolates but was quite pleased to see the white chocolate tray. A little something for us all…

We ended our day deciding that Montreux was overpriced and if you ever come to Switzerland, skip the overnight and just head to the cheese and chocolate. Then keep driving into the Alps. THEY were well worth the $150/night for a youth hostel.