Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Wondering on a Wednesday

I am sure you can imagine my surprise when I discovered the eggs at the grocery store on the cereal isle and the milk mixed in with the juice.


Hmmm....

Since eggs, milk, and cheese are not stored in the refrigerator at the grocery store, do they need to be refrigerated at your house?

It there something different about the eggs, milk, and cheese over here that they do not require refrigeration?

Checkers Game

After arriving in Geneva we stumbled upon a large park in the middle of the old town/university area. Even on a cold Sunday evening, it was bustling with couples, joggers, families, ice skaters, and tourists.

At the far corner of the park we were delighted to find a dozen or so large chess boards with knee-high figures. The boards were full of people playing and strategizing. Since we didn't have a lot of time before the light went, we opted for a games of checkers.

Matt realizing he's sunk...

Me with my winning kings

It was a lovely end to a lovely weekend...

Montreux


On the way from Gryon to Geneva we hopped out of the train in Montreux to visit a castle and see more of the Swiss Riviera. Montreux is a beautiful lake-side resort town full of beautiful buildings, green parks, and - apparently - artists and musicians.


We started our visit by walking the 3km lake-side path to the Chateau de Chillon. The path was flanked on both sides by trees, flowers beds, greenery, and trolls. Yes, that's right - trolls. Every hundred meters or so a scene of trolls was played out in colorful topiaries. We are not sure why they were the mascots of the path, but they were a fun addition to the walk. Also along the way, we past the Casino de Montreux (which burned down in 1971 and inspired Deep Purple's Smoke on the Water), a statue of Freddie Mercury, and the vineyard that supplies the grapes to the castel winery.
The Chateau, or castle, at the end of the walk was our first look at a real medieval castle. The whole castle was open to visit and we wandered through cellars, prisons, bedrooms, dining halls, lookout towers, and interior couryards.


After our tour, we hopped on the tram back to town and visited the artists and musicians garden outside the building that holds the annual jazz festival. We were greeted with statues of B.B. King, Ella Fitzgerald, and Ray Charles, just to name a few.

Then it was back to Geneva to discover more of the old town. To see the rest of the pictures from Montreux, including more trolls, click here.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Food

Matt and I are the category of traveler Rick Steves would refer to as "tightwads". We walk the kilometer and a half to train station to avoid the €1 tram ticket. We drink whatever is cheapest on the menu - be it beer, water, soda, or something we can't translate. We attend church in cathedrals that charge entrance fees just to get in free.

Imagine my near heart attack when I discovered that a club sandwich cost 26 francs in Switzerland - and that didn't include chips and drink. And we aren't talking room service at a swanky hotel. My blood pressure only went down when I remembered we had kitchens at both of the hostels we were staying at during the weekend.

Picnic and cook we would, but I still wanted to experience some authentic Swiss cuisine. Matt had been talking about Alpine macaroni since he got back from Zurich last spring, so we knew that had to make the menu sometime during the weekend. As luck would have it, we found Alpine macaroni frozen dinners at the local grocery store. We added a bottle of cheap red Swiss wine and we had ourselves a true Swiss meal.When we shopped for dinner at the Chalet Martin, we were a little bit more adventurous and bought the ingredients to make raclette- a melted cheese dish similar to fondue, except you put the melted cheese on the food instead of dipping food into melted cheese. We had a great time melting the different cheeses (pepper, garlic, and regular) under a special burner and spreading it on bread and broccoli. Mmmm!

Swish, Swish, Splat

From the first mention of possibly moving to Delft for a year, I had some romantic notions about the possibilities of experiences: spending our anniversary in Paris, partying in Dublin for St. Patrick's Day, touring the champagne region, ice skating on frozen canals, sleeping in castles, ect. The most fanciful of these notions, however, might just be the thoughts of skiing in the Alps - a la James Bond in For Your Eyes Only.

When I saw a flier for the Chalet Martin and their incredible weekend ski deals at our hostel in Bruges, I just knew we had to go. Forget that Matt has never been on skis and I have some coordination and balance issues, we were going skiing. Fortunately the mountain ski area was classified as a beginner/intermediate resort - but it was STILL the Alps.

Despite a snowy, foggy outlook for the following day, we suited up in ski gear on Friday night and got a few pointers from the hostel staff - wear goggles, don't brace yourself with your hands when you fall, and better to pop out a ski then pop out a knee. We were ready to go.

As soon as I stepped off the cable car and into my skis, I remembered why I don't go skiing more often. I have control issues. I like to be in control. At all times. And when flying down a mountain I do not feel like I am in control.

Trying to regain all the things I knew about skiing, we started on the bunny hill for a few runs. As I skied down the only slightly past horizontal slope with my skis in a rigid, wide inverted V, I realized kids who were not old enough to speak in complete sentences were whizzing past with an astonishing amount of speed, grace, and control. But then I looked down the hill and saw it took Matt on his snowboard 6 tries to successfully get on the button lift to return to the top of the hill and I felt a little better.

After a few trips down the bunny hill, we were ready to brave a beginner run - now mind you, this was not a short run and nor, by the time I got to the bottom of it, did I think it was a beginner run. And the forecast for fog was right on - there is nothing like getting to a hill and not being able to see the bottom of it. I think it took me twenty minutes to get down that hill and only took the 10 year-old behind me twenty seconds.Fortunately the "freshies" were thick enough to cushion the falls, even though "don't brace yourself with your hands" was quickly forgotten every time gravity took us to the ground. We got better as the day wore on; I spent more time going down and less time going sideways and Matt spent more time upright and less time on his butt. We never graduated from the beginner runs - maybe next time - but we did manage to conquer quite a few runs and the art of getting off a chair lift without falling down immediately.

My Vase

I got the vase I painted with my mom back today. I have to say I was quite pleasantly surprised.
Now we will just have to wait on mom to send us pictures of her vase when it arrives in the States.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Gryon


As our tram squealed up a pass in the Swiss Alps around lunchtime on Friday, Laura and I watched out the window as the landscape slowly turned to white. The smoking chimneys of cottages, flanked by snow topped evergreens, occasionally dotted the nearby hills. We approached our destination and exited the tram to the sight of slushy streets, dripping icicles, and icy sidewalks. Large, irregular rain drops from the grey sky made it seem as if the clouds were melting overhead just the same as the rest of the city. We welcome you to Gryon - it is wonderful.


As the tram lurched away into the fog, en route to deliver other passengers with their skis and snowboards to the lifts further up the mountain, we started the slog to our hostel. Up the street we went, first dodging cars and then carefully navigating the narrow icy path snaking up the overlooking hill. Inside the Chalet Martin we were greeted with generously placed Australian flags (for an early celebration of Australia Day on Saturday) and signs instructing us to remove our shoes, leave our bags, and come join the fun inside. Once we saw the view out the window of our room of the Alps towering in the distance as a slow moving river of fog flowed down into the valley, we wondered if we could extend our stay for an extra week or a month or longer like our fellow hostel mates; many of them had lingered so long that they greeted each other as old friends.


Hungry stomachs, unfortunately, interrupted our contentment. In a land where food is so excruciatingly expensive that virtually any meal costs greater than 20 Francs (>$17), we avoided the restaurants and instead embarked with other friendly travelers to the grocery store in nearby Villars. Compared to sleepy Gryon, Villars bustled with life: tourists admiring the warm shops, locals buying their weekly rations, and skiers just down off the mountain walking clumsily down the streets in their ski boots. The Migros offered an assortment of snacks and cheeses and the local baker served us a warm loaf of bread.

In the mood for some adventure, Laura and I decided to make the 45-minute downhill trek through Arveyes and Barboleusaz back to Gryon. We stepped carefully and stopped to take plenty of pictures along the way as cars swished by. We arrived just as the blowing snow started to sting our eyes.


This time, as we walked back into the cozy Chalet Martin, we took off our shoes to stay a while.

Train Travel

We happily left our cars in South Carolina and came across the pond with no intentions of driving a motorized vehicle for a year. It has been wonderful. As much as I love Inge, I love train travel even more.

Train travel - even through flat countryside, in the rain, with no view - is far better than car travel any day. Unlike car travel, which requires maintenance, cleaning, map printing, and gas pumping, train travel is "get-up and go". More importantly, no driver is required and everyone can pass the time as they wish.



































Now add the scenery on a train ride through the Swiss Alps, and you feel like the train ride is the purpose of your vacation. We rode the train from Geneva to Gryon on our second day in Switzerland. The view out the windows on every side was spectacular the entire journey.

Looking out the left of the train, we saw the landscape was dotted with small cottages, old churches and farm buildings built up the side of the Alps. In between the land was covered with vineyards. Every once and a while you pass through another small town built on the Swiss Riviera on Lake Geneva - picture perfect buildings in lakeside resorts. The buildings became scarcer the higher up in the Alps we looked until it was nothing but a snow-covered peak with a Chalet on the top of a mountain.

When you get bored of the Swiss Alps, you can simply look right at Lake Geneva and the French Alps. The clear, blue water of the lake sparkled right up to the mountains with little towns dotted along the shores.
After we changed trains in Bex to go up the mountain to Gryon, the landscape slowly became covered in snow. The towns along the way were the ski villages that could be featured on any alpine post card to draw in skiers and tourists. Imagine small cottages with snow covered roofs and smoke flowing out of the chimneys.

We arrived in Gryon only to be presented with more snow covered beauty....

Cheese and Chocolate

Switzerland is famous for two of our favorite things: cheese and chocolate. That fact alone guaranteed that our weekend in the of land neutrality would be wonderful. We arrived in the city of Geneva and headed to our hostel to drop off our bags. When we checked in, we were pleasantly surprised to learn that Geneva gives all its hotel and hostel guests free transportation within the city. What a deal!

We then hopped onto the tram and headed out to Botanical Gardens for a picnic lunch. The gardens (and conservatories) were free to the public. Even in the dead of winter and the middle of the work day, they were quite full of people. It seemed to be a popular running spot for locals. After enjoying our lunch in the warm tropical conservatory, we perused the gardens and noticed there was even a deer reserve in the gardens. I imagine this would be the perfect place to spend a warm spring afternoon when the flowers will be in full bloom.


Our next stop was the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Museum. The permanent exhibit explained the founding, history, and role of the organization. While I believe the museum was cutting edge at one point, the 10 projectors needed to show a single 8-minute slide show seems a little out of date. I wonder what the return on investment would be to pay someone to create a movie with the slides verses the cost of running so many projectors. However, features like the large transparent, layered photographs of wars and natural disasters were visually compelling. One of the rooms contains all of the POW cards from WWI and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Also on display was the Nobel Peace Prize that Henry Dunant, the founder of the Red Cross, was awarded in 1901. Dunant was the first recipient of the prize. The International Committee of the Red Cross has gone on to win 3 more Nobel Peace Prizes during the last century.

The highlight of the museum was actually the temporary exhibit Walls Between People. It was a look at 8 different walls that have been built to separate people. The photographs of the walls showed how people were separated, lives disrupted, and other effects of the wall. It was interesting to see the world/humanitarian view of the wall between Mexico and the US and how it wasn't depicted that much differently from the barbed wire enclaves of Spain in Morocco or the barbed wire line between Pakistan and India.


Our last stop for the day was the United Nations' Palace of the Nations - quite possibly the least inviting tour ever. Nowhere was their a tour schedule; water damaged directional signs pointed into locked doors and the one open door lead to workers sitting at their desks beneath signs that completely mislabeled their function. After the security check, badge issuing, and payment, we were directed to an obscure door #39 "past the parking lot and to the left." To our amazement, there were actually a lot of people behind the door, and we joined them for what was actually a pretty good tour.


The tour took us through the "old" and "new" buildings, a few conference rooms, temporary exhibits and past gifts from around the world. It was similar to the Peace Palace in The Hague, in that every part of the building was built with materials from around the world and decorated with gifts from visiting dignitaries.

As the sun set, we strolled along through the parks that follow the shoreline of Lake Geneva. The view of the lake and mountains was positively breathtaking.

The rest of the day's picture are on our Flickr site.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

More Photos...

Want more photos like this?


Since we can't put ALL of our pictures up here, I created a Flickr account for the ones that didn't make the blog cut. I am going to work on getting more photos up, but in the mean time I have uploaded the pictures from my mom's recent visit. Please feel free to browse through them.

Royal Delft

Delft is famous for Delftware - the hand painted white and blue china - and a visit would not be complete without a tour of one of the factories. While researching the different tour options and places, I found out you could paint your own tile or vase and I knew this was the perfect activity for mom and me.

We arrived at the factory with our creative juices flowing and signed up for a painting workshop. Even after being warned vases are harder than tiles, we quickly signed up to paint our own flower vase (hey, I will now have two vases for flowers in our apartment). Then it was on to a tour of the factory to gather ideas and inspiration.One thing I did not know before visiting the factory was that at some point the clay for Delftware was hard to get and the factory made these gorgeous clay wall tiles and decorations instead.Having gathered our ideas, we were off to the workshop to begin our vases. The artist suggested we use one of their patterns that they apply to the vase with a charcoal rubbing. Yeah right, use someone else's ideas - no way, we had our own!

We started by sketching our designs on the vases with pencils. Mom went with a more modern approach and I used traditional designs.Painting on the vases was like painting with one color of watercolor - everything shows up and and there is no eraser. The paint looks black, but turns the trademark blue in the firing process.Two and half hours later we had finished with our vases. And frankly, I hope they come back from the kiln better than they went in.

Even if our vases get relegated to a storage closet, it was a great experience and hopefully I will be back to paint a tile soon!

**Thanks to Christina, my sister, for giving me this experience as a Christmas present!

Flowers, Flowers, and MORE Flowers

We went to the market on Thursday in Delft. After picking up the usual assortment of produce, fish, and cheese, I took mom to paradise - I mean the flower market. Unable to contain herself (and aware of the fact that I only own one vase), she bought 7 bundles of flowers.

Did I mention we live in a 300 sq ft apartment and only own one vase? Since we own about as many dishes as vases, it was a good thing the recyclables had not been taken out lately. Our apartment is now filled with no less than 8 containers of flowers! Matt keeps walking around and exclaiming, "Did you know we have flowers in the storage closet?"

Just kidding - Mom, they are beautiful. And don't worry - I'll continue to fill all the containers with water. I can't wait 'til you come back in April and the tulips are in season!

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Art

"The art galleries of Paris contain the finest collection of frames I ever saw."
-Humphrey Davy

And if the frames are fine, the ceilings are magnificent. And if the ceilings are magnificent, the art is breathtaking.

Okay, well most of it and more if it would be if there weren't tons of tourists standing in the way snapping pictures. Seriously, stop taking terrible photos and actually look at the art. I am of the opinion they should ban cameras in museums - the pictures are terrible, the takers are distracting, the crowds clog the flow of traffic, and I don't want to be in your photos. Let me let you in on a little secret - your face in front of a masterpiece does not enhance it. Buy a postcard from the gift shop, buy the collection catalog, look the piece up on wikipedia or the museum websites, savor your memories, but please, please stop taking worthless pictures of priceless pieces. And OMG if you are taking the picture with your cell phone...did you wake up this morning and find yourself mysteriously in Paris?

Getting down off my soapbox...
I think the Louvre is more quantity than quality, but we did visit our three favorite ladies: Venus de Milo, Winged Victory, and Mona Lisa. (See how I did that - I shared the art with you without taking ridiculously awful pictures you didn't want to see anyway at the museum while obstructing the view of countless other visitors.)

Next we walked across the courtyard to the Decorative Arts Museum and saw the evolution of design from Art Nouveau to the 21st Century. I especially enjoyed the exhibit on the color red in design.

Then it was through the Tuileries Gardens to my favorite museum in Paris (or anywhere else for that matter).


A museum chosen and designed by Monet to display his paintings "without borders". The museum has two oval rooms, each of which house 4 canvases that spread around the room allowing for a 360 degree view of the Nympheas (or waterlilies paintings). You can virtually visit the museum here. However, I must warn you, viewing these paintings will make you want to buy a plane ticket to Paris immediately. Go ahead and do it; I will meet you there and we can gaze at these magnificent paintings together!

Needing to get the most out of our museum pass, we popped into the Cluny Museum to peek at the Lady and the Unicorn tapestries. They were beautiful and amazingly well preserved.

Our time in Paris was coming to an end. We visited my favorite bakery Eric Kayser and picked up a few loaves of olive bread for our train picnic. We completed our picnic with the leftover cheeses from the day before and a bottle of French wine. What a lovely way to travel!

Au revoir Paris!

Dawn til Way Past Dusk II

We said goodbye to the islands and hello to Paris shopping sales! And the sales in Paris aren't like a weekly red apple or white sale - these are the twice-a-year, government regulated sales.

The shopping started on the famous Champs-Elysees. The boulevard was still decorated with its beautiful Christmas lights and the sideways overflowed with people. Somehow costume jewelery even seems more elegant when coming out of a Paris department store.
Our walk down the boulevard took us straight to the Arc de Triomphe, where after climbing more steps we were rewarded with a beautiful view of night time Paris. From the roof of the Arc we watch the Eiffel Tower sparkle in all her glory - one of my favorite thing in Paris.
video
After the sparkle show, we traveled to the Rue de Cler area for dinner at Chez Agnes. The restaurant is a one woman show - she cooks, she serves, she entertains. When we came in she change the pin on her shirt from a French flag to an American rhinestone pin. We started with escargot and a fois gras salad with the house red wine. For dinner, mom enjoyed a delicious lamb chomp and I had a wonderful, moist leg of duck. She wouldn't serve us dessert until we had cleaned our plates; I quickly finished the remaining rice on my plate so I could have apple pie a la mode. The best part about dinner was talking to Agnes, the businessman from Dijon next to us, and watching "Bonnie" the dog. Agnes was very proud of the dog she got from West Virginia and the Christmas ornament from the White House (even though it was Bush's White House).

It was another wonderful day in Paris.