One of my favourite cities in France is Strasbourg, in Alsace where the French speak German. Or formerly, where the Germans spoke French. Alsace is really its own thing, and a great place for it.
The most picturesque part of Strasbourg is La Petite France, the former tanneur quarter that has preserved its canals, locks, and half-timbered houses. I could spend days just lazing away in the little streets. In the rest of town, the cathedral is incredibly impressive. As a bonus it features one of the finest working medieval computers, the Astronomical Clock (details). Worth a special trip. And the Musée Alsacien is one of the best folk culture museums I've been to.
Strasbourg is a great food town. Au Crocodile is the famous Temple of Food there; very good, but a bit shallow for my tastes. The Bierstub Ami Schutz is great if you want cozy Germanic fare prepared with French finesse. Couldn't be a more comfortable place for a good dinner.
But the real food revelation for me was Flammeküeche; pizza if pizza were made with German ingredients and French skill. An impossibly thin cracker crust cooked in a super hot oven, a creamy sauce with bacon for flavouring, and just a bit of onions and sharp cheese. My favourite was at the Académie del la Bière, served with a selection of hundreds of beers (and free WiFi).
I have photos online, mostly of the charming houses and canals. And one of this crazy plaque in Place Gutenberg commemorating the printing press.
7:55am, checked in. There are two security lines in CDG Terminal 2C. One has a 30 minute wait; the other is empty, opening at 8am. So I wait. 8:00, 8:05, 8:10. The friendly French passport officer is sitting there looking at you indifferently across 20 feet of roped off entrance. Security screeners behind him, lounging around. When will they open?
It took a Frenchman used to the ways of French civil service to solve the problem. At 8:12am he simply opened the lines himself and walked in, presenting his passport and then whisked through security screening. They may or may not be open at 8:00, but they sure as hell aren't going to make any effort to let you know.
6:45am. Wake in Paris, shower, shave, pack, cab, traffic, traffic, stress, traffic. Check-in, security, and suddenly it's 9:17am and Air France has given away your seats because it's less than an hour before scheduled departure. Never mind if the plane is half an hour late and they let Ken check in but not you. They gave your seat away.
So now I'm stuck an extra day in the hideous Sofitel Airport where it's faster to get from downtown Paris to the airport than from the airport to the hotel on their shuttle. Ordinarily an extra day in Paris wouldn't seem like a hardship but I'm tired and I miss home and thanks to Air France managing to only check in one of us, I'm alone. Another reason to hate Air France.
While I'm hating, I'm grateful for Internet in the hotel but screw you Orange for your WiFi implementation. For €20/day I'm given a network connection that dies every six hours or when NetNewsWire tries to download a bunch of RSS feeds. And their router silently intercepts my outgoing SMTP to deliver (and record?) mail through their servers rather than my own. The Internet is a hostile place.
Our last Swiss weekend trip was to Luzern, a small German-speaking town about 45 minutes from Zürich. Here's the photos.
Luzern is a great tourist spot. It's the starting point for trips to Rigi and Pilatus, two famous mountain tops that you can reach by train. But we came to Luzern for the transportation museum, particularly for the trains. That was quite cool, definitely worth the trip.
Luzern also has a lot of nice tourist sites. The Kapellbrücke is an amazing covered bridge across the river with a series of series of secular 17th century historical paintings. I'm looking for a catalog of them; they were quite interesting. The Löwendenkmal is also quite beautiful, comemorating the Swiss Guards who died defending the Palais Royale during the French Revolution. There's even an old city wall you can walk, at least in the summer (grrr).
We had a nice stay at The Hotel, an aggressively decorated postmodern hotel that's quite nice. (Same group as the Hotel Healdsburg.) Dinner was uncommonly good Thai food at Thai Garden; we're just about done with Swiss German food, I think.
We're leaving Switzerland this Saturday (Nov 12). We've had a great time here. A bit homesick, but I suspect once we're back in daily San Francisco life we'll be missing Switzerland's beauty and easy travel.
Last weekend we made our escape to the land of French cooking, with a quick trip to Neuchâtel and La Chaux de Fonds. I have photos.
Neuchâtel is a bit small, but it's a charming town with a Saturday market, talented buskers, and fountains with crazy decorations. And a lake rumoured to be down there below the autumn fog. The neatest site for us was the Collegiate Church, a funky building up on a hill next to an old fortress and the château. The church is a handsome building with interesting carvings, but what we liked best was the sense of quiet up there. Very peaceful.
On Sunday we went to La Chaux de Fonds in the Jura. It's an astonishingly ugly city, bad modern buildings. But the Hotel Fleur de Lys does a good lunch of snails and horse steak, so I got my French fix.
Our main goal was the famous watch museum. The collection was amazing but the presentation was not very good, hard to understand what we were seeing. The highlight of the museum was the Astrarium, a reproduction of a 14th century astronomical clock. This thing is a remarkable monument to getting good predictions from a bad theory. The main part of the clock is a set of seven dials showing the position of the moon and planets on the sky. Only the whole clock is built on the Ptolemaic theory with the earth in the middle and crazy epicyclic gearwork to try to match the motions of the heavenly bodies. There's a great video showing how the eccentric gears and angled rods allow the clock to mimic Mecury's retrograde motion. Amazing dead end technology.
Want to combine Alps, lakes, and palm trees with Swiss efficiency and Italian culture? Lugano is a lovely Ticino resort town, so warm our hotel had a banana grove! Here are some photos.
The best part of the weekend was the train ride to Lugano. A spectacular route through the center of the country, the mountains, and over and through St. Gotthard. We scored a panorama car; Ken and I were practically speechless the whole three hour trip. On the way down we passed a cool vintage steam train also making the journey.
Lugano's a bit sleepy in late October, and unfortunately we hit crappy weather so couldn't enjoy the lake or mountains. It's a pretty town though, with lots to walk around and shop and see. We had an excellent dinner at Arté, a welcome delicate touch in the kitchen.
Our rainy day Sunday trip was to Mendrisio, a little town near the Italian border. The attraction there was the model train musuem with hundreds of beautiful cars on display as well as a bunch of complex layouts. Also a surprisingly good lunch at Hotel Milano. If you're into model trains Mendrisio is worth a special trip. Otherwise, not so much.
We've been enjoying the weekend excursions but it's a bit exhausting to work all week and then travel all weekend. But we've only got three weeks left, no time to rest!
Munich is a big city, but at Oktoberfest it gets full. My weekend started off badly with a 5 hour train crowded with Swiss getting an early start on Oktoberfest, followed by rain and a city full of drunk tourists. Having the hotel right next to the train station scumminess didn't help.
As an antidote to all this drunken chaos we headed out first to visit Dachau. Germany has done an excellent job grappling with the horror of its recent history. It's worth visiting one of the concentration camp memorials, both to remember the history and to see how contemporary Germany reflects on it. Very bleak.
The next day was still rainy and drunk-full, so we went to the Pinakothek, Munich's art museum complex. We went to the Moderne, but while I generally like contemporary art their collection was tedious. Happily Ken insisted we go to the Alte Pinakothek where I learned about Albrecht Altdorfer, a painter from the same period as Albrecht Dürer and Hieronymous Bosch. Absolutely amazing dense canvases with beautiful control of light combined with phenomenal detail. Visiting the Battle of Alexander alone is worth the trip.
We finally hit the Wies'n on the last day of Oktoberfest, a holiday Monday when most of the non-Germans had gone home. I was afraid of the crowds and drunks, but I hadn't considered the Gemütlichkeit. Bavarians truly are a friendly and welcoming bunch, particularly after everyone's had a couple of beers. If by "couple" you mean "several litres", spaced over a whole day with roast chickens to cushion the blow. My favourite beer: Augustiner Edelstoff.
Oktoberfest is simple. A bunch of giant tents house thousands of people each who sit down, pay 7,10€ for litres of beer, listen to traditional Bavarian music, and sing and chat. This kind of giant drinking party would be a total disaster in the US, but in Germany folks handle themselves well. It was a wonderful day.
Munich is a big and fairly sophisticated city, worth several visits. I'd like to go back in the late spring, when there's beer garden weather and Oktoberfest isn't distorting things. BTW, the traditional greeting in Munich is "Grüss Gott". It means roughly the same thing as "Allahu Akbar".
Last weekend's excursion was two days in Sankt Gallen with a side trip to Appenzell. A perfect Swiss weekend: light luggage, short train ride, good food, and Alpine cows. I have lots of photos.
Sankt Gallen is the kind of place I'd never visit from the US but is a great weekend trip when you're nearby. Its big claim to fame is the abbey, a monastery that dates back to 613 AD and has been a seat of knowledge ever since then. The abbey still quietly dominates the city center and the rococo library and the church are the main tourist sites in town. Some amazing carvings in the church. Wood carving is quite a theme in Sankt Gallen, with many many beautifully decorated window boxes and sculptures on buildings in the old town.
Sankt Gallen also gave me hope for Swiss German food. It's still all roast meat, brown sauce, and rösti. But when done well like at zur Alten Post, with friendly service, it's good. And we stumbled into something great at Am Gallusplatz, a wine cellar going back to 1891 with reasonable prices! We had a 1970 Lafite Rothschild that was just lovely. We plan on going back for one night just for dinner (well, wine really). The "good wine at reasonable prices" theme continued with a 2000 Lynch Bages in Appenzell at the Hotel Krone.
Appenzell is interestingly rustic, a collection of villages and houses spread out across the mountain slopes. Buildings are often gaily painted, and life in general seems good. Then again it's a bit backwards; Appenzell only allowed women to vote in 1991. The train and wanderweg system is incredibly efficient. You have to love a place where you can set out at 11am with no specific plan and easily find 90 minutes of trains, an hour hike in the valley, and shopping and lunch.
This last weekend is the closest we've come to acting like we really live in Switzerland. A pleasant weekend trip, not a serious tourist journey. Great way to live.
Sorry for the absence, I was off touristing for a week. We went to München for Oktoberfest, then Heidelberg, Strasbourg, and a little town near Epernay in Champagne. Nice little trip, a lot of good food and wine and beer. And a lot of time on trains; 8 hours on 6 different trains today! But I'm home with 400+ photos. Details to come.
Our plan to sample the French side of Switzerland succeeded last weekend, with a nice trip to Lausanne and a side trip to Montreux. As usual, lots of photos.
Lausanne is an amazing city, a three dimensional wonderland of bridges and buildings built up on steep hills with gorges inbetween. You emerge from the Metro from Ouchy and immediately have a choice: elevator or exit. One puts you in the exact same place as the other, only 50 feet above, and city extends from each direction. We went up to the top, to the cathedral. On the way was a fantastic Saturday market with six different charcuterie vendors and five different cheese vendors, full of delicious things. Then we walked down, enjoying the confusion of life at two levels. Really an interesting city, I wish I could have photographed the topography better.
The other nice thing we did was take the boat to Montreux, to visit the Château de Chillon. Lac Leman along the way is beautiful, full of vineyards and châteaux and luxury houses. The château itself is a 12th century fort built on a convenient rock in the lake just off shore, with a command of the main route from the south over the Alps. Nicely restored and lots to see.
We had dinner in the fancy places in Lausanne, at La Rotonde at the Beau-Rivage and the Table d'Edgard at Lausanne Palace. Very good, but the meal I enjoyed the most was the Paradise Chalet, a funky little Swiss place in Montreux next to the train station. We'd been walking for 20 minutes with no clue where to go, town quiet on a Sunday, starting to rain. Then we bumbled into the place with its old wood panelling, cowbells and funny gnome decor, and an amazing terrace view. The menu is good basic Swiss food, I had the Papet Vaudoise: smoked sausage, fatback, potatoes and leeks. Ken had rösti with a Tomme de Vaud. We didn't feel like having the horse steak tartar or fondue. Really yummy hearty stuff, and just the right thing at the right time.
I continue to be amazed that you can go back and forth between French and German cultures so quickly. I wish my brain could; it took me an extra day to switch back to fumbling tourist German instead of fumbling tourist French. Bon jour, wie gehts?
Ken and I took our first Swiss weekend excursion to Zermatt, a mountain resort town in the Alps on the Italian border. I took lots of photos.
Zürich so far has mostly been the grind of finding our way around and working, so it was with optimism we boarded the train for our first tourist trip. Impressive train ride, too, one of the few north-south routes across Switzerland to Brig and then a smaller train company with a cogwheel train up the valley.
We picked Zermatt because it was up in the mountains; it's been awfully warm in Zürich and Ken likes trees and I like mountains. We were well rewarded, with tidy high Alpine meadows and dramatic mountains and an easy gondola ride to the top. The Matterhorn is very impressive, both entirely clear and with clouds coming out the top.
Being famous for mountain climbing, Zermatt is also famous for dead mountain climbers. Lots of grave markers given prime placement in the middle of town, a constant reminder that it's dangerous up top.
We had a great stay at the Hotel Zermatterhof, one of the fancier places in town. We got a good deal thanks to the fantastic Zermatt tourist website. Three great meals, too. We had a lovely dinner at Max Julen with a very friendly chef who made us special grilled venison. On our last night we had a crazy five course gourmet dinner at the Zermatterhof. But the most special was zum See in Furi, a little hamlet above Zermatt that's about a 45 minute walk on a beautiful Wanderweg. There we had a fantastic lunch of a venison and chantrelle salad followed up by homemade rhubarb cake. Only in Switzerland will you find a great restaurant up in the hills where the only way to get there is to hike.
Happy tourists. Mind you, this was Zermatt in summer; it's more of a winter ski resort. Looked great for that too!