Monday, 24 December 2007

Les Pléiades

Yesterday was Linda's birthday. It is generally not a good idea to plan anything too ambitious on such a day as many hours are taken up with present opening, cake eating, and more present opening. As a result we planned only to make the relatively straightforward day-trip up the hill from Vevey, to Les Pléiades.

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We didn't actually head out until the afternoon, and the weather in Vevey was overcast and cold so we weren't exactly filled with hope for the conditions at the top of the hill (technically the pre-alps so not really 'mountains'). As we rode the little train up the hill, however, we broke through the haze and into bright clear weather. The view was spectacular, with snow-covered mountains and trees all around.

When we eventually arrived at Les Pléiades we were amazed how clear and still the day was, with blue skies and air that actually seemed warmer than in Vevey. The snow was incredibly crisp and dry and although we kept finding ourselves knee-deep in powder we somehow managed to stay dry.

We had made some tentative plans for tabogganing, or snowshoeing, but in the end we happily wandered around for hours in the snow taking photos and making snow-angels (with various degrees of success).

We even had a little picnic of Baci chocolates on one of the chairs conveniently set up on the top of the hill.

We stayed on the mountain until the sun went down across the valley (hard to believe there was a lake down there under the clouds) and then took ourselves into the little restaurant that overlooks the valley for a mug of hot chocolate. On the train down the hill we watched all the houses and trees go by, decorated with Christmas lights.

All my photos from Les Pleiades are here and Linda's are here (Linda also has some great video, which I will try to upload).

Saturday, 22 December 2007


Last Saturday Linda and I caught the train up to Gruyeres. It will tell you something that, even within Switzerland (the land of cheese), Gruyeres is renowned for its cheese.

Aside from the cheese, we had heard Gruyeres was a beautiful spot to visit, and we also really felt like getting into the mountains to see how everything looked after the snow we've been having.

We caught the panoramic train up from Montreaux, once again getting amazing views from above the lake, but also the mountains and trees were covered with snow. We spent most of the train ride staring fixedly out the windows at the incredible scenery.

Once in Gruyeres we took the short walk up the hill into the old town, which is perched on top of a hill. We walked through the snow, taking a few moments to stamp around in it a bit like the tragic tourists we are.

Gruyeres is actually quite a small town, and the main street is lined with restaurants and shops but somehow it still manages not to seem like a ridiculous tourist trap. I think this may have been helped by the fact we were visiting in Winter rather than in peak season, and on the cusp of Christmas with all the lights on display (Switzerland is exceptional at Christmas-related activities and decorations).

After playing around in the snow a bit we decided a Fondue was in order. We picked a little restaurant that was recommended in our guide book and had an amazing moitie moitie (half 'n' half Gruyère and Fribourg Fondue). We'd had a fondue before, near home in Vevey, but this one was somehow so much better.

We then made our way up to the Chateau de Gruyeres, an 11th century castle at the top of the town. We wandered around a bit outside taking copious numbers of photos until our hands became so numb we had to move ourselves inside.

Afterwards I felt compelled to check out the HR Gieger Museum, who is famous from his work on the Alien movies. Well lets just say if you've seen the movies you've probably seen all you want to of HR Gieger - I have no idea why this museum is in Gruyeres, which hardly strikes you as the sort of place to house this somewhat weird bio-mechanical art museum.

Anyway we moved on to walk around the town some more, now that it was dark and the Christmas lights had come on. After taking some photos and checking out the shops (we bought part-1 of what will surely become the ultimate of all home fondue kits) we found ourselves another restaurant to warm ourselves up in.

For an early dinner Linda had an amazingly thick soup, while I treated myself to a Bernois Rosti, which is like a giant hash brown topped with thick slices of ham and then a fried egg. This is probably not the healthiest of meals but when it is freezing cold outside there is nothing like a hot meal packed with carbohydrates and protein to warm you up.

After this, it is sad to say, we were so cold and tired we decided it was time to catch the train home. It's amazing how late it feels when it gets dark before 6pm at night, and how much you just want to curl up inside on the couch when it is sub-zero outside.

Anyway I can see us going back to Gruyeres many times as there is much more to see and do (and eat) around this area, and from Vevey it is only a quick train ride away.

Monday, 10 December 2007

Geneva Fête de l'Escalade

On Saturday we went to Geneva for L'Escalade, which is pretty much the biggest event in the Geneva calendar. The event celebrates the defeat of troops sent by the Duke of Savoy, who tried to enter the city by climbing the walls using ladders (hence the name).

I had never been to Geneva, unless you count passing through on the train on the way to the Easyjet terminal. Linda had been a couple of times before, but only for job interviews so she too had not seen the city properly. Everywhere you read about Geneva makes it sound like a big disappointment, but we were both pleasantly surprised by its lively atmosphere and shops.

Top on my list of priorities was the jet d'eau, which is a giant jet of water (the world's tallest, apparently), which we could see all the way from Nyon when we lived there. I made an obligatory dash through the spray, despite the weather being somewhat chilly. In fact I only made it a short way in before deciding perhaps it wasn't a great idea to start the day off soaking wet.

Afterwards we wandered in towards the old town where the celebrations were being held. We didn't have to wait long before we found some of the events; the town was full of locals in traditional dress (and some in not-so-traditional dress).

The traditional food (always of primary importance) during l'escalade was ham off the bone (yummy), vin chaud (spicy hot red wine), and, to commemorate the old lady who offed an enemy soldier by pouring a pot of hot soup over his head, there was also pots made of chocolate and plenty of hot soup on offer. We bought a thick chunk of cheese on a slice of bread, which may not have been related to the events but was still appreciated in the cold weather.

We had a really fun day and night in Geneva, and I can see us going back for more visits. On top of everything else, I discovered the joy of taking fire photographs.

Sunday, 9 December 2007

Sleepy Sunday in Vevey

This Sunday we stayed inside most of the day. It was cold and rainy outside and we had a very long to-do list leading up to Christmas that warranted our attentions.

During a lull in the rain I wandered outside for some (very) fresh air, and made the brief walk down to the lake. I didn't take my camera but couldn't resist snapping off a few photos on my phone.

I even took a video of the dramatic looking lake. The sun briefly peaked out between the clouds and I took in about 10 seconds of actual sunlight (I cast a shadow!) before it disappeared again.

Sunday, 2 December 2007

Chateau d'Oex

This weekend (yes, actually posting close to the date we actually did something) we randomly chose to catch the train to Chateau d'Oex, 'inland' (if such a thing exists in a land-locked country) from Montreux.

View Larger Map

We decided on Chateau d'Oex (we still have no idea how to pronounce this) based on the fact that there was some markets there that were only on for 3 days each year and, well, it was there.

We bought our tickets in Vevey and, upon arriving in Montreux, were pleasantly surprised to find we were on the Golden Pass Line rail line in a panoramic carriage which gave us an amazing view of the lake and mountains as we went up the hill above Montreux (no photos, sorry)

Anyway it was a little cold and rainy, and when we got to Chateau d'Oex we discovered the markets were actually one stop earlier. We took the time to walk to the top of the hill where the church is located, however, which offered a fantastic view over the village and inside the church provided us with a spot of warmth and dry.

We didn't feel too compelled to stay in Chateau d'Oex, not the least because we are sure we will come back in January when the main event of the Chateau d'Oex calendar is held, the balloon festival.

In the end we caught the little train back down towards the town of Rossinière where the markets were being held. We really loved Rossinière, it was actually more attractive than Chateau d'Oex and many of the houses were open for you to wander in and browse the arts and crafts on offer. I didn't take any more photos because I was worried about the rain, and it was getting quite dark, but we were very glad to have visited this little town at this time of year.

Once we returned to Vevey we attended a presentation by a couple from Villeneuve (just around the corner from us on Lake Léman) who had spent 8 years cycling around the world. This made for a very interesting story, even if I couldn't understand the French it was told in. All told a very successful day out and we felt very satisfied.

Montreux Christmas Markets

Last weekend we visited the Montreux Christmas Markets, Marché de Noël Montreux. These are some of the biggest Christmas markets in the area, having more than 100 stalls with arts, crafts, food and dogs.

Being more of a food person than an arts and crafts person, I think I may have focussed more on that aspect of the markets. We had cinnamon waffles and roast chestnuts - two new favorites for the cold weather.

We spent quite some time wandering around all the stalls, and Linda bought a few presents for her family.

But it was also quite cold, and for some time we retreated into the food hall for some pleasantly hot and stodgy chicken and mushroom with Bernese Rosti, served from comically large saucepans.

One last thing to mention is Montreux is where Freddie Mercury lived out his last years. (The Swiss are notoriously generous in respecting the privacy of others, and are particularly welcoming if you have lots of money.) Anyway, November 21st is the anniversary of his death, which is recognised in Montreux by visitors to his memorial statue.

Foire de la St-Martin

Each year on the second Tuesday of November, the Foire de la St-Martin is held in Vevey.

[view from our apartment]

This is a big event in town, as Vevey is the home of St-Martin (there is a 10th century church here bearing his name). The festival started at dawn with the stalls setting up and 'soldiers' marching through our square.

Apparently this festival has been going on for many hundreds of years (I think this was the 538th), which added a sense of history to the event. This is one of Switzerland’s oldest fairs with the traditional dish papet vaudois and mulled wine. It was cool to have this all happening on our doorstep, and I deferred going to work by a couple of hours to make a quick dash through the stalls.

Linda took a lot more photos than me.

All of Linda's photos around the markets are here.

Wednesday, 21 November 2007

Creature Comforts

A few weeks ago we moved to Vevey (actually it has been almost 2 months now, how time flies!). Since moving in here we have really started to establish ourselves in Switzerland like something other than mere transients.

First, of course, was the bills. House insurance, medical insurance (mandatory and optional), fire insurance, Transfer of Residency, engraving our names on the post box, TV tax, and countless others I am waiting for the third warning before paying (ha-ha...).

We signed up for Internet, so no more hanging out the window trying to capture WiFi from someone's unsecured network. I ordered Internet from cablecom and they had a deal where internet was half price for a year if we also got cable tv. We got a digital cable tv box with recording function, so now rather than a paucity of english-language programming we are positively overloaded with content. We even have a TV to watch it all on thanks to my parent's generously buying me one for my birthday (a sanity-saving measure indeed).

I have also signed up for Mobility, which is a Swiss car-sharing system where you book a car to be picked up from near a train station. You can book for small chunks of time, like 2 hours, so it can be quite a lot cheaper than normal car rental. We used this system to rent an enormous Mercedes van to pick up some second hand furniture from an Isreali couple moving to the U.S. We got a spare bed (for expected guests), a TV table (for .. the TV) and some shelves to fill out our (quite large) apartment. After an unexpected cold snap that made me feel like maybe jogging my way through Winter wasn't a realistic option, we picked up a stepper machine that was also on offer. These, along with three trips to IKEA, mean our apartment is really feeling very well equipped (and Swedish).

After a period of on and off, too hot and too cold, the heating is finally operational in our apartment (largely due to Linda's inexhaustable emailing of the estate agent to fix it). Unfortunately it is probably now a little on the warm side, so we've resorted to opening our windows a bit to keep the apartment at sub-Summer temperatures. I'm sure this 'too warm' feeling will abate once we hit the depths of winter.

Now just today I bought myself a one-year rail pass, which I was talked into buying because the prices were about to go up, and also gives me 12 months of travel for the price of 9. Talk about commitment, though! When I arrived home after this momentus purchasing decision, Linda had a surprise; her parents had sent through a package containing a huge pack of Tim-Tams and a number of packs of 'travel' Vegemite. We were so excited it was all we could do to prevent ourselves from eating the whole pack of Tim-Tams in one hit.

Now this weekend we plan on going to nearby Montreux to see the Christmas markets and find out if it is 'Italian' as I've been told by friends at work.

Wednesday, 14 November 2007

Let it snow! ..for a bit

Last week there was reports there might be snow on the plateau where we live. Time went by and no snow fell, although there was a noticeable white cap on the mountains around us.

Then yesterday I was walking to work and it was raining, but there was a couple of light flakes that might have been snow, but could just as easily have been ash or something else floating through the air.

Now today I was walking home from work and it was sleeting, almost but not quite snow. But as I got on the train and looked out the window I could see big fat flakes of snow coming down!

Now, fair enough, we're in Switzerland so snow shouldn't be that surprising, but it is only mid-November, one month into Autumn! Last year apparently it was still summery weather at this time of year and they didn't get snow until quite late in the year - this year is quite unusually cold.

All very exciting now, but I think it may wear off once the cold really hits and the short winter days leave us trapped inside.

Sunday, 4 November 2007

Nice & the Cote d'Azur

After two days (actually more like 26h) in Monaco we caught the train down the coast to Nice. We ambled our way from the train station to our little hotel, which was located in the old town (Vieux Nice) - definitely the right place to be as Nice is quite a large city but with most sites of interest located in its centre.

After dumping our bags we wandered through Vieux Nice to get our orientation and check out the narrow streets of the town. We walked through the markets on cours Saleya (closed by the time we got there on Sunday) on our way to the cobble beach to catch a glimpse of the Mediterranean while the sun set.

That evening we found an outdoor restaurant where you order your food at the counter from the very stressed out waitress, and they call you when your order of traditional Nicois fare is ready to eat. We had fried Aubergine (beignets d'aubergines), Zucchini (beignets de courgettes) and Sardines (beignets des sardines), along with another local speciality, Socca. All were delicious and cheap - a good indicator that you've found genuine local food.

The next day we crawled out of bed and wandered back down to cours Saleya where there is a trash and treasure market on Mondays. There was some very cool things for sale, and we knew a few friends who would be going crazy for the art-deco and antique items available. With our no-check-in easyjet tickets, we didn't have too much trouble stopping ourselves from indulging. However, after picking our way through all the stalls, and being told off a few times for taking photos, we finally bought ourselves a little silver-plated box as a memento.

We then continued down to the sea shore where we sat and listened to the waves washing the pebbles up and down the beach.

During the day we had something of a crisis as we had decided to visit one or two of the museums in Nice. Nice is the home of Matisse and several other artists had spent time there, so we felt like we should make an effort to see some of their work. After deciding to bite the bullet and catch a taxi, however, we were then faced with the depressing situation of not finding any - even after calling for one. We decided to make the most of the situation and headed up the hill to the Parc du Chateau, where there isn't much of a Chateau left, but a lovely park and fantastic view over Nice.

Before dinner we walked the Promenade des Anglais, checking out the old hotels where artists and philosophers had stayed through the centuries. We wandered into the famous Hotel Negresco, built in 1912 and containing some interesting pieces of art, and one very impressive chandelier (with 16,800 beads of Baccarat crystal, and an identical piece residing in the Kremlin). Later we had a cocktail aperitif in one of the hotel bars which left us in good spirits for dinner.

That night was to be my big 'birthday dinner', generously sponsored by Linda's parents who were in on her secret planning. We wanted to eat local food with a generous dose of seafood, something we had been missing a bit in Switzerland, and we picked our restaurant accordingly. I ordered a Nicois salad and Tuna steak with rice for main, while Linda had fried goat's cheese and Calamari. We finished with a white chocolate mousse desert, by this time somewhat tipsy after polishing off a bottle of local red wine. Now from the description of the dishes it may not sound all that exotic (although obviously more so when written in French) but I have to say this was one of the most delicious meals we have ever eaten, including anything in Italy which is quite a statement from us.

The next day we emerged early, and slightly hungover, from our hotel room with a view to picking up a rental car and driving along the Cote d'Azur (blue coast) North of Nice. We made our way there via the flower markets on cours Saleya, where we picked up some breakfast and supplies for eating on the run.

We drove out of town and stopped first at Villefranch-sur-Mer where we had a vital cup of coffee (or two) and wandered around the very pretty 14th century town, tracking down rue Obscure, a little street that had been covered over by houses over time.

Next up was Eze, which was a fair way up the hill from the Mediterranean but with magnificent views. Eze is a very attractive little town with plenty of shops to keep the tourists amused (I bought myself a t-shirt, Linda a bracelet) and with a succulent garden at the top of the town with the best views around.

Lastly we made a dash for Gorbio, stopping on the way to snack on Brie and Baguette on the roof of our rented Citroen looking over the Mediterranean (did I mention we were in France?). Gorbio was a bit of a letdown after Eze, partly due to the weather, the time of year (post peak tourist season) and time of day (between meal times). It was a very attractive little town but just felt a little past its prime (maybe by a couple of hundred years).

By this time it was starting to get late, and we had to get our car back to Nice by 6pm, and so began our typically stressful dash home at the end of a holiday. We stormed back to Nice along the coast and stumbled off the wrong exit of the Autoroute to find ourselves in peak hour traffic in suburban Nice. I broke about half a dozen road rules, getting us back to the rental shop only marginally late, but was pleasantly surprised to not get beeped even once during my maneuvers, suggesting the French are more closely aligned to Italy than Switzerland when it comes to driving.

We took a few moments to decompress after that stressful little drive, before picking our luggage up from our hotel and catching a taxi to the airport. Of course the Easyjet flight was running late, putting our last-train-from-Geneva plans in jeopardy, particularly since Linda had checked her luggage in for the return leg. We were tense the whole way home, imagining ourselves sleeping on benches at Geneva airport, and arriving to work with 1 hour sleep, but by some miracle we ran for, and made, the last train out of Geneva, arriving home relieved but exhausted from the trip home.

Once again we vowed never to leave our return trip home so late, at the same time knowing we will always try to make the most of our time while away. I think it's safe to say we also felt like we needed to spend more time in the South of France, given that we only saw a small corner and had fallen in love with the place (and the food of course).