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).

Saturday, 3 November 2007


Last weekend was my birthday and Linda surprised me by taking me down to the South of France and Monaco. I've always wanted to go to Monaco, lured by its reputation as a playground of the rich and famous, and because of its tiny-country quaintness.
The first time I travelled through Europe was when I had just left University. I had glimpsed the Monte Carlo train station out the window on the way from France to Italy and felt cheated to be so close and not visit the country; it was good to be finally seeing it for real.

We flew into Nice airport and the first surprise of my birthday was that we were going to catch a Helicopter to Monaco, arriving in the style of the millionaires that live there. The helicopter flight was fun, especially since I have not been on one before, and strangely low-fuss compared with taking and landing off in an airplane. The view of Monaco was spectacular as we approached it from the air. However, I think our shuttle driver felt cheated when he got us instead of the elderly Japanese couple who came in the helicopter with us, especially when he found out which hotel we were staying at.

On our first day there we mainly wandered around the town, venturing down to the harbour to check out the superyachts moored there, before wandering towards the old town where the Prince's Palace is located. From on the hill there is a great view over the town.

Later in the evening we headed out to see the beach, which was surprisingly nice and we wished we had worn our swimmers because the water was still lovely and warm. When we looked for dinner, however, we were a bit surprised by the general lack of restaurants that were open. Initially we suspected this was because we had turned Swiss, who are notoriously early to bed compared with the rest of Europe, but then we decided it was the Monegasque restaurants that were being conspicuously (fashionably?) late to open.

We wandered past the Monte Carlo Casino, marvelling at the exotic supercars parked out the front, and slipped into the public casino to try our luck. Unfortunately, the public part of the casino (ie: the part where you don't have to wear a suit and tie to get in) resembled an RSL or Leagues club in Australia, with poker machines and electronic roulette tables. I put 10 Euros in the STAR WARS machine and promptly lost the lot in 50c bets.

Deciding we weren't cut out to be high-rollers, we left the Casino and found a nice little restaurant looking over the harbour where we sipped on cocktails and nibbled on Tapas while checking out the yachts and funpark by the harbour.

The next morning we planned to go directly to Nice, but the train timetable conspired against us so we decided to take the opportunity to see more of Monaco. We wandered back up towards the Palace and strolled around the shops and streets of the old town until the time arrived (11:55) for the changing of the guard. The changing of the guard wasn't exactly of the same scale as at, say, Buckingham Palace, but was still good fun, not least because of the jostling tourists vying for position (like it was life and death) in the lead-up to the event.

After this we still had some time to kill and made the, retrospectively very wise, decision to visit the Oceanographic Museum. We had great fun there looking at all the fish and coral in the giant tanks, and took many photos of the fish. We finished up with lunch on the roof before figuring out we were now running late for our train and bolting back to our hotel to pick up our bags.

We sprinted along one of the many underground paths in Monaco (they don't have much surface to build on, so the city is decidedly 3D with many underground paths and lifts connecting various parts of the town) to reach the train station on time. As seems to be par for the course for us, the train was, of course, running quite late, so we then ended up just sitting there for ages waiting for it to arrive.

I've got to say I was a little let down by Monaco; it just didn't seem to have quite the glitz and glamour of a country with such a reputation for riches and excess. Still we had a great time there and now I can say I have been, and escaped without having lost it all at the Casino Monte Carlo.