Friday, 25 January 2008

Chateau d'Oex - Festival de Ballons

On Sunday we took the panoramic train from Monteux to Chateau D'Oex for the Festival International de Ballons. We were lucky because this year it was the 30th anniversary of the event.

Chateau d'Oex has a strong history of ballooning with its unique micro-climate; Bertrand Piccard, from Lausanne, and Brian Jones, England, made a record-breaking 45,000km round-the-world balloon flight in 1999, starting from the little Swiss town.

We got up nice and early to catch the first flights of the day, however the train was completely packed and ran a little late so when we came around the corner approaching Chateau d'Oex we could already see a few balloons in the sky.

It was an amazing sight in the clear, cold, air, with the balloons drifting down the valley before lifting up into the sky above the mountains and somehow managing to navigate a circular route back to the take-off/landing area.

The last time we came to Chateau d'Oex it was freezing cold, windy and raining. This time the weather was perfect, with no clouds or wind, and the snow on the ground added to the spectacular view without our feeling any colder.

We eventually grew tired of watching the balloons taking off, and once we had seen demonstrations of parasailing, parachuting and wingsuit flying (which appeared as a streak across the sky) we took the teleferique up the mountain to the ski resort above Chateau d'Oex. Even at the top of the mountain the air was clear and still and the view over the town below was amazing.

After all this the sun was going behind the mountains and the temperature started to drop - we decided it was time to go home. We skipped the first train after it became apparent we would be jammed in with all the returning skiers and balloon-watchers, opting instead for a hot chocolate and plate of chips to warm us up as we waited for the next train.

By the time we got home we were sleepy from the train ride down the mountain, but very happy with our day of balloon watching. If the weather is as fine next year I think we will have to buy ourselves a ride in one of the balloons and watch the event from above.

Sunday, 13 January 2008


As part of my Christmas present Linda got me an introductory dog-sledding lesson. While I don't necessarily want to become a professional dog-sledder, I was really looking forward to getting out in the snow with the dogs.

I did have some reservations. We had watched a show on BBC where they were recreating the Scott trip to the north pole; the dogs in the show were only a small step away from being completely wild, and spent all their time fighting or chewing through their nylon traces.

Fortunately the dogs I had were a lot more friendly than that, although the handler made a point of telling me they should always be attached to a line, because otherwise they would run off and kill a sheep.

Anyway, the lady who ran the show was very nice, taking Linda and I for a ride in the sled before giving me some instruction and setting out for a run around the training track. It was great fun and it was amazing how strong the dogs were - I had three dogs on my sled, with one of them leading so really just two dogs were doing the pulling. Apparently they can run for 50km a day through the snow, in sub-zero temperatures.

Linda huddled behind a shed, very bravely trying to snap off a few photos and take video, but it was so cold her camera kept turning off.

After the training session we got invited back for another run with the dogs because they still had plenty of energy. It was snowing heavily all morning (which was just as well, because it has been unseasonably warm recently and the snow had been melting) and through the day we kept slipping into the local café for a restorative chocolat chaud at regular intervals.

We tossed up the idea of renting some snow shoes but the weather seemed a bit changeable so we went for the safer option of renting a little blue louge and blazing our own tobogganing trail down the surprisingly steep hill nearby.

After the early start and the cold, we were feeling quite worn out by all this and caught the little train back down the hill to Nyon and then home, where we spent the rest of the night immobile on the sofa, waiting to thaw.

Many thanks to Veronique Andersson of St-Cergue for the excellent session. Contact me for her details.

Saturday, 12 January 2008

Paris: Part 8

Oh yes, there is one more part to our trip - our last day.

It was originally set aside as a shopping day, but apparently the French are even less flexible than the Swiss, at least when it comes to sales dates, which are rigidly controlled and would not start until after we had returned home. We still went shopping, but more in a theoretical sense than with any intention to actually spend money.

We took the metro to Galleries Lafayette, which is probably the most famous department store in Paris. We spent some time roaming the multi-floor, multi-building, shopping centre before it dawned on me that it was just another big shop and fatigue set in.

From there we headed off to Les Halles, a big neighbourhood filled with shops. We'd been there before at night, and it seemed quite exotic, but during the day it seemed a little seedy (another case of Paris looking better at night?) and our lack of motivation to spend money took the fun out of it a little. Even the sugar crêpes didn't help.

Instead, we made a mercy dash to the Christmas markets at Saint-Germain, where Linda had spotted some red sheepskin gloves days before, her cold hands having hardened her resolve. We got there with only minutes to spare before the store shut for good, and found a pair that fit perfectly resulting in a very happy Linda.

After we abandoned the plan of shopping, we ended up having quite a nice day, popping into pâtisseries to buy various lemon tarts and chocolate eclaires to sustain us for our train trip home.

We travelled back to our apartment to meet with the owner and pick up our luggage, and from their back to Gare de Lyon and our TGV home. The train ride went quickly, fuelled by the previously mentioned tarts and eclaires, and with our minds kept occupied by finally reading our Lonely Planet Paris. Better late than never?

Wednesday, 9 January 2008

Paris: Part 7

Tuesday would be recovery day, more because most of the major sites and shops were closed for the public holiday than because of our 'wild night out'.

We headed back out to the Latin Quarter for a French Revolution Walk run by Paris Walks.

This was very well run and filled a few pleasant hours taking us to a few places in Paris we probably wouldn't have stumbled on ourselves. Plus we actually learned something about French History!

Afterwards we filled up on crêpes for dinner, including one with chocolate and chantilly cream for desert which was delicious.

To complete the day we decided we couldn't be in Paris without climbing the Eiffel Tower. The weather was clear and we headed out, as planned, to go up the tower soon after dark before clouds lost altitude and covered the top of the tower.

When we got to the tower, however, we found the queue stretched pretty much the whole way around the base. We joined the queue and waited and waited, and it was freezing cold! It must have taken us hours for us to reach the lift to the second floor only to find there was a second, huge, queue to reach the top.

By the time we reached the top level of the tower the clouds had closed in and all we could see was an orange haze, with the occasional glimpse of the city below. At least it gave it something to giggle about.

More queueing to get back to the second level, where the view was much clearer. Linda bought some Eiffel Tower egg-cups for momentos and we joined one last queue to return to ground.

All up it must have taken us 4 hours to get up and back down from the tower, most of which was spent shivering in queues. Still, it is just one of those things you have to do.

Tuesday, 8 January 2008

Paris: Part 6

Finally it is Monday the 31st of December, 2007 - New Years Eve.

We had planned a relatively light schedule, starting in the Latin quarter where we had an authentically French lunch, starting with escargot - which was delicious in a smothered-in-garlic kind of way - and ending with mousse au chocolat - delicious also, and with an interesting texture unlike we had found in previous mousses (meesse?).

We walked off lunch by visiting the Jardin du Luxembourg by way of the Panthéon and Saint-Étienne-du-Mont.

The Luxembourg gardens were very nice, and we plonked ourselves on the chairs there for a while and just watched people walking around and getting told off by the police for feeding the pigeons.

While in the Latin quarter I also bought myself a notepad. I had seen it before and marveled at the marketing miracle it represented - a 50c notepad in ziplock bag with 'Temporary Storage' printed on it, selling for €7. I obsessed over it later, and when I saw it a second time I snapped it up. Linda became jealous of my new stationary and we had to go back to buy one for her too. Incredibly I have not been able to find an example of this notepad on the Internet.

Later we coupled our notepads with some little aluminium pens from muji and became the proud owners of €10 notepad/pen sets. Of course I had a justification for the purchase (I always do) - I would use mine as a travel diary so I could remember what we did on our travels, for later transcription into this blog; lucky you!

We then started towards home to prepare for our evening, stopping outside the Louvre to take some photos on the reflecting ponds.

When we finally headed out for NYE celebrations, we donned our warmest gear and had a preparatory glass of Champagne (we thought glass bottles would be prohibited - a fear that would later prove completely baseless). We went to Place de la Concorde, which has a view that stretches all the way up the Champes Elysées in one direction and towards the Eiffel tower in the other. We found ourselves a good spot on a wall next looking over the Seine, with a couple of hours to wait before midnight.

We waited there with a growing crowd of people while the clock ticked down, in anticipation of a spectacular fireworks display over the Eiffel Tower. We watched the tooting cars drive by, and the glowing Bateaux Mouches cruising up the Seine, and before long the time was upon us and we joined the countdown.

When at last the hour of midnight struck, we were very disappointed to discover there would be no grand fireworks display at the Eiffel tower, but only the regular hourly flashy-light routine that it does all the time. Along with a vast number of other people, we stood and watched and waited, but to no avail. In the end the best fireworks display was from a guy walking along nonchalantly holding a firecracker that popped a small flare into the air every few seconds.

After we recovered from this minor setback we set out to walk up the Champes Elysées, which is the focal point for NY celebrations in Paris and was filled with a flood of people.

We took our time walking the length of the avenue, watching the hoards of boys pursuing single girls trying to get a new year kiss, and staying clear of the numerous police in full riot gear. It was all very well behaved, despite what you might expect from the shop-fronts, which were boarded up, and the later news reports of torched cars in the suburbs.

Eventually we made our way home, a bit disappointed by the lack of fireworks (our expectations probably set a little high after the Sydney NYE experience) but very happy to have been part of such a big event in a city like Paris.

Sunday, 6 January 2008

Paris: Part 5

On Sunday we woke up with a renewed determination that we would, at last, climb the towers of Notre Dame. We'd been defeated twice before and had planned to get up nice and early and get in queue in time to beat the masses. Of course, having spent the last several days storming through a large portion of Paris, we were completely knackered and didn't actually leave the apartment until well after our planned hour.

By the time we arrived at Notre Dame the queue was huge and moving forward at a snail's pace. We tried to convince ourselves this gave us an excellent opportunity to examine the outside of the cathedral, but really there's only so much of that you can do before boredom sets in. We sustained ourselves with crêpe au beurre et sucre (crepes with butter and sugar) from a nearby shop that was making a killing feeding the frozen tourists stuck in the queue along with us.

Once up the towers, however, the view over Paris was amazing and the gargoyles provided an amusing foreground for the spectacular panorama.

We inched our way around the outside of the towers before heading up the extremely narrow staircase to the very top which had the most amazing view of all. It was a long wait, but definitely worth it.

Once out of the towers again, we stopped to watch some rollerbladers who were doing an impressive job of slaloming between tiny witches-hats they had set up on the bridge near the cathedral. I gave them 80c, which I'm sure they appreciated.

From there we walked (actually half running, not wanting to miss another museum entry) to the Musée Rodin.

The Musée Rodin is actually both the old Hôtel Biron and its surrounding garden, which makes it a very relaxing spot to visit. I've got to say that while The Thinker and couple other of his works were quite impressive I would not rank myself amongst the greatest of Rodin fans, but it was still an interesting place to visit.

A friend from work had recommended we go to Centre Pompidou and have a drink at George's Restaurant on the top floor for the view over Paris. We dutifully visited the building, which was originally built in 1977 and recently renovated, and browsed the books and postcards at the bookshop before navigating our way up to George's. The view was indeed quite spectacular, and we blended into the high-fashion restaurant by whipping our our map and guide-book to plan our next steps while sipping on a glass of wine.

Paris: Part 4

We're up to Saturday, now, and our first goal for the day was to take ourselves on a walk around the Marais neighbourhood, on the 'right' bank of the Seine. We started at Place des Vosges, which is a lovely little square of 36 identical brick houses (actually only the first few were built with brick, the rest being built with wood and plaster to save time and money).

Victor Hugo lived in one of the apartments for a time, but that is no great claim to fame as half of Paris seems to have some sort of association with the author of The Hunchback of Notre Dame and Les Miserables. There is a museum there, which we didn't visit.

From there we wandered around the Marais some more, making a half-hearted effort to go to the Picasso museum which had a huge, snaking, queue before deciding we should stick to seeing the neighbourhood, ducking into shops and pattiseries to sample the local delights. Linda bought a small silver spoon with holes in it, the purpose of which have had still yet to properly determine.

Our next plan for the day had us climbing Notre Dame and we were heading in that direction when I decided I was in caffiene withdrawal and we wandered into a random little café we spotted on the way. This proved to be a masterstroke since it was actually a boutique little coffee bar where groups of people met for phylosophical discussion (French style) on the merits of various blends. We ordered café creme (cappuccino), which may have been a deviation from the purist approach of the espress (espresso) that all the other patrons were drinking, but was neverthless the best coffee we had tasted in either Switzerland or France (and almost, but not quite, Italy). [after a brilliant and determined piece of detective work, Linda managed to track down the café website: Soluna Cafés]

We continued on to Notre Dame only to find there was an obscene queue with a sign at the end indicating we weren't to try and join, since it was now too late to get in. Instead, we jumped on a metro and headed towards Montemartre to see sunset over Paris from the steps below Sacré-Cœur.

We watched the sun go down over the city, which was beautiful as always, and walked around the neighbourhood and the nearby Place du Tertre where half the portrait painters of Paris congregate to lure in unsuspecting tourists. Montemartre is a lovely neighbourhood, despite being so heavily touristed.

Linda managed to book us a restaurant for dinner (no mean feat considering the late hour, multiple closed restaurants, and hoards of tourists) and we waited out the time for our reservation by sipping on vin chaud (a hot spicy wine) to keep us warm. Hot wines are excellent in Switzerland, but in France (at least, the one brazzerie we tried it at) they left something to be desired.

The situation was somewhat remedied at dinner when they gave us a free glass of Rosé, and our meal was very good, but then went backwards again when our desert left us disappointed and, on the way home, Linda realised she had left her gloves at the restaurant following a series of bag moves to accommodate the growing crowd of customers. Oh, the trials and tribulations of holidaying in Paris!