Saturday, 9 April 2011

Leaving Switzerland

Linda and I arrived in Europe almost exactly 4 years ago, with a couple of bags of clothes and not much more than a dream to pursue. In many ways we've been incredibly lucky; finding good jobs and living in a beautiful country, full of really nice people, in the middle of Europe.

However we never planned for this to be a permanent, or even particularly long-term, arrangement and, while we made many false starts at heading back home, it was inevitable that the day would come when we had to leave.

Maybe if we'd realised how much work leaving was going to be we would have delayed even longer, but as much as we enjoyed our time in Europe there's no escaping the fact that the people who matter to us most are back in Australia, and it's a long way between here and there!

So we sold, recycled, or disposed of as much of our belongings as we could, packed our bags and boxes, cancelled all our contracts, and said our goodbyes. I think it's safe to say that at the end of all that we were thinking we could never put ourselves through that again, but as the saying goes: never say never!

Ski Randonée at Ovronnaz

Since arriving in Switzerland I've done a bit of downhill skiing, which I really enjoy. But I'd also seen plenty of people hiking up mountains in their skis, generally looking hot and exhausted, and heard plenty of talk at work of ski randonnée, or ski touring, and had decided that this must be the ultimate skiing experience.
This season I was determined I would give it a go, although I was quite hampered by a poor season of snow, so didn't really get started even trying until quite late in the season.
Knowing my determination to give it a try, Linda bought me a day of ski touring at Chamonix with a guide, and some guys at work started talking about taking me along on one of their own tours (no small concession given how seriously they take their weekends). Rather than be a complete beginner in either endeavor, I rented some skis for a couple of weeks and did a few trial runs up La Dole near Nyon. The snow was really poor but at least I got to break in my legs and try out a few kick-turns (one of the few really technical things to learn with ski touring).
In the end I didn't get to use my ski touring day at Chamonix, which instead I used for a descent of the Vallée Blanche (a whole other story), but I did get to go along with my work mates (Alessandro, Mike, and Andrew). They took me to Ovronnaz. I'd only ever known Ovronnaz as a family ski resort with an associated bath complex, so I was quite surprised when it was raised as a potential location.
We got up early and drove out to Ovronnaz where we bought our lift tickets to the top of the resort, from where we hiked up first to the Col de Fenestral between Dents du Morcles and Grand Chavalard then skied into a small valley before making our final ascent of the Dents du Morcles, at around 3000m.
It was an amazing day with perfect weather and a fresh layer of powder on the mountain. It was a really challenging climb for me in many respects; because it was my first major outing at a reasonably high altitude, plus I hadn't done much off-piste skiing, and lastly because I underestimated the day out and found myself quite dehydrated and sunburned at the end of the day.
It is also really hard work not only because of the long uphill climb wearing heavy skis and boots, but also because the apparent temperature changes dramatically depending on whether you are climbing or skiing, whether you're in a valley or on a ridge, and the altitude change. You need to stop quite often to change your clothing, and apply or remove the skins under your skis that allow you to hike uphill, which is exhausting in itself.
Despite these challenges it was probably the most memorable day of skiing since arriving in Switzerland; it gave me a real taste of back-country skiing and the best powder skiing I've experienced. I hope I have a chance to try it again some day!
Andrew made an excellent movie of the day which I've posted on YouTube.

Monday, 14 February 2011


On our way home from our balloon flight at Chateau D'Oex we stopped by the Papiliorama, not far from Bern.
The Papiliorama is a tropical garden containing, amongst other things, a fantastic exhibit of live tropical butterflies.
We only spent a relatively short amount of time there, but we kept well entertained by the many different butterflies fluttering around us.
We also spotted a hummingbird, which darted around the enclosure and hovered over the feeding trays long enough, and close enough, for us to snap off some photos.
There was also a nocturnal exhibit which was also interesting but also a little bit frightening, with small, black (mostly invisible in the low light) bats fluttering past your face at regular intervals.
We had a really nice time wandering around the exhibits, making it a nice cap to a very fun weekend of spas, balloons, and butterflies!

Friday, 11 February 2011

Ballooning at Chateau D'Oex

Some time ago I bought Linda a gift certificate for hot air ballooning at Chateau D'Oex, which holds an annual balloon festival each January.
We'd tried to book a flight around a year ago that was cancelled due to wind and, to be fair, it did actually seem quite windy that weekend. Not that the wind made us feel much better about the fact that we'd had to commit to a day off work and two nights accommodation in a hotel.
With our departure from Switzerland now imminent, we gave it another try - booking a Friday the weekend after the balloon festival.
We were again somewhat disappointed to learn, the evening before, that the flight would again be cancelled, particularly since this time it seemed there was no wind and no clouds to be seen.
So we staked out the ballooning office to confront the organisers. It turned out, without explanation, that they weren't in the office in that morning leading us to suspect they had simply cancelled the Friday flight due to lack of numbers.
After lunch we pounced on them as soon as they came into the office and were told that in fact it would be possible for us to join a flight on Saturday! This was a little unexpected as I had previously told it would not be possible to fly on Saturday because it was already booked out.
In the mean-time however we had booked a hotel in Charmey, near Gruyeres, where we planned to spend the evening in the spa. So we left our very nice hotel in Chateau D'Oex and drove up to Charmey. Our luck seemed to be turning as we received a phone call from the hotelier apologising profusely that he could not fulfil our booking due to a technical issue - so we happily booked our original room back in Chateau D'Oex!
Then we spent an entirely relaxing candle-lit evening in the baths, hamams, and saunas at Charmey, before heading back to Chateau D'Oex in preparation for our flight.
On the day of the flight, we turned up nice and early to watch the balloon being inflated, and we climbed into the basket with great anticipation. It was quite a large balloon with a basket big enough for 12 of us (including the pilot and copilot), and it took quite some time for the balloon to be up in the air.
Then we drifted gently down the valley from Chateau D'Oex towards Gruyeres, which was nice but without lots of snow this year it was a little drab in the valley.
However, Chateau D'Oex's location is something of a geographic anomaly, where you can drift down the valley in one direction, being pushed along by the cold air, before increasing altitude and returning to Chateau D'Oex on the warmer air current.
This is quite a neat trick and it meant we got plenty of altitude to see the alps around us and it was nice and warm in the sun above the mountains.
After going back into the valley to return to Chateau D'Oex our pilot seemed to get a little lost and we scraped our way past trees and power lines before finding a nice open field upon which we touched down very gently.
After assisting to deflate and pack the balloon, we had a nice apero in the sun and received our certificates for the flight.
During the apero we heard a few more stories from our fellow passengers who had experienced even worse luck than us with the flight cancellations. Apparently only one flight in three is possible due to the weather conditions, which is something you're not told when you buy the tickets!
So it was a really fantastic experience, even if we did feel a little burned by the whole process at times!

Thursday, 20 January 2011

Pre-Christmas - Tallinn

The last leg of our pre-Christmas holiday was in Tallinn in Estonia, which we reached via a short ferry trip from Helsinki (which we only just made it on time for, being unexpectedly held up in the Helsinki traffic).
I have to say I was a bit sceptical of this last part of our trip, since most guide books seem to brush Tallinn off as a day-trip from Finland, but actually it was one of the nicest part of our whole trip.
Linda had found us an apartment just off the main square of Tallinn (although finding it at first was a bit difficult, thanks to an unhelpful taxi driver and a confusing numbering scheme). On the main square was the Christmas Markets, which were really nice and suitably snow-covered.
Tallinn is famous for it's crafts and so we spent some time going from shop to shop, buying more presents and more Christmas decorations.
In between shopping we had plenty more Glogg to keep us warm, and even managed to figure out the Sauna in our apartment to help thaw us after spending too long in the freezing outdoors.
Since the old town of Tallinn is medieval, they have some medieval themed cafés and restaurants and we dined on some delicious (if sometimes heavy) meals, including pastries and game meats. The beer was also excellent!
We took the time also to head out to another open air museum, which always sound tacky in theory, but in practice they are fantastic because they have lots of cute historic buildings covered with snow, and in Tallinn they even had re-enactments of life from the respective period.
We were lucky enough to find some hearty pea soup for lunch, and getting back into Tallinn was no problem because a friendly Moldovan diplomat gave us a lift back into town!
We finished our stay in Tallinn by taking a stroll in the upper part of the town, where we found some fantastic views back over the historic centre.
We flew back to Switzerland via Copenhagen relatively stress free, which was lucky because all across Europe airports were blocked because of snowstorms!