Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Winter Fun in the Swiss Alps

Kyle had a stretch of several days off of work, so we had to do some traveling!  We tried to find someplace that would be warm, but as it turns out, there is nowhere even remotely warm in Europe in February.  Instead, we decided to embrace winter by heading to the Swiss Alps.  We stayed in an apartment in a very small town in eastern Switzerland on the northern edge of the Alps.  It was only a two hour forty minute drive from our house.  We rented a great apartment in a new chalet, complete with a fireplace and hot tub.  Sounds like the making of a great trip!

The apartment
We arrived around 3 in the afternoon on our first day.  As we were making our way to the apartment, we couldn't believe the road that it was on!  The road was very narrow and only one lane as it twisted around hairpin turns up the side of a mountain.  At first we wondered if we were driving on a walking path!  The road was very steep, so it had containers of grit and snow shovels strategically placed. The further up we drove, the more the snow started to accumulate, making Kyle very happy! We spent the first evening relaxing by the fire and hot tubbing it, while we figured out a plan for the rest of our trip.
Night view from our place
We were very close to the border of Liechtenstein; the country of only 36,000 people and 62 square miles, which is slightly smaller than Washington DC.  We headed there our first full day. On our way, we stopped in the quaint little Swiss town of Walenstadt on the Walensee lake.  We walked around and admired the clean little town, and made our way to see the lake.  It is absolutely stunning. The sparkling, crystal clear water is surrounded by mountains and vineyards.  There were a lot of ducks, loons, and a couple of swans to entertain us there for a while.  We love watching birds, and I always kick myself for not bringing along stale bread!
The town of Walenstadt
Beautiful Walensee
From there we headed on to Liechtenstein.  It is a beautiful country with the Rhine River running through the center of a valley surrounded by mountains.  It was a gorgeous drive, and we enjoyed stopping to take pictures of castles looming above the small towns.  We crossed the Rhine valley and then the mountain ridge on the other side.  As we climbed in elevation, the snow once again started to pile up.  We saw a bus of school kids unloading, all wearing snow and ski gear.  What a different life than we knew when we were kids!
On the other side of the mountain was a complete winter wonderland.  We parked in tiny town called Steg and were ready for lunch.  We were heading to a restaurant in an Inn that we had heard about called the Berggasthaus Sücka.  We bundled up in the car, then headed up the kilometer long path uphill to the Inn, since you can't get to it by a road! It was a fun and beautiful little hike.  The entire time, there was a gentle snowfall.  They had about three feet of snow on the ground already!  As we made it up to the Inn, you could hear kids playing and tobogganing down the hills.  At that point we were cold and hungry, and a pot of bubbly cheese fondu hit the spot perfectly!
Tiny town of Steg
Hiking up to the Inn for lunch!
View from the Inn
Perfect little snowflakes!
Mmmmm, hot, bubbly cheese!
After lunch instead of hiking back down to the car, we tobogganed down the toboggan run instead! You borrow one of their old fashioned wooden toboggans, and leave it in a shed at the end.  It was both of our first times tobogganing, so it was interesting!  We rode down together, with Kyle in the front filming as we went, while I was hanging on to him shouting and being a backseat driver.  It's actually quite a bit harder than it looks, but definitely a lot of fun!  Kyle got a nice big hunk of snow up his pants leg!
From Liechtenstein, we headed back to Switzerland to Mount Säntis, the highest peak in northeastern Switzerland at 2502 meters above sea level.  (On our way there, I got locked in a bathroom.  There wasn't even enough space for me to crawl under the door!  What fun that was!)  Since Säntis is on the northern edge of the Alps, it takes the brunt of the weather from the north.  It has it's own micro climate that makes it snow there A TON!  As we were climbing in elevation to the base of the mountain, the snow was getting higher and higher, until finally it was higher than our car!  It was like driving through a canyon of snow!  (Kyle's level of giddiness directly correlated with the height of the snow.  If you know Kyle, you know that he's a snow-aholic and this was his dream come true!) The roads were in really good shape until we were about 2 kilometers from the base of Säntis.  Our VW Jetta was really put to the test getting up to the parking lot!

Once we were parked, the first thing we had to do was snap some pictures of the snow that was higher than our heads! It was pretty unreal! We actually couldn't see the huge mountain right in front of us because it was still snowing really heavily. We went into a hotel called Berghotel Schwägalp, which is pretty much the info center for the area, since there's not much else there. We had some coffee and Black Forest cake in the restaurant before heading out for our evening hike.  In the forest area by the hotel, they have a loop trail that they light by lantern on weekends.  The snow was falling gently in big, fluffy flakes, and it was so quiet and peaceful.  There was about five feet of snow on the ground, so you're actually walking on packed down snow three or four feet above the ground! Walking along the lantern lit trail during twilight was like finding Narnia.  It just seemed surreal. About halfway through was a snow covered hut magically set up with hot orange punch,  just in time to warm up our numbing fingers!
The snow was over our heads!
Our beautiful, peaceful lantern lit walk
Warming up with hot punch
Hello, Narnia!
The next day we headed out for more winter fun!  We went to another snow paradise called Rigi Mountain, very close to Lake Lucerne.  We parked at the base of the mountain, and took the cog train up to the top.  The train had a few stops on the way up the mountain, in tiny towns and guest houses buried halfway in snow.  We passed waterfalls made of blue tinted ice and of course, more and more snow as we neared the top.  It was like a blizzard at the top of the mountain.  You couldn't see very far because of white out conditions.  That doesn't stop the Swiss people from having their winter fun! On Rigi mountain and throughout Switzerland there are tons of places for skiing, tobogganing, cross country skiing, and snow shoeing.  
At the top of Rigi
Since we grew up in the flat lands, we haven't had much opportunity for skiing, so we went for the tobogganing and are saving the skiing attempts for less dangerous conditions, preferably where we won't be able to fall off the side of the mountain!  However, the tobogganing was pretty intense!  The course was just over four kilometers long (about 2 and a half miles) down the side of a mountain. There were a lot of twists, turns, jumps, and steep hills and an edge with nothing to stop you from going over the side of the mountain!  (In the States, they definitely would have made you sign a waiver!)  It was snowing really hard and pelting you in your face the entire way down, and at some points you just really couldn't see!  I did some feet dragging to avoid going off the side, and Kyle went over a big hump in the path and ended up rolling down the hill for a ways!  Despite all of that, it was a lot of fun and quite a rush!  We rode the train around a bit more, and got off at a small village not far from the peak.  It had a hotel with an awesome thermal bath outside, a lot of amazing chalets, and of course, tons of snow!  That evening we really made good use of the hot tub to take the chill out of our bones!

In the little chalet village on the mountain
We spent our last day of winter fun back at Säntis.  When Kyle knows that there is someplace near with that much snow, just try and keep him away!  The temperature at the base of Säntis was about 17 degrees, and we were heading to the top via cable car, so we were bundled up in many layers.  I had on  long johns, jeans, snow pants, a t-shirt, a hoody, a down coat, a scarf, a hat, a hood, leg warmers, snow boots and three pairs of socks!  I was grateful for every layer at the top!  It was frigid with a really strong wind.  It took about 10 minutes to reach the peak by cable car.  We were lucky and had some sunshine while we were up there.  We were above the clouds, and could just see the highest peaks rising above the layer of clouds.  It's like we were on top of the world!  There was 19 feet of snow at the top, which kind of blows my mind.
Can you find the door we used?
Check out the hiking paths of some crazy people!!
Weather station.  I'm guessing the wind comes mainly from one direction!
The hotel, closed for the season for obvious reasons
Once we got back down to the base of the mountain, we headed out for a nice winter hike through the 5 feet of snow.  They keep several paths through the snow packed down, so that hikers can make it without snow shoes.  It was a beautiful hike, and it didn't stop snowing once!  We warmed up with apple strudel in the hotel afterwards before heading back to the apartment.  There was quite a bit of snow at the apartment while we were gone, and we had a lot of trouble making it up the road.  We even had to put our new snow chains to use!  Remember it was a one lane road, and as Kyle was trying to put them on (first time ever putting chains on a vehicle) two cars came from the other way. That made it a bit of a stressful situation!
Geared up for a winter hike, on about 4-5 feet of packed down snow!
I spy, a barn roof!
We definitely found a winter wonderland, and will probably head to Switzerland every winter that we're here.  We did learn a few things about the Swiss people while we were there.  They're very nice people, but really mean drivers!  They tailgate like mad, even up steep, snowy, winding mountain roads.  Not cool.  They also really know how to live it up in the winter!  When we lived in Indianapolis and Maryland, if the weather forecast called for five feet of snow over a week or so, we all know what would happen.  First, people run to the grocery store and pick the shelves bare of every last morsel of food.  Then everyone would run next door to the Lowes or Home Depot and buy all of the shovels, blowers, flashlights, generators, and all batteries, whether they had anything to put those batteries in or not.  Then they would fill their bathtubs with water and watch the news about the weather and tweet about it while huddled under blankets.  Not in Switzerland.  Five feet of snow? Just another average day for them. It's just a good excuse for them to get outside and have fun!  I guess they have to embrace it, or they'd be in for it!  Kyle would love to live somewhere that regularly has five feet of snow on the ground.  I guess he'll just have to settle for visiting it, which is fine by me!

Sunday, February 17, 2013

A Parisian Valentine

For Valentine's Day this year, Kyle and I headed to Paris.  Now, before you roll your eyes and gag, I found a great deal on train tickets and it just so happens that Valentine's Day fit the best into Kyle's work schedule.  We headed to Paris on the 13th on the high speed train.  It only took about 3 and a half hours to get there from Stuttgart.  The train got up to 320 kph, which is 199 mph.  That's definitely the fastest we've ever traveled on the ground!  (No, we've never driven that fast on the autobahn.  Maybe after we've been here a little longer... or maybe not :-)

We arrived early in the afternoon, and it was beautiful and sunny, but it was cold!!  We checked into our hotel in the St. Germain des Pres neighborhood.  It's a wonderful area full of galleries, cafes, shops, and restaurants.  If I lived in Pairs, I would want to live in that neighborhood!   We had spent 10 days in Paris on our honeymoon about five and a half years ago and saw a lot, so we said that this time we were going to take it easy and enjoy the city.  We certainly enjoyed the city, but we did not take it easy like we said we would...we walked our feet off; very typical of us!
Church near our hotel
A smart way to keep your hands warm!
We started off with lunch at a cafe.  We had to have the classics.  I warmed up with delicious and oh so cheesy onion soup (they don't call it "French" onion soup) and Kyle had Quiche Lorraine.  Real men do eat quiche, especially in France! 
Kyle being the weatherman that he is, knew that the next day would be rainy, so we wanted to take advantage of the sun.  We decided to re-visit a few of our favorite sites from our honeymoon.  Obviously, Notre Dame was a highlight, so we headed there first.  It is so beautiful and impressive.  Construction began on Notre Dame in 1163, and this year they are celebrating 850 years.  It is considered one of the best examples of French Gothic Architecture and has been beautifully maintained. 
Notre Dame
Next we headed to my favorite cathedral in Paris, Sainte Chapelle.  It's one of those things I learned about a long time ago in art history, and have been taken with it ever since.  Some of the things I learned in class are actually somewhat disappointing in real life, but this is not one of those things.  It's a relatively small chapel built by King Louis IX in 1239.  The walls are mainly composed of impressive stained glass rather than stone like most Gothic cathedral and chapels, filling it with light and color.  Even after seeing so many churches and cathedrals in our travels, this is still one of my favorites.  It's a site not to be missed!
Sainte Chapelle
We were chilled to the bone at that point, and warmed up in a very French cafe with coffee and Nutella crepes.  I just love eating my way through a city!
 That evening we definitely wanted to visit the Eiffel Tower while it was all lit up at night.  You can't go to Paris and not visit the Eiffel Tower, I don't care how many times you've been!  I guess we forgot how far away the Eiffel Tower is, because we decided to walk there.  The map was also very deceiving!  In Rome, things were closer than they seemed on the map, so I guess we were still in that mindset.  However long our walk was, it was still a wonderful walk, and a great way to get as much out of being in the city as we could in a short amount of time.  And the Eiffel Tower did not disappoint! 
After Kyle got some great shots of the Eiffel Tower, we were so cold that our fingers hurt, so we caught a Taxi back to our neighborhood.  We found an awesome little family run type restaurant to have dinner.  It was a really warm, cozy little place that had excellent food.  For an appetizer, I had an avacado salad, and Kyle had onion soup.  For our main course, I had Chateaubriand, which is a very flavorful steak, with Bearnaise sauce and Kyle had chicken breast with a creamy mushroom sauce.  For dessert Kyle had his signature chocolate mousse and I had creme caramel.  I'm getting hungry just writing about it!  Contrary to the stereotypes of the French, our server was incredibly nice and funny; we thought he seemed like he should be Italian! 

Kyle would make a good was very rainy on Valentine's Day, but we still had a wonderful day!  We started off with omelets and cappuccino for breakfast at a nice little cafe.  From there we headed to see the extremely opulent Opéra Garnier.  Construction began in 1861 and it is one of the most elaborate, luxurious, grandiose, and over the top buildings I have ever seen!  It was incredible!  The Opéra Garnier was the inspiration for Gaston Leroux's book, The Phantom of the Opera.  The opera house even has an underground lake, like in Phantom.  I would LOVE to see a ballet there!  Would it bankrupt us?  Probably.  Maybe we could volunteer to be ushers. 
Mmmmm cappuccino! 
Beautiful venue, with the dome painted by Chagall
The Opéra Garnier is very close to the famous Galeries Lafayette, a famous department store.  When I say department store, do not picture Macy's, or even Saks.  Think more the size of a HUGE mall.  But it's even so much more than that!  The center of the store has an amazing stained glass dome.  It is full of couture and exclusive boutiques and shops.  My favorite part was the food emporium which had restaurants, cheese counters, patisseries, chocolate shops, spice shops, etc.  Kyle and I managed to find a casual cafe were we had really good soup and tiramisu for lunch.  Perfect for a rainy day! 
Galeries Lafayette
At the food emporium, and whole aisle of mustard
The French don't mess around with their Nutella
Some Valentine Treats, almost too pretty to eat
From there, Kyle and I wondered a bit, checking out markets or whatever looked interesting.  We took the metro back to our neighborhood and stopped to see Saint Sulpice, a unique cathedral with beautiful frescoes by the French artist Delacroix.  By that time, it was like a new day.  The sun was shining and it wasn't so cold!  
A cool window display selling 1300 euro perfume..can't you tell it's for perfume?
Saint Sulpice
For our Valetine's dinner, we had reservations at our favorite restaurant that we ate at on our honeymoon.  It was a ways away, so we took a taxi.  It's funny how time changes things in your mind.  When we first went in, we thought it was a different restaurant!  As we sat down, it started to come back to was the right place!  It's a wonderful little restaurant, and the people that work there are so friendly and treat you like family.  Our dinner was absolutely amazing!  Since it was Valentine's Day, throughout the evening they brought out samples of food like salami and a wonderful creamy soup.  For our appetizer we had creamy, warm goat cheese on toast.  My main course was a delicious and tender duck with honey glaze and roasted potatoes.  Kyle's main course was a plat du jour and very appropriate; truffle mac and cheese (as in truffle mushrooms).  I think you could add truffles to anything and it would make it taste heavenly!  He enjoyed every last bite!  For dessert we had the same thing we had eaten the previous night to compare, chocolate mousse and creme caramel.  It's so good!  We finished off the meal the way a lot of Europeans do, with espresso!  For some reason it doesn't keep me awake after a big meal...maybe because I'm in a food coma?  I think Kyle and I will visit this place every time we visit Paris!

Our train left at 11:30 the next day.  While at the train station, we speculated at how many more weird people we see in Paris than we do in Germany.  Anyways, our ticket deal was so good, that we got first class on the way home.  The seats were very comfortable and spacious.  It's a comfortable way to travel! 

Paris was a wonderful way to spend a short Valentine's trip.  Just for fun, here are a few pics from our honeymoon in May 2007. 
Getting ready to see the Louvre
Seeing Sainte Chapelle the first time