Europe 2010: Die Schweiz, La France
Our train from Lausanne went straight to the Hauptbahnhof in Zürich. Just as we had been told, we were able to catch the S10 subway right under the station, which took us to within two blocks of Michael and Corinne's apartment. Zürich is an interesting town, a blend of stately old stone buildings interspersed with ultra-modern offices. It fairly reeks of money, really big money, which powers the international machine that in turn makes Switzerland possible. It's spanking clean, and outright orderly; the phrase alles in Ordnung describes this place perfectly.
It's cool, in the temperature sense, and often kept that way by a low-hanging cloud that sits in the valley like a 25 pound cat that has just finished eating. Maybe it's the climate that helps the big wig investment bankers stay calm in a crisis, but for the rest of the population there is a rush each weekend to get up in the mountains and above the cloud deck. The Trommsdorffs are big proponents of this, and usually bail out of town as soon as they can get the kids up.
Saturday's plan called for a tram ride/hike up Pilatus, known having the best scenery of any of the summits close to town. Sure enough, we broke out of the clouds as the tram ascended above the 1,000 meter level, and the view was sublime. We stopped on the way up and took a few runs on the dry-land luge course, which was a gas. It takes over an intermediate level ski hill that's serviced by a platter lift, and they run a stainless steel track down the mountain. It's not clear if it would be possible to go fast enough to crash the sleds on the corners, but they have signs before each curve warning you to brake.
We hiked about a mile or so on a cool trail built into the rock, and had lunch there. The views were incredible in every direction, and the Trommsdorff kids Luca and Florian are already turning into mountain folk at the ages of 3 and 5. Living in Switzerland it's hard not be be . The Swiss have an interesting attitude toward their children, believing in the kids learning by the school of "hard knocks" (up to a point). We often saw children as young as three playing in the courtyard with no apparent supervision, a shocking cultural contrast with the American model, but one that seems to work in Switzerland.
That night we went out for an "adult" meal - Corinne explained to the kids that it would involve sitting in one place for several hours and being quiet, and they wisely concurred that it wouldn't be that fun. We wandered about town for a while as Michael explained the Zürich mindset; usually conservative and buttoned-down, they go crazy during certain party times. He described the "town party" which shuts down the city for three days, and told of people stripping off their clothes in offices overlooking the river and diving into the water from several stories up. Pretty crazy. We found La Cantinetta Antinori, a serious Italian place partially owned by winemaker Piero Antinori, and slipped into a table that someone else was 20 minutes late for even though the place was packed. Venison carpaccio, a few slices of super fresh Parma prosciutto (the whole leg was sitting on the counter next to us on a non-electric antique slicer and we couldn't resist), whole grilled sole and branzino with home-fried tiny potatoes washed down with the reliable Antinori Santa Cristina. Highly recommended if you happen to be in Zürich.
Two days in Zürich were not really enough, but we had a pretty tight schedule and headed back to Lausanne on the train. It is a little disconcerting switching back and forth from Swiss-German to French for those of us who don't really speak either language that well, but fortunately our friends covered for us everywhere we went. My brother-in-law Jeremy took us on a boat ride (free for us because we had a Eurorail pass) that provided a superb view of the homes of some of the ultra-rich along the Swiss Riviera and eventually got us to the restored 11th Century Chateau de Chillon. The castle was very cool, and gave a sense of what it may have been like to live in a fortress in medieval times.
I'd heard about Gstaad for years. Home of the rich and famous, royals from pretty much every country in Europe, many of whom come each year for the ski season and then return to their "regular" homes in Zürich or London or Milano or whereever. The "Golden Pass" train from Montreux winds up into the Alps and affords incredible views on both sides. As you near Gstaad the language switches from French to Swiss-German, but there's a bit of overlap and places where they choose to use the other language for certain expressions. In Saanen and Gstaad, for instance, they like to say "Merci" rather than "Danke" for Thank You. Our old friend Kay met us at the train station and we headed up the hill to her 300 year-old farmhouse. It's a very special home, with low ceilings built for a shorter version of the human race and which they are gradually remodelling in the original style. The basic structure is rock solid and done in natural wood fixed with wood dowels instead of bolts or nails; fortunately Kay's brother-in-law is a carpenter specializing in this type of work.
Kay's husband Hansueli is a UIAGM guide and was enthusiastic in pointing out some of his regular ski tours on the map and insisting that I come back in the winter and bring skis. The tours are literally everywhere around town and he's got a regular group of fit skiers that show up pretty much every day. Nice work if you can manage it.
The next day we took a hike around the Launensee, a protected scenic lake up the road from Gstaad, and checked out the shops in town. Expect to experience sticker shock if you buy anything in Switzerland - pretty much anything is at least 50% higher than you would expect to pay in the States. I was blown away by the 40% off "sale" priced cashmere coats for $2,300 francs. The exchange is pretty much 1 to 1 with the dollar, so you get the idea . . .
Kay produced awesome dinners, with a classic Raclette meal the first night (Raclette cheese served melted over pickles, ham, and new potatoes) and a fantastic saltimbocca the second. Between the home-cooked meals in Gstaad and my sister-in-law's cooking in Lausanne we weren't exactly losing any weight on this trip, but we weren't about to say no.
We had planned to do a trip to Lourdes with our son Jordan after stopping briefly in Marseille. As it turned out, our trip coincided with a series of French strikes and demonstrations that left the train system floundering (only in France, in Switzerland the trains run on time, period). Our reserved TGV (high speed train) to Marseille was supprime (cancelled), but my sister-in-law TZ got us on a train to Geneva, and after that we pretty much winged it into France, hoping for the best. The French are accustomed to dealing with this sort of ambiguity and just sort of hang out in the train station until they find a train going their direction, and we resolved to do the same. It was mayhem in the Lyon station, with standing room only on the main floor and everyone staring at the overhead monitors waiting for trains to be added, but eventually the SNCF (the French national train authority) put together a train that arrived in Marseille after stopping at pretty much every small village along the way. We ran for the train and actually got seats before the aisles filled up completely and they sent the train off before the scheduled time. No one even checked our tickets all the way to Marseille, as they didn't have the staff and they couldn't have navigated the aisles anyway. We rolled in several hours late and Jordan met us at the Gare St. Charles, which was walking distance from his apartment. Since we were so late and pretty much exhausted from the trip, we decided to cancel the trip to Toulouse and Lourdes and just hang in Marseille instead.
Marseille, warm and sleazy, is sort of the Los Angeles of France. Where Paris is all grey and black, nose-in-the-air and no-nonsense rush, Marseille is kick-back and see. Wide boulevards give way to narrow, winding streets with plenty of hills. Parisienne monotone is replaced by the brick red of Marseille rooftops; pale Caucasian faces by a mix of races from Africa and Italy. The perceived sleaziness of Marseille street life wasn't helped by the fact that the garbage collectors were on strike, as there were huge piles of garbage stacked up on every street, but Jordan assured us that this wasn't normally the case. His apartment was a charming second floor walkup with the ultra noise-sensitive Mme. N. Roux living underneath. It had a nice kitchen with a shower/bath and two bedrooms, and Jordan graciously allowed his parents to take his room while he slept on the couch. Each day we would start out at his favorite coffee place, usually with pain au chocolate from the patisserie across the street.
The next day we took the bus to Aix-en-Provence, about 30 km away, where he has some of his classes. It was a remarkable contrast; Aix is largely a tourist and university town full of interesting shopping venues and restaurants of all types and price ranges. We often would do lunch at a falafel sandwich place (pretty much like falafel places here but with a pile of fries thrown in, you also have the option of having it on a baguette instead of pita bread), then dinner at a sit-down restaurant with wine. We did a boulabaise night at a restaurant near the Vieux Port in Marseille, and falafel or schwarma sandwiches in between, plus plenty of pastry. Paul, a chain patisserie defies the stereotype for chain foodservice establishments - you can find one in almost any major train station, and everything they make seems to be incredible. The Sandwich Dieppoise (tuna sandwich on a whole grain baguette) and the lemon tart ranked near the top of my list for food consumed in France and were bargain priced.
One day we did a trip to Notre Dame de la Garde, a beautiful church high on a hill overlooking the harbor. It's a bit of a walk, and steep, but the view is unequalled. The weather was perfect but windy, and the church itself is probably the nicest we'd seen in Europe.
With our time in France almost at an end, we kept checking the SNCF and Air France websites for news of cancellations, but it was impossible to tell what was going on. Rumor had it that about half the flights were being flown, but with the lack of jet fuel and the baggage handlers also on strike, it was hard to predict anything. We decided to just go to the Gare St. Charles and hope to get on a train or bus headed in the direction of Geneva, and it worked out. Our original TGV train was cancelled, but they put another one together that got us to Lyon. Then another train to Bellegarde, and a bus for a short segment, then a couple of lucky transfers took us all the way to Lausanne, where we celebrated my brother-in-law's birthday. Sweet serendipity, to be sure - we only had to wait a couple of minutes between trains.
The Air France connections going back the next day were also lucky. No one at Air France or Delta could tell us with certainty whether our scheduled flights were actually going to take off or not, but both flights went more or less on time and we ended up in Seattle just about 30 minutes behind scedule. Even without skis, it was a great trip and a chance to get together with friends and family that we see all too rarely these days!