31 May 2007

I Have a Secret!

GLH is having a Big Birthday this year. In September he turns 40.

We stopped giving each other presents. Instead, we travel someplace together. For birthdays, the birthday person gets to pick where s/he wants to go.

After my birthday trip to Ireland earlier this month, I started prodding GLH about his trip.

GLH couldn't make up his mind. I realized this was going to turn into one of those last-minute trips where nothing is planned or organized. Which can be alright. But as this is an Extra Special Birthday, the trip should be Extra Special too! And that takes some forethought.

So I came up with an idea. I suggested that I should plan a trip somewhere, but not tell him where we are going.

GLH liked the idea and I started the planning and research stage. The flights are booked. The hotel is reserved. We are ready to go.

But now there is a problem.

I am really not very good at surprises. When I find a gift for someone, I literally cannot wait to give it to them. I make certain to tell them that I purchased Their Gift that day. I show it to them all wrapped up with a bow. I offer to let them hold it. I encourage them to guess. I give them little clues. I repeatedly ask if they want me to tell them what it is. And usually I make them open it almost immediately, even if they want to wait.

I'm like a 5 year old when it comes to surprises and presents.

And I am SO EXCITED about where we are going that I am DYING to tell him! But I cannot because it is supposed to be a surprise!

So I have decided that periodically, when I feel as if the secret is going to burst out of me, I will post a clue as to the location on the blog.

But if any readers figure out where we are going, please do not put it in the comments field. That way GLH can try to figure it out on his own.

So here it is. The first clue!

We are going somewhere...
that has water sports for GLH
and a fascinating history for me.

Which Gene Dominates?

When it comes to cleanliness, the Swiss genes win. Public restrooms are much, much cleaner on the Swiss side than the French side. And we are still laughing about the small plaque in the hotel bathroom that stated they use "Swiss Clean" products.

But when it comes to driving, the French genes dominate all the way.

The cars would generally drive at least 20 kph over the speed limit on the highway. But periodically you would see everyone brake for no apparent reason and go exactly the speed limit. We theorized the drivers had memorized the location of the cameras. Around Zürich, most everyone drives exactly the speed limit regardless of where the cameras may be.

And when we would stop for pedestrians in the crosswalk, which would be unthinkable to fail to do in the German-speaking area, two things would usually happen. First, we would be nearly rear-ended by the car tailgating us who didn't expect us to actually stop for a pedestrian. And then the pedestrian would look at us in shock before quickly waving and darting across the intersection.

There are likely many more differences between the French-speaking and German-speaking Swiss, but those were the most obvious to the casual observer.

30 May 2007

And the Rain Came Down

This past weekend was a continous rain shower with a few breaks. As a result we didn't do as much around Cantons Vaud and Geneva as we had hoped, but they are close enough for additional trips when the weather is nicer.

And we did manage to see a fair amount from the car and by hopping out for explorations in between bouts of rain. Such as the many terraced vineyards the Montreux area is known for...

Montreux is on the shores of Lac Leman. (That's Lake Geneva in the English-speaking world and Genfersee in the German-speaking world.) It is best known as a resort town and as the host of an annual jazz festival. Sculptures of jazz musicians line the lakeshore near Miles Davis Hall.

On Saturday evening there was about a one hour break in the rain with a touch of sunshine, which we took advantage of by going for a walk and snapping some quick photos.

On Sunday morning we headed for Geneva. Since it was still raining, we decided we might as well take our time and drive the scenic route along the shoreline in France instead of the more direct highway. Fortunately we arrived in Geneva during another break in the constant rain.

We were greeted by the enormous water fountain that has become Geneva's most famous landmark.

After a long search for a well-hidden parking garage (could someone from Geneva please explain why ALL the street parking is for 30 minutes regardless of day of the week?), we first walked to Cathédrale St Pierre in the center of the old city.

It's most famous minister was John Calvin, although he was forced to leave after only a few years due to his Reformation Ways.

After a glance through the interior, we did the obligatory climb up the tower...

Leaving the cathedral, we walked along a side street and came upon La Maison Tavel, the oldest house in Geneva. It is now the city's museum. And admission is FREE! Woo hoo! Plus they had one of those views of European rooftops I love so much.

Right next to Maison Tavel is the Hôtel de Ville, where the First Geneva Convention was signed in 1864.

After a bit more walking we noticed the clouds returning and figured more rain was on the way. We were correct.

We decided to drive south until we found good weather and arrived at Lyon, France.

The second largest city in France (after Paris), Lyon was charming, cosmopolitan and full of life! Indeed, it reminded us of how lacking in diversity Switzerland is. It was wonderful to once again see multitudes of people from all backgrounds.

As we arrived late in the afternoon, we didn't have time to see much. And as we hadn't expected to go to France this weekend, we had not a lick of information about what the city had to offer. After a quick look at possible locations in the navigation system, we selected Basilica Notre-Dame de Fourvière. Mostly because it was near the top of the alphabetical list and it was the most likely to be open past 5:00 pm.

The navigation system led us up a steep, narrow winding road. At the same moment that we arrived at the cathedral, a car pulled out of a spot practically in front of its doors. Bonus!

As mass was taking place in the packed cathedral, we walked around the outside before quickly sneaking a peek inside. We noticed that mass was nearing an end and decided it might be wise to clear away from the area before the hordes began their departure.

On the way back down the hill we happened upon an ancient Roman ruin. The Théatres Romains de Fourvière is still used today for summer performances.

As it was already past 6 pm, we reluctantly left Lyon. But it is now on our list as a future destination. This is a city worth further explorations.

On Monday the dawn came with more rain. A quick look at the satellite photo online showed the rain extended across most of Europe. Therefore, attempting to drive out of it wasn't practical.

So we headed for Prangins and another of Switzerland's national museums.

As we were in no rush, we once again took the backroads. We were fortunate enough to come upon a small wine festival in the tiny town of Bursins. After a bit of wine tasting, we purchased a few bottles to take back to Zürich. I also found a beautiful teapot in a stall set up by the potter. She spoke no English and I speak not a word of French, but I can proudly state that we were able to make German work well enough!

We continued on to Chateau de Prangins, which houses the national museum for the French-speaking area of Switzerland.

It is very well organized, informative and interesting. Plus, everything is explained in French, German, Italian and English! (The Landesmuseum in Zürich could take some lessons from their "Little Sister.")

In addition to several rooms displaying various eras of life in the area...

They also had rooms with interesting artifacts such as these antique bicycles...

Well worth an afternoon visit, especially on such a cold and wet day.

The limitations on things to do as a result of the constant rain actually made it more of a relaxing weekend then we have had in a while. However, we do plan to go back another time to see more of what the area has to offer. Hopefully the weather will cooperate when we do.

25 May 2007

Another Holiday Weekend

...another road trip!

We are leaving tomorrow morning for la Suisse Romande, the French-speaking area of Switzerland. Staying in Montreux and day-trippin' around.


Weird and Wacky Signs: European Edition

Signs that have made us laugh or scratch our heads in puzzlement...

As many people know, fahren means "to drive." When the verb is conjugated, it is commonly shown as fahrt. Which is pronounced like "fart." This makes many English-speakers laugh. GLH and I still snigger when we see a sign that says ausfahrt (off-ramp) or abfahrt (on-ramp), but this one really made us laugh!

While driving through Austria we encountered a bit of road construction, but the Austrians have a fun way of telling you how much road construction is remaining.

I actually wished for more road construction because I missed getting a picture of the first two signs. The first sign was a large frown. The second sign showed the mouth as a straight line across the face.

This is a sign we see all over the place. As you are driving along, it will tell you how fast you are driving.

Sure would be nice if they would also mention what the speed limit is! In this case I believe it is 50 kph as that is the default within city limits. But nowhere on this road is the speed limit actually posted.

And speaking of speed limits. Frequently there is one speed for cars and another speed for trucks. In this area of Germany, they also had a posted speed limit for tanks!

One town in Germany had a unique way of asking you to be quiet around the hospital...

Sister says "shush!"

We saw the following sign in Salzburg, Austria.

Does it indicate where to find the nearest singles bar? Where it is appropriate to argue with your mate? We never did figure out what this sign was attempting to tell us.

You see these all over Switzerland. Selbstbedienung means "self-service." You pick out your flowers, total it yourself and put the money in a small box. You also occasionally see this for produce stands at small farms.

This one recently appeared near our friends' apartment.

It explains that you may not drive on this road on Sundays and holidays. Yep, for no apparent reason their community decided to shut down a main thoroughfare used by many on Sundays and holidays. The small sign below states that "feeder service allowed." What does that mean?

Everyone seems to be ignoring it at this stage. I expect it's just a matter of time before the Kantonal Polizei set up a sting operation and hand out steep fines.

And finally, I had to include this apron found in a shop window in Innsbruck, Austria...

Where do you find a six-pack like that? I generally only see beer bellys framed by lederhosen!

24 May 2007

What Are They Hiding?

The path from Innsbruck to Zürich takes you through Liechtenstein, a tiny country a bit smaller than the District of Columbia.

There really isn't any reason to go to Liechtenstein. But since we needed to pass through anyway, we were happy enough to do so. We figured that stopping for lunch would count as having "been there."

GLH and I have passed over many borders in our time. It is usually a quick "roll through" as you hold your passports up to the window and are waved through.

There was actually a line of stopped cars at the Liechtensteinian border. Every car was stopped. Some cars were waved over to the side for further questioning.

At this border crossing we were grilled. True, the officer did it with a cheeky grin. But still! What exactly are they hiding in Liechtenstein that requires stopping every car for interrogations?

Must be top secret and kept well away from prying eyes, 'cause we never saw it!

Liechtenstein is virtually indiscernible from Switzerland. It's very clean. They use Swiss currency. There are many banks.

And, of course, there is a castle. This one is not open to the public because the Royal Family still lives there. Looks as if they are having some home improvements done.

And so our weekend driving tour was nearly complete. We were both tired and happy to be headed home.

We were also a little bored of looking at highways, as evidenced by an experiment to test exactly how good a photograph taken from a car going 120 km per hour can be.

Although when the scenery is so beautiful that even a quick shot through a windshield works out, you know you are lucky to be where you are!

23 May 2007

One Last Schloss

Our final weekend destination...Innsbruck, Austria.

I've got to admit, there isn't much to see in Innsbruck. Some nice buildings, a lot of touristy shops and a bunch of hotels. The main purpose for Innsbruck seems to be a place to sleep while skiing during the winter or a central location for bus tours during the summer.

And, of course, they also have a castle or two. After all, what respectable city in Europe would exist without one? To quote a Southern United States expression, "you can't swing a dead cat by the tail" without hitting a castle here in Europe.

We decided to go to Schloss Ambras for three important reasons: 1) you can go through the castle, taking photographs, at your own pace and without a guided tour; 2) it's original owner, Ferdinand II, was an avid art collector and the castle has an interesting collection of Hapsburgian portraits, art from the Renaissance and "curiosities"; and 3) it's very close to Innsbruck and wouldn't require us driving out of our way.

Alright, so by the end of four days of "schloss-ing," ya get a little tired of castles.

However, our trip to Ambras was a pleasant surprise for a variety of reasons.

First off, the Spanish Hall was worth the cost of admission alone.

Built between 1569 - 1572, it is 43 meters long and has 27 full length, larger than life, portraits of the rulers of Tirol. This freestanding Renaissance Hall was intended as a concert hall and continues to host a famous series of classical concerts.

In the main section of the castle, encircling the frescoed courtyard, are room after room of portraits dating from the 15th through the 19th century. In all there are over 300 portraits of the Hapsburgs through the ages.

What struck us most about the portraits is how very much alike everyone looked. Brothers looked like sisters. Grandparents looked like grandchildren. Uncles looked like nephews. Husbands looked like wives. Time after time I saw portraits of individuals who could have been identical twins, but were separated by a few generations and just happened to have their portraits done at the same age.

There was definitely a distinctive Hapsburg look. Namely buggy eyes, enormous lips and huge jaws. Truly, it's a good thing these people were wealthy and powerful, 'cause they weren't going anywhere on their looks!

And what made their dynasty so powerful was to be their downfall -- intermarriages in order to preserve the lands and political alliances can lead to, well, physical and mental deficiencies. And intermarry they did. Repeatedly. Just one example, after Ferdinand II's first wife died, he married his niece. Yep, his sister's daughter. Eww!

A third pleasant surprise was the collection of armor from the Medieval and Renaissance Ages.

And all of it was collected and displayed virtually as it is now while Ferdinand II was still alive.

I especially liked the armor of the court's giant, Bartlmä Bon, who stood at more than 2.5 meters (8 feet) in height. Bon was an area peasant in the service to the Hapsburg family. After his death, Ferdinand II commissioned an artist to carve a life-sized wooden statue of him in order to display the suit of armor.

Of course, his extreme height is only emphasized by being displayed next to suits of armor intended for children. But still, at a time when the average height was 5'7" or so, that is impressive.

And the final reason for enjoyment of this castle?

On the day we went it was virtually empty. While the gardens and café were full of locals enjoying the beautiful weather, we encountered very few visitors in the castle itself. There were far more employees than visitors.

Although did they need to follow us so closely and so obviously? Did we really look like we were going to grab a portrait off the wall and make a run for it?

22 May 2007


An incredibly beautiful place with an evil history.

That sums up Kehlsteinhaus, more commonly called "Eagle's Nest" in English. And it is no wonder how it received it's nickname given it's location.

The view truly is astoundingly gorgeous.

I would have greatly enjoyed our visit here, except for the evil history part.

Built as a 50th birthday present for Adolf Hitler in 1939, the house and road leading up to it are remarkable feats of engineering. It was intended as a place to take visiting dignitaries and guests. Indeed, Hitler rarely went there as he was terrified of heights. His home was actually further down the mountain in the village of Obersalzburg.

As we entered the villa, all that I could think was that Hitler, the embodiment of evil, once owned this and walked through it's halls. I left the building pretty quickly.

We had gone because GLH really wanted to see it. The elevation is 1834 meters (6017 feet) and he had never been that high on a mountain before.

He had a great time clambering about the summit, looking at the view from all angles and even doing some "mountain climbing" for the camera.

After a quick look around, I was ready to go back down.

While it was a stunning sight to see, I could not get past its history.

Nächste Halt: Salzburg

We spent Friday night in Salzburg, arriving late in the day and just in time for dinner. So we had a traditional Austrian meal of...SUSHI!

Alright, so perhaps it is not so much traditional. But when one lives in a German-speaking country, one does start to crave anything besides pork, potatoes and stinky cheeses. Nagano's, in the Old City, was the best sushi we have had in Europe to date. And perhaps the cheapest dinner as well at less than €40 for both of us.

After dinner we had a bit of a walk about...

I have started to believe that all of Europe is in a constant state of renovation, not surprising given how old most of the buildings are. The renovations are generally covered up with screens or large cloths. And frequently those screens have pictures, such as an image of what the structure looks like when it is not being renovated. After all, even the locals would forget given how long renovations tend to take.

But I was surprised to see this on the front of the Salzburger Dom...

Yes, Ladies and Gentlemen, that is an advertisement for H&M!

We next took the funicular...

Up to Festung Hohensalzburg...

Festung is German for "fortress." And Hohensalzburg had all the requirements of such, including a prime location for cannonballing any who should try to climb to its battlements.

The funicular service runs until 11:30 every evening. By going later in the day, we missed the crowds, the heat and the sun.

What we had instead was a glorious view of a sun beginning to set over the Austrian Alps...

Close to the funicular station is a beautiful fountain. Although I am afraid I haven't a clue what it might be called.

Our ramble through the now nearly dark streets continued.

And we enjoyed looking in the shop windows. I have to say, Salzburg has some of the most beautiful window displays I have ever seen. Nearly every window we saw was beautifully decked out.

An astounding number of shops sell dirndls, both off the rack and custom-tailored.

It also seems to be Christmas year round in Salzburg...

(The next morning we had to go back to this shop to get some of their beautifully painted eggs for our Christmas tree ornament collection!)

And many know that the famous composer, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, was born in Salzburg. But did you also know he had a side-job hawking chocolates?

Our evening finished with a bottle of champagne and fresh strawberries at the rooftop bar of the Hotel Stein. Where we were able to catch the very end of the sunset...

We had intended to wake up bright and early the next morning to drive around and see some of the film locations for The Sound of Music. I used to watch that movie when they showed it on tv every Fall and was really looking forward to seeing some of the places in person. Unfortunately, the hotel failed to perform our wake up call and we didn't roll out of bed until 10 am.

Since GLH was bound and determined to keep as close to our itinerary for the day as possible, he nixed the TSOM driving tour. Instead we headed down to the shops to pick up some of those wonderful eggs ornaments. GLH also surprised me by purchasing the TSOM soundtrack, reasoning that listening to it as we drove through the Austrian Alps would be good enough!

Well he was wrong, so I tricked him and changed our GPS navigation for a detour past Leopoldskron, the house used as the film location for the Von Trapp Family home.

Unfortunately it is private property and completely surrounded by a fence and very large trees. I perhaps would have climbed the fence if not for the many cameras. (Do you think the cameras were installed because others already thought of climbing the fence?)

But at least we were able to see the road where the children hung from the trees singing when their father drove home!

As we left Salzburg, GLH started up the soundtrack and I amazed him by knowing every single word to every single song in it!