Strasbourg snow & Swiss cheese

While my parents were here, we decided to do a little tour. Last year we went to Italy, so I figured we should do something in the other direction – and since we had such a lovely time in Strasbourg last time, I thought it would be nice to go there with them. Unfortunately, it was a bit chilly and snowy! Somehow we managed to arrive over the few days that it wasn’t sunny. But that didn’t stop us, we still enjoyed a fantastic few days.

The main sight is of course the cathedral, which was just as beautiful as the first time we saw it. We also took the same little train trip, as well as a boat tour around the canals. It snowed while we were on the boat, and then something happened to the motor so they had to take us back early. We went to re-book the trip, but it was taking such a long time that we got reimbursed instead. Free boat trip! I also dragged my dad to my favorite game store, where I bought a discounted game that was some kind of unholy union between steampunk and Risk  – it was too complicated for us to figure out (in French)!

That day was also my mom’s birthday, so we booked a nice dinner at the Kammerzell House restaurant. You think sometimes these kinds of famous places are charging for more of a touristy experience, but actually the food was very good, with a great wine list, and the servers were really attentive. It was lovely.

On our second day, we toured the zoological museum, which was small but really interesting. I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many weird taxidermied animals in one place. There were probably a thousand birds, many of them misshapen and hilarious. Easily a highlight of the trip!

On the drive home, we followed the Alsatian wine route part of the way, stopping in the medieval village Riquewihr for lunch. This was probably the most adorable little place I’ve ever seen, with ancient cobblestone streets winding around rows of colorful sloping houses. We had lunch, ironically, at a Swiss-style restaurant. But it was nice.

Back at home, I took my mom and the kids to the Cailler chocolate factory. They had been asking for weeks to visit, and the week after Easter seemed like a good time (and there were plenty of chocolate sales to be had). We also stuffed ourselves with cheese in nearby Gruyères, where my mom had raclette for the first time – even though I had made her a homemade cheese fondue the night before and we had sworn off cheese for eternity.

Too soon it was time for my parents to head home. I’m sure they’ll be back again soon!

Fête de Pâques: Flowers, Flowers, Flowers, Ewok

Easter was a quiet time this year, but still full of fun. First of all, I traded in BigB for my parents, who have come to visit while he is back in Canada. They’re here for two weeks while the kids are off school for the holidays.

The weather has been perfect – sunny and beautiful, and all the flowers are in bloom. We’ve enjoyed some lovely walks through Nyon and Geneva, checking out the old town, playing chess in the park, and looking at all the holiday displays.


For Easter, the Bunny brought us a nice selection of gummies hidden around the house, plus a bunch of Star Wars toys – including a hilarious Millennium Falcon ship-car hybrid and an Ewok that makes Ewok sounds when you squeeze it. He was kind of enough to bring me some Cognac-filled chocolate eggs, obviously knowing what I needed to get through the holiday.

Later, we went to Morges for a local tulip festival. Being from Ottawa, which is renown for its own tulip festival, I wasn’t sure what to expect – but, sorry Ottawa, the Morges festival was quite good! It might be a bit smaller, but there were so many many varieties of flowers, including some heritage ones. I spent most of my time taking photos of the odd flowers out – the one weird red one growing in a field of yellow, for example. And then we had to find flowers from each of our birthday years.

Enjoy the gratuitous flower gallery and happy (belated) Easter!

Carcassonne in Carcassonne

Our summer holidays didn’t go as planned.

I only took one week off work in July, because I was leading up to a big event and couldn’t be away from the office for more than that. So it had to be a great week, the pressure was on.

We made plans to drive up to Hamburg and visit some good friends there. Google figures that’s about a 10-hour drive, and we would stop for some sightseeing along the way – Stuttgart, Frankfurt, Hanover – the whole of Germany was open to us and we were going to make the best of it.

But at the same time we were making our travel plans, a parallel narrative was taking place. Let me tell you that story, the one about how we bought a used Italian sports car from a dude on Facebook.

When we moved to Switzerland, we were broke and desperate for a means of transportation. We found out about a local Facebook group where people (mostly expats) would post things for sale. And what luck when a really nice looking Alfa Romeo sport wagon came up for sale – a bit older, but in our price range, and the guy is ready to move it quickly. We met up, loved the car, paid him, brought it home. Now, we know cars can have quirks, and older cars can have even more quirks – this is not a deal breaker. In fact, there’s something I like about those annoying car tics that give it personality and make the car more ‘yours’.

Our car doesn’t like to start. It’s a bit random, and it’s mostly electrical. But, like a stereotypical high-maintenance Italian lady, it happens at the worst moments and when you’re in a rush. Like in a parking garage after you’ve already paid and your exit ticket is running out. Or when you need to get the kids from school and hurry to an appointment. Or when you parked illegally for a moment to drop off a package. Or, you know, the day before you want to drive to Germany to see your friends for the holidays.

So the car spent several days at the garage trying to fix this not-starting-and-also-random-stopping-while-driving-in-the-road problem so we could try to prevent dying or being stranded somewhere in the bowels of Germany, I don’t know which is worse. But by the time the problem was fixed, we missed the window of opportunity that was our week in Hamburg.

But I still had a few more days off and I needed to squeeze the life out of that long weekend before returning to a long summer of working. Where could we go that’s closer than Hamburg and still be an awesome summer holiday-worthy trip?

The answer came from our board game obsession. Carcassonne is a French city that has seen many waves of settlers and conquerors over several millennia and is famous for its well-preserved medieval citadel and fortified city. And in the game, you get to build up the area with your own walled cities and citadels inspired by the place. So obviously we were experts about the area and excited to visit this place we had built and conquered ourselves so many times before. Perfect!

We packed up and enjoyed the drive to southern France, only about 5 hours. We rented an apartment downtown, within walking distance to all the shops and restaurants, and only a short drive to the medieval Cité. And we did make the best of  it! Castle ramparts, ancient cathedrals, seafood dinners, mornings at the lake, bell tower views, carousels and knights. It was hot! I think our car melted a little but we still love her.  And then it was time to come home. We only got one speeding ticket on the way, so that’s a plus too.

By the way, anyone want to buy a gently used Alfa Romeo?

Dungeons & towers: Chateau de Chillon

Spring finally arrived in April, and my parents came to stay over the Easter holidays. The plan was to take a road trip through Italy, but before that, we had time for some sightseeing around home.

And who doesn’t love a trip to a castle?

At the top of Lac Leman, in Montreux, there’s a real honest-to-goodness chateau – Chillon castle. I had heard it was a fun family trip, with a bit of something for everyone: secret passageways, history and art, princess towers, dungeons… So we were excited! Ok, I was excited. We packed the kids into the car and drove up the coast.

All the other times we had been in the area, it was covered in fog. Honestly, I questioned whether there was actually anything to see. But this time, it was clear day and the views were incredible! You really can see all across the water to huge alpine slopes and glacier-capped peaks, and the lake was a vivid blue in the sun. Finally, Switzerland!

The castle is adorable, too, rising up from the edge of the water with spires and arches just like a fairy tale. We walked along the water, enjoying the view.

Inside, the castle is exactly how you imagine: lofty ceilings, stately rooms, twisty passageways, hidden courtyards, tower peaks. And cold. So very cold. No wonder the fireplaces were as big as my living room.

The main rooms had window bays looking out over the water, the perfect place to sit and pretend to be a princess or a page, daydreaming away the afternoon of stuffy lessons. And a rickety ladder took us up to the highest tower, which of course J freaked out on halfway up and I had to coax her back down, backwards, through the streams of people coming up. LittleB and Grandpa said it was cool at the top, but I’ve convinced myself it wasn’t worth it, right, right?

As for the kids, I think their highlights were, obviously, the dungeon and the latrines. There was a fancy outhouse for the royals, way at the top of the castle, so their leavings could fall farther than the commoners, I guess. And I can check off my bucket list another amazing phrase spoken in earnest: LittleB, don’t drop your camera down the king’s poop hole. Also, the room was filled with poop jokes. Ok, maybe that was my highlight too.

The dungeon was dark and damp and creepy and (nowadays) filled with wine. So basically it was the best place ever! Actually, it turned out there was a famous story I didn’t know about before: “Chillon’s most famous prisoner was François de Bonivard, a Genevois monk, who was imprisoned there in 1530 for defending his homeland from the dukes of Savoy. Over his six-year term, de Bonivard paced as far as his chain would allow, and the chain and rut are still visible. Lord Byron wrote the poem The Prisoner Of Chillon (1816) about him.” We totally saw that spot.

Too soon, we had cranky hungry kids and it was time to go. But of course, not before we stopped in the gift shop to tell the kids they couldn’t buy all the kitschy magnets, books about medieval recipes (in French), or 15th century antique armor. Note to self: Gotta stop going into gift shops.

We stopped to take some lovely family photos along the water, which ended as you can imagine, with some more whining and blurry final images. And then we got back to the car before LittleB realized he lost his camera somewhere (probably in the king’s poop hole, seriously), so he and I had to go all the way back to look around. No luck. So I carted a devastated, crying kid back to the car, only to get there and see that he had put it in the trunk already and just somehow forgotten within 2 seconds of doing it. Sigh.

Blurry family
Blurry family

Anyway, the castle was fun, you should go!

Cows & hills & wine

So far there are lots of great things about living in Switzerland:

  • Easy commuting – it takes me 10 minutes by car or a short walk to the train for a door-to-door trip of about 40 minutes.
  • Great access to high-quality food and drink – local markets abound for getting fresh produce and meats, and we live in the middle of hundreds of vineyards spread throughout the valley, so the wine is abundant and delicious and local (at a work function, a colleague selected a certain wine off the menu because the winemaker was also his mailman).
  • Beautiful outdoors – although we haven’t jumped into the dedicated outdoor life of most Swiss people, we’re slowly getting used to the idea that we can go outside and enjoy the experience instead of dreading the heat, crowds and stares.

But all this means that my days are disappearing faster than ever, with lots of things to do and wine that isn’t drinking itself. I’m not spending hours in the car or hiding indoors anymore: and that was the time I used to spend writing blogs! Sorry.

To show my apology, I present to you a goodie story that I’ve been saving for a while – the day we went to the Swiss cow parade.

There are a lot of cows in Switzerland. And the Swiss love them. They feed them well, give them lots of room to pasture, and care about their happiness. Even the meat in the supermarket boasts that it comes from “happy animals”. Part of this high level of care (and a very long history of farming) is the use of pastureland in the mountains. But that’s only in the summer, of course – so each autumn, there is a pilgrimage of farmers and their cattle coming down to the warmer, safer fields along the lake.

This cow parade has turned into a big festival, where families dress up their favorite cows in flower headdresses and elaborate bells and tour them around the mountain villages in the hopes of being voted the ‘prettiest cow’.

The rest of us watch the cows go by, try not to step in cow poop (unsuccessfully), and drink wine (very successfully). We also enjoyed stocking up on local goods like sausages, honey, malakoffs and baguettes, and we were serenaded by a chorus of alpine horns.

My favorite part was the guy playing an instrument I’ve never seen before, which I can only assume is called “coin in a bowl” because it is – literally – a coin in a bowl. He would hold this giant ceramic bowl in one hand, spin a coin into its mouth and gyrate the bowl in circles, echoing the sound of a spinning coin along to the rest of the musicians. I’m not sure it enhanced the music in any way, but it was entertaining. And he took his job very seriously.

After the cows continued down the mountain, the magic was over, so we left too. But soon it will be time for the cows to parade back up the hill – and I can only assume the spring parade party will be just as exciting.

To cap off the day, we went into the center of town where there was a wine harvesting party taking place at the castle. There are a small number of communal grapevines, and everyone was allowed to clip off some grapes and add them to the truckful.

Up at the castle courtyard, they were crushing them into fresh grape juice, which was delicious! We didn’t have time to get into the whole experience, but if we had planned it better, we could have bought a tasting glass and sampled all the local wines. Next year!

Christmas Catchup

I can’t believe it’s already the last day of 2015. It’s been a whirlwind year, and an even busier past few months filled with travel, work, settling in, new school and lots more stuff I can’t even remember.

But we were lucky to end the year with a visit from Grandma L, and we managed to fit in a few day trips around the area. Here are the highlights:

We spent a day in Gruyères, a small medieval village best known for the cheese of the same name. As it turns out, it is also home to the H.R. Giger museum – that was a weird discovery. I don’t usually expect to see hypersexualized alien torsos and spinal columns on display in front of a stone house from the 1400s. But the cheese was great, and the adorable local castle even better – straight out of a movie set. We capped off our trip with a visit to the Cailler chocolate factory, whose highlight was a 20-minute animatronic history of chocolate followed by all-you-can-eat chocolate tasting.

In the lead up to the holidays, we headed to the Christmas market in Montreux and took the funicular train up the mountain to meet Santa. Montreux is a beautiful area, with a view of the whole valley and across the lake. Well, apparently it is. It was completely foggy while we were there, so we only saw blank whiteness all around. BigB spent the whole train ride texting me “The Langoliers are coming… Langoliers…” The market itself was cute – personally, I was on a mulled wine tour of the various kiosks, which I’m pleased to say was quite successful. Then we had a weird potato and cheese stew called tartiflette for lunch that had very little flavour other than salt – so basically like all Swiss dishes.

Up the mountain, we arrived at Santa’s Grotto. First we had to walk down a poorly lit underground hallway for nearly 500m until we emerged into some kind of tiny WWII bunker that was decorated for Christmas. The kids didn’t really want to visit Santa, so that was a bust. But at least BigB got to sit on the big guy’s lap. Not sure what he wished for…Then we stopped partway down the mountain at another little Christmas village on the grounds of a castle, where the kids watched a play (in French). LittleB’s assessment: “It had its ups and downs. But I don’t really know what it was about.” J said it was about “magic” and “an accordion”. Sounds like exactly how I would imagine a French christmas play. The adults hung around outside and enjoyed the wood fire and watched the clouds start to clear away for a little sunset magic of our own.

And suddenly it was Christmas!

Best wishes to you all for a wonderful 2016!