Dispatches from the top of Europe

We focused our summer holidays this year on tourist activities around home. Because why go so far afield when we have some great things to do within a few hours of us? So we made the most of a visit from my mom to tick some big ones off our bucket list. And this was a big one both figuratively and literally – Mont Blanc, the highest peak in western Europe!

Mont Blanc is home to the steepest vertical ascent in a gondola in the world, which takes you up to the “Aiguille du Midi”, a mountaintop viewing point at (nearly) the summit of the mountain. It starts in Chamonix, a little French tourist town at the base of the mountain, about an hour’s drive from our place.

When we arrived at the Chamonix kiosk, it was already packed. People of all kinds were milling around – some with full mountaineering gear. I was feeling a bit underdressed in jeans and a sweater, even though it was one of the hottest days of the year: we had escaped from temperatures nearing 40C back home.

We bought our lift tickets and were told to come back for boarding in 2 hours. The town didn’t hold much excitement on an early morning, but we managed to fill the time wandering around, checking touristy shops and grabbing a couple of crepes at a cafe patio that we shared with a bunch of wasps. Some North American tourist at the next table over said “I can’t wait to get home and eat inside for once” – because a couple of wasps outweigh a beautiful outdoor mountain vista patio? Dude.

Back at the line up, we waited another 20 minutes owing to delays. At last it was our turn, and we were driven through the doors and jammed like sardines into the gondola. We were the last ones on, with standing room only and nowhere to hold on – but we lifted off safely and flew up into the sky, watching our car get smaller and smaller in the parking lot below. Once or twice the gondola shuddered, throwing us around and eliciting “whoas” from the group. I’m not good with heights and might have peed a little.

The first leg of the trip took us over the tops of trees and grass, landing at a midway station at the base of the glacier field. We were already nearly 2000 m high and the air was fresh as we exited the lift to transfer onwards. We stopped at a viewing platform to look out across a sweeping wall of rockfall and dusty glaciers. And to take some selfies.

We boarded like sardines again onto the next lift, this time getting a coveted spot at the front of the chariot, where I was able to get a video of the ride (sorry about the reflection of my hot pink phone cover). This was the leg that took us nearly vertical, up another 2000 m into the clouds.

We arrived at the peak and stepped out onto a walkway in the sky, officially 3800 m up. And wow, could we tell. The air was thin and cold, gusts of wind whipping up from the glacier peaks and misting us with droplets of clouds. It was challenge to walk up the few flights of stairs to the viewing platform, suffering from a lack of oxygen and our legs feeling like lead. But we made it, looking out from the top of the world at the nearby frozen giants and into the etched valley below. A plane flew by, well below us.

So once we had our fill of taking panoramas and selfies, what else could we do but visit the cafeteria at the top of the mountain? So we spent the rest of our visit snacking on some overpriced sandwiches and drinks before heading back to the gondola for our scheduled ride home. It was another long wait in an overcrowded hallway, this time punctuated by mild dizziness, and I’m pretty sure it also gave one of the kids a chance to let off a bunch of farts, because some vapors were following us around and it wasn’t pleasant. But we eventually re-boarded and floated back down through the clouds, as our magical trip to the highest food we’ve ever bought was over.

Mont Blanc panorama

Sur le Pont d’Avignon…

We took a spur-of-the-moment trip to Avignon – the city of the popes in Southern France. It was still early in the season, so although it was a bit chilly, we had the city to ourselves without all the other summer tourists.

The main attraction for us was, of course, the Avignon bridge – you know, from the song. But there were plenty of other great sights too, including the Palais des Papes, ramparts circling the medieval city, and some great museums and restaurants.

The Palais des papes is an ancient castle from the 1300s, where a series of popes held their seats after being chased out of Rome. It’s astonishingly large and basically falling apart after so many centuries of abuse and misuse – but that almost makes it more interesting, thinking about the extra years it spent in various forms, including army barracks. In fact, I just checked wikipedia, and it even says that the chateau has retained “a “work of destruction” aspect that French poets and writers have referred to over the centuries, with its powerful sense of beauty, simplicity, grandeur and immortality.” So there you go. Worth the visit.

So, then we made it to the Pont d’Avignon. Did you know that apparently they didn’t even dance or sing on the bridge? And if they did, it was under the bridge, not on the bridge? At least that’s what the bridge museum sign says. My entire childhood was ruined that day. But we broke this tradition and did both the hoe-down and a regular dance at the very edge of the bridge. Take that, history!

Sur le Pont d’Avignon
On y danse, On y danse
Sur le Pont d’Avignon
On y danse tous en rond

 

 

Just so you don’t think we spent the entire time looking at old buildings, here are some other (mis)adventures:

  • We desperately wanted to take the “little train” tour around the city, but when we arrived at the designated spot and time, no little train showed up. We were all disappointed (mostly me). So we walked up the big “Rocher des Doms” anyway, to see a bit more of the city in the meantime. We wandered around there while we enjoyed the view around the landscape and the kids had swordfights with some sticks, because you know, that’s why we spend money to go on vacation. By the time we were on our way back down, the train was there! We ran and ran down the hill, and we caught it! And then it took us… back up the Rocher des Doms. Yay.
  • Walking around town, we were all desperate for a snack. And by some miracle, there was a kiosk giving out free samples! Of chocolate bars, even better. The only catch? It was a slab of milk chocolate tucked into dry baguette, like a sandwich. It was so, so very dry. But it was free, so, Yay.
  • Another day, we spent the afternoon in the Petit Palais art gallery, with a collection of famous renaissance paintings. That was really exceptional, that is until the kids set off the art alarms too many times by crossing the wall sensor barriers. So we left rather quickly.
  • One evening we did our research and found a highly-rated restaurant nearby the hotel, so we headed over for dinner. Since it was the down season, we turned out to be the only patrons. The couple who ran the place were very friendly – some of the nicest people we’ve met on our travels. They gave us some great wine recommendations and cooked us regional specialties. They were even lovely with our kids, to the point of bantering with them like family friends. Such a nice dinner. That is, until the woman teased little J a bit about not getting her dessert because she didn’t clean her plate. So J threw a piece of bread at the woman. I swear to god, she just launched this bread crust across the table and smacked this poor lady right in the chest. It happened in slow motion, as I watched in equal parts horror, shame, and (no lies) a bit of pride, as this bread flew threw the air like in some food fight movie scene. I’ve never been so mortified in my life. J later said it was an accident, that she only meant to pretend to throw the bread, but I think that’s a bucket of lies. At least the lady was very kind about the whole thing and probably has kids of her own who sometimes throw bread at strangers. They still gave us some nice apératif drinks on the house, so that was a win I guess?

I think you should go. We recommend the chocolate sandwiches and bread crusts.

 

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!

New Year’s in La Ville Lumière

New Year’s Eve isn’t all that exciting once you have kids – basically we stay in and I usually sleep through the ball drop every year. But it is fun that we have managed to start a new year in different time zones and places over the past few years: Jakarta, Sydney, Banff, Leuven and now Paris!

If you recall, BigB was pretty sick, but I managed to pack him into the car and drive us on to Paris. It’s only about a 5 hour drive from here, and the weather was in our favor. As usual, there was plenty of fog along the way so the views were not exceptional, but the sun came out a few times and gave us glimpses of some beautiful frosty landscapes.

We arrived at the adorable, tiny apartment we rented. It was probably the most parisian place ever, filled with weird knicknacks, old theatrical posters, a bathroom plastered with books and maps, a collection of VHS tapes from the 80s, and the tiniest kitchen I’ve ever seen (we couldn’t even figure out how to get the over door open because it kept getting stuck on the door frame beside it). So, basically, we loved it. It also had a huge balcony (it was the top floor of a large apt building) with views of the Eiffel Tower, Montmartre and across the city. Well, theoretically it did. Mostly we saw fog. And it was cold. We didn’t spend much time out there.

We arrived on NYE itself, so we grabbed a few groceries from the store and settled in for the night. A few bottles of wine and a viewing of “Conan the Barbarian” went down well. We brought some sparklers to light outside, but forgot a lighter, so we just looked at unlit sparklers for a while, and went to bed by probably 10 pm. Happy New Year!

We woke up the next year and headed out for the day. New Year’s day in Paris is celebrated quietly, but there was a parade happening in the Champs Elysées – so we checked that out. Their Christmas market was still going on, which meant we filled up on vin chaud and crepes, poked around at the shops, and saw some depressing animatronic “christmas” dinosaurs. The parade itself was a bit of a mess – it wasn’t well organised, just clumps of people crowding around a handful of marching bands from the US and some random other acts. The best part was probably the tiny firetruck blowing confetti at everyone. We followed it around for a while to get extra confetti. By the way, air-blasted confetti gets everywhere.

The next day we did a little walk around to see the Bastille (which was under construction, so instead we checked out the Starbucks next door), visit Notre Dame (where the kids were only interested in the spinning play structure at the playground), and exploring Saint-Germain (where our rain-soaked kids just cried until we fed them hamburgers and went home on the metro). So, we managed to see Starbucks, a few playgrounds, a hamburger joint and some metro stations. All in all, I guess it was a typical vacation for us!

We ended the trip with an evening of sparklers (we finally remembered to buy a lighter), watching “Peter Pan” in French on VHS (watching something on “tape” blew our kids’ minds), and a microwaved frozen pizza (recall the oven issue) – and we left town the next morning on our way to the Netherlands!

I left my heart in Strasbourg

We spent a fantastic long weekend in Strasbourg. What a charming little town! The cathedral is glorious, all the historical buildings are perfectly preserved, the food is delicious, and the city is so easy to navigate. I would go back in a heartbeat.

Being there in September, the weather was a bit chilly, and we had some rain. And then there was the time LittleB got run over by a bike. We were crossing the road and a cyclist went against the light and totally plowed him over. He was fine, just a bit beat up. She was roughed up as well, but I had a harder time feeling bad about it since she was the one in the wrong, even though she insisted he “appeared out of nowhere”. Anyway, no hard feelings, Strasbourg. We still love you.

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?