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From the Rhône to the Rhine: Annecy

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Our arrival in Annecy put us firmly in the former territory of the legendary House of Savoy, which was ultimately deposed by the French government in the late 18th century. Annecy is well-known as a city of canals and is often called the Venice of the Alps but the scenic body of water that travels through the old town from Lake Annecy is actually the short river Le Thiou. The canals of Annecy are short, discontinuous, and murky so the comparison to Venice isn't really justified. The old town is quite beautiful, however, especially in the areas directly on the river and the adjacent narrow alleys.

We had some difficulty meeting up with our Airbnb host in a nondescript apartment complex a few blocks from the old town. He had neglected to advise us that there was a barrier gate at the entrance to the complex that we couldn't pass and seemed bemused that we weren't able to drive directly to the front of our building. Eventually I had to strike out on foot and meet up with him at the apartment in order to get the fob that opened the gate, return to the car and then drive in. It was an annoying rigmarole that we've been through dozens of times in southern Europe but seems to be gradually becoming less frequent. We deposited our belongings in the apartment and immediately set off for the old town. We passed through one of the medieval stone gates and found ourselves on a very busy and colorful street lined with antiquated buildings and countless restaurants. We immediately noticed that the wear and stains on the building facades created a different atmosphere from the polished and freshly painted surfaces of the old towns of Lausanne and Zürich.

After a couple of turns in the old town we found ourselves on one of the innumerable pedestrian bridges over Le Thiou. This was the view that was most reminiscent of Venice with outdoor cafes lining the walkway on the north bank of the river. As we walked east towards the lake we got a better view of the iconic Palais de L'Isle. This small but imposing fortress was built on a natural island in Le Thiou in the 12th century and was mainly used as a prison as recently as World War Two. It was subsequently restored and most of the building is now a museum.

It was now the peak dining hour and I realized we needed to focus our attention on the final meal of the day. The old town had become substantially more crowded in the half hour since we had arrived and it seemed we might have some difficulty finding a table in one of the busy establishments around us. Surely enough we were denied at several restaurants before being seated at a rather touristy place on the north side of the river. It wasn't a great meal but the menu was faithful enough to the local Savoy specialties and we felt we could have done far worse. The old town was especially beautiful as the sun disappeared behind the buildings and the streetlights began to glow.

We might have spent more time absorbing the atmosphere but the crowds were only growing thicker and it was clear that the area was a prime destination for late night drinking. It suddenly seemed that bars and nightclubs were everywhere and we decided it would be a good time to take a look at the lake shore. We followed Le Thiou to the east and walked along the promenade of the city park Jardins de l'Europe. From here we could see across the peaceful lake to the mountain range on the opposite shore. Once we completed the semicircle around the park we crossed the Le Vassé canal via Pont des Amours. Local legend says that anyone who kisses on the Lovers' Bridge will stay together forever. Mei Ling and I weren't aware of that at the time but since we have no doubts regarding the permanence of our relationship I don't think we missed an important opportunity.

I knew that there was a festival of animation taking place in Annecy that week but up to that point we hadn't seen any sign of it. We walked back west along the canal between the Jardins and Le Pâquier, an enormous grassy field often used as a staging ground for festivals and other cultural events. We saw hundreds of people seated on the grass in front of a giant screen and decided to join them despite my misgivings about the late hour. There was a sense of anticipation but unfortunately the screen was just showing ads and short previews in a loop. We waited for about twenty minutes before I decided that we were jeopardizing our early arrival at the morning market. Of course just as we finished corralling the kids the screen jumped to life but I overrode their protests and we made the long walk back to the Airbnb.

In the morning we decided to pack the car and drive to the market instead of taking our purchases back to the Airbnb. It was a significant walk from the Airbnb to the old town and I'd seen some good sized parking lots close to the center the previous night. I figured we'd get a good jump on our day by having breakfast in the market and continuing onward. We also didn't have to worry about cutting our market visit short to get back to the Airbnb in time to make our ten o'clock checkout. What I hadn't figured was that those nice half-empty lots would be packed full of cars even at eight in the morning which forced us further away from the old town until we'd lost most of the gains we'd made by driving. I also had a near miss accident drifting out of my lane in a rotary while I was looking for the entrance to a lot, which was a good reminder of the inherent dangers of driving in a series of unfamiliar cities and countries. We eventually found a spot and entered the old town from the east near the Jardins de l'Europe. We could see right away that it was going to be a great market, even larger and more energetic than the previous morning in Thonon. Naturally all the usual fruits and vegetables were there but there was also a good selection of cooked food ready to eat. The sheer density of the colorful and appetizing food on the counters was almost overwhelming. There were fresh juices for the kids and an amazing variety of meats and cheeses with a Savoyard twist. One local specialty I learned about from the cheese vendor was Tomme de Savoie, a wheel-shaped cheese with a grey rind. There were countless varieties of tomme, which is just a generic term in the French Alpine region for round cheeses made from skimmed milk.

We bought ourselves some stewed chicken, roasted potatoes, and black bread and found a cafe which agreed to let us eat at one of their tables once we purchased coffee and croissants from them. We sat outside and soaked in the morning energy while we filled our stomachs. After breakfast we made another pass through the entire market to make sure that we hadn't missed anything. It was easier to focus on the small details now that we no longer had to worry about putting together a meal and finding a comfortable place to consume it.

Once we had taken our final swing through the market we found it hard to make our final departure. Even though Annecy was more of a tourist magnet than we had hoped we still found it to be irresistibly beautiful. The reflections of the colorful old buildings and medieval stone walls in the clear waters of Le Thiou is a sight I don't think I'll ever forget.

Twenty minutes west of Annecy the River Fier has cut a narrow and deep canyon through solid rock over countless millennia. In 1869 a narrow walkway was built along the limestone cliff providing tourist access to the natural attraction known as the Gorges Du Fier. Apparently we were stepping out onto this very same path although neither the solid wooden blanks nor the sturdy metal railings appeared to be a hundred and fifty years old. This was the kind of activity we had been accustomed to on previous trips to the American Southwest and Iceland but it seemed incongruous in such a historic and refined region as Savoie. The path was set about midway up the moss-covered cliff, enough to create a thrill but not so high above the narrow river as to be vertiginous. Because of the turns and twists in the gorge there was a new discovery around every corner. Some of the rocks had been given strange shapes by the gradual erosion from the rushing water so that we saw a face in one place or an animal in the next. The kids kept running ahead and out of sight which made me nervous even though the platform seemed very secure. At the end of the serpentine path was the Glade of the Curious, a field of eroded limestone full of deep, irregular potholes known as giant's kettles.

One of the trademarks of our road trip itineraries is that we never bypass a potentially interesting city. I would rather slow the trip down than realize at some later date that I had driven right past a place we would have enjoyed seeing. Perhaps that's why we take such a long time to pass through geographic areas despite exploring individual cities so quickly. For many people travel is all about skimming through the highlights and the top ten lists but for us we like to see some of the places that the tourists ignore. That's the reason that we found ourselves in the small city of Chambéry, the historic capital of the Savoy region.

We only had a couple of hours and everything we wanted to see was in the old town but all the roads leading inward were marked with a sign that had a red circle on a white background. I figured that meant no entry except for locals, a common designation in southern Europe that can lead to stiff fines if violated. It wasn't too hard to find a spot on the major avenue that ran along the southern edge of the old town so we parked there and entered by foot. We soon found ourselves in a lovely network of old streets that were busy without having any touristic vibe whatsoever.

Over the last two days the weather had been getting warmer and it appeared we were at the beginning of a heat wave. The late afternoon in Chambéry's old town was uncomfortably hot so to keep the kids going I told them that we were hunting for an elephant. Of course I meant La Fontaine des Elephants, a fountain at the other end of the old town that had become a symbol of the city. I knew exactly where it was but I pretended not to know how we were going to find this elephant. The kids immediately became very enthusiastic and competitive about the hunt and started seeing elephants everywhere. They were the first to notice that there were circular brass plaques embedded in the cobblestones stamped with images of elephants and concluded that they were a trail to the target elephant. I figured out that they were only a guide for tourists to reach the old town's designated attractions and had to drag them away in the correct direction. Along the way we ducked into ancient courtyards and traversed enchanting medieval alleys such as Rue Basse du Château and Rue du Sénat de Savoie.

Besides the fountain the only other specific destination on my list for Chambéry was the chocolatier Cedric Pernot. We arrived a little before their closing time and I didn't get the impression the proprietress was thrilled to see us. I imagine they get more than their share of the few tourists that pass through the town and probably a lot of parents don't stop their kids from touching the chocolate and the display cases. We did monitor the kids pretty carefully, especially Spenser, as we admired some of the more elaborate constructions. Eventually we bought a few relatively inexpensive chocolate covered biscuits and escaped the penetrating gaze of the lady behind the counter.

Cleo was naturally the first one to spot the elephant fountain and shouted in victory. It is quite a remarkable structure for a region that has so little to do with elephants. The fountain was built in 1838 to commemorate native son Benoît de Boigne, who distinguished and enriched himself as a merchant and general in India before ultimately returning to his hometown. Before his death de Boigne contributed much of his fortune to the establishment of hospitals and other public edifices in Chambéry. De Boigne's connection to India indirectly resulted in elephants becoming the unofficial symbol of the city. Water gushes from the trunk of each of the four elephants on the fountain and I realized that if I leaned back far enough I could achieve a simple solution to the oppressive heat of the city.

On the way out of the square I felt a sudden sharp pain in one of my toes as though it was being pierced by a needle. I immediately thought a piece of glass had worked its way into my sandal and pulled it off to inspect the damage. There was nothing in my sandal and no sign of blood on the injured toe which now felt as though it was being squeezed in a vise. I looked around and saw a few yellowjackets buzzing around a grate a few steps back and I realized I had inadvertently caught one in my sandal and been stung. The toe remained extremely painful for several minutes and I just stood where I was feeling my heart pound and waiting for the pain to subside. Surprisingly my toe never swelled or reddened and eventually the discomfort dissipated. We resumed walking and it was like the sting had never happened. At this point we were just a couple of blocks from the River Leysse which marks the northern boundary of the old town. Remembering Le Thiou from Annecy I thought it might be worth walking the extra distance but unfortunately the river was nearly dry and the surroundings were rather unattractive. On the way back to the car we admired the outside of the Castle of the Dukes of Savoy which is still the seat of the local government.

In the end we were quite happy we had set aside a couple of hours to explore Chambéry. It was quite a contrast to Annecy whose old town was more beautiful because of the river but also smaller and much more touristy. There was much more of a feeling of discovery within the small alleys of Chambéry and we felt that our strategy of visiting lesser known cities was validated. Now it was time to move on to Grenoble, a city with a familiar name that I actually knew very little about.

Posted by zzlangerhans 00:05 Archived in France Tagged road_trip family chambres family_travel travel_blog tony_friedman family_travel_blog gorges_du_fier Comments (0)

From the Rhône to the Rhine: Thonon and Geneva

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When I created our itinerary Thonon was just an inexpensive place to lay our heads before driving to Geneva in the morning. Airbnb's in the French town were half the price of those in Geneva. Once I began my usual investigations I discovered that in an enormous stroke of luck the town's weekly market was on the morning after we arrived. I also realized that we couldn't miss the medieval town of Yvoire a little further west on the lakeshore. The full day I had planned to spend in Geneva was shrinking rapidly but on the bright side we would have more than enough interesting activities to fill the day. We were eager to see the town and we still had the matter of dinner to attend to so we walked along the outskirts of the old town to an Asian fusion bistro that seemed to have good reviews. It was an interesting change from the European food of the last few days but not as tasty as we had hoped. On our walk back to the Airbnb the sun had already disappeared behind the mountains on the opposite shore of the lake but its glow still illuminated the clouds and gave the rippling water an eerie shine.

In the morning we followed my first rule of France, which is that if you aren't out of the house before eight you're going to be out of sync for the entire day. In France the energy of the morning markets has dissipated by eleven and they are essentially closed by one in the afternoon. Lunch is best taken between noon and one thirty and dinner best completed before nine. Then it's early to bed to be ready to rise at seven. It seems that every time we violate this principle we suffer some adverse consequence. I did a good job herding everyone out and we had completed the short walk to the weekly market while there was still some early morning crispness in the air. We were really surprised by the size of the market considering that Thonon had seemed like such a small and sleepy town. Besides the extensive selection of fruits, vegetables, meat and fish there were several vendors preparing cooked food. This was a welcome change from Switzerland where it had been somewhat difficult to put together a satisfying breakfast in a morning market.

One of the best things about being up early and within walking distance of the market is that we had plenty of time to bring all our purchases back to the Airbnb to have breakfast instead of sitting on a curb or negotiating with a cafe. We were able to enjoy our roast chicken, paella, and fresh produce in the comfort of home and then pack our belongings once again. It was time to get back on the road.

Most of the towns along the shore of Lake Geneva look like typical lakeside resorts with modern housing similar to anywhere else in Europe. One exception is the village of Yvoire which has somehow maintained its medieval character with well-preserved stone houses on a small network of narrow streets. It's unclear how Yvoire remained intact while other villages were tearing down their old structures and building updated accommodations to attract vacationers. Entering the village feels like passing through a time warp to the 13th century, although the illusion might be more complete if it wasn't for the hordes of tourists and all the boutiques and cafes that clearly weren't intended for the town's few residents. Although Yvoire lacked the appealing cobblestone streets of other old towns the buildings were dramatically decorated with colorful flowers in pots and planters as well as thick clusters of ivy on the stone walls. It was clear there was a coordinated effort to create a certain aesthetic impression and I have to admit it was remarkable.

Close to the water the imposing Château D'Yvoire stands apart from the rest of the village. The building is largely a 19th century reconstruction from ruins left after a fire in 1591. The castle is privately owned and not open for visitation. Small sailboats bobbed gently in the transparent, blue-tinged water of the harbor.

Aside from the lovely town itself the main attraction of Yvoire is the Garden of the Five Senses. This garden close to the château has five small sections each of which is devoted to a different sense. It was interesting to think of plants as having separate visual, tactile, olfactory, gustatory, and even aural characteristics. It's not a historic garden nor is it cheap but we found it to be quite well-designed and enjoyable. If one was looking to economize I definitely wouldn't describe it as an essential stop but I'm partial to gardens and greenery.

In comparison to Gruyères, the other medieval town we had visited, Yvoire felt more antiquated and charming but it was still very touristy. From the ubiquitous flowers to the painted shutters and the omnipresence of ice cream it was clear that the town had embraced tourism as a primary source of revenue. It was a beautiful village but not somewhere I would go to feel transported back to medieval times. One other advantage over Gruyères was that there was less emphasis on souvenirs and postcards and more on genuine artisanal crafts.

Geneva occupies the opposite end of Lake Geneva from Vevey and Montreux. Although Geneva is culturally affiliated with France and was once part of its territory, the defeat of Napoleon and the subsequent Congress of Vienna in the early 19th century resulted in the city being incorporated into the Swiss Confederation. Because the surrounding areas remained with France the border was drawn to create a polypoid intrusion into France that included Geneva and the adjacent villages.

As we drove into Geneva along the coastal road it was clear that we were entering our second true metropolis of the journey after Zürich. The inland side of the road was lined with an endless series of stately apartment blocks and the boats in the harbor were several sizes bigger than we had seen in the other lakeside towns. We were arriving too late for the Plainpalais morning market but we adhered to our plan to begin our exploration in Place du Bourg de Four. This central square of Geneva dates back to Roman times and is considered by many to be the cultural heart of the city. Despite it being a weekday the cafes were quite busy and the air was filled with the hum of conversation. It took some time to absorb the human energy that permeated the square and admire the architecture of the distinguished buildings that surrounded us. I didn't even notice the incongruous white upright piano that stood on the sidewalk until the kids sat down and started to play it. It felt as though it had been placed there just to welcome us to Geneva.

Outside of Place du Bourg de Four, Geneva's old town was rather compact and devoid of commerce. It mostly consisted of the side streets around St Pierre Cathedral, the famed site where John Calvin successfully advocated for Protestantism in the 16th century. St. Pierre was one of several Roman Catholic cathedrals in Switzerland that were co-opted by the Protestants with attendant destruction of much of the religious ornamentation within.

We continued our walk into the modern, commercial neighborhood at the southern tip of Lake Geneva. This is an area where many of those "Top Ten Things You Must See in Geneva!" are located so there were many expensive boutiques and sidewalk cafes here. We crossed a wide thoroughfare to reach the Jardin Anglais, which contains the most famous flower clock in Switzerland. There was a street food festival going on inside the park which would have been tempting if we weren't still rather full from breakfast. They did have an impressive variety of cuisines from around the world and we would certainly have returned if we had been staying the night. From the promenade at the shoreline we could see Geneva's landmark Jet d'Eau. This two hundred meter waterspout was originally born as the solution to a technical problem of sporadic increases in the water pressure at the city's hydraulic plant. Although that technical issue was eventually resolved in other ways the jet had already become a popular attraction and a new version was installed at a more visible location. It has subsequently become an emblem of the city and is prominently featured in articles and videos about Geneva.

Part of the reason why I had shortened our visit to Geneva to just a few hours was that I had a difficult time finding specific things to do. Guide books and blogs prominently featured the flower clock and the water spout but how much time could one really spend looking at those simple things? We decided to walk west along the promenade where the Rhône emerges from the lake and begins its southwestern journey to Lyon. We encountered another Globus department store and decided to try the food court, remembering the beautiful selection we had been forced to pass on in Lausanne. Unfortunately this Globus didn't match our first experience in quality or atmosphere but at least we were able to resolve the issue of the kids' midday meal.

We crossed the Rhône via the pedestrian bridge and made our way to the Quai du Mont-Blanc, passing the ornate Brunswick Monument. From here the view of the lake was a little different but it was essentially the same scene of joggers and bicyclists as every other part of the lakeside promenade.

At this point we had exhausted all our options for the areas within walking distance so we decided to head back to the car. I had saved Geneva's covered market, La Halle de Rive, for the end of our walking tour. The market was so inconspicuous that when we arrived at the designated location I thought that Google Maps had misdirected us. Eventually we figured out that rather than having its own structure the market occupied the ground floor of a banal office building that blended into a long line of similar edifices. Despite the inauspicious setting the market was quite enticing once we were inside, full of the smells of cheese and freshly cut meat. A great deal of care and creativity had been put into the displays of food within the refrigerated cases and piled on the countertops, although the market wasn't very busy. The prices were quite high and we knew we would be seeing similar products in the French morning markets for the next few days so we didn't make any purchases.

Before leaving Geneva we drove to the adjoining town of Carouge on the far side of the River Arve. Carouge was established in Italian architectural style by a descendant of the Dukes of Savoy who wished to create a rival to the cultural metropolis of Geneva. Although still a separate municipality Carouge was reduced over the years to a suburb of greater Geneva and is considered one of its more bohemian and iconoclastic neighborhoods. We had a dual purpose with our Thursday afternoon visit: to explore the neighborhood and to see the weekly market on Place du Marché. We started with the market which proved to be relatively small and sparsely-attended although the atmosphere was pleasant enough. Afterwards we moved into the side streets which were pleasant enough from an aesthetic standpoint but hardly energetic. The asphalt streets were quite wide and the buildings were relatively low which detracted somewhat from any feeling of intimacy. There were a number of galleries and cafes making a game attempt to stir up a bohemian vibe but they occupied a much smaller area than we had expected. Overall Carouge seemed like just another nondescript neighborhood we might have passed through on a city walk without stopping. Perhaps the area is more dynamic on weekends but on this afternoon it was something of a disappointment.

Geneva was the impetus for the Swiss leg of our trip but we felt less affinity for it than several other cities we had visited in the prior days. Zürich had been especially enjoyable and there was no question that in atmosphere and energy it had been far superior to Geneva. Even the smaller cities of Lausanne and Bern had been preferable. Of course we were only in Geneva for about five hours so it's certain that we missed many hidden attractions, but as far as first impressions go we didn't find any overwhelming reason to return. It wasn't anything we had to dwell on because we were coming up on one of the most highly anticipated sections of our trip, the stretch that would take us through some of the most beautiful and gastronomically distinguished cities in France. We piled back into our car for the short hop to Annecy where we were due to meet our Airbnb host at seven.

Posted by zzlangerhans 12:03 Archived in France Tagged road_trip family family_travel travel_blog yvoire tony_friedman family_travel_blog Comments (0)

From the Rhône to the Rhine: Lake Geneva

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One thing I'd never known about Lake Geneva was that in France it is known as Lac Léman. Perhaps that's something to do with nationalism as Geneva is a Swiss city and most of the southern shoreline belongs to France. I never got to find out what they call the lake in Geneva. Regardless of the name it is one of the iconic lakes of Switzerland and has been a haunt of celebrities from the English Romantic poets to contemporary rock stars and Hollywood actors. It had been an easy decision for us to take the longer eastern route around the lake rather than drive directly from Lausanne to Geneva. An added benefit of the longer route was that Airbnb's on the French shoreline were half the price of those in Geneva.

Regretfully I allowed the vehicle GPS to select our initial route and it brought us down a boring inland highway towards Vevey so that we were denied any view of the lake. Eventually I realized my mistake and switched to a handcrafted coastal route on Google Maps which was much more pleasant. The blue lake was covered with fine ripples that gave it a glassy texture and we could see that the entire eastern coastline was ringed by low mountains.

Vevey is a popular stop on the route around Lake Geneva. It's part of a long built-up coastal area that also includes Montreux, and it has an old town and several museums. Having lingered so long in central Lausanne we were behind schedule and our main priority was finding a place to have lunch before the window of opportunity closed. We parked and raced through the town to the shoreline where most of the highly recommended restaurants were concentrated. Although some restaurants had already closed there was a string of crowded bistros right on the lakeside promenade and we chose one called Ze Fork. We had to wait about twenty minutes for a table but we were able to enjoy some cold refreshments and bask in the breeze that was coming off the lake. It seemed the restaurant took its name from the giant fork sculpture just offshore that marked the presence of the Alimentarium food museum. The food was expensive but much better than I had expected given the touristy location, a good preview of sophisticated French cuisine.

After lunch we spent a little time enjoying the promenade. People were taking advantage of recreational activities such as paddleboats and sunbathing but our schedule was way too tight for anything like that. I had kept the Alimentarium in reserve in case we found ourselves with time to kill but by the time we had completed lunch it was clear that we would have to push directly onward to our next stop. Our last stop on the promenade was the bronze statue of Charlie Chaplin, who spent the last twenty-five years of his life in Vevey.

Vevey has a small but atmospheric old town set back a block from the water. It only took us about fifteen minutes to wander through the small network of cobblestone streets and window shop at a variety of interesting little stores. The buildings that lined the streets had colorful pastel facades, wrought iron grills, and white shutters similar to those of La Cité in Lausanne.

Time constraints forced us to pass through the iconic town of Montreux without stopping. Montreux is best known for its annual jazz festival and for its association with the rock band Queen but from the highway the town blended in with the rest of the lakeside conurbation that had begun in Vevey. The main event of the afternoon was our visit to Château de Chillon, possibly the most famous castle in all of Switzerland. The castle is built on a rocky island just off the shore of Lake Geneva that was once accessed by a drawbridge but is now connected to the mainland by a concrete platform. The building was extensively restored in the late 19th century and presents as a prototypical romantic medieval castle, although the best views with a mountainous backdrop can only be obtained from the lake.

Despite having been relatively unimpressed by the interior of Château de Gruyères the previous day we bought tickets for the interior and found it quite worthwhile. The stone walls had a much older feel than the other Swiss castles we had seen and the structure of the interior was more intricate and mysterious. In the depths of the castle we found the dungeon that housed the famous prisoner of Chillon, François Bonivard, for six dreary years. In the early 19th century the English Romantic poet Lord Byron toured the castle and was inspired to write the poem "The Prisoner of Chillon" based on Bonivard's story. When the Bernese eventually captured the castle and freed Bonivard the lord of the castle fled by boat via a back door that exited the very dungeon where Bonivard had been imprisoned.

From the keep we had an excellent view over beautiful Lake Geneva. Next to the castle was a small courtyard and garden from which we got the best perspective of the entirety of the castle that could be obtained from land. The steep slopes that rose upward from the shore reminded me of Iceland, although these were much more densely vegetated.

From the castle we continued our drive around the lake and soon crossed the border into France, an exciting moment. We passed through a succession of small lakeside resort towns such as Lugrin and Évian-les-Bains before arriving at our destination of Thonon-les-Bains. Our Airbnb was the upper floor of a cute house on an alley just outside the old town. The house belonged to an older married couple who insisted on welcoming us personally, as is typical in France. I was pleased to find they didn't speak a word of English but of course that also meant I had to rise to the challenge of communicating exclusively in French. I did my best to absorb a series of complicated instructions regarding such matters as the opening and closing of the driveway gate and then collected the family together for our first foray into a French town on this journey.

Posted by zzlangerhans 20:48 Archived in Switzerland Tagged road_trip family chillon family_travel vevey travel_blog tony_friedman family_travel_blog Comments (0)

From the Rhône to the Rhine: Lausanne

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Lausanne was the first place where we needed to meet our Airbnb host. Our preference is automated check-in since it often disrupts our plans to have to be at the Airbnb at a fixed time to meet a host. Having to curtail a visit to an interesting town because of the obligation to be at the next Airbnb at a specific time can be quite annoying. In most of the world Airbnb hosts have gone to lockboxes and keypads but in Europe there are still many holdouts, although it's gotten much better since the early days. I suppose the hosts feel a greater sense of security if they meet their guests in person.

Now that we were firmly in the French section of Switzerland I was looking forward to practicing my rusty French. Overcoming a language barrier is an enjoyable part of travel for me but it can be stressful when the language is largely unfamiliar. Most of my efforts to speak German in Zürich and Bern had been met with responses in English. Likewise, my efforts to speak in French with our North African host went nowhere when his English proved to be better than my French. The Airbnb was a pleasant if sterile ground floor apartment in a modern development well north of the city.

Since we had less than twenty-four hours there was no time to waste. We drove directly to the Ouchy neighborhood for our first look at legendary Lake Geneva. Ouchy was once a lakeside village in its own right before it was swallowed up by Lausanne's expansion. We began our exploration at the landmark Chateau d'Ouchy, a luxury hotel built at the site of a demolished medieval castle in the late 19th century. The stone tower is the only remnant of the previous caste.

On the lakeward side of the hotel is a small park in which a clock marks the time on a grassy slope. There's a resemblance to the famous floral clock of Geneva but during our visit there were no flowers in sight. The landscaping is likely too expensive to maintain outside of special occasions. At the ferry port there was a beautiful metal sculpture called Ouverture au Monde. The intersecting curved metal lattices evoked the reflections of the sun on the surface of the lake.

On the breakwater that protects the harbor stands an enormous semicircular weather vane called Éole. The semicircle moves depending on the direction of the wind. Four monoliths on the shore have matching semicircular notches and the one that completes the circle with the vane identifies the prevailing wind. On the promenade near the monoliths giant chessboards provide a popular past-time for the locals.

Ouchy and the promenade had given us plenty to see but we didn't feel like hanging around for dinner. As we drove to the center of Lausanne we once again ran into a road closure. We were starting to realize that this was probably going to happen in every city in Switzerland. This time there was no road work, just a police car blocking the main north-south artery through town. The next few streets over were blocked as well as though the police didn't want anyone to get into the center at all. Finally we just drove west for about a mile before reactivating the GPS which finally brought us to our target. Place de la Palud is the center of the historic old town, taking its name from the marshy terrain at the base of the Cité hill where the original settlement of Lausanne was located. The middle of the small square is dominated by the Fountain of Justice, which contains a central pedestal topped by a colorful figurine of a woman brandishing a sword. The statue is a copy of the original which is currently housed in a museum. We had a good dinner on the patio of Le Grütli, one of the many restaurants in the pedestrian streets that emanate from the square. The four and five story apartment buildings of the old town made the narrow cobblestone alleys feel like canyons. From the main road at the top of the hill we could hear the chanting of women's voices in synchrony and our waiter informed us there was a large procession related to women's rights taking place that night. The heavy police presence blocking the roads to the center was finally explained.

Wednesday and Saturday are the market days in the center of Lausanne. We returned to Place de la Palud in the morning and found a much different atmosphere to the previous night. Stalls laden with fruit and vegetables lined the cobblestone streets. The ubiquitous currants were particularly impressive as were the glowing cherry tomatoes and a variety of the most desirable wild mushrooms. We combined some purchases with the sandwiches prepared at a sidewalk cafe and watched the city come to life around us.

Once we'd made a couple of passes through the market we walked through the rest of the pedestrianized center to the Quartier du Flon, a former warehouse area that has been transformed into a small shopping and entertainment district. The cafes and boutiques were rather empty in the morning and of course the bars were closed so there wasn't very much to see. We would have been better off exploring the Flon on the previous evening.

We went back to the center to climb the Escaliers du Marché, the antiquated covered staircase that leads to the top of La Cité. A row of colorful and elegant townhouses ascended the hill adjacent to the stairs. At the top a pedestrian tunnel passes under the main road and emerges at the foot of the Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Lausanne. As with many of Switzerland's cathedrals, Notre Dame was converted into a Protestant church after the Reformation and much of the internal adornment was removed or destroyed by the Bernese. The massiveness of the structure is emphasized by the tight space the cathedral occupies at the summit of La Cité. From the walls around the square we could see the southern part of the city all the way to Ouchy and Lake Geneva.

Between La Cité and Flon we had passed a beautiful food market in the basement of the Globus department store. Before leaving the center we decided to take a closer look and found a remarkable layout of gourmet edibles. The store was nearly empty and the staff inside rushed to give us concierge service. They were very proud of the array of tropical fruits which was impressive for Switzerland but the prices were eye-watering and the offerings weren't as exotic to us as they may have been to the locals. We were more interested in the bakery and the cheese counter and regretted we had already filled our stomachs at the market earlier. We made a mental note to check for a similar store in Geneva the next day.

It's hard to compare cities but we had found Lausanne to be even more atmospheric and authentic than Bern. We could easily have spent another day exploring the maze of pedestrian streets in La Cité without feeling like the majority of people around us were other tourists. Unlike the old towns of Zurich and Bern, the center of Lausanne felt alive and occupied rather than something that had been preserved. Nevertheless our itinerary was locked in and we had no choice but to depart. We had one final stop in Lausanne before heading east around Lake Geneva. The Sauvabelin Tower is an unusual structure that occupies a small hill in the city park of the same name. Although the wooden tower looks almost medieval it was constructed just twenty years ago. After a couple of false starts we located the short trail from the parking area that led to the tower. After ascending the thirty-five meter wooden tower by a wide spiral staircase we found an observation deck with views over the entire metropolitan area of Lausanne and the hills on the opposite side of the lake. I imagine on a clear day one could have seen as far as the Alps.

Posted by zzlangerhans 11:52 Archived in Switzerland Tagged road_trip family family_travel travel_blog lake_geneva tony_friedman family_travel_blog Comments (0)

From the Rhône to the Rhine: Bern and Gruyères

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The city of Bern originated in the 12th century as a castle fortress at the tip of a peninsula created by a sharp bend in the river Aare. The goal of its powerful builder, the Duke of Zähringen, was to control that strategic section of the river from a high vantage point. Over the next few centuries Bern expanded both its city borders and its sphere of influence, becoming a major regional power broker along with the Burgundians and the Hapsburgs. As the city grew outward the peninsula remained largely unchanged as the center of government and trade. The concentration of the interesting sights of the city in such a small area made the prospect of exploring Bern in a short period of time less overwhelming.

We parked near the casino on the south side of the peninsula and began our tour with a stroll halfway across Kirchenfeld Bridge. From the elevated span we could see the Aare all the way to the beginning of the curve around the peninsula as well as our first view of Bern's famous cathedral. It was a tantalizing preview of the delightful walk we would have through the old town.

Bern Minster is the tallest cathedral in Switzerland and towers over the rest of the old town. The Gothic belltower once had the dubious distinction of attracting a large number of suicidal individuals to throw themselves into the cobblestone square below, much to the consternation of pedestrians. This phenomenon has largely abated since the construction of a suicide barrier in 1998 but a sign is still prominently displayed indicating that solitary visitors will be denied entrance to the tower.

Even at an ambling place it only took us ten or fifteen minutes to reach the Nydegg neighborhood at the end of the peninsula. The dining scene was slow on a Monday evening but there were still plenty of full tables on the cobblestone streets outside the restaurants. We were pleasantly surprised by the atmospheric porticos that hid the storefronts behind arches of white limestone. Up to this point we had remained on the high ground of the old town but as we reached the end the streets began to slope downward and we soon found ourselves in Matte, a crescent-shaped neighborhood at the level of the river. This flood-prone strip was once a working-class neighborhood but in modern times it has been revitalized into a popular residential and commercial area. We walked out onto the Lower Gate Bridge for a more intimate look at the Aare and an orderly residential neighborhood that occupied the hillside on the other bank of the river.

The final order of business for the evening was locating a restaurant for dinner, not a trivial task on a Monday evening. The best option in the old town among the minority of restaurants that was open was a tapas place. We walked back towards the center along a different avenue which rewarded us with new sights such as a fountain with an incongruous metal staircase leading to a pedestal. I imagine the idea is for the pedestrian to become the statue atop the fountain, although at first it appeared to be encouraging a suicidal dive into shallow water.

The tapas restaurant was located at Rathausplatz which adjoined some of the most beautiful buildings we had seen in Bern. One was the medieval Town Hall fronted by an impressive double staircase and another was the impeccable neo-Gothic Church of St. Peter and Paul. We couldn't have asked for a better atmosphere as we ate at one of the sidewalk tables. The tapas was excellent although the limited Monday menu meant we had to double up on some of the dishes.

Towards the end of our meal I took the kids on a short walk to see the Zytglogge while Mei Ling waited for the check. This former guard tower has a large conventional clock and below it an astrological clock and a mechanism of figurines that move every time the clock strikes the hour. Of course there wasn't much point in visiting the clock except on the hour, which was the reason for our early departure from the restaurant. The tower and the clock faces were beautiful but the activity when the clock struck nine was disappointing. A couple of pieces moved in time with the chime but the carousel of figurines at the bottom never budged. It wasn't much compared to what I'd seen on previous trips to Munich and Prague.

When we were ready to drive back home we encountered what would be a recurrent issue throughout the road trip. One of the major streets in the old town was closed and both the car GPS and Google Maps insisted on routing us back through it no matter which direction we turned. Eventually I had to drive in the wrong direction for about five minutes before Google Maps relented and provided us with an alternative route back to Zollikofen.

I was particularly excited about the markets in Bern because according to my research they filled nearly every street in the center of the old town on Tuesdays and Fridays. On Tuesday morning we packed up and drove back to the center. The closest market to the casino parking lot was at Bundesplatz, which was filled with stalls offering produce similar to the markets we had visited in Zürich. Behind us was the regal Bundeshaus, the seat of the Swiss parliament. We stocked up on fruit as usual and then wandered through a series of stalls around Bärenplatz. The majority of vendors were offering products we had already grown used to such as cured meats, cheeses, and bread. We allowed ourselves to be convinced to buy some expensive game sausages again st our better judgment. One of the most interesting stalls had a large variety of salad greens in a series of bins. Some of them were quite colorful and spicy and we couldn't resist stuffing a bag with an assortment.

There were supposed to be more markets in the cobblestone streets around Bern Minster so we crossed over the tram line on Kornhausplatz that marks the beginning of the peninsula, pausing to admire a gigantic golden foot that has been installed on the front steps of the Stadttheater. It was a remarkable sculpture with every crease of a flexed foot faithfully replicated and a space underneath the arch where one could crouch to imagine the feeling of being crushed like an ant. Across the street was a small park where four bronze bears guarded a statue of local medieval hero Rudolf von Erlach. Bears have been the mascot of Bern since the age of the Zähringens and urban legend holds that the name of the city is derived from Bären, bear in German. The city has kept captive bears intermittently since the 16th century. Originally they were in pits in Bärenplatz although they are now housed much more humanely in a park on the other side of the Aare.

We were disappointed to find no markets whatsoever on the peninsula despite roaming through every arcade and alley in the small area. Perhaps Tuesday is the lesser of the two market days or perhaps the entire scene had contracted due to aftereffects of the epidemic. The market in the center had been decent but not spectacular so it was an unsatisfying ending to a highly anticipated morning. On the southern side of Bern Minster there was a sunny park where mothers played with their toddlers and men played animated boules matches on the gravel.

We still hadn't eaten most of the food we'd bought at the market and the obvious place to picnic was the Rosengarten across the river. This time we crossed the Aare on the elevated Nydegg Bridge from which we could see the Lower Gate Bridge from the previous evening far below us. The parallel existences of the upper and lower levels of the city on either side of the river reminded me of Porto, although on a much smaller scale.

The Rosengarten is more than just another city park. The former cemetery has been a major gathering and recreation area for the citizens of Bern for over a hundred years. For us a major draw was the opportunity to see the entire old town from a high vantage point in order to appreciate our explorations of the last two days from a new perspective. A cobblestone path led up the hillside from the town to the park with progressively more awe-inspiring views of the peninsula nestled within the sharp bend in the Aare. It was easy to see why the Zähringens had been drawn to this uniquely defensible location to begin building their domain. Partway up the path a bronze statue of Einstein seated on a bench allows visitors the opportunity to pose with him with the old town in the background. Although Einstein lived in Bern for only eight years this was arguably the most important period of his career. It was during that time that Einstein was transformed from an academic nonentity working at a patent office to one of the most celebrated young physicists in Europe.
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Once we reached the park Mei Ling resourcefully collected some scattered chairs and a small table and we set to work laying out our purchases from the market. Since we had mostly been buying on impulse it wasn't a very well-composed breakfast but we had built up prodigious appetites during our walk. I alternated mouthfuls of raw greens and bites of gamey sausage as we attempted to corral the kids from the playground long enough to provide them enough nourishment until our next stop. We found that the pea pods were occasionally colonized with wriggling larvae but the remaining peas were so sweet that we brushed the infested ones to the side and ate the remainder.

I timed our return to the parking garage so that we would pass by Zytglogge at noon, thinking that the mechanical display might be more impressive at that hour. I underestimated our walking time a little so we had to run the last block as the clock was beginning to chime. This time there was more to see as the carousel of figurines rotated and the jester at the top rang his bells but is was still rather unimpressive. The crowd was much larger this time and there was a sense of anticlimax as people kept filming with their phones at the end of the display, expecting that there would be more to the show. I stitched our two visits to the clock together in a video for purposes of comparison.

The road to Lausanne took us through lush green valleys dotted with idyllic Swiss towns. Every town had its own small church. Jagged hilltops always obscured the horizon and the skies were streaked with the contrails of small planes. We took a detour from the highway to visit the medieval town of Gruyères, a place that has very little to do with contemporary life in Switzerland. The old town occupies the top of a hill whose sides are largely covered by parking lots for visitors. From the parking area we could see the modern villages where people went about their regular daily routines with minimal disturbance from the tourists who flocked to the medieval city.

The town consists of a single wide cobblestone pedestrian street with a solid line of picturesque hotels and restaurants on either side. There appeared to be some residential apartments above the restaurants but probably only enough to house their owners and perhaps some people who worked in the town. One thing I noticed immediately is that while the town was certainly beautiful it did not look old. Everything from the cobblestones to the buildings looked as though it could have been constructed within the last twenty years, albeit in an older style. There were no crumbling stone buildings as one might see in the medieval villages of Italy or France but rather immaculate plaster facades with relatively modern windows and shutters. I had a strong sense of Epcot Syndrome, my term for places which exist only to create an artificial atmosphere for tourists but are no more authentic than the country pavilions at Disney World. The preponderance of storefronts displaying arrays of souvenirs and knickknacks did nothing to dispel this impression. I decided to put aside the illusion that I was in a place that was medieval or historic and focused on the charm of the town and the views of the green hills that surrounded us.

The pedestrian street ends at the 13th century Château de Gruyères. After skipping the interiors of the castles in Thun and Spiez we decided to finally check if we were missing anything. We spent about an hour touring the castle although I'd have to say we weren't sophisticated enough about period furniture and decorations to really appreciate our visit. Some of the panoramas from the upper level were quite impressive, including a pleasingly geometric garden with a chain of rocky hills in the background.

The old town is also close to a chocolate factory and a cheese factory that manufactures the famous Gruyère cheese. We avoided these since I got strong vibes of tourist trap from the reviews and we were too late to see the daily cheesemaking activities. It was a far better choice to make an early arrival in Lausanne as we would only have one day to explore this heralded city. On the way out of town we once again came to a complete road closure where we could see some workers resurfacing the asphalt. We reversed course but no matter which directions we turned the GPS kept trying to direct us back to the closure. Eventually I pulled over and blew up Google Maps to the max, eventually identifying a detour that would take us back to the main road a short distance downstream of the spot where our progress had been halted. The entrance to the detour was a turn I would never have considered taking if I didn't have the map. It looked like the driveway to a farm house and I wondered if I was being led astray. Sure enough the one lane road continued past the farmhouse and intersected with another which eventually dropped us just a hundred yards down from the opposite side of the road closure. I had never driven in Europe before the advent of the internet so I can't imagine what that must have been like, but I'm sure that without Google Maps every road closure we encountered would have been a nightmare of frustration.

Posted by zzlangerhans 00:21 Archived in Switzerland Tagged road_trip family family_travel travel_blog tony_friedman family_travel_blog Comments (0)

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