Friday, December 30, 2011

On the Swiss slopes

Considering all things cliche about Switzerland, we have done a pretty good job checking things off the list: had lots of fondue and cheese, and admired vast displays of luxury watches and happily grazing cows.  The one thing missing thus far from this Swiss story has been winter fun.  We took the opportunity the other day to make up for this oversight, and went skiing in Villars-Gryon on season opening day.

Right off the bat, our adventures began in this mountain village when our car (along with 10 others) got stuck on ice and snow on a particularly steep street.  With tires spinning, and car sliding sideways and backwards, we came to rest on a sidewalk.  Our ski instructor was waiting for us at the resort and on the clock, so we felt our spirits dampened at this situation -naturally- until I got out of the car, and realized that we broke down literally in front of a mom-and-pop auto shop.  Ten minutes later we had the right size chains in hand, and twenty minutes later we were on our way to the train station to catch the cog wheel to the top.

J removing the chains -end of the day
We arrived late and exhausted but Snowboard Dude did not seem to mind.  All kids except Small Fish were on boards today, with Big Fish and Small Moose taking lessons with Snowboard Dude.
The kids with Snowboard Dude

The truth is, the weather was quite wretched. We had whiteout conditions, strong winds and snow fall, and couldn't see the surroundings. However, Big Fish had a successful first time on snowboard, and after and hour of instruction, Snowboard Dude took her on a Blue Diamond trail. Small Moose did great as well. Big Moose has been snowboarding for a few years so he was on his own.

J and Small Fish: Ski buddies

We had great fondue lunch with Snowboard Dude. He leads an enchanted life divided between that of a ski /snowboard instructor in winter, and of a cycling guide on wine tasting tours in the terraced vineyards of Lavaux during summers. Yes, really.

Big Moose in big snow
Back in Villars

All in all, a good trip measured in no broken bones and a safe return home.

Friday, December 23, 2011

When you are in Geneva around December 12

Old Town Geneva
chances are you will find yourself among soldiers in 17th century period costumes, marching bands parading to the music of drums and flutes, the air filled with the thundering sound of cannon fire and thick smoke from hundreds of torches.  If you also find a cup of mulled wine in your hand then you can be sure that you happened upon La fête de l'Escalade, an annual historic celebration marking the defeat of the Duke of Savoy in 1602.  

Here is the gist of it:  the Duke of Savoy launches an attack on Geneva in the middle of the night, night guard raises the alarm, church bells are rung, the good citizens of Geneva fighting alongside their militia defeat the attack.  But legend has it that a mother of 14 children who lived right above the town gate took a cauldron of hot vegetable soup and poured it onto the attackers who were scaling the walls, killing a few and helping the cause.  For this reason, and to commemorate soup flinging Mother Royaume, street vendors sell hot vegetable soup, while candy shops offer miniature cauldrons made of chocolate and filled with marzipan vegetables called a marmite.  Of course we had to come and see all the commotion.  Since children also dress in costumes and participate in a lantern parade, Big Moose decided to wear his Guy Fawkes mask to town.
Marmites and marzipan vegetables
Big Moose en route to Geneva

We really enjoyed the Old Town atmosphere.  But the real highlight was the secret tunnel that is only open to public once a year, on this momentous occasion.  The Passage de Monetier takes visitors along the base of the old fortification walls under the Cathedral.  Legend has it that this secret passage played a key strategic role during the night battle.

Big Fish and Big Moose entering the secret passage

J and the torch boy
At the end of the tunnel guess what awaits those willing to walk in the footsteps of these historic ghosts:  more mulled wine.  This is a picture of me waiting in line to get some:

It is customary for children to break the chocolate cauldron and shout: "Ainsi périssent les ennemis de la République! " (Thus perish the enemies of the Republic)  In the end, amid many guns, much liquor and battle reenactments galore, we, and the good citizens of Geneva, saved the town from peril once again at the Escalade 2011. 

Big Moose in the moonlight

Lanterns and cobble stone

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Wintertime, and the livin' is easy

It is true: in Switzerland one really can go from doorstep to the top of a mountain via public transportation with incredible ease.  We tested this hypothesis a couple of weekends ago with a trip to Les Pléiades, a small ski resort nearby. This place is not atop a huge mountain by any means. At 1500 m it is just a big hill. But it is a gorgeous and popular place for weekenders to ascend by train, and ride down on mountain bikes following a picnic.

Flowers growing out of the stone terrace wall of a vineyard

The short 20-minute train ride was just long enough to remind us of the beauty of this region. From our speeding coach we admired the vast stretch of vineyard terraces carved into the hillsides as far as the eyes could see. What is it about vineyards that evoke images of a straw-hat-wearing, older version of myself tending vines and pondering the importance of terroir? Such a life will probably never be mine and yet this thought bubble never fails to pop up.

From Vevey we hopped on a cogwheel to ascend to the top. Somewhere in the process we broke through the cloud layer blanketing the whole region, and found ourselves in bright sunshine, summer weather and perfectly still, quiet air. The sweaters quickly came off as we wandered around the meadow in amazement and realizing we were getting sun burnt noses and cheeks. But, apparently Swiss preparedness is rubbing off on me, as I have been carrying a tube of 50 spf sun block in my purse since our trip to Zermatt. This really saved the day believe me, the sun was incredibly potent.

Not much else to say, except that we played at an awesome playground, had hot chocolate and ice cream on the deck of a chalet with a million dollar view (well, adjusting for Swiss rates probably a 9-10 million dollar view) and looked at happy cows. The whole day was so awesome, I found myself singing a new take on Porgy and Bess to the kids. And when I got to this part:

Your daddy's rich 
And your mamma's good lookin' 

I had to agree. It was THAT fine a day.


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