Beatenberg: Alp’s Best – Eiger, Mönch, Jungfrau Mountains

With summer right around the corner, everyone drags maps out of drawers and laments the rising gas prices. America is a spacious land with spectacular sights found nowhere else in the world, but it takes so darn long to get there.

In my “petite” country, grand vistas awaits, literally, right around the next corner. After a mere two hour drive, we are in the German speaking, Bernese Oberland, with lush green valleys speckled with amber and gold flowers and imposing, stark, white mountain peeks.

 

Switzerland is well known for out of the way, picturesque mountain villages that look postcard perfect. Beatenberg, at 1,200-meter altitude, offering a ringside view of Bernese Alps, is one of these.

a view to remember

a view to remember

 

Lined with chalets and restored turn of the century hotels, the town clings to the steppe beneath the Niedhorn mountain and braves harsh winter winds; however, villagers are rewarded with an incredible spectacle – the Eiger, Mönch and Jungfrau. Weather « beaten » and forlorn, Beaten berg  (German for town) aptly reflects it name.

 

the Eiger North Wall in the evening clouds

the Eiger North Wall in the evening clouds

 

It lurches on the cliff’s edge above Lake Thun. From our hotel window, we admire the matchbox cars winding around the mountainside and toy sailboats floating on the blue-green lake below. Red-roofed villages line the lake surrounded by evergreen forests, then steep chalky cliffs. At the uppermost level, the snow-covered peaks of the “three kings” reigned majestically.

Popular in 1900s during the Belle Époque, Beatenberg’s hotels once catered to aristocrats. Today, the village of just over a thousand inhabitants is no longer considered chic and trendy; however, it appeals to nature lovers, hikers, bikers and families wanting to get away from it all.

We strolled down the single road into and out of town. Sheep grazed in the meadows alongside a mountain stream. The local bus, a few cars and a half a dozen bikers whizzed past; otherwise, it was is so quiet, we could hear crickets chirp, sheep bleat and cow bells tingle, as if we had stepped into another time period.

quiet chalet in Beatenberg

quiet chalet in Beatenberg

In the morning, I flung open our window shutters but yesterday’s stunning view disappeared in puff of smoke like a figment of my imagination. Clouds rolled in overnight burying Lake Thun and hiding the Eiger, Mönch and Jungfrau, cloaking the village in a fog so dense that even the wooden clock tower steeple of the church across the street became invisible.

Yet surprisingly, on the last leg of our drive home, glimpses of the Alps reappeared as the sun broke through the clouds over Lake Geneva. In our little country, the climate like the topography changes in the blink of an eye.

Just so you won’t think life here is perfect, gas costs just under $8 a gallon and simple dinner for two without drinks is over a hundred bucks. Ah yes, paradise comes with a price.

[cincopa A4MAc46tm5b9]

Open Market Exchange – A Sport Event in France

When tourists visit Europe, one of the favorite activities is going to the market filling the town squares with luscious fruit that looked as if they were plucked from Eve’s garden,  vegetables freshly dug from the earth , whole milk and cream squeezed from the dairy cow that morning.

Like everything in France, there is a savoir faire to open market shopping, an unspoken etiquette for waiting in haphazard lines that the locals would never breech for fear of a tongue lashing by their neighbors. As an American, I never understood the rules and was always overtaken by jumping little old ladies far more savvy. Forget the la crème fraiche; I’d be stuck waiting till the dairy cows came home!  Same with bargaining. Social interaction at the market is a delicate interchange. Nor was I clear on the amounts measured in metrics. I order fruit and vegetables by number rather than kilo. How many cherries make a half-kilo? Nor was I fast on my feet counting out change and hold up the line waiting while I fumbled counting coins.

a farmer's stand

a farmer's stand

French open markets are a must see; however, visitors beware, street markets are not for the faint hearted. Shopping at a French open market is like trying to play a sport without knowing the rules. Here are few tips.

1. Bartering – friendly bantering over quality, quantity and price. Must be a native speaker to understand the peasants accents and expressions. Also helps if you understand metric system.

2. Etiquette – who’s turn?  Lines as Americans know them, do not exist. Instead waiting in line the « queue », (also the French word for tail) has no end, or beginning. First come first serve rule does not apply- line cutting is also a fine art. Elderly French women, with years of practice, are very clever about this. Only a native speaker understands the innuendos to put someone in their place politely. Youth loses every time. Old ladies are best at this.

3. Choice – if indecisive like me, impossible to pick which item.  Only medical students could positively identify  animals body parts on display. We aren’t just talking liver, kidney, intestines.  Noooo,  French enjoy spinal column, pigs feet, tail, cows tongue, brain, etc.

Each part of France displays regional specialties. For example in Normandy, in addition to charcuterie, butcher, cheese stand, peasants sell  « bootleg » calvados and cider pressed from the orchard. I once counted over twenty varieties of olives. How can anybody survive working the open markets only selling olives ?

pouring fresh cream

pouring fresh cream

4. Pasteurized in France has different meaning. It does not mean sterilized, what it means is animal rights- freedom to grow up out in the pasture. Cow’s organic milk straight from the field to farmers bucket to market. Free range chicken. Wild hare, quail, and turkey.

5. Fish  should still be flapping. In seaports, boats dock at the quay and sell fish caught that night.

fishermen sell their fresh catch on the quays

fishermen sell their fresh catch on the quays

6. Don’t be discouraged if you find that the produce in your basket does not look quite as nice as that on the stand.

7. Best trick is to take a native along. If someone who regularly goes to market, the better.

In Normandy, the Parisian weekenders throng the marketplace elbow to elbow. My husband,  now a foreigner living in Switzerland, would never be served without his mom. A loyal client at the same stands for forty years, she knows generations of farmers who sell their wares locally. Since she is so loyal, they would never think of giving her soured creamed or bruised fruit meant only for tourists, for she would be the first to elicit shame with her sharp tongue.

Customer loyalty is at a premium in open market where regulars will always get the best cut of meat, ripest melons and freshest fish.  Just as referees always favor the home-team,  merchants favor the hometown loyalty.

Coffee on the Most Expensive Boulevard in Geneva

As usual I am definitely under dressed for the overpriced cafe/bar. It has been so long since I have ordered a drink alone that I am afraid I have forgotten how to speak French.  I duck in the doorway and like a regular customer, call « Café noir s’il vous plait » to the barmaid, who is polishing glassware from the night before while the espresso machine hisses with steam.

traditional Swiss café

traditional Swiss café

At 8 a.m., there are only a few other patrons, a woman in the booth reading the newspaper, and a sleek glamour girl, who carries her elegant 6-foot-5 inch frame, as if she is balancing a tray of champagne flutes on her head. Her glamorous smile under a long mane of dyed red hair illuminates sharp cheekbones on a sculpted ebony face. Her bejeweled hands, disproportionally large, look too big to belong to a woman; however, her high-pitched voice trills as she chatters with another customer at the bar. It is impossible to tell whether she is a model or a trans; either way, she adds to the decor.

I sink into the round booth in the corner and sit facing the interior, so I can eavesdrop, which makes my thimble-sized, $4 cup of coffee worth the price. I toss my jacket over the Victorian era velvet upholstered chair and absorb the atmosphere, imagining secrets from the previous evening, emitted from the dark corners. The locale is a mixture of black leather booths, dark wood tables and red chairs.

A steady stream of customers arrives. Businessmen clutching attaché cases in one hand and iPhones glued to the ear in the other. Wealthy women stir cream into coffee absentmindedly, whiling away the time until the chic boutiques on avenue du Rhone open.

Behind me, dozens of newspapers -Tribune de Genève, Le Temps, 20 Minutes – hot off the press from my husband’s printing company, line the wooden window ledges for the regulars. It is reassuring to see the clientele propped in front of open pages. It means patrons are welcome to linger indefinitely over coffee and more importantly, that some Swiss citizens continue to actually read hard-copy news, instead of online.

The barmaid sets a china cup of black coffee in front of me and I sip, savoring the flavor.  For another $2, I splurge on a croissant and break my gluten free diet to imbibe. As I skim the newspaper, I tear apart the flaky layers and pop fluffy bits into my mouth, which melts into buttery bliss.

Tables of entrepreneurs, wheeling and dealing, begin to fill. A couple holds hands and a loner downs a beer at the end of the bar. No European café is ever complete without it’s four legged friend; not just any old mutt, but a pedigree with papers, wearing a cone, like a halo over its head.

« Keeps Princess from scratching her face after surgery, » I hear the owner tell the server.

Oh pulleez! Face lifts for poochie!

Only in Geneva!

On the most expensive place on the planet, even dogs are divine, living like royalty.

Geneva: Chic City Streets by Foot

Geneva with its river, hills, one-way streets, tramways, bus traffic, bike paths and right turn only lanes, is a nightmare to navigate especially for a directionally handicapped driver like myself. Consequently, I leave the house at 6:30 a.m. with my French chauffeur, aka Gerald, for my 7a.m. chiropractic treatment. After the adjustment, I hoof across town to the podiatrist, for it only seems appropriate to travel to a foot doctor by foot!

strolling the pedestrian bridge over the Rhône

strolling the pedestrian bridge over the Rhône

The last vestiges of winter chill fill the early morning air, so I shove on my gloves and pull up my hoodie. I stride down Rue Voltaire, past the Cornavin Train Station, and down the pedestrian street lined with watch makers, to the foot bridge across the Rhône separating the city into the right and left bank. Then I follow the lakefront on a route paved in gold, where a square foot of property is worth a thousand dollars.

I pass storefronts of the most expensive, prestigious boutiques in the world: Louis Vuitton French luxury leather, Hermes scarves, Cartier, Dior, Chopard and Bucherers leading name jewelers and Gucci, Prada, Giorgio Armani, Dolce and Gabbana – Italian clothes shops. I gaze at the mannequins in designer dresses that may cost more than my annual salary.

american tourists in front of the famous flower clock

american tourists in front of the famous flower clock

Across the street, Lake Geneva shimmers like a diamond too, in the first rays of sun creeping over the Mont Salève, illuminating the city. On the quay, restaurants, cruise boats, souvenir stands await the crowd. Geneva’s trademark 140-meter high water jet and « horloge fleurie » flower clock symbolizing the Swiss watch industry offers a feast for the eyes. Patek Philippe, Geneva’s famous luxury watch manufacturer is strategically placed adjacent to the flower clock, and Mont Blanc, maker of chic accessories, like pens and lighters, is across the street. How can an entire store sell only pens that start at a retail price of $70? This is Geneva!

Along the lakeside promenade, in the lovely Jardin Anglais, pink and white blossoms peek out of thinly leaved trees like children playing hide and seek. Lining the boulevard Platanes, with knobby bare branched tree tops,  appear as gnarled arthritic hands reaching toward the sky in despair.

a steamer goes past lake front bourgeois buildings

a steamer goes past lake front bourgeois buildings

Two uniformed doormen stand guard the entrance to the five star Swisshotel Metropole on the Quais General Guisan, in the heart of Geneva’s financial and shopping district. They are ready to pamper guests every inch of the way from taxi door to curbside. Servers, dressed in black suits and starched white shirts, whistle as they wipe down sidewalk tables that spill out of the eateries preparing for the lunch crowd.

The heavy morning commuter traffic makes crossing streets dangerous, especially when cross walk lights are never synchronized. I perch on the curb in the island between 6 lane thoroughfares waiting for the little man to turn green.

The city springs to life. Seagulls soar overhead and pigeons coo. Street cleaners hose down the sidewalks, builders resurface storefronts, and city workers tear up gutters for repair. After all, Geneva is an old city, dating back over 4000 years to antiquity.

Though I dawdle at every light and gawk at every window display, I arrive an hour early for my next appointment, so I nip into the nearest cafe where I can while away the time people watching. An endless parade of interesting characters enter and exit while I fill my notebook with more stories, but those tales will have to wait until next week. A bientôt!

Trouville Normandy – A Trip Down Memory Lane

When we lived in Paris, we joined the mass exodus leaving the city for weekend get aways to the nearest seaside in Normandy, to visit our French family.  Now the seven-hour jaunt from Geneva-Switzerland is harder to make, so I hadn’t been back for years.

As soon as I rang my French in-laws doorbell in Trouville, I was flooded with memories. The brick-framed, six-story walk-up built into the falaise along the Touques River,  has housed fisherman’s families since the 1700s. Step out the front door on ground level and you are on the quais of the bustling seaport, across the ultra chic twin city Deauville. However, out the backdoor, on the floor above, is Papie and Mamie’s place, which opens onto the winding cobblestone rue de Bonsecours.

Trouville from the bridge leading to Deauville

Trouville from the bridge leading to Deauville

The house echoes with footsteps. If the faded, wooden steps of the spindly, spiral staircase could talk, the stories they would tell! Not long ago, I listened with trepidation as my children giggled, racing up and down flights. Now my heart jumps as I hear the stairs creak with Papie and Mamie’s footfalls, afraid that they will slip. Papie just returned from the hospital after a lung puncture to remove fluid build up from a weakening heart. Mamie slipped on wet cobblestone of mainstreet and broke her wrist. Yet, still they insist laying out a banquet fit for a king, with an artillery of glassware and cutlery.

Mamie, with her left arm immobile in a cast, directs traffic with one hand from the kitchen nook to the dining table. She oversees the steady stream of courses on platters laden with fresh asparagus, green beans, sole fish, Camembert and strawberries dipped in cream, the finest Normandy has to offer from land and sea. Papie, frail after losing 10 pounds, still pops open champagne, serves aperitifs, pouring the wine, and argues about past skiing exploits with his son.

The seaside resort retains a sense of timelessness. Sea gulls swoop and dive above the fishing boats bobbing in the waves under azure skies. Daffodils dance on iron wrought balconies in the briny, spring breeze. Horses clomp down Main Street hauling tourist carts from the bridge connecting Deauville and Trouville, at one end of the road, to the casino at the other end.

horse & buggy in front of Deauville's casino

horse & buggy in front of Deauville's casino

 

As I walk on the beach, lined by 17thcentury mansions, I am overwhelmed with nostalgia. Young couples stroll the boardwalk with their arms intertwined. Parents with toddlers in tow pick up seashells; small children dig castles in the fine, white sand. School age kids race the waves as they crash the shoreline and teenagers kick soccer balls.

Nat & Nic on the beach      circa 2005

Nat & Nic on the beach circa 2005

kids growing up on the sand.

kids growing up on the sand.

 

If I close my eyes, snapshots of my children’s pasts flash by. Nat skipping alongside Mamie to play at the beach; Nic’s his eyes aglow carrying a gaufre, giant waffle covered in chocolate and whipped cream. Nat tugging on a kite string; Nic climbing over the Roches Noires. The two of them playing keep away with their cousins.

The magic of this historic spot by the sea is that throughout time’s passage, nothing changes; Trouville, like memories it holds, just grows older and more beautiful.[meteor_slideshow]

More vacation time ? A no-no in Switzerland

Spring arrived, so is too early to start thinking about vacation? Not if you live in Europe. The 4 weeks of paid holiday is one of the greatest perks about working abroad. Most European countries have statutory minimum of 25-30 days plus national holidays. Some countries, like France, even guarantee four weeks, plus an additional two weeks after the age of fifty. In every country in Europe, workers get 20 days and in some, like France and Finland, 30 days. Austria has the most vacation days with a statutory minimum 25 days, plus 13 days off for public holidays.

http://www.cnbc.com/id/33431347/Which_Country_Gets_the_Most_Vacation_Days?slide=5

By law minimum number of vacation days in Switzerland is 20, but the alpine state also has 9 public holidays. Recently, the industrious Swiss voted down a bill to guarantee six weeks of vacation, because of the fear of losing their jobs and also because most people thought that it was not needed.

In these tough economic times, the travel budget is often the first luxury to go.

Unfortunately with dollar at all time low and Swiss franc stable, for Americans, a trip to Switzerland is anything but low budget. The Euro is also lower though, which could make other EU countries travel destination appealing.

Even if you aren’t allowed time off and can’t afford a trip abroad, don’t despair. Join me on a free ride, a virtual tour to a couple of my old European neighborhood stomping grounds. Next stop Normandy!

Are American shortchanged when it comes to time off? What’s your opinion?