Tag Archives: Europe

Travel Guide: Interlaken, Bern, Lucerne, Zurich

Over the summer, my parents and I decided that Switzerland was a reasonable “halfway” destination to spend the winter holidays. It’s not really halfway but it was so, so delightful! Now that I’ve been to Switzerland in the winter, I’d love to go back in the summer. And fall. And spring. This blog post will detail my travels through Interlaken, Bern, Lucerne, and Zurich, all of which are easily accessible by train. Be aware, though: Trains in Switzerland are not cheap. Timely, clean, comfortable, and efficient, but not cheap.


Interlaken

I was alone in Interlaken for the first two nights of travel. It was pouring for much of the first day but I found myself some glühwein (mulled wine) and waited for it to stop.

It was lovely in the afternoon when the sun came out.

I walked around town and took pictures of mountains, hardly able to believe where I was. I watched where the sun fell and tried to capture how it lit up the trees and the snow. It made me laugh how the grass was perfectly green but there was snow up on the mountains.

It also really tickled me to see the Catholic and Protestant churches right next to each other and to hear their bells ringing differently but at the same time.

The sun rose late (shortly after 8am) and set early (4:45pm) in Interlaken and Christmas Day was clear and cold. Around 9am I set off on a walk along the River Aare to Ringgenberg, a town about 5km away. The walk took me through little neighbourhoods by the water and in the hills. I passed a few other people along the way and perfected greeting people, “Good morning!” in German.

The main attraction in Ringgenberg was the church tower, which is open to visitors at any time. Services were going on when I arrived and it was a really special experience to climb the church tower alone and look out at the world while listening to songs that I couldn’t understand.

The sun was fully up as I walked back to Interlaken. I’d hoped for a coffee but settled myself on a log for some almonds instead.

After the best of the three rösti I had during my time in Switzerland, I spent the afternoon on a short walking trail called the Clara von Rappard loop, which took me up into the hills and the woods on the opposite side of Interlaken. There were eight historical markers with information about Clara and her life along the path, but I regrettably don’t speak German.

Once it got dark, I headed to the Ice Magic skating rink in the centre of town. I spent a few minutes watching the skaters before retreating into the tent of food and drink stalls, warmed by space heaters and fires. I stood with my glühwein at a small table in the corner and I watched and marveled.

Certain things make sense to me. Life shared with those around us, with laughter and goodwill, makes sense to me.

Bern

The following morning I took the train to Bern to meet my parents who had just landed from Toronto. The weather was cold and dreary but it was so great to see them. December 26 is a public holiday in Switzerland so much of the capital city was closed until evening when restaurants opened for dinner. We spent the day walking around and taking in the feel of the city.

We saw the little performance at the clock tower, watching the figurines in the mechanism move and dance as they have been for hundreds of years . . .

. . . examined the ornate fountains across the city, which had very cold water . . .

. . . and admired the exterior of Bern’s Minster while the interior underwent renovations.

We also went to the Einstein Museum because my dad is a math/science guy. There was a lot to read and a few videos that claimed to explain Einstein’s theories in “four easy lessons”. I have to be honest, I gave up halfway through lesson three.

Bern’s old town is built high above the River Aare and the graceful bridges made me feel like we were floating.

The next day we visited the Christmas market, which had been closed on actual Christmas. This was the first of several Christmas markets on this trip and while it was small, I was glad walking around and watching other people enjoying themselves.

Afterwards we walked out to Zentrum Paul Klee, not because any of us was interested in Klee but because the grounds are worth visiting. The walk showed us what the residential area of Bern looks like, too, which is obviously nothing like the UNESCO site old town. The museum was intended to fit into the landscape and become part of it, and there are functioning fields and gardens there in seasons other than winter.

We found a much larger Christmas market and food fair on the other side of Parliament later that day. We spent the evening there walking, drinking glühwein to stay warm, and tasting some of the many cuisines on offer.

For people who don’t celebrate Christmas, we were having a great time celebrating Christmas. Whatever is it that brings a community together in a way that exudes warmth and care . . . all of that is something I’m glad to be part of.

Lucerne

By the time we arrived in Lucerne the next morning, I had a pretty good feel for Swiss cities around Christmas time. And I liked them a lot. I really enjoyed Lake Lucerne and I’d love to see it in the summer. (Are you sensing a theme? Me, too.) I took a walk around the lake the second morning we were there and it was a beautiful change from the old town and surrounding city.

But let’s start at the beginning. Lucerne felt different from either of the previous cities because the old town’s narrow, twisting streets are peppered with little squares. The buildings are painted and tell stories of what Lucerne used to be. I loved looking at them and trying to make sense of the history surrounding us. I also loved eating fondue, which was our first meal here.

Lucerne is famous for its bridges and they’re as pretty at night as they are during the day.

I spent a lot of time around the lake the next day, from the aforementioned walk in the morning to a boat ride later in the afternoon. The historical narrative provided during the ride was interesting and time on the water definitely provides a different view of Lucerne and its surroundings.

My mum and I walked around at night, as well, and I really enjoyed seeing the lights and the way the colours of the sky and the water changed at the sun set. It felt like finding ourselves just peeking out from under a blanket and marvelling for the first time at the world around.

Zurich

Our last stop in Switzerland was Zurich, which was very different from the previous stops. Zurich is a big, fancy city and it feels like one with designer shopping streets and luxury hotels. Naturally, the old town is beautiful . . .

. . . but it also has the signs of life that remind you that it is a living, breathing, modern place. I liked that a lot.

We walked along the River Limmat in the sunshine (our first sun in days!) and visited the Grossmünster, Zurich’s largest church with two huge towers.

My dad and I climbed the narrow, twisting staircase of one tower, which involved some negotiation with people climbing in the opposite direction. The sun was fully out by the time we got to the top and the view was spectacular.

We also went to the Fraumünster, a smaller church that used to be a Benedictine Abbey. We wanted to see it specifically because Marc Chagall designed the stained glass windows. With only one exception, they depicted scenes from the Old Testament. No photos allowed, but go visit!

I think the best spot to see Zurich is at the Lindenhof, a park built on what used to be a Roman fortification. It’s a bit like a hill in the middle of a city. Apparently hundreds of years ago, recognising that whoever controlled the area would control the city, the citizens of Zurich voted to prohibit building on the land and it has been a park ever since. There were a couple groups of old men playing chess with giant sets and a bunch of tourists taking photos, but the people-watching would probably be excellent at any time.

The Sechseläutenplatz is Zurich’s largest main square and we walked there to see the Opera House, which is stunning. Like elsewhere, there were Christmas lights and food stalls, including a few selling glühwein for takeaway. Naturally I couldn’t resist.

The next day we visited the Swiss National Museum, which is probably the best museum I’ve ever been to. We allotted two hours when we initially arrived and then extended that an hour and then another thirty minutes, leaving only because we were hungry. There were permanent collections on the history of Switzerland; clothing, artifacts and fully reconstructed palace rooms; the city of Zurich; and a portrait gallery that I didn’t get to visit, as well as a few other collections. The temporary exhibits taught us about Switzerland’s relationship with Indian textiles, and nativity scenes from around the world.

The museum was fascinating not just because of what it contained but because of how the information was presented. Each exhibit was highly interactive including stunning programs on iPads that allow visitors to look at objects up close and take mini guided tours of portions of the exhibits. There was a lot to touch and physically manipulate, as well. We were extremely impressed and learned a great deal about Switzerland in a very short amount of time. I’d highly recommend a visit!

My mum and I walked along Lake Zurich in the afternoon and the light was so pretty on the water. It was New Year’s Eve and the markets were setting up all over again, which was fun to see.

Switzerland in the winter was a cold but magical placed filled with lights and good wishes. While I’d love to see it in the summer, I really enjoyed the atmosphere of the winter holidays and appreciated wandering streets that were probably less busy than they would be at another time of year. Early on New Year’s Day, basking in the week that had passed, we boarded the train to Salzburg. Stay tuned!

View of the Alps from a hill overlooking a cemetery in Bern

Travel Guide: Leiden and The Hague

For spring break this year, I exchanged the heat and humidity of Singapore for the drizzle and early spring chill of the Netherlands and Belgium. The reason for the trip was ostensibly to meet my brother studying in London, but the first four days were solo travel days that took me to a new town (or two) every day. I haven’t traveled alone in a while and was struck, as every time, by how peaceful it is to be anonymous in a new place. A much-needed calm settled over me when I arrived at Singapore’s Changi Airport and I held onto it.

The twelve-hour flight from Singapore to Amsterdam was a red-eye, which meant I arrived bright and early the same morning I had left. Though exhausting, time traveling can be quite useful! I immediately boarded a train for quaint, beautiful Leiden, about 35 minutes southwest of Amsterdam.

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After asking directions in Leiden (I’m one of those rare people who doesn’t travel with cellular data, which likely contributes to the calm I experienced) I took a bus to my Airbnb. My host had agreed to let me store my backpack for the day and I forced in my contact lenses only because it was drizzling outside, as it would off and on for the next five days.

My plan for the day was to take the train about 20 minutes south to The Hague because I’d read that many attractions in The Hague are closed Mondays, the next day. (It didn’t occur to me that said attractions would also be closed Easter Sunday, but that’s because I didn’t realize it was Easter Sunday.) This time, I walked through Leiden to get my bearings on the way back to the train station. I loved everything I saw and thoroughly enjoyed wandering through the town for the two days I was based there.

It was raining when I arrived in The Hague, the world’s center for peace and justice. For that reason alone, I was glad to be there. I found a cool little market and bought a new thumb ring (I’m always on a hunt for rings) . . .

. . . before making my way to the Mauritshuis, an art museum of Dutch masters that houses Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring.

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Just like in Leiden, though, I was mostly content to wander the streets and see what there was to see. Many restaurants and shops were closed for Easter so the streets were quiet and fairly empty.

I was excited to visit The Hague because of my interest in peace. After having coffee in a restaurant that sources surplus food from distributors, I walked through streets lined with consulates from every country to the Peace Palace, open despite Easter.

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The free audioguide tour of the visitors’ center provided an excellent overview of the world’s history and interest in peace. It also mentioned recent concerns in international diplomacy (of which there are many) and specific cases that had gone to the International Criminal Court located down the road. I particularly loved the World Peace Flame in its little garden and the focus on global interdependence. Call me hopelessly idealistic, but these are things that make my heart happy.

Dutch food also made my heart happy. Coffee and cheese everywhere were delicious and, in the latter case, far less expensive than anything I can get in Singapore. I snacked on poffertjes while in The Hague before returning to Leiden for dinner. I ate at a pancake restaurant that had been around since 1907 and had my first of many local beers. Again, better and far cheaper than what we get in Singapore.

Before returning to my Airbnb for the evening, I let myself get a little lost as I wandered through Leiden. Without knowing it, Leiden was what I pictured when the words “quaint Dutch town” floated across my mind. Only a few outer streets were open to cars, giving the town the distinct feeling of being built for people rather than merely accommodating them. The alleys I walked through led me to a flight of stairs at the old fort . . .

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. . . which is now a park with beautiful views of the town. . . .

I managed to keep my jet lagged self awake until the very reasonable hour of just before 10pm. The next morning, my Italian host who had lived in Leiden for five years made a lovely breakfast and sat with me to have her coffee. Despite her two cats, our mornings chatting were a real highlight of my week and a prime example of why Airbnb is a cool thing to do. I spent that day in Leiden mostly taking pictures and stopping in cafés to get out of the rain, which, like the previous day, let up in the late afternoon.

I visited Leiden’s windmill . . .

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. . . accidentally found the church of the Puritans who fled England for the Netherlands before departing on the Mayflower to North America . . .

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. . . and visited Rijksmuseum van Oudheden, the National Museum of Antiquities, to learn a bit about Dutch history under the Romans (hint: largely the same as everyone else’s history under the Romans).

I quite enjoyed photographing Leiden’s old signs and the poetry of many languages that had been painted on buildings all over the city. I could happily live in this town, was a thought on my mind every day in every place.

In what sounds like a joke but is completely true, I dropped the lens cap of my camera into a canal before taking yet another picture of boats and tall, skinny houses. There was nothing to do but shrug and walk a lap around town looking for a camera store. Unsurprisingly, I didn’t find one and instead had a glass of wine in a basement wine and cheese shop just in front of where my lens cap had floated away.

Everyone I met throughout the Netherlands was extremely friendly and helpful, which is always good when one is new to a place. Drivers stopped at crosswalks and waved pedestrians on. Workers in shops and restaurants greeted customers with a smile and seemed genuinely happy to be of service. Each city I visited was also very well marked for tourists with signs and city maps pointing the way to various attractions. I loved the Dutch lifestyle of bicycling, recycling, and supporting fair trade products.

After breakfast with my host the next morning, I was back on the bus to the train station. It was quite an adventure getting to my next destination, Brussels, but a lovely, quiet couple days had me in a state of equanimity that made it impossible to feel upset. Leiden, you’re a good little place. Thanks for having me!

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Travel Guide: Madrid, Cordoba, Sevilla, Barcelona

Warning: This posts is very long and contains lots of photos.

As I’ve mentioned, my sister lives in Madrid and my parents and brother live in Rochester, NY. We met up in Madrid on Christmas Day and traveled around Spain until January 3, at which point we departed for our various homes. Some of us (okay, me) cried more than others. I love my family more than anything else in the world and it was very hard to leave them. Times like that make me wonder what I’m doing trying to make a life for myself halfway (all the way?) around the world. In the back of my mind, I know I want to live back in Rochester. I honestly didn’t think I’d miss home as much as I do.

But, the point of this post is photos! I’ve divided each section by where we went and what we did, but the first bit for each is simply pictures I took as we walked up and down winding, twisting streets. Enjoy! Also, go to Spain.


Madrid

Our time in Madrid was spent wandering around (with purpose, guided by Rick Steves) and going to museums. We visited the Prado, Museo Municipal (not recommended), and Reina Sofia. It was very cool seeing Durer’s Self Portrait and Vazquez’s Las Meninas in person at the Prado because I taught about those in my Global 9 class. Reina Sofia’s main attraction is Picasso’s Guernica, another painting that I’ve always wanted to see. Wow. Obviously, I don’t have any photos from the museums but I do have loads from walking around Madrid.

Madrid’s cathedral is a stunning building. Until we visited a few other churches later on, it was the most unique church I’d ever seen.


Córdoba

After 3 nights in Madrid, we took the train to Córdoba, which gave us absolutely stunning views of the Spanish countryside. It actually looks the way it’s described in books. That is both rare and almost too good to be true. As Mitch said, “In every Napoleonic era book I’ve read, there’s always a convenient stone wall and a house nearby.” Apparently that’s true. The city of Córdoba fit quite well into that framework.

We were only in Córdoba for one night and made two major stops. The first was to a museum called Casa Sefard, a Jewish history museum. The museum was a bit of a sad story because the Inquisition got rid of Córdoba’s Jews, so all the artifacts were from other parts of the world.

We spent a great deal of time at La Mezquita, which, I am ashamed to admit, I didn’t know existed. For those kindred spirits who are out of the loop, La Mezquita is a cathedral built inside a mosque, which was built on top of a church. Equally interesting, it’s over 1,000 years old!

One of my favorite parts of Córdoba was standing on the bridge connecting the two sides of town and watching the sunset. It was so beautiful and serene. This was our only night in Córdoba, so I’m glad it was particularly lovely.


Sevilla

Sevilla is a very old city and traces its history directly back to the Romans. Much of Europe can claim the same, but it never ceases to amaze this “New World” born-and-raised girl.

Naturally, we had to visit Sevilla’s cathedral. Poor Mitch isn’t a fan of touring religious buildings, but he was a good sport and followed along. Interestingly, the Sevilla Cathedral is the largest Gothic cathedral in the world. (I wonder if any other churches claim the same . . .) I don’t have a good picture of Christopher Columbus’s tomb, but that was very cool. I didn’t know he was buried there! Actually, as I realized throughout our travels, I didn’t know much about Spain at all.

I absolutely loved walking up the ramp inside the bell tower, which used to be the muezzin’s tower from back when this cathedral was a mosque. (Are you sensing a theme in Spanish history?)

We also went to the city’s archives and examined some really neat early exploration maps. Unfortunately, nothing was translated into English so that was a quick stop. Mitch and I also visited the bullfighting museum and learned a lot. I had no idea that bullfighting started as a way of training horses to keep calm amidst battle chaos! Clearly, that is no longer the goal. There’s a chapel inside the bullring where most matadors pray before entering the ring.

Sevilla is known for its deep flamenco tradition, so we went to a wonderful flamenco show. The whole show consisted of a singer, a guitarist, and two dancers. Fantastic. One of the most compelling shows I’ve seen. Flamenco dance reminds me of a combination of Irish dance and tap but that’s not even a good description. There’s so much passion and emotion in the music, in the singing, and in the movement. Really wonderful experience.


Barcelona

After two nights in Sevilla, we flew to Barcelona as our final stop. This was definitely my favorite of the four cities. Barcelona feels smaller than Madrid and the people seemed more welcoming. It was also really fun to see and hear Catalan everywhere we went. There was more than one sign written in Catalan and English rather than Catalan and Spanish, which was quite interesting. On a walking tour that we took, I learned that the Catalan independence flag has a blue star on a white field, like on the Cuban flag. The independence movement adopted that star in 1898 when Cuba gained independence from Spain.

Our first day, we went to the market for lunch. I found an organic vegetarian Mexican stand, so of course I had to try it.

It was in Barcelona that I saw the most stunning church I’ve ever seen. La Sagrada Família Basilica is truly a marvel. One of my students last year asked me about “the church in Spain that they’ve been building for over 100 years” and I didn’t know what it was until I looked it up. Seeing it was nothing like anything I’ve ever visited. I didn’t know that churches could feel almost modern and ethereal and heavenly, but this one did. Mitch put it well: “If Alice in Wonderland had a church, this would be it.” Bri had told us about the importance of light inside the church, and that was truly incredible.

Even though they haven’t appeared in photos thus far, my family did go on this trip. Here’s the proof:

Last but not least, funny signs!

We didn't buy any.
We didn’t buy any.

I don't know if something was lost in translation or if a sign was torn down, but I do know that I am completely confused as to the name and purpose of this store.
I don’t know if something was lost in translation or if a sign was torn down, but I do know that I am completely confused as to the name and purpose of this store.

Ironically, "Brewed Coffee" on the menu was labeled "NOT AVAILABLE"
Ironically, plain ole brewed coffee on the menu was labeled “NOT AVAILABLE”

This was the dessert menu at a restaurant. We were completely lost and the Spanish menu was no help. But I can tell you that Ass Keeper coffee is quite nice.
This was the dessert menu at a restaurant. We were completely lost and the Spanish menu was no help. But I can tell you that Ass Keeper coffee is quite nice.

It was a wonderful trip. I learned a lot, ate a lot, drank lovely wine, and had an excellent time with my family. Happy 2015 to all!