Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Gruyères

14 August

After coming down from the observatoire, we took the bus back down into Gruyères to look around the town and get some lunch.  The bus takes you to the train station, and from there it's a five minute walk (all up hill, of course) into the historic town center.  On the way, we passed more cattle, of course.


Some of the cattle we passed were very close to the road we were walking on - close enough to stop and say hello.  This is one of my all-time favorite pictures of Justine:

Cows can be pretty shocking, can't they?
Justine finally convinced me to stop in and say hello, too.  I just want to tell you briefly how large this pretty lady's tongue was.  I mean, it was enormous.  Huge.  She made quite a splash when she took a drink.



We continued on our way into town:


Gruyères is a super cute little town, filled with your typical Swiss restaurants serving fondue and souvenir shops selling Swiss army knifes (I bought one - an excellent decision) and cheese and ... cuckoo clocks (sadly, I bought no clocks).

Note the cowbells hanging by the flag!
We walked the length of the town, and then headed back to get some lunch.


I couldn't very well spend a weekend in Switzerland without getting fondue!


We had the traditional fondue moitié-moitié: moitié means half, and this implies that there were two cheeses in the fondue - in this case, Vacherin fribourgoise (a cheese made in Fribourg, very near to Gruyères), and raclette, a mild cheese from Southwestern Switzerland.  "Fondue" literally means "melted," which is an accurate description - the two cheeses are melted over a flame with a dry white wine, and just a little garlic for flavor and flour to thicken the liquid.  Traditionally, bread is ripped into small pieces, skewered, and dipped into the hot cheese, which is served over a flame to keep the cheese simmering.   Many restaurants also offer potatoes or small pieces of meat to dip in, but we stuck with just the bread.  This is definitely a dish for the cheese aficionado - the oozy, bubbling, creamy fondue was cheese at its best.  There was just a little acidic kick from the wine.  To cut through the richness of cheese, I drank a glass of Swiss wine that I think was called fondant - it was a little sweet, but not too exciting.  Overall, an excellent meal.

After lunch, we headed down to the train station.  Since we had a little time to kill, we stopped in the gift shop across the street in the gruyère cheese factory to look around.  When we could finally make our way back to Lausanne, we had the same three methods of transportation - the mini (two-car) train, a bus, and then another train.  We headed back to her apartment, where I began to pack and Justine spent approximately forever (ok, so really, it was only about 4-5 hours...) on the phone with her travel agent and various airline officials trying to change her plane ticket for the next day so that she could spend some time in Lebanon before heading back to Saudi Arabia, where she is getting her PhD.  We had a late, light dinner of left-overs, finished packing, and I was able to book my hostels/hotels for Colmar, Dijon, and Bayonne.

15 August

We were up early to catch our planes and trains.  I took the train from Lausanne up to Basel on the Northern border of Switzerland, and there changed trains to get to Strasbourg, all without a hitch.

Switzerland is a stunningly beautiful country.  Especially up in the mountains, the air just felt cleaner and fresher and purer.  The Swiss are clearly very proud of their heritage - I saw Swiss flags hanging all over.  I only really got a chance to see French Switzerland (with the exception of my hour or so in the Basel train station, where I got to practice my very limited German - that is to say, I greeted people with "Guten tag," and understood when someone called me "fräuline" that she was speaking to me); I would love to see the German and Italian parts of the country as well, and spend more time in the French parts, too!

Coming soon: Strasbourg - home of Riesling, Gewurztraminer, späeztle, baeckeoffe, kugelhopf... Are we sure we're still in France???

A bientôt,

Monday, October 18, 2010

Moléson-sur-Gruyères

13 August

After finally deciding to go to Gruyères for the night, we had to hurry to catch the last train that would take us up to the mountains.  We took a train, and then a bus (because the train wasn't running between a couple of stops), and then a mini-train (only 2 cars long!) to Gruyères.  From there, we took another 20-minute bus ride up the steep curving slopes around the mountain to Moléson-sur-Gruyères, located about 1,000 meters above sea level.  The air was crisp and clean - that sounds trite but it was so true.  Being so high up, and so far from the hustle and bustle and dirty turmoil of modern life, everything just felt fresher and more beautiful.  The sweet clean air was rejuvenating with every deep inhalation.


Moléson is an adorable tiny (and I mean TINY) little town.  There are a few chalets climbing up the slopes, a mini village square (complete with tourism office!), and, of course, a cheese shop, with signs directing you the whole way (you know, in case you get lost).


Before I go any further, I have to pause.  This post has a soundtrack.  While pictures of verdant mountainsides and misty sunset peaks might be evocative, to get the whole experience you have to hear the faint jingle of the cow bells, too.


The cows that give the milk to make gruyere cheese were ubiquitous on the slopes, and their bells jingled as they grazed on the sweet summer Alpage that will produce the best cheese.  The postcard-perfect surroundings, the crisp air, and the gentle tinkle of the bells made this a magical place, so far removed from daily routine that it hardly seemed real.  And we hadn't even reached our destination yet!

From Moléson, we still had a funiculaire and then a télépherique to ride - a funiculaire is an inclined railway with small cars riding up a steep slope, and a télépherique is a small car drawn up the mountainside on a cable.  Here we are, half-way up, after getting off the funiculaire and before getting on the télépherique.  The flat surface in the lower left is the roof of the building at the top of the funiculaire.  You can see our destination poking out above the slope in the middle of the picture below:

 

Justine had visited this Observatoire (observatory) on top of the mountain earlier in the summer during a freak June snowstorm.  We came tonight for a meteor shower, as the observatoire offered an unparalleled view of the stars.  But before heading up, we paused to take in our surroundings.  We had a stunning view of the surrounding countryside:


The houses in the valley are the village of Gruyères.  You can see the track for the first funiculaire curving along the mountainside on the right.  Here's a closer view:


After our quick photo break, we continued up the second funiculaire to the observatoire.  The observatoire is a small building perched atop a peak about 2,100 meters above sea level.  The ground floor is a restaurant; on the second floor there are a couple of large dorm rooms with bunk beds and a couple of bathrooms.  Finally, a third floor is a small loft roofed with windows that affords a great view of the sky and surrounding area.  We set our things on a couple of the beds right by the window in the dorm room, and then went out to explore our surroundings a little.


It was around 7:00 pm when we set out to start hiking.  As we hiked along the crests between a few of the peaks, the clouds rolled over the mountains and enveloped us in their cool mists, and the sun began to sink lower towards the Western horizon.  When the clouds cleared away a little, the view over the surrounding valleys and mountains was unbelievable.


I still can hardly believe I was really there.

The observatory is currently under construction; they are in the process of adding on to the existing structure.  I think the cables that reached out across the vistas were there to secure equipment or the new structure.


And just in case you doubted me...



...here we are!

Between the peaks, there are thin paths etched into the crest.  Sometimes, there are thin guardrails or fences, but most of the time it's just you and the mountainside.  It's a long way down; but my oh my is it beautiful.  Maybe that's what Justine was thinking about here:


We spent a couple of hours hiking along these paths; or, rather, a couple of hours out on the paths, though we weren't hiking the whole time - there were too many photos that needed to be taken!


In the image below, see the house built into the middle of the mountainside down there?  I can hardly imagine living in such an isolated spot!  And see those black dots in the lower right?  Those are a herd of cattle, which provided the necessary quota of cowbell.  Click on the picture for a larger view:


As the sun finally began to slip down to sleep amid the distant misty peaks, it kissed the skies goodnight and painted them in pale pastel watercolors, shrouding the lush valleys and serrated summits in an iridescent luminosity.




"Magical" doesn't seem adequate to describe the stunning, peaceful beauty of the evening.  It was unlike anything I have ever experienced, before or after.  What an evening!


And the only thing that could make it better was to share it with Justine.  Without hyperbole, it was perfect.


Finally, maybe around 8:30, we decided it was time to head back to the observatory for some dinner.  You can see the observatory on the left, and Justine waiting for me on the path as I dawdled my way back.


I may or may not have started singing The Hills are Alive on the way back.  And the hills may or may not have sung with me, with songs they have sung for a thousand years.  I felt like I had stepped into final scene of the Sound of the Music, when the von Trapp family climbs over the mountains from Austria to Switzerland, and in a way, making my own way through these Swiss Alpine peaks, maybe I had.  My heart wanted to sing every song that it heard.

As we headed back, clouds began to descend upon the valley, veiling the sunset in their cool depths.


Okay fine, we really have to go back and have some dinner, but how can you walk away from this before drinking in every last drop???


After a couple of hours of hiking along the peaks, we were ready for a serious meal, and the observatoire did not disappoint.  Our dinner was included in the price of staying for the night, and they offered a succulent buffet of barbecued meats: beef, veal, chicken, at least three kinds of sausage - one fat and white, one fat and brown, and one thinner brown sausage that tasted a little like an American breakfast sausage.  The beef and veal were fantastic - they were prepared simply on the grill, and the fantastic quality of the beef was delicious.  The sausages were all wonderful, too - perfect hearty mountain food.  There was also bread and many salads and slaws - a green salad, a fennel slaw, a vinegary cucumber dish, a carrot slaw, and so many others.  We drank a glass of pinot noir with dinner which was a little too astringent for my taste.


And what's a dinner without dessert?  They had a cart of desserts that they rolled around that guests could choose from.  Justine selected for us: a mousse au chocolat, a "tiramisu," and two meringues served with crème Chantilly.


The tiramisu seemed to be flavored with Grand Marnier rather than a coffee liqueur; it was a little strange.  The mousse was rich and chocolatey.  But the real star of dessert was the meringue.  You see meringues for sale in small plastic sacks all over Switzerland and Eastern France.  They are pleasingly crunchy on the outside, but airy and sweet on the inside.  The cream was whipped but not sweetened and surprisingly light, with just a hint of dairy flavor.  It provided a nice balance to the eggy sweetness of the meringue.

After dinner, at about 9:30, we went up to the dorm room to take a 30-minute nap before getting up to watch the meteor shower.  We finally woke up again around midnight, and went up to the observation loft.  Unfortunately, the clouds that were rolling in during our hike had settled in for the night around the mountaintops and blocked most of our view, but we did see a few shooting stars as we sat and talked till nearly 3:00 am, when we finally stumbled back down to bed and fell right to sleep.

14 August

We woke up around 8:30, and went downstairs for breakfast - a simple tartine, also included in the price of staying at the observatory for the night.  I'm glad we took the opportunity to hike around the peaks the day before; today, the cloud cover was thicker and blocked much of the view of the surrounding countryside.  I did manage to snap a few shots when it cleared up a little, though.




Finally around 11 am, we grabbed our bags and headed back down the télépherique and funiculaire.  From the top of the mountain, we could see beyond some of the clouds into the valley below:


However, as we descended in the télépherique, we entered the clouds and were blanketed in a blinding misty whiteness.  Here is a view of the cables that take the car up the mountain from the lower télépherique stop:


Since we didn't have anything to see from here today, we continued onto the funiculaire without stopping to admire anything the way we had the day before.  We paused briefly to have a look in the cheese shop in Moléson, and then caught the bus back down to Gruyères to explore the village a little and get some lunch... But that is a story for another day.

All I can say is... if I could, I would go to the hills when my heart is lonely, and my heart would be blessed with the sound of cowbells, and I would sing once more.  (Please excuse my propensity to quote lyrics from musicals at length; sometimes, you just can't say it any better than they already have!)

Coming soon: Gruyères and all the great things that come with it - that is to say, cattle and fondue.

A bientot,

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Geneva & Lausanne

12 August (continued)

I had about an hour in the Lyon train station before leaving for Geneva.

Though I spent countless hours on trains as I crisscrossed my way all over France, I took hardly any pictures from the train as it was moving since the windows were usually grimy and the fast speeds and annoying propensity for trees to pop into the window frame tended to blur or block any subject I tried to capture.  But the ride to Geneva was stunning, and I made a few attempts that came out well:



The Alps, just barely visible in the distance from Lyon, began to creep up upon me as we got closer to the Switzerland border.  Their craggy peaks and conifer-lined slopes were stunning.

I was in Geneva for all of about an hour and a half between trains on my way from Lyon to Lausanne, Switzerland.  I didn't want to waste my time sitting in the train station, so I paid the ridiculous 8 CHF (Swiss Francs - funny fact, Switzerland is not part of the EU and, consequently, does not use the Euro - who knew) to store my luggage in a locker at the station so I could head out and explore a little.  However, I didn't have a map of the city and I didn't want to get lost, so I just walked down to lac (lake) Léman, the big lake that marks much of Switzerland's southeastern border.  It was a beautiful afternoon:




There is plenty of space to walk along the edge of the lake on a wide pedestrian path:


And many gorgeous buildings lining the lakeside - I can only imagine how much it must cost to live here...


...and have this incredible view:


I'm not sure what this building was, but I appreciated their super-reflective windows, as well as the terrace on top:


In Marseille, there were globes all over the city, apparently set up as an urban art project, like the cows in Bordeaux (give me a little time - I'll get there!) or, a few years ago, the crabs in Baltimore.  There were globes in Geneva, too, but here they seemed to all be in a line.


Each one had some message - many were about global warming or social and civil responsibilities in the 21st century.

Geneva is at the southwestern-most tip of the Lake.  Here, looking to the northeast, you couldn't see to the other side of the Lake.


I would estimate I walked about a mile along the lake - it was a very pleasant walk.  Finally one last view back to the South, towards where I had come from:


I would have loved to see more of the city itself, but that will have to wait for my next visit.  I walked back to the station with plenty of time to catch my train to Lausanne for the evening.  It was about a 45 minute ride, and a very pleasant trip, through an idyllic green countryside.  I'm not sure if this was a station, or just a restaurant that happened to be called "railroad" due to its proximity to the station, but isn't it adorable?  Note, too, the vineyards stretching back along the gentle green hills that gradually rise into mountains.


I went to Lausanne to visit my good friend Justine who had come to see me the weekend before in Avignon and Orange.  Justine, who is currently getting her PhD at KAUST (King Abdullah University of Science and Technology), a new university in Saudi Arabia, spent the summer in Lausanne, Switzerland working in a lab on something relating to water desalination or something similar which is completely over my head.  She was one of my closest friends in college, and now that we live seven time zones apart it was amazing to get to see her two weekends in a row in France and Switzerland!

Justine met me at the train station, and we went back to her apartment so I could drop off my bags and take a quick shower before we headed out to visit her colleague, Giulia, who had prepared dinner for us in her apartment.  Giulia is Italian, and she made pasta with a homemade pesto and a quick eggplant parmagiana, all of which was magnifico - the pasta was a perfect al dente, the pesto was smooth and super flavorful and made with basil from her parent's garden and Sicilian olive oil pressed by a family friend.  The eggplant parm, rather than being the standard breaded, fried and baked slices was diced eggplant pieces sauteed with a little onion and garlic, than baked with a simple tomato sauce and Parmagiano on top.  Delizioso!

Giulia's apartment has a balcony with a view over the city and of lac Léman.  We ate dinner on the balcony and watched as the sky darkened and the lights began to switch on across the lake in Evian, France.  It was a lovely meal.



After dinner, the three of us met up with a few more of Justine's colleagues from her lab for a quick drink.  It was a Thursday night, and the following day was Justine's last in the lab before she left Switzerland on Sunday - so it was something of a "good-bye." (Or, perhaps, since we were in Switzerland, an "Au revoir" - although the common language everyone used in the lab was English).

13 August 

We woke up early since Justine had head to work and we both needed to do laundry.  I ended up doing four loads that morning - hers and mine combined.  Once that was finally done and everything was hung to dry, I headed to a grocery to pick up a few small items for breakfast/lunch - bread, goat cheese, an Alpine cured "pancetta", a hazelnut yogurt, and a banana.  The cheese was inexpensive and it showed in the flavor - but it had a nice basic tanginess that went well with a little honey on bread reheated in the oven.  The pancetta was nice - like Italian pancetta, it was cured but not smoked, and it had a sweet, meaty flavor with a hint of rosemary.

All day, Justine and I were in touch about whether we wanted to go up to Gruyère for the evening.  There was a meteor shower that night, and we debated about whether it would be better to spend 90 CHF (about the same as 90 USD) to spend the night at an observatory to watch it, or whether it would be too cloudy to see anything, or whether we should just go down to the lake and try to see some meteors from Lausanne... Finally, at the last minute around 4 pm, we decided to go up to the observatory.  I am so, so glad we did - it was probably the best part of my entire trip.  But unfortunately, that is a post for another day.

Coming soon: Moléson-sur-Gruyère: our sunset hike through the clouds along Alpine peaks, with cowbells jingling in the distance. Wow.

A bientôt,