Category: Switzerland

Phase 4. The house with no wifi and an Italian border crossing

“This is like the Las Vegas of Switzerland!” said Maren from the back seat. It was easy to see where she was coming from. This Italian part of the country (there’s an Italian part, German part and French part, and many Swiss speak all three languages) had a totally different feel to it: Tuscan-style mansions with big columns out the front and palm trees in the garden, flashing signs, a bit more rubbish lying around.

We were driving toward Lavertezzo, a tiny village in the district of Locarno famous for its granite rocks and the ice blue Verzasca River which flows through the valley. In summer, the region is bright green and stunningly Instagram-worthy, and in winter, it’s usually covered in snow. We’d been looking for a hut in the mountains to spend New Year’s Eve, wanting to escape the hustle and bustle of the city and spend a bit of time in nature.

We had sunny, mild weather when we arrived, and when we drove through Lavertezzo and started ascending along the single-car width road with hairpin turns every 100 meters, we were glad that there was no snow and ice on the road. Any slip there and we would have been rolling down the mountain. Thankfully, our two drivers (dad and Tyson) did an exceptional job and we all arrived safe and sound halfway up the mountain, in a little speckling of century-old houses, some of them which looked like holiday homes and others that looked abandoned.

Being so close to the Italian border, the first day meant a day trip over to the land of spaghetti and Chianti, if for no other reason than to eat pizza and pasta. We drove around beautiful Lago Maggiore, quiet and peaceful during the off-season, and all the way to tourist favourite, Como, which apparently has all sorts of beautiful sites to see and things to do during the daylight, but by the time we arrived it was already dark. There were light shows and Christmas markets happening, and we found a lovely little restaurant down a back street, away from the tourists, to enjoy one more Italian meal. On the way back, our lovely GPS Janet decided she’d let us experience some of Italy’s best new (paid) motorways, and it seemed as if we were driving through a toll point every 30 minutes.

For the next few days, we did little but play games, enjoy the fireplace, cook, eat and sit outside in the sun for the few hours that it reached us. We set off fireworks on New Year’s eve, being wary to run quickly in the other direction if a faulty one among them whooshed our way. We went for a walk down the mountain to the blue river, taking some photos among the white contrasted stones, and on another day went for a hike further into the stunning valley, discovering even smaller villages between the mountains with no visible inhabitants except sheep and a family who’d moved back to the countryside for a change of scenery.

There was no wifi in the house and the change in everyone’s attention levels and priorities was refreshing – perhaps this is something we should try to implement regularly…

Phase 3: Oma writes poetry and Germans sniff lettuce

You may think I’m joking about the lettuce part. Sounds a bit strange, doesn’t it? Well. Germans aren’t known for being normal. But I’ll come back to that later.

The last time we spoke, I think I disappeared into a memory food coma. Those pancakes were SO GOOD.

Anyway. We were in Munich. So – once we dropped Sheridan off at the airport on that last afternoon so that she could catch her flight back to the quaint British countryside city of Oxford, Tyson, Maren and I hit the road for Oehningen, a very small village about 30 minutes past Oma and Opa’s house in Gottmadingen, Southern Germany (don’t feel bad – no one else has ever heard of these places either). When we got there, mum – who hadn’t seen Tyson and I in a year since her and dad left to go traipsing around the world last December – nearly jumped through the car window in excitement at having us back.

Small talk, informalities and mum trying to feed us everything in the house aside, we – that is dad, mum, Tyson, Maren, Fynn (who’d arrived a few days earlier) and I soon found ourselves sitting squished together on the amazing Air BnB couch, drinking red wine and talking about life. How blessed I am to have family who loves each other so much!

It wasn’t until the next day that the rest of the relatives trudged on in – aunt Christel, Oma and Opa, and eventually aunt Angela and cousin Niko as well. It was to be a special Christmas this year, a rare occasion to have all of us together that happened the last time back in 2009. Pleasantly, despite increasing age (80+) and their usual loving bickering, Oma and Opa still appeared healthy and happy, pleased to have us all together but definitely glad as well that us “kids” were staying in a separate house and weren’t creating more work for them.

At Christmas, Oma recited self-written poetry of family and love and what it means to be together, and Angela sang a song about God looking out for us no matter where we are. Christel read funny Christmas stories of snow and the meaning of giving, and I tried my best to translate but gave up when Tyson didn’t laugh at my English version of the German jokes.

We didn’t do presents this year, instead playing a game of White Elephant, where everyone had to bring something wrapped up that they didn’t want anymore. Based on how the dice rolled, we were able to open and exchange opened “presents” with those around the table whether they wanted to swap or not. Amazing how attractive a little old Christmas ornament becomes when you compare it to a broken viking hat, a little Greek language dictionary or a notebook and pen someone pinched from a hotel!

The rest of our time in Oehningen was spent relaxing, talking, walking around the area and going on excursions (Tyson, the twins and I took a day out to go to dad’s university city, Freiburg and France’s beautiful city, Strasbourg). We were even brave enough to sweat it out in the private sauna on our last evening, though the amount of times we opened the door to let the crisp outside air in probably reduced the positive health effects this exercise was supposed to achieve.

Finally, it was time to head off to our next destination…. But wait, wasn’t there something about lettuce sniffing?

I kind of hoped you’d forgotten.

You see we Germans, most of the time, give off a pretty clean-cut impression. Good engineering, strong political presence, neat gardens. Sometimes we’re seen as a bit conservative, you could say. We’re strange, but we don’t often show it.

Well – that all goes out the window in the small villages.

All we wanted was a bag of lettuce for dinner. If we’d been the only ones in the corner store, we probably wouldn’t have even noticed it. But as it turned out, it was rush hour in the otherwise shop-less hamlet when Tyson and I arrived, and we found ourselves in a queue to pay behind a tall, blonde German woman who – without warning – started sniffing at her bag of lettuce. Wrinkling her nose every time she came up for breath, she didn’t wait long – nor ask permission – before sticking her blonde head in our bag too.

“Smells a bit funky, doesn’t it?” she said.

“Umm…” we replied, not sure whether to be more concerned about her head in our plastic bag or the fact that our lettuce might be off.

What made the situation even more bizarre was the man standing in the back corner of the shop, near the lettuce, who had a white, circular-shaped hat on his head that looked like it had been hand made out of cardboard for a game of train conducters with his grandchild.

Neither he, nor anyone else in the queue, seemed to find it strange that blondie was sniffing all the lettuce bags.

To cut a fascinating story short, we ended up buying the lettuce and washing it while the blonde lady did not, instead opting for the popular brussels sprouts also displayed in the greenery corner beside the strange train conductor, no doubt to the overwhelming joy of her children waiting at home.

And that was it. A little insight into the strangeness of Germans.

Welcome to my culture. 🙂

 

 

Phase 2: A road trip adventure and the king of all pancakes

We got distracted.

I blame it on a combination of Tyson’s love for our new hire car and its ability to drive whatever speed we wanted it to on the Autobahn, and our fascination with how close everything is in Europe. We could have taken the more direct route and been in Munich in the afternoon as promised. …But why do that when you can go via Liechtenstein and Austria??

Poor Sheridan.

By the time we’d navigated our way through the roundabouts of Liechtenstein’s capital, Vaduz, to take a selfie in front of the cathedral, got stuck in small-town after-school traffic jams in the back streets of some random Austrian villages and found our way back to the main road, it was late afternoon, and Sheridan had been waiting in Munich for hours.

Quickly dropping off our luggage in the Air BnB with mismatched furniture and the broken door that was not to be opened, we picked Sheridan up and drove straight on to Munich central station to pick up Maren and find some traditional, hearty German food for dinner.

The next morning, it was time to explore Munich, ‘the city that loves you’. In between trudging after Maren down random back streets to find the city’s best coffee according to Bean Hunter (favourite app of all self-declared hipster coffee connoisseurs) and looking for waffles for Sheridan, who seemed to have developed a sudden craving, we did actually see a fair bit of the city pedestrian shopping mall. (I may have gotten distracted again, this time with shoe shops.)

After plenty of caffeine (not great – Bean Hunter does get it wrong from time to time), a waffle experience (craving satisfied!) and some Gluehwein at the Christmas markets, it was time to find some dinner again. Tyson’s dream came true when we got a table at the renowned Augustiner Brewery, at which Dirndl-clad women with varying bust sizes served up beer in 1L Steins and plates of sausages and pork knuckle to your heart’s content. This evening would be, as it turned out, Tyson’s favourite dining experience of our whole trip.

The next day, wanting to make use of the nice blue sky and flexibility offered by our hire car, we decided we’d take a day trip to Neuschwanstein Casle (Tyson had never been to this famous German landmark that inspired the Disney castle) and Austrian alpine city, Innsbruck. It was a beautiful day, if long, and we were all happy to be out of the city and exploring the region. We were even lucky enough to experience some snow along the way!

The next day, our last day in Munich, we had the privilege of experiencing Mr Pancake – a tiny café in a trendy suburb close to the centre of town. Run by two ­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­Romanian immigrants and serving up plates of the most incredible pancakes we’d ever eaten, we felt refreshed being inside, not only because of the delicious aromas coming from the fying pans in the miniature kitchen, but also because of the Hillsong album playing in the background. God, it seems, really is everywhere.

 

Phase 1: Cloudy mountain peaks and deer sausage.

When the weather is bad in Switzerland, people head to the mountains.

I mean, they do that anyway, but as it turns out, the bad weather makes such a trek even more worth it, because the higher you go, the better your chance of getting above the weather.

This was definitely the case during our visit to Lucerne – stop no. 1 on this year’s European Christmas adventure. Knowing that ahead of us were two weeks of intense family time, Tyson and I had booked an Air BnB for a couple of nights in this Swiss city, just over an hour away from Zurich airport. I’d come here 5 years earlier to attend the World Tourism Forum, and having celebrated a major academic success here, I was keen to show Tyson all the places I’d been.

After picking up our hire car (a Mercedes! What else would you drive on an autobahn?!) and having a rather overpriced plate of service-station Spaetzle (oh, Switzerland), we were welcomed by our Air BnB host Brigitte with a bottle of wine and by her husband, Bruno about 15 minutes later with two half-litre cans of beer (“I’m sorry, my wife forgot the most important thing – you need these after such a long trip.”)

Having not thought ahead a great deal (we were flat out for weeks before we left home), we hadn’t made any plans for our first day in Europe, nor had we remembered that European cities do not follow Sunday trading. As fate would have it, we thus ended up at the top of a 1,798m high mountain with a view over the incredible Swiss Alps, Lake Lucerne, Lake Zug and Lake Lauerz – Mount Rigi had been recommended to us by our host Brigitte not only because it was a great Sunday activity, but because we woke up that first Sunday morning to miserable, cloudy, grey winter weather.

“You will have blue sky up there,” she’d said, pointing up at the grey, hazy sky as if we could look through it to some magical sunny place above. Though I wasn’t sure I believed her, heading up the mountain and getting some fresh air seemed like a good idea after 24+ hours of travel.

And so, there we were, taking pictures of snow patches and the top side of the clouds, eating deer sausage (a local specialty, apparently) and drinking terrible coffee. Luckily, the negativity of the coffee and lack of alternative lunch options was far outweighed by the truthfulness of Brigitte’s weather predictions, and we were able to sit outside in the sun, breathe in the crisp winter air and enjoy the fact that we were on holidays – at last.

Twenty-four hours, a small Christmas market, a quick whisk around Lucerne and some Swiss cheese later, we were on our way to Munich to meet my sister Maren and our friend Sheridan for a few days in Germany’s pretty, proud, Bavarian capital.

Autobahn driving… wheeee!