Bonjour de la Suisse

Hello from Switzerland! ~~ The adventures of a California girl who got married to a great guy, G, and traded in her old life for the chance to live in a foreign land and live the expat life for a couple years. We live in Geneva, Switzerland with our globe-trotting cat, Scout.

Ma photo
Nom :
Lieu : California, United States

"The whole object of travel is not to set foot on foreign land; it is at last to set foot on one's own country as a foreign land." ~ G.K. Chesterton

jeudi, mai 31, 2007

Caves Ouvertes

Spring is in the air and the day of the Open Caves (or Caves Ouvertes in French) was upon us. It was the day that over 100 wineries in the Geneva area were open for free wine tasting. I had missed this annual event last year because I thought it was the start of the wine tasting season, not just a single day... this year I knew better and was sure to be in town for this big event.

A group of us met up and took the little regional train out to the Geneva countryside to "discover the subtle bouquet of the different grape varieties of the Geneva vineyards." We had such a great day - the wine was flowing and we ran into so many familiar faces while we wandered through the vineyards from village to village. I can't quite remember all the different wines we tasted, but they were delicious. Our friends who were about to move to Colorado even managed to sell their car in the midst of the festivities!

We bought a few bottles to help support the local wineries and ate our share of the scrumptious cheeses that were passed out at the testings. After shutting down the last winery (they had to ask us for their glasses back!) we stopped by our favorite bar ("the no-name bar") for a couple more drinks before dinner. Needless to say, we slept in the next day and took it easy. We love to travel, but there is nothing like a lazy weekend in Geneva with good friends! Sante!! -- To your health!

The start of a great day

Wine tasting under a shady tent

Those scrumptious Geneva vines

Our final winery

They sold the car!

More wine with dinner? Sure!

lundi, mai 21, 2007

A trip worth the sprint

A while back, G mentioned that there was yet another company sales meeting that he was required to attend... this time in the exotic location of Malta. Where?!? I knew it was an island in the Mediterranean, but what country is it in? Italy, Span, or perhaps Greece?

I thought I was up on my European geography, but apparently not. Malta is its own country! Who knew? I soon learned that Malta is Europe's most southern country, located just south of Sicily, halfway between the tip of Italy and North Africa. It's such a small place, just five little islands with the main island only 16 miles long and 9 miles wide.

After a little research, I learned that for such a small place, Malta is packed with history and interesting sights, not to mention the beaches and warm weather that draw people here from all over. We were booked for five days of fun and sun (and a bit of work for G). I was excited to explore this new place that I hardly new existed just a few weeks earlier!

But we had to get there first, which seemed fated to be a huge challenge for me. G and I were on separate flights (his paid for by the company and mine the cheapest option I could find). I was booked on Alitalia, and thankfully I decided to give G all my liquids so I could go all carry-on (Alitalia's reputation as the worst airline for lost luggage precedes itself).

Well, the morning arrived and we managed to sleep through all our alarms and woke up at 6am. Early, but not early enough to make my 6:55am flight! I brushed my teeth, threw on my clothes and was headed full sprint to the train station. My only hope was to catch the 6:07 train. We live about 3 1/2 blocks from the station and I actually made it to the tracks by 6:07, enough to push the button on the train to make the doors open, but I was a split second too late... the train pulled out without me. I was in full sprint again, this time to the taxi stand out front. I had no time to wait the 11 minutes for the next train.

We arrived at the airport in record time, and there was only one person in line ahead of me at the check in counter! But it was a fight to get me on the flight. I was informed I was too late!! I begged her to help me out ("See... no bags to check!") She hesitantly called the gate... "Okay, but you have to run." No problem, and I was off sprinting again. I cut the line at both passport control and security (something which I detest) only to get to the gate a full 10 minutes before boarding. I was happy as a clam. At my connecting airport in Rome, I also had to make a mad dash through the airport after getting confused as to my gate location during my very short connection. But I managed to just get on that flight too and soon I was in Malta.

While waiting for G at the hotel, I was trying to figure out what to do for the week and the logistics of getting around. I thought it would be fun to rent a car, but after reading that Malta has the highest accident rate in Europe, that no one follows any of the road signs or rules of the road, and that "any courtesy on your part will be seen as a sign of weakness", I figured that even for this ambulance driver maybe we would be better with the extensive network of big yellow buses that crisscross the islands.

G had a couple free days and we were planning on filling them with sea and sun (yes, that was G's preference!) We started at a place called Golden Bay which was so windy we could hardly stand it. After freezing on the beach for a couple hours we gave up and trekked across the island to the docks to catch a boat to the island of Camino where The Blue Lagoon is located. But it was too windy for the boats as well, so we had to come back the next morning. The Blue Lagoon seemed to be a bit overrated as well. Not only was the water absolutely freezing, it was infested with jelly fish!! We hardly had a chance to pop in ankle deep for a quick picture when they would drift our way.

The days I was on my own I checked out the numerous prehistoric temples (many of which predate the Egyptian pyramids) and the towns of Valletta (Europe's tiniest capital city) and Mdina (the ancient walled city in the center of Malta). One of the coolest sights was the incredible underground temple called the Hypogeum in Ħal-Saflieni, which unbeknownst to me requires a reservation at lest a month in advance. But thanks to a very cool taxi driver and a little luck, I managed to get in. Later that day I unexpectedly was guided around by an old local fisherman who was kind enough to show me around his favorite haunts.

Even with all the daytime sightseeing, my favorite part of the trip was the evenings. Most nights we were at company functions, but on our own we dined at a fantastic restaurant (recommended by a Geneva friend) called The Kitchen. The big finale was the huge beach party that was just down from our hotel. It was fantastic, complete with tiki torches, great music, dancing, henna, and lots of delicious food & drinks. After the police shut us down we danced our way to the bar before finally retiring sometime early the next morning.

Malta was great. It's a lively mix of Italian, Middle Eastern, and Northern African. We had such a great time! Thanks again to G's company for helping us to discover another of Europe's great places and a jewel of the Mediterranean.

Traditional Maltese boats in the harbor

The temple of Mnajdra, which dates from between 3200 and 2500 BC

Old city gate of Mdina

Arch of the Blue Grotto

G in the Blue Lagoon - watch out for the jelly fish!!

At the Tarxien Temple

Malta's yellow buses that date from the 1950's, 60's, and 70's.

Braving the rough seas to the island of Camino

mardi, mai 01, 2007

All roads lead to Rome

"La vite e bella..."
"Life is beautiful, but more importantly, life ought to be beautiful"
~unknown Italian poet

"L'esperienza de questa dolce vita"
"The experience of this sweet life"
~Dante Alighieri, The Divine Comedy

There are times in life when you just don't know what you are getting yourself into. My most recent trip to Italy was one of those times for me. My aunt was touring around Italy with a group of folks from the US and wanted to know if I was interested in meeting up with her to hang out and travel around for the week or so she was going to be here. Of course I would! I was really excited to see her and I always have a great time in Italy, so why not?

I didn't have any information about the trip before I went and I really had no idea what to expect. All I knew was she was traveling with a group of folks and they were going to be at a certain hotel in Venice on a certain date. I hopped a train to Venice and arrived at the hotel. Everyone from the group was out, so I left a note for my aunt and grabbed a bite to eat. After a couple of hours she arrived. It was great to see her, but we were instantly thrown into a big group dinner where I met the other travelers and the tour guide.

Dinner was a little awkward, because not only did I not know anyone, I really didn't know how I was going to fit into this whole group... no one was expecting me and I literally just appeared out of nowhere! The group she was traveling with consisted of two high school groups and about 10 ladies who were out of high school (ranging from my age to retirement age). All in all there were about 40 people. I met the tour guide, Len, a tall good looking guy from England who I though would be upset at my sudden appearance. He was all business after dinner when he asked me (more than once), how long I was planning on staying. "Oh, I don't know... I'm off the whole week, but I'm really not sure." I was as aloof as possible, since I didn't want to cause any problems... I figured I would play it by ear.

The next day everyone went into town to sightsee and I stayed behind, trying to lay low as much as possible. I honestly didn't care about being on the tour or seeing the sights, since I had been to most of the major cities in Italy already, I just wanted to hang out with my aunt a bit. But for that day I was on my own.

I hopped a water taxi and after poking around town a bit, I headed out to the city of Padua which is famous for the Scrovegni Chapel and St. Anthony's Cathedral. Now, I'm not catholic, but I realize I'm a big fan of St. Anthony. He is the patron saint of dozens of things, including travelers and pregnant women (don't get excited... we aren't pregnant yet) and he is also the "finder of lost things", so I figure with all this, he's the saint for me! I was almost expecting to find a box there with my name on it with all those lost keys and things I've misplaced over the years.

I met up with my aunt and the rest of the gang later that evening. The next day we were headed to Florence and I was all set to take the train when Len pulled me aside and offered to have me ride the bus. It turns out that he is pretty close to his family too, and since I don't get to see my aunt much, he thought it was important that we travel together. He was so sweet and really helped me out. For the rest of the week he let me tag along with everyone else, sharing meals with the group and listening in on his guided tours. I still felt a bit awkward, but I was so happy to be riding on the bus with everyone else.

Bright and early we were headed to Florence. On the way we stopped into the town of Ravenna for a short tour and lunch. Here we visited the tomb of Dante and Len was quoting from The Divine Comedy and other works. I felt so cultured listening to him spout off poetry in both Italian and English.

The bus ride was great, they really know how to keep the kids entertained and learning a little something while we sped across the Apuan Alps into Tuscany. There were games to get them in the Renascence spirit which were great and I certainly learned a thing of two about Italian history on the ride.

We spent two days in Florence and I mostly was on my own during the day, but one of the highlights of the trip was the dinners we had in Florence. The first night all the "adults" decided to break off and eat at a little place highly recommended by one of the girls on the trip who had spent a year studying in Florence. The food was excellent and the wine was flowing! The next night we made our own dinner at Apicius, The Culinary Institute of Florence. It was fantastic! We were each responsible for a certain part of the meal. I made pasta sauce from scratch, and it was really good! If they can get me to help cook a good meal, you know this is a great school!

One of my favorite parts of the trip was Len quoting great Italian poets and authors and teaching us a little Italian here and there. Every time we would leave a city, Len would have us all say, “Alla prossima bella Firenze” (“See you later beautiful Florence” – or wherever we were leaving). Now he was quoting the proverb, “All roads lead to Rome!” and that was just where we were headed. But we had one more stop on the way, bella Assisi, famous for St. Francis (Christianities’ most popular saint) and the Basilica di San Francesco. We were even lead on a tour of the basilica by a real life Franciscan Monk. After lunch in this cute hillside town, we were on our way to Rome.

In Rome I ended up staying with the group the whole time and tagged along on the tours of the Vatican Museum, St. Peter's Basilica, The Coliseum, The Forum, and other sights. We were staying in a hotel on the outskirts of town, so transportation was sometimes a bit tricky. When the bus wasn't a good option, we took cabs to get into town. To be sure all the "kids" made it to wherever we were going; the rule was one adult to three kids. I had a group of three girls and I had a great time pointing out sights to them and trying to talk Italian to the driver. I ended up riding with them a few more times and it was nice to get to know some of the students a bit better.

We had a little bit more free time in Rome than anywhere else and we spent our time in search of culinary delights. We scouted out the best coffee in Rome, ate more gelato than any of us would like to admit, and even found time to sneak in a few beers here and there. We hung out in the different piazzas and got to know the local entertainment. There was a kid of about 12 who played the violin and had an amazing singing voice. He was so cute and soon our favorite violinist in Italy!

On our last night a group of us met in the hotel bar for a farewell drink. Len met us down there and soon we were engaged in some hilarious conversation. It was such a great week. I really had the best time with my aunt and her friends. I met some amazing people and got to see Italy in a totally different way than I ever had before. The next day I was continuing on my own, which I was a little sad about, but happy at the same time that I was able to have such an amazing trip so far!

In the morning the bus was leaving at 4:30am... much too early for me to walk to a taxi stand. I was going to go it alone when Len insisted that I ride the bus for a while until they could find me a safe place to catch a taxi. Here I was with 40 other people on board and the bus was driving all over town trying to find a taxi for little old me! When we finally found one the driver even got out to talk to the taxi driver to be sure I made it to the train station okay. It was bitter sweet to wave to all my new found friends and especially my aunt when the bus rolled away.

I was now heading to Sorrento, Capri, Herculaneum, and Naples. My first stop was checking into my hotel in Sorrento. It was still very early, so I decided to catch a ferry to Capri and check out the sights. It was a pretty hazy day, so the scenery wasn't all that great, but the island was great. The highlight of the day was a visit to the Blue Grotto, a cave that is illuminated by light shining through the entrance and bounces off the white sand underwater; making the water look like it is lit up by lights. It is an amazing natural phenomenon. I took a little row boat into and the cave with a Japanese couple and a girl from Bulgaria. The boat driver thought we were old friends and even took a couple of pictures of us.

The next day I headed north to Herculaneum and Naples. Len had arranged a guide for me, a guy named Massimo. He was a real Italian guy, long hair, sunglasses, smoking away, and super cool. But he really knew his history! The tour of the town of Herculaneum was great, it still has two story buildings that were preserved after the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius. But I still like Pompeii is a bit better, it's different... more of a working town (Herculaneum was more of a seaside retreat for the Romans) complete with a forum, a stadium, a theater, spas, temples, bars, bakeries, and casts of some of the bodies. But it was great to see both.

In the afternoon Massimo and I grabbed a bite to eat and toured the Naples National Archaeological Museum. After we parted ways, I hopped the train back to Sorrento and wandered around before catching a local variety show (about the worst thing I have seen in Europe... not recommended at all!) The nest morning I caught the 5am train and headed back to Geneva. I knew it would be a long day, I had no reservations and was buying my train tickets as I went... but I never though it would take me 16 hours!! Next time I'm flying home for sure!

Reflecting back on my 10 days in Italy I really didn't know what I was getting into! But thanks to the generosity of my aunt and the kindness of Len, it turned out to be one of the best trips I've taken. I had a blast and lots of laughs... slumber parties, clown keys, a ton of new Italian quotes, and all the rest! Alla prossima bella Italia!




Out for dinner in Florence

Trying to call home

Having a ball in our cooking class in Florence

On the Ponte Vecchio Bridge in Florence

The narrow streets if Assisi

At the Coliseum

Gelato in Rome

Our favorite Roman violinist

The hazy Sorrento coast

Me & my Bulgarian friend at the Blue Grotto in Capri

The town of Herculaneum