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

lundi, juin 18, 2007

Pearl of the Adriatic

When people ask me what my favorite place in Europe is, it's always hard to say... every place we've been is so unique and it is really hard to compare. When I ask other people, Croatia always seems to fall on the top of their lists, so I figured we better check out this little part of the world next to the shimmering Adriatic for ourselves.

Our destination was the Dalmatian Coast, but we had to get there first... It's expensive to fly from Geneva to anywhere in Croatia, but I was determined to find a deal. We ended up getting there via three flights (yes, three!) first to Munich, then Zagreb, then to Split, where we were to rent a car for the four hour drive to Dubrovnik. It sounds like a lot, but it saved us about $500, so it was worth it. Unfortunately, as our plane was pushing back from the gate, G gazed out the window and noticed two bags still sitting on the luggage carrier… OUR BAGS!! We had to get re-ticketed and somehow our bags did not. But the trip must go on and eventually we were in Split.

After reporting our bags missing and arranging for them to be sent down to Dubrovnik, we were soon headed down the scenic coast road. The drive was slow going (there are no freeways or trains that serve the south of the country), but it was beautiful! After such a long day we were thrilled to find that our hotel was right by the beach, with breathtaking views of Lapad Bay. Our first order of business was to buy some toiletries, a swimsuit, and a pair of flip flops! All I wanted to do was brush my teeth and get some warm-weather clothes on (we had to make due until our bags arrived). We then had a great dinner right on the water and just relaxed.

The next day we decided to take a little drive further down the coast to Montenegro. It may seem strange that we worked so hard to get to this relaxing part of Croatia just to hop over to another country, but we had heard that the Bay of Kotor was even more beautiful than the Dalmatian coast and we were only an hour away! The drive was stunning and with our self-guided driving tour we had a great time learning all about the area. The coolest thing I saw was the island of Our Lady of the Rocks. The island was created by seamen dropping rocks into the 65-foot-deep bay in the spot where a light had been seen coming from the water… flash forward 500 years and voila, you have yourself a new island!

Montenegro (like Croatia was once part of Yugoslavia) is Europe's youngest nation; we missed the one year anniversary by just five days. The Bay of Kotor is ruggedly beautiful with dramatic scenery and is crowned with the Old World town of Kotor. The town in butted up against a steep cliff and surrounded by one of the most elaborate city walls in Europe. After lunch we hiked up along the walls to a church that sits high above the city and were rewarded with some amazing views.

Back in Croatia, we were determined to have a relaxing time, and we spent the rest of the time enjoying the bay around our hotel and exploring the city of Dubrovnik. We still had no luggage, but we didn’t care… we were so happy to be wrapped up in the charm of this old city. The city is amazing. It is hard to imagine that just 15 years ago it was devastated by war, but you would hardly notice it now… the only physical sign of all the past destruction is the numerous new orange roof tiles you see while strolling along the city wall. This “Pearl of the Adriatic” really lives up to its name. We really loved our time here!

The best part of our third day in Croatia was that our bags finally showed up… three days into our four day trip and one hour before we were to check out of our hotel in Dubrovnik. That gave us just enough time to take a shower and put on some fresh clothes. The guy at the desk said we were the happiest people he had ever seen that had lost luggage. Well, you can either laugh or cry, right?

On our last full day we were headed back up the coast to Split where we were to catch our flight home. It was a four hour drive back along the coast, and on the way I realized that we would be within a half hour from town of Mostar, Bosnia. I dropped the question as subtly as I could… “So dear, how about stopping into Bosnia for lunch?”

Yes, I know what you are thinking… Bosnia?!? G had about the same reaction! He was dead set on not setting foot into this war-torn country, so if I wanted to go I had some convincing to do. After about an hour of reading cheery things from our guidebook, I had set his mind at ease and we were headed over the boarder.

Mostar is stunning, with an amazing mix of Muslim, Catholic, and Orthodox all living together. But it is also a startling view of how real and destructive war can be. On the half hour drive from the boarder to the Old City the signs of war were everywhere. About 1/3 of the buildings were bombed out and we saw few signs of recovery.

Even in Mostar itself, there were burned out husks of buildings and bullet holes everywhere, but the city is slowly being rebuilt, especially in the heart of the Old Town. The most moving reminder of this is the Old Bridge (Stari Most) that was originally built in 1557 and survived many assaults, including ones from the Second World War. But in November of 1993 the bridge fell during a bombing raid from the Croats. After the war it was decided to rebuild it using the old techniques and using stone from the original quarry. In July 2004 the bridge was complete and it is now one of the most inspiring sights in Europe. I feel lucky to have walked across it.

After lunch, a little sightseeing and some shopping, we were on our way to Croatia once again. We drove into Split and despite having our hotel in a very convenient location right by the harbor; it was a nightmare to drive into! Once we were finally on the right side of town, we spent half the evening trying to find a suitable parking spot. It was a bit of big-city-shock after the quaintness of the Southern coast. Although there is a lot of ugly urban sprawl that surrounds the atmospheric Old Town, it was still nice to get the chance to explore the town before heading back home.

We really liked Croatia (despite the lost luggage and the rain) and now I can easily say it is one of my favorite places in Europe.

Our favorite bar in Dubrovnik

The view of Lapad Bay from our hotel

Cathedral of Saint Tryphon in Kotor

Climbing up the city wall above Kotor

We climbed to the Church of our Lady of Health high above Kotor

Crossing the Old Bridge in Mostar

A view of the Old Bridge in Mostar

War damage in Mostar

In the rain in Split

The bell tower of the Cathedral of St. Dominus in Split

vendredi, juin 01, 2007

The Hills are Alive

Another year has passed since our wedding and another anniversary was upon us (still hard to believe it has been two whole years!) The traditional two year wedding anniversary gift is cotton, but I got G paper instead... paper tickets! I wanted to surprise him, and since we had a four day weekend (I think it was ascension weekend), we had the time to head out of town for a few days. He had no idea where we were off to, although he narrowed the possibilities down to the Nordics, Budapest, Normandy, or Austria. I took him to the train station pretending to be catching a train to the airport, but when we got on a train headed east (and away from the airport), he realized we were headed to the land of Mozart and tasty strudel.

Gary had been keen on going to Austria for some time now. His brother and his wife visited here a few years ago and raved about the little Austrian village of Hallstatt and G has been asking me when we are going for months. I wanted to wait for good weather and I figured why not surprise him? The plan was to spend a couple days in Salzburg and then head to Hallstatt for the remaining of our long weekend.

We arrived in Salzburg to pouring rain! So much for planning for the good weather. We sloshed around town and I ended up eating a dinner of too-raw pork which I started to worry about when we got back to the hotel... what are the signs of trichinosis anyway?!? Needless to say, our romantic holiday weekend could have started off a bit better, but the weekend was still young.

The next day the sun came out and we took advantage of all the fun things to do in the nearby Salzburger Land. We spent the morning at the Berchtesgaden salt mines where we put on traditional miner's outfits, hopped on an underground train and zipped deep into the mountain. We sped down long wooden slides and cruised an underground lake. The tour was very cool, but we were gearing up for even more excitement. In the afternoon we went to The Zinkenlifte Bad Dürrnberg luge ride, which is the longest luge in Austria. It was great... speeding down the mountain on a little sled attached to a long track. It was too bad we only had time for one ride (which lasted about 15 minutes), we had to get back to Salzburg to catch the train to Hallstatt.

It was about 4:30 when I approached the ticket window at the Salzburg train station, still pretty early in the day I thought. But I was informed that we were too late to go to Hallstatt! It turns out that the Hallstatt train station is across the lake from the town and the last boat runs at 6pm which we had already missed! Unbelievable!! We had hotel reservations and I wasn't about to let this little snag hold us up. I ran out to the bus terminal and got us tickets to Bad Ischl, about 10 miles away from our destination. From there we took the last train to the village of Obertraun, just across the lake from Hallstatt, but still about a 6km walk. We arranged to get a ride from the only taxi in town, just in time to eat dinner at our amazing, old, waterfront hotel, Bräugasthof, which used to be a brewery. Dinner was scrumptious, but I think a big part of that was just the relief that we had made it to town!

The charming village of Hallstatt did not disappoint! Nestled in Austria's Lake District, we were surrounded by forested mountains, pristine views, and one of the most beautiful lakes I have ever seen. It is the perfect place to slow down, relax and just take it all in. No one is in a rush, there are cute shops and cozy little places to grab a bite to eat or relax with a refreshing drink. We were blessed with beautiful weather too, which made the gray of Salzburg seem like a million miles away.

One of the unique sights of the area are the Eishöhle Ice Caves across the lake. We took the Dachstein Mountain Cable Car which took us up the Salzkammergut Mountain where we hiked up to the mouth of the ice caves. It was really amazing. The subterranean ice fills the mountain and stays frozen all year, creating huge caverns carved from the ice and water that flows here. The hour-long tour was chilly, but it was one of the coolest (no pun intended) sights I have ever seen. We walked the 6km back to our side of the lake which warmed us right up!

I was surprised to learn of the town’s ancient history, it was founded long before Rome. Archeological finds date back as old as 5000 BC. Ancient miners were drawn here for the rich salt mines. The period of history from 1000 BC to 500 BC is actually referred to as the 'Hallstatt Period'. With all this history, we decided to explore the local mine. Yes, another salt mine tour, but this one was supposed to be better... and it was!

But the best part of the trip for me was the relaxed atmosphere and friendly people we met. Each morning everyone we saw would greet us with a cheery "Morgen!" to start the day. I loved this! We ate traditional meals right on the banks of the lake, sipping beer and enjoying each other's company. It was good we didn't know what we were in for trying to get home the next day!

Things started out fine, we caught our first train (the first of 4 trains we would have to catch back to Geneva), but things soon turned for the worse. We were forced to get off the train early due to work being done on the tracks. We were told to get on a bus, but we had no idea which bus, or where to, or even where we were! No one spoke English in the little village we were stuck in, and we narrowly got on the wrong bus a couple different times. After over an hour, a nice bilingual guy heading to Zurich helped us (and a couple of other lost mono-lingual tourists) out. We had to run to catch almost every connection and we narrowly made the last train back to Geneva. It was a bit stressful, but I would do it all over again to get back to that little piece of paradise in the Austrian hills.

Rainy Salzburg

Salzburg salt mine tour

Headed down Austria's longest luge track!

Picture perfect Hallstatt

The lakefront street our hotel was on

The view from our hotel balcony onto Hallstattersee Lake

A view inside the ice caves

The Hallstatt salt mine tour, where we were clocked at 28km/hour sliding down the traditional wood miner slide (only the guide beat our time)

Schmuck & Boote - German for "Jewelry" and "Boat", but I still like saying Schmuck and Bootie ;)

Even the churchyard was picture perfect!

A slower pace of life

My favorite place for a bite by the lake