WESTERN EUROPE

Fall Hiking in Switzerland

With so many places to see and limited time, you need travel short cuts.   Person to person recommendations are often the best.  We asked our Swiss friends Christian and Iris for their favorite day hiking destination in the Swiss Alps.  Avid hikers both before and after kids, their favorite spot is LENK IN SIMMENTAL which offers easy valley hiking, more challenging and varied mountain paths, and higher more technical alpine climbs.

GSTAAD is a destination in the Berner Oberland with an international reputation but nearby Lenk in Simmental has the Swiss reputation.  It has been awarded as one of the best Swiss holiday family resorts for both its winter and summer activities.  Like Gstaad it has a charming, picturesque village but it trades the designer label shops for more outdoor stores and a working population.  While it caters to the outdoor enthusiast, it feels like a more authentic Swiss village.  For those of you familiar with recreational areas in Idaho, Lenk is the Hailey to Sun Valley’s Ketchum.

Sitting at an altitude of just over 1000 meters, Lenk is in the Simmental valley about 65km southwest of Interlaken.  The valley has 600km of walking trails and 290 km of mountain bike trails for all levels, so plenty to keep busy for a long weekend.  One of the attractions is the compactness of the outdoor activity which means no time is wasted in getting to your activity.  It's a great destination for both families and older people.

With a recent dusting of snow on the highest peaks and idyllic late September weather, the only challenge was choosing which of the hiking and mountain trails to do.  (We weren't looking to do any of the more advanced alpine or overnight trails, much to my husband's dismay.)  There too we had help from the owner of the hotel that was also recommended to us by Christian and Iris.  (see below in “Where to Stay.”)

On the first day, we took the gondola up to LEITERLI above Lenk.  There is an easy 3km loop hike on the top with beautiful vista views and interesting sign posts (in Swiss) about Lenk’s history.   There are several additional trails to do from the top which, if the weather is good, we’d recommend over hiking back down to Lenk.  From Leiterli back down to Lenk there is a discovery Marmot Trail (3 km) and Lynx Trail (6 km) aimed at kids but its ankle breaking steep and not quite as interesting for older kids.  There is another themed trail called the Alpine Flower Trail with 95 plant species that would have been lovely to do when the wildflowers are in season.

On the second day, we took the bus to IFFIGENALP (which is not accessible by gondola.)  From there we did an up and net down hike past several beautiful waterfalls and lots of cows.  One of the treats of hiking in Switzerland are all the old chalets en route where you can usually stop for a drink and buy some locally made cheese.    We extended what would have been a 3.5 hour mountain hike finishing in Simmenfalle into a leisurely 5 hour stroll.  Had it just been Brett and Lawton on the hike, they would have traded the stroll for a 600 meter add on climb to Flueseehutte.  The two of them are already plotting their return.

Getting there:

It’s a 5.5 hour drive to Lenk in Simmental from Luxembourg without traffic.  Expect some delays near Strasbourg and a few tolls in France.  The last hour of drive is on windy two lane road so it’s advisable to drive in daylight.  You will need to stop and buy the Swiss autobahn toll sticker (cost of 40 Swiss francs for one calendar year) when crossing into Switzerland.  If you fly, nearest airport is in Bern which is 1.5 hours by car or 2.5 hours by train.   From Zurich Airport it is 2.5 hours by car and 3.5 hours by train.

Getting around:

It is nice to have a car but if you are staying in the town center of Lenk, you can easily manage without one.  The Lenk bus leaves regularly from the train station in the town center to many of the trail heads and in some cases (where roads are only open one direction on an hourly schedule) is a better option than driving.  

Where to Stay:

At our friend’s recommendation, we stayed at HOTEL SIMMENHOF, Lenkstrasse 43 | 3775 Lenk Im Simmental, Lenk-Simmental 3775, Switzerland; +41 33 736 34 34; Family-run hotel 1km from the center of Lenk; large spacious family rooms available; indoor pool with smaller outdoor pool; free and excellent WiFi; exceptionally kid friendly; hearty breakfast offering included; onsite restaurant for dinner; free parking and shuttle service into Lenk; owners are as helpful and good as any tourist office.  90% of guests are Swiss.

If you have a few more francs to rub together or you want to be in town, LENKERHOF GOURMENT SPA RESORT is the highest rated hotel in the area and looked to be a special spot, Badstrasse 20 | Postfach 241, Lenk-Simmental 3775, Switzerland; :+41 33 736 36 36.

There are numerous other hotels in the town as well as a number of rental properties.  Because it is mostly a skiing destination, you should have ample lodging options for hiking seasons.

Where to Eat:

One does not travel to Switzerland for the food, but a warm Rösti (elevated hashbrowns with cheese and often an egg on top) after a day of hiking goes down easy.   There are 27 restaurants listed on Trip Advisor in Lenk.  We asked around for recommendations, which landed us at these two spots for dinner both of which worked well.

Hirschen Lounge Bar, Oberriedstrasse 1, Lenk-Simmental 3775, Switzerland; don’t mistake the red and white table clothes for pizza; interesting menu with excellent Rösti and very good vegetarian Spätzle with local chanterelles; average pasta dishes and make your own hamburgers; slightly slow service but the night was also quite busy.

Elk Bar & Restaurant, Oberriedstrasse 13, Lenk-Simmental CH-3775, Switzerland; large more modern than traditional Swiss restaurant with excellent terrace; aside from the parsnip soup and house salad nothing that floated above average but food is simple, service was good and there’s something for everyone on the menu. 

 

So, Berlin

One of the great things about writing a personal blog is you have no deadlines.  One of the bad things about writing a personal blog is with enough procrastination you have no one to blame but yourself when you can’t remember the details of that thing you planned to write.  This is especially dangerous when trying to write travel advice with fuzzy details.

 So, Berlin. 

I had to check my calendar to remember exactly when I was there.  It was “this” month (refusing to believe to today is in fact May 1) so the statute of limited memory should allow for more or less accurate recall.  I was also there for a 3 day weekend - with a nasty head cold – back in September 2014.  Congested or breathing normally, the first trip was love at first sneeze so I decided to return “this” month for Spring Break solo with just the two little boys.  (The big boy with the map skills was with his Dad on the East Coast doing college visits which is hard for all of us – more accurately 4/5 of us – to believe.)

I don’t know if it’s the Seattle girl in me or my low threshold for Bavarian food overload, but Berlin wins for best German city in my book.  And I really, really like Munich.  (See my post on Munich.)  Berlin lacks the beauty of Munich but there is an energy about the rapidly changing city that you don’t have to be 21 years old to enjoy.  You are constantly surprised by the amount of cool tucked behind ugly exteriors.  And the city takes their coffee very, very seriously. 

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[The two found favorite coffee spots in Berlin were The Barn and Bonanza Coffee Roasters.  Lucky for me, Bonanza was 50 feet from where we stayed and their flat whites were just about perfect.]

So how’d I do?  Totally nailed it.  Beyond being expertly caffeinated, here are a few tips for doing Berlin.

Tip 1: build confidence early by skipping public transportation on arrival and taxi to hotel.  Never mind the cost or the glory of saying you caught the Airport Express to the U-Bahn followed by a 10 minute walk with luggage.  No one will be greeting you at the hotel with a medal for it at 9:30am.   And when you find out the cab fare is only 22 euros, you’ll wonder how big a tip is too big before the taxi driver asks for your number.

[We stayed in a very reasonably priced apartment hotel called Brilliant Apartments in Prenzlauer Berg on what may be one of the best gentrified streets in the neighborhood.   It was a brilliant choice for what we needed never mind what my boys say about the wifi strength and the assaulting water pressure.   The apartment is in the former East Berlin so modernity expectations should be appropriately checked.   I wrote a review of it here if you are in the hunt for lodging while in Berlin.]

Tip 2: pick a hotel next to a great café with pancakes in the AM and wine in the PM.  They don’t have to be good pancakes.  The pancakes will be the siren call you need to wake your kids for a 7am flight.  Be aware however that Europe is a place that loves bookings so even though you wouldn’t expect to need a booking for a weekend breakfast, build confidence and fill stomachs early by making one.  We got the last non-reserved table.  It was my day.

[Café Krone is the café affiliated with Brilliant Apartments.    As of today there are 6,279 restaurants in Berlin on Trip Advisor.  Café Krone is #13.  You will like it.  They have carrot cake.]

Tip 3: strategically select your neighborhood.   Berlin doesn’t really have a center and it’s massively spread out so it takes some planning (or a bike, see below) to pick the area you want to explore.  Mitte and Prenzlauer Berg are both popular, creative chic places for great eating and shopping and pervasive use of English.  Kreuzberg is gentrifying but more “edgy” and home to the live music scene.  If you want evidence there are actual children in Berlin, Suedstern is a cute family-friendly neighborhood.

[We stayed at the Casa Camper Berlin in Mitte last fall when it was only my husband and I.  It was a great location for a first visit to Berlin and the hotel was that perfect blend of down-to-earth but cool in a way that doesn’t require mood lighting and fruited water.  Unfortunately for my snotty nose, the toilet paper – as in the rest of Europe – was not up to USA standards.]

 Tip 4: pack biking shorts or your best biking dress.   Everyone knows Amsterdam as a biking city, but that’s really for the locals who know the rules.  Berlin (and Copenhagen) are better biking cities where you have a chance to blend in as a tourist and not be run over.   There are extensive bike lanes and few to zero hills to remind you that you aren’t in shape.  Also, finding a bike rental or guided bike tour in Berlin is as easy as finding a Starbucks in London.  Maybe even similarly priced.

 [On the first trip, we rented bikes from the hotel.  It was a fantastic way to see the city and also means you can more easily ride through the Tiergarten in route to visit Tempelhof Park – a “park” on the site of an old airfield.  There is something about seeing those wide empty runways that kick starts your brain.  And if you are lucky enough you might see men rollerblading in speedos in not warm September.   Now THAT I remembered.]

[On the second trip, we dared not speak of bikes.  We are having ongoing issues convincing our 8 year old that he will EVER learn to ride a bike.   This makes biking an uphill, downhill, and standstill battle with untied shoelaces.  This is the child who will flail his body into the air to save a goal but who fears any *potential* encounter with pavement.  Suggestions welcome.]

Tip 5:  mix in a little fun with all the history.  The history of Berlin is obviously something you can’t miss, but it’s also somber and best absorbed in doses.  There is a surprisingly number of alternative non-history related things to see and do in Berlin.

[You will no doubt go to see the Berlin Wall Memorial – an outdoor museum that is kid/pet/germ phobic friendly.   There is no better way to understand the barrier that divided a city than by traversing the ground where it was.  The signage along a long stretch of the wall on Bernauer Strasse is excellently done.  I wish I could say the same for Checkpoint Charlie.   The only bright spot around the Checkpoint Charlie circus is the Asisi Panometer, an admission-charged impactful panorama exhibit of a part of the Berlin Wall with lights and sound as well as a collective of photographs from the period of the Wall and before its fall in 1989.  Better yet is the The DDR Museum, a free interactive museum that shows what life was like in the first Socialist state in Germany.  An absolute must do.  Also on that must do list, but without young children, is the Topography of Terror – another free museum that shows an unforgiving look at the terror and persecution perpetrated by the Nazi institutions of the Gestapo, SS and Reich Security Main Office.  When things start to get too heavy, head over to the Game Science Center (also near Checkpoint Charlie) - a totally fun, small space with 20 exhibits showcasing future interactive technologies.  Good for all ages and for hands that like to touch things.  The Berlin Zoo (for those not overly sensitive to animals in small cages) is an also nice change of pace.]

Tip 6:  Prep the kids for grittiness.  As long as you know to expect open containers, abandoned buildings, and unmanicured parks – it won’t be a surprise when you bring a basketball to Mauerpark for the third day in a row and the court is littered with as many open beer bottles as people waiting to play.  (We did however have the court to ourselves plus one on the first cold morning.)

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Tip 7: make a friend in the neighborhood.  Local suggestions from the right person within the right radius is one way to cut down on marathon walks to dinner.   

[Our friend was Sadie.  Sadie runs The Juicery in Prenzlauer Berg (PB), right across the street from Mauerpark, serving some of the tastiest super food smoothies & juices.  The boys were hooked and happy to follow Sadie’s suggestion by eating at two delicious restaurants on our street (Oderberger Strasse): the fancier Ky Sushi for Japanese/Korean and Vietnam Village for tasty eats with great outdoor seating.  PB is a great neighborhood for eating and several food blogs (the best of which was Berlin Food Stories) and careful reading of Trip Advisor rightly pointed us to: Maria Bonita for hole in the wall Mexican, The Bird for a ridiculously right on American burger, Fast Rabbit for vegan wraps and hard core rap, Kochu Karu for Korean/Spanish tapas – who knew?, and Pastificio Tosatti for homemade pasta for take-away or eat-in at two small tables.  Two places we wanted to try but ran out of time were Babel for Lebanese and Lecker Song for Chinese dumplings.]

Tip 8:  If you don’t know what you want to eat, head to Mitte.   It’s as central as you can get in Berlin and it has everything, including over 1,000 places to eat.   Auguststrasse is the street name to know and explore.

[Some good ones we enjoyed:  District Mot for Vietnamese street food (went there both trips), Cocolo Ramen for at-the-counter noodles, Mogg & Melzer Delicatessen – a modern deli in a former Jewish school with a fantastic rueben sandwich you’ll need help finishing, and Lokal for a high end, seasonal modern German dinner.  Lokal, recommended to me by my good Lux friend and fellow eater Angela, is definitely worth crossing town for.  Book ahead for sure.]

I asked my 8 year old what I should include about Berlin and he said:  “Tell them Berlin is cool.  The people have good English and most people are really nice and the zoo has animals you don’t see in every zoo and the Wall is cool and the Science Center is cool …

Like I said, cool. 

Munich Encounters

A First Date with Spaten

Ravenous from a 5 ½ hour drive from Luxembourg, food was the first order of business upon arriving in Munich early afternoon.  Though a Hofbrauhaus would do, some of us wanted better which sent us on a trek for Spatenhaus  a well-known brewery with above average food overlooking the Opera House.  Mingling with locals in their Sunday finest, we scored a prime table in a private nook provided we could finish in 90 minutes.  AS IF that would be a problem with this American crew of boy.  We devoured plates of typical Bavarian food:  goulash, spaetzle, wiener schnitzel, and cucumber salad washed down with an-always-the-right-time pint of the restaurant’s own beer, Spaten-Franziskaner-Bier and a budding notion that we very much liked Munich.

The Arrival of Krampus

Some people are lucky enough to win the lottery and some people land at the right place at the right time even when they have no idea what to make of it.  On our first night, we walked into Munich’s main Christkindlmarkt  just as a herd of costumed beasts – with polices escorts and a mob of camera carrying followers - came charging in our direction.  Adorned in stinky animal hide and carrying a switch, one of the masked beasts gently patted my youngest on the head as he blazed past and the crowd swell continued down market.   Too fast and too weird to make a lasting impression, we drowned our bewilderment in 150g of warm candied almonds.  Later that night, thanks to a serendipitous NY Times article, the mystery of the old and recently revived Bavarian tradition of Krampus (the anti- St. Nicolas) was solved.  The devilish goblins with masked costumes made exclusively from materials and animal hides in the Alps (hence the stink) only show up at the Christkindlmarkts on the second and third Sundays before Christmas.  Lottery-like timing.  [No photos of Krampus were snapped in time.]

From Mine to Massage

We began our experience of the world of science and technology in a fantastic, not-as-claustrophobic-as-feared replica Mine in the basement of the Deutsches Museum, the world’s largest science museum.  From there we barely skimmed the surface of 50 (!) exhibits covering 50,000 square meters in four hours.  One of the children rightly surmised that we’d be wicked smart if could live there.  Landing on the top floor unable to process another scientific fact, we dropped a 2 euro coin in a Motel 6 style massage chair and divvied up the ten minutes between us.  As far as we can tell, no new brain cells resulted from the massage.

Typically Munich

Inspired by the Deutsches Museum, we rolled the dice for a second museum the next day –  the Munich City Museum (Munich Stadtmuseum.)   We toured the “Typically Munich” permanent exhibit, a cultural history of Munich from the beginnings of the city to the present – understood best by those already living in Munich, who unfortunately weren’t there to offer us any explanation of what we were seeing.  Disjointed and not very interesting, we redirected to the National Socialism Exhibit which was better.  Either the excellent City Museum in Amsterdam has ruined us with unrealistic expectations or the much too quiet museum told us that we weren’t all together wrong.

A Trio of Party Santas

Nothing says Christmas spirit like a chorus singing carols from the balcony the Neues Rathaus high above a gazillion wooden stalls selling Christmas wares and crepes with Nutella.    Zigzagging through crowds of people balancing two gluhweins and a kinder punch, I came upon my waiting children just as a trio of party Santas were passing.   More interested in Santa than kinder punch, my youngest shouted Santa’s name.  Clearly in a hurry to a Christmas kid-free bash but obliged by their chosen attire, they stopped, straightened their beards, and offered the young lad a photo.   [One Santa not photoed.]      

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Meeting up with Americans

On the U-Bahn (the old but superefficient, not oversubscribed subway) five stops north of Marienplatz, Munich’s central square, given away by voices that carry a youngish retired couple in tennis shoes inquires, “So where in the US are you from?”  Without wanting to overcomplicate, we answer “Seattle, and you?”  “Illinois. Joliet.” “Oh,” we politely respond, “We went to school in Illinois.  Wheaton.”  “Sure.  Wheaton.  We know it.”  Not knowing where to go from there, they quicken their pace and we follow in silence, until they peel off for the Marriot and us for the Melia.

Outdoor Livin’

If ever you wondered how Germans are able to walk in any weather condition, happen upon a German Outdoor Store and be ready to have choice overload and a keyed up husband.   Choosing a down jacket in Germany is like choosing a college in the US.  Way too many options for anyone without a plan or decisive wife.  Except of course when you ask for a snow boot in men, size 14.  Then you have two choices.  Both in black.  (For non sports shopping,  check out Reichenbachstrasse near the Deutsches Museum for some great boutiques.)

Bah Humbug

On a crowded sidewalk in the center of Munich four days before Christmas, as can happen on forced Christmas shopping marches, a brotherly spat broke out.  A fist or two might have been involved.  Obvious immediate parental action was taken diffusing any further altercation while a well-dressed German Grandma - not even in the fray – took it upon herself to shout her angriest German at my already scolded children.  Too bad she wasn’t looking 50 meters later when brotherly love broke out.  [Photo not available.]

German Surfers & Burritos

Sausaged out by the month of December, we bee lined to the neighborhood of Maxvorstadt for lunch at a place called Burrito Company.  With a  total California vibe down to the ordering system,  hot sauce in brown bags on the table, recycling bins, avocados for sale and surfboard in the corner we learned the place was opened by a couple of Germans who spent a few years surfing in California.  They then came back to Munich with an idea to spread burrito goodness.   It worked.

Score!

We made it out to the Allianz Arena for the last tour on the last day before the holiday.  The last English tour was hours before so we settled for the German version, figuring that Football was universal and Dad and Colin’s limited bi/tri-lingualism might suffice.  Dad’s German skills were enough to react to the “I assume everyone here speaks German” that afforded us a bonus, condensed English version at the end of each section of the tour.  We saw the team shower rooms, the tunnel to the field, and learned lots of fun facts about Bayern Munich (team of Lawton's goalie hero.)  We even scored 45 minutes before the start of the tour in an excellent, modern, and interactive team museum.  The boys were in football heaven.

Old Traditions in New Places

Our holiday tradition in Seattle is to go to the Pike's Place Market every Christmas Eve morning with our extended family to hunt and gather for the evening's meal.   We brought that tradition to Munich by doing a similar thing in a fabulous outdoor and indoor market (Schrannenhalle) before driving back to Luxembourg loaded down with goodies for Christmas Eve.   If only we could have transported the extended family. 

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South of France

Week in South of France (Dordogne/Lot) where there’s less doing and more being, where there’s a daily farmers market somewhere within 30 km, where the day’s biggest decision is which country road to run or bike, where the only TV viewing is to follow the Tour de France, where there’s enough unscheduled time to have your teen say over a hand of cards “You know what I’ve never told anyone…”, where your husband has quiet space to work 10 hour days and then jump in the pool after dinner and then jump in the car to drive 90 minutes to Toulouse airport to spend a couple of working days in London, where boys spend hours making “cool catch” videos, where you meander through cute French villages and stopover in Paris for lunch on the drive home, and where you come home to rain and it’s totally, 100% ok.   

We used Pure France to find our villa. 

The rest of the photos:

Christmas Markets, Cologne

Weekend in Cologne (2.5 hours by car) from Lux to enjoy the best Christmas markets Germany has to offer. We hit the four large Christmas Markets - the main one at the Cathedral, the Angel Market, the Market of Fairy Tales, and the Gnome Market plus a 5th one called the Harbor Market. (There are 7 Christmas markets in total.) There are special themed gluhwein mugs for each market. I collected many of them. Hopefully you get a sense of how festive and well done these markets are.

 

If you go to Antwerp (this seems unlikely, huh?)

 

I’m going to assume that should you be afforded the opportunity to travel in Europe and you’re not in the market for diamonds, there is about a 1.5% chance that Antwerp, Belgium will be on your must see list.   It would be like someone traveling to the US with a burning desire for a Midwest stop in Indianapolis instead of Chicago.  On the website versus, when comparing Indianapolis to Chicago two of the ten reasons for Indianapolis were possibility of drinking in public places and substantially more Facebook users.  Antwerp is to Amsterdam what Indianapolis is to Chicago in terms of proximity and size, except I’m pretty confident that unlike Indianapolis, the opportunity to humiliate oneself on social media is far greater in Amsterdam.  Two pluses for Antwerp versus Amsterdam:  appreciably less rainy days and has mountains somewhere nearby.

My sister and brother-in-law came for a visit last month.   My brother-in-law stayed for ten days while my sister Beth stayed a few extra days.  With those extra days, we wanted to have some sister time away from Luxembourg just the two of us which was close and accessible by train (of which Amsterdam doesn’t qualify) with mountains of shopping (of which Germany does not qualify unless you are looking for a car, household item, or solid parka.)  Paris, of course, was the natural first choice – except Beth and Matt smartly decided to take the romantic route by building in a few days of their trip together in Paris.   They also did the evening Paris Fat Tire Bike Tour, which you should add to your travel wish list.

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  This is Beth and Matt in all their Parisian meets Hitchcock
glory.

This is Beth and Matt in all their Parisian meets Hitchcock glory.

 

Antwerp was the second best choice.  Not Brussels because nobody likes Brussels.  And not Bruges, because with all due respect to medieval architecture and UNESCO World Heritage status, this was a Jimmy Choo Choo Choo kind of trip.

Boarding the local train on a Sunday afternoon, our first order of sisterly business was to photograph our being together.   The great thing about sisters is that you can insist on as many retakes of this photo as you want without any fear of being called high maintenance.   We have the same nose.  No, actually hers is bigger.  I can say that because I have more wrinkles.

    
  
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  This is the one we decided on.  There are only two people in the world that
know how many photos preceded this one, and where to find the really good ones
from yesteryear.

 

This is the one we decided on.  There are only two people in the world that know how many photos preceded this one, and where to find the really good ones from yesteryear.

Four hours and one train change in Brussels later, what might have felt like finally but felt instead like already? in the presence of someone you adore, the train rolled into Antwerp Central Station.  It’s a super cool train station – some say the most beautiful in Europe – and it has a Starbucks with lots of seating and local college students.  The youth vibe is present wherever you go, making the small town of Antwerp feel more cosmopolitan.  Naturally we both had to go to the bathroom in the train station were the toilets cost one euro in contrast to the free toilets on the train, but here too there was no fear of someone not understanding your bladder.

It was raining.  Appreciably.  This condition continued for the duration of our stay, spasmodically with high winds, and never did I see anything aping like a mountain.

In a city of youth, it felt wrong to hail a cab – so with map in hand, we soldiered on in the rain from Central Station to our hotel in the heart of downtown Antwerp. I use the word "soldiered" intentionally as my feminine sister Beth was previously a US Army soldier and knows her way around a map.  (As an aside, it tickled me proud with understanding to see her husband write this on her Facebook wall yesterday for Veteran's Day: "Happy veterans day to the most beautiful women to ever wear army boots and shoot an M16." )

As it was a Sunday, most of the stores were closed along the main shopping street of Meir.  The Chocolate Line, a famous Belgian chocolate shop we had read about, was however open.  We stopped in for a taste, as you would if you were to see an old palace that had been converted into a scrumptious looking chocolate shop.   We also bought a chocolate bar for later.  Fifteen minutes after that, we found ourselves at the Fritkot Max, an also famous Belgian frite place, overlooking the Cathedral on the Groenplaats.  Trying to kill two birds with one calorically overloaded day, we devoured our first (but not last of the trip) Belgian frites.  Max, if it was the real Max, was the only unfriendly person we encountered during our Antwerp stay.  No mind though – we had curry ketchup to bring a smile to our face.

 

At the Matelote Hotel, a charming ten room hotel that felt more B&B than hotel, the person who showed up us to our room said: “Please help yourself to anything in the mini frig at no charge.  For legal reasons, we can’t have any alcohol in your frig – but we are Belgian, so when you come downstairs to the lobby – the first drink is on us.” After putting our bags down and umbrellas up to dry, we got that free drink and peppered our new friend with questions on where we should go to dinner.  Reading us like the tea leaves we are, he picked a great bistro for us called Le Zoute Zoen. Our friend later gave us a free breakfast just because.

The free drink. 

The free drink. 

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In a beautiful library style dining room, Beth and I enjoyed a delicious Belgian three course meal at Le Zoute Zoen for 35 euros a piece. Yes, there were mussels.  I don’t remember exactly what we talked about, but I’m fairly sure that over half of it was about our food.  Then there was the banter with the next table – a drunk but entertaining-to-everyone-but-the-staff Romanian hair dresser with his friends and a tiny dog.  We passed on a chance to go somewhere with them after.  We had THE chocolate bar waiting.

Watching my sister eat her first soft boiled egg by trying to peel it was the highlight of the next day’s breakfast.  (You are supposed to tap the shell while in a cup and lift the top off. I may have been an evil sister and known something of this, but watching Beth manage the yoke in her hands was too good to pass up.)  Day two was all about shopping – mostly in small, non-chain stores.  I was all kind of a blur.  Had someone GPS’ed our movements, it could have easily been a 10k.  Many of those steps were around the Groenplaats – the central hub of the downtown corridor that we always seemed to get slightly turned around in. 

Some favorite spots were Paleis – where Jess from New Girl would totally shop with all their bright clothes, an Eileen Fischer like store called Sandwich, Sweet Soda – an Antwerp designer who I may have fallaciously believed to not lean toward the matronly, and Let’s Go Bananas where Beth did go bananas with some interesting jackets and tunics in the middle of dense forest of oddball and super inexpensive merchandise. We got the exact same brown jacket for 10 euros each.  Mine is a little snug, but for 10 euros and a chance to tell everyone “My sister has this exact same jacket.  We got it together in Antwerp.”  -- you understand.  We never intended to go to Jimmy C$oo, but on the morning on Day three we did hit the sales at some of the big chain stores.   

The second night there was Belgium beer and an interesting conversation with the bartender about the abundance of cheap faith in America and the lack of any faith in Europe.  There was also a dinner that we didn’t bother much to research – we were knee deep in laughter and topics of substance.  Aging parents, parenting boys, parenting the one girl between us -- Beth's fierce four year old daughter Rae Rae who famously told Matt when he asked her to take her hands out of her pants: "Daddy, it's my 'gina and I can do whatever I want."  The food was fine, but the vigor of a conversation with someone who knows all your nooks and crannies left us both fully satiated but also sad to be so geographically far apart. 

I had a Corsendonk.  Beth had a ?? This is where a man could have been helpful.

I had a Corsendonk.  Beth had a ?? This is where a man could have been helpful.

We all need people to share our stories with.  We also need nonpartisan fact checkers; people were there for some of most formative stories to make sure we don’t spin them into mountains or let us twist them into unnecessary corkscrews.   It’s also nice to have that person to tell us when something doesn’t fit right, or when we have three versions of that same shirt sitting in our closet.  My sister is that person for me, in Antwerp or an outlet mall somewhere in the middle of America.

 And, I’m glad she didn’t tell me the brown jacket was snug.

 

 

Oberalppass

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“If I can be an example of getting ober, than I can be an example of starting over.”      Lawton's version of Macklemore’s lyrics for “Starting Over.”

Ober, sober.  I’m afraid you’ll need full capacity of your s’s if you want to get sober.   We, on the other hand, needed five hours to get from Luxembourg to Oberalppass in the Swiss Alps – the almost but definitely not half-way point on our twelve hour road trip to Umbria, Italy. (Day two was seven hours of going "straight on" the A-1 motorway through Lake Como, Milan, Tuscany and Umbria with drivers who do not abide their lanes.)

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Day one of the drive however was beautiful.  Switzerland hit the jackpot with ubiquitous beauty.   Combine that beauty with good roads, safe drivers, clean and plentiful rest stops, and mountain tunnels and you’ve got yourself an awesome start to a road trip. 

Before getting lost in Lucerne. 

Before getting lost in Lucerne. 

Food is crazy expensive in Switzerland, and frankly not that great, so we decided to stop in Lucerne – an hour shy of our overnight stop at Oberalppass -- for dinner.  We zeroed in on a won’t-break-the-bank Wurst house on Trip Advisor.  After finding/vetting a non-underground parking space (re: husband and bikes on top of car) and locating some Swiss Francs (come on Switzerland, join the Eurozone!) to feed the meter, we headed toward the restaurant hungry and dry mouthed from too many road trip pretzels.  When the blue dot failed us (Google Maps is great when it works, but the wurst when it doesn’t), Brett successfully used his German to ask for directions.  Turns out we were circling the restaurant but didn’t notice because it was under construction and closed for the week.  Snag.

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Some families can audible and head to the nearest place to take their chances.  We cannot.  The younger members of the family understand this about their parents.  The teen does not.  He instead decided to clock the time from parking to first bite, with running commentary.  Harsh words were said about Trip Advisor and dependence.  Not wanting to drop 35 euros per person to eat ordinary Swiss food by the river, we finally (55 minutes later) opted for a small take out Mexican restaurant (Trip Advisor recommended.)   Any decision pleased the teen, but not the middle foodie child who spiraled into a crisis of faith about his parents and their commitment to good food.   Lawton, on the other hand, found the bright spot amidst the ordinary burrito served by the super nice Guatemalan co-owner of the restaurant:

“Mom, that always happens to us!  We meet people everywhere we go, we talk to them, get to know them and then they become our friends.” 

Post dinner. 

Post dinner. 

What brought our new Guatemalan friend to Lucerne, Switzerland you ask?  Love actually.  We know because we asked.  And later as we walked towards our safely parked car in search of ice cream, Lawton witnessed/stared at a young couple in a spirited Swiss German conversation to which he observed out loud:

“I think they’re breaking up.” 

How did he know we asked?  “Because they were talking loud, and looked angry and then the guy walked away." 

If what remains of our stopover in Lucerne is our children a) observing that our family brand is to engage with people and b) learning how to listen with their eyes as well as their ears, then that's something to be ober joyed about.

The guest house

The guest house

In Oberalppass (11 kilometers up a mountain from Andermatt driven in the dark), we overnighted in a guest house reminiscent of my Youth Hostel days staying in a family bunk room with a shared bathroom.  It was the wrong day of the month for a shared bathroom.  But with the light of morning, an included breakfast, and a morning hike through furry green hills filled with wildflowers and rushing streams – any slight inconvenience of the toilet situation was soon forgotten.   And when the two big boys got the chance to ride their bikes the 11 kilometers back down the mountain to Andermatt (cycling in the Swiss Alps!), we knew we’d rebook our room for the return road trip home.

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Lawton powered up the mountain on the early morning hike, with the rest of us trailing.  He was unstoppable (literally).  When he returned down, he suggested: 

Mom.  You should do a blog about Switzerland and have a photo of me with this sign, and call it BEST HIKER.”  

So here’s to my Best (and oh so quotable) Hiker!

BEST HIKER!

BEST HIKER!

Slack - Switzerland

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In the US, the common refrain is “I need a vacation.”  In Europe, that refrain is more like “Which holiday is next week?” What they say about European vacation time and holidays is true.   There are a lot of them.    And to add more green to US envy, Spring Break is always two weeks and falls on Easter.  And everyone gets the exact same two weeks.   What a novel idea.

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Thinking it rude to go on holiday while my in laws were in town, we decided to stay put for the first week.  (I happen to like them a lot so it wasn’t really a concession.  Although I do like to keep them on their toes.)   For the second week, we debated between Croatia and Switzerland.    Back home, that debate would have been whether we would drive to Sun Valley via the Interstate or back roads.  And of course, which kid would have to miss school.  Croatia took the lead when we saw 20 Euro roundtrip airfare per person -- meaning our family of four could fly to another country for less than the cost of a single NBA game ticket.  Wowza.  In the end, we decided to save Croatia for another (warmer) time.   So a road trip to Switzerland it was.   It took us only 5 ½ hours to reach our destination – so roughly half the time it takes us to drive from Seattle to Sun Valley.  I think that calls for another Wowza.

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Early April is officially slack season in Switzerland (and many ski areas north of the equator).   With warming conditions (except for Luxembourg, Spring 2013, but that’s another blog post about the winter that won’t end in Northern Europe), retreating lowland snow, only a couple of downhill ski runs  stay open, all the epic 5+km sledding hills have closed, and as we discovered – most of the restaurants have shut their kitchens for the season too.  No fondue for you! But, slack or not, Switzerland is not lacking in beauty at any time of the year.  We rented a chalet in the small village of Rossinière in the Alps area of Pays-d'Enhaut.  Sandwiched in between the touristed town of Gruyere (birthplace of the famous stinky cheese) and the ritzy resort of Gstaad where the slogan is “Come up – Slow Down”, this valley could be described as one of the more undiscovered parts of Switzerland.   With sun shining bright for the first two days (a welcome change from Luxembourg, but again more on that later), we chased the snow (which really wasn’t very hard) to find some of the “best sledding hills of all time” in Saanemoser, did an amazing alpine snow shoe hike in Launensee (where we had to turn back after encountering a sheer ice climb), and a couple of Wanderweg walking hikes along gorgeous one lane country roads.  We didn’t have a walking stick, but we should have.  The boys were happy walkers, and we had some memorable conversations that seem only to happen out in the fresh air.

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After being out all day, we’d retire back to the 300 year old chalet we rented.  The chalet – appropriately named the “Heidi Chalet” – was 1 km up a mountain road overlooking a lake without a neighbor in sight.  The setting was spectacular.  Being that it was built in the 1700s (!), the entire cabin with attached barn was made of wood and very rustic.  Brett sustained several concussive events with the low ceilings.   Heidi’s husband was clearly not 6’3”.   We were cognizant of the fire hazard that is a wood house and so were very careful about use of the wood stove.   We were however not so careful about checking for wood tongs inside the toaster before using it.  Smelling smoke in a wood house when you should not be smelling smoke is a disturbing event.  And then there was my first ten minutes in the rustic kitchen where the glass top on the gas stove exploded into thousands of tiny pieces.  Oi vey. How was I to know the glass top was only a cover and supposed to be removed before I boiled a pot of water?  Answer: the same way that I should have known to not leave potatoes in a basket on the floor.  Something’s nibbling at my potatoes and my common sense.

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But rustic aside, the cabin was comfortable, cozy and the perfect setting to slow down and relax.   We ate well, made (safe) fires, played board games (Ticket to Ride Europe and Spy Alley), explored outside, threw darts, read, and the boys even did a woodworking project.  That’s what can happen when you put the iPad away for a week.  They made a stool – not exactly one a human can sit or stand on, but one that could hold a few pounds (and maybe whatever was eating my floor-stored potatoes.)  If you know Brett, you know that this was a unique experience.  It was also a unique experience having the shower and toilet in two separate rooms, which was accessed through the unheated barn part of the house.   Kind of like an inside outhouse.  Okay… I’m not actually putting rustic aside.   We were warned there was limited water supply – due to an unsealed well filled with rainwater.  Our showers were hot and the water pressure better than 1908 E. Calhoun Street.  Though I would guess with several feet of snow melting, water supply is not an issue during Slack season.   Neither was finding things to do even in a place where most things -- except nature -- were closed.  Maybe I'm a closet camper after all.

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The thing about the European’s approach to vacation time is that it gives you more than one opportunity to release tension.  We all need a little more slack – in time, expectations, pace of life.  So for my friends at home who deserve much more slack than I do – those of you who are struggling with illness, parenting alone, difficult relationships, financial hardship, and more – wishing you a Spring Break where you get a break.

 (See all Switzerland photos)