European Adventures:

Switzerland and Northern Italy, 2018-2019

This winter break we grabbed some cheap airfare, used frequent flier miles for some of our tickets, and flew to Italy and Switzerland!

Our flight out left at 2:00 on December 26th, and then there was a 3-hour layover in JFK--not totally ideal, but doable, and after that it’s straight to Zurich. I think the airline wasn’t going to let us go on the next later connecting flight to JFK because that would have meant less than a 1-hour layover, and they get nervous with once-a-day international flights in case the slightest weather or mechanical blip messes our arrival up and makes us miss the connection. We ate up Christmas breakfast leftovers in the morning, and then repacked a couple bags, ran to the post office, and headed to the airport. After a quick flight to New York, we had Shake Shack for lunch at JFK (Helen slept through everything except the last of the cheese fries). Our flight to Zurich was smooth and easy. Marcus sat across the aisle from Helen and me, with Robert and Samantha in front of us, and everyone was quite happy with the movies on board. At a certain point we told the kids no more screens, they should let themselves sleep. Samantha went to sleep, and Helen too, but Marcus was stubborn and kept himself awake to prove that he could. Still, after going to Singapore last year, a seven-hour flight to Europe felt quite short. Marcus was drooping when we got to Zurich, though! (Below: train sticker grafitti!)

So there we were, Thursday morning the 27th in Zurich. We went downstairs from the airport to the mall below, and Robert got a SIM card for his phone. We chatted with a violist in the Zurich symphony orchestra (his viola is the same size as Samantha’s cello) and bought some pretzel buns, chocolate croissants, and other delights before hopping on the train to Lausanne (technically a train from the airport to the main station, then another one to Lausanne, but not a bad connection). We walked from the train station in Lausanne uphill (this part Marcus was not happy about—tired, carrying a backpack, and walking uphill on cobbled streets about 15 minutes) to our AirBnb in the old city. Dropping our stuff, we basically went right back out to meet Amit, Robert’s friend from their UCLA Ph.D. program 20 years ago. Amit is a professor in the area and has lived in Switzerland for the last ten years with Elena (also from their Ph.D. program) and their son Alex. He met us in his adorable red Mini Cooper and drove us to their house for dinner and a nice visit.

What fun! We stayed from 4:30-10:30. He brought out a bunch of old Kapla blocks and cat toys and board games from his son (16 now) and Samantha played happily. Marcus fell asleep on their couch at 8:00 which was cute—Elena covered him with a blanket and we transferred him to the car at the end of the evening. Helen fell asleep on my lap not long after, but when Samantha lay down on the couch too at 10 I told Robert we had to go home, as we can’t manage to transport three sleeping kids!

It was a great first day, though, and got us mostly adjusted to the time change. The weather, too, wasn’t bad—40s and cloudy, but no precipitation and not unbearably cold.

On Friday, Amit met us in downtown Lausanne fairly early in the morning to lend us his car for the day. We wanted to see a few places which are not terribly far apart while driving, but, while each is accessible from Lausanne by train/bus, would require back-tracking to change trains and therefore not be doable in one day if relying on public transit. We quickly got some quiche and croissants and a custard tart, and then Amit took the subway home and Robert drove us half an hour to the Caillet chocolate factory.

They had a really fun tour, lots on the history of chocolate and then seeing their machinery in action, and then lots of samples. They had a playground too. It was 40 and alternately sunny and a bit foggy around the lake but really a nice day out. Samantha loved the details about how the Swiss, in general, prefer milk chocolate over dark (she approves), and everyone enjoyed smelling vanilla beans, hazelnuts, cacao pods; reading about the farmers who provide the raw ingredients; watching the robots at work in the factory; and, of course, sampling the chocolates.

Then we drove fifteen minutes to the cheese factory in the village of La Gruyere and sampled cheeses (2, 4, and 6-month gruyeres) and watched them make it. We had a lunch of rosti with gruyere, fried ravioli stuffed with gruyere, and plain spaghetti (Samantha) with gruyere. And salad! We did have a couple vegetables, at least. They had a playground too—apparenty Switzerland loves their child amusements.

From there we drove forty minutes to Chillon Castle on the shores of the lake (it’s built on a small offshore island so the moat is the lake) and managed to see it all, including the kids’ tour, before it closed at five. That was really neat—often we see castles with dry moats, and seeing a watery one was nice.

There was a special exhibit about medieval food and drink, so we saw that, and walked all over the place, up and down towers and stairwells, admiring arrow-slit windows (Samantha, returning home, told her class about the castle and reported back, surprised, that no one else in her class knew what an arrow-slit window was. I think she filled them in.)

After the castle, we drove half an hour back to Amit’s house, returning his car and enjoying another delicious dinner and nice evening with his family. He drove us back to Lausanne and dropped us off around 11:30.

On Saturday Lausanne has markets in the old town, really right downstairs from our AirBnB, and it’s also the last weekend for the Christmas markets, so walked around there a bit, sampling things, and also ducking into another cellphone shop because Robert’s SIM card stopped working.

We had some sit-down pastries in the foodcourt/restaurant at the top of Manor, a big department store, which also had comfortable bathrooms, and then we went to a French taco place. I’d read about these: basically French fries, kebab meat (though what they call “kebab” is really sliced, and what we would call gyro meat), cheese, and sauces (a white sauce and a pink sauce sort of like Russian dressing) all rolled up in a tortilla/lavash, like a burrito, and then put under a panini press. It’s neither French nor a taco, but it was delicious. Amit completely laughed at me when I asked about it, saying it’s bad, bad street food, but we’re not food snobs, and we will try just about anything once. This was definitely worth trying!

We also got a crepe sucre and a gaufre chocolat from the place below the taco food court. Then we went with Amit to the cathedral (fine, nothing special but scenic, and they had a Christmas petting zoo outside it for kids with ponies, goats, and bunnies) and the Art Brut museum, which was excellent. It’s a very small museum but they had free Bluetooth enabled audio guides in English (and many other languages) and a kids’ booklet with lovely colored pencils. I could get the audio guide in English and then translate enough of the kids’ booklet from French to let Samantha do all the activities, and it was fun to read about the biographies of the artists—who tried to burn his house down at 16, spent 20 years in a psychiatry hospital then the rest of his life obsessively made art at home while being watched like a hawk by his mother; who was abandoned as a baby and kicked out of his apprenticeship and went to prison as a sex offender but then created fantastic pottery, etc. The kids were fascinated, and it took about the right length of time. Samantha really responded to the fact that none of the artists featured there had trained as artists.

From there we went to the dock of lake Geneva in Ouchy and the kids ran around—playgrounds, swings, giant chess pieces, lots of people watching, pretty boats and scenery even though it was cloudy—and then back to Amit’s house for “Swiss dinner,” raclette and fondue. Elena’s Ukrainian friends stopped by and joined us for raclette, and everyone discussed Switzerland vs. various other countries. We admired Amit’s fancy cheese-melter last night for raclette: just put a plate of boiled potatoes under it, swivel the cheese out, tilt, and scrape some melted cheese onto the potatoes. I loved it, but I tried to say, look, we have baked stuffed potatoes in the US, which are a similar flavor profile. Of course, at that, I think the food snobs revolted! We stayed until 11 again, and made sure to take some pictures before we left.

The next day we got up, checked out of our AirBnB, and realized that everything in Lausanne is entirely closed. We took the train to Bern, the capital of Switzerland and now a German Swiss city, with pretty different culture and food preferences, especially given it was just about an hour’s train ride. (Below: views from the train.)

Helen and even Samantha enjoyed the small playground in the family car on the train, and in Bern we had a short walk to our hotel.

more. . . .


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Created: 1/9/19. Last Modified: 2/25/19.