The Highest Point in the Valley of Hell

Les-Baux-de-Provence, France, is known for its bloody and ruthless past.  Known for pushing individuals off the rocky cliffs, decapitation, and other cruel methods of death, the lords of Les Baux are not characters you’d want to cross.   Thus, the area was feared.

It is said Dante modeled one of his layers of hell in the Inferno off of the rocky landscape of Les Baux.

I am not sure which contributed to it, but area became known as “The Valley of Hell.”

An omnious sky over Les-Baux-de-Provence

Gabe and I visited Les-Baux-de-Provence on our whirlwind trip to see the lavender this summer. However, short on time, we didn’t climb the entire way to see the castle & fortifications.  Instead, we wandered around the village checking out churches and views from the mid-heights.

However, this time, Mom & I were up for the adventure.

The wind was whipping at the top of Les Baux

Le Mistral, the fierce Provençal wind, also accompanied us.  However, pressing against the bursts had its rewards.  The top was very impressive with bell towers and rooms carved into the face of the stone cliffs.

Rocky facade of the castle

The sky definitely accentuated the scariness

If you go to Les Baux, don’t miss going to the top!

 

Related Links:

The Swiss Watch Blog:  Les Baux de Provence

Schwingen in Switzerland :  We Didn’t Know the Valley of Hell was So Beautiful – Les Baux

Popping some bottles in Chateauneuf-du-Pape

Châteauneuf-du-Pape is a wine region within Southern France.   The area became notorious in the 14th Century when Avignon, France, became the seat of the Pope during the Catholic schism.  The Popes were lovers of wine and in particular, of Burgundy wines.   However, they needed to find a closer source than Burgundy.  In 1321, Pope John XXII requisitioned wine from this particular area and the production became named ‘Vin du Pape’ for wine of the Pope.  Later the name evolved to Châteauneuf-du-Pape, referencing the wine of the ‘new castle of the Pope’.

The Papal Palace was located in nearby Avignon

I’m sure Pope John XXII was thrilled when the Beastie Boys crooned the verse,  “Like a bottle of Chateauneuf du Pape / I’m fine like wine when I start to rap.”

The rocky terrain in Châteauneuf-du-Pape

In addition to its rich history and presence in Beastie Boys songs, Châteauneuf-du-Pape is the wine king of Southern France, claiming price points similar to Burgundy and Bordeaux.  The region is known for the rocky terrain, many meters thick, which was created many years ago when the area was once the bed of the Rhone river.

Now the Rhone rests a few kilometers away and the rocks, galets roulés , serve as heaters and water insulators for the terroir.

I was lucky to get a special glimpse at this wine area with a group traveling from Virginia.    Our first stop on the wine tasting adventure was at Château Beaucastel, a lovely maker of Châteauneuf-du-Pape.

The view from Château Beaucastel

The morning we visited, I had just finished the book, Of Wine And War.  Wine was considered France’s national treasure, and the lengths to which the French winemakers went keeping their good wine from the Nazis was really interesting.   From sending the bad vintages, to building faux walls, and even burying in in the soil, they tried everything to preserve the historic vintages for France.   Our guide at Château Beaucastel said not many vintages had likely escaped Nazi hands as there were not many pre-war bottles left today.

Cellars at Château Beaucastel.  I was inspecting for pre-war bottles, but found none.

The group also visited  domaine de la Mordorée, Domaine Grand Veneur, and  La Bastide St. Dominique, all which produce Chateauneuf-du-Pape.

My graduation year

Related Links:

Schwingen in Switzerland: Wine Museum in Châteauneuf-du-Pape

Schwingen in Switzerland:  Châteauneuf-du-Pape rocked us….literally

Art therapy at St-Paul de Mausole

Just south of Saint-Rémy-de-Provence are groves of olive trees and rows of cedars. Driving along the D5 highway, one might miss the Maison de Santé Saint-Paul de Mausole which rests back from the highway. I know our first trip to St-Rémy, we certainly did.

The olive groves off of D5

However, back in the surroundings of this traditional Provençal landscape is a special place of rest.  It is a home for psychiatric patients, individuals with special needs, and the elderly. Art therapy is used with the patients as a method of healing.

Cloister at St-Paul de Mausole

Grounds at St-Paul de Mausole

And one of the patients…Vincent Van Gogh.   The courtyards and grounds are filled with scenes familiar to many.  From an art standpoint, his time in Provence was his most productive period.

Scene for Les Oliviers

Vincent Van Gogh’s, Les Oliviers, image courtesy of Google Images

Scene for Le ravin des Pairoulets

Vincent Van Gogh’s Le ravin des Pairoulets, image courtesy of Google Images

Van Gogh lived here after his stay in Arles, and after the loss of his ear, committed himself.  It is evident the staff appreciated Van Gogh as they let him paint alone outside, a designation not given to many.   In St Rémy, Van Gogh created 143 oil paintings and  100 drawings within one years’ time.

My aunt, Miss Talent, enjoying the grounds at St-Paul de Mausole.

Still today, patients create masterpieces in the form of painting and sculpture. They are for sale in the small shop that sits below Van Gogh’s old room.  It makes you wonder about undiscovered potential, perhaps within one of today’s artists living there.  After all, Vincent maybe earned $100 as an artist before he died.

The Irises, was also painted by Van Gogh at St-Paul de Mausole.   In 1987, it was the most expensive painting ever sold. Image courtesy of Google Images.

Our leader Kay read this quote as we pulled away from the site,

“The world concerns me only in so far as I have a certain debt and duty to it, because I have lived in it for thirty years and owe to it to leave behind some souvenir in the shape of drawings and paintings – not done to please any particular movement, but within which a genuine human sentiment is expressed.” ― Vincent van Gogh

I for one am very glad for his souvenirs.

Desalpe Festival

Sometimes I have to pinch myself when I realize that we live in Switzerland.   We love getting to experience a completely new way of life and new customs.   This past weekend was no exception, when we attended the Semsales Desalpe Festival.

What is a Desalpe you might ask?    In Switzerland, the cows happily live in the Alps in the summer, munching away on the greenest of grassy pastures.  However, the cold snowy temperatures that come in the winter are even too harsh for Swiss cattle.  So every Fall, the happy Swiss cows come down from their summer home in the high Alps to their lower grassy pastures and barns.

Most small villages celebrate their return home with a Desalpe Festival, literally translated, “from the Alps”.

We attended the festival in the town of Semsales, in the canton of Fribourg, near Gruyeres.   This festival is special because of its spacing.  Typically, all the herds are condensed in one parade.  However, in Semsales, each group gets the individual spotlight.    From 10:00 in the morning until 18:00 in the evening, a total of 14 families march through town proudly, welcoming their herd home for the winter.

We got quite an awakening to the procession when parking our car.   Literally, one of the herds came into us!

Well, hello there.

Walking into town, we got to see quite a few more processions.    The first few cows wear very tall ornamentation.  Sort of like Christmas trees on their heads:

Nope – not Christmas in October. Just the Desalpe festival!

Then comes the more subdued cows….smaller floral arrangements.

This lady has a classier look going on. But what she looses in floral prowess, she makes up in cowbell size. Holy cow.

Moo-ve over and get out of my way, lady.

Just an everyday walk on the highway

In addition to the cows, groups of musicians were also a special part of the Desalpe.   We enjoyed the cowbell group:

The cowbell band

Handling their bells. The muscles on these folks have to be strong!

We really enjoyed the Alphorn band

They also have delicious cheese and meat based foods.

This was a super big pot of cheesy potatoes

Local meat, cheeses, and breads for lunch. Plus some nice red wine from the nearby vineyards.

If you are attending a Desalpe, just make sure to wear old shoes or maybe even some wellies.  You are most certainly going to step in something nasty.

Hey lady, maybe you want to keep your baby out of the cow poo

I thought this was my best picture of the day until I realized what was happening.

For a more interesting visual, check out the video footage from our day at the Desalpe:

Postcards from the Swiss Riviera

Switzerland, being landlocked, actually has no ocean.   However, the shores of Lake Geneva near Montreux and Vevey are named “The Swiss Riviera” because of it’s picturesque and prestigious location on the lake, in view of both the Swiss & French Alps.  When Heidi & Olga were visiting Geneva, we took a day trip to this special region of Switzerland.

This area is located about an hour train or car ride from Geneva.  The ride provides amazing views of the coastline of Lake Geneva.

Typical view in the Swiss Riviera

Upon arriving in Montreux, we walked through the Montreux Marché, or Friday market.  I had actually never been to Montreux for a Friday market, and found it delightful.  It included vendors selling everything from handmade sweaters, to Provençal soaps, to secondhand goods.  They also had quite a variety of delicious street food.

We strolled along the Quai des Fleurs (walkway of flowers) towards Villeneuve.   One of the most special things about Montreux is that it has somewhat of a tropical ambience to it, provided by its plants and landscaping.

They have a few nice hotels in Montreux

Beautiful flowers against the French Alps. Seems like Summer, not Autumn!

A sweet hibiscus overlooks Lake Geneva

After a half hour’s stroll, we reached Chateau Chillon.   The castle dominates the coastline and was a major defensive structure up until modern times.  We didn’t go inside, but instead enjoyed the different perspectives we could see on the nature trails surrounding the chateau.

Chateau Chillon in autumn.

The legendary castle

The modern speedboats were a funny juxtaposition against the medieval castle

After walking back to Montreux and partaking of some of the market food, we then decided to visit to the Lavaux region.    I have heard numerous rave reviews about Le Deck, a beautiful bar/restaurant that overlooks the UNESCO designated Lavaux vineyards.   Heidi & Olga were game for checking it out, so we took a small regional train to Chexbres, the small town where Le Deck is located.    Note that it is possible to get there on the train, if you pay a 1.80 CHF  supplement on your Geneva-Montreux train ticket.  And you can return straight to Geneva via Lausanne.

The town of Chexbres is a quintessential Swiss wine town.  Gabe & I have driven guests through it, descending off the A1 at the Chexbres exit and weaving down the wine roads to Rivaz.  There are almost as many wine cellars as citizens, with dozens of these little operations dotting the small village.   We have always enjoyed the drive; however, there is a certain magic about walking around in the town that Heidi, Olga & I discovered.    This was especially true during the timing of our visit, as it was the height of the grape harvest.      The locals were busy, soaking in the sunshine, and tasting the year’s dividends.

The village of Chexbres

It was very tempting to stay and drink our way through the town, but we continued on walking towards the outside of town and our destination: Le Deck.  Our friends were right – this is certainly a special place.   Cushy chairs and linen canopies provide an oasis above the Lavaux vineyards.   You can purchase wine by the glass and enjoy the view, savoring the fruits of the labor of the vineyard workers, who just happened to be harvesting underneath our feet.

The Lavaux vineyards

Olga, enjoying a glass of Lavaux rosé

Au Revoir, Swiss Riviera.  Thanks for a remarkable day!

Six more pieces of “chocolate trivia”

While the Heidi and Olga were in town, we managed to sneak in a chocolate tour at Stettler Laboratories.   I had done a tour with the AIWC back in February, and it was really well done, so thought they’d like doing it.    Plus, the last time I did the tour, it was in French.   So, this time, we opted for English and I soaked up a few more facts that my previous visit.    Here is what we learned:

Chocolate can help get your full day’s servings of fruits & vegetables.   The cocoa pod, from which chocolately goodness is extracted, is actually a FRUIT!

The cocoa plant.  Kind of creepy.  Like a brain.

Chocolate can help your garden grow.    You can actually use the non-edible parts of cocoa shells for garden mulch.  Just be careful if you have a dog!!

Cocoa shell images courtesy of Homejelly.com

White chocolate actually isn’t chocolate.    It is a derivative of the delicious stuff, but really only uses the cocoa butter.

Learning about the differences in cocoa and cocoa butter

You can spread out the joy over many months.    Most chocolate keeps six months.   If it has cream or fruit-type ingredients, you should consume it over 8 weeks.  Good to know!  I always try to consume it within a week so it didn’t go stale or maybe that was just because there was fresh yummy chocolate in the house and I couldn’t resist.  But, I guess I can savor it a bit more now!

Chocolate can’t be kept as long as a fine wine, but longer than I had assumed!   Loved Stettler’s chocolate wine bottles, just in time for the grape harvest, come stuffed with truffles 🙂

However, speaking of storage, don’t keep chocolate in the fridge.  The moisture can break it down.  If you don’t have a cool, dark place, make sure you wrap it tightly so the moisture doesn’t reach it.

Mmmmmm. Tasty!

Like most hand-crafted goods, expect to pay more for quality chocolate.  Stettler is a very quality Swiss brand and all of the chocolate is made by hand.

The classic marmites for Geneva’s L’Escalade take a lot of hand-work.

If you would like to visit Stettler, you can call or email them to make an appointment for a visit.   The visit costs 20 CHF per person, but includes a lovely gift of the famous Paves de Genève at the end.
Chocolats Stettler
49 avenue Blanc
1202 Genève
Téléphone: 022 738 17 20
Related links:

The Swiss Watch Blog:   It’s Raining – I guess we have to go to the chocolate factory

The Swiss Watch Blog: The Land of Chocolate & Cheese

The Swiss Watch Blog:  Famous Swiss Foods – Chocolate (My first Stettler visit)

Neuschwanstein Castle & Bavarian Landscapes

After a full day of beer drinking at Oktoberfest on Friday, we had opted to get out of Munich and do a little sightseeing on Saturday.  This was both a good and bad idea.    The good was that it prevented us from signing up for another day of beer drinking.   The bad was that we had to get up early and  navigate how to get to the little village we’d selected, all whilst suffering from a bout of cocktail fever.

Nevertheless, we boarded the correct train at the München Hauptbahnhof towards Fussen.   We marveled at the hoards of people coming in that day for Oktoberfest.

Our train. Direction Fussen.

Revelers, coming in from their villages, ready for the day. You’ll see some good examples of traditional German dress here.

Lederhosen and party hats.  Don’t these guys look like they are 16?

Notice the crates of beer they’d brought with them to consume on the train.

The scene made us glad we weren’t on those trains coming into Munich.   There wasn’t a seat to be had!    Our train was busy, yet seats were available.    We enjoyed the peaceful two hour ride through the Bavarian countryside.

Taking the train through Bavaria

We got off at Fussen and took a cab into the nearby village of  Hohenschwanau.   Towering above the town was the Schloss Hohenschwanau.   This19th Century castle was built by Maximillian II of Bavaria.   It is more famous nowadays for being the childhood home of King Ludwig II who built Neuschwanstein castle, the castle that Disneyland’s Sleeping Beauty castle was modeled after.

View from town of Hohenschwanau

View from above of Hohenschwanau and the tiny village

Ludwig II built Neuschwanstein a stone’s leap away from his parent’s house, funded from his own fortune.    He built the castle as a tribute to Richard Wagner, the composer.  He wanted to make it feel like one of Wagner’s pieces had come to life in the castle, to make it a reality.   That, and he fancied living in the Middle Ages.  The castle helped bring these fantasies to life, creating a retreat which resembled Middle Age living, far outside the city of Munich.

Neuschwanstein castle

Sadly, King Ludwig II never was able to live inside his castle.   He was deposed of his throne due to mental incapacity and building stopped.   Only about one-third of the rooms were finished.   Shortly after, he died mysteriously in the shallow waters of a nearby lake.   There is speculation about the medical prognosis due to the sudden and unexplained nature of his death.  Some think that there was a conspiracy to take his crown.   Only the shallow waters know, I suppose.

We were able to tour the castle because Olga had pre-arranged tickets.   For those interested, I’d recommend her approach: buying tickets in advance.  You can only tour the castle with a reservation on one of the official tours.   When we arrived to pick up our reserved tickets, the wait was 4 1/2 hours to get a tour for those who had not.

Walking up to Neuschwanstein

The inside rooms that we saw were miraculous – amazing detail.  Ludwig was very creative in weaving the stories of Wagner’s operas into the artwork, carvings, and castle floors.

We weren’t able to take photos inside, but this photo is courtesy of wikipedia.

Ludwig even thought to construct a man-made cave that lead from his bedroom to his dressing room, to mimic a scene of a cave in one of the operas.   Olga mentioned this was the “original man cave” which drew a lot of chuckles from some of the guys on the tour.

Image courtesy of wikipedia

After the tour, we took a lovely walk through the fall foliage and stood on Marienbrücke, Mary’s bridge, to take pictures.  The bridge is a 15 minute walk from the castle.  If you end up not being able to tour the castle, we would still recommend getting the vantage point from Mary’s bridge.  It was pretty awesome.

Mary’s bridge is the little white horizontal line in the center of the photo. Sorry our point-and-shoot camera isn’t the best at focusing.

This shaky little bridge made me a bit nervous, especially after looking down!

Heidi, Olga, Gabe and me on Mary’s Bridge.

We followed our experience by drinking some King Ludwig beer at the little restaurant Bräustübert, underneath the castles.  As we’d hiked a mile on a steep uphill, had a tour, and made a stop at the bridge, all within lunch hour, we really were ready for some delicious German food.  We all got some form of sausage or schnitzel which did the job of satiating our hungry bellies, along with the delicious beer.

My schnitzel and weissbeir. A good lunch.  

Oktoberfest

We had a few friends from the States visiting Europe and they suggested a meet-up in Munich during the 16-day long Oktoberfest.   Sure, twist our arms!

While this was my first time to Munich & Oktoberfest, Gabe was no stranger to the event.   He attended the 201o Oktoberfest on it’s 200th anniversary.

As the biggest festival / fair in the world, with 6 million attendees, it was quite a site to behold. The first thing I noticed is the beer tents are not actually “tents” but beautifully designed wooden buildings.   I was expecting muddy shoes and being outside in the elements, but was pleasantly surprised!

Our group outside our “tent”.

I thought the tent was so beautiful.

Our friend from Geneva, Mr. Lederhosen, arranged for an amazing table inside the tent for us.  Apparently, you have to get tables a year in advance and still you need to be a VIP – either German with a lot of ins, or willing to fork over a lot of cash.   We met some Americans the last day whose concierge said he could get them seated for 5000 euro for their group of six.

Our awesome table location

Mr. Lederhosen hooked us up big time with his Munich connections.   We paid 20 euro each for our seats, and got a liter of beer and a half chicken, a Hendl, to boot!

A and I with our first liters

The best chicken in the world. Mmmm.

There is a special attire for Oktoberfest.  Men traditionally wear  Lederhosen, and the girls wear a German dress called a Dirndl.  Both can wear Bavarian hats called Tirolerhüte.

Typical storefront in Munich

Gabe with A & A in their German attire.

Our host, Mr. Lederhosen in his authentic lederhosen

7 million liters of beer are served annually at Oktoberfest.  We had our fair share.

Prost!

So did the rest of the tent.   I loved when the band played, “Ein Prosit”……

Ein Prosit, ein Prosit 
Der Gemütlichkeit 
Ein Prosit, ein Prosit 
Der Gemütlichkeit. 

A toast, a toast
To cheer and good times
A toast, a toast
To cheer and good times.

An enthusiastic crowd.

It was pretty impressive how much the beer girls could carry.

A typical delivery – 7-8 liters without a tray.

We tried to have a stein-holding competition as well as a beer girl competition.  It was pretty hard.

Who can hold it the longest?

A gave it a good try!

Certain vendors are very popular.  My favorite were the folks selling pretzels.

This pretzel stand means business.

Don’t worry about getting up out of your seat. Pretzels come by every 5 minutes.

The pretzel was the size of my head. So was the beer for that matter.

Gabe liked the pickle guy.

Pickle guy

They also have Lebkuchen – gingerbread hearts for sale.   Gabe brought me back one of these in 2010 that said “I love you” in German.  He had a work trip in Europe afterwards so by the time it reached me, I needed to wet the cookie in the sink to soften it enough so we could bite into it.

Cookie stand

It was still a lovely thought and I really enjoyed getting to experience Oktoberfest myself!

Amsterdam’s Bike-Loving Lifestyle

I think there are more bikes in Copenhagen than Amsterdam, but it more obvious in Amsterdam.   Every nook and cranny is filled with bikes.

Typical canal scene in Amsterdam

Bike parking

They even have a bike garage at Centraal Station to contain all of them.  We’d seen it last trip, but it was neat to see it from the water.

Bike garage

This trip, I noticed a “bike boats” that were built to contain some of the ones that were spilling off the street.

Red boats of bikes on the right

The Dutch are very talented at their bike riding.   You often see them talking on the cell phone, and some of the women apply make-up while navigating their bike.  I’d be in a canal if I were them!

I noticed a few things that are crucial if you are Amsterdam biker:

–Many people have “saddle bags” that are meant for their things – purses, work bags, groceries.

–A lot of folks have extra seats, for children or friends.  Even if there was no seat, we saw a lot of people “side saddling” the bike while their friends drove them along.

Image courtesy of bike-epic.com

–Carts are good for multiple children. We saw one fellow driving with his infant in a baby carseat and an extra toddler in the cart on the front of his bike.

Bike with a seat on the back and a cart on the front.

–It’s popular to decorate your bike.  Either by weaving your basket with artificial flowers, or by painting it an unusual color, like bright pink.   Heck, I don’t blame them.  I commented that I’d want a GPS tracking device for my bike since I’d be afraid if I lived in Amsterdam, I’d constantly forget where I parked with the bike storage chaos!  It pays to stand out!

–People with nice bikes have this special system that allows you to lock your bike without a chain-type mechanism.  Ferdinand and Isabella wondered if bike theft was a problem, since there were so many.  Ferdinand commented that as long as you didn’t have the nicest bike, you might be safe!   However, we know someone  living in Amsterdam who had their nice bike stolen, so it is possible.

–Some people who we met in Amsterdam taught us about the term “time travel”.  Apparently if one has had too much to drink, bikes home, and ends up the next morning with unidentified scrapes and bruises caused by a likely bike accident, you would remark, “last night, on my way home, I time traveled”.

–Some of my Dutch friends told me if they see a group of yellow bikes or people with matching parkas, they know to steer clear.  They said tourists are out of control.  I’d agree……when we rode in November, I didn’t fare so well on the bike (almost had death by tram).  But, it certainly inspires me to ride more when in Geneva or in the States when we return.

if I lived in Amsterdam, I’d want this bike

Brussels’ Grand Palace

When Isabella’s friend heard we were going to Brussels, she asked, “Are you going to see the Flower Carpet”?   To which Isabella replied, “The what?”.   She had not heard of it and neither had I.    Isabella looked it up, found little information, but did discover we’d miss it by a day.   Oh well.

On our Easy Jet flight, the magazine contained a photo and dates which mentioned the 14th of August, the date we’d be there.  The showed how beautiful the flower carpet looked in the Grand Place, the main square in Brussels.  We got excited and re-arranged our Brussels visit to the end of our Brugge trip instead of before.

And, we saw these signs when getting off at Centraal Station:

What…the 15th?   Curses!! We were too early.

We enjoyed Grand Place nonetheless.   It was a gorgeous setting, and I understand why it is a UNESCO world heritage site.

Since we had some extra time to kill NOT seeing the flower carpet, we had a Caprice chocolate for our friend Jen who really recommended Neuhaus chocolates.

We also took a closer look at the preparations.

In-laying the grass must be the first step.

Flowers ready for placement

In case you are curious, this is what the 2012 flower carpet looked like:

Image courtesy of flowerona.

Oh, well.  Maybe next time.  Brussels does the flower carpet every two years.  I am sure it will be easy enough to catch again 😉

Related links:

The Clevelands Pad – Trip Recap Part 1 – Brussels