A mini, variable winter vacation! Kris's sister Katie came and stayed with us for a week on her way to attend a volunteer nursing program in the Ukraine-she left very early this morning to drive back to the airport in Milan and be on her way to her next stop in Europe, but while she was here we had a blast! Kris took the week off work and we got to see a few places we hadn't yet been to. We had thoughts of going to Nice or Lyon but that would have been just too much for one week with everything else that we wanted to happen, so we started off slow and at the end of a week it had been filled with activity.
Tuesday Morning: Katie called us to say she'd landed in Milan, had gotten her rental car and would be up to Lugano in an hour or so and so we got ourselves up and dressed and ready to go and when the time came, Kris took Chloe with him downstairs to meet her and find a place to park the car, parking being difficult around our neighborhood if you don't have an assigned place. I opened the door when I heard them come up to see two suitcases and Chloe's hard-sided kennel make it up the stairs with Kris and Katie's help, Chloe bouncing around the both of them so excited to see someone new in the apartment. We'd taken Chloe's hard kennel home in June on our summer vacation and had stuffed it full of goodies from Costco and such and with Katie's trip it was finally able to come back to us. Hello, Kraft Mac and Cheese-30 boxes went down to 28 when we cooked 2 with a few sausage links for dinner that night. (We've been craving!) We showed Katie the apartment, she got settled in the guest room and announced that she'd brought our Christmas presents, did we want to open them now unwrapped or wait for the actual holiday and she'd brought wrapping paper and gift bags with her to wrap it all up, so we've got them all tucked away into the living room corner behind the couch, all wrapped with tissue paper and the like! (I think today's the day to bring up the Christmas Tree from our storage nook in the basement.) We decided to have a more leisurely first travel day for Katie's first day in town and the plan was to drive to Locarno and Bellinzona (the later we've been to before, a couple of times, for sightseeing and for checking into the region with all our visa paperwork) and so loaded up the car and headed to Locarno first, found a parking spot, and wandered about downtown. There's a cable car there that goes up one of the peaks in Locarno but we couldn't find the bottom/office right off so we wandered down the streets looking for a place to eat lunch. We stopped into a tea shop that I'm going to have to go back to-they have those little teapots that come stacked into matching tea-cups, beautifully painted, and tons of tins of different loose-leaf teas and the shop smelled amazing. The owner said hello to us in English and we were surprised to find out he was from Canada and had been living in Switzerland for 20 years, and loved the slow, quieter pace of Locarno versus the hustle and bustle of Lugano. We asked him the best place to have lunch in town and he directed us to a restaurant where the chef was 5 Star rated and who usually took lunch reservations but since we were early for lunch, he didn't think it would be a problem. He said it was hands down, the best food in town and that the chef hired local people who had some mental and physical disabilities as his serving/waitstaff in an effort to give back to the community around him. We found the place, got a table, and ordered the menu of the day, which was a salad with mustard dressing, very good, a fish fillet with rice served with basmati rice and what I think was a lemon/butter sauce and we got tiramisu for dessert. The food was fantastic! Probably one of the best meals I've had eating out while we've lived here-it was amazing, and as I usually don't order fish when we go out to eat, it was even more amazing, and the service was great-the waitstaff was very professional. I applaud the chef for giving them jobs and helping them have a more normal chance at life and a way to support themselves. After lunch we wandered along, finally deciding to drive and find the bottom of the cable car, but found that the top section was closed for maintenance, only the bottom car going down into town was open, so we decided against it. A lot of the trams and cables around here close for the winter season (which I'll agree is smart) but it would have been fun to go. We'll have to go back in a couple months when it warms back up. We saw signs for a castle but it seemed as though it had been converted into a school, as evidenced by all the little kids who came running by us on our way down the path to find it and explore. By then Katie decided she probably needed a nap and so we skipped Bellinzona and headed back for home and made a plan for the next day.
Wednesday: Zurich! We've been through town many times to change trains on our way to and from Neuchatel but have never really had too much time to wander around, and we'd looked up Christmas festivities, and even in the train station itself there was a Christmas fair with booths for crafts and homemade and more commercially made items, bowls, jewelry, scarves, toys, spices, food booths, of course, and the like and our little Christmas fair downtown isn't so large to be demanding of seeing, so we made a point to wander through the one in Zurich before we left town. We picked of course, the cold, rainy, extremely windy day to go wander (Rome, all over again) but awhile after we got into town the rain had died down so that was awesome. We found a car park near the train station, wandered into the tourist office to get some info and a map and decided on seeing Old Town Zurich, which was not so much very old but more like Lorcano, quieter and less foot traffic, some new shops, some old shops, a few chances for some great pictures of churches and some city views. We decided on a restaurant and went in early and the host told us it didn't open for lunch for 45 minutes so we made a reservation and found a pet store for Chloe, got her some treats and one of those collapsible water bowls, which she's not sure she likes yet, but she finally found int useful in Chamonix at our hotel. We found a bookstore for Katie, that had maps too, as she was looking for old maps of France to put up in her house, but they didn't have exactly what they were looking for. We finally found an ATM and headed back up to the restaurant. The dinning room we'd chosen to sit in on the host's earlier recommendation was 200 years old, had not been updated at all, and the benches and tables were well worn but still sturdy, and all over them and the walls people had carved their names, dates, initials and such-it looked like someone had put up wallpaper with an "engraved" design. That day Katie and I had the pork fillet with pepper sauce and Kris had the steak as their other main menu option for the day was the fish that was very much the same meal that we'd had on Tuesday so we went for the other choices. Chloe was happy to be out of the cold and the rain and our waitress brought her a huge bowl of water and insisted that we share with her, which we did. I got salad instead of the potato soup that Kris and Katie had gotten (which I tasted, and was yummy) but loved the way they served the salad in a small steep bowl with the lettuce and endive leaves coming up the sides instead of being layered horizontally and so there was a little reservoir of dressing in the very bottom of the bowl and all the salad was evenly coated with dressing. The pork was excellent and came with little tiny Brussels sprouts and Spatzle (pasta), which we're going to have to try and make more often at home-so yummy (boiled like regular pasta and then lightly pan-fried with butter.) So yummy! We definitely had good food all week long! We asked our waitress what we absolutely had to see before we left town and she gave us a few options, one of them being the church across the river with a huge clock tower, which was beautiful. Katie had found in the tourist booklet a place above Zurich that had caves but when we got back on the road, found out on google that they too were closed for the winter and not open again until April or something, to it was off to Schaffhausen to the Rheinfalls, these gorgeous waterfalls on the edge of town. We bought tickets and wandered down the path to take pictures from a few viewing sites (well, Katie took pictures as we'd forgotten our camera and had left the phones with camera app in the car...) and made it a quick viewing as the rain had chosen to come back down! We took the elevator back up to the top as directed, stopped into the restaurant for a warm-off cappuccino and stopped in at the gift shop on the way back to the car-I found a shiny red Switzerland Thermos that I decided I needed! I'd seen the commuter mugs first but as I don't commute and we're getting rid of our car (sigh) I settled on the second, better option. I'm thinking piping-hot tea or hot chocolate for walks through the park in the next few weeks! From the Rheinfalls to a bit of traffic back in to Lugano in time for us to stop at our favorite watering hole for a quick drink and a toasted sandwich from Mimi and to introduce Katie to our friends who were there and wandering in before we had to head off to our sailing course (which presented a new speaker for the night and no power point presentation, which was bad because we'd decided we didn't really need to grab our materials as we were expecting a slide presentation. The gal spent most of her time drawing on the overhead projector and explaining her points in the most round-about way possible...next time, and from now on, materials it is!) Katie took Chloe and spent the time doing homework and when we got home we planned for the next couple of days and decided on Chamonix, France, her favorite spot in the entire world and somewhere I had yet to see, and in the two days we had left, we weren't going to be able to feasibly do more than one or two things, so we found and booked a hotel that had an outdoor hot-tub and heated pool that was dog-friendly, and planned the route to be able to go over St. Bernard (yup, like the Swiss dogs that search for you in the snow if you're lost and have that little keg around their necks to keep you warm until someone human finds you...) to drive up and down into the valley for the best snowy, sunny, very cold but gorgeous views.
A little later than planned, Thursday morning: Waking up late, which was much needed (I'd only gotten a few hours of sleep the night before) we made a late departure, quickly packed and were on our way-this time, my heavy cold-weather jacket on hand. I dearly need to waterproof the one I'd worn to Zurich over a sweatshirt but it just wasn't going to be warm enough for snow country, waterproofed or not. We packed into the car, took the southern route down through Italy so we could connect through the pass into France as opposed to going under the mountain for our way there (we did it on the way back, and as it was dark when we left, there wasn't going to be a lot to see.) We stopped in Martigny for a yummy lunch and headed on towards Chamonix, having to stop and wait for 30 minutes or so for the pass into Chamonix valley to be cleared as they'd had heavy snowfall and some avalanches the night before, bu the wait was definitely worth it. Coming over and down into the valley all surrounded by snow was amazingly beautiful! I'd commented on how lucky Kris and Katie were to be able to live in Utah growing up and drive half an hour to get to snow and skiing while we had to pack up and drive for at least three hours to get up into the colder northern California mountains to get anywhere to be able to go sledding and such! I don't want to necessarily want live in snow weather all winter long but's it very nice to have it so close again! I think we're going to have to go back in a month or so and go snowboarding/skiing. At any rate, we finally got into Chamonix proper, found our way around driving, found our hotel (to our delight a Best Western chain hotel-good to know) and checked in, and feeling close to freezing took a dip in the hot-tub to thaw out-we'd gotten settled just as it was getting dark so after the hot tub, bundled up again and wandered around town-most of the stores had closed, there were only bars and restaurants open, and we decided we could eat-I just wanted something simple and easy and warm and ended up having probably the best lasagna I've ever had in my entire life....it was straight from the oven, having been baked in a ceramic serving size dish and the cheese was still bubbling when the waitress brought it to me. So absolutely delicious! There's something to be said for some parts of French cooking-somehow they make the most simple things so incredibly good! It was getting close to being late so after dinner we wandered a bit more to see shops that were closed that we made mental notes of wanting to come back the next day before we left, and I passed a shop that as the guy was closing, was carrying in a rack with the most gorgeous faux-wool trimmed jacket. All the lights in the shop were off save the porchlight so I checked the price tag and decided we'd have to come back the next day to try one on and see if I was more on love with the fit than the mental image of it that was now stuck in my head! We wandered back to the hotel and got a coffee with Bailey's at the bar before heading up to the room to read for a while before passing out for the night...I wish now I'd taken a picture of our room-it was all in purples! Purple drapes, purple carpet, purple accent chair, black & white tile in the bathroom-it was awesome! Made me happy, anyway.
Friday Morning: We woke up somewhat bright and early, and I snapped a few pics from our hotel balcony, where while it was sure to warm up, was freezing. Kris had a coca-cola outside on the patio table and somehow it was even giving off steam being warmer than everything around it-Brr! Yes, it was cold. I decided against a shower and having to fully dry my hair before going out into the winter wonderland. We got dressed and packed our bags into the car (the concierge having told us we could park the car in the underground garage of the hotel as log as we liked) and made sure we had everything ready to go for the day before we checked out. We took the little mountain train up to Montenvers peak and had gorgeous views all the way-cameras were snapping pictures all the way up-to the peak where we could see Mont Blanc and the rest of the valley beyond-so beautiful! We had an hour to spend before the train back down and so took a lot of pictures, chatted with a few other tourists, and ducked inside the cafe/gift shop for coffee and shopping (which sadly, the gifts we bought somehow ended up being lost from my bag at our lunch destination back downtown. Grr.) We headed back down into town, no general schedule in mind but needing lunch, and so asked a few people where the best Fondue place in town, and not finding the first place suggested, went back to the little shop where my jacket to be was still sitting in the dark behind the glass doors, a sign up on the window saying it would be a late opening due to traffic and snow on the roads. Well...we wandered around a few more streets and got advice on the best fondue in town from one shop clerk and headed that way! We decided on a fondue we'd never heard of before, being made with champagne instead of the regular white wine added, and ordered a small steak to share, and escargot. Yes, I've now tried and can say I've eaten snails. Thankfully, they were covered in melted butter and pesto sauce, but it's going to be quite a while before I do that again...but the steak, and the fondue, more than made up for it! I think the champagne made all the difference-it was so good! We didn't end up eating anything horrible the whole week, I think. We finished off the entire fondue (the waiter was nice enough to recommend ordering for two people as it was a lot of cheese, apparently, and he was right-it was enough for the three of us!) Creme Brulee for dessert, probably the best I've ever had (sorry, Monterey bistros!), followed by French cappuccino which while it wasn't Italian coffee, was still pretty good, in my book. We bundled back up and out into the cold which was not so bad, as the sun was finally doing some good and managing to melt some of the ice in the streets, and headed back for the boutique, where, being after 3pm when they'd said on their sign they'd be open, they were not. Wandered in and out of a few antique shops, and a photography/art shop where Katie found a couple gorgeous prints of the mountains for her walls back home and we found a booklet of postcards, and up the street to have a drink and wait for the shop to open. Ran into a guy from Australia who'd been up on the mountain the same time we had and chatted with a bit before he had to head for his bus-got back to the shop a third time and finally found it open with my jacket to be on the same rack outside where it had been the night before when I probably should have just asked the guy if we could buy it right then and there, and would have probably gotten a "no, but come back tomorrow," but finally! Tried on the medium size first and decided it was perfect enough that I could layer a thin sweater underneath for downtown Lugano at night and be perfectly comfortably warm. Yay! My second treasure from our week of traveling places we hadn't been before. Pictures are coming, promise. We'd thought to maybe grab one more coffee and a baguette to snack on later before we got out of town but decided against it as it was finally getting late-somewhere around 5pm when we got back to the hotel and packed back into the car for the drive home. Nighttime views out of Chamonix were quite lovely! I love seeing snow-covered peaks in the dark, with a little moonlight just enough to outline them and show off all the snowy-white. All in all it was a great week and a wonderful trip. We got home and unpacked and Katie repacked, to realize we'd lost our souvenirs from Montenvers-thinking about calling the restaurant to see if they could check the table we'd been sitting at and if they'd be willing to ship it to us, so we'll see-among what we'd bought, Kris picked out two sew-on patches of Chamonix that were designed like edelweiss flowers, as we've made it our flower, and something to add to our Schilthorn/007 James Bond patches when we figure out what we want to put them on. It was kind of sad to realize that we had misplaced them but since I've got the business card from the restaurant (which I've taken up re-collecting from places we've been) we'll see what we can do to get them back again. Katie headed off this morning for her next stop before home but was so happy that we'd gotten to see Chamonix again, and I was happy I'd gotten to see it with her and Kris. We talked about maybe having everyone come out and meet us there next winter and spend a whole week, skiing/snowboarding and the like-it would be a lot of fun to have the family come and see us here instead of going home again-we'll have to see what we can plan.
It was good to go and it's good to be back home, but it was so awesome to have Katie in town and show her our little slice of life! She finally got to see some of downtown Lugano last night when we came in and while everything of course, was pretty much closed, they still had Christmas lights up and the ice-rink downtown was up and going, and it was fun to share with her.
Happy Holidays and Happy Traveling!