Thursday, September 11, 2014

Geneva revisited or Europe! Just HOW MUCH cheese can you eat in two weeks??

Cam landed an internship  at an international organization in Geneva for the summer, and we decided that visiting him and having another European adventure was more important than saving money for retirement, and off we went.

July 4: Penang - KL, KL to Doha, Doha to Geneva. Flying into Geneva we see fields and houses, villages--neatness and charm.

The boy was there to meet us--7 am on a Saturday!
on the train into town from the airport
He looks good!! His job is writing brochures on malaria and other health topics for the International Organisation of Migration (think UNHCR but for migrants as opposed to refugees).

K returns to the Geneva/the Palais after OMG 37 years. This is turning out to be old home year for her, with visits to Bangkok, Penang, Singapore and now Geneve.

July 5-6: touring Geneva avec Cam. He owns the place, which is much nicer somehow, more easy going, than I remembered. We took the Palais tour (peacocks still roam—yay!), bought bread and cheese and wine and had a picnic in the Botanical Gardens, which are large and nicely done. We searched for one apartment where I used to live, after I recognized the names of two cross streets, but no luck or not sure anyway. Made a detour to see the statues of Calvin and the other big names of the Reformation, which K remembers as about 4 times larger than they really are. Then we watched a World Cup match over our first biere a la pression. A fine first day in Europe.

outside the Palais des Nations

There are still peacocks at the Palais!

Later, picnic at the Botanical Gardens
K, full of shame below Calvin

The next day we hopped in a rental car and made our way to the Caillier chocolate factory for a fun tour (surprisingly well done) and as much chocolate as we could eat in 5 minutes at the end. C had planned ahead and bought a liter of milk, which enabled him to down a good 50% more than the average unaware citizen. We bought many bars of chocolate, which later melted in the trunk of the car as we enjoyed our first cheese fondue in a simple roadside café... Oh well, will have to eat those ourselves and buy more for presents :-). 

getting the most out of the chocolate factory tour

Between the chocolate and the cheese we took in the castle at Chillon.
Chateau de Chillon

how many prisoners had this view?

July 7 - 11: We leave Cam for the week (he works; we play), hitting the best (well, cheapest) coffee machine in Switzerland, at the airport, where we go to pick up a car to tour the Alsace region of France. 

France strongly appeals and promises to be a good deal less expensive than La Suisse.  We travel along some of the so-called Alsace Wine route, mostly staying in towns that are just off the main route and therefore less exclusive, but which turn out to be every bit as charming. 

First stop is Colmar.  

K wearing unfamiliar closed shoes and a jacket 
But it's just one picturesque, walled medieval town after another ...
wine press

FRANCE !    We have traded oil palm fields for vineyards.  The cows are so contented they lie down in the center of lush green fields. 

We find we are on the route of the Tour de France, which will pass by in a few days just after we leave the area. 

HAD to make a pilgrimage to Bergheim to see a 700 year old tree. It is lovingly supported by a couple of stout posts.
 T masters each city map, each walking tour.  Besides Colmar and Bergheim we visit Bebelheim, Ribeauville, and Riquewihr.

village street with vineyard just behind

We leave Alsace for Lorraine, passing through Munster (yes we bought cheese—so much more interesting, read stinky, than the garden variety Munster cheese of the US) and into Les Vosges,  a ridge of low mountains.
hiking in Les Vosges

July 12: Back to Geneva at the weekend for another day and a half with Cam. 
Here is the boy at Geneva's famous jet d'eau.  We bought beer, shared a duty free cigar,  and sat on the jetty and watched the world go by.

Boy and jet d'eau

On Sunday he took us up to Saleve, a sheer mountain face outside Geneva. 

on the telepherique up

 We walked down--OW.

July 14: Said a bientot again to Cam, and in the early morning we left for Budapest. It was too early for the tram so we had to take a taxi to the airport. It was a Prius.  In Baku they were BMWs.

Budapest!  Um, Pest actually

We met up with old friends Laura and Greg for a bit of adventure halfway around the world from our homes in Washington...

Pest [say Pesht] is where to stay. The castle hill in Buda is where to go and see the view and know the lay of the land. The 24 hour transit card is the way to avoid the hassle and confusion of tram/metro/bus tickets and even allows you to CRUISE THE DANUBE (about half an hour, one side of the river to the other and down a piece).

The Danube was historically seen as a natural boundary between Europe and  Asia.  From the citadel hilltop view we see the seemingly endless plains beyond.

Happy cows lie around in Hungary too.

The city has a Soviet era subway—so reminiscent of Baku and Tbilisi.

Tom in the lift at the apartment
The entrance of the apartment we shared 

crown jewels (copy!) of Hungarian monarchy

After just two days in Budapest, we said goodbye to our friends, and headed by train to an incredible spot in eastern n Hungary: Lillafured.

The Palota Hotel in Lillafured is from another world! A castle on a lake nestled in striking hills, surrounded by lush gardens. Hikes, caves, rowboats and charming villages to explore nearby. The onsite spa holds saunas and Jacuzzis. Down the hall are a bowling lane and darts. The dining hall (demi pension here), as the rest of the hotel, was built for dignitaries and is furnished in over the top 1930s dark wood carvings, chandeliers and carpets, and is reached by a wide and elegant staircase with Chinese vases at the corners.  We seem to be the only Americans and one of the very very few foreigners. There is live music and both dinner AND breakfast. Dinner’s is a guy on a keyboard with electronic accompaniment. But breakfast--oooh--a bearded man dressed all in white, playing classical guitar. 

Strangers don’t smile on the street in Hungary, but are friendly when approached and especially so once contact has been made.  We made room for a woman to sit on a bus and later asked her if the next stop was the train station (it was not). She waved goodbye and smiled energetically as she passed our window after she got off.

Just at the back of the hotel

Hungarian specialty (can't remember name...) Think hollow donut. We got "Bounty" flavor, which was chocolate and cocount
from the tower of the hotel.  Every hotel needs a tower, no?

Back garden of hotel

T relaxing with coffee in the lounge (note fireplace)

July 18: Three trains, two buses and a taxi took us from Lillafured, Hungary to Banska Stiavnica, Slovakia, chosen by your resident tour guide for its UNESCO world heritage charm and interest and by its relative proximity to Hungary (since we have to return to Budapest to fly Easyjet HA-HA back to Geneva.  One of the train changes found us in Nove Zamsky, Slovakia, where we enjoyed an excellent cold draft beer in a clean, attractive train station café for 1 €. Loving Europe.

Banska Stiavnica. The medieval town is amazing. The “old” church is from 1230, the “new” from 1443-91. It was once the second largest city in the Austro-Hunagrian Empire, after Vienna.     
It was an important mining center, for both silver and gold mining. The Turks tried unsuccessfully to take the town for 150 years in the 1400s+.  The church, walled in and made into a fortress, is credited for keeping them at bay.

The church became the fort

The Kammerhof was where miners went to pay their tax to the emperor, in gold or silver. 
Kamerhof (I think!)

close up of sundial

We walk through the Botanical Garden, which was founded in 1838. Through T’s diligence we locate the Lebanese cedar there. Happily it is much larger than we imagined.

Post-mining, people found a good use for the many tunnels that run under the town.  Refrigeration.
T in tunnel/mine

People are so nice and helpful in Slovakia. Many smile what I feel is a genuine smile when I say “d’akujem,” which I have looked up, for "thank you". Only hours before leaving the country do I learn that the “j” is properly pronounced as a “y”, so no wonder they smiled, yet I feel there was a certain level of genuine appreciation for my ignorant effort amid the amusement.

speaking of tummy rolls??

I love how many ladies have tummy rolls yet wear stylish clothing (more stylish—well to my sense of style—than in Hungary.  There is lots of colored hair here, as in Hungary.  Prices in both are vastly more reasonable than either France or Switzerland.  We are spending our retirement savings, so that has been good news.
random Banska spot

coffee on the main street

T outside fortress

T discovered a blacksmith shop behind a leather door

Our last night in Slovakia, amid a folk festival celebrating, I think, the birthday of a former ruler (Josef the 1st? 2nd?) we enjoy Vivaldi while sitting on the steps across the street from a pub.  The waiter brings drinks over to anyone who asks. The stone steps are wide and have cushions scattered around for sitters. Part of the stairway is roped off for passersby to navigate without obstruction.  The weather is lovely and we sit amidst families and singles, enjoying the evening with a coffee or a beer.

waiter taking orders from step-sitters
festival action

Along the way we have tried several draft beers. I experiment by trying one dark brown brew I have seen in cans, called Kokola. Turns out to taste just like Coke and come in at a whopping 12% alcohol though you can barely notice.

Some nice food.  K got to try potato pancake...yum.

And T, dumplings.

We heard music and went into a church, upstairs so as not to disturb the audience.  Got to watch the organist in action

onstage at the church, part of the festival

July 20: We leave Slovakia for Budapest, which requires a bus and three trains--happy to report we made all the connections!  
T at Zvolen train station

And later, at Nove Zamky train station

A quick last night in Budapest and back to Geneva, for one last night with Cam.  Instead of going into Geneva, we stay just across the border in Ferney-Voltaire.  Cam hops the Geneva ciy bus to meet us. It’s a Monday, the town is small and restaurant choices are few  We end up in our hotel’s restaurant, which turns out to be quite good. T gets his rare steak and I get my pastis—check and check, the must-do list. We have to say goodbye to Cam, a fine, focused young man. Sigh.

In front of K, two delights--Cammie and pastis

Seen in the village of Ferney-Voltaire:  pizza from a machine.

July 22: Alas, time to head back to Asia.  In the Geneva airport I get the pretzel I missed in Slovakia.

Bye bye Europe!

Back home, predictable, fun predicaments: a 9 ringgit—still thinking Euro/Swiss Francs--meal sounding cheap but being REALLY cheap, waking in the night and pondering the location of the bathroom, waiting in vain for the water in the kitchen faucet to get hot,