How I Wish I Spent My Summer Vacation

It’s inevitable.  Your children grow up and go off to do cool things without you.  As of today, I have one daughter working on a project in Haiti, another in India working with a start-up company and the Youngest One milking cows and making cheese in Switzerland.  The first two situations keep me awake at night, imagining every hideous scenario that might befall them.  The Switzerland project..well, I’m a little more comfortable with that, although I read that 481 people were injured by cows this year in the UK. Yes, I googled it.  I’m a worrier.

Afternoon hike near Bretaye

Afternoon hike near Bretaye

The Youngest One pitched her Switzerland WWOOFing idea right around Christmas break.  WWOOF-ing, an awkward acronym for World-Wide Opportunities On Organic Farms, pairs interested workers with willing farmers in a (hopefully) beneficial partnership. The wwoofer stays on local farm to learn the ins and outs of organic farming and the farmer gets an extra pair of hands to help with farm work.  Summer jobs are hard, if not impossible to find as a university kid on a Tier 2 visa and WWOOFing fit nicely with her Sustainable Development major at uni and her love of all things food.  One planned farm stay turned into 5 farm stays across the UK and Switzerland.

Farm #1  Shopshire, England, 1 Week

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“Woofers” work 6 – 8 hours a day, 5 or 6 days a week.  In exchange, the host farm provides housing, meals and an opportunity to learn the basics of running a farm.  At this particular farm, responsibilities included building a 30 foot polytunnel and extending a fruit cage and feeding/caring for the chickens.

Walks along the country lane

Walks along the country lane

A world-class balloonist lands on the farm.

A world-class balloonist lands on the farm.

It isn’t all work, however.  Evenings/the occasional day off are spent socializing with other woofers and the family, exploring the surrounding areas and soaking up a new experience.

Farm #2  nr Bretaye, Switzerland, 2 Weeks

Goat face!

Goat face!

The second farm was spectacularly located in the Swiss Alps.  Paul and his wife, farm owners for over 30 years, started taking in wwoofers 7 years ago to help with the with goats, dairy cows and drives to morning market.  This “alpage” farm provided the full experience…milking goats, mending fences, making/flipping/selling cheese, rounding up and milking cows, chopping wood and washing farm equipment.  While wwoofers think about the travel/work/experience balance, host farmers worry about wwoofers that cancel at the last minute, don’t show up at all or prove unwilling to share the workload.  In the end, it’s about balance and a shared experience.  When it all works, it’s a beautiful thing…wwoofers contribute and learn about organic farming, farmers benefit from motivated and energetic learners and both parties have a mutually beneficial cross-cultural experience.

Making the cheese...

Making the cheese…

Moooving the cows up the mountain

Moooving the cows up the mountain

** Photo credits/Madeline Belt

Things To Know:

WWOOFing is an international phenomenon.  Each country or region has its own WWOOFing database and registration fee, which makes it a bit cumbersome when choosing a farm. It’s best to choose the region you’re interested in and send off for information and listings.

Farms and projects vary widely, so do your homework before choosing one.  Talk to other WWOOFers, email the farmers, ask questions.  This is NOT a vacation and you will work hard, but it is also a great way to travel inexpensively, meet the locals, try a foreign language and help others along the way.

There are bad woofing stories out there…farmers taking advantage of free labor, accommodations not suitable for human habitation and unsafe working conditions.  To avoid a bad woofing experience:  1. Set clear expectations about work hours, accommodations, meals, language requirements and time off.  Ask about the kind of work you’ll be doing. 2.  Have a Plan B and a stash of cash.  In our house, we call it “getaway” money.  In case you have to, you know, get away.  There are also good wwoofing stories. Do your homework. 

Wwoof Independents has a great FAQ about being/hosting guests through WWOOF.

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The Peak of Perfection

I spent the last hour on the train trying to figure how to clean my cow-crap covered hiking boots before I got on the plane.  I contemplated washing them out in the sink at the airport or hiding them in a duty-free bag  and walking onto the airplane barefoot.  In the end, I kept them on, shuffled quickly by the airline attendant, took my seat and made sniffy faces at the people around me, acknowledging that something terrible was in our midst (and it wasn’t me).  My boots and aching knees were a happy reminder of our weekend in Wengen. 

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Wengen is filled with happy memories for us…hiking with the kids in the summer, watching the bat-suited maniacs fling themselves off the cliffs into the Lauterbrunnen Valley, sitting on our little porch overlooking the Jungfrau as it played “now you see it, now you don’t” from behind the clouds.

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Wengen is easy to love. The village is car-free and accessible only by cog-railway (or by foot from the valley).  No cars, no horns, no crowds…just the sound of wind, waterfalls and cowbells to lull you to sleep at night. In winter, Wengen is a skiers’ paradise. In summer, the mountains and gondolas belong to the hikers and outdoor enthusiasts.

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Taking the train to Wengen from Zurich requires 3 changes, 4 if you do it incorrectly like we did.  It’s a fabulous way to arrive in the village, a slow transition for the senses. City gives way to farmland, farmland stretches out along green-blue lakes, little wooden chalets dot the hills that lead to the final train up into the mountains.

Last train up to Wengen

Last train up to Wengen

The last train from Lauterbrunnen winds through alpine forests and along mountain streams to Wengen.

We booked a room at Hotel Baeren this time, just below the train station.  It’s a lovely, family-run hotel with excellent food (my daughter can recite her dinner order from 5 years ago) and a very reasonable half-board rate. Despite our late arrival, the hotel saved us a lovely corner table for dinner overlooking the Lauterbrunnen Valley and a balcony room (and a soaking tub) with spectacular mountain views.  We lingered as much as we could over dinner, admiring the view and creating plans, big plans for hiking the next day.

What I expected...

What I expected…

My plan involved dramatic vistas across the  Lauterbrunnen Valley, waterfalls, dense forest trails and open alpine meadows all in the shadow of the Jungfrau, Eiger and Monch.  I convinced The Mister that the daily weather report was wrong, that “showers” meant “beautiful mountain misty rain” and “cold” meant “you might want to pop on your polartec.”

What we hiked through...

What we hiked through…

My plan for a hike turned into a 5 hour death march in the rain/freezing rain/light snow.  Note: Polartecs are not waterproof, gore-tex boots do not prevent mud and cow-crap suckage through your lace holes and you should consider carrying laminated maps on rainy days in Switzerland.

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Luckily, the mountains were in a generous mood the next day and rewarded us with one glorious view after another…

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Who could ask for anything more?

Things to Know

Wengen is the most beautiful village in the Jungfrau Region of the Bernese Oberland.  It is well situated for visitors to the Jungfrau and Lauterbrunnen area. The excellent system of train, gondola and lift can get hikers and non-hikers anywhere in the valley.  Check the map.

Travel on the Swiss Rail system can be expensive and it’s wise to investigate the various discount options before you go. For visitors that make multiple trips to Switzerland should consider purchasing a half-fare card.  If you are visiting for a short vacation and plan on using the trains, boats and gondolas extensively, consider the Swiss Pass which allows unlimited use on all modes of transportation including the classic scenic rail trains (a small seat reservation charge supplementary)  and a 50% discount on the very expensive high -mountain excursions (Jungfrau).  Children (up to 15 yrs) accompanied by parents will travel free if you ask for the complementary Family Card.  For a detailed and mind-boggling explanation, read Katja’s detailed  analysis.

Wengen has a number of hotel and chalet options.  If we are traveling as a couple or small family, we choose Hotel Baren, It’s casual, warm, friendly and comfortable.  The food is excellent and it is well suited for couples or families.  We had the Lobhorn room on the top floor.  The soaking tub and view is your reward for carrying your suitcase up 4 flights of stairs.  The hotel also has family rooms and a playroom in the basement for rainy days.  I didn’t see any children in the dining room, but I’m sure the hotel will be happy to accommodate.  If you are traveling as a group, consider renting a chalet

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A Weekend Away: Engelberg, Switzerland

Our plan derailed almost immediately.  A few days in Zurich, followed by a weekend in Wengen and the Lauterbrunnen Valley.  Perfect.  What we didn’t know?  The small mountain towns in Switzerland essentially shut down from the end of October until the start of ski season in December.  My initial emails and calls to Wengen, Grindelwald and Murren revealed a total of one open hotel for the weekend.  We pictured empty streets, closed shops and very few open restaurants.     Thankfully, friends suggested a visit to Engelberg and all was saved.   I gathered dinner from the Coop store across the street from the Zurich train station on Friday night…roast chicken, salads, beer for The Mister and a little bottle of red wine for me.  Perfect.  We bought our tickets from the machines in the station and we were off. I was a little disappointed to travel at night and miss the scenery along the way, but…I was more disappointed that I forgot to bring a cup for my wine.  I needed something to wash down half of a very dry roast chicken and ended up swigging out of the bottle when no-one was looking.    Very classy.  One has to make do.

I love the Swiss trains…fast, clean, efficient. It makes you wonder why we can’t have decent train service in the States.  We made it to Engleberg in 2.5 hours with one train change in Luzerne. We rolled our suitcases around the corner from the little station in Engelberg and checked into our hotel, The Spannort. I can’t say enough nice things about this hotel. The front desk was incredibly welcoming and helpful, the rooms were comfortable, and modern with a traditional Swiss vibe.  Best of all was the view when I woke up in the morning!

The Mister and I couldn’t resist a gondola ride to Mt. Titlis, so we walked over to the gondola station and stood in line with the skiers, snowboarders and not-dressed-for-the-mountaintop tourists in heels. The ride to the top is as spectacular as the view from the top.

The final gondola (there are three total in the trip to the top) rotates slowly to provide a 360 degree perspective. The ride up was too crowded to take any pictures, but the ride down was virtually empty and provided lots of opportunity to click away without anyone’s head/skis/fuzzy hat in the way.

The summit station had a “glacier walk”, where you could walk through (you guessed it) a glacier, a movie theater with a short film about the mountain, a few gift shops and two restaurants/cafes.  Was it touristy?  Yes, if you wanted it to be.  The Mister and I spent most of our time outside, watching the skiers hit the slopes and the tourists (clearly some had never seen snow) slide down the small hills in their street clothes and throw snowballs at each other.  We also found a few quiet corners to absorb the majesty of it all…

The ride to the bottom offered a different perspective.  Can you imagine what it would be like to live and work in a place like Engelberg?  I’m not sure I would get anything done. I’d be staring out the window every minute of every day.

We left the gondola and walked back into town to Kloster Engelberg, a Benedictine Monastery founded in 1120.

The monastery offers guided tours once or twice a day, depending on the season.  We walked the grounds, visited the flower shop

and the dairy.  I watched the cheese-making demonstration while The Mister chose a cheese for a mid-day snack.  I also ate some fabulous monastery gelato, which is calorie free since it is made by monks.

The monastery church is open to the public. We happened to walk in during organ practice, which added to the experience.  The spectacular interior took me by surprise after seeing the churches in Zurich.  All are lovely in their own way, but the interior of this church was stunning.

It was mid-afternoon and my gelato was wearing off…time for lunch.  There were quite a few places in town for a meal, but our hotel recommended taking a more traditional “Swiss” gondola to a cafe for a light lunch and a glass of wine.  We walked 10 minutes along a lovely hiking path to the Ristis/Brunni cable car and ended up eating a nice lunch at the restaurant half-way up.  We planned to hike back down to Engelberg, but ended up sitting on the sunny deck for a few hours with a plate full of food and a beer in each hand.  Next time.

We made it down to the bottom (by cable car, I’m embarrassed to say) in time for a long walk in the valley.  We didn’t get very far. We  were distracted at every turn by beautiful mountain vistas, bell-laden, picture-perfect Swiss cows and endless picture-taking opportunities.  We were also inspired by this verrrryyy elderly couple walking home after hiking in the mountains all day.  Wouldn’t that be a blessing at any age?

Things to know:

It is worth investigating the Swiss Pass/Half-Fare Pass if you plan on doing multiple gondola rides and various forms of transportation.  The big, tourist gondolas are expensive!  Check here for options…http://www.swiss-pass.ch/    If you decide the Swiss Pass isn’t a good option for you, most of the hotels will give you a small discount card to use for various venues in town.  Check with your hotel.

Check the weather before heading up the mountain.  Our Swiss friends told us that we had been extremely lucky to have a perfect day on the mountain.  I can’t imagine how disappointing it would be to pay for an expensive gondola ride and not see a thing at the top.

The smaller gondolas offer a spectacular view OF the mountains.  And beer.  And decent food!  Consider these a good option if you don’t have the time/money/inclination to go to the top of Titlis.

The October 31  to December is slow season in Switzerland.  While there were plenty of things  to enjoy in Engelberg, there were still a number of hotels and restaurants closed for refurbishment and/or breaks.  We had everything we needed, but check before you go!

There is a property boom everywhere in Switzerland.  We finally asked someone what the tall, flagged posts were all over town.  They are surveyors stakes.  Everywhere.  If you have the cash, now is the time to buy 🙂

Weekend Away: Day 2 Zurich

Our first morning in Zurich was filled with glorious sunshine and puddles of melted snow.  A perfect day for walking Zurich. The Mister enjoyed his hotel breakfast (very good) for the astronomical sum of 30CHF while those of us not on business accounts wandered into town for a more reasonable breakfast at one of Zurich’s department stores.  Little known fact…department stores in Zurich have lovely little cafes and restaurants that serve good food for a (more) reasonable cost.

I topped up on a coffee and an egg-ish tart in Globus and decided to buy a few snacks from the downstairs food hall before venturing out for the day.

The food hall had a great selection of ready-made food and a huge assortment of candy and pastries. As tempting as everything looked, I didn’t buy anything as  I’m saving myself for an apple strudel with warm vanilla cream.

Zurich is well-known as an expensive, exclusive place to shop.  I started my walk on the Bahnhofstrasse, famous for designer labels and posh boutiques.  The section closest to the train station is more high-street than high-end, but the vibe changes as you walk south toward Lake Zurich.  Even if you don’t plan on  purchasing a Gucci handbag or diamond cufflinks, it’s a fun place to window shop and people-watch.  I stopped in the Sprungli store to examine the chocolates and test some of the sample coffees.

I reached the end of Bahnhofstrasse at Zurichsee (Lake Zurich), usually a bustling hub for boaters, swimmers, residents and tourists.  Since it was the very end of October, the lake was very quiet with the exception of one lake cruise boat filled with a handful of passengers.  I passed on the boat tour  (I’ve done this before..a great way to relax and see Zurich from a different perspective) and  continued my walk back along the river north to visit the Fraumunster.

The Fraumunster abbey was founded in 853 by Louis the German.  It has beautiful frescos in the cloister and 5 beautiful stained glass windows designed by Marc Chagall in the choir of the abbey.   Sorry, no photography allowed in the church, but you can click here to see information about the church and windows.  After admiring the Fraumunster, I abandoned my tourist map and started wandering the side streets of Zurich.

I fell in love with this little seating area outside the Sibler shop (fabulous for well-designed kitchenware and household goods).  Did you notice the red, fuzzy throws on the chairs?  The fuzzy-throw-on-chair concept is everywhere in Zurich…cafes, restaurants, anywhere with outdoor seating.  Good for keeping you toasty warm while you enjoy your coffee and pastry!  I love this idea and plan on using it at home, as soon as I have an outdoor space.  And some chairs. And some of the fuzzy things.

The Teuscher chocolate shop won the prize for the most beautiful, festive window display (says me).

So many little shops and boutiques …

I followed one of the cobbled streets to a small park  at the top of the hill…

Originally the site of a Roman citadel, the Lindenhof  is now a public park with spectacular views over the city.  It is  a great place to take panoramic pictures of the city and soak up the sun on a park bench.


It was well past noon and I still had things to see, so I crossed over the river and walked to see the 12th century, Romanesque Grossmunster.

The Grossmunster, according to legend, was founded by Charlemagne after his horse stopped on the graves of three Christian martyrs.  The three martyrs were tortured, beheaded and miraculously carried their own heads up the hill to this spot and commenced burying themselves.  A beautiful, 15th century statue of Charlemagne, originally placed in the south tower, now sits in the crypt below the church.

For 4CHF, you can climb to the top of  the Grossmunster’s towers and enjoy a spectacular view of Zurich.  I don’t know why I even contemplated this since I have a paralyzing fear of heights.  I watched little kids, fat old men and grannies pay their money and haul up the stairs.  Surely, if they can do it, I can do it. Ha.  I was doing quite well until the tiny stone steps turned into steep, ladder-like wooden steps.  I stopped at one point to consider  1. Who does one call in Switzerland if you need to be blindfolded and carried down 187 steps?  2. What does a panic attack in a church tower look like from the street?  3. What would I look like climbing backwards down the stairs, whilst sobbing loudly on my hands and knees?

I eventually shamed myself into finishing the climb and was rewarded with spectacular views over the town and lake.  I took quite a few pictures, but most were overexposed, blurry or taken through the barrier rails.  Sorry!  My hands were shaking and I couldn’t see.  Haha.

Back on terra firma, I found a tiny grocery store offering hot soup and sandwiches…

which I happily ate in one of the many “hidden” parks and public sitting areas …

The hidden green areas, winding streets, the feeling that something interesting is just around the corner…all contribute to Zurich’s charm.

I found this fabulous bakery on my way to Kunsthaus Zurich and vowed to return to sit in the fuzzy chairs, play with the dog and have a coffee and that elusive apple strudel with vanilla cream.

The Kunsthaus Zurich museum of fine arts holds an impressive permanent collection, as well as an excellent selection of current exhibitions.  I was particularly interested in the Gauguin, Giacometti and Great Art and Architecture exhibitions.

After a few leisurely hours at the museum, it was time to think about picking up dinner and getting on the train.  Of course, I had to stop at a few design stores on the way to do a little Christmas shopping, Bookbinders on Oberdorfstrasse and Changemaker/Ethik Kusst Asthetik on Markgasse 10 are two fabulous choices.

After a few final photo-stops and a quick pass through the train station coop for a take-away dinner, it was time to leave Zurich and head for a weekend in the Alps.

What I liked:

Getting around Zurich was effortless.  While I enjoy doing everything on foot, travel connections within and surrounding Zurich are efficient, clean and frequent.  There isn’t really any need for a car.

Food was very good, albeit expensive.

Residents are tolerant and encouraging of any attempt to speak their language.  They are also generous enough to switch to English when necessary.

The city itself is beautiful, especially at night.

Good coffee, finally

Chocolate.  Lots of chocolate

Good to know:

Switzerland is EXPENSIVE. Consider using Swiss Pass if you are in the country for more than a few days. It allows for unlimited travel on rail, bus and boat system throughout Switzerland as well as 50% discount on mountain trains and cable-cars. It also gives free admissions to over 400 museums and sights. There are a variety of passes available, so check here before you go.

There are a large number of smaller cafes and supermarkets throughout Zurich that carry the supplies for a picnic lunch/dinner.  Also try the cafes in the department stores for a quick lunch or coffee. The price differential is significant.

Where to stay:

We stayed in the Zurich Marriott this week.  It is a nice hotel located on the river, about a 10 minute walk from the train station.  It wins points for location and cleanliness.  It loses points for charging 35chf a day for internet (please) and a similar amount for breakfast.  It has a big following with corporate clients.

We’ve also stayed at EMA HOUSE when we were traveling with children.  We had a very modern, well-designed two bedroom flat with a galley kitchen… wonderful when you want the option of eating in. EMA HOUSE is just up the hill from the Marriott and enjoys the benefits of being close to town, the river and everything Zurich has to offer.  This is not a hotel with hotel services…if you need personal attention, daily maid service and chocolates on your pillow, this is not for you.  It is, however, a great place to stay.

I have a policy of not recommending/reviewing anything I haven’t done or any place I haven’t stayed :).  There are countless of other places to stay in Zurich, and we might try something new the next time we come. I’ll update this page if we find something fabulous!

Weekend Away: Day 1 Zurich

I’m not a morning person, but I’ll happily get up early to board a plane to anywhere.  The Mister and I decided to pair business with pleasure this week…a few days in Zurich followed by a weekend in the Alps.  Perfect.  We’ve tried Gatwick, Heathrow (shudder) and Stansted Airport in our bid to find the easiest way in and out of London.  Hint:  It isn’t Heathrow.  This morning’s flight departed from London City Airport, easily accessible by tube, light rail (DLR) and cab.  Getting to City was easy, but getting out wasn’t.  We arrived at Swiss Air check-in desk at 6:00am to find our flight was canceled due to technical reasons (ie, they aren’t telling you why and they aren’t buying you a compensatory breakfast either, so don’t ask).  Flight re-scheduled for 3 hours later, meetings shuffled, etc.  At least the lines at security were short, the City Airport staff pleasant and the waiting area filled with comfy chairs and a Cafe Nero.

I checked the weather before we left and the report promised sunny skies and temps in the mid-40’s/50’s and so, I packed accordingly.  I started to question the accuracy of the report as we flew in over snow-covered mountains, fields and houses.  Oh oh.  No worries since Switzerland wins the prize for outstanding natural beauty no matter what the weather.  I’d just have to admire it with fashionable shoes and frozen feet.  Our arrival in Zurich was blessedly Swiss…no lines, efficient immigration and rail connections to the city center.  We were checked-in at our hotel within 45 minutes of our arrival and back out the door to find a late lunch within an hour.  Zurich is a great walking city, and our route from the hotel to the city center was along the Limmat River, past the Landesmuseum and through the picturesque side streets.

We found a little cafe off Niederdorfstrasse 31, filled with students and locals.  We took that to be a good sign and it was.  The cafe was cozy and warm, complete with faux fireplace, local newspapers and a welcoming atmosphere. I managed to get through translating the menu and sprinkled my English with the bits of  German I remembered from high school and college.  I ordered the pumpkin soup with tiger prawn (fabulous) and The Mister ordered the tomato consomme’ (also fabulous).  We both ordered Edi’s chicken special which came with a pile of side salads.  Perfect.  The portions were huge, the coffee was excellent, the staff was friendly, the prices decent (for Switzerland).

The Mister ran off for his first meeting and I headed back to the train station to figure out train tickets and travel passes.  Swiss Rail has an endless variety of travel passes that can be a very good value if you plan to spend more than a few days in Switzerland. The passes are expensive, but purchasing tickets separately can be stunningly more so.  Do the math and see what works for you and certainly talk to the knowledgable people in the rail office at the airport or at the train station in Zurich.  We planned on seeing most of Zurich by foot, taking one train to the Alps and one gondola, so we passed on the pass.  After an hour or so of mental math and linguistic gymnastics, I decided to walk through the city a bit before meeting friends for dinner.

I love exploring a city by foot.  I did bring a few travel guides and grabbed a map from the tourist bureau, but decided to leave the formal planning until later.  I walked for hours along the river and through the cobbled streets, window shopping and people watching.  I was very tempted by the “hausgemachter apfelstrudel mit warmer vanillesauce” at the cafe next to the river…

I’ve noticed that Europe starts the Christmas season much earlier than we do in North America. The windows in Zurich were already filled with Christmas decorations, foil wrapped candies and twinkling lights. Yet, somehow, it seems more relaxed. No inflatable snowglobes, no flashing XMAS 110% off signs, no hints of 3:00am black Friday stampedes.  I like it.  I stopped in Schweizer Heimatwerk next to the bridge to admire the Christmas decorations and the traditional Swiss Scherenschnitt (papercuts) hanging in the window.

The shops were closing, it was getting dark and it was time to meet some friends for dinner at Hiltl Vegi, Europe’s oldest vegetarian restaurant.  I was a little leery about eating vegetarian as I am a dedicated carnivore and definately phobic about substituting meat with lumpy white globs of soy, but his place was amazing.  The restaurant itself is situated over multiple levels and offers a choice of take-away, buffet  or a la carte menu.  The Mister and I both ordered a la carte (blessedly from an English menu, happily provided upon request) and were pleasantly surprised with the endless choices and the quality and freshness of the food.  The restaurant offers cooking classes in their studio and impressed me enough to consider signing up for some the next time I’m in town.

We finished off the evening with a walk home along the river.  I think, perhaps, Zurich is  prettiest at night.

Part 2 tomorrow!