Saturday, July 30, 2011

Verbania, Part 1

I am making some pre-preparations for my trip back to NZ. So far this has consisted of staring at my borrowed suitcase and realising that the available space is oh-so-much smaller than my newly accumulated clothes, shoes and presents… it’s the eternal travel dilemma.

The impending completion of ‘Euro 2011’ in no way signals the end of this years travel blog. It will probably take me another month to finish editing and uploading pics. My just-finished three day excursion to Northern Italy was particularly photo-dense. Verbania was, as expected, absolutely picturesque.

I first visited Northern Italy in 2000 and promised myself that I would return as soon as possible, which turned out to be ten years later. Last year I went to Lake Como with The Programmer and my Grandparents, which was super special. This year I headed back there with my Liechtenstein-based family.

The original idea was to stay in the tourist trap of Locarno, on the shores of Lago Maggiore. However, as it is high season, last-minute accommodation was both hard to find and stupidly expensive. I went Googling and found Verbania, an area also on the shores of the lake, but which is far less touristy and correspondingly less pricey. The drive is an easy 2-3 hours from Liechtenstein (depending on traffic) and gets progressively more Italian. By the time the BIL informed me that we had crossed the border, my head had been in Italy for at least half an hour! The Swiss-Italian part of Switzerland is definitely more Italian than Swiss. 

Although we were looking for a budget hotel, we also needed at least 3 stars in order to cater for the needs of a baby. The spectacularly named Europalace, in Pallanza, fit the bill perfectly; in fact it exceeded our expectations in both service and facilities.

The Europalace is also home to La Cave Restaurant
We were expecting a four bed room, but for €120 a night we got a two bedroom mini-apartment, with balcony. A similar setup in Locarno would have been at least four times the price.
The room I shared with Miss J.She is very tidy for a small person.
Breakfast was included and it wasn’t just a dry bun and box of orange juice.

On day one we explored the town of Pallanza on foot. I quickly realized that, as with many small Italian towns, trying to photograph every beautiful or charming thing would require supergluing my camera to my face. Around every corner there was a ‘wow’ moment (until I got sick of hearing ‘wow’ and instructed everyone in the art of exclaiming ‘bellissimo!’).
I am thinking my next house will look like this. Just can't decide between the house on the left or right...

Pallanza is small, so we stopped for coffee at ‘The American Bar’ (excellent coffee, but as for the name…why?, oh why?) and scoped out our options for the next day. Having decided on a round trip boat ride to the various islands and towns, our next mission was dinner. I was keen on the Ristorante di Cigni but the impossibility of manoevering a push chair up the narrow staircase drove us instead to a nearby pizzeria.

I almost didn't post this pic on account of the top making me look f.a.t.

Not for the first time in Northern Italy, I experienced communication difficulties. After waiting 10 minutes and wondering if the waitress had forgotten about us, she turned up at our table with four beers. Encountering four blank faces, she asked me in Italian and then in English ‘what did you order?. Considering that all I’d done was poke my head in the door and tell her that we wanted a table for three adults and two children, were sitting outside and would like some menu’s, I don’t really know what happened there. I think it was a double-edged ‘funny accent’ problem – hers and mine, combined with the general aloofness of the blonde Northern Italian.

Having sorted out that little mix up, we settled down to dinner. I’m going to say it – I’ve never had a really fantastic dinner experience in Northern Italy. Lunches and coffee are fine, but for awesome food and fantastic, fast, friendly service in the evening you have to head further South. The further South, the better (however, on the flip side, ‘faster in the South’ applies also to the pickpockets and the male flirting!).

The food was pretty average, but with a bottle of vino under our belts, and a view of Lago Maggiore, it didn’t really matter.
After dinner, Miss J made me post in this alley with BabyG so she could take a pic with the lights that had just come on for the evening. She is mastering the art of digital photography, and I guess the importance of focus will come later.. :).
Later that night there was a thunder storm, during which I learned from a sleep-talking Miss J that ‘thunder’ and ‘lightning’ are ‘donner’ and ‘blitz’, like Santa’s reindeers. I fell asleep feeling happy to be alive and woke up ready to tackle breakfast and a day on the lago.

Part 2 coming soon!.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Random Photo's from Zürich

The view from out the window at Starbucks

Really, they do 'uniform decor' quite well.

Sistasana at Starbucks

You know there has to be a Swiss Army Knife shop
The Tageskarte. Best deal of the day.

Rows of (mostly dusty) New Zealand wine at the Sihlcity COOP Supermarket

Mountain horns in the wasser aisle at the COOP. They sound like out of tune cows, whcih may be the point of mountain horns

Funky chairs in the Sihlcity centre.

I was impressed by the attempt at atmospheric lighting in this cafe

Ahhh... Sparkly! Shoppy!

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Zürich: Adventures and Misadventures

What’s that saying about the best laid plans?

When I headed off to Zürich yesterday I imagined that tonight I’d be writing up a moderately interesting spiel about my first visit to Starbucks since the September quake in Christchurch and, perhaps some fashion and food pics. Um.. no.

Getting there (eventually)

The best way to get to Zürich from Liechtenstein is to take the train from Buchs, which is about 10 minutes drive into Switzerland (don’t forget your passport!). If you are car-less, then the Liechtenstein bus goes to Buchs Banhof (train station). The trains (Zug) leave pretty much every hour at quarter past the hour and you can buy a ticket at the machine, or from the counter (if you ask 'Sprechen Sie Englisch?, generally the answer is 'ja'). A return ticket will cost you 68CF or 34CF if you are eligible for a Swiss half-price fare, or know someone that is and that can buy your ticket. You may or may not have to change trains in Sargans; some departures go direct and some do not.

Our day begun full of promise. Excitable to experience an actual big city with real buildings that are not falling down, I was up early. As the temps have dropped below the level of my wardrobe preparedness, Sistasana gave me a pair of her post-preggy jeans that are now waaay too big for her. I didn’t waste much time feeling bad that I fit my sisters post-baby clothes because, in her usual form, even the skinniest of skinny jeans in the skinny jeans shop may be too big for her. She manages this feat by eating cheese and drinking full-fat lattes. Every pregnancy leaves her skinnier than ever. Life isn’t fair, but a pair of near-new Diesel jeans represents a certain level of poetic justice, yes?. They needed tacking up at the hems and I was multi-tasking by doing that and Skyping with The Programmer when I realized that I’d gone a bit too deep with some stitches and actually sown the two sides of the leg together. I had to re-do it, and this made us late for the 10.15, but finally we were out the door, BabyG was delivered safely to his Oma and Opi’s for the day, umbrellas were borrowed as the weather looked doom-laden and Sistasana, Miss J and I were on the train anticipating an awesome girls day. Surely it wouldn’t be raining in Zürich by the time we got there.

Der Wetter

It rained. Mostly it just drizzled, but now and then it bucketed down. Occasionally the rain stopped and the sky offered a teaser of sun, but for most of the day, Zürich was a sea of sometimes colliding umbrellas. If you weren’t under one, you were in danger of being stabbed in the eye by the corner of one. We had bought an overpriced map at the Kiosk before wandering in to the Tourist Office and finding that they have better ones for free. While there we purchased 8.50CF Tageskarte tickets (24 hour unlimited travel) which cover the buses, trains and trams within the city. The nice man at the tourist desk asked Miss J how old she was as children under 6 travel free. She was so wowed by his interest in her age that she turned to me and said ‘he can be invited to my birthday party’ Everyone was charmed.

The (lack of) Navigation

In spite of the Tageskarte, the maps and the ‘Guide to Zürich’ booklet, finding our way around in the rain was ein bißchen challenging. As we had a child in tow, the plan focused on child-friendly things and shopping, rather than art galleries, churches and museums. Our first stop, however, was for coffee. Like any good tourist city, all roads lead directly to Starbucks, and and after wandering out of the station, down Banhofstrasse and around the soggy shopping area, we were glad to surrender to its generic cosiness. The guy serving was unbelievably friendly, giving us the ‘two-thumbs up’ for our coffee choices and dealing with a global mix of customers in their native languages. As the day progressed we found this helpfulness to be typical of Zürich people. I’d say they are least snooty we have encountered in Europe, often butting into our conversations in English to clarify something we were puzzling over or to offer directions. We needed their help.

The public transport system in Zürich is quite similar to a can of worms. Multiple above-ground lines snake all over the city in a manner designed to drive tourists to loud, public arguments and taxi usage. If any city needs a subway, it’s Zürich. After having failed to locate the Toy Museum while following the signs around town, we got one last soaking and decided to head somewhere dry – the Sihlcity shopping plaza. Tram 13 took us directly there and, on request from the youngest shopper, we headed straight for the Kinderparadies, which is a sort of short-term daycare where kids can do kid stuff while the adults shop in peace.

Intestinal Non-Compliance :(

About an hour into the gloriousness of mall shopping, interspersed with brownie-munchin' and kaffe-trinken, I began to deeply regret the ham and cheese roll that I’d eaten on the train (there is a pic of this suspect sandwhich as well as other foodcam over at Sanaworld). To be fair, I’d been strangely lethargic for a few days, so I can't really lay the blame squarely at the feet of said super-soft, room temperature railway sandwhich. In the mall, I started getting severe stomach pains, felt hot and dizzy and had to excuse myself frequently to rush to the ‘facilites’, which thankfully are a) clean and b) free. Most toilets in Switzerland charge you up to 2CF to enter.  I hated to be the party pooper (bwahaha) but Sistasana sized up the situation and decided we should probably head home. It was already late afternoon anyway. On the way out we picked up a couple of bottles of wine and I put them in my Nike over-one-shoulder bag. You probably know the sort. It has one strap that attaches diagonally across the chest with a hefty piece of Velcro. The importance of the bag mechanics will become clear later.

Poor little kiddie!

We got back on the 13 and were getting seated when a small child started screaming outside, near the back of our carriage. It was screaming and crying at extreme volume as if it was being tortured. People started peering out the windows and a few people jumped out to see what was happening. The tram driver got out to assess the situation and police and medics started arriving. After a few minutes, the intercom announced something in rapid Swiss-German and we turned to each other, asking ‘what did he say?’.  Even Miss J, who is fluent in German, was having difficulty. The woman sitting in front of us turned around and said that the tram would be delayed and everyone had to get off, so we did.  There was a large crowd around a small child, 2-3 years old, that was lying on the ground being cuddled by a woman and attended by someone in a uniform. Police were asking questions of witnesses. I’m not sure what happened. The tram was stationary, so I’m guessing some sort of incident when they were disembarking? The doors could be pretty vicious if you got caught in them. I’d love to know what occurred, but probably never will. We got back on the tram, waited a bit, then another indecipherable announcement in Swiss-German and everyone got off and started walking in the same direction. We followed, eventually coming to a bus stop where again, we were trying to decode the map and the signs when a woman started talking to us in English and put us on the right track, almost.

Velcro Incident at the Wrong Banhof

Having gotten on the bus that apparently would take us to the Banhof, we were surprised to find that, actually, the building we were delivered to was not the one we had arrived at earlier in the day. We were at Banhof Enge, but needed to be at the Hauptbanhof (Zürich HB) to get the train back to Buchs.  It probably says something about my stomach fluey state of mind that it took a full 10 minutes to deduce that one Banhof should lead to another, right? The departure board confirmed that there was a train to the Hauptbanhof in exactly 8 minutes.

We started to run down the stairs to the correct Gleis (platform). It was at this exact moment that the Nike bag strap made a rrrrrrrrrppppp! noise. The bag fell heavily on to the concrete behind me with a sickening crash and immediate spreading pool of redness that looked alarmingly like blood, but smelled like a night on the turps. I zipped the bag open and began retrieving essential items like my iPod, passport, money, credit cards, mum’s camera and the borrowed umbrellas. Everything except my passport was thoroughly soaked, and Sistasana and I quickly got the electronic items out of their (wine-soaked) cases, in the process getting quite soused ourselves and ensuring that we would spend the entire train ride home smelling like wino’s and attracting disapproving looks. I couldn’t think of a single thing to do except grab the dripping bag and all its remaining contents (including the broken bottles, various snack bars, tampons, notepaper, the maps...) and dump the whole lot in a nearby trash bin. The umbrellas were totally dripping with nice vino so we made for the WC and tried to wash them. You’ll be proud that there was no umbrella sucking going on; we certainly could have used a little something right about then… I did my best to dry them in the hand drier, but the end result was still wet, stanky umbrella’s that had to make the trip back with us.

Believe it or not, this whole panicked procedure was completed in less than 8 minutes and, guiltily running past our massive wine stain on the previously clean steps, we made our train. Did I mention that everyone on that train, and the subsequent one, must think we are irresponsible foreigners, obviously tanked to the gills while in charge of a sweet little girl? This day shall live in infamy, right up there with the day I left my passport and tickets home in a taxi and had to traverse Rome in a highly jetlagged state to get them back. But it does not end there, oh no.

The Follow-Through

That was yesterday. What have I done today? Nothing. Oh, ok. I spent time getting to know the little details of Sistasana’s upstairs bathroom.  It’s nice in there; it’s designer. The tiles are marble, the mirrors have side-lamps, there are two sinks, it is connected to the sound-system, there is a bidet…as nice a place as any, I suppose. My energy levels have extended to sleeping, writing this post (which has taken all day) and watching a bit of cycling on TV.  I’m still a bit feverish (which may be partly due to the exciting finish of the Tour de France - go Aussie!). I’m banking on the nice Medezinalbad, which the BIL swears will cure anything (at first glance it appears to feature four floating Barbie dolls), to ensure that I wake up feeling something like my usual self. I’ve got shopping to do! Hanging out in the bathroom did not feature heavily in my travel plans, best laid or otherwise.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Big day for a little man

My little button of a nephew, BabyG
Coming from a fairly new country, lacking in historical traditions, I am sometimes perplexed by the little rituals and expectations that I encounter on my travels. Particularly, I find Catholicism a mix of awesome (the fantastic churches),  icky (saintly body parts?), out-of-touch (rules around contraception and divorce, homophobia), deceptive (sexual abuse) and misogynist (where do I start??).

Although the BIL's family is Catholic to the core, there was a serious disenchantment that occurred when the Bishop refused to sanctify Sistasana's marriage (she has been married before) or allow the couple to marry on any Catholic property. This last directive came down from above just four days before the event, resulting in a last minute panic and change of venue. Just to rub it in, the Bishop then also banned the local Catholic priest, who is a family friend, from facilitating the service in any venue, or from even being in the vicinity (in case this accidentally suggested God's approval, maybe?). Luckily, the Baptist pastor from St Gallens, Switzerland (Ernst) was fully ready to strut his non-Catholic stuff, both as marriage celebrant and, on Sunday, at the dedication of the first offspring. He didn't even bat an eyelid that this is obviously a miracle child that gestated for only 7 months. :D

As Baptists do not do anything similar to a Catholic 'christening', with holy water and so on, they improvised with props such as a large squishy globe on which Ernst pointed out New Zealand, and by coming up with some English songs, like 'he's got the whole world in his hand'. I generally am not a fan of churches, or religion, but this was a sweet service and being mostly in German, was very bearable. I joked to Sistasana that if they started 'speaking in tongues' I wouldn't even notice.  As a teenager I experienced some really radical, scary and pushy churches and even a sniff of religious fanatacism still makes me want to run away screaming that I'm in the presence of evil, save me god.

Nothing happened in this service to tweak my 'weird-o-meter'. The important people - Sistasana, BIL, BabyG, Gotta (Godmother - Me), Götte (Godfather - Sigmund) and Miss J, went up on stage and an enthusiastic prayer was said asking for God's protection and blessing over BabyG. The Baptists in St Gallens are not into ponderous, they seem to be into grinning and.. wearing sandals with socks. Although I tend to feel that babies are naturally spiritual, it was very moving to have Ernst raving on about the wonderfulness of babies. Certainly I agree 100% with celebrating the arrival of a newbie to the family.  After the service we went downstairs to the church coffee bar, which is an innovation that I would recommend to all churches, everywhere.

Being a Godmother is a very big deal over here, even if in this case, we do not have the official piece of (Catholic) paper to certify it. My job is to look after BabyG's spiritual progress (what were they thinking??). I was seriously, really seriously hoping that I did not have to oath or promise to help him be Christian. It would have been a super embarrassing moment. I am also Miss J's 'Godmother' (unofficial) and have reinterpreted the role as helping them learn to live their own truth and be good, non-judgemental people. That seems important. Or, perhaps, we could all just imagine the word 'fairy' in front of my new job desciption?

Excuse photo quality, I was trying to be secretive, shoot from the hip, not use flash.

After the post-church caffeination, we all headed off to continue festivities at an Austrian restaurant that serves up a fantastic Argentinian menu. The meal did involve a fair amount of vino in the middle of the day. By the end of it, I was definitely feeling my Fairy Godmother wings!

Here are some pics from lunch at Patagonia Argentinisches Steakhaus:

The size of the steak knife suggested big things were to come

The 500g steak. You order the steak by weight and then add whatever you want to eat with it.

My meal - a 200g steak with broccoli and wild rice. Unpictured - both Champagne and a fine Malbec (one for each hand..).

The mushroom sauce that I ordered with my meal. I love it when the sauce is not already all over the food. It's a sign that they know the sauce is a condiment to enhance the already tasty food, not there as a cover-up.

The man of the moment and his Granddaddy (Opi).

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Schaan part 2

Now.. where was I? It has been an especially active couple of days and I've got sooo much to write about but today I'm just going to take a breather and upload the rest of my pics from around Schaan.

Schaan is very easy to reach by train.

Apart from Ivoclar, the other big name in Liechtenstein is Hilti. They seem to own.. just about everything these days.

A street on the Kulturweg (I think.. the signs were not very clear as to when you were on the Kuturweg or had gone astray!)

The Kulturweg signs that one is supposed to follow..

Another view of the Ivoclar factory

The bus depot. This is a lift that goes down to the underground parking.

Cafe/bar that is right beside the Rathaus (town hall)
Art in the main street, right outside the Denner supermarket

La Golosa Italian cafe/bar/ice cream shop - yummy gelato, great espresso and friendly service.

Inside La Golosa

One of the many 'fountains' (?) around Schaan. Most are suitable for drinking from - they are marked 'trinkwasser'

Ancient Alemannic arm bracelet in a cabinet on the Kulturweg

Please drive slowly, this is also a 'school way'!
Recycling is very big in Liechtenstein and in Switzerland. Here you must put different colours of glass into the specific bin.
Another watering hole. Really nice on a mega-hot day.
Art of the side of the Ivoclar building

Little gardens. I'm not sure if these are a community project, or personal gardens.

On the Kulturweg - under the case is an ancient roman road. It was impossible to take a photo through the glass though!

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