Hey Hey Gamla Stan, Stockholm’s Old Town

Stockholm is one of the prettiest cities we have ever seen.  Lots of European cities have old towns (Fribourg, MalmöGeneva, Prague, Annecy).  Gamla Stan, Stockholm’s old town, charming.  It is an island connected to the rest of the city by bridges.  The buildings date from the 13th century.  We loved strolling Västerlånggatan in Gamla Stan.  There are lots of boutiques, cafés and restaurants.

It is enchanting with cobblestone streets, narrow alleys, old architecture, lanterns, boutiques, antique shops and cafés.   Parts of it are filled
 with souvenir shops and restaurants, and the like.  Yeah, they are a bit of a tourist trap (especially Västerlånggatan), but they don’t make the old town worth writing off.

Wander the side narrow streets.  Look for the signs above doors that indicate the building has paid its fire insurance (thanks Rick Steves).  Notice tons of other period details.  Find places with some Swedes.  Trust me when I tell you, it’s great fun.

For those who get bored after their 20th (or 2nd) palace, Stockholm has some swingin’ history.  Loads of writers and artists pickled themselves here.  It also has some gory history.  In 1520, the bloodbath of Stockholm took place here.  80-90 people were executed in this square (near the Nobel Museum).

Plus, you never know who you might run into at the palace…

Prince Charles leaving Sweden’s Royal Palace

 

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Thun, Worth Making A Stop On The Way To Interlaken

We’d passed by Thun, before.  It’s on the way to Interlaken and we’d heard there was a castle there.  We’d just never stopped to see it.  Last weekend was a long weekend so we weren’t on as much of a schedule.  Someone at his work told him that the town merited a stop and a stroll.  They were right.

The most important things to know about Thun are:

  • It is located on the Aare River at the lower end of Lake Thun.
  • The historic Old Town and the newer cafes and restaurants on the river are pretty freaking cute.
  • Of course it has a castle because no self-respecting cute Swiss town would be could dead without one.
  • The distance between the aforementioned castle is short, but very steep.  Welcome to the Bernese Oberland.

It sounds nice, but is pretty standard for Switzerland.

We found Thun to be unique with interesting features that make it one of the better Swiss towns.

The main shopping thoroughfare boasts terraced sidewalks built on the roofs of the stores’ first floors.  You can stroll the upper level or climb down stone stairs to visit the “sunken” street-level shops.

They have a covered bridge.

He loved the old bridge over the river. Yep, they retrofitted it to generate power.

Somehow, the town seems more colorful than cities like Bern, Zurich or Geneva.

What You Can Learn From License Plates In Switzerland

In Switzerland, license plates are assigned based on experience, thus low number plates usually indicate someone who has been driving a long time (i.e., an old person). Larger cantons (GE, ZH, etc.) have more cars and so the numbers on the plates extend much higher.

Very low numbers (e.g., “GE 3”) usually are assigned to taxis. On government cars have a single letter (instead of the canton): “A” for administration, “M” for military. There are no personalized license plates.

Diplomatic plates are all over Geneva.  They have CD in a blue square on the left of the plate.

Each canton (like a state) has its own abbreviation.  When you are in the parking lot of a ski resort, you are easily able to tell where the other skiers live in Switzerland.  I find looking at them is helpful in learning the coat of arms for each canton.

The abbreviations for the cantons (listed in German, French Italian and English) are:

Often, you see EU (European Union) plates in Geneva.  It’s understandable given our proximity to France.  Sometimes, you even see foreign plates.

I once saw US plates while I was riding on the bus.  Sorry, I couldn’t get a photo.


 

Fribourg, Freiburg, A Charming Town And Lots Of Fun In Any Language

Founded in 1157, Fribourg was a sovereign republic until it joined the Swiss Confederation in 1481. Fribourg sits in a valley between lakes and mountains with the Saane river (Sarine in French) flowing through it. It is a gorgeous setting, but this is Switzerland, where picturesque settings abound.  We’ve gotten accustomed to the incredible beauty and now almost expect it.  Fribourg did not disappoint.

Fribourg isn’t large (population 40,000), but is charming.  It is home to the University of Fribourg.  This gives the city a slightly more cosmopolitan atmosphere and the vibrancy of a university town.   It’s medieval neighborhoods are well-preserved and charming.  The buildings show a blend of French and German Swiss culture.

Fribourg is known for its beautiful Gothic buildings.  Its old patrician townhouses combine German baroque and French classicism.  They have tons of detail, from stone carvings to ornate doors, to places to scrape your shoes.  Architectural buffs and home decor enthusiasts will love them.

Wander the small, steep streets and medieval staircases.  If you get tired, you can easily stop at a cafe in one of its many cobblestoned squares adorned with fountains.  Fribourg also has a funicular for those less enthusiastic about urban hiking.

Walk across Fribourg’s beautiful bridges.  The Pont de Berne, is a well-preserved covered wooden bridge dating from 1580.  The solid, yet elegant, Central Bridge links the old town with opposing cliffs.

Crossing the river and climbing the hill on the opposite side yields stunning views of Fribourg’s Old Town.  The St. Nicholas‘s Cathedral  lofty 15th-century Gothic bell tower is also easily visible on the skyline.

The city hall’s (Hôtel de Ville) gothic clock tower dates from 1546 (the blue pointy thing).  On Wednesdays, the square in front of city hall houses a market.  The nearby Rue de Lausanne is a car-free pedestrian zone.

Fribourg is not just the name of the city.  It is also the name of the canton (like the state).  The canton of Fribourg is bilingual with the Saane river (Sarine in French) forming the language boundary. On one side, they speak French, on the other, Swiss  German. All road signs in the Canton are bilingual!

Fribourg is the French speaking of the city.  Freiburg is the German spelling, but is not commonly used to avoid confusion with the German town of Freiburg.

It is worth taking at least an afternoon to wander Fribourg’s streets.  We plan on returning to spend an evening there.

Why Fasnacht, Basel’s Carnival Celebration Takes Place After Ash Wednesday?

FasnachtBasel’s Carnival celebration, starts the Monday after Mardi Gras and Ash Wednesday.  Carnival in Rio, Mardi Gras in New Orleans, Carnival in Venice, and the overwhelming majority of Carnival celebrations end on Fat Tuesday with the start of lent on Ash Wednesday.  Why then does Basel’s Carnival take place the week after lent has started?  There are several theories.

It is thought to be Protestant Basel’s response to the Catholic idea of giving up things for Lent.  As Protestants they believe in moderation all the time.  Throwing one heck of a party and indulging of all manners of excess only to renounce them doesn’t fit with their philosophy.  Some argue that it is this aversion to lent that causes them to hold it later.

Others argue that it is a desire to provoke neighboring Catholics, who are already fasting.

Basel’s Carnival celebrations began a half-week after Ash Wednesday even before the reformation.  In Basel, Lent did not begin until the week after Ash Wednesday because people fasted on Sundays as well (to achieve their 40 days of fast).  This would also explain why Basel’s Carnival begins on Monday mornings.

Some Swiss say Baslers do it just to be difficult and/or different.

By the way, other towns with Fasnacht include: Bern, Liestal, Luczern, Olten, Rapperswil, Constance, Oltn, Winterthur, and Weil der Stadt.

 

A Giant Spider Traveling The World

When I visited Geneva on my apartment hunting trip, I spent an afternoon in Bern, Switzerland. In front of the parliment building, there was a fantastic statute of a giant spider. When we moved to Geneva a month later, the sculpture had moved here!  It made me curious and I wanted to learn more.
The spider gets around; it is better traveled than us. The statute first appeared as part of an exhibition as part of the Tate Modern in London (below).
Since then, it has vacationed in fantastic spots all over the world. Temporary locations include:

Permanent locations of bronze cast replicas include:

Maman has been well received in each place and has become very popular.* It’s easy to see why.  The sculpture photographs well, children love to play around its legs and it’s a hit with art connoisseurs.

 
It was made by French-American sculptor Louise Bourgeois. Before passing away in 2010 at age 98, she was the world’s highest paid living female artist. The sculpture is called “Maman“. The spider’s sac contains 26 marble eggs.  You can see them looking up from underneath the spider.
It’s called “Maman” and is an homage to her mother who worked as a restorer of tapestries in Paris (get it, spiders weave webs, her mom rewove tapestries).
She made a giant spider statue for her mother, so it doesn’t come as a surprise that she had daddy issues. When she was a child, she learned that her tyrannical, sadistic, father was having a long-term affair with her live-in nanny!  Insert Freud jokes here.  She spent her career exorcising these demons.  Much of her work dealt with revenge, feminism, women’s roles and power.
She saw spiders as clever, protective, life-giving and useful.  Others see it/them as both frightening and/or threatening.
*Maman has its own Facebook page with its picture in different locations.
 

Once Upon A Time There Was A Cute Little Town Called Murten

Once upon a time (1100’s), there was a town founded by Duke Berchtold that fell under the protection of the Count of Savoy, that was burned, rebuilt (in stone) and proclaimed its loyalty to the towns of Berne and Fribourg.  This town was called Murten (Morat in French).  It was so cute that in 1476, Charles the Bold, Duke of Burgundy wanted it.  In complete honesty, I think he wanted it for reasons other than its cuteness.  Nevertheless, it is pretty cute.
Once upon a time (1100’s), there was a town founded by Duke Berchtold that fell under the protection of the Count of Savoy, that was burned, rebuilt (in stone) and proclaimed its loyalty to the towns of Berne and Fribourg.  This town was called Murten.  It was so cute that in 1476, Charles the Bold, Duke of Burgundy wanted it.  In complete honesty, I think he wanted it for reasons other than its cuteness.  Nevertheless, it is pretty cute.
Charles the Bold (he was called bold for a reason) besieged the town, but was defeated by the Swiss in 1484.  Swiss towns had previously made pacts to protect each other.  When Charles the Bold came, it was time for them to put their money where their mouth was.  Being Swiss, they (a) took money rather seriously and (b) kept their promise.*  The other towns came to Murten’s aid and they kicked Charles the Bold’s heiney.**   Et voila, modern Switzerland was born.
From 1484 on, and for 300 years, Murten is ruled by the two states, Berne and Fribourg.
Cute litte Murten was not left to its happy ending quite yet, the French invaded the town in 1798.  Napoleon gave the town to Fribourg (sorry Berne).  Ultimately, our hero lived happily and cutely ever after (more or less).  It doesn’t hurt that it is on a gorgeous lake and has preserved its history (castle, ring wall and streets).
*At least that’s how the story goes.
**The Swiss became sought-after mercenaries and were the guns you wanted to hire for centuries.  In fact, the Swiss Guard, modern-day Swiss mercenaries, protect the pope.
 




Lost in Translation – Prize Bull

 
English Translation:
“FORS” WILL BE HARD WON
 

Christened yesterday “Fors-ver-der-Lueg”. This young bull is the pride of breeder Kaltacker (Bern), Hans Bichsel. It must be said that the animal has been chosen to be delivered to winner 2013 edition of the National Swiss Wrestling Festival (aka Schwingen) of struggle, which has has kicked off in Burgdorf.

 
I’m speachless. This is fantastic! We must go next year.
 

 

Swiss National Day

 

August 1st was Swiss National Day. The date refers to a historic alliance concluded in 1291 by the three cantons of Uri, Schwyz and Unterwalden. This alliance became the basis of the regional alliances that forms today’s Switzerland.  Yeah Switzerland!

Switzerland has been good to us so far. We have been very lucky and feel very lucky to be here.  Here are some of the ways we’ve been lucky:

  • Apartments are hard to come by in Geneva.  It is on a lake and surrounded on three sides by the mountains.  This makes land scarce. None of the buildings are taller than six or seven stories tall (preserving the mountain views).  It has made the perfect storm.  I have heard that there is .5% vancancy (it may even be less). When we only put one offer and got our dream flat we were extremely lucky.
  • We were even luckier that we could get the keys within hours of landing!
  • We were able to have a washer and dryer delivered before we had to do laundry at a laundrymat.
  • We how have wireless (Swisscom)
  • Our belongings arrived in Switzerland before we did.
  • Our dogs have good new homes
  • It is extremely beautiful here.
  • The weather has been nice. Summer in Geneva seems a bit like summer in Chicago, there is tons going on and everyone is trying to make the most of the good weather.
While it hasn’t been without headaches and it is still early, our move has been about as smooth as possible. We have been lucky to have had advice from people who have done this before.  It is really nice not to reinvent the wheel. They have helped us navigate things.  A lot of it is also due to our wonderful friends and family.*  Thank you.
*Especially thank you if you took a dog.

Fabulous Fabian Cancellara

We are busy getting culturally drunk on our new adopted culture and embracing all things Swiss, it is a perfect time to discuss a major Swiss athlete.  No, I am not talking about Roger Federer.  I am referring to  the professional cyclist, Fabulous Fabian Cancellara (nicknamed Spartacus). Right now, he is riding in the Tour de France and is on team Leopard Trek (one of my favorite teams). He is a time trialing specialist and domestique.  On Sunday, he led the team to an outstanding performance in the team time trial.  He has won the World Time Trial Championships four times, won a gold medal in Beijing and many other races.

He is so good that there was a controversy last year over whether there were motors hidden inside his bike. People claimed that no one could be that fast without help.  They x-rayed it and didn’t find anything.

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Fabian grew up just outside the Bern, the Swiss Capital.  When we visited Bern, they informed me that there is a bridge named for him in his hometown. He is, without a doubt, the biggest name in Swiss cycling.  When the Tour de France goes to the east side of the country for the time trial on July 23, I am sure that a lot of Swiss will go to cheer him on.  He stands a good chance of winning that day’s race.