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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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’s Wrought Iron Signs With Icons

I visited Fribourg.  It is a charming, medieval town.  Wonderful old details have been preserved and in the historic quarters many new additions are consistent with the traditional surroundings.  Before streets were numbered, buildings and businesses were identified by symbols carved into the buildings or signs hanging from them.  Walking through the streets, I noticed many hanging wrought iron signs with icons over shops, cafes, hotels, restaurants and other businesses.

Such signs were hugely popular in the 16th and 17th centuries.  Their purpose was to attract the public; they were a sort of advertising.  As a result, they were often artistic and elaborate. Even the metal posts from which they hung were elaborately worked.  They functioned not only to identify the business and as advertisement, but also as landmarks for directional information before street names and building numbers.

Over time, certain symbols became common on signs as a sort of code to help the illiterate public identify the nature of the business inside.  They include:

  • Bible = Bookseller
  • Civet Cat = Perfumer
  • Key = Locksmith
  • Mortar & Pestle = Apothecary
  • Red & White Striped Pole = Barber (the red stripe signifies the bloodletting they preformed)
  • Shoe = Shoemaker
  • Sugar Loaf = Grocer
  • Three Golden Balls = Pawn Broker (this became the symbol of the Medici family)
  • Eagle on a bolt of cloth = Merchants, finishers and dyers of foreign cloth
  • Lambs = Wool manufacturers and merchants
  • Alehouse = traditional garland of leaves or hops

Eventually, increased travel led to competition.  To differentiate themselves from their competition, signs began bearing the name of the business and a representative symbol for illiterate customers.  Over time, the sizes and heights became more or less standardized to keep those on horseback from banging their noggin.  While these types of signs were common in Europe, different areas enacted different rules governing their size and height.

I chuckled at some of the more modern twists on the signs.  WC means water closet.  This sign marks the entrance to public toilets.

Even Starbucks got themselves one.

I have to admit, they are a bit more charming (if less hypnotizing) than the giant neon signs that are so prevalent in the US.  Looking for pictures of them made me a bit homesick, but not hungry.

From Getty Images via The Telegraph

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.

Fondue In Switzerland = Cheesy, Gooey Goodness

If you come visit, expect to eat fondue.  Fondue restaurants are pervasive and even a non-cook like me can make fondue at home.  Our friends Pitbull and TNT came to visit and we had a fondue extravagaza.  Here’s how we made it:

  • Cut the bread into cubes of less than an inch. Some people like the bread a bit dry (to better absorb the cheese) and will use day old bread and/or cut it a few hours ahead.
  • Split a piece of garlic in two.  Rub the inside of the fondue pot it.
  • Pour a bit of white wine (preferably Swiss, it should be dry not sweet) in the bottom of the pot.
  • Pour the shredded cheese (see below for which ones) in the pot and stir.
  • Add more wine, bit by bit to ensure a smooth texture.  I find it helpful to leave a bit of cheese in reserve to add if the mixture becomes a bit thin and/or runny.
  • Stir the mixture so that the cheese melts and cooks evenly.
  • While you want the cheese to melt, you don’t want it to burn.  Check the temperature to make sure that it is not too hot.
  • Raise your glass, toast and begin eating.
  • While eating, adjust the heat so that the cheese stays at a constant temperature and does not overcook.

Eating fondue is easy.  The largest problem associated with eating fondue is overeating.  Put a small piece of bread on the fork/dipper/fondue skewer, stir it in the cheese and enjoy. Although I can’t help you with the overeating part, here are some tips and etiquette for eating fondue:

  • Even though you will want to pop the cheesy goodness right into your mouth, try to be patient and let the cheese drip/cool for a second.
  • To avoid sharing too many germs, people avoid touching their mouths to the fork/dipper/fondue skewer.
  • Drink only white wine or room temperature water while eating fondue to avoid indigestion.  You will thank yourself if you do this and curse yourself if you don’t.
  • If you lose your bread in the cheese, custom dictates that you buy the next round of drinks or be thrown in the lake (Lac Leman/Lake Geneva).  Given Geneva’s expensive prices, you may be in for a dunking in Geneva’s approximately 5 degree waters (41 Fahrenheit).  You were warned.
  • La religieuse (French for the nun) refers to the well-cooked remnants of cheese that stick to the bottom of the pot.  They are scraped out and eaten.  Yum.

The Swiss debate the best type of cheese fondue.  The most popular types include (in order of popularity):

Sometimes, a shot of Kirsh, tomatoes, peppers (red and green), or mushrooms will be placed in the cheese.  Of course, the French (Comté savoyard, Beaufort, and Emmental or just different types of Comté)  and Italians (Fontina, milk, eggs and truffles) have their own versions.

There is, apparently, a much larger world of fondue out there, just waiting to be discovered (and eaten).  Other types of fondue include:

  • Chocolate fondue, where pieces of fruit are dipped into a melted chocolate mixture,
  • Fondue bourguignonne, where pieces of meat are cooked in hot oil
  • Fondue chinoise, a hot pot, where pieces of meat are cooked in broth.

Although it will be burdensome, we will do the research and report back.

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.
 




Barn House Combo

 
Animals put out heat.  To take advantage of their heat (and keep people from stealing them), people built housebarns.  I don’t need one because he puts out a lot of BTU‘s at night.
They never really caught on in the US, but they are all over the Canton of Fribourg (near the town of Gruyeres).  I love them.  
P.S. Those of you who play Farmville, please let me know if you can really purchase a Swiss Housebarn.  Muchas gracias…um…er… Merci beaucoup.