Stockholm’s Archipelago

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Archipelago – ar·chi·pel·a·go. noun \ˌär-kə-ˈpe-lə-ˌgō,

  1. An expanse of water with many scattered islands
  2. group of islands

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There aren’t that many true archipelagos; Stockholm’s archipelago is the real deal.  It has more than 30,000 islands!  I guess it’s not all the surprising.  Stockholm itself is made up of 14 islands that are connected by 50 bridges on Lake Mälaren and the Baltic Sea.  It’s definitely a maritime city.  When we visited in March, I took a boat tour of the area, but it was too cold to really enjoy the outer islands in the Baltic.

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For Stockholm’s residents, the archipelago is a easy escape and their holiday retreat.  There’s an island for everyone.  Partiers, those looking for peace and quiet, sunbathers, woodsy hikers, campers, B&Bers, luxury hotel lovers…there’s an island for everyone. The archipelago is easily accessible via ferry.  There are two main ferry companies.  One with larger, faster boats (Cinderella Båtarna), the other (Waxholmsbolaget) with charming smaller boats that make it feel less like a commute and more like a pleasure cruise.

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We took the Waxholmsbolaget boat to Vaxholm.  The journey was half the fun.  The boats are adorable with wood interiors and brass details.  It’s the perfect place for a picnic.  We sat outside and watched the hustle and bustle recede.  I was worried about not hearing our stop.  The boat docks, people disembark and it pulls away with remarkable speed.  I shouldn’t have been, locals (who all speak great English) volunteered to let us know when we got close.

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The Cinderella boat back was larger and a bit faster, but didn’t have quite the charm.  My advice, take either one.  You can’t go wrong.

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Stockholm’s archipelago is a UNESCO World Heritage site.  It consists of 20,000-50,000 islands off the coast of Sweden that offer a buffer to the Baltic Sea.  “Skärgården,” as the area is known to the Swedes, was formed by glaciers that carved out and deposited granite that protrudes from the water.  As a result, it is full of reefs and shallows The islands get progressively less rocky, sandier and smaller with fewer trees the further you get from Stockholm.

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Vaxholm  is an idyllic archipelago town with well-preserved wooden villas from the turn of the 19th century.  Everything about it says cottage cute. It has nice restaurants (especially if you like fresh fish), a wonderful bakery, charming cafés, and way cooler shopping than your average resort town.  I wanted to decorate with and wear things from just about every shop.

DSC_0234DSC_0247DSC_0232Although you can rent bikes, we spent an afternoon doing a big walking tour of the area.  There are plenty of trails, sidewalks and quiet streets.  We tried to get away from the business district to get a look at how people live there.  Even without the cute shops, restaurants and hotels, it was very picturesque.  I loved the brightly colored houses and cute gardens.  We saw backyard meals, people walking their dogs, mowing their lawns and cleaning out their garages.

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The have a decent sized marina and with the essential nearby farm stand and ice-cream stand.  Across the narrow strait is the historic Vaxholm Fortress.  From the shore, you can see several small islands with adorable but solitary houses and a dock.  Vauxholm is the last easily accessible place in the archipelago by car from Stockholm and is even accessible by bus.  In fact, it is the most populated archipelago town and people live there year-round.  Tiger Wood’s ex-wife Elin Nordegren grew up there.  Don’t worry through, there’s no hustle and bustle, it’s perfectly tranquil.

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Tourists Mob Paris, Here’s How To Manage

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I think we saw more tourists in Paris than actual Parisians.  Here are some hints for navigating a tourists Paris.

  • Since we were an odd number, rather than renting a couple of hotel rooms, we rented a tiny apartment.  It was easy to book online and saved us a ton of dough.
  • Get the museum pass at the tourist office.  We bought ours at the train station’s tourist office upon arrival.  I only had one person in front of me in line and barely had to wait.  It allowed us to skip the long lines at every attraction… and saved us a bunch of money

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  • Get to the Louvre early.  Very, Very early.  Bus tours will start arriving.  If you encounter them, you will be swept away in a sea of people madly clicking their cameras.  Get there early to see the big sights before they finish breakfast and on the bus.
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  • While you are at the Louvre (and other museums), take advantage of the great views from museum cafes.  We had an unforgettable coffee with this view.  Priceless.DSC_0742_2
  • French food is pretty good.  Nevertheless like all cultures, a bit of it seems suspect to the outside. While I will eat frog’s legs and snails.  I can’t stand the terrines, the molded meat and gelatin. Even knowing that it may result in eating something suspect, I like to eat at restaurants where the menu isn’t in English (or like some super touristy places in Italian, German, Russian and Chinese as well).  Do yourself a favor and avoid the loud Americans that will be at the next table over, get off the beaten path and try to find a place without an English menu.  Not only will it be more affordable, but you’ll have a more authentic experience.  If you don’t you could end up like a friend who paid $52 for a hamburger in Italy.  We paid about that for an entire meal that was one of the best of our lives.

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  • If you happen to bein Paris during sale time (known as Les Soldes), you’re lucky.   Markdowns occur at designated times twice a year.  Shop away!

Oh Champs Elysées

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Paris’ grand boulevard the Champs Elysées runs from the Oblisque at the end of the Jardin des Tulleries to the Arc de Triomphe.  It’s France’s most famous street and part of the national identity.  Every French person knows it.  Many of France’s national events unfold there.  Most high school French students in the US learn the song about it, “Aux Champs Elysées.”   Unbelievably, I can still sing it.

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Bastille Day (France’s national day that commemorates the July 14 storming of the Bastille) parades take place there.  The Tour de France concludes with circuits up and down it.   Cyclists sprint up and down  the storied boulevard lined with bleachers chasing a stage win.  When Greg LeMond won the Tour de France in 1989, he did it by outsprinting the sprinters and the great time trialist Laurent Fignon to win the last stage on the Champs Elysées and the time bonus.  He won by 8 seconds.  Epic.  Although I’m a bit fixated on the Tour de France, New Year’s and many other festivities take place there.

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The boulevard is ancient, created in 1667 by Louis XIV as an extension of the Tuileries Gardens. It became a fashionable spot to see and be seen.   The Champs Elysees connects the Arc de Triomphe to the Louvre, which used to be a palace (and not a famous museum).   The Rond-Point (traffic circle) at the end is usually decorated for the season.  Beyond that, the Place de La Concorde contains an Obelisk of Luxor a gift from Egypt in the 1830’s.  It was formerly called the Place de la Revolution because a guillotine used to stand where the Obelisk does now.   Over a thousand people were guillotined there including Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette.

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This famous statue of Charles de Gaulle stands near the Champs Elysées in front of the Grand Palais. After the liberation of Paris, on August 26, 1944, de Gaulle paraded up and down the Champs Elysées.  Later, he established the post-war government.

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Today, the boulevard is home to hotels, shops, movie theaters, cafes and even fast food restaurants.   On a side note, McDonald’s is killing it in France and the rest of Europe.  But I digress… Yes, Vincent did not lie in Pulp Fiction.  “You know what they call a Quarter Pounder with cheese in France?” They don’t call it the quarter pounder because of the metric system.  Last century, there were fewer fast food restaurants and more cafes.  Elvis probably wasn’t there either…

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Don’t worry.  There’s still some high end shopping left.  There’s even one of the world’s largest Sephora stores.  However, if you are really in Paris to shop you’ll probably want to hit up Paris’ neighborhood boutiques and historic shopping arcades for the best stuff.  If you want to get some high end luggage for your purchases, I think the guys below (Louis Vitton) might be able to help you out.  Balenciaga, Berluti, Céline, Chanel, Christian Dior, Dolce & Gabbana, Guiseppi Zanotti, Guerlain, Jean-Paul Gaultier, Jimmy Choo, Maison de Baccarat, Marni, Nina Ricci, Petit Bateau and Prada all have shops there.

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If all this weren’t enough, the boulevard is lined with my favorite trees from Geneva, Plane Trees.

 

Notre Dame (The One In Paris, Not The One We Beat In Football)

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Notre Dame is a huge Gothic masterpiece.  Built in the middle ages (construction started in 1163), it has seen a lot.  It survived the French Revolution, allegedly housed the Crown of Thorns, saw many coronations including Napoleons and inspired Victor Hugo‘s story of a hunchbacked bell-ringer (Quasimodo), The Hunchback of Notre Dame.

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Construction began in 12th century.  Two centuries passed before it was competed in 1345, spanning almost the entire Gothic period.  At the time, it was an engineering feat; it was one of the world’s first buildings to use “flying buttress” (the support arches attached to the exterior at the garden end of the cathedral that help support the weight of the enormous roof).

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The church is known for its size.  It is massive and can hold 6000.  It is also known for its large stained glass rose window.  Like an idiot, I used to look for pink in rose windows.  It was awhile before I learned that rose window is a generic term applied to the large circular windows, particularly those found in Gothic churches.  They are divided into segments by stone mullions and tracery, the color pink is in no way a prerequisite.  Go figure.

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I was especially smitten with the hundreds (perhaps even thousands) of humorous gargoyles.  The rooftop has amazing views of the city, but we were with older family who couldn’t make the trip up the stairs.  Please feel free to comment and tell us what we missed.

Not Just A Ghost In The Machine – European Vending Machines

This post comes with a warning for Americans (and any other country that doesn’t display items many Americans would feel are more mature or private in public spaces).  Warning – While I took these pictures in the middle of a train station in Switzerland, but in the US (and probably other places) people consider these items to be more of an adult or private nature.

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We’ve noticed that vending machines in Europe contain some things that are um, well, a bit different than what you would see in American vending machines (or at least the ones not found in truck stops).  Take a look below and see for yourself.

Yes, that is C-ICE, “Swiss Cannabis Ice Tea,” located above.  It is made from black tea hemp bloom syrup (5%), and hemp bloom extract (0.0015%) that will allegedly give you a “fantastic natural feeling.”  It allegedly has low levels of THC, but appears to be marketed more as a health drink.  We didn’t try it, but the Top Gear guys did when they visited Romania.

Please note that the pack of lighters (above) is located adjacent to a kid’s candy bar. Also for kids is Buffalo Jr., a children’s energy drink.  It doesn’t contain either Taurine or caffeine and is marketed as providing “an additional supply of energy producing L-Carnitine needed for an active life.”

Don’t Let The Cows Out!

In the US, we have a strong tradition of property rights.  In theory, every man (and woman) is the king (or queen) of his castle (or trailer) and can do what they want with their land, including barring others from trespassing.  Other countries, like Switzerland, have a different take.  There, landowners are regarded more as stewards of the people’s land.  As a result, Switzerland’s hiking trails (known as WanderwegTourisme Pédestre, and Sentiero Escursionistic in German, French and Italian respectively), cross through people’s property.  With around 60,000 km/37,282 miles of in such a small country, how could they not?

Yellow diamonds mark hiking routes (some cultural trails, old pilgrims’ roads, etc. have brown signposts).  When we first arrived in Switzerland, we weren’t sure whether we would get in trouble for following the trails.  They lead through people’s pastures, woods and yards.  We even followed one right through the middle of someone’s barn!

I know, for an American who grows up with “get off my land,” this is a hard concept to wrap your head around. Farmers receive significant benefits from the government so they don’t seem to mind to much.  If the Swiss government made me a steward of the land and defrayed the cost of my insanely beautiful mountain views, I wouldn’t mind hikers either… as long as they didn’t let my cows loose.

We’ve never seen so many types of cow barriers – and he grew up on a farm!  Amazed by the variety, I started taking pictures of them.  Who knew there were so many different ways to keep cows in?

Note the little ladder for people to walk over on the right side in the photo above. Genius.  Not that it couldn’t be improved by a railing.  Solar powered cow fences like the one below are pretty common.  Now I’ve seen everything.

Some fences are a little more old school.  I like how they wrote “please close the door” in Sharpie (in German) on the gate post.

Whatever you do, be careful, when taking pictures.  Don’t back up into one of these bad boys or you are in for a nasty shock.   Take my word for it.

You see some good old-fashioned American-style barbed wire too.  It’s not good to back up into either.  You’d think I’d learn, but with views like these, it’s easy to be distracted.

The turnstiles are pretty cool, kind of like getting on the subway.   You see, in Switzerland, they take their cows pretty seriously.  If you have tasted their dairy, you know why.  In fact, it was just in the news last week that dairy farmers in Switzerland are field-testing a new device that allows cows to send texts to show they are, um, feeling frisky.  Yep.  You read that correctly.   Some Swiss cows are have sensors that gauge their readiness to mate and sends their owner a text message when they’re in heat.

Whatever you do, just be sure to close the gate and don’t let the cows out!  Who knows what kind of trouble they could get up to?

The Guinness Storehouse Tour, A Pint Of The Black Stuff To Celebrate St. Patty’s Day

I don’t normally post about past vacations.  Since it’s St. Patty’s Day, I’m celebrating by posting about our tour of Dublin’s Guinness Storehouse (before meeting up with some Irish ladies).

Although it’s a cliché and a bit of a tourist trap, the Guinness Storehouse is Ireland’s number one tourist attraction.  When we were in Dublin, we figured we had to stop by.   Most giant brewery tours are similar and Guinness is no exception.  The tour is your typical large brewery tour in that it is more like a museum with a lot of advertising than a working brewery and built for tourists.  I’m not knocking it because it is a heck of a good time, just setting reasonable expectations.

Located at 1 St. James Gate, the former home of the Guinness brewery (Guinness is now brewed off-site, hence why they call it a storehouse) is an impressive building with a storied history.   Guinness.  In 1759, Arthur Guinness signed a 9,000 year lease at £45  ($70.77) a year lease brewery!

The Guinness Storehouse is self-guided and it takes at least an hour to see the exhibits.  Prepare yourself for marketing, embrace it.  If you approach it as 7 floors of Guinness propaganda, it won’t be as much fun.

This facility is devoted to advertising and marketing of the Guinness brand and they do it well.  Heck, Guinness markets a lot, has for a long time and does it well.  I can’t believe that I am saying a beer tour is an excellent opportunity to learn about marketing and advertising, but it really is.  It was truly fascinating to look at the evolution of their ad campaigns.  You’ve seen enough posters to know that they are quite funny and the graphics are great.

You also get to see the original copper kettles where they brewed the beer, taste malted barley and either “learn how to pour a perfect pint” or gives you one free beer at the bar upstairs.

The “pour the perfect pint” session, where you learn how to properly  pour a pint of Guinness.  Unfortunately, it’s quite popular and you may wait quite awhile. On the bright side, you will receive a certificate attesting to your new skill.  It is a nice demonstration.  People who don’t want the beers they just poured leave them untouched on the counter.  Broke college students have been known to ensure that they don’t go to waste.

The Gravity Bar is a huge observatory deck on the Storehouse’s top (7th) floor where you get a 360 view of the city and free Guinness.  You’re there for the Guinness and the view.   Some claim that Guinness tastes better here than anywhere else in the world.  I don’t know if it was the best Guinness ever, but it was a mighty fine one.  It could be because Guinness cleans the taps every month, serves at the ideal temperature and it is extremely fresh. Since there’s a constant ready supply and great demand, the beer doesn’t sit around.

The store is massive and contains virtually every piece of beer merchandise ever conceived.  Guinness has managed to put a logo on just about everything.  Hats, tee shirts, glasses, clocks, mugs, posters, beer signs, pictures, they’ve got it all…and then some. They also sell a ridiculous number of foods made with stout.  Given the volume and variety don’t be surprised if the gift store suckers you in.  I’m speaking from experience.  Like our coasters?

If you are looking for ways to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day, a couple of years ago, we had a Guinness dinner.  Every food had Guinness in it.  Here’s the menu

I’d list the beverage, but it seems a bit obvious.  The soundtrack?  Flogging Molly and The Pogues.  A good time was had by all.

Happy St. Patrick’s Day!  Slàinte!

 

Lavaux

If you are a wine person, or even if you are not a wine person (merely an incredibly beautiful views person), when you come to Switzerland spend a day hiking around the Lavaux  vinyards.  They are amazing and a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The terraces can be traced back to the 11th century.  In the 12th century, the Bishop of Lausanne gave various lands to the Cistercian Order.  They have grown wine here ever since.  In fact, this is one of the best-known wine producing regions in Switzerland.  The sunlight reflected off the lake and the heat that remains stored in the stone walls and lake help the grapes.

Franz Weber helped to get them declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site and ensure their protection from development.  He continues to oppose their development calling it the “concretization of Lavaux.”  Can you imagine Del Boca Vista Phase III here?  

Yep.  That’s France across the water.  I hear they make wine there too.

Warning: The wineries are not usually open earlier in the day. Check their schedules if you want to go inside and meet someone.  We were perfectly happy to walk through their vineyards and see their grapes, which you can do at any time.




Geneva Expat 101 Lesson 3 – The Best Fondue In Geneva

Finally, I have gotten to the really important things for expats in Geneva.  The Buvette at the Bains de Paquis has the best fondue in Geneva.  As much as I want to bring you the scoop, I am certainly not about to eat every fondue in Geneva.   Regardless, I stand by my statement.  Here’s why.  It is really good fondue.  At 20 CHF, it is reasonably priced.  The best part though is the location, its wonderful view and relaxed atmosphere.  This is your view.  Outstanding.  I rest my case.

It is a great place to bring out-of-town guests.  When my mom was visiting, we brought her here (by boat from Eaux-Vives) for a very memorable evening.  She ate it up.  Heck, I ate it up.  Literally.

 

He Is In Love…With Zermatt

When we went to Zermatt, he fell in love with the town.  It is touristy, expensive and everything revolves around a single mountain (the Matterhorn).  Nevertheless, it is very pleasant and still has loads of charm.   They have kept some of the original buildings, which are very distinctive because they have giant stone discs in the pillars.  Their function was to keep the mice out!
 
 
Although there are lots of hotels and some larger ones, they are definitely cuter than hotels on the Vegas strip.  The Swiss use tons of wood in building and as accents, Zermatt is no exception.  There are also tons of flower boxes and small plantings.
 
 
Zermatt seems to welcome everyone from the ultra rich, to backpackers and outdoor enthusiasts.  For the number of people who visit, Zermatt is surprisingly calm and peaceful.  There are no cars. Vehicles are small electric vehicles.  We left our car in the valley and took the train to get there.  It felt as though you were, literally, leaving it all behind.

People use these baggage trolleys to walk their luggage from the train station to the hotel (some hotels will send one of the little electric trolleys shown above).  

It is public art in the form of a beaver fountain!  In case you are wondering what he is doing, he is having a drink.

I love public art.  He probably wouldn’t say that, but I do think it adds to the general beauty and pleasantness that he picks up on.  Finally, there is this.  Need I say more?

The Matterhorn from Zermatt