Sprungli, A Zurich Must

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When traveling, it is great to find a wonderful local place to eat.  Sprungli is just such a place.  A Zurich institution, it opened in its current form in 1939, but before the restaurant/café opened a chocolatier was there.  The Sprungli family started that in 1859.  It’s still family owned although the chocolate making is a separate business (Lindt & Sprüngli).

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Traditionally a favorite of Zurich’s upper crust ladies who lunch (not usually a recommendation that gets me to my kind of place) these ladies know what they are talking about and it’s now a favorite of this girl.  Him too.  The café serves the best hot chocolate and deserts in town, but they have more substantial fare as well.  Plus, when the dining room has cute details like the copper baking tins on the walls, how can you not?

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Sprungli is famous for their specialty products Luxemburgerli macaroons and Grand Crus (chocolate truffles from wild cocoa beans).  They are made by hand with fresh ingredients.  Drooling yet?

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They have several other satellite shops in other towns and at airports (including Geneva’s).  While nothing beats that original location, they are a great place to get a quick Sprungli fix or pickup a stellar present.

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Schmutzli, St. Nicholas Vigilante Style

I am ashamed to admit that until I met my husband, I didn’t even know the Feast of St. Nicholas holiday existed.  They celebrate it in the German parts of Switzerland with St. Nick and his heavy, Schmutzli.

Drawing of Schmutzli and Santa from http://2.bp.blogspot.com

Unlike the holiday in the US, in Switzerland St. Nicholas brings his thug buddy, Schmutzli, with him.  For reasons I don’t fully understand, instead of reindeer, St. Nick usually shows up with donkey.  Schmutzli is a dirty guy dressed in brown hooded cloak and smeared with soot.  Unlike jolly old St. Nick,  Schmutzli traditionally beat naughty children with a switch and carried them off in a sack to be eaten in the woods.   Now, he’s a little bit less of a felon/child abductor.  He passes out the goodies and delivers stern lectures on proper behavior.  It’s pretty unique and highly entertaining, therefore, I’m giving Schmutzli two thumbs up.

Schmutzli and a donkey from http://www.eselmueller.ch/Kurse.php

Before he reformed his naughty ways, Schmutzli might have been even worse than that (see the illustration below).  Then again, who’s seen Bad Santa.

Schmutzli looking a little more dangerous than Santa who slides down a chimney and steals a kiss from Mommy – from http://2.bp.blogspot.com

By the way, if you are into metaphors, unlike in the US, St. Nicholas is slim in Switzerland.

Samichlaus (aka St. Nicholas or Santa Claus) with Schmutzli and donkey from http://rooschristoph.blogspot.com/2010/12/knecht-ruprecht-schmutzli-co.html

Lugano At Night

 

Lugano was beautiful at night and the weather was warm enough to enjoy a stroll.  We walked down to the city past the San Lorenzo Cathedral and enjoyed the view. The steep, narrow streets head up from the Old Town to the San Lorenzo Cathedral.  We walked past it on the way to the hotel and paused to enjoy the view.

 

Ciao Bella Lugano

We took the Bernina Express train and bus around Lake Como to get to Lugano. Lugano is the largest and busiest town in the Italian part of Switzerland.  Depending on who you believe, it’s Switzerland’s second or third most largest banking center.  In his book on Switzerland, Rick Steves’ says George Bush is rumored to pop in yearly.  If it’s true, I can’t blame him.  Lugano has better weather than Geneva or Zurich.  While we were enjoying the sun, it hailed in Geneva.

Looking at Lugano, you can tell it has some money.  High-end boutiques and private banks line the lakefront.  Luckily for us, it is also lined with parks, statues, flowers and shaded walks.  While that is all pretty standard for Switzerland, its Italianate Lombardy style buildings let you know you are south of the Alps.

Lugano isn’t magnificent, but it is pretty and interesting.  Surrounded by mountains, Lugano has a traffic-free historic town center, and wonderful Italian food.

Piazza della Riforma is Lugano’s liveliest square.  As the name of implies, Lugano has a progressive spirit.  The region (Ticino) gave Napoleon the finger by creating the independent Republic of Ticino.  Italian revolutionaries met in Lugano (near Milan but safely over the border in Switzerland) to plan Italian unification.  From teenagers joking with each other, to couples strolling, to children chasing pigeons to flashy Italian sports cars in garish colors, there was always something happening in the square.

Via Nassa is one of Lugano’s main shopping streets.  Like Geneva, that are lots of places to spend your money while killing time before your meeting with your private banker.

Lugano isn’t flat.  If you aren’t up for climbing some hills, you can take the funicular.  You can ride it for free with your Swisspass train pass.   Please note that I mentioned free in a post about Switzerland.  It doesn’t happen every day.

We strolled through Parco Civico Ciani on the shores of Lake Ceresio.  It has subtropical plants, loads of flowers and ancient trees.

With its Italian influenced culture, the smell of Italian food wafting through the air and mild climate, it is easy to forget that you are not in Italy.  Lugano put up signs on how to cross the street in Switzerland.  I am not sure whether it is for the pedestrians to learn how it is done in Switzerland or to provide guidance for dealing with the many Italian drivers.

Lake Lugano (like many of the lakes in the region, including Lake Como) is polluted and swimming isn’t advised.  This is unusual for Switzerland.  How can you not want to jump into this baby?

Chur, We Can’t Pronounce It But We Liked It

Chur, the capital of the Graubünden canton (state/province), is Switzerland’s oldest city.  It has been continuously inhabited since Roman times, but archaeological evidence has turned up evidence of inhabitation in the bronze and iron ages (over 11,000 years ago).

Like many european towns, Chur’s old town is car-free.  This helps give it a great atmosphere.  In 1464, much of Chur burned in a massive fire.  It was rebuilt by German artisans who left their mark. The old town is rich with great architecture that looks a bit more German than the nearby Heidiland.

It is one the largest city with the most amenities between Zurich and Milan.  Better yet, it has hiking trails and ski lifts that leave from the city itself!  About 50% of the area around the city is forests.  In a matter of minutes, you can walk from the old town to mountain forests.  Love it!

Chur has the highest average temperature of all Swiss cities.  Its location in a protected valley at foot of important Alpine passes gives it the “Föhn”, (a warm wind from the Swiss mountains). and wins with his vineyards a special picture.  Graubünden, is famous for its fine wines.  Some of the more famous ones,  Gravedona, Menaggio, Dongo, are the names of nearby towns.

Wine isn’t the only thing to drink in Chur.  Mineral quality water flows from the city’s taps and fountains.  We tasted it.  They weren’t lying.  It’s pretty darn good.  The water comes from the springs in the nearby Rabiosa Gorge (4 km/2.5 miles from Chur).

Although we had a wonderful meal filled with local specialities, Chur is cosmopolitan enough to boast over 130 divers restaurants that include French, Italian, Spanish, Thai, Japanese, Greek, Portuguese, Indonesian and Chinese.  That’s not bad for a little town in Heidiland.

We visited Chur in eastern Switzerland because it was the starting point for the Bernina Express, one of Switzerland’s epic train journeys.  After a visit, we’ve deemed it worthy of a return trip.  It’s a cute town and a great starting point for outdoor activities.  It is also a convenient place from which to travel to the more expensive St. Moritz, Davos and Klosters.

Chur is not pronounced like you might expect.  To complicate matters, it is pronounced differently in Swiss German, French and Italian.  In French (don’t quote me not this) it is pronounced like “Coire.”  In Swiss German, it sounds like “Kur.”  When in doubt, just point to it on a map, smile and pull our your best “bitte,” “mercy,” or “prego”.

Sweet, Let’s Burn Some Stuff – Sechseläuten

We joke about burning a couch when something good happens (like Michigan State winning the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament).   It’s not out of the realm of possibility.  Apparently Zurich, Switzerland feels the same way.  They celebrate Sechseläuten.  To celebrate the arrival of spring in Switzerland, they burn the winter in effigy (in the form of the Böögg, a figure of a snowman filled with explosives representing old man winter).

Sorry Mr. Snowman, but let’s face it temperatures have been getting warmer and you weren’t long for this world anyway. – From 20 Minutes

Sechseläuten is kind of like Groundhog’s Day. The time between the lighting of the pyre and the explosion of the Böögg`s head predicts the summer weather.  A quick explosion means a warm, sunny summer. A long, drawn-out burning means a cold and rainy one.  Even though Switzerland is known as a winter wonderland and ski mecca, locals (including us) hope for its quick end.  Earlier this week, Zurich burned the Böögg.

Not so frosty now are you Frosty? – From 20 Minutes

In medieval times, when the first day of summer working hours was celebrated in the guildhalls because during the summer work was required to stop when the church bells tolled at six. The rest of the year, they worked until dark. Who doesn’t celebrate some non-working daylight hours?

From 20 Minutes

Itinerary for Sechseläuten:

  • Sunday before Sechseläuten – children’s parade in historic and folkloristic costumes
  • Afternoon of Sechseläuten – parade of the 26 guilds (over 7,000) in their historic dress costumes, each with its own band, most with a sizable mounted ‘Reitergruppe’, and horse-drawn floats
  • Post-parade – ceremonial galloping of the mounted units of the guilds around the bonfire
  • 6:00 p.m. – burn the winter in effigy (in the form of the Böögg, a figure of a snowman filled with explosives representing old man winter)
  • Post-Burning – dinner banquets for the guildmembers (and their lucky guests)
  • Night – delegations visit other guilds in their guildhalls to exchange greetings, toasts, witticisms and gifts

The summer should be hot, if one believes the time the Booge of Sechseläuten took before exploding on the funeral pile in Zurich: 12 minutes and 7 seconds. The myth is that the faster the head of the snowman explodes, the hotter this summer will be. The average of the last ten years was around 14 minutes. In 2008, 26 minutes was necessary. – From 20 Minutes

What’s a holiday without a family spat?

The holiday is often within a week of May Day, a working class holiday.  Sechseläuten seems to be a rather posh, upper class affair. The proximity of these has led to various, ahem, issues.  In 2006, the Böögg was kidnapped.  Now, they keep spares… just in case.

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.


 

The Swiss Guard

The Papal Swiss Guard is actually Swiss.  They are mostly from Zurich, Luzern and St. Gallen.  The Swiss Guard has been responsible for the Pope‘s security and the protection of the Vatican for around 500 years.  Back then, Switzerland was a poor country whose citizens worked as mercenaries all over Europe as there weren’t sufficient jobs at home.
The Papal Swiss Guard’s first and deadliest engagement was on May 6, 1527 fighting the forces of Charles V during the sack of Rome.  Their efforts enabled Pope Clement VII to escape the Vatican.

To be a Papal Swiss Guard, you must:

  • Be Swiss
  • Be Catholic
  • Be a man (they aren’t opening it up to women anytime soon)
  • Be at least 185 cm (5 ft 8.5 inches) tall
  • Be between 17 and 30
  • Have a high school diploma or professional degree
  • Have completed basic training in the Swiss army
  • Apply
  • As you can see from the first photo above, you must also be able to rock a uniform

 

Naughty Naughty – I Got A Speeding Ticket

I’ve been bad.  I should have known that as soon as I posted about driving over here, something would happen.  I went 9 km an hour over the speed limit and got a ticket mailed from the French government.  In my defense, I was going 119.  I thought the limit was 120 km/hr; it was 110.  Oops.  We have noticed that in France the speed limit inexplicably drops with little warning.  Lesson learned.

On the bright side, we didn’t get a ticket in Switzerland.*  Here, tickets are based on a percentage of your income.  Depending on your speed, this can get expensive.  Notable whoppers include:

By the way, were you wondering how I got a ticket in the mail.  On the highways here, there are radar detectors and cameras.  The police mail you the ticket in the mail.  I am told that if you fight it and/or ask for the photo, the fine increases.

*I get to pay my fine in Euros, not Swiss Francs.   I had to go to the newstand, buy this nice little stamp, put it on the ticket and mail it in.  I mailed it from a French post office because it would have cost me 40 CHF ($45) to mail it from Switzerland!