The end of our Summer 2016 Trip

The past month took us from Spain, to Portugal, to the Netherlands, to Norway and finally to France. We tasted tapas in the bars of Madrid, sipped ginjinha at a little bar in Lisbon and enjoyed all the amazing wines of Spain, Portugal and France. We watched a flamenco dance in Seville and listened to Fado singers in Lisbon. We cruised the Norwegian fjords with some of our closest family, amid the rainbows  and more waterfalls than we could count. We toured the vineyards of Burgundy, climbing down into 14th century wine cellars to taste wine from the barrel. We cruised in a catamaran past the grottoes of the Algarve in Southern Portugal. I am amazed to recount all the things we have seen, tasted, heard and done in the past month. Safe to say, my heart (and stomach) have been so happy and full :)

Of course it has been nice to be off of work for a whole month, which as I said is a huge benefit of working in Switzerland (and naturally a pro when we think about extending for another year). We are very lucky to be able to travel to so many places within such a relatively short distance of our home in Lausanne. Unfortunately, all good things must come to an end and so has our month. It was time to return to Switzerland to settle back in to return to work and a routine. But before we completely signed back on, we needed to get ourselves up to the mountains for a nice hike for a sort of capstone to our month long adventure…

Andrew and I drove to the town of Fionnay and after parking our car began hiking straight up the valley. We never really stopped gaining elevation until we reached our destination at La Cabane FXB Panossière, which sits on a mountainside with a direct view of Grand Combin and the Corbassiére glacier. It was a challenging hike but so great to feel the burn on the trail and get rewarded with this astounding view.

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Our destination location and the cabane!
For those not familiar, a cabane is a refuge up in the mountains and sort of an Alpine version of a remote hotel. To varying degrees of refinement, for a price, they will provide a hiker a place to sleep, eat and shower while on a long trek. Staying in a cabane saves you from having to carry a tent and cooking supplies for all your meals. For a day hiker like us, they can be a place to grab lunch or a beer up in the mountains after a hike. For others, cabanes are a home base for mountaineering excursions onto the surrounding peaks. This is the more typical version of overnighting up in the mountains as tent camping is not as common here as it is in the U.S. Call it a form of glamping, perhaps! Either way, we had not been sure what amenities would be available upon our arrival so we brought our own lunch, but the beers we got were welcome and they provided picnic tables and a spot sheltered from the wind to bask in the sun and gaze upon Grand Combin.

Starting out our hike, with a beautiful waterfall on the other side of the valley. Of course after being in Norway we’re a little unphased but this is still a beautiful one!
Getting up higher on the trail. This is a steep mountain, so not many cows but this gal and her calf made it up. She kept her protective eyes on us the entire time.
On the trail. It’s hard to tell unless you know what you’re looking for, but our destination hut is smack dab in the center up on the ridge shown in this photo in front of the snowy Grand Combin.
This photo shows a couple things. One, you can see the sheep down below us who were walking along on their own trail, clanging their bells as they moved along. Secondly, this shows the “bisses” which paralleled a good portion of our trail. Because the climate in this region of Valais can be dry, they use these irrigation canals. Some have been around for centuries. This one is clearly very new, but others along our trail were entirely made  of carefully placed stones!
In front of Grand Combin (big snow covered peak in the back) and the Corbassière Glacier. Grand Combin is one of the highest peaks in the Alps, and one of the highest peaks we typically can see in our region when we go hiking and skiing. It is 4,314 meters (or 14,154 feet) high! The glacier is about 9 km in length and reaches a thickness of 220 meters in some places. 
It’s still springtime in these Alps! Loved the wildflowers along the way🙂
So, it’s back to our regular Swiss life. We both have work to do, but there is plenty to look forward to with visitors this Fall and a few short trips we have planned as well. Never a dull moment🙂

The Burgundy wine region

The last part of our month vacation was to head to wine country. We chose to go to Burgundy (French: Bourgogne) as it is only about a 3 hour drive away from Lausanne and the wine is known as some of the best in France.

Transportation:

Quite the day! We started early with a flight from Amsterdam back to Geneva, train to our apartment in Lausanne to re-pack and then got into our car to hit the road. We drove from Lausanne to Pommard, which took about 3-3.5 hours (hit a little snag of traffic at the Swiss/French border).

Accommodation:

We wanted to stay in the Bourgogne region for four nights at a small B&B on or near a vineyard. Our hotel was exactly that and exceeded expectations. Hotel Le Clos du Colombier is an old house on the edge of the village of Pommard, with vineyards for a back yard. The hotel had a pool, with poolside drink service (always a plus!), and a full service restaurant and spa (if you book ahead). The service from the staff was excellent, it is primarily run by a local family. We enjoyed our time in the hotel so much.

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The edge of our village of Pommard

View of the hotel from the backside, with a little bit of a view of the pool area. There was also a very nice garden area where we sat for dinner one night.

Having some wine at sunset our first night at the hotel on the side of the house.

View into the vineyards from the hotel. Fun fact: the vineyard is a “clos” which means it is surrounded by walls. This dates back to when the Church owned the vineyards and protected the vines with these walls. The walls remain today all over the region though in some they are more well maintained than others. The vineyard land plot is then named Clos du Colombier and the source of the hotel’s name.

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The view from our hotel room of the below pool, garden and the vineyards beyond. It was so nice!
Eats:

Our first night we brought some food with us from Switzerland and had a picnic at a table outside by the hotel. Our second night we went to an Italian spot in our village that was unremarkable but the only place open. Turns out this region of France has more limited opening hours than we expected! The third night we ate at the hotel. Not only was the food good, but it was very nice to be able to walk downstairs and sit at our own hotel for a delicious French meal.

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Our beef bourguignon at the hotel restaurant with a roasted tomato salad on the side. We were verrrry happy to be having this dish in the recipe’s region of origin!
Our last night in Pommard we went out for a more gourmet meal at a spot our hotel staff recommended, L’Agastache in the nearby village of Volnay. It was about a 20 minute walk through the vineyards from our hotel, which also added to the fun. Below are some of our dishes.

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Top left – a roasted cherry tomato dessert. Unexpected ingredients but amazing with vanilla icecream; Top right – appetizer of smoked fish on top of a bed of arugula, orange and grapefruit; Middle left – Veal main course; Middle right – dessert of chocolate icecream encased in ganache and a coconut sauce; Bottom left: Roasted fish main course; Bottom right – Grilled vegetable stack with goat cheese stuffing (I got home and immediately remade this dish for us I loved it so much!)

Activities:

We arrived in the evening on Monday August 15. We were ready to get some exercise after all our traveling, so we made a big plan for Tuesday. We woke up first thing and went for a run up into the vineyards.

Leaving our village of Pommard to run up into the hills of vineyards. It may not look like it from here, but these were challenging after not running much this past month and Andrew recovering from a foot injury. Went pretty high up on the hill and got a nice view.

On our run down the hill back into Pommard.
For the afternoon we had arranged with our hotel to rent bikes. We decided to follow a route from the Rick Steve’s guidebook (we like him, can you tell?) he recommended for driving or biking except for a section that went up into the hills. We figured we could handle it and still went by bike. So smart, we are! It turned out that without knowing it, these two inexperienced cyclists took ourselves on a 36 km (22 mile) ride. With full sun and around 90°F, it was a challenging time and took us about 5 hours. But, it was so nice as we were on a bike trail almost the whole time and got to see several adorable little villages, chateaus, old churches and even a castle as we rode through the vineyards. Here are some photos:

Andrew at the beginning of our ride

Riding through Volnay, the next village over from Pommard where we had dinner. I am not sure what the buildings were used for and the internet can’t seem to tell me, but we saw buildings similar to that on the left all over. They have about 1 ft deep pools and open on the side. I’m thinking they are resting places for horses, but if you know please tell me!

The old town hall in the village Mersault. It is a former 14th century fortress and the roof was built in the 19th century. The roof tiling style was very common in this region and according to our guide it was of Flemish origin (Belgium).

After a particularly long climb up this hill, we took refuge inside of this Cabotte, which is a stone hut set among the vineyards. They are intended to provide shelter from the weather or a store place for tools for wine growers and also a resting place for hot and sweaty cycling tourists. 

Approaching the village of La Rochepot, with the Chateau de La Rochepot towering above on the hillside. 

Andrew with the limestone cliffs off in the distance, which are characteristic of this region and a very defining factor in the “terroir” of the wine region. Terroir includes the soil, the topography and the climate. During our time in Burgundy it was impressed upon us how important the terroir is for defining the wines. 

On Wednesday, I had arranged for us to take a guided wine tour with Burgundy Discovery on their Hidden Secrets wine tour. It was us, one other couple and the tour guide who was British. The tour took us to three small production wineries and out to lunch. With the tour guide to teach us about Burgundy wines and also to translate, we had tours and tastings directly with the wine grower/taster (who usually spoke only French). This was so unique in comparison to our typical California wine tasting as we were not served by a tasting room server but with the person who grows the grapes and makes the wine! At one point we even went into the fields with the wine maker to look at the vines and talk about the process. We had such a good time learning about the wines of Bourgogne in a very personal atmosphere and of course loved being taxied around to different areas while sipping on wine in France!

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Our first tasting at Domaine Marcillet in Fussey. The winemaker answered all of our many questions and talked some about the business. It was interesting to note that she sells almost entirely to individuals like us (tourists), locals and … restaurants in NYC.

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Our second tasting at Domaine Dujardin in Monthélie. Note the black ceilings, which are a product of a mushroom/fungus which feeds on the fumes of wine as it breathes out through the oak barrels. Ulrich also made a point that his barrels are French, not American😉
The winemaker/grower, Ulrich is in the red shirt. At this vineyard, we walked through his wine making process, which is Bio (Euro version of organic). We did the wine tasting in his vaulted cellars, which date back to the 12th and 14th centuries. Ulrich was an incredibly smiley guy, and really stole our hearts (and money – his wine was really good) as we learned that his first career was as a teacher of the mentally disabled. Now, he employs people with disabilities in his wine making business in order to provide work opportunities to people who otherwise may be unemployed.

Ulrich let us do a tasting of a pinot noir directly from the barrel! Here he is using the syringe to take it out for us. 

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View from the Domaine Dujardin winemaker’s tasting room. So bucolic!

We stopped in the vineyards to talk about the vines and grapes with the winemaker/grower of our third vineyard, Domaine de la Coupette. I couldn’t resist this photo with the puffy clouds, blue skies and the old stone farmhouse on the right.

A cool little exhibit by the very nice winemaker of Domaine de la Coupette. It demonstrates the difference in the soil of the different vineyards where they source their grapes. This is to also impress upon you how much the terroir of each vineyard is different and therefore influences the flavor of the wine. We definitely learned that this is true as we tasted almost entirely pinot noir and chardonnay during our time in Bourgogne and yet there were distinct differences in taste in all.

The gate to the Chevaliers-Montrachet vineyard, which is a very well-known and valuable chardonnay vineyard in the region. The gate is nice as well🙂

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We ended up buying a bit of wine from our wine tour (31 bottles…). The wine was absolutely delicious, but we also did this because the wine was SUCH a better deal than what we pay in Switzerland and also much better variety of village and premier cru than what we find in our stores. We plan on saving some for special occasions and otherwise, we’ll just have to go back some day when we run out!
On Thursday the weather was a bit cooler and cloudier, with rain in the forecast. So, we made plans to explore the nearby town of Beaune. We did a little bit of a self-guided walking tour, that included the L’Hôtel-Dieu Hospices Civils de Beaune. This is an old hospital that is now a museum. It was really interesting to go through, and learn a little about old medical practices and see the 15th century architecture. Nowadays, the hospital had moved to a more modern property. A neat fact is that the hospital owns a lot of vineyards, a lot donated from grateful patients. As such, there’s wine you can buy and they even have a huge auction every year to sell barrels of wine. The wine is highly sought after as they sell for prices ranging from 10k per barrel up to 60k! Not sure buying this is in our near future.

The courtyard of the Hospices, where you can see the style influenced by the Flemish Duchy of Burgundy

The hospital was funded to be built by a wealthy ruler in order to take care of the poor sick. This room is one for taking care of the poorest individuals. There were 30 beds lining the room. Apparently during bad times, they would stuff 3 people to a bed. With our current knowledge of how germs are spread, you can imagine our sadness at thinking how many people probably unnecessarily died because of their inability to prevent the spread of contagious diseases during those times until disinfection became an important practice.

Old ceramic containers for medicine. Mostly herbs and strange things I have never heard of. My how modern pharmaceuticals have advanced!

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Walking around the town of Beaune

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This region is also the home of mustard as we are less than an hour’s drive from Dijon. We did some mustard tasting (and buying) at La Moutarderie Fallot, pictured here.
Our time in the Burgundy region was everything we hoped for and more. It was relaxing, the food was delicious, the wine was excellent, and our hotel was an oasis amid the vineyards. We enjoyed getting to be in France where we could exercise our French (which was completely unused during the previous weeks of travel). I can’t say enough how much I enjoyed our time in Burgundy in the little village of Pommard. I highly recommend you visit some time!

Now, according to our original itinerary, the plan had been for us to continue on down to the city of Lyon for the weekend before coming back to Switzerland for work. Lyon is known as a gastronomic epicenter with tons of Michelin star restaurants. After our  cruise and knowing our time in Burgundy would be full of fine wine and food, we decided to post pone our trip to Lyon and to head back to Switzerland. Our hotel was kind enough to give us a credit as we have full intention of going in the future. This should allow us time to recuperate our taste buds and be fully prepared for the food experience of Lyon in the near future!

Ports in Norway & Amsterdam v2

Apologies for the delay in blog posts and posting so close together. I had much less time than I anticipated to blog while on the cruise, and then I thought I would in France but our internet access was not strong enough (or maybe I was drinking too much wine…😉.

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Our cruise stopped in three ports in Norway during our trip. Below are the highlights!

Stop 1, Wednesday August 10: Geiranger

On the day of our first stop in Norway, we all woke up early to sit on our balconies as we cruised into the fjords.  While the weather was a bit cloudy there were several rainbows and it was gorgeous in every direction.

Just one of many rainbows as we cruised into the fjords towards Geiranger.

Similar to our time in Iceland, there were waterfalls everywhere we looked. The clouds were constantly shifting, which also created an amazing changing landscape.

More of the fjord as we cruised through. It was surprising to see the snow up on those peaks on the right in August. It was not that high in elevation, but it had clearly snowed within the past couple of days!

Passing the waterfall called the Seven Sisters. The little ferry on the bottom left gives a nice perspective for how high the fjord walls rose above the water.

The fjord as we approached Geiranger.

Just another beautiful waterfall…
In the port, Andrew had arranged for us to do some kayaking with a local outfitter, Active Geiranger. Lots of work went into organizing our own excursions outside of those offered by the cruise line but it saved us a TON of money (thanks to Corinne and Andrew for doing the majority of the research for the group). It started to rain shortly after we got on the water but it was still fun to see the fjord from water level.

Corinne and my Mom in their kayak.

Andrew’s parents in front of our destination waterfall

I think this is when the water started to creep through some gaps in my kayak skirt and down my back 😳

After kayaking the rain let up a bit and despite being pretty wet bottomed, we went off to do a short hike. We hiked up to a view point above the village with a gorgeous view of the fjord and the town.

The view from our hike. Down below is our cruise ship along with two of the orange tender boats to get us from the ship to shore. Something pretty cool that we learned during the interview with the ship captain is that they used a so-called “virtual anchor” instead of a real anchor. Apparently they can use the power of the ship and an automatic system to keep the boat at exact GPS coordinates, within 1 meter of accuracy!

Despite the rain, we never got cold and we all had a great day in Geiranger. The clouds stayed high enough to be able to see quite well and we were still able to do our hike and kayak trip as planned. Gregg and Kelly did a nice bus tour to the tops of some nearby vantage points and Andrew’s parents explored and did part of the hiking trail with us. Not surprisingly, when we boarded the ship by tender at the end of the day with 30 minutes to spare before the required boarding time, there were only 100 people left on land out of about 2,500 passengers. We were some of the braver ones to make it through the weather!

Stop 2, Thursday August 11: Bergen

Cruising into Bergen, there were islands all over the place, and each was dotted with cute, colorful houses. It made you wonder how post addresses work and what it is like living life with a boat as your main mode of transportation to reach the rest of your community.
Bergen was the biggest city we visited and had our best weather day in Norway. We started the day with a walking tour that Andrew found online, which as always gave us a great intro to the local history and architecture.

A traditional neighborhood of Bergen, with clapboard houses.
After the tour we stopped for lunch at the Bergen fish market and then went for a 6.5km  round trip hike to the top of one of the surrounding mountains, Mt Fløien. There was an excellent view from the top of the town below. Gregg and Kelly took the funicular down from the top as they have never ridden one before and the rest of us did a little more walking through the park at the top of the mountain before walking down to the town to re-board the ship again.

View from Mt. Floien

View from Mt. Floien
Stop 3, Friday August 12: Eidfjord

We arrived early in the morning in Eidfjord, with clouds and rain in the forecast. But that didn’t stop us! Andrew had arranged with the local tourist office to rent bikes. Just for perspective to show how tiny these towns are that the ship stops at, this town info center had TEN bikes for rent and we took 8 of them! Also helps that most people hop on a cruise line sponsored excursion for the day and not many people appeared to have been taking our method of exploration with the weather so soggy.

View from the ship of the town of Eidfjord (the entire town)

Our ship, the MS Koningsdam, docked at Eidfjord
We took a 20 km ride through the fjord to one of the biggest nearby waterfalls.

Riding along the fjord. The water was crystal clear.

It was raining quite a bit, but we all managed to keep a smile on our faces and enjoyed the solitude as we were nearly the only ones on the road. The fjord walls towered above us on all sides and there were plenty of waterfalls to gaze at.

With the lighting and my poor iPhone photography skills, these don’t really do the day justice, but hopefully it helps to portray what it was like during our ride!

We didn’t walk any closer but this was the waterfall we rode out here to see. It was beautiful!

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Smiling in our delirium of having ridden 10 km to this point through the rain (and two bee stings for Corinne). We were having fun together!
I was so sad that this was our last point in Norway as it was such a beautiful country and I felt like there was more to see. But, it was time to go. I would highly recommend others make their way north to this country as I hope to return again some day!

Last day at Sea:

On our last day at sea on the cruise ship, we all relaxed and enjoyed what the ship had to offer. Nice breakfast, relaxed coffee and reading in the Navigation café at the front of the ship. Andrew and I signed up for a cooking class in the ship’s culinary arts center, which had potential but was a big disappointment (complete lack of instruction, unfortunately). We look cute in those aprons, though!

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Andrew and I at the cooking class on the ship.

Last night on ship
View from the ship of sunset over the North Sea. Those dots on the horizon are oil rigs as we passed a ton.
Our last night we had a nice dinner in one of the restaurants of the ship, Pinnacle Grill and then caught one of the shows. They used excerpts from the BBC’s Frozen Planet and had a live orchestra play music along to the film. It was very impressive and enjoyable to watch.

So, my overall impression of the cruise. Keeping in mind I have never cruised before, the ship itself exceeded my expectations. Our room was very nice, our shower was way bigger than I expected and I loved having a balcony for the purpose of our room feeling bigger and then also to sit out there when the weather provided. The ship itself had plenty of food options, all were very good, and more bartenders and drinks waiters then you know what to do with. The entertainment options were great and I felt like there was always something going on. We took advantage of a lot of their shows, trivia contests and live music. I think the best part is to be able to have your hotel room follow you as you travel from place to place and to not have to pack and re-pack every day. However, in the end, I still feel like I missed out on little things like going to the grocery store, getting gas, speaking with hotel staff and going to restaurants that gives you more of an insight into how a country works and what the people are like. Though the cruise did truly save us time as we were able to dine in restaurants and sleep while the cruise trip transported us from spot to spot, which I appreciated!

Amsterdam last day:

We all tacked on a day and night in Amsterdam before everyone flew out to go their separate ways (my Mom, uncle Gregg and Kelly to the D.C. area, my sister Corinne ultimately to Vancouver, Canada and Andrew’s parents to San Diego).

Accommodation: For our last night in Amsterdam we switched locations and stayed at The Hoxton. It was an eclectic style hotel, a mix of modern and retro. We absolutely loved it for the style, convenient location in a nice neighborhood on a canal and wished we could have stayed longer.

Eats: 

For lunch on Sunday Andrew, his parents, my Mom and I all got a to-go lunch at an Indonesian take-out bar called Kantjil to Go. As Indonesia is a former Dutch colony, it is fairly common fare in Amsterdam. The serving style was similar to Chipotle where you add your base, protein and veggies into a to-go container. We ate while sitting on a canal and people watching. It was really very good.

Sunday night we all did one last meal together in Amsterdam at Café De Jaren. Corinne’s friend Christiana even joined us as she and Corinne were meeting up to hang out (Christiana lives and works for KPMG in London!). The menu was one everyone would enjoy, and we sat by the doors that opened onto a terrace overlooking the canals. It was a great spot to have some last conversation in person before saying goodbye.

Sights: We visited the Van Gogh Museum and did a few walking tours through the city and the Red Light District.

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As per our trusty Rick Steve’s guide: Amsterdam was built in a marshy delta and on top of millions of wooden pilings. The wood survives if kept wet and out of the air. Many of the city’s old buildings lean this way and that as their pilings settle. I thought this was one decent example of this as we saw leaning buildings all over the city!

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Andrew, our tour guide, reading to the group from the Rick Steve’s guide.
That’s it! I couldn’t believe Norway and Amsterdam were over. Overall, it was over a week of our vacation and it was so memorable. It was nice for Andrew and I to get to go to a colder climate after the heat of the Iberian peninsula, and I can’t say enough how much we enjoyed getting to spend so much time with our family, together, without having to fly to back to the States. Next up, Burgundy wine country in France!

Amsterdam and First days at Sea

For the third week of our summer vacation, we planned to take a cruise in the Norwegian fjords with Holland America Cruise Line. Both our families joined us (1st time meeting!) and we were scheduled to depart from Amsterdam on Sunday August 7. I previously visited Amsterdam in ’07 when I studied abroad, but this was Andrew’s first visit. Andrew and I, my mom, my sister Corinne, and Andrew’s parents all flew in on Saturday August 6 and Kelly and Gregg (my uncle & his girlfriend) flew in on Sunday (after narrowly missing our cruise due to a delayed flight, thank goodness they made it!).

We had checked the weather before our cruise, and all of us had noted that it was not looking so great. Forecasts were for rain and clouds 😔. But I do not think any of us knew the extent of the storms nor the impact they would have on us, as immediately upon checking in to the cruise, we learned that due to a storm coming across the North Sea (a body of water we needed to cross) our departure from Amsterdam was delayed one day and they cancelled a stop in the port of Ålesund. This reduced our stops in Norway from 4 days to 3 (out of a 7 night cruise). Speaking for myself, this was a disappointment since this took time away from Norway and I was looking forward to seeing the destination. However, when in these situations I do realize that we have to accept that the cruise line makes these decisions for our safety and comfort. Also, when you choose to go to a cruise destination in a northern region, you are more likely to experience inclement weather.

Amsterdam Accommodation:

We stayed near the museum district at the Leonardo Hotel Amsterdam City Center (formerly a Best Western). It had a bus station nearby that was a direct shot to the airport, which was convenient, and it was next to a very big park that was great for my Sunday morning run with Andrew’s Dad and my mom.

Eats:

Saturday night in Amsterdam, we planned dinner with my Mom and Andrew’s parents at Restaurant Dubbel, a great spot along one of the canals. It would have been my Dad’s 58th birthday (August 6) so we downed a couple Belgian ales in his honor.

Amsterdam Sights:

With a one day delay in departure from Amsterdam, we had a little extra time to explore the city, which we all took advantage of.

On Saturday we began a walking tour from the Rick Steve’s guide book and quickly ran into the source of a high volume of colorful people running around town: The Amsterdam Pride Parade on the canals! We had fun watching the crowds and the boats packed with dancing partiers in bright colors for a bit and then we continued on our walk.

On Sunday morning we woke up for a run in the park and then took a canal boat tour with Lovers Canal Cruises. It was only an hour but it was a great way to get to see the city sights and canal house boats from the water. While we ran, Andrew and his Mom did a self-guided walking tour through the Jordaan neighborhood.

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Running through the Vondelpark with my mom and Andrew’s Dad on Sunday morning before boarding our cruise in Amsterdam.

On Monday we had until 1 pm to explore the city a bit more before our departure from port. We all split up to do our own thing, and my mom, sister and I did some walking through the city for a bit. Andrew and his parents went to the Amsterdam museum and Kelly and Gregg did a little tour through the city.

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Amsterdam Centraal train station
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Lovely view of an Amsterdam canal
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Mother/daughter walk through the canals on Sunday morning

First days at sea on the MS Koningsdam Monday and Tuesday (Aug 8-9):

This was my first cruise, so I was really interested to see how it would go. Our ship is brand new and launched in May 2016. The itinerary had us at sea from Monday afternoon through all day Tuesday with our first day at port in Geirangerfjord on Wednesday August 10.

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Entering the North Sea on our first day of the cruise. We cruised through the  North Sea canal from Amsterdam and then passed through the Spui Locks in Ijmuiden in order to get up to sea level. The lock took about 45 minutes and then we were on the open ocean! This is the last bit of the Dutch coastline we saw until the end of the cruise.

Shortly after we began cruising, the captain came on and notified us all of the planned time at sea and also the weather forecast. We learned that there would be high seas and worse weather than we had hoped.

It’s hard to tell in the below photograph, but we made it through 10-12 (approx. 32-39 ft) meter waves and 56 knot winds. They had to close the decks on all the floors so we could not go outside. The ship’s stabilizers were able to prevent the rocking side to side, but there was still plenty of pitch (rocking from front to back).

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As I have never cruised before, all of this fascinated me. People were walking around as if they’d had one too many drinks and all needed to hold on to things. Even in my shower the water was sloshing around and I couldn’t help but laugh when I tried to reach for things and missed. There were people getting sea sick quite often (unlucky me saw one of them). Many things were cancelled due to sea sickness or to prevent people from getting in a situation that might lead to sea sickness. Luckily our group of 8 made it through the seas without getting overly ill, but I think most (aka me) had to take it easy all day.

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This is on the Ledo Deck in the center of the boat. You can really see the water shloshing here! No one was allowed in and we aren’t sure why they did not empty the pool but it really shows how much the boat was pitching!

We made it through, and while I will say I would not ever want to go through seas like that again (okay, who does?), I am so glad that our ship was able to make it through. The captain of the ship said it, and I believe him, that if our ship had not been as strong and capable as it is (and the newest ship in its class in the world) then we would have had to cancel the cruise or delay further, cutting the trip even more. In fact, two other cruise ships that left Amsterdam for Norway on the same day as us had to cancel their trips entirely.

So, we all did our best to enjoy the cruise ship on these first days at sea despite the weather. We tried out the restaurants (I was impressed by the cuisine on the ship!), the gym (for those of us who could handle the motion of the ship!) and even checked out the spa (pedicure for me, massages for Kelly & Gregg). There was a really fascinating interview with the ship’s captain I attended with my Mom and Andrew, plenty of live music, trivia (which we never managed to win the entire trip, though we came close!) and plenty of chatting over drinks or as we looked over the water.

Andrew and I
As is typical on cruises, our first day at sea was one of the formal dinners, so we all got dressed up. They had photographers so we had some taken. Unfortunately, they cost a fortune to get the photos of our entire group, so we settled for just this one.
Griffing girls
My mom, sister and I at the formal dinner in the main dining room of the ship on our first day at sea (Tuesday). (Photo credit: Susan Kuntz, thank you!)

Wednesday would be our first day in port, so we rested up and prepared to wake up early the first day as we were planned to ride into the fjords early in the morning and the views were promised to be good!

Lisbon, Portugal

The last stop of our two week Spain & Portugal trip was in the Portuguese capital of Lisbon (Lisboa in Portuguese).

Transportation: We drove from our resort in the Algarve in our rental car. We stopped along the way in the town of Évora then continued on to Lisbon, so total driving time was around 3.5 hours. It was great to get to see the inland countryside, which was full of wide open plains of olive groves, vineyards and cork trees and yellowed, grassy hills.

Yellow fields as far as the eye can see with some vineyards off in the distance. It was super hot here. It hovered around 100°F all day.
Groves of cork trees during a good portion of our drive through central Portugal. I hadn’t known the details before but cork is harvested by scraping the bark off. These trees can live as long as 150 years and the bark can be harvested approximately every 9 years. Pretty neat! The yellow grassy hills also reminded us a lot of Northern California.

Accommodation:

Residencial Florescente on the “eating lane” near the Rossio. It was not fancy and our room was the stereotypical European shoe box hotel room but its location was very central and convenient.

Eats:

Our first night we ate at a seafood spot recommended by the Rick Steve’s travel guide, Restaurante Leão d’Ouro and it did not disappoint. Maybe this is common in many restaurants and I have just not experienced it before, but a cool thing about restaurants in Portugal is that they will list the seafood price per weight on the menu (i.e. shrimp are EUR 79 per kg and you order by the gram). They will then help you determine how much you want and even show you the fish or shrimp before they cook it! They did this in our resort back in the Algarve and I found it really helpful to see what we’re ordering to visualize portion size and because sometimes the translation of the name of the fish to English wasn’t possible and seeing it helped us know if we wanted it.

Andrew’s favorite meal in his life! Grilled Tiger Prawns
There are little shops in Lisbon that sell a sour cherry liquor called Ginjinha. People would crowd around the teeny bar front sipping on a shot of the stuff, which could come with or without liquor soaked berries at the bottom. I was not a big fan but for a non-fruit eater Andrew really liked it so we stopped a few times.
Salted cod, which when soaked in water is apparently perfectly good to eat. We were not adventurous enough to try this one😛

Wednesday afternoon we did a Portuguese wine, cheese and sausage tasting at the Lisbon Winery. The tasting experience was not as great as the online reviews indicated they would be, but we were able to learn a little about the wine regions and which reds we liked, which had been our goal. It was also a nice break during the heat of the day to sit inside and sip on wine.

Top is the cheese plate, which was a mix of primarily goat and sheep cheese, only one cow’s milk cheese from the Azores islands. The cheeses were light in flavor in comparison to the Swiss cheese we’re used to but still very good. The left is the meat platter, which was mostly pork sausage from the neck and leg meat. Also, a leg of jamon iberico, which is also popular in Portugal (we had this in Spain, too).
At the Pastéis de Belém for coffee and pastries. The little tart on the left is what this cafe is most famous for. They are called pastel de nata and are a lightly sweet custard pastry. I don’t know what my cake on the right was called but it was heavenly. It reminded us of icebox cake made with chocolate wafers and dusted with cocoa powder.

Thursday night dinner we went to a small Fado restaurant, Canto do Camoes, in the Bairro Alto, which is an old hilly part of Lisbon and a big hub of bars and restaurants. Fado is a traditional form of singing and is typically very mournful and sad sounding. They are accompanied by guitar. It was nice to have them sing during dinner and to listen to the old Portuguese music form.  Unfortunately, it sounds like it is somewhat of a slowly dying form of entertainment because there were not many people there for the dinner.

After the Fado dinner we went out to a couple of bars in the Bairro Alto for drinks. We went to The Old Pharmacy, which was a cool wine bar, and then the Artis Bar across the street where we listened to jazz.

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The Artis Bar jazz band playing Thursday night

Sights:

As I mentioned, on our drive north on Tuesday August 2 we made a side trip to the city of Évora. We did a short self-guided walking tour of the city, which was small but had some interesting history to learn about as it used to be a center of trade and religion for the region. It was also incredibly hot so this was about all we could handle🙂

Evora has ruins of an ancient Roman temple right in the center of town, pictured above.
White washed buildings in Evora. Apparently the yellow is used to ward off bad spirits!
The remains of a Roman Aquaduct leading into the city of Evora.

Site seeing in Lisbon: We followed some walking tours from the Rick Steve’s book to get to see the various neighborhoods and learn a little history at the same time.

Something to keep in mind as you read, is to note that the 1755 “Great Earthquake” had a HUGE impact on the city of Lisbon. It toppled their churches and buildings and sparked fires that ruined the city. The majority of their historical sites were destroyed. Subsequent to the devastation, with limited funds and the need to rebuild quickly and earthquake resistant, their prime minister and king at the time made a hard decision. They did not allow the city to rebuild their cathedrals to their previous size or glory. They kept the churches modest (and therefore lower cost). Also, the buildings were all re-built in a uniform manner. You will see a lot of this reflected in the photos. It is really sad that they lost so much, and it is very apparent today when you walk around the city.

We started by walking up to the top of the hill where the Castelo de São Jorge sits, which is an 11th-century, hilltop Moorish castle & royal residence with palace ruins overseeing the city. This is one of the few structures that partly survived the earthquake.

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View from the castle. This was a typical day for us in Lisbon with clear sunny skies and 85-90 degree days.

If you look at the above photo, you’ll notice a couple things that make people compare the city to San Francisco. First of all it is a bit hilly. The hills even have some cable cars, though they were not nearly as nice as those in SF (ok there’s my SF pride coming through!). Also, that bridge off in the distance looks verrrry similar to the Golden Gate, doesn’t it? Well, it was built by the same company that built the San Francisco Golden Gate!. It was originally named the Salazar Bridge after the Portuguese dictator Salazar, but was subsequently changed to the 25th of April Bridge after the revolution of April 25, 1974.

Gates to the castle. All that remains today are the walls, which are formidable! There were peacocks roaming around the castle gardens, a reminder of the exotic animals that  were often kept in castles and palaces in the past.
Largo Santa Luzia, which had a beautiful little park overseeing the city and these amazing old tiles with a painting depicting the crusaders taking back the city from the Moors.
Walking through the little windy streets of the Alfama. I love it because you can see the  older woman hanging out on the balcony, just watching the day go by. This was so typical as we walked around! Same with the laundry hanging out the window and the old, tired looking buildings.
This is not necessarily a beautiful building, but I posted it because it shows how aged many of the buildings in Lisbon looked. Also, it shows the tilework on the front of the building, which is really beautiful. Apparently, back in the day before the 1755 earthquake, most buildings in Lisbon were covered in such tiles because a) it is decorative and b) they discovered that the tiles helped to keep the building insulated from the sun and cooler inside. There were some buildings in the city that still have their tiles, but not many unfortunately.
A more well kept example of the tilework on buildings. I love it!

Below is the Praça do Comércio, which is a big square in the city ringed in government buildings and the Arco da Rua Augusta triumphal arch. Here you can also see the uniform style of buildings attributable to the post earthquake reconstruction. It is very similar to the colonial style buildings seen in the Caribbean, parts of the US east coast, and other lands claimed by European explorers during the Age of Discovery.

Inside the Igreja de São Domingoes church. This one is unique as it still stood after the earthquake but is singed in smoke, which you can see in the black on the walls.
A view of the city from the park Miradouro de São Pedro de Alcântara and the Castelo de São Jorge up on the hill
The Carmo Convent, which features this Gothic church ruined by the earthquake. It is so eery as it looms above the buildings with the skeleton of its structure still remaining. Unfortunately it was already closed by the time we passed by but it was still beautiful from the outside.

On Thursday we spent the day in the Lisbon district of Belém, which is about a 15 minute taxi ride from the old town. After the big earthquake, most of the wealthy and royalty moved out of the city to this district, and even today most of the more affluent and young people do not even live in the old city we were touring but in the suburbs and the outskirts of town called the “New City.” Given the higher population after the earthquake, there is a high concentration of many historical sites.

 The beautiful Mosteiro de Jerónimos of Belem. Pictured here are the cloisters and the cathedral.
We toured the Belem Marine Museum, which had a collection of boats like this used by royalty and also a well detailed section (with English!) that walked us through the history of Portugal on the seas through exploration, trade and colonization. It was a really nice museum!
The Torre de Belém, which is on the mouth of the river as it meets the Atlantic and is said to have greeted sailors as they returned from their journeys on the sea.
The National Coach Museum, which had a really fascinating collection of original coaches used by the Portuguese royalty for purposes ranging from wedding celebrations to children’s play coaches that could be lead by sheep.

So, that’s it! Our first two weeks of our summer trip to Spain and Portugal are sadly done. We loved the cities, the flavorful food, the red wines and getting to learn about the rich history and culture of the Spanish and Portuguese people. We had a short one night stay back in Switzerland at our apartment (less than 24 hours!) to rush to get our laundry done at the laundromat , re-pack and have an awesome home-cooked meal made by our friends Sarah and Kevin who are staying in our apartment for a bit while we’re out of town. Now, we’re meeting up with our families and cannot wait to see what Amsterdam and Norway have in store for us!!

xoxo

Jessica

The Algarve, Portugal

It was time to take a vacation from our vacation. We wanted to stay near a beach so we chose the Algarve, which is in southern Portugal on the Atlantic Ocean.

Transportation: We took a 2 hour bus ride from Seville to Faro Airport, which is a short distance across the border in Portugal. From the airport we rented a little VW Polo and drove the remaining 45 minutes west to arrive at our resort.

The bus station in Seville

Accommodation:

We wanted to treat ourselves to something nice, so after quite a bit of research and with a focus on a 5 star, ocean front resort we settled on 4 nights at the Blue & Green Vilalara Thalassa in the Algarve. We got a junior suite, which has a king size bed, a desk, a couch seating area and a nicely sized garden level balcony. We lucked into the end unit so no one walked past, we were far from the pool area and it had a very quiet and private atmosphere. The resort has 2 restaurants, 2 bar cafes, 6 pools and has sun beds and beach access below to Praia da Cova Redonda. Overall we were very happy with our little Algarve oasis.

Our patio with a table and a built-in couch. We sat out here often, enjoying the breeze and a glass (or two) of wine
View of the garden from our patio. We bought some wine at the grocery store to have during our stay and benefited from the verrrry low priced but darn good Portuguese wine. We’re talking 2-3 euro for a good red from the Duoro valley!
Andrew and I at dinner our second night at the Terrace Grill restaurant at the resort.
We ate at the Terrace Grill for the first three nights. Our first night was a theme night, which was a BBQ buffet. The other two nights it was off a menu and we got grilled fresh fish and vegetables.Overall the food at the resort was quite good and fresh.
The cliffside pool and the restaurants above the beach where we ate dinner and breakfast every day. Behind us is an ocean view!
View of the beach below the resort pool pictured above.
View of the beach from the pool.
The beach access path from our resort. That little shack on the left is a bar and cafe that is slow as molasses and we gave up on it despite its prime location!
View of our beach


Activities:

There truly isn’t much to do in this region besides sit on the beach, go to the resort gym, catch up on reading and relax. Which was fiiiiine for us🙂

Interesting side note: Not much to see of historic significance because a lot was destroyed in the big 1755 earthquake off the coast of Portugal  (see link to learn more) that caused a massive tsunami and ruined a lot of their historical buildings😦

On our second day we drove to the town of Lagos, about 35 minutes west, and scheduled to take a 4 hour cruise on a catamaran of the coastline past the cliffs and sea caves. We anchored at a remote beach for a while and then went farther out into the ocean to see dolphins, which swam right along with the boat for a bit. It was a nice way to get to see the cliffs and sea caves while relaxing on the boat.

A shot of the catamaran from our cruise trip
The famous Algarve cliffs and sea caves. Since our boat is so big we stayed farther out, but many people on little motorboats, SUP and kayaks were going into the caves. 

Andrew and I on the catamaran tour

Monday August 1 was Andrew’s 27th birthday. We woke up early at sunrise (that crazy birthday boy’s choice) to have coffee on the beach.

Birthday boy on the beach
Sunrise on the beach
Before dinner on Andrew’s birthday. We couldn’t find someone to take our picture so had to take one ourselves!
I managed to surprise Andrew by arranging ahead of time to get him a birthday cake and to have them bring it out with candles. There was a singer that night and the servers got them to sing Happy Birthday in Portuguese!

1st Impressions of Portugal:

Upon driving into the South of Portugal, the terrain was still very arid. There were plenty of olive groves and that is about the only thing we saw growing. The weather when we drove into the resort was cloudy and cooler (in comparison to 100 in Spain!) but for the other days it was 100% sunny. It was very nice and comfortable in the 80s our first two full days with a nice breeze off the coast and on Andrew’s birthday it heated up into the 90s. Couldn’t ask for better! Most of the people we encountered were from the UK, Spain or Portugal. I don’t think we heard any Americans.

The roads were okay but not that well-kept especially when off the freeways. It was also notably poorer with lots of unfinished construction, some ramshackle looking housing and several stores had some very serious fencing that were clearly to prevent theft. Of course once we got on the resort it was fine but interesting to see what the surrounding area is like. So far I cannot say we know too much about the Portuguese people or food since we were on a resort, but but we’ll get more into the culture and history with the rest of our trip once we head north to Lisbon.

Overall, we had an awesome time hanging on the beaches in Portugal and I totally understand why it is so popular to visit the Algarve. The beach, the weather, the relaxed approach that everyone is taking to their time there made it a memorable stop on our 4 week trip. Next up: LISBON!

 

Seville

Seville (Sevilla in Spanish) was our last stop in Spain. It’s one of the top cities to visit in Andalucia, but we also chose it as there is a bus from Seville to take us into the Algarve in Portugal (beaches!), which is the next spot on our itinerary. We had less than 24 hours planned but we still managed to see quite a bit!

Transportation: We had booked a train to take us from Granada to Seville but we arrived at the station in Granada to discover this section of the train tracks is closed for construction. Luckily, the station was prepared and immediately diverted us on to a cramped but air conditioned bus which took us 1.5 hours to the city of Santa Clara where we then caught up with the train. Overall it took about 4 hours to get between cities but it was all on time and worked smoothly. 

Our train to Seville

Accommodation: We stayed at the Hotel Murillo in the Barrio de Santa Cruz, which is in the heart of the old city. It was a nice little hotel on a cute narrow street and even had a rooftop terrace. It was only EUR 55 a night, which made it a steal!

Our hotel, with the “Kissing Lane” down the way, which is a street so narrow you can kiss while standing on each side 😘


Sites: 
We walked through the old town in the afternoon and the palace, the Real Alcázar de Sevilla. 
The Catedral de Sevilla and the Giralda Bell Tower. It is the world’s largest Gothic church, with Columbus’ tomb inside. Kind of funny to show how late things operate here in Spain, Andrew and I thought we could save climbing up the bell tower of the cathedral for the morning of our departure since the bus didnt leave until 12 pm. Well, we failed to check operating hours because it doesn’t open until 11. Oops! So, we missed it but that’s our fault!
We had fun wandering the narrow streets of Seville. The city is not even close to a grid with streets winding this way and that and plenty of different colored buildings. So unique from countries in Western Europe, it really added to our enjoyment of this region of Europe.
Inside the Real Alcázar, a palace built by the Moors in the 10th century and still serving as a home for the Spanish royal family when they’re in town. Here we are standing in the Patio del León
The Courtyard of the Maidens (Patio de las Doncellas). An interesting point of information, the Real Alcázar was a Christian Ruler’s palace built in the Moorish style by Moorish artisans whereby the Alhambra was built by Moors for the Moors.
The palace had beautiful gardens in the back
The Mercury pool in the palace gardens
We figured “when in Spain” we might as well attend a Flamenco concert to see what its all about. We attended a one hour show at La Casa del Flamenco in the Barrio Santa Cruz. It was really impressive and neat to see the dance!


Eats
:

Dinner Thursday was at La Azotea, another Rick Steve’s recommendation (gotta love that guy!) It was a more modern take on traditional Spanish tapas, which was a nice change from our typical meal of the last week. I don’t have any pictures but we managed to get a table on the street which was ideal for people watching and the food was amazing, coupled with a server who really treated us well and introduced us to some delicious Spanish wines. I would definitely recommend this place! 

So, that’s it! We’re done with our time in Spain as we’re now on the bus and headed to cross the border to Portugal. Spain charmed us with it’s delicious food, tasty wine, rich history and vibrantly colorful cities in the south. I wish we could stay longer, but I admit I’m ready to take a break from being a tourist and to hit the beaches of the Algarve to relax and catch some rays 😎