Kicking off the holiday season in Basel

This past week the Christmas markets opened country-wide. You may recall our visits to the Christmas market last winter when Layla & John visited last winter (see post), but these last for the month preceding Christmas all over Europe. Traditionally originating in Germany, the Christmas markets are a mix of local artisans selling handicrafts and holiday trinkets, concerts, plenty of special drink and food. It’s so fun! Andrew and I have had a trip to Basel on our list for a while and when we read that their market is supposedly the best in Switzerland, we immediately knew it had to happen so we headed there this past weekend.

Accommodation: We chose to stay at the Hotel Rochat for its central location near the old town. It was in a quieter neighborhood but still within walking distance of everything we wanted to see.

Transportation: Andrew and I were at our clients on Friday so we took the train to Basel. In the end, it’s only a little over a 2 hour train ride from Lausanne, so very easy.

Eats: A fun aspect of the Christmas markets is to try local treats. Here are a few we had this time around.

Kartoffeln puffen (Potato puffs) with garlic sauce. These tasted like piles of hashbrowns but very well seasoned and fresh from the frier. Very healthy 😉
Standard for the winter months: Gluhwein (mulled wine) in the mug unique to the 2016 markets
Raclette, a traditional Swiss melted cheese typically eaten with steamed potatoes as seen above.

 

Flammlachs: Fire roasted salmon on planks
We got our flammlach salmon on a sandwich with a honey-dill sauce

 

Besides all the grazing on Christmas market snacks, on Saturday night we had dinner and house brewed beers at the Restaurant Fischerstube.

The Christmas Market: One of the top activities of our trip was to visit the Basler Weihnacht. It’s one of the biggest in Switzerland and had a great reputation. While we found we didn’t think it was better than the Montreux market close to Lausanne, it was a really nice market with amazing decorations, tons of shops and fun stuff to wander through to get into the holiday spirit.

The city was lit up with so many Christmas lights! This is the Marktplatz where the Rathaus (City Hall) is located
The market stalls lined the streets surrounding the Barfusserkirche and were topped with festive garlands and lights.
The impressive bar with a massive Christmas pyramid

The above is a bigger than life size Christmas pyramid, which is a traditional Christmas decoration from Germany that typically rotates due to the use of candles. They come in varying sizes and levels of detail. Here’s a link to a German company talking about them.  This one was lit up, rotated and topped a bar. Pretty awesome!

The city had two separate areas with the Christmas markets. This was the biggest one, on the Barfusserplatz in the Old City
The smaller part of the Christmas market, set up on the Munsterplatz with the Basel cathedral in the back


We bought some Christmas decorations at the market, including this Santa who was handmade in Germany and is a “smoker” which would hold incense.

Sites in the city: On Saturday morning we got up early and went for a run along the Rhine river. Running is always such a great way to get to see the city on foot and especially areas where we didn’t plan on walking through during the rest of our trip. Here we are on the path across the river from the Old City where we spent our time seeing the Christmas Market and other major sites.

 

Andrew found that the Basel Tourism office had a great app on our phones with a free audio walking tour guide for the city. We brought some head phones and took ourselves on a walking tour of the city on both Saturday and Sunday as we casually wandered our way through the city.

A view of Kleiner Basel on the other side of the river
The Spalentor: This is the remnant of the old city walls along with a city gate. As you can see, the city has Christmas trees lining the streets all over the place 🙂
In the courtyard of the Rathaus (City Hall)
The City Hall

Basel was great for a short weekend trip. I loved getting to see the Christmas Market and wander the city!

A weekend in Lyon, France

You might recall from my post this summer that we cancelled our original plan to visit Lyon in August at the end of our month long vacation in favor of returning to Switzerland for a bit of a staycation (see post). Our hotel in Lyon was generous enough to give us a credit for the change in schedule and let us book for this weekend instead. We coordinated with our friend Lauren (living and working in London) and we all met up in Lyon the first weekend of November!

Lyon is the third largest city in France after Paris and Marseille and one of great historic significance as it was established as the capital city of Gaul by the Roman Emperor Augustus in 1BC. Its location is at the confluence of the Rhône and Saône rivers, which enabled the city to develop major trading activities. To this day it is famous for its silk production, shopping and as a gastronomic epicenter for all its Michelin star restaurants. We looked forward to experiencing the city at a relaxed pace, eating delicious food, learning about the local history and catching up with Lauren.

Accommodation: Our hotel Mercure Lyon Beaux-Arts was in the Presqu’ile of Lyon, a neighborhood on a peninsula sandwiched between the two rivers, the Rhône and the Saône. It’s not in the well known old town, Vieux Lyon, and I originally thought we were going to be out of the way in exchange for a lower priced hotel, but it proved to be really convenient for getting to the various parts of the city during our stay.

Transportation: There’s a train directly from Geneva every few hours. In total, it’s just under a 3 hour trip from Lausanne, which made it attainable for a weekend trip without needing to take off work.

Eats: We all love French food and couldn’t get enough 🙂

Friday night we arrived and headed out to Brasserie Georges, which had been recommended by a friend of Lauren’s. The oldest Brasserie in Lyon, their dining room is a huge ballroom with high ceilings. We each got the most delicious onion soup for a starter followed by a local pork and pistachio sausage, beef tartare and scallops. It was so good!

The onion soup. I mean. Look at that cheese!

Saturday lunch at Le Bistrot de Saint-Jean in Vieux Lyon. This quaint little spot was perfect to provide the Salade Lyonnaise that I was looking forward to.  This is a salad typical for the city, which includes frisée, croutons, hot thick cut bacon, a poached egg on top and a light mustard vinaigrette.

Saturday … snack break 😉 time for mid-afternoon dessert and drinks at Le Grand Café des Négociants. We got dessert and drinks at this adorable little spot and took a break from the cold, rainy weather outside.


Saturday dinner at Le Bistrot d’Abel, another recommendation from a friend. The restaurant was homey and no frills, but excellent service and the food was sooo good.

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Top left is Andrew’s main course, a local specialty called a quenelle. It is a fish cake (typically white fish, breadcrumbs and egg) poached in a cream sauce. I struggled to get over the texture, but the flavor was very good. Top right is a butternut squash soup, bottom left is my burger and bottom right is our dessert!

Sunday lunch we were running a little late in the day, and it turns out that Lyon doesn’t have much open on Sundays and most restaurants close mid-day. We were looking for a place to eat at 3 pm and were not able to be picky. We managed to find a great spot to get our last French food kick at Les Enfants Terribles which is on the restaurant lined cobblestone street of Rue Mercière.

Activities:

On Saturday morning we had a late morning start when we left the hotel to begin our walk across the river to the Vieux Lyon, which is the old town. We started by perusing the Saturday morning market along the river, drooling over the various fresh cheeses, meats and produce.

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A cheese stand at the Saturday morning market with an incredible amount of cheeses for purchase (and tasting!)

We did a Rick Steves guidebook walking tour within the Vieux Lyon, the old town of the city. We started at the Cathédrale Saint-Jean-Baptiste, which had a really cool astronomical clock inside.

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Astronomical clock inside the church. It currently goes until 2019! Hopefully they change the dates to go beyond that 😉

After viewing the church we began to wander the streets of the old town. One of the coolest things was to walk through the various traboules that you can find throughout this area. The traboules are passageways between buildings and streets. They were built with the purpose of providing locals access to water sources and a way to transport silk from the silk factories without getting it damaged in the weather. They also enabled the people of Lyon to navigate the city without the knowledge of the Germans during occupation in WWII. The traboules feature courtyards with open windows for spiral staircases and hallways above. It really felt like stepping into history when we entered these areas that are open to the public during the day but are still the residences of locals.

Walking through the traboules of Lyon

As the rain really started to come down, we escaped by running into the L’Atelier de Soierie, a silk workshop with an open workspace where you can watch them at work. We lucked into catching one of the owners as he was prepared to walk us through the process of where they get the silk and printing with the silk screening process. This company produces for the Louvre, NY’s MoMA and the Smithsonian to name a few fun clients!

On Sunday we started the day by taking the furnicular up the hill to see the beautiful La Basilique Notre Dame de Fourvière.

This church sits atop a hill overlooking Lyon. Inside it is absolutely gorgeous with mosaics all over depicting stories of Mary and also of the local history. It was very pink and green – unique in comparison to the coloring I’ve seen in other cathedrals.

Atop the same hill as the Basilica is also the Musée Gallo-Romain de Lyon, which sits next to the ruins of two ancient Roman theaters. We first went through the museum to learn about the history of the region during the Roman times and then walked through the theaters. It’s always amazing to get to witness what is left of these ancient cultures right in front of us in a modern day city in France!

Walking down the hill through the neighborhoods of Lyon

The weather in Lyon was not the best during our visit. It rained nearly all day on Saturday and was cold and cloudy on Sunday. That didn’t stop us, but it certainly made us super excited when the sun peaked out a little on Sunday to give the city some more photo credit in better lighting.

A view across the river, with the Cathédrale Saint-Jean-Baptiste in the foreground and the Basilique Notre Dame de Fourvière above on the hill.

We had such a fun time getting to see see Lyon and also spend time with Lauren. Every time we head into France it’s a great one. Can’t wait for our next adventures abroad!

Tuscany 

I was lucky to be able to take off a week of work to travel with my friends. Time for a girls trip! We flew out of Geneva on Monday morning (17 October 2016) with a destination of the Tuscan wine country of Montepulciano. We flew in to Florence, picked up a rental car (which thank goodness fit the luggage of four girls!) and drove 2 hours south to Tuscany.

Transportation: As I mentioned above, we rented a car since we were headed into the countryside of Tuscany and we wanted the flexibility of our own wheels. I was the driver since I felt the most comfortable with the European roads (despite never driving in Switzerland 🙂 . Just random but a couple of funny driving experiences. The roads were nice and the signage was good but two cases:

1) While leaving Florence we arrive at two stop signs. So … I did what any normal person would do and I stopped. In both cases I got a very angry person halt behind me and the second time the person behind me went around me as I stopped. What the heck!

2) While driving the highways we passed through several construction zones that went down to a single lane with speed limits of 40 KMPH (versus the 90 or 110 KMPH it normally was). I went that lower speed but I was clearly the only one because I had a LONG line of people behind me and when the lanes opened up they honked and glared at me. Sorry for following the rules???

We mentioned this to our wine tour and he just laughed and shook his head at the notion that I followed these signs. He said they were “up to interpretation.” I have NO idea what that is supposed to mean but he was very entertained that I obeyed the signs. I definitely did not make the other drivers on the road happy but oh well – I followed the posted rules!

Accommodation: We stayed in the Agriturismo le Caggiole right outside Montepulciano. An agriturismo is a typical type of accommodation in this region of Italy and is a family-run farm-stay where the owner offers a selection of rooms and/or apartments. They offer a variety of levels of services, but we chose ours because they were willing to cook us a home made meal. We stayed for two nights from Monday through Wednesday in a little house that had a single room and an apartment that fit the four of us. The farm had an olive grove with views across a little valley of vineyards and other farms. It was quaint, quiet and beautiful!

Our building at the agriturismo. The right side was the single bed room, on the left was the apartment with a fully operational kitchen, couch and dining table. It was perfect for the four of us to hang out at the end of the day and sip on our wine we just bought from a Tuscan vineyard 🙂
Jenny on the terrace of our agriturismo, overlooking the olive grove and the little valley below us.
The weather was a bit cloudy and grey but it was still good visibility and so bucolic.
Eats: Monday night: Pasta Making class at Podere Il Casale. Maddy heard about this place from a colleague who visited recently and it did NOT disappoint. The owners are Swiss German and opened the farm 20+ years ago to operate a fully organic farm. We took a class that involved making three different types of pasta by hand. The kitchen staff made all the sauces and served us a full dinner at the end of the class. It was incredible. See the rest of the details and pictures below in my Activities section. The hospitality of this place was amazing and the food was delicious. I highly recommend this experience or at least visiting them for a meal and to take in the incredible view from their property.

Tuesday night: Dinner at the agriturismo, in their farm house. This was so amazing. They do their best to offer a home made, family experience so that you understand true Tuscan cooking and hospitality. We had a first course of a bruschetta trio, followed by pappardelle (homemade fresh pasta) with house-made Tuscan ragù (with Chianina Beef and Cinta Senese pork); followed by a roasted guinea fowl; a dessert of chocolate mousse and all accompanied by their own aged red wine – harvest 2009. We had dinner with two other agriturismo guests, which turned out to be a couple around our age from Seattle. It was such a good time and amazing food and wine! Best of all we could finish the meal and walk to our beds 🙂

The guinea fowl
The bruschetta trio. The one on the right was just olive oil and salt. OMG their olive oil here is to-die-for.
Activities:
Monday we drove south from the airport in Florence to our agriturismo in Montepulciano, which is about a 2 hour drive. We needed to be at our cooking class by 5:30 PM, so there was not time to do anything else. On Monday evening, as I mentioned above, we took a cooking class. This place was absolutely amazing!

View from the cooking school terrase
Starting off with a little wine before cooking class

We started off by making three different types of pasta dough: one for pici (a local Tuscan pasta that is a thicker looking spaghetti), egg pasta dough, and third dough for gnocchi made with fresh farm-made ricotta. Making the dough was HARD work and took quite a lot of arm strength, something I did not appreciate until now. While the dough rose we got to have a tour of their dairy where they make cheese! The farm raises sheep, goats and pigs. Their cheeses are mostly ricotta but also some blue cheeses and chèvre.

 

The dairy where they make cheese. The tubs on the left have fresh ricotta made from sheep’s milk that same day!
The owner’s “cheese bank” where they age cheeses for varying numbers of months (or years). At a varying frequency they will wash the wheels of cheese to wipe away mold and give them a salt water bath. You can see the mold growing on some in the picture on the second shelf from the top.
Maddy and Emily making the pici – which looks like fat spaghetti. In the back is Pierro, our class instructor.
Our ravioli, with a pumpkin and ricotta filling
A plate of house-made cheese

Our pasta from the class accompanied by sauces made by the kitchen staff

Tuesday: Wine tour with Tuscany Tours by Golden Travel. We visited four wineries:Casanova di Neri in Montalcino, Poliziano in Montepulciano, Poggio Rubino in Montalcino, and Villa Le Prata in Montalcino and also a couple tasting rooms in Montepulciano. They all offered wines of the region, which are red Sangiovese and included Brunello di Montalcino, Rosso di Montalcino and Vino Nobile di Montepulciano. We learned so much about the wines of the region including their ranking by the appellation control, the varietals, how long they are aged in the bottle and barrel and such things. I am so happy to have gone as now I feel like I can really pick a good Tuscan wine out on a menu. And – the wine is delicious!
 

Casanova di Neri
Casanova di Neri
Walking through the streets of Montalcino
 

Walking through Montalcino
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Walking around Montalcino, Maddy, me and Jenny
 

The entrance to the vineyard Villa le Prata
The vineyards of Villa Le Prata
At Poggio Rubino
View from Poggio Rubino
View from Montepulciano

Montalcino
The winery and vineyards at Villa Le Prata. This winery was having a terrible problem with wild boars. We could see the track marks all over the place and the poor wine maker was explaining how the boars have very good taste in grapes as they eat the most valuable grapes. They are investing in putting up fences but it sounds like it’s a tough time for all the grape farmers in the region. In addition, their chestnut trees in the region have caught some sort of sickness and are dying. She sounded positive but it’s interesting to hear about the issues these people face in their industry. Hopefully they get through without too much damage.
A typical bread salad, from our lunch at Poggio Rubino.
Down in the historic underground wine cellars of Cantine Storiche De’Ricci
 

My wine spoils to take home to Switzerland 🙂
And that’s it! We packed up the car on Wednesday morning to head north to Florence for the second part of our Italian adventure. Our car was packed to the brim with four girls, 23 bottles of Tuscan red wines and lots of luggage. It was such a wonderful time exploring this region of Italy and all in the company of some of my best friends!