Sofia, Bulgaria

We were in the capital city of Sofia from Sunday 23 July through Tuesday 25 July. Coming here made sense given that it’s the capital city and has an international airport. This was the last stop on our tour of Bulgaria.

Transportation: We still had our rental car and drove 2 hours north to the Sofia airport  from Bansko. We dropped the rental car and took the metro into the city.

Accommodation: We stayed at the 5 Vintage Guest House. This place was awesome. The guest house is a step up from a hostel because we had our own private room on a floor with only 3 other guest rooms. We all shared a bathroom (2 showers and 2 toilets), a kitchen and a common area. It was very clean, had cute decorations and had several amenities included, such as AC in our room (important given the weather was in the 90s), coffee, a clothes washer and dryer and even candies and sweet croissants available for the taking. We only spoke with one other guest during our time, a Danish solo traveler, but everyone was quiet. It was really fantastic!

Left: Our bedroom, with two twin beds, a dresser and an AC unit. Not too big but well sized for European standards. Top right: the hall between each of the four guest rooms on our floor; Bottom right: the common area, including a little kitchen, plenty of seating and a balcony.

Eats: On Sunday night we went out to the restaurant Ascua in our guest house’s neighborhood, which offers fresh fish from the Greek Mediterranean waters. We got an 800 gram red sea bream fish to share, which was grilled to perfection and de-boned table side. For an appetizer we got the Kyopolou eggplant dip again, this time a diced version. It was a wonderful meal and a refreshing cuisine after days of all the heavier traditional Bulgarian fare.


On Monday we kept food simple as we needed a break from the restaurant travel diet. Believe it or not, it gets old eating out constantly! We went to an early dinner/late lunch at Wok to Walk, an international quick-service Asian style eatery that serves made to order stir-fries and had a seating area out on the pedestrian street. It was another welcome break from the cuisine we had over the past few weeks traveling in Italy, Romania and Bulgaria.

Activities: We were only in Sofia for two nights and one full day as we had an earlyyy morning flight out on Tuesday morning. On Monday morning we did a free walking tour with Free Sofia Tour. This took us around the main sites of the city while giving us a brief history and insight into the guide’s view of his country.

The Cathedral Saint Alexander Nevski, an orthodox cathedral completed in 1902. He proudly explained that it is the second biggest orthodox cathedral in the Balkans.
Church St. George Rotunda, an early Christian church built by the Romans in the 4th century. Today it sits encircled by the presidents offices and a nice hotel.
The entrance to the Bulgarian President’s city offices, with the guards. The guide said that the President is not often here but rather at his home on the outskirts of the city.
The old baths of the city
The Banya Bashi Mosque, completed in 1500s during the Ottoman rule. There are not many Muslims left in Sofia but it is still an operational mosque.

After the walking tour we walked around the city and one of the big parks. We stopped by a shopping mall and then just went back to our hotel to take care of some things. On Tuesday morning we were up at 5 to catch our flight out of Sofia back to Switzerland. Now we have two nights in Lausanne to retrieve our belongings from storage, make a visit to the bank to release our apartment security deposit and see our Swiss home town for the last time for the near future before we fly back to SF on Thursday 27 July.

Overall Impression of Bulgaria: 

We spent 11 days in Bulgaria. During that time we had the opportunity to travel the North, South, East and West. After having all this time and getting to see so much, I thoroughly enjoyed the country. The people we met were so kind (our hotel friend George, our hiking friend George, the walking tour guides, people we met in restaurants, hotels, etc). The Bulgarian restaurants offered a wide variety of cuisine and it was delicious. Thanks to the strength of the Swiss Franc in comparison to the Bulgarian Lev and overall lower prices, the trip was very affordable.

It was fascinating to be in a different part of Europe with a different culture where we experienced little things such as the opposite head nod/shake and the shower by the toilet to learning about the recent history after the fall of communism and the country’s path towards democracy and a market economy. The young tour guides of Sofia and Veliko Tarnovo made it clear that their generation, the children who grew up after fall of the wall, are happy with the changes, but that there is a division and difference of opinion regarding which system is better for the country. A smart point was that their opinion is heavily influenced by whether each person’s family benefited from the communist regime. As an American who has not had such experiences, I am so thankful to have had these conversations with the Bulgarian people to gain more of an understanding of their history, current situation, and vision of the future.

While there are still remnants of the communist regime, such as their monuments and run-down buildings, the European Union investment in the country has clearly made a difference, with a high-speed freeway (with signage to not let people forget the EU helped with funding) and a decent metro system in Sofia from the airport into and around the city.

A first inclination would be to compare Bulgaria to Romania, but we decided we cannot do that. We only saw Bucharest and not any of the Romanian countryside, so we don’t have as much to compare. We can say however that Bulgaria felt far more developed and appeared to have better infrastructure for tourists and for general living purposes.

Would we recommend a trip? A long answer. Yes, but only to someone who has travelled more extensively in Europe (like already seen enough of the top destinations such as Paris, Rome, London, etc) and is looking for a different experience. Bulgaria is not packed with tons of historical monuments or sites like the Eiffel Tower of Paris or the Coliseum of Rome. It doesn’t have the biggest mountains, like Switzerland. A trip here is much more relaxed, slow and a cultural experience rather than packed with activities. This was fine with us as we’re a bit tired of touristy trips but important to point out. Otherwise, the people, the food, the landscape – everything added up to a lovely country to visit.

 


Bansko, Bulgaria and the Pirin National Park

As I was researching for our trip in Bulgaria I could see that this country offers it all. Our tour of Bulgaria has taken us from historic Veliko Tărnovo in the northern hills, to the beach town of Sozopol by the Black Sea, to the mountain resort town of Bansko and soon to the metropolitan capital city of Sofia. As you know, Andrew and I love being in the mountains so we were really looking forward to this chapter of our Bulgarian adventure. And as it turns out, they have some big mountain ranges here in Bulgaria, with Bansko situated on the northern edge of the Pirin Mountain National Park, one of two national parks in this country. It’s nothing like the Swiss Alps, but we came to appreciate their beauty all the same. We were in Bansko from Thursday 20 July – Sunday 23 July.

Transportation: To simplify things for ourselves, we rented a car from the Burgas Airport to drive 4.5 hours to Bansko. It took 2.5 hours on two public buses from Sozopol to get to the airport, but it was cheap and effective. The drive to Bansko was easy as there is a high speed freeway for 75% of the drive, taking us on a traverse across the country from the coast to the mountains in relatively short time.

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Driving through central Bulgaria. A welcome sight, the majority of the fields were sunflowers! Most were either in peak bloom or starting to drop their heads as they were heavy with seeds. We learned that sunflowers are one of the primary crops in this country.

Accommodation: We stayed at the Family Hotel Djangal. It was centrally located in walking distance of the main street with all the restaurants and shops. We got a room with a sitting area inside and a balcony with a view of the mountains. This hotel had a much better Balkan shower design. The shower head was in a corner directly above a drain and we were provided a squeegee brush. This shower didn’t get water everywhere as in our Sozopol experience, and the squeegee helped to clean up the water much better than using a big towel. We’re Balkan shower pros now!

The hosts at the Hotel Djangal were incredibly welcoming and we developed a bit of a friendship with the jovial husband, George. When we first checked in, George pulled us away from starting to retire to our room to take us down to their kitchen, where he insisted on sharing a glass of rakia, a Bulgarian style liquor he had distilled himself from grapes. We were curious if it was customary to sip on the rakia when first offered by our host, but we noticed his portion was missing verrrry quickly 🙂 He explained to us in his broken English that we would not “sip sip” but rather “whoosh” our drink. With such encouragement from our new friend, we took the rakia in one shot each, chased by a glass of water George kindly offered. Welcome to Bansko!

Every morning George sat down to chat with us in a mixture of Bulgarian, English, French and German. He told us “histories” of the hotel, which were stories about his guests; such as the Russian who disappeared for one verrrry cold winter night, to be found in George’s neighbor’s backyard the next morning, curled up fast asleep in a horse wagon. Or another man who went missing for 3 days, only to be found safe and sound later on, but very drunk. He showed us many things, such as his wood working shop where he carved bowls, chairs and wall decorations. One afternoon on our return from a hike he greeted us with fresh cherries from his cherry tree (the sweetest!). One morning he was showing us photographs of an old house on some property he purchased in central Bulgaria (against his wife’s wishes), where he keeps 10 hives of bees. We were given some of the delicious honey with our breakfast. The last evening he proudly introduced us to his daughter, who works in Sofia and was home for the weekend. We did end up deciding to buy a bowl from George’s shop, which he let us carve our names in as a souvenir.

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George’s wood working shop, which was in the ground floor of one of the hotel’s buildings. 
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We don’t often buy souvenirs, but his work was very good. We settled on this walnut tree wood bowl. 

 

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George let us use a wood burning tool to engrave the bowl ourselves. We wrote the city name “Bansko” in the cyrillic alphabet.

When we were packing up the car, George insisted on a departure gift, a bottle of his rakia to take with us. We couldn’t say no!

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Don’t confuse this bottle’s label with it’s contents. This is not Pirin Mountain spring water, but rather the rakia from George!

When we left Bansko, we were sad to say goodbye to George, and were so grateful for his hospitality and sincere friendship during our short time at his hotel. We weren’t sure why he took such a liking to us, as there were plenty of other Bulgarians and Russians at the hotel during our stay who he could converse with easier, but we truly enjoyed getting to know him.

Eats: We had three nights in Bansko to explore Bulgarian cuisine. The first night we randomly picked a restaurant down in the main square, the tavern Mehana Momini Dvori. It had great outdoor seating and it was a beautiful night. We got a “sizzling” dish which was a platter of pork, chicken and vegetables on a sizzling platter – kind of like when fajita meat is served. Not the healthiest, but it was so delicious!


Night #2 we walked into Voyvodata Tavern, which we had seen the previous night while walking around. It’s a bit farther away from the touristy town center but caught our eye for the dining area outside in a courtyard. It was so good the first time that we went again the next night! The second night the service wasn’t as good and they mixed up our order without apology, but the food was still delicious.

My dish, the Bansko style chicken. It is chicken tenderloins in a tomato base sauce with sauteed mushrooms, bell peppers and pearl onions. I will dream of this stuff!
Andrew’s Kavarma. We both agreed this was better than the first time he ordered this stew while in Veliko Tarnovo. I mean, look at how thick that sauce is!
The restaurant dining area. It was in the courtyard of what seemed to be an old inn
Our favorite appetizer so far in Bulgaria: Kyopolou, a roasted eggplant and bell pepper spread that is similar to baba ganoush. I am definitely inspired to try my hand at making this dish once we have our own kitchen again. 

The Bulgarian cuisine continues to please us. The menus at the traditional Bulgarian restaurants and mehanas (taverns) offer a wide variety of dishes. Most have had a book with sections dedicated to salads, sides (most often mushrooms or vegetables in butter, french fries and sautéed potatoes), fish, veal, chicken, pork, pasta, pizza and dessert. The wine lists are often long, listing all Bulgarian wines (which continue to be well priced and good). The menu also will always list the amount of food in grams, which we’ve found is super helpful for portion planning and understanding if something is enough to be shared.

Activities: The reason we came to Bansko was to tour the nearby Pirin National Park. We spent Friday and Saturday exploring two different sections of the park.

On Saturday, we drove up into the park from Bansko to park at the Vihren hut, where we took the trail to hike up the highest peak in the park and second highest peak in Bulgaria, Mt. Vihren, which sits at 2,914 meters (9,560 ft). The hike was 4.5 miles round trip, 3,000 feet up, and took us just under 4 hours to complete.

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A view of Mt. Vihren from the trailhead
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Approaching the last stretch of the trail, which was mostly hiking on skree to the top of the peak.
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Andrew and I on top of Mt. Vihren

On Sunday we drove around the park to a separate entrance where we could take a ski chair lift up into the park to the Bezbog mountain hut. From there we took the trail to go see some glacial lakes. We hiked for 3.5 hours and covered 6.5 miles, seeing many alpine lakes and beautiful vistas. For a portion of the hike we even walked with a younger George, a Bulgarian who is working on his PhD at a Bowling Green State University. He entertained us for a few miles, talking about life in both countries and both of our travels in Bulgaria this summer.

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The Bezbog “hut” at the trailhead, where the ski chair lift had dropped us off to begin our hike.
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A view along the beginning of our hike. You can see one of the lakes we later visited in the center if you look closely.
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A view from the trail looking north. Beautiful with the layers of hills off in the distance.
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Andrew and I at Popovo Lake, the largest lake in the Pirin Mountains. Photo credit goes to our younger Bulgarian friend George. 
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The hike featured many glacial lakes like this one. 

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On Saturday night, George’s daughter had let us know that there would be a free concert on the main square that we should check out. We went after dinner, and were amazed to find that we were joining what must have been a few thousand people out on the town for the night. The “concert” was in fact a bunch of singers and dancers who did covers of pop music while the real music video played on huge screens or kind of lip synced or rapped along with both American and local music. It was interesting to say the least, and definitely provided some good entertainment and people watching.

As we departed Bansko today, we said goodbye to George and his wife of the Hotel Djangal. It was a wonderful mountain village and we were so happy to have come during our tour of Bulgaria. Next up, the capital city of Sofia for two nights before we head back to Switzerland.

 

 

 

Sozopol, Bulgaria

Our next stop on our tour of Bulgaria was to dip our toes in the Black Sea. We stayed in the beach town of Sozopol, which is south of the more internationally popular beach resort towns of Bulgaria, and is geared more toward families and beach-goers that don’t care for parties until sun-up. While most people were Bulgarian there was a healthy crowd of Russians and Germans. At times it felt like like Ocean City, MD (without the boardwalk but throw in all the kitschy shops, restaurants and hoards of people) but it was still a beautiful beach and a bit lower budget. We originally booked to stay for 3 nights, but upon arrival a storm front came through and hovered over the coast, bringing in lots of wind, cooler temperatures and rain. The day we were supposed to leave was when the weather improved, so we moved reservations around and instead stayed from Sunday 16 July through Thursday 20 July to get a full day of sun on the beach.

Transportation: We woke up early on Sunday to catch the local bus from our hostel to the main bus station. We didn’t know when it was coming thanks to a lack of available bus schedules, so we went earrrly. We managed fine and caught our long distance bus at 7:30 AM that took us from Veliko Tărnovo to Burgas, one of the biggest cities on the Black Sea coast. The bus trip went smoothly, with an arrival in Burgas within 3 hours. We tried to locate the next bus down to Sozopol but realized we would need to take another bus to the center of Burgas to catch yet another bus south. We ditched that idea as we were not entirely sure where the right bus stop would be and instead hired a taxi to drive us 30 minutes south to Sozopol. We knowingly got over charged as tourists but given we had no idea of the true value we just accepted an easy way to our destination for what was still a pretty low price of approximately USD 20.

Accommodation: Sozopol is packed to the brim with hotels, resorts and vacation condos. We stayed at the Family Hotel Sofi for the first 3 nights. We got one of their top floor rooms with a balcony that has a view of the city and the Black Sea. The beach-front was only a 10 minute walk down hill. The hotel had a nice little garden area on the ground floor with a pool and a bar. It was simple, walking distance to everything and perfect for our short beach stay. For our fourth, impromptu, night, we stayed at the Hotel Kamea, which was chosen for its convenient location next door to Sofi (guilty for not wanting to walk with our stuff much further) and still getting a view of the water. It wasn’t the best, but it worked.

The pool and garden on the ground floor of the hotel.
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A view of Sozopol from the Hotel Sofi. Large waves are not common in the summer, but the storm clouds overhead brought high winds that whipped up the surf.

Here at the hotel we encountered another Balkan country concept previously unknown to us: the shower-toilet combo. There is no tub to separate your shower from the toilet nor is there a shower curtain. Why would you need a curtain if you create a bathroom with a central drain and tiles all around? At first we were astonished and confused. We had just left a disgusting bathroom in our previous hostel and were ready for a nice shower in our hotel, and then we discover THIS. How would we do it? Isn’t that gross to shower where the water is running off the toilet? Won’t water get EVERYWHERE? Upon closer scrutiny, the floors, toilet and drain appeared to be clean, providing relative comfort. In order to fully understand the mechanics, we resorted to google searches to see how to properly shower. We quickly learned {and subsequently implemented} the trusty 4 P’s to use of Balkan showers (see funny blog article): Preparation, Plenty of towels, Positioning and Power. With the use of these key tactics – we were successful and learned that the shower wasn’t terrible and it is functional. The article has the methodology, but the key solution is to use the towels to wipe up the shower when you’re finished so that the floor dries out. Additionally, we’ve now had the pleasure of learning a different way that people shower in another part of the world that we never expected, and, well, anything is better than our previous hostel.


Eats: We tried a few restaurants where we got fresh salads, freshly grilled seafood and meat. While I did not think that any of the restaurants were the best of our time so far in Bulgaria, we did find some good spots hidden in the corners of this touristy beach town.

Andrew at the restaurant of our late lunch on Tuesday, overlooking the water.
My fresh fish from the Black Sea

Bulgarian Cheese

During our time in Bulgaria we’ve noticed that there are only two types of cheese used in their local dishes and can be served as part of any meal. Кашкавал (Kashkaval) is a yellow semi-hard cheese typically made of cow milk and tastes similar to string cheese, but with better flavor. Сирене (Sirene) is a white brine crumbly cheese typically made of goat’s milk. It is less salty but similar to feta. Both are excellent!.

Activities: When it wasn’t raining, we made time for some nice morning runs and beach time. Otherwise, we relaxed and enjoyed the time to slow down and hang out.

On our first run at the beach on Tuesday we headed south and ran around a little peninsula. It had beautiful views over these grassy cliffs looking over the water
Our first day when we went running was gray but still perfect for a run!
Andrew on our run on Wednesday morning, a much sunnier day!

On Wednesday, the day we were supposed to leave according to our original plan, the weather was beautiful. We woke up early at 5am to catch the sun rise over the sea.

Andrew and I, at the sunrise on Wednesday morning

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Wednesday proved to be a beautiful day at the beach. Warm and clear skies. We were not able to go too far in the water as the lifeguards were not allowing us to swim beyond the first breakers. A bit of a disappointment but it was refreshing to dip our toes now and then and gaze out at the water.

The Black Sea is not black! Quite blue in fact 🙂 During our stay the waves were unusually high. Normally it should be more similar to the Mediterranean with tiny little ripples making it easy for swimming, but the storms brought rough surf.

While the weather could have been better, we were both able to relax and unwind at the beach. It was a great spot by the sea and a welcome respite from our previous touristy days. Next up: Bansko to see the Pirin National Park!

Oktoberfest 2016

Only my fourth time to Oktoberfest, and Andrew’s third after our trip last year (see post). We almost didn’t go, but we already had a hotel booked back in January (which we thought we could cancel but ended up being non-refundable – whoops!) so off we went. Turned out we knew a bunch of people headed to Munich at the same time, so it was the best time to go. We stayed at an awesome hotel right across from the train station, the Eden Hotel Wolff, which was convenient for getting to/from the festival grounds on foot and also great for getting around the city.

Andrew arrived on Thursday and I came in on Friday by train. I got there at 1:30 and immediately hit the shopping district as I wanted to buy a couple things aaaand I decided it was time to buy a newer and nicer dirndl. I had researched ahead of time where to go and visited a few “trachten” shops (stores selling traditional Bavarian dirndls and lederhosen). I ended up liking Angermaier Trachten the most for it’s wide selection, prices and they were more organized than a couple others I found. There were SO many beautiful dresses, it was hard to choose!

Inside of the Angermaier Trachten shop


On Friday At 4 I met up with my friend Jim and his girlfriend Alex at my hotel to head for the festival. I met Jim during grad school at JMU and we both worked for KPMG in the DC area. We both moved away from DC in 2012 as he moved to Boston and I moved to SF – it had been a while so there was tons to catch up on!

We met up with Andrew and our friend Lauren (Lauren is our friend from SF that works for KPMG and is on a rotation in London. We visited her last November). We also met up through the night with a handful of other friends of the group as there were a bunch of people coming through from all over the U.S. We had a great group and got a spot at a table in Löwenbräu with a group of Australians. Löwenbräu’s band plays a lot of covers of popular American music along with the traditional Bavarian music. It’s a really fun tent where tons of foreigners like to go. We hung out until about 8:30, rode some roller coasters then called it a night since Saturday would be a marathon.

Alex, me and Andrew
Me and Andrew
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Our table on Friday night at the Löwenbräu tent with our fellow Australian and British Oktoberfest partiers 

On Saturday, the drill was as in other years. We didn’t have a reservation so we had to get in line at 7:00am to secure a full table when the tents open. We managed to get an awesome table right in the center of the Paulener Winzerer Fähndl Festzelt. We hadn’t been to it before, but it’s one of the biggest tents (fits nearly 6800 people!) and is known for a good band and having tons of locals. We stayed all day, drinking liters of the Oktoberfest beer, singing and dancing.

A view into the room where they clean all the steins
We all wish we could know how many chickens Oktoberfest goes through during the two week period. Getting a half rotisserie chicken is one of the most common dishes to eat at Oktoberfest, and you see countless chickens going out every hour.
Andrew and the pretzel that was bigger than his head.
For breakfast Saturday: you eat Weisswurst and a side of beer!
Inside the Paulaner tent on Saturday morning at the beginning of the day. You can tell it’s early because no one is standing up yet and most people look pretty well put together 🙂 This does not last long!

Me and Olivia on Saturday
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Our table of friends coming from all over – SF, Boston, NYC, London & Lausanne!

On Sunday morning we got up somewhat early (might have had an early bedtime thanks to a day of drinking …) and had coffee and a croissant down in the old city on the Marienplatz by the Rathaus.

The Famous Glockenspiel


Our train back to Switzerland wasn’t until 12:30, so we went back to the festival to have an early lunch. We sat at a table in the biergarten at the Pschorr-Bräursol tent. It was a warm day so very nice to hang out.

 

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Our last half chicken of the weekend, a plate of sausages with sauerkraut, and a cold potato salad. Not many people are aware because they think Oktoberfest is only about the beer, but the food at is absolutely fantastic!

After lunch we rode a roller coaster then headed back to catch our train. Another year at Oktoberfest to go down in the books!

Walking through the carnival side of Oktoberfest

We stayed in Lausanne for once!

This past weekend started out great. We were invited to go over to a co-worker’s house for  a BBQ on Thursday night. He and his girl friend had just returned from a 3 week vacation in the U.S., traveling through California, Nevada, Utah and Arizona. We were excited to hear all about it and to find out how they liked SF and the national parks. Also, our co-worker had just passed the last part of the Swiss version of the CPA so we had reason to celebrate! Side note: Andrew and I were happy to get invited to a Swiss colleague’s home for dinner. We have been slow to befriend many Swiss people, so it was exciting to be invited over. This is the second time this has happened for us in the past few months, and it took over a year of having lived here!

This weekend we had developed a grand plan to spend the weekend backpacking from cabane to cabane in the Berner Oberland – a part of the Alps in the Swiss German region that we do not frequent often since it’s a little further away. We would have gone from Lauterbrunnen, to Griesalp and Andrew would have stayed an extra night as he had a holiday from work on Monday and hiked further on to Adelboden. We were really excited to do this. Unfortunately, mother nature had other ideas. It has been unseasonably warm and dry in Switzerland for weeks and the streak ended this Friday when a big weather system passed through with colder temperatures and LOTS of rain. The snow levels were looking very low, which implied the potential for snow on the higher mountain passes we needed to cross. Basically, things looked pretty awful up there and while we can handle some rain it did not sound enjoyable nor like we would see anything besides the ground in front of us. So, we cancelled 😦 During the weekend we checked some of the webcams at the cabanes and they were in completely in a cloud or had gotten a few inches of snow. So, we made the right choice in the end.

As a result, we spent this past weekend in Lausanne, which turned out to be relaxing and not a bad thing since we were in between two sets of visitors, and next weekend we’re headed to Munich for Oktoberfest! On Saturday we ran some errands and walked around some shops in the old town of Lausanne, stopping for lunch at an outdoor table at Coccinelle-Café. There was also a free music festival going on in Lausanne called Label Suisse, with stages set up all over the city and featuring local Swiss artists. We stopped by on Sunday to see the band LIA. It was raining but there was still a crowd catching the show.

There’s been a lot that has changed about our day-to-day life since we moved to Switzerland but one is the cost to go out to dinner and also the limited variety of restaurants. So I have been expanding my skills and trying lots of new recipes since we moved here. We have been eating such delicious French style food given where we live and our travels in France. This weekend I finally tried salmon tartare. While I may need one more go to get the recipe down, it was surprisingly easy and sooo good. Definitely a keeper for the future or a hot summer night when you don’t want to turn on the oven or stove.

Monday was a holiday in our canton of Vaud, and Andrew had off work. Since my client is in Geneva, in a different canton, the day was not available for me to take off but I traded the holiday for this upcoming Friday to be able to leave for Oktoberfest. So while I worked, Andrew went for a long hike (32 km!) through the entirety of Lavaux from Montreux to Lausanne. It was a little cloudy, which actually made for a beautiful setting with the sun peaking through the clouds onto Lake Geneva. The grapes are clearly ready for harvest soon!

From Monday to Wednesday, a friend from my business fraternity at JMU came to stay with us. Ashley was passing through while on a trip through France, Switzerland and Germany. I of course love having guests visit and it was fun to catch up with her as we hadn’t connected in a few years. On Monday night she arrived and we had dinner at the house while chatting about her travels. On Tuesday, Ashley went on her own excursion through Lavaux, first taking the La Suisse ferry along the lake coastline and then hiked up from Rivaz to have lunch at Le Deck while taking in the view. On Tuesday night, while Andrew had to stay in Neuchâtel for a work event, Ashley and I went out to dinner at Etoile Blanche. Luckily, it will likely not be the last time we see Ashley this week as we’ll all be in Munich this weekend for Oktoberfest!

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Ashley and I after dinner, with the Lausanne cathedral lit up behind us

Sara & Vince visit

This past weekend we were lucky to have our friends from San Francisco, Sara and Vince, visit. They were on a vacation in Italy and came up to Lausanne to spend Saturday night through Tuesday morning with us before flying back to the States.

On Saturday, their train from Italy arrived at 8:45pm. That evening, we made steak fajitas and hung out at our apartment, catching up on life and everyone’s recent travels. Sunday, we got up early and drove an hour to our first destination, which was to take a 1.5 hour hike up to the  Cabane de la Tourche.

View from the parking lot of our destination. Tough to see if you don’t know what you’re looking for, but the Cabane is a little bump on the slopes up on the left.
Sara & Vince in front of the Cabane
We made it!

We settled in at a table outside and had fondue while looking out over the mountains. It was Vince & Sara’s first Swiss fondue (yay!!!) and our first of the season. The view was breathtaking and the local Swiss wine washed it all down nicely.

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Eating fondue on the Cabane terrace. The mountains behind us on the right are the Dents du Midi which we hiked up a few weeks ago. It’s hard to tell with the clouds surrounding the peak, but Mont Blanc (the highest peak in Western Europe) is behind us on the left. The views were beautiful as the clouds moved over the peaks.

Hiking down with a view of the Rhone valley below

The hike we found conveniently had Les Bains de Lavey right at the foot of the mountain. So, after our hike we hit the thermal baths and spa which are heated by hot springs running out from the mountains above. We sampled all the pools, jacuzzis, hammams and saunas. This was the first time we went into the Chromotherapy room. Really interesting … there are set times when you can enter the room. For fifteen minute intervals, you stay in the room, laying back on a rocking chair, and the room is lit in a themed color (ours was red), the room is scented and they play some reaaaaally strange music. Relaxing, if you like lions roaring and elephants trumpeting at times 🙂 Either way, an experience!

On Sunday night we had dinner at the house again just for ease. I made a chicken dish with a mustard sauce using the gourmet Dijon mustard we bought in Burgundy on our recent trip. And of course we had to bring out one of our bottles of Burgundy wine to pair with the meal!

On Monday, Andrew and I went to work while Vince & Sara toured Lausanne and took the ferry across the lake to Evian, France. We greatly benefited from their successful day of discovering the area as we arrived home to a delicious variety of dried meats, cheeses, and sweets that they found while wandering the city. That night, unfortunately Sara felt sick and had to stay home, but Vince, Andrew and I went to dinner at Café de Grancy which was excellent as always. In the end, it was another visitor’s trip that was over too fast, but it was fun to have them here to show them around Switzerland and catch up.

Backpacking to the Auberge de Salanfe

The Auberge de Salanfe

This past Saturday morning we packed our backpacks and drove a little over an hour to a trail head in the village of Van d’en Haut. We hiked 1.5 hours up to stay the night at the Auberge de Salanfe. The Auberge is a mountain inn and something like the cabane we visited on our hike last weekend (see prior blog post). It offers a restaurant, private rooms, dormitory rooms and shared bathrooms with a shower. Guests can only walk up, but they have a road to be able to truck in their supplies. This was our first time staying in such a place, so we were super excited to see what it is like to stay in a dormitory room in the mountains with a bunch of other backpackers.

The Auberge de Salanfe, pictured at right, on Lac de Salanfe.

Upon entry, they request that you take off your hiking boots and leave them at the door. The notes attached are so groggy hikers don’t take the wrong shoes when they get up early in the morning 🙂

When you go into the dormitories and are walking around, they request that you wear slippers to keep the house neat. They even have crocs available to borrow, at no cost.
For CHF 65 each, we got a double spot in this dormitory room. The Auberge was very organized, with everyone’s assigned spot picked out ahead of time and easy to find. Our room was one of three in this building and had 9 bunk beds.
We slept up here on the top bunk. It was surprisingly spacious and the beds were comfortable. They came with a pillow and a duvet, though they request that you sleep with a sleeping bag liner for hygienic reasons. We were clearly sleeping very close to our neighbors, but the wooden partition helped to prevent from waking up and staring at a stranger 🙂
Here we are after everyone had checked in, stuff was everywhere! Part of the cabane-style etiquette is to have prepared everything for bed and for your departure the next morning before lights-out at 10pm, that way you make the least amount of noise while others are sleeping. This is helpful given breakfast starts at 4am when people are having their “alpine start” to the day!
A view of the Auberge and its terrace overlooking the mountains and lake. You can also see the balconies of the private rooms on the top level of the building pictured here. Those must be very nice rooms to have!
The Auberge comes complete with a bar. In the evening, everyone went out on the terrace to relax and have a drink before dinner. By this point in the day, it is almost entirely people staying at the Auberge. The view was beautiful. We sat and watched the clouds shift as the sun set over the mountain skyline.
The price we paid for our stay at the Auberge was “half-board” which means it included dinner, a night’s stay and breakfast. This is customary for such mountain inns and the remote cabanes. The dinner was served in a single seating at 6:45 and was three courses: a soup, main course (pictured above) and dessert (ice cream). Breakfast was simple: bread, butter, jam, cheese and muesli pre-mixed with yogurt. For a CHF 15 fee they even sell you a picnic lunch for the following day. We got one of these to supplement the food we brought, which included 2 locally made sausages, local “alpage” cheese (made from milk when the cows are spending their summer grazing in the Alps), an apple, trail mix, bread and a chocolate bar. Sooo nice for the convenience factor! The food wasn’t the best I have ever had but it was pretty good considering the circumstances.

Overall, the Auberge was in a beautiful spot and made backpacking so much easier. By offering us a bed indoors, we did not have to carry a tent, sleeping bag or sleeping pad. By  providing dinner and breakfast, we did not have to bring cooking tools or the food for two entire meals. It all really adds up in a lot of weight savings! Not to mention, the environment was really cool to be in. We were around backpackers of all ages, and everyone was in a cheerful mood having just hiked in the mountains and spent the evening hanging out with their family and friends. We were impressed how respectful everyone was of cleanliness and the quiet hours in the dormitory from 10pm – 6am. Everyone did their best to keep their belongings organized in the close quarters. Andrew and I woke up at 7am to get ready for our day of hiking and we were some of the last to rise. Most were up and out before 6am! Such a unique experience and an awesome way to tour the mountains. We are hoping to do this again soon.

Hiking

We did some hiking on Saturday after we checked in to the Auberge, but the main feature was our Sunday hike. The plan was to get up early and hike up the Dents du Midi. These are some of the highest peaks close to Lausanne, and some that we see views of ALL THE TIME. I mean, we stare at these babies every time we are driving out to the Alps for our numerous weekend hikes and ski trips and we also have a clear view whenever we go to Montreux (like for the Christmas market back in December or the Jazz Festival in July). So, it was a  goal to get ourselves to hike up to La Haute Cime, which is the only peak you can walk up without needing to use technical gear (mountaineering).

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Here’s a view of the Dents du Midi from the South and also of where our hike went. We started at the Auberge de Salanfe (1,942m) walked up to the Col de Susanfe (2,494m) which is the big pass on the left and then we hiked up that long slope from the Col toward La Haute Cime (3,257m), the highest point in the center of the photo.

For some perspective, here is an old lithograph which shows the more commonly seen view of the Dents du Midi from Lake Geneva with the Chateau de Chillon in the foreground (We visited the castle with Kim and Cody back in April and Lauren in September).

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This is a lithograph from an unknown author, dated 1890-1905. It gives a nice image of the Dents du Midi that is fairly representative of what we see all the time (when it is snowy).
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Sunday morning view across the lake toward the Tour Sallière (3,220m) before we began our hike.
We met this lovely lady on the trail. The cows in the Alps never seize to amaze us. They are nimble with their feet as they navigate the steep terrain and as you can see, their diet consists of tons of flowers and fresh grass (another reminder of why Swiss cheese tastes so good!) This gal was part of a herd hanging out directly on our trail, so we passed very closely. Look at those cute fluffy ears, don’t you want to give her a pet?
View from the Col de Susanfe on Sunday toward the Tour Sallière. We were only half-way up at this point.
Andrew on the last stretch of our hike, when the trail got incredibly steep and was on scree. This section was at times very difficult to get your foot to grab hold without slipping due to the steep grade. That’s why he’s leaning forward so much – to use his weight to stay on the trail. This made us slow down considerably (also thanks to yours truly because I get nervous in these circumstances) on the last section of our ascent.
A view from the trail into the next valley.

We reached the Col de Paresseux (3,054m), the false summit just below the actual peak, after hiking just over four hours. We tried to continue on to reach the final summit only 200m above, but there was quite a lot of rock scrambling required, we were starting to run low on time and the clouds were looking darker and more ominous – implying an increased risk of thunderstorms, which is dangerous when you are hiking above treeline. Unfortunately, we had to make the call and we turned around with 150m left to the top. We forfeited our summit 😦 We were both very disappointed, but sometimes this happens. In the end, we still get to say we climbed to above 3,000m on the Dents du Midi and had an incredible hiking experience!

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View from the mountain of the lake and the Auberge waaaay down below us

 

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We made our way back down the mountain, and continued on to get to our car to drive back to Lausanne. It was about 1,700m (5,600ft) of descent in one day and hiking from 8am-5pm meant our legs were suuuuper tired and sore. But all in all, another amazing weekend in the Alps!

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Oh, ya know, just another beautiful view along the trail
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Beautiful wildflowers all along the way!