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“A walk about Paris will provide lessons in history, beauty, and in the point of Life.” -Thomas Jefferson

Lightning doesn’t strike the same place twice but it happened to me, what a blessing being in Paris once again, I just can’t get enough of this marvellous city.

We arrived in the afternoon and a sophisticated French lady with a bag of Chanel boarded our tour bus and started talking about Paris. The drive started along Champs Elysee and halted at Arc de Triomphe where our chic travel guide discussed about the monument. The drive continues to Avenue of Paradise, Place de la Concorde, Louvre Museum and its famous Glass Pyramid and the Opera house. When we passed by this broad LV shop people in our bus stared in awe of the long queue and our cultured escort made this remark ‘They are done and they know it!’ clearly she’s not a fan.  This tour introduced me to Galleries La Fayette, Mona Lisa, Moulin Rouge to Montmartre, and a scenic river cruise to see Paris after dark.

This trip bombarded me with signature labels, no thanks!  To our tour manager who kept promoting Monte Blanc for pen, Rolex for watches, Rimowa for luggage’s, and  Prada for wallets and bags like he is a stock holder of these high end brands. In each city he knows where he should bring us for those bits and pieces of signature items. In Paris, he introduced us to Galleries La Fayette to shop without pressing for time. The tourist tax refund will urge you to splurge but it does not mean that all tax will be refunded but currently, TVA rate of most goods is 19.6% in France, but tax refund rate is normally 12%. Friends who know you are going to Europe will asked you to buy Prada for a cheaper price and you can keep the tax refund for yourself.

Galleries La Fayette

Galleries La Fayette dated back to 1895, when Albert Kahn rented a shop in Paris at the corner of Chaussée-d’Antin and rue Lafayette to sell gloves, ribbons, veils, and other goods. The shop was small, but sales were good. Now it’s an upmarket French department store located on Boulevard Haussmann in the 9th arrondissement of Paris and a billion euro company. If Paris is the capital of French fashion, Les Galleries Lafayette Boulevard Haussmann is its window displays, this mall is not just a mall you see everywhere, they didn’t received about 100,000 visitors a day just because of their products deluxe, shoppers come from all around the world to admire the décor and the ambience produced by this mall empire . The department spreads over three floors and proposes the best and most original collections from around the world both from top designers. My friend bought her Prada bag here and I was forced to buy Havaianas espadrilles just for the heck of it.

Mona Lisa

We have 2 days to ditch our tour group and go to wherever we felt like going. We decided to go back to the Louvre and see this enigmatic facial expression of the woman in the painting that is priceless and cannot be insured – The Mona Lisa, which was the result of a spelling error. The original name of the painting was Monna Lisa. Monna in Italian is a short form of Madonna, meaning ‘My Lady’.

This most popular and talked about art piece in the world, painted by the most celebrated painter, Leonardo Da Vinci where people flocked in huge numbers to its home in the Louvre has a room of its own. It is protected in a climate controlled environment and encased in bullet proof glass. The room was built exclusively for the painting for a whopping over seven million dollars. An x-ray image taken of the Mona Lisa in the laboratories of the Louvre, suggests that when Leonard Da Vinci first sketched out his portrait of a Florentine merchant’s wife in 1503 she did not smile at all. The smile, in other words, emerged as he reworked the painting over several years.

As a kid a kept hearing her name in history books, songs, TV, movies, etc. I’m so curious why one very old painting of an eyebrow-less lady whose eyes look a bit skewed with a smirk on her face can be that legendary.  When I finally came face to face with it, I somehow reckoned what’s the fuss all about.  Everything about the painting was richly worked and the rest I leave to the expert.

Moulin Rouge to Montmartre

Yeah I saw the movie and now I want to experience the champagne while watching can-can dance that originally introduced as a seductive dance by the courtesans from this famous cabaret across Europe. So face palm when our benevolent tour guide said he can no longer secure the tickets for us to gain Entry in Moulin Rounge boo hoo!

So we are back with the tour group as we start our walk at Moulin Rouge, and slowly climb our way through back alleys and secluded gardens all the way to Sacre Coeur cathedral. The walking tour takes you to the nooks and crannies of the most bohemian, artistic district of Paris, the center of good-living in Paris and once the home and the artistic muse to Renoir, Picasso, Edith Piaf and others.

A hill in the north of Paris, France – Montmartre is primarily known for the white-domed Basilica of the Sacré Cœur on its summit and as a nightclub district. The other, older, church on the hill is Saint Pierre de Montmartre, at which the Jesuit order of priests was founded. Topped by the Sacre Coeur Basilica, Montmartre is the highest Paris hill and became famous in late 1800’s with the arrival of artists such as Renoir, Van Gogh, and Picasso. Saint-Pierre de Montmartre, built in 1147, is the oldest church in Paris. It was the church of the powerful Montmartre Abbey until the revolution in 1790. We made use of the cable car up the hill to the Basilique du Sacré-Coeur de Montmartre and found our way to a group of cultural restaurant converge in one area on the top of that hill and had a very hearty dinner.

Montmartre to Seine River Cruise

The walked down from Montmartre at twilight was such a delight; heaps of shops were finally opened for business like the day has just begun. It was such an active area of Paris. We passed by Moulin Rouge bar and saw the long queue so we rode our tour bus to join the River Seine cruise instead.  The boat was big and you don’t have to be confined in your seat for the rest of tour, you can walk around or outside to have a better view of the city of lights. The Seine flows through Paris, the capital city of France where according to history this is where the ashes of Joan of Arc were scattered at Rouen. It’s a relaxing way to see the city and major sights from water-level and sighting those beautiful old bridges on the river but the highlight of the show was the Eiffel itself.  The French did not content themselves to just light up the Eiffel Tower at night; they had to make it sparkle on the hour by the hour starting at 8pm every night. Bright white flashes sparkle all up and down the tower from top to bottom, making it sizzle like a sparkler. This show of gaudiness continues for five minutes and then shuts off, waiting for another hour to arrive and will last up to 1am and I can’t believe I missed this in my first visit, duh! If you didn’t get star struck by Eiffel tower wait til you see it illuminating at night. I can’t find the words to describe the awesomeness but this quote from Moulin Rouge should suffice—“A magnificent, opulent, tremendous, stupendous, gargantuan, bedazzlement, a sensual ravishment. It will be: Spectacular, Spectacular! No words in the vernacular can describe this great event you’ll be dumb with wonderment!’

 

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To move, to breathe, to fly, to float,
To gain all while you give,
To roam the roads of lands remote,
To travel is to live.” ― Hans Christian Andersen, The Fairy Tale of My Life: An Autobiography

From Titisee to Paris we spent few hours at a city in Alsace, France named Colmar. We rode a small guided city tour train that lasted up to 40 minutes that gives you a better view of this old town’s stunningly beautiful, well preserved renaissance charm. The train ride are comfortable and with comments in many languages with a lot of information about history, main famous people and architecture. There’s something about this town that makes me want to sing and reminded me of that first song and opening number, “Belle” in Disney’s Beauty and the Beast. Its cobblestone streets and walkways, flower-lined canals, sidewalk cafes, and numerous half-timbered houses It’s like I’m in Disney’s Beauty and the Beast but in real life and I kid you not. All of Colmar’s attractions are concentrated in its old town that you can get around on foot with no difficulty. There’s La petite Venice (Little Venice) to explore with small canals reminiscent of Venice, Italy.

We ate at a local outdoor cafe that our tour manager recommended and it’s a must to eat crepes here in Colmar and so we tried and it seems all French people enjoy crepes and cider and they are everywhere like you feel it’s a weekend and people are enjoying their sip of coffee, chatting with friends and just being outdoors.

Our tour manager mentioned that Colmar is the best place to be during Christmas, he mentioned that one day he would want to spend the holiday season here. I can’t just imagine how wonderful the ambiance would be… this Old town illuminated with Christmas decors soothing aura of light over the centre of Colmar like Hollywood tinsel town but with historic setting based on old age tradition and heritage. It’s more than magical … being in a fairy tale and not just in an ordinary day… but being in a fairy tale on a Christmas day!

Capture

Just outside in the north entrance of Colmar stands a  12-meter high replica of the Statue of Liberty. It was sculpted to commemorate the 100th death anniversary of the sculptor Auguste Batholdi, who was born in Colmar and created the “Liberty lightening the world”. As a homage to the “father of the statue of liberty” the city of Colmar placed this replica.  It is intended to honor the most prestigious artist of Colmar and pay tribute to the work of art which is probably the most famous in the world. This statue is also another link with the United States, already symbolized since 1986 by the signature of a twinning agreement between Colmar and the university town of Princeton, not far from New York.

 

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“Breakfast in Switzerland…lunch in Germany…dinner in France…Life’s a beach but touring Europe is way better!” – Me

This is day 8 of the tour and indeed we are all over Europe. We have been for the last days as we slept in different hotels every night since we’ve landed in Milan. After that buffet breakfast in our hotel in Lucerne where I find them no different from all the other hotels we’ve been as they served the same egg, ham, bacon, cereal, etc. but every day we still ate them anyway,  we head on to Titisee, Germany.

Baden-Württemberg, south-western part of Germany is where you will find Titisee. A country side with a very scenic view. All in one place you will see the lake and the forest that gives a peaceful and tranquil atmosphere. Titisee named from Roman Emperor Titus, he is best known for completing the Colosseum and for his generosity in relieving the suffering caused by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius of Pompeii in AD 79. In addition to his accolades, he also conquered Jerusalem during his reign.

In Titisee it’s impossible not to catch the Black Forest or ‘Schwarzwald’ in German.  It got its name named from its dark, slightly sinister canopy of evergreens. Indeed it was a sunny day when we’re  there but looking at that forest somehow doesn’t make the sun lights able to penetrate and pierce thru those thick dark pine trees and the darkness of the sun-blocking dense coniferous trees is worthy of its name. This woodland is the setting of countless Grimm Brothers fairy tales i.e. this is where Hansel and Gretel encountered the wicked witch and where Red Riding Hood trailed to her grandma’s house.

The touristy village of Titisee is home of the cuckoo clock most of the shops sell them here and a  variety of branded watches, jewelleries, wallets and accessories as well. They also had a market going on in this place where you can purchase fresh fruits, flavour beers, and wines.  We all had lunch in Hochfirst where the waitresses wore traditional German dress called dirndl. The ambiance at the restaurant was amazing as they offered a panoramic view of the backdrop of the adjacent Black Forest and the Lake. At mealtime they first served a small bowl of vegetable soup which I quite like because I like salty, then fries, and rice with the main course of pork knuckle. I would have loved it more with spicy vinegar but their dip was not that bad.

The star attraction was the dessert – the black forest cake with Ice wine – The cake is named not directly after the Black Forest but rather from the specialty liquor of this region, known as Schwarzwälder Kirsch (wasser) and distilled from tart cherries. Black Forest cake consists of several layers of chocolate cake, with whipped cream and cherries between each layer then the cake is decorated with additional whipped cream, maraschino cherries, and chocolate shavings. The Ice wine was too goooood! Ultra-rich, super sweet dessert wine, a type of dessert wine produced from grapes that have been frozen while still on the vine. It was discovered by a German winemaker who was away from his vineyard during harvest and when he returned all of his grapes had been frozen on the vine. Undeterred he carried out the unorthodox harvest as usual and proceeded to press his frozen grapes for fermentation. The result, the first eiswein.

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“We wander for distraction, but we travel for fulfilment.” – Hilaire Belloc

On the way to Lucerne we had a quick stop at Brunig Pass that is halfway between Lucerne and Interlaken. We had a group tour photo in the highway and the village of Lungern, Canton of Obwalden is our backdrop. This municipality of Switzerland has the best beautiful scenery of the mountains parted by the emerald green waters of Brunig lake. I could simply be lost for days in this holiday region of Lungern-Schönbüel and won’t feel panic as the beautiful nature will pacify all the bad feeling as this is haven for mountaineers, walkers, water sports enthusiast and winter skiers.

Lightning never strike in the same place twice but I felt nothing can steal my thunder when we reached Lucerne was just here Sept 2011  and I’m feeling more blessed than happy being in this gorgeous town again. There was no major change in this old town it still embodies the picture perfect, storybook idea of a Swiss town. (see: My Stroll in Lucerne, Switzerland)

As part of the tour we walked around the busy streets and headed for the Lion Monument that is dedicated to the 42 members of the Swiss Guard who were assigned to protect Louis the XVI, Maria Antoinette and their family at the Royal Palace during the French Revolution of 1792.

We fed a bevy of swans swimming in the Lucerne lake near the Chapel Bridge (Kapellbrücke) and nearby had a peek of the Restaurant Bodu where I had my mouth watering French cuisine Sunday lunch once.

There was time for snacks and so we just pick this random coffee shop and chat our extra time away while others in our group tour are busy shopping Rolex watches in some prestigious shop recommended by our tour manager where he has connections and can get discounts – Envious!

It was nice to see again this beautiful small city, a car free zone and small enough to be explored by foot.

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“If adventure has a final and all-embracing motive, it is surely this: we go out because it is our nature to go out, to climb mountains, and to paddle rivers, to fly to the planets and plunge into the depths of the oceans… When man ceases to do these things, he is no longer man.”- Wilfrid Noyce

After Bern we head on to Interlaken and arrived late in the afternoon. Interlaken is a town in the Swiss canton of Bern It is one of the best spots in the world for outdoor sports and home for a number of companies that provide the best service in skiing. Interlaken skyline had a view of sporty people skydiving, hang gliding, and paragliding.

As part of this tour we had an all meat buffet and cheese raclette or cheese fondue can’t tell much the difference as both are served in communal dish served in a pot over a small burner accompanied by   red wine. Raclette is Swiss dish based on heating the cheese and scraping (“racler”) off the melted part. The term derives from the French word racler, meaning “to scrape”. Traditionally, it was accompanied by small firm potatoes, mushroom, onions and cubes of meat.

We retired in a village called Grindelwald, I know it sounded like a shire in Lord of the Rings trilogy but the Eiger village of Grindelwald in the Bernese highland is a mountainscape and the largest ski resort in the Jungfrau region. We stayed in Grand Hotel Regina Grindelwald http://www.grandregina.ch/de/winter/ and this is by far the most memorable hotel I have ever led myself into an Old world charm and sophistication, elegance to every small detail was beyond compare. Never mind the outside view of the welcoming and green hollow surrounded by a commanding mountains The beauty of this hotel will survive even without the outside natural beauty. This hotel was unforgettable to me because it made me felt so good about myself knowing I’ll be laying in its awesomeness!

Waking up to a foggy stunning views of the town and the peaks this hotel offered an excellent breakfast buffet and shopping as this majestic structure situated nearby shops. We walked around the vicinity and window shopped across the street until it’s time to head on to top of the Europe Tour http://www.jungfrau.ch/en/quick-navigation/contact/railway-stations/. The journey entails from Interlaken Ost station up to the Jungfraujoch, the highest rail station in Europe. Our tour manager made an extra effort to cover both sides of the mountain going up and coming down and the rail journey was just unforgettable.There was this quote by Rob Parker that resonates in my head as we trudge upward …”In a sense everything that is exists to climb. All evolution is a climbing towards a higher form. Climbing for life as it reaches towards the consciousness, towards the spirit. We have always honored the high places because we sense them to be the homes of gods. In the mountains there is the promise of… something unexplainable. A higher place of awareness, a spirit that soars. So we climb… and in climbing there is more than a metaphor; there is a means of discovery…”

I’m trying to find words to describe the picturesque scenes that witnessed my eyes from this trip but I’m astounded. The landscapes should have shaded a thousand words in my mind but I have none. The view was just simply breathtaking that even when I grasped for air, words just render me speechless…

 

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“Everything is determined…by forces over which we have no control. It is determined for the insect as well as for the star. Human beings, vegetables, or cosmic dust—we all dance to a mysterious tune, intoned in the distance by an invisible piper.”—Albert Einstein

Our next destination…Bern baby Bern!

Our first stop was The Bärengraben or Bear Pit. Bear is the official mascot or should I say as to the olden days the ‘coat of arms’ of this Switzerland capital. In 1191, founder and Duke Berchtold V of Zähringen said that the new city would be named after the first animal to be found on a hunting expedition in the woods and it was a bear (Bär in German, plural Bären, or Baeren). The bear pit was a secure iron enclosure in the middle of the park and we did see some bears.

We head to the town centre for a leisure walk and passed by the central bank of Switzerland named The Swiss National Bank (SNB) responsible for Swiss monetary policy and for issuing Swiss franc banknotes. In 1983 the historic old town of Bern became a UNESCO World Heritage Site and Bern is ranked among the world’s top ten cities for the best quality of life. Bern is not just all about the money; it is also the home of Toblerone and Ovaltine. A friend back home kept bugging us to buy him a blue tobly and we did find it only in this city. The triangular chocolate was invented by Theodor Tobler in 1908 and every piece is still made in Bern. Ovaltine was created in 1904 by Dr Albert Wander, who mixed malt, egg, milk and cocoa.

Next to see was the Bern’s most recognisable symbol but since we are ahead of schedule as we need to be standing in front of the tower four minutes before the stroke of the hour we made a full stop at a watch shop to drool and to make my TAG puny in the midst of the status symbol luxury watches. Since 1541, watch making has become synonymous with Switzerland (along with neutrality, democracy, chocolate, fondue, skiing, yodelling) so this is the best city to indulge and spoiled your wrist with only the best clock!

We all head to street of Kramgasse you will see the buildings from side to side with Swiss flags and the city’s coat of arms. A fountain in the middle the street was a culture-feeding process. We stood in front of this medieval landmark named Zytglogge tower. Built in the early 13th century this tower has undergone numerous face lifts and internal repairs in its 800 years of existence, four minutes before the stroke of the hour. This astronomical clock beneath the main face shows not only the hour of day, but also the day of the week and of the month. It also shows the zodiac and the phases of the moon as well. Indeed, four minutes before the stroke of the hour sets a delightful puppet show in motion with its chimes you can see the rooster, jester and dancing bears.

From the clock tower further down Kramgasse Street at number 49 was The Einsteinhaus (Einstein House). It’s a museum and a former residence of Albert Einstein (1879-1955) while serving as an employee at the patent office. His living conditions with furniture at that time are shown in the apartment. Einstein’s biography and his life’s work are presented on the third floor and a larger permanent exhibition is located at the Historical Museum of Bern. Albert Einstein, who lived not far from the Zytglogge, allegedly led to his theory of relativity when he looked at the buses coming round the tower and wondered what would happen to them if they moved at the speed of light.

 

Gstaad

Posted: February 7, 2014 in Gstaad, Switzerland
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“I love snow for the same reason I love Christmas: It brings people together while time stands still..”. – Rachel Cohn, Dash & Lily’s Book of Dares

Yodel-eh-hee-hoo! I swear you will yodel the same if you find yourself waking up at the snow-cap mountain view of Switzerland. Today we are scheduled to go to a mountain ski resort and for someone in her entire life that never experience snow, I am sooo freakin out with excitement!!!!

On the way to Glacier 3000 Diablerets (http://www.glacier3000.ch/en/index.cfm) our tour guide was elaborately explaining to us the meaning of the word ‘glacier’. It’s more like he is trying to get the idea into our thick skull not to miss out the detail that glacier is not just snow but made up of fallen snow  over many years and compresses into thickened ice. Each year, new layers of snow bury and compress the previous layers. This compression forces the snow to re-crystallize, causing the snow to slowly compact and increase in density. So thanks to the glacier it’s a ‘year round’ ski destination not just for tourist like me but according to wiki Gstaad is known as a major ski resort and a popular destination amongst the high society and the international jet set. Also, this is the home of the world’s most prestigious and academically intensive boarding schools, such as Institute Le Rosey and Gstaad International School. Well, well, well I don’t mind to be part of that elite group and rub elbows with trust fund babies at all!

The drive to this German-speaking village part of Switzerland was breath taking. It is like pictures in the calendar, unspoiled natural environment came alive before your very eyes. The wide ranging on-piste terrain mountaintop was accessible by cable car, gondola and chair lifts and the ride was as perfect and wonderful as the unclouded climate that we are having that day. There are plenty of activities like the Siberian husky ride for 10 euro but I regret doing. I know the huskies loved their job of pulling people around a big loop on the sled but I really feel for them. Snow slide riding on a big bubble donut and doing a snow angel as seen in the movies – lying on my back and moving one’s arms up and down, and one’s legs from side to side, to form the shape of an angel. And eat of course; our lunch was covered with the best ambiance but no ice cream for me.

Days before going up to the mountain our tour manager kept checking the weather forecasts. He relate to us his crazy vision that while out for activity the sun will be all shining and while having lunch, the snow will fall. It happened once in his many tours and  he did pray our group will experience the same. No luck though, but  we still considered ourselves lucky because the next day, another tour group scheduled to go up there was ill-fated because of the snow storm.

The top of the mountain was all white and when you look up to the sky it was all blue. It was so heavenly, I have never seen white and I never seen blue until I stepped on this mountain of Gstaad. Breathing the air surrounded by the slippery snow, touching the ice and feeling the chill on my cheek was just an astounding experience. Somehow this lyrics from a church song kept playing in my head ‘though your sins be red as crimson, I will turn them white as snow’. I never really grasped the words but now I fully understood how white, fresh, and illuminating the snow can be. I have a tendency to associate the mountains and the beauty of nature with God. There’s a huge difference on the mere sight of it in photographs than being there …it’s heavenly. You will not just be content in telling yourself that this splendour was formed by chance or the big bang. Surely, you will say only God can create such awesomeness!