Fuerteventura: Where the desert meets the sea

It’s that time of year in Zürich when typically the blue summer sky begins to fade and settle into a dismal shade of gray.  The air is cool but not cold enough for snow. Rain and clouds are constant fixtures on the five day forecast. While this year’s weather has been better than usual, there’s still no better time to travel south where the air is still warm and beaches abound.

And so we were off to the Canary Islands a Spanish archipelago located off the southern coast of Morocco. I imagined sunbathing and sipping sangria against a backdrop of golden dunes, pristine beaches and a craggly volcanic landscape. Perhaps this would provide an opportunity to practice speaking Spanish and take up a new hobby like paddle boarding?

I will fully admit this was a last minute vacation and we cut our usual planning short.  We hastily selected a family friendly hotel on Fuerteventura, the least developed island of the archipelago.  To say that our hotel was a family friendly destination would be an understatement.  It literally felt like a summer camp that happened to have a concierge. While we were traveling with a baby in tow, we were not quite prepared for the chorus of whining that accompanied every meal, nor the Disney World type entertainment that interrupted otherwise quiet afternoons.

I also discovered that Fuerteventura is the least inhabited island for good reason. It’s a vast, dry desert island with no fresh water in sight. As we drove around the island taking in the arid landscape I couldn’t help but think that humans were just not meant to populate this land.  If Tom Hanks’ character in Castaway landed here, he wouldn’t last a week.  That is unless he crashed into one of the few tourist villages where strip malls, billboards and over-the-top resorts contrast starkly with the island’s barren interior.

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Fuerteventura landscape

Yes, Fuerteventura was far from what I imagined, however, I would be remiss to not appreciate it’s raw, natural beauty where resorts and tourist shops have yet to dominate.  The undeveloped coastline with long stretches of wild beaches and rocky cliffs descending into an unforgiving surf is spectacular,  surely contributing to its declaration as a Unesco Biosphere Reserve in 2009.

The geological history of the island is equally fascinating dating back to a volcanic eruption 20 million years ago. Centuries of erosion have softened the mountainous landscape, all the while differentiated striations of rock along the coast reveal multiple ancient lava flows.

While I didn’t get around to paddle boarding, opportunities to sail catamarans, kite board and surf in the islands various beaches and lagoons abound. And, lastly, who could not appreciate the nearly perfect climate all year long lending it the nickname “the island of eternal spring.”

So while our last minute trip to Fuerteventura wasn’t exactly my dream vacation, if you’re a beach buff, water sports fanatic or geology geek, it might be yours. Just be sure to choose your hotel carefully.

 

 

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Day trip to Jochpass

My favorite weekends are those that come together at the last minute – when you haven’t made plans and spontaneously decide to book a night or two somewhere you’ve never been, pack your bags and go.  For some reason when I don’t agonize over the details, things seems to fall perfectly into place.

This past weekend we found and booked a hotel on Saturday at 12 pm and were packed and out the door by 2:00.  Our destination was an alpine hotel at 7, 500 feet near Mount Titlis on the Jochpass mountain pass.  To get there required driving to Engelberg, taking a funicular railway and a chairlift. The only caveat was that we had to make the last chairlift at 3:30 or we’d be stuck hiking up the mountain with baby and all of our babycrap stuff. Thankfully we caught the very last lift and made our way to the top.

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The original funicular from 1913

The funicular has a vintage feel dating back to 1913. From the funicular, we hopped on a chairlift and made our way to Jochpass and to our hotel Jochpass Bärghuis.  Views from the lift were breathtaking but didn’t hold a candle compared to the views from the top.

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The hotel which dates back to the 1930’s was recently renovated with a modern and  quirky sensibility.  It had the raw wood you’d expect of an alpine lodge combine with signage spelled in Swiss German.

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Once making it to the hotel we had to indulge in a little snack, a traditional plum tart.

Plum tart

Plum tart

As with most Swiss most mountain lodges, you are required to leave your hiking boots in a ski room and wear their hotel approved footware.  This may be the first and only time you will see me in Crocs.

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The following day we woke up to fresh snow and the landscape we admired the day before was completely tranformed. Our kleines Mädchen was not quite sure what to make of it.

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Because the trails by the Jochpass were snow covered and slippery we took the chairlift and opted to hike down a part of the way to Engelberg where there would be no snow.

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The contrast of the snow covered rocky peaks against the deep green grassy landscape was striking. After about two hours we stumbled upon a small restaurant, the perfect place to stop for some rösti, a well-earned snack.

Another 30 minute walk brought us to the funicular and we were back in Engelberg,  just one hour outside of Zürich.

One year in der Schweiz

It’s been a little over a year since I moved to Zürich and I can safely say living here has in many ways exceeded my expectations. While the thought of having a baby abroad terrified me at first, it  worked out much better than I could have anticipated. The doctors and midwives at the University Hospital were second-to-none, the food was remarkably edible, and we even received a surprise police escort to the hospital when I was in labor.

That’s not to say living here is without challenges. I’m still getting used to $7 lattes and being so far from family but I feel incredibly lucky to be living in such a beautiful city, to have made many new friends and to spend so much of my time with our feisty, little mädchen.

And while many people presume that having a baby curtails any hope of travel, for us quite the opposite has been true.  After several months of pregnancy related bed rest, I was determined to escape our apartment and see more of Switzerland. Fortunately, newborns are fairly portable and the summer in Zürich was uncharacteristically warm. This made for many memorable weekend trips into the countryside and beyond. We even made it to Lake Como and Austria. Here are a few highlights of our more local summer travel.

The first trip we took post baby was to the Klöntalersee, a natural, mountain lake in the Canton of Glarus, Switzerland. This is only an hour drive from Zürich but feels completely unspoiled and remote. We hiked an easy path around the lake admiring views of snow capped mountains receding into a crystal clear water.

A few weeks later the temperature reached the 90’s in Zürich, a city imagined well before the invention of air conditioning. I was desperately calling restaurants inquiring whether or not they had AC when we decided it was time to get out of dodge. We headed to Engadin, a long valley located in the canton of Graubünden in southeast Switzerland.  It boasts 360 alpine views and is peppered with postcard perfect villages, posh hotel and an abundance of outdoor enthusiasts.

Later in the summer my sister came for a visit. We toured the old city and took advantage of the local badi’s or the lakeside beaches that Zürich is famous for.  It didn’t take long before she was “badi obsessed” but I did manage to tear her away to explore Uetliberg, Lucerne and most notably a trip up Rigi on a cogwheel train.

The summer culminated with a long anticipated trip back to Boston to acquaint the little mädchen to her grandparents, friends and relatives.  It was a crazy, fast  whirlwind of a summer concluding a most memorable first year in der Schweiz.

Photo Gallery: A Leisurely Boat Ride on Lake Lucerne

Last Thursday was Ascension Day, a national holiday here in Switzerland and the weather was unseasonably warm. It isn’t very often that the stars align perfectly with a day off from work and nice weather so we absolutely had to take advantage of this rare occurrence. We decided to drive out to Lake Lucerne for a leisurely boat ride, the perfect activity for me as it required limited walking (or waddling in my case), was outdoors and guaranteed quick access to a restroom when nature called inevitably every 20 minutes.

The day started out with a 45 minute scenic drive from Zurich through the countryside to Weggis, pronounced “Vegas”, a small resort town teaming with hotels and outdoor cafes.  From there we hopped on a ferry to Brunnen. There were several options but this seemed like the perfect amount of time on the water and it allowed for a 45 minute stroll in Brunnen.

The boat itself was spacious and impeccably maintained. Springing for a first class ticket in order to access the nicer restaurant and views from the upper deck was definitely worth the extra ch.

Here are a few pics from the day. You can see the scenery is gorgeous this time of year when the hills and meadows are lush and green but the mountain tops are still covered in snow.

Couldn’t have asked for a nicer way to spend the day.

Travel Poster Series

One of the many advantages of living in Zürich, or smack dab in the middle of Europe, is being close to so many beautiful places to visit and explore.  I love taking photos of the countryside or nearby cities but my travel plans have been curtailed as of late. So instead of taking more photos I’ve been thinking about what I could do with the huge collection I’ve amassed over the years.

I started out by making vintage travel inspired prints to hang in our apartment but quickly got carried away.  At the same time I discovered Society6.com, which houses a huge collection of artist prints for purchase online. You make the art, they handle the printing/mailing. Seemed simple enough.

You can purchase any of the prints below on Society6 in various sizes. Go to my storefront Society6.com/gruezigirl and check them out.

Check out Society6.com/gruezigirl to see more!

A tale of two Moroccan cities: Marrakesh and Agadir

After countless days of deliberating where to spend some time off between Christmas and New Years we finally decided on Morocco and booked a last minute trip to Marrakesh and Agadir. Marrakesh, the fourth largest city in Morocco is known for its well-preserved medina and the largest souk in all of Morocco. For the first part of our trip we opted for the optimal “cultural” experience and chose to stay in a small riad in the heart of the medina.

I was especially taken by the idea of staying in a riad. These are typical Moroccan palaces or houses centered around a courtyard or garden. They have thick stucco walls, no windows to the outside and offer a private reprieve from the loud and chaotic streets of the old town. In recent years, many riads in Marrakesh have been painstakingly restored to their former brilliance and reinvented as small hotels or guesthouses.

From our riad we were able to explore the many museums and countless alleyways and markets of Marrakech. It was a real sensory experience to meander these tiny streets teaming with Moroccan wears, handicrafts, spices, and exotic foods. All the while dodging donkeys, speeding mopeds and overzealous vendors. Highlights included a leisurely lunch at the roof terrace of the photography museum, a traditional Moroccan dinner at a lavishlyly adorned palace just outside the old town and exploring Jemaa el-Fnaa, the most famous open market where you’ll find countless food stalls, snake charmers, and all kinds of entertainers well into the night.

After two days in the old town we were ready to explore more of the area and hired a car for a tour of the atlas mountains and nearby berber villages.  The landscape outside Marrakesh was breathtaking. Imaging tiny clay villages with more donkeys than cars and a desert-like landscape juxtaposed against snow capped mountains. All along the road children played with handmade toys and eagerly awaited lollypops from tourists driving by. In many ways it was like going back in time. Learning about the long-thriving Berber culture was also fascinating.

The latter half of our week in Morocco, we headed southwest to Agadir for a few days of R&R at a very German resort.  The original city of Agadir was completely destroyed by an earthquake in 1960. Tourists mainly occupy the strip of all-inclusive resorts along the water spending their days by the pool or golf course with the occasional day trip outside the city. After the sensory overload that is Marrakesh a few days of quiet by a picturesque beach was completely fine by me.

Barolo, Barbaresco and truffles… oh my!

The last leg of our northern Italian road trip was Piedmont, the northern wine-making region of Italy known for two of Italy’s greatest red wines Barolo and Barbaresco and the coveted white truffle. Like the “leave peepers” who make their annual pilgrimage to Vermont to see fall foliage, come October foodies from all over the world flock to this area just for white truffles. We missed truffle season by one week and would have to settle for the lesser black truffle variety. We managed.

We arrived in Piedmont late Friday afternoon and made our way to our agritourismo. This was a farm that had been in the same family for 500 years and was recently bought and converted into a small, rustic hotel and restaurant. It consisted of two main buildings: the opulent owner’s house and the more basic farm hands’ quarters separated by a large courtyard where they served food and drinks. We were staying on the more rustic side in a cozy suite with low ceilings, wide plank floors and period furnishing. I imagine on a sunny day this hotel would have been beautiful with the sun beaming into our room and the courtyard teaming with activity.

But as we made our way to Piedmont, mother nature had other plans. Clouds and fog dominated our drive. Periodic downpours settled into a steady drizzle that lasted for three days. We could barely see 25 feet ahead of us let alone the beautiful landscape hidden behind the fog.

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With the weather so dreary it was clear that the only adventures we’d be embarking on here in Piedmont, would be of the epicurean variety. So we set off to sample some of the food and wine in each of the tiny villages.

The largest city in Piedmont is Alba. This has the most to offer when it comes to over dining and shopping. If you fancy a down payment on dinner, there’s certainly a place or two for you here. However you can also find a variety of other more reasonably priced restaurants, open markets and shops.

The more quintessential Piedmont experience, however, can be had at any of the smaller villages and driving the winding roads between them is half the fun. Barolo is of course the most famous village.  The “Venice of Piedmont”  it is perfectly manicured and teaming with pricey wine purveyors and tourists with open walltes .  For a slightly more authentic experience Monteforte d’Alba is a short drive a way and has the most striking views of the area. We also visited Barbaresco and Neve. Both were quaint fortified villages with small streets lined with cantinas and restaurants packed well into the night.

We discovered that really need to work hard to find a bad restaurant in Piedmont but by far, our most memorable meal was at Ristorante La Volta Rossa, in a very small village called Roddi. Rated highly on Trip Adviser, we weren’t sure if we were falling into a “Trip Adviser Trap” a restaurant whose owners feverishly solicit positive reviews resulting in an OK place revered by tourists but rarely frequented by locals. Thankfully, this was not the case. Upon arrival, we rang the bell and were guided down three flights of stairs into a cavernous basement where they served local wines and interesting takes on traditional plates. Savory chic pea pancakes, egg pasta with truffles and lamb chops were highlights but every course was spot on.

While our first hotel had the best of intentions we did not find the location particularly inspiring and our damp, dark room was a bit depressing. So we switched hotels and spent our last night at a different Agritourismo, called Ada Nadia.  This small family owned hotel was located on a fully functioning Vineyard.  It was set up on a hill with a small pool and beautiful views of the surroundings. The owner was absolutely lovely and breakfast was to die for. Sweet and savory homemade tarts, local cheeses and meats. Yes. Please.  We also made good friends with their chilled out pup. It was also half the price of our first hotel.

On our last day in Piedmont, the sun finally peaked through the clouds and the Piedmont landscape I’d heard so much about was revealed. Seeing the gently rolling hills, the perfectly aligned row upon row of grapes, and the small medieval towns and castles in the distance made the last leg of our Italian road trip feel complete.

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Hiking Cinque Terre: cruise ships, cameras and everything inbetween.

The second stop on our Northern Italian road trip was Cinque Terre. I had some trepidations knowing how popular of a tourist destination it was but I’d heard great things and my grandfather was born in La Spezia, the port city just outside of Cinque Terre. I had to like this place. It was practically in my blood! Also, hiking between five idyllic fishing villages sounded appealing even if I happened to be joined by a few other like-minded travelers. I figured hiking would eliminate at least two-thirds of the cruise ship contingency and we were visiting off season, so it couldn’t possibly be that crowded.

After about three hours of driving, we arrived in Cinque Terre and made our way to Manarola, the smallest of the villages. Manarola is a picturesque town in a slightly ramshackle sort of way. Brightly colored buildings mingle with tourist shops, restaurants, tiny fishing boats and cafes leading up to a very small natural harbor.

Cars are not allowed in the village and there are very few hotels. If you ever visit, be sure to book early and pack light. We booked a private room in an apartment through AirBnB. The apartment was four steep staircases up a narrow pedestrian pathway. Inside, it was tastefully renovated and simply furnished in keeping with the apartment’s original detail. It had four floors, each consisting of one or two small rooms. (No need for a stair-master in this town) The best features of this apartment, however, were the very kind host and her ridiculously cute, tri-lingual five-year old girl. Yes, I said tri-lingual.

That night at the recommendation of our host, we had one of our more memorable dinners at Billy’s a three story restaurant on the outskirts of town.

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We stuffed ourselves with huge plates of squid ink pasta and fresh seafood alongside groups of rowdy travelers and Italians alike. Then we washed it all down with local wine and homemade shnaps before stumbling back to our AirBnB.

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The following morning we started our hike between the villages. Prior to massive flooding in 2011, a relatively flat path close to the water’s edge connected all of the villages. These paths were badly damaged and have yet to be completely restored. A different, steeper path now connects the villages ascending through vineyards and densely packed woods. To our delight, every few meters, breathtaking views of the coastline and villages were revealed.

 

After about an hour we arrived in Coniglia a tiny village on top of a hill, and then on to ___  where we were just in time for a light lunch and apertif.

From there we hiked on to Vernazza, Rick Steves’ favorite villages.  As we got closer to Vernazza, the path become more and more packed with hikers of all ages and nationalities. Once we got to the town, we were somewhat disappointed. I was correct in my assumption that the entire cruise ship contingency would not be hiking, however, I hadn’t considered that boats and trains easily connect one village to the next. It felt as though an entire, army of camera touting tourists had descended upon this tiny town. And the town responded to this constant influx with a generous number of souvenir stands and tourist restaurants.

After stopping for a quick gelato, we hopped the train for the next village, Monterossa, with the hope that we would find something a little more quiet and remote.

After the crowds in Vernazza, Monterossa felt like a reprieve. It was touristy yes, but was less tacky tourist shop and more beachy resort. Umbrellas and beach chairs lined a long stretch of sand. For five euro we rented two loungers and an umbrella, quickly freed our tired feet and went for a swim.

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That night over dinner we pondered the evolution of Cinque Terre, an undoubtedly remarkable place but showing the tell-tale signs of decades of day trippers and tour buses. I appreciated the natural beauty that it offered as well as the hospitality and graciousness of its occupants.

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But I couldn’t help but wonder what Cinque Terre was like before the tourist boats, the cruise ships and even the trains. I imagined the remoteness, the mom and pop shops that preceded the souvenir stands, and the simple but difficult life afforded by fishing and farming in these small, interconnected towns. Then, I imagined my grandfather, walking the streets and steep steps of Manarola. What would he have thought about Cinque Terre and what it had become?

 

Lago di Como and the age old question “ocean or lake?”

If you grew up in New England, you likely fall into one of two distinct camps. Either you battled beach traffic each summer or packed the car and headed north to one of the New Hampshire or Maine lakes. I spent seemingly endless summers on Cape Cod filled with sandcastles, riding waves for hours on end, and cracking open lobstah’s with sides of corn on the cob. Therefore, when asked the rhetorical question, “ocean or lake?” my answer is always “ocean” without hesitation. Don’t get me wrong, I have “lake friends” so I understand the lure of water sports, hiking and lakeside camps. But my most distinct “lake” memory entails falling out of a bunk bed at Lake Winnipesaukee and fracturing my collarbone when I was eight. Not exactly a fond memory.

So when we decided to book a last minute trip to northern Italy starting at Lago di Como, I was really excited but my expectations were somewhat tempered due to the fact that I am unequivocally and most definitely an ocean girl. I was certain it would be nice but couldn’t possibly compare to the coastline. The highlight of our trip would be a few days later in Cinque Terre… or so I thought.

To get to the lake region from Zürich, we drove about three and half hours over the Splügen mountain pass and arrived in Gravedona in time for a late dinner.

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Our BnB was a simple family owned guesthouse in a residential area a few minute drive from town. After a good night’s sleep we woke to freshly baked croissants, local cheeses and jams with a very nice view of the lake. Perfect preparation for the short hike to Refugio Menaggio we had planned. The hike started in Bresgia, a small mountain side village. It initially ascended alongside rustic stone cottages, then meandered through wooded paths and a grassy ridge.

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Rifuggio Mennagio stood proudly at the top in a grassy meadow with panoramic views that were well… I’ll try not to gush, but wow.  Imagine a Fjord-like vista comprised of green hills and mountainous terrain descending into glistening blue water with tiny villages dotting the coastline.  Absolutely amazing. Enough to convert an east coast ocean girl to a lake girl?  Getting close but would need a bit more convincing.

We ordered polenta and antipasti, soaked in the view and reluctantly made our way back down to the village. One thing I love about hiking in Italy is the reward at the end of your hike. In addition to beautiful views, you often find mountain huts serving fresh, home-cooked Italian food and local wine, a combination I can really wrap my head around.

The next stop would be Varenna, a tiny town with steep, narrow streets and a picturesque harbor.  We arrived via ferry and quickly found a cafe with a view of the lake. An afternoon aperitif was in order.

That evening we hopped on the ferry again and made our way to Bellagio for dinner, the most famous of the Lake Como villages. As beautiful as it is, Bellagio is the most touristy. Its promenade and streets have been perfectly restored without the subtle imperfections or yet to be renovated  buildings that give some of the other towns a more authentic appeal.

Here we wandered a bit and then finally opted to get dinner at an unpretentious restaurant on one of the side streets off the main promenade. Pasta with fresh seafood was a good choice.

The following morning, clouds were on the horizon so we decided to get an early start and head south to Cinque Terre. The question stands, have I reconsidered my position on the age-old dichotomy of ocean versus lake? Has this ocean girl been converted? With just two nights, I really only got a glimpse of Lago di Como, a little tease that certainly exceeded my expectations and left me wanting more.  The ocean still has heart but I may need to do a bit more onsite research to be sure.

Where we stayed and ate:

Bed and Breakfast Lori
On the outskirts of Gravedona
. Perfect if you have a car and don’t mind staying outside of the city center. The host is extremely gracious and the rooms are kept impeccably clean. Free WIFI and breakfast. Approximately 95 Euro per night.

L’Antico Pozzo Restaurant
In Bellagio, on a side street, off the main promenade.  
Unpretentious, family friendly restaurant with basic but fresh seafood dishes and reasonable prices.

Photo gallery: Aegeri & Saentis/Ebenalp daytrips from Zürich

This weekend we made it our mission to avoid the weekly pilgrimage to Ikea.  Instead, we went on two short road trips into the surrounding countryside. First was a quick trip to Aegeri, for a scenic drive and a traditional Swiss dinner at Restaurant Raten. Then Sunday we drove to Saentis/Ebenalp, a beautiful area just 1.5 hours from Zürich.  After taking the cable car up and hiking along the ridge to Schaefler, we had lunch at a traditional mountain hut. Parts of the area were a bit overrun by other hikers but the views were spectacular, especially along the ridge. I also learned the secret to affordable grocery shopping in Zürich but I’ll save that for another post.

Hiking in Ebenalp

 

 Road trip to Aegeri