Friday, October 31, 2014

Barcelona Day Trips: Montserrat and Sitges

Sleachmour Adventures: Sitges Photo Collage
From our base camp in Barcelona, we took two easy day trips: one to Sitges, a nearby beach resort town, and the other to Montserrat, a multi-peaked mountain with hiking trails and a Benedictine Abbey. Here's a bit about each trip and logistics of getting there from Barcelona.

Sitges
Located southwest of Barcelona on the Mediterranean coast, Sitges is a pretty little tourist town located on truly gorgeous beaches. From the Passeig de Gracia station in Barcelona, we took the C2 train south and arrived in Sitges 40 minutes later. The train runs every 20 minutes and costs just €7.60 roundtrip. 

From the Sitges train station, a short stroll through the old town brings you to the beach! There are 17 beaches in Sitges. We chose one of the closest (and probably more crowded) central beaches, Platja de la Ribera. The beach was breathtaking with clear turquoise water butting right up against the adorable old town. It was also very small and very busy, so we forked over €20 to secure beachside lounge chairs for the day (and wristbands that allowed us to come and go as we wanted). For lunch, we wandered through the old town, eventually deciding on El Pescadito for reasonably priced tapas (patata bravas! gazpacho!) and sangria. 

While the Barcelona beaches were fantastic, Sitges was definitely worth the day trip. The relaxed beach-town atmosphere was a pleasant change from the hustle and bustle of a large city. Please excuse the lack of photos - we packed light, left my expensive camera in the hotel safe and brought only one cell phone (in a waterproof bag), beach towels, books and a little cash. Without valuables to watch, we were able enjoy the water and waves!

After a full day of sun, sand and a bit of a burn (ouch!), we made our way back with time to shower and change for dinner. All in all, the total cost of our day trip to Sitges, including train tickets, lunch and a splurge on beach chairs rang in around €70. 

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Swiss Discoveries: Cut Your Own Flowers

A few weeks ago, while walking Henry past our local Gemeindehaus (town administrative offices), I noticed a field of flowers in full bloom. Rows were labeled by flower names, photos and a prices per "stiel," (stem). Small box cutters hung from nearby cash boxes along with a comprehensive price list. Putting two and two together, I determined it was a cut your own flower field.
Cut your own flowers.
Gladiolas and Sunflowers

Saturday, August 2, 2014

Barcelona's Old City

Please accept my sincere apology for taking my sweet, sweet time filling in the details of our Barcelona trip. July has been a wet, dreary month in Zurich. But instead of writing blog posts, I've spent my rainy days binge watching United States of Tara. Bad blogger! I'm back and determined to tell you all about it before I forget most of what we did. Here goes...

Christopher Columbus, Barcelona
Christopher Columbus
In this post, I'll focus on what we discovered while wandering Barcelona's  Ciutat Vella, or Old City, which is made up of three neighborhoods: Barri Gotic, El Raval and La Ribera/El Born. Ciutat Vella was conveniently located a block from our hotel, so were were able to spend entire afternoons as well as random hours between activities exploring. Let's begin with the most touristy spot in Barcelona.... Las Ramblas.

Las Ramblas (or La Rambla, whatever suits your fancy) is a tree-lined series of pedestrian streets in central Barcelona. It begins at Placa Catalunya in the north and ends at Port Vell, where a monument to Christopher Columbus, famously points in the wrong direction. Las Ramblas divides the neighborhoods of El Raval to the west and Barri Gotic to the east. Almost every travel blog, book and website I read warned of enormous crowds of tourists, rampant crime and pickpockets on La Rambla. So we tied down our belongings, took a deep breath and dove right in. The crowded part was absolutely right. There were fanny-packed, front backpack-wearing, camera-toting, slow-moving foreigners everywhere. But I never once felt unsafe and we survived with all our belongings in tact.

La Rambla
A look down La Rambla
That being said, La Rambla wasn't that great either. We stopped at a few chain clothing stores, had our fill of the American fast food we'd been missing*, elbowed our way through famous La Bouqueria and gawked at street performers. There were interesting shops, restaurants and street vendors, all of which could be found elsewhere in less crowded areas of Barcelona. La Bouqueria was very cool, with dozens of vendors selling anything your could want to eat, but markets like it exist throughout Barcelona and we preferred the quieter, local versions. Street performers were the highlight. For a euro or two and they'd interact with the audience, wrapping large wings around your body or allowing you to accompany them in playing a Beatles song. A stroll down Las Ramblas was an hour or two well-spent and, if your time is limited in Barcelona, it's an excellent way to see a lot in a relatively short walk. But I could recommend better ways to spend a couple hours in Barcelona.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Barcelona: Post 1 of Many

Barcelona from the Sagrada Familia Tower
In June, Matt and I spent nine days in Barcelona. The city has been on our "must see" list for years and
research told us there's lots to do, so we devoted 2014's longest trip to the capital city of Catalonia! Nine days provided plenty of time to leisurely explore the city and take a couple day trips. Although we still couldn't possible do everything we wanted in our time there. Which means we'll be back!

Below is a quick rundown of the basic logistics of the trip and how we spent our time and money in Barcelona. Our budget was approximately $3,000, which we stayed within (keep in mind we were flying from within Europe). Everything was so inexpensive in Barcelona! I'll be devoting the next few blog posts to more specifics and reviews.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Adam and Kim's Visit Part 2: Neuschwanstein Castle

With Switzerland and France covered, Adam and Kim decided to add at least one more country to their European vacation. They wanted something reachable within a day from Zurich and, after some research,  decided to rent a car and head to Germany to see Neuschwanstein Castle. Neuschwanstein is the Bavarian palace that inspired Disney's Sleeping Beauty Castle. Matt had to work, but I was happy to send Henry off to daycare and join them on the three hour road trip through Austria to Bavaria.


Top: Kim and her car
Bottom: Kim enjoying the German Autobahn at 145km/hr

From this backseat driver's perspective, it was an easy, scenic drive to Hohenschwangau. GPS led the way along the southern coast of Lake Constance, through long mountain tunnels and little Austrian towns past entire fields of solar panels (truly bizarre)... and McDonalds advertising 1€ cheeseburgers. So cheap! We definitely weren't in Switzerland anymore. 

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Adam and Kim Visit Part 1: Zurich

In April, we had visitors from home!!!! Adam and Kim, two of our favorite Columbusites, sandwiched a few days at in Paris, between stays at Sleachmour B&B. We had a blast playing tour guide. Here's how we spent their first two days in Zurich.

Arriving bright and early Saturday morning, Adam and Kim were total champs, ready to start exploring after a few cups of coffee. We started our tour at the Hauptbahnhoff, Zurich's main train station, strolled down the Bahnhoffstrasse and through the Old Town on both side of the Limmat River, heading towards the lake. This is our usual route with visitors. It passes most of the highlights of the Old Town: Fraumunster, Grossmunster and many beautiful, decades old buildings. We ending our walk with a traditional Swiss lunch of sausage and rosti at Sternan Grill.
Visit the Limmatplatz for fantastic views of Zurich Old Town
The Durfberts and Sleachmours at Limmatplatz
Photo Credit:  Adam
Old Town in Zurich, Switzerland
Old Town Walk
Photo Credit:  Adam

Saturday, May 24, 2014

Our First Eurovision

A few weeks ago, Matt was flipping TV channels over dinner and, quite by accident, stumbled on Eurovision, an annual European music competition. Participating countries each submit a song and performer(s) to compete in a live, televised, three day event. Rounds 1 and 2 introduce each country's song and audience voting results are combined with scores from a panel of judges determine which countries move on to perform in the finale, during which, top acts perform once again, and live voting and judges scores name an annual winner.

We were immediate sucked in by Eurovision's truly bizarre mix of music, from polished pop ballads to strange "modern" takes on traditional folk music. I have no idea how countries select their performers or the talent level of their pool of contestants, but some of their submissions were... ill advised, to say the least... making for very amusing television.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Exploring Switzerland's Italian Side in Lugano

Lake Lugano and Monte San Salvatore, http://sleachmouradventures.blogspot.com
Monte San Salvatore across Lake Lugano
Since our arrival in Switzerland, I've been pestering Matt for a trip to Ticino, the Italian region of Switzerland. I hear wonderful things about Tucino - its scenic beauty, the abundant sun, tasty food and wine and the (very un-Swiss) disregard of schedules and clocks by locals and visitors alike. It sounds like the Swiss-Italians could be my people! I couldn't wait to visit.

The first weekend in May, a nice long holiday weekend for Matt, was the perfect opportunity to hop on a train and make our way South. We booked a hotel in Lugano, a small Swiss town located on Lake Lugano, just minutes from the Italian border.

The train ride from Zurich to Lugano was unexpectedly gorgeous. Don't get me wrong. Most train rides in Switzerland are scenic. My twice weekly commutes into the city have beautiful mountain and lake views. But the train to Lugano was special, slowing climbing up into the Swiss Alps. I planned to read, but spent most of the trip with my nose pressed to the window watching snow capped mountains, waterfalls of snow melt and adorable mountain towns. Unfortunately, iPhone photos through windows can't do it justice. You'll just have to take my word, or come visit.

We arrived in Lugano mid-morning and checked into Hotel Federale, conveniently located just below the train station and a few steps from the Old Town. We dropped our things and went straight to the lake.

Monday, April 28, 2014

Exploring Switzerland: A Day in Basel

A few weeks ago, Matt and I spent a sunny, warm spring Sunday exploring a new Swiss city: Basel. Located just 85 kilometers northwest of Zurich, a quick 45 minute train ride, Basel straddles the Rhine near Switzerland's borders with France and Germany, both of which you can see from downtown Basel. Alsace, France, where they make very tasty sweet white wines, is just a short drive away. 
Sundays in Switzerland are always quiet, and since we brought Henry with us we were unable to explore Basel's excellent museums (including the largest Kunst museum in the country), but we did lots of walking and exploring. After a quick coffee, we spent more of the morning strolling through the medieval Old Town. Winding streets are full of gorgeous old buildings. 

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

A Tour of Our Swiss Home

Sleachmour B&B is really coming together. One day, we'll do a video tour of our flat. For now, here are a few photos of our home in-progress.

We have a flat on the first floor. You can barely see our balcony in this photo.

Friday, April 18, 2014

Baking in Switzerland: Carrot Zucchini Muffins

I love baking - it's in my genes. My mother is a fabulous baker, known for her cookies. My brother makes his own bread from scratch. My sister and I are always plying our partners and co-workers with baked goods. We can't help ourselves! At least if we share, we aren't stuck eating two dozen cookies ourselves, right?

Two weeks ago I made a batch of Martha Stewart's Healthy Morning Muffins. Martha is my go-to for simple, delicious recipes. She never lets me down, and this was no exception. These muffins are packed with banana, carrots and raisins, low in fat and super tasty.

As always, I made a few adjustments. I only had two carrots, so I substituted 1/2 of the carrots for shredded zucchini, making them a bit more like zucchini bread. Add a smear of Swiss butter.... yum. 


Matt loved them so much, I made them again this week for his breakfasts.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Our Animal Friends

It's spring here in Zurich!

No Filter.
Which means Henry and I are spending lots of time outdoors.  The spoiled little doggy gets two walks most days.



Thursday, April 3, 2014

Paris Transportation, Accommodations, Tours and Tips!

Getting There
We chose to fly from Zurich to Paris, rather than take the train, for the cost savings and convenience. An hour and fifteen minute flight on AirFrance was cheaper than the four hour train ride. However, we realized we'd failed to account for the cost of Metro tickets from the airport to central Paris and back - another 20 euros each. The wait time for flights and baggage and the extra cost and time for a Metro ride to central Paris negated most of the time and money we thought we'd saved by flying. Next time we're taking the train.

St. Merri Studio
St. Merri Studio
After our fantastic experience with the Bed and Breakfasts we stayed at in Rome, I decided to search for similar deals in Paris. The best reviewed B&Bs on Trip Advisor most often can't be booked online, so I began the process of emailing back and forth with B&B owners until we found one available - Chambres d'hotels Delareynie. We booked the St. Merri private studio apartment for 110 euros/night. The location was absolutely perfect, on the edge of Le Marais and surrounded by cafes, bars and shopping. From our doorstep, we were a five minute walk from Notre Dame and two Metro stations, and a more leisurely 20 minute walk to the Louvre. The studio was small, but with enough space for a queen size bed, sitting area, kitchen and our things.

Saturday, March 29, 2014

Paris, Days Three and Four

Day Three

Sunday morning was bright and sunny. We began our day (as we did each of our days in Paris!) with cafe and croissant at the counter of a little cafe. This one was at the bottom of Montmartre. We have excellent bread and pastries in Switzerland, but nothing beats a Parisian croissant. Yum.
Matt's espresso and my cafe creme.
After breakfast, we made our way up to Sacré-Cœur for 11 a.m. mass. Matt almost got snagged by the bracelet guys at Sacré-Cœur. Luckily I snatched his hand away and pushed right past them. It was unnerving to have complete strangers grab your hand and refuse to let go.


One of our few non-selfie photos of the trip. I struggle to hand over my DSLR or iPhone to complete strangers for a photo.

Friday, March 28, 2014

Days One and Two of Paris

This past weekend, Matt and I finally went on our first trip since moving to Switzerland. We chose Paris, despite having both been there (separately) in the past, because.... well, it's Paris! There's weeks worth of things to do and neither of us felt we'd seen it all. Plus, we wanted to experience Paris together. Our four day weekend (again, not nearly long enough) was pretty amazing, despite the somewhat gloomy weather.

Day One

We arrived in Paris early Friday afternoon. After settling in at our B&B (more on where we stayed later), we ditched our (my carefully crafted, down to the minute) original plan to head straight for the Louvre (taking advantage of their late open hours on Fridays). The weather was just too gorgeous! There's no way we were wasting it in a museum, especially with impending rain on its way later in the weekend.
The Louvre - look at that sky!
After a quick bite at a cafe (croque-monsieur for Matt, a chèvre and tomato tarte for me) we strolled our way along La Seine, past the Louvre to the Tuileries Garden, where we enjoyed our first, of many, glasses of wine in Paris.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

February Visitor and a Trip to Luzern

In February, I welcomed our second visitor to Sleachmour (temporary) B&B. Aarti is one of my oldest friends and is also a fellow expat, currently living in Brussels, Belgium. Aarti coordinated her visit to Zurich to overlap with Matt's second business trip. The weather wasn't on our side; most of her visit was drizzly and gray. Also, Aarti came down with (and shared) a killer cold. So, we kept things pretty low key, made dinners at the apartment for two of the four nights, spent a day exploring Zurich and a day in Luzern.

This was my first visit to Luzern (Lucerne in French), even though it's an easy 45 minute train ride from Zurich HB. Luzern sits on Lake Luzern, nestled between lots of mountains. Mountains that make Zurich's view look like foothills. In Luzerne, it felt like I could reach out and touch the Alps. Amazing! Mount Rigi and Mount Pilatus are the local mountains to visit. Both are short trips on public transport from the city center. Unfortunately, with the gray weather, we decided it was best to save mountain hikes for another trip. Instead we roamed the town.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

English Language and American TV in Switzerland

Despite our best intentions (or no good intentions at all...), Matt and I are TV addicts. We have a sadly long list of shows we watch religiously from the comfort of our couch each evening, and we rely heavily on our DVR to ensure we catch them. Our favorites include (among many others) the Amazing Race, Modern Family, New Girl, How I Met Your Mother, House of Cards, Orange is the New Black, and, of course, Downton Abbey.

We are eternally grateful to 21st century technology that allows us to feed our addiction to American TV, despite being far, far away. Here's how we ensure we never miss a beat.... er, episode.

Slingbox Magic
This is the Slingbox projected on our TV screen. The cable remote
shows up on the computer screen (controlled with the mouse). American
commercials are torture. Here's all the cool stuff YOU CAN'T HAVE.
A Slingbox is a fancy device that connects to a cable box and sends the cable signal through the internet. The user/owner of the Slingbox can then access the cable signal remotely through and app or the Slingbox website and watch the same cable signal on a smart phone, tablet or computer. We bought a Slingbox before moving and connected it to an extra cable box at my parents' house.  Now, when we want to watch American cable television, we connect our laptop to our TV and pull up the Slingbox website. Once we're logged in, we control the American cable just as if we were in the same room as the cable box. Through Slingbox, we can access live television, DVR and On Demand programming. 

Monday, March 3, 2014

Finding (Decent) Mexican Food in Switzerland

There are Mexican restaurants in Switzerland. But, most of them are TERRIBLE. And terribly expensive. We once spent 100 chf at a "Mexican" restaurant in Winterthur for packaged guacamole, terrible quesadillas soaked in salad dressing (???) and salsa with absolutely no heat. At. All. The margaritas and chips were ok, so there was that.

That's typical for a Mexican restaurant in Switzerland. And perhaps it is unsurprising, given the lack of proximity to Mexico and their general dislike of very spicy foods.

Since arriving in Zurich, we've been on a hunt for good Mexican food. We stumbled upon a Mexican grocery in central Zurich during our first visit, before the official move. El Maiz has all the critical ingredients for making Mexican at home.... although, like everything else, it's pricey. Over 5chf each for black beans, chipotle in adobe and decent salsa. There are basic ingredients for Mexican food at the regular grocery stores, but nothing is quite the same and everything is expensive. I once calculated the cost of making tacos at home and it was well over 35 chf per meal.

Also, for the record, there's only ONE kind of cheddar available at the grocery.  In the land of cheese. What is wrong with the Swiss?

Americans, you have it made and you don't even know it.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

January Visitor

I apologize for the LONG delay in new posts. We've had a busy three weeks, although it's poor excuse for failing to share the details. As of our last post, Henry and I survived our first week without Matt. Quite well. I think he may have been disappointed by our success. Ha.

The second week we had a visitor, my brother Joe. On his way to India, he managed a five day layover in Zurich. The weather wasn't great, so we spent a good amount of time in our flat, cooking, eating and trying the local microbrews available at Avia. We did manage to spend two cloudy days exploring Zurich. Day one, we discovered Museum Reitberg, which, according to their Wikipedia page, is the only Swiss art museum focused on non-European cultures. Joe found great pieces relating to his research and I enjoyed the exhibit on Indian textile art. Beautiful tapestries painted to tell the stories of goddesses draped were across an entire room (photos banned, sorry!).


Sunday, January 19, 2014

How Henry and I Spent A Week On Our Own

One short month after we moved to Switzerland, Matt left on his first business trip: two weeks in China, Thailand and India. I've dreaded these weeks, anticipating long, bored, lonely hours with only the dog for company, daily breakdowns and desperate calls to friends. I am happy to report we're more than halfway through and Henry and I are doing quite well. We've filled our days with activity. What have we been doing with ourselves? Let me tell you.

Babysitting
We are friends with an American couple who have lived in Switzerland for several years. They've been lifesavers, with tons of excellent advice and much-needed help over the past month. They also watched Henry for us while we were house hunting. I spent Saturday evening with their two very well-behaved boys, while they enjoyed an evening out. We played Connect Four and Foosball until bedtime and I took the late-night train home. It was quite amusing heading towards Zurich on a train full of 20-somethings heading out for the night, and being the 30-something heading home to bed and a good book. How times change...

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Update on the Stress Ball

Progress on leaving Henry home alone is painfully slow. He sticks to me like velcro. If I leave a room, he follows. If I close the bathroom door, he sits just outside and gives me the most guilt-inducing look when I open the door back up. We had a set back this week when I left him several times in one day to run downstairs and change out laundry. I was gone less than five minutes each time. The little shit has been giving me the stink eye and refusing treats every since. He's a total grump.

I've been trying to build his confidence and trust by learning some other skills. His leash walking skills are much improved and he learned to catch treats.... at least, he learned to catch popcorn cause it moves slowly. Anything harder or heavier beans him in the noggin. It's amusing.



Sunday, January 12, 2014

Keeping House in Uster

There are a million lifestyle changes that come with an international move. We tried to anticipate and did our best to research and prepare before the move. Despite our best intentions, more often than not, we find ourselves in the middle of an unanticipated new challenge and we wing it. Or we text our (very few) Swiss friends begging for answers. 

Here are two of the housekeeping challenges that we've mastered here in Switzerland.

Laundry
As I've mentioned before, it is very common for apartment buildings to have a shared washer and dryer. Residents are assigned a washing day, which is the only day they can use the machines. Our temporary flat has access to two washers (no dryers) shared among eight flats. Instead of an assigned day, there is a sign-up sheet that allows us to pick our own day. We were given a magnetic wand with our flat keys and told to visit one of our neighbors to load money on the wand for the washer.

Friday, January 10, 2014

Sleachmour's International House Hunt

Currently, Matt and I are living in a temporary flat provided by his employer. This week we began the process of finding our more permanent home, with the aid of a relocation company. Thank goodness we have their help, because finding a home here is complicated and challenging.

A bit of Swiss housing information for context. Housing is expensive across Switzerland, with the highest prices in city centers, like Zurich, becoming more reasonable as you move further into the suburbs and countryside. Most people own or rent apartments or flats. Freestanding houses are very expensive... well over a million dollars purchase price for the cheapest we've seen advertised in the windows of local realty offices. For our needs, the best option is to rent a flat, and we've decided to do go a little ways outside of Zurich. Within our budget, we could get a teeny-tiny one bedroom in Zurich or a two-three bedroom with twice the space 20 minutes outside of the city. Additionally, the further we are from Zurich, the more green space there will be for Henry.

Monday, January 6, 2014

Celebrating Dreikonigstag in Switzerland - Three Kings Day

Thank you Dimitri and Mamiko for the delicious cake!
On January 6, the twelfth day after Christmas, the Swiss celebrate Dreikoenigstag, Three Kings Day. It is also known as Epiphany in English-language cultures and officially marks the end of the Holiday season.

Dreikoenigstag celebrates the arrival of the Magi at the manger in Bethlehem and the day is celebrated with Dreikoenigskuchen, Three Kings Cake. In the cake is hidden a nut or a small plastic king and whoever finds it is king for the day. They receive a crown and are excused from housework!


1,999

In the early days of our relationship, Matt and I were puzzlers. We spent winter evenings hunched over our dining room table working on some European landscape or other. It's been a few years since our last, and Matt's two week holiday combined with an inability to leave the house provided an opportunity to resurrect our hobby. For Christmas we bought ourselves a 2,000 piece puzzle.

Two weeks later, we finally placed the last piece. Only to realize that it wasn't the last at all. After two weeks of hard work, the final piece appears to be missing! We blame Henry. It was probably retribution for a time we attempted to leave him at home. Jerk.



Sunday, January 5, 2014

Ringing in the New Year and Smothering it in Cheese

Our plans for New Years Eve initially involved a quiet evening at home with our first attempt at making fondue. As you may have read on facebook, those plans changed when our neighbors invited us to a potluck party for the building. Our neighbors are older, mostly retirees, and none speak English. We made some simple cookies and planned to drop by for half an hour before heading back upstairs to our fondue. We didn't realize that by showing up, we signed up for a fantastic three hour, three course meal. Our generous neighbors fed us duck, ham, potatoes, rice casserole and tons of desserts. We tried wine from the vineyards just around the corner from our flat (which apparently sells out quickly each year) and homemade schnapps and grappa. A neighbor's adult children joined us - and they spoke English! We chatted about the neighborhood, their plans for an upcoming vacation to the West coast states and the difference between American and Swiss Coca Cola (corn syrup vs. sugar). It was a wonderful party. A little before midnight we went back to our flat to ring in the New Year with a German countdown special, similar to Dick Clark. At midnight, we watched the fireworks being set off by our neighbors. The Swiss love their fireworks; they continued setting them off through most of the night and the remnants littered the streets the next morning.