Tag Archives: Food

Yerevan, Armenia

Yerevan was the starting point for our exploration of Armenia and Georgia and in early March it was chilly, with snow on the ground and freezing fog obscuring our view most mornings, but pretty much every afternoon the sun broke through and we enjoyed its mixture of old and new buildings, public parks and lots of art.

St Gregory the Illuminator Cathedral

The St Gregory the Illuminator Cathedral looked very atmospheric in the snow and fog. It was consecrated in 2001 having been built to celebrate 1700 years of Christianity in Armenia.

In the 1920s there was a grand plan to redesign Yerevan, it took a few years to be completed but Republic Square was the centre of that plan and today is the focal point of the city.  Around its sides are impressive government buildings in the pink tufa stone characteristic of Yerevan, and in the centre is a pedestrianised square which is supposedly paved to look like a traditional Armenian carpet from above.  I’m not sure that it manages to look like a carpet, but in the summer I’m sure it’s bustling with crowds watching the musical fountains whose pools were still empty after the winter when we visited.

Republic Square

Government offices and the History Museum of Armenia (right) flank the ‘carpet’ section of Republic Square

Cafesjian Art Centre

At the northern edge of the city centre is the Cafesjian Art Centre, also known as the Cascade due to its stepped appearance and fountains (also not working in March)

The Cafesjian Art Centre is a modern art space unlike anything we’ve seen before.  Housed in a huge staircase with fountains, called the Cascade, it houses sculptures beside the escalators which run between the levels and an external sculpture park in the gardens at the front and on the building’s terraces with a funky range of modern art.  On each internal level are galleries including two permanent exhibitions with huge pieces commissioned specifically for the museum – a mural of the History of Armenia by Grigor Khanjyan and a relief carving of the epic David of Sassoon.

Cafesjian Art Centre

Cafesjian Art Centre (clockwise from left): escalators run inside the building; ‘The Knot’ by Stephen Kettle is made of Welsh slate; ‘Gendrd I’ by Barry Flanagan is situated in the external sculpture garden

Mother Armenia

Following the steps above the Cascade building we came out at Victory Park which contains a fun fair and a large statue representing Mother Armenia

We also visited a couple of smaller art museums including the excellent museum dedicated to Yervand Kochar, a contemporary of Picasso, whose 4D sculptures were unlike anything we’ve seen before – rotating pieces of curved metal, slotted together and painted on all sides to create something not quite like a painting or a sculpture – Kochar called them “Painting in Space”.

Vardan Mamikonyan statue

Several of Kochar’s more traditional sculptures are placed around the city including the statue of 5th century military leader Vardan Mamikonyan in the Circular Park, notable for all four of the horse’s feet being off the ground

We visited a LOT of churches and monasteries during our weeks in Armenia and Georgia but on our first afternoon in Yerevan we had one of those serendipitous moments that remind us why we travel. We’d read about a small church surrounded by apartment blocks and as we approached at 5pm its bells were ringing.  We entered just as a service started and sat quietly at the back watching people come and go while priests chanted, candles were lit and incense pervaded the air.

Zoravor Surp Astvatsatsin Church

The Zoravor Surp Astvatsatsin Church doesn’t look so remarkable from the outside, but inside it felt other worldly

On Tsitsernakaberd hill overlooking the city sits the genocide memorial, a sobering monument to the thousands of Armenians who lost their lives in ethnic cleansing carried out by the Ottoman Empire in 1915-22. The well laid out museum chronicles the story and includes historical documents, photographs, personal possessions and testimonies.  It reminded us of the Nanjing Massacre Memorial Hall and the atomic bomb memorial museums in Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  Outside, the eternal flame burns in a circle of 12 slabs which is beside a splintered needle representing the provinces of Western Armenia lost to Turkey in a post WWI deal between Ataturk and Lenin.

Armenian Genocide Memorial

As we exited the museum a Russian delegation was visiting the monument and laying flowers so we had to wait for them to leave before we could approach the eternal flame

To the west of the city centre there’s a former railway tunnel that runs down the hill to the park beside the Hrazdan river. It’s been converted for pedestrian use and is full of graffiti, nevertheless it probably wouldn’t be all that interesting were it not for the unusual zig-zag lighting which makes for a great photo.

Kond pedestrian tunnel

Kond pedestrian tunnel

Armenians are very proud of their culture, and nowhere is this more obvious than at the Matenadaran, literally “book depository” where historical documents and precious manuscripts are kept and displayed. Honestly, I don’t think we got the most out of this museum, the manuscripts had English labels with their age and what they were (e.g. gospel) but there wasn’t any explanation of the context or history contained and we wished we’d paid extra for a guided tour. Still, the illuminated documents, some of them over 1000 years old were very beautiful.

Matenadaran

In front of the Matenadaran is a statue of Mesrop Mashtots the creator of Armenia’s alphabet

Food is always high up on our list of things to explore when we visit a new country and we struck gold in our choice of Airbnb room in the apartment of Astghik and her family. Each morning her mother, Shoghik, produced some new homemade wonder from her fridge or oven for us to try.  With a bizarre combination of her limited English, our very limited Russian, sign language and Google Translate she explained to us how each item was made, from homecured meat (basturma), preserved cheese (khorats panir) and pickles to pumpkin swirl cheesecake and the best coffee in Armenia.  

Consequently our Armenian vocabularly is about 50% food words and when we finally visited the large GUM market we recognised a lot of what we saw.  In the summer months I think the fresh produce would play more of a starring role but in the winter there were nuts and preserved fruit galore alongside the butchers, greengrocers, spice stalls and clothes sellers and a fabulous second-hand “junk shop” like corner of the upper level which is where we agreed we would find the furnishings for our Yerevan apartment if we lived here!

GUM market, Yerevan

One corner if the market hall is devoted to the huge Armenian flatbreads called lavash

No sooner had we entered the market than the dried fruit and nut sellers started to bombard us with samples and start off on their spiel at breakneck speed (usually in Russian). This was a little intimidating and we were wandering along trying to keep our heads down when an enthusiastic vendor started thrusting spices under our nose and feeding us samples of his barberries. We politely agreed that they smelt wonderful but thank you we don’t want any, undeterred he took us to his store room at the side of the market hall and started plying us with samples of pomegranate wine and apricot vodka (we refused the latter as it was 10.30am but it smelt wonderful). We gave in and bought a litre of the pomegranate wine and he decanted from the large container into an old Coke bottle before we made our escape!

GUM market, Yerevan

Yerevan’s GUM market (clockwise from top left): orderly displays of dried fruit and nuts; salad and herbs; go on, pretend you don’t want to delve into this lot for treasure; there was a lot of locally produced honey for sale

We’d read of the long tradition of viniculture in this part of the world but didn’t expect to encounter good beer.  However, during my research on Yerevan I’d come across Dargett Craft Beer, a microbrewery serving interesting craft beers.  Oh, and it was good!  We visited three times and (with the help of their taster flights) tried almost all of the 20ish beers on offer, and there wasn’t a bad one among them.  My favourite was the apricot ale.

Dargett Craft Beer

On our final afternoon in the city we took a tour of one of the city’s two brandy factories, the Noy Brandy Company.  Originally set up in the 19th century it closed down and fell into disrepair in the second half of the 20th century.  It’s now been renovated and reopened complete with cellars full of old wine barrels (though they only produce brandy here now).  During the Soviet era Armenian brandy was prized across the USSR and Noy are proud that they are still the official brandy supplier to the Kremlin.

Noy Brandy Factory tasting

Trying brandies in the Noy Brandy Company’s tasting room

Before our visit we’d read and seen pictures of Mt Ararat which is supposedly visible from many points in Yerevan.  It’s the mountain where Noah’s Ark came to rest and is sacred to Armenians though it is now across the border in Turkey and they can only look at it.  Unfortunately for us it was quite shy and seemed to be shrouded in cloud most of the time so that we didn’t even get a peek for the whole week that we were there.

Cuban Food

Before we visited we’d heard that Cuban food is not very exciting so we didn’t have high hopes. There were high points, mostly in the dinners that we had in our casa particulars, but for the most part we found the food to be fairly dull and certainly not a highlight of the trip as it has been in so many of the countries that we’ve visited. We were surprised that, compared to their neighbours (either the surrounding Caribbean islands or nearby Mexico), neither chillis nor other spices were commonly used. It is perhaps telling that the best meal we had (by a long way) was at a Spanish restaurant – Castropol on the Malecon in Havana which is run by the local Spanish Asturianas society.

Breakfast

Breakfast in casa particulars is very standard and although priced separately to the room it seems to be expected that you’ll take it – fresh fruit (some combination of papaya, pineapple, guava or mango), freshly made juice (usually papaya or guava, on good days mango!), coffee (filter, pretty strong, never instant and we were very rarely offered tea), eggs (fried, scrambled or omelette as you like), bread (always white, sometimes dried out and crispy), sometimes cheese or ham (both processed) to go with the bread, or as a sandwich. It was tasty enough but got to be pretty boring by the end of 6 weeks!

Casa particular breakfast

Street food and snacks

It’s fairly easy to find a bite to eat when you’re wandering the streets in Cuban cities. Pizza shops are everywhere and, while it’s not what an Italian would recognise, the pizzas are served hot from the oven, the puffy dough topped with a slick of tomato paste and a sparse sprinkling of cheese, handed to you folded in half with a small piece of cardboard or paper to protect your fingers (asbestos hands required!). They became our go-to lunchtime filler, not so healthy, but Andrew would have had at least one a day if I’d have let him… At MN$5-10 each (about £0.15-0.30) Cuban pizzas are delicious and cheap.

Peso pizzaAndrew looking very happy with his first Cuban pizza even though he had to deploy his handkerchief to protect his fingers from the steaming dough!

As an alternative to pizza, sandwiches are the other lunchtime option, also sold from little hole-in-the-wall shops. The bread is always soft and white with highly processed ham and/or cheese to fill it (interestingly cheese was often more expensive than ham). Sometimes we had bread with mayonnaise (i.e. a mayo sandwich, better than it sounds), or bread with tomatoes (the best option if it’s available), and occasionally fritters of savoury dough or mashed potato. If we were very lucky we found a stall selling pan con lechon, roast pork sandwiches.

Street food vendorWe bought sandwiches and cake from this friendly vendor in Bayamo

Cuban street foodStreet food (clockwise from top left): peso pizza; ham sandwich; pan con lechon; fritter sandwich

Cuban sandwichIn bars and cafes sandwiches were often toasted. The ‘Cuban sandwich’ contains roast pork, ham and cheese and somehow manages to transcend all three

Meat

Chicken and pork were the most common options, usually just fried with some garlic or onions, but the best meals we had were beef and lamb. Ropa vieja literally means ‘old clothes’ but it’s a lot tastier than that sounds, imagine pulled pork but made from beef in a sauce made from tomatoes and peppers. We were served lamb casserole a couple of times in different casa particulars and each time it was meltingly tender and deeply flavoured – why don’t they do something like this with all the chicken and pork?!

Cuban meatsClockwise from top left: fried pork with garlic; Ropa Vieja is not pretty but it is tasty; chicken leg; lamb casserole for dinner in Viñales

LiverWe didn’t come across much offal but when I saw the unfamiliar word ‘hidalgo’ on a menu and found in our dictionary that it was liver I knew what I would be having for lunch! The liver was sauteed with onions and green peppers and made a nice change from the more usual options

Seafood and fish

Cuba is a long, narrow island which means that you’re never far from the sea and so it’s hardly surprising that fish and seafood are readily available. We had various kinds of fish as well as prawns, lobster and even octopus. Again we found that they would most commonly be prepared quite simply by either frying or grilling perhaps with a little garlic or a tomato based sauce.

Cuban seafoodClockwise from left: At St Pauli I had octopus salad and Andrew had prawns cooked with garlic; a mackerel like fish in tomato sauce; lobster in Baracoa

Rice and beans

The standard starch with a meal is rice, either plain white or the rather politically incorrectly named ‘moros y cristianos’ (moors and christians), a mix of rice with black beans which was our favoured option. I really enjoy bean soups and I think they’re probably a staple of Cuban home cooking but we hardly ever saw them on restaurant menus – I suspect it’s considered poor people’s food. We did sometimes get bean soup as a starter for dinner in casa particulars and when I requested it for dinner from our casa in Camagüey she looked very pleased to be asked for it. The beans are usually either black or kidney beans and the soup might also contain bits of ham, peppers and pumpkin.

Black bean soupBlack bean soup in Camagüey – delicious but not easy to photograph!

Vegetables

A salad of tomatoes, cucumbers and white cabbage was the customary accompaniment with dinner. If we were lucky it had some grated carrot, beetroot or cooked french beans on the side too. Otherwise the only vegetables that we were served, apart from a rare bowl of pumpkin soup, were plantains or green bananas. Plantains seem to fall somewhere between vegetables and starch in terms of how they are used in Cuba. Sometimes deep-fried until they are crispy (chicharritas), sometimes fried but soft in the middle, sometimes baked into a tart shell and filled with prawns or meat as a starter, they seemed to function a bit like potatoes.

Cucumbers and tomatoesWhen we didn’t feel like pizza or a processed cheese sandwich for lunch we bought a handful of tomatoes and cucumbers and a loaf of bread.

PlantainsPlantains in their various guises (clockwise from top left): this market stall gives an idea of how much plantains are used; fried plantains as a side dish; plantain shells stuffed with prawns and cheese as a starter; plantain crisps

Sweets

Satisfying your sweet tooth in Cuba is easy and cheap. Cakes, biscuits and pastels (little pasties containing guava jam) are available from street vendors and hole-in-the-wall shops and generally cost MN$1-3 each (£0.03-0.09). The cakes are heavy on the icing which looks like swirls of cream but is actually marshmallow fluff! We found quite a lot of sweets made from nuts, as well as the coconut based cucuruchu in Baracoa, we saw bars of pounded peanut in several places and cones of caramelised peanuts were for sale in all of the main squares on an evening. In restaurants flan (Spanish creme caramel) is the most common option.

Cuban sweetsCuban sweets (clockwise from top left): cakes with a generous swirl of marshmallow fluff; bars of ground peanuts and guava membrillo for sale; flan; a cake vendor roams the streets in Matanzas

Ice cream cafeCubans love their ice cream and there are cheap ice cream cafes in every city

Drinks

Soft drinks in Cuba fall into two categories: freshly made fruit juices or cans of Cuban made fizzy pop. Alongside the usual cola, lemonade and fizzy orange options is Malta, a malted soft drink which smells exactly like a Soreen malt loaf – too sweet for me but Andrew liked it. At peso food stands what looked like squash was served by the glass but as we weren’t sure about the water used to make it we never tried one. Coffee is also available at peso food stands and usually cost MN$1 (~£0.03) for an espresso size cup poured from a Thermos flask. Tea is practically unknown so if you’d struggle without it I would advise you to pack some teabags!

Cuban soft drinksMalta, natural lemonade made from lime juice and sugar topped up with mineral water and tuKola

Sugar cane juiceSugar cane juice (guarapo) in an idyllic setting near Viñales

As sugar is a major crop in Cuba, it’s unsurprising that the most common alcohol is rum which is distilled from sugar cane juice. Rum based cocktails, e.g. mojito, daiquiri, piña colada, were the order of the day if we weren’t sampling one of the various Cuban brands of lager-like beer. In Havana, there’s a micro brewery in Plaza Vieja in the heart of the old town. We tried one of their brews and really enjoyed it but sadly the service was so awful that we couldn’t bring ourselves to go back.

Cuban alcoholClockwise from top left: daiquiris; mojitos; Cristal was my favourite of the local beers; piña coladas

Baracoa, Cuba

Baracoa, perched on Cuba’s eastern edge is the island’s oldest city founded in 1511 and surely also one of its smallest. It is hemmed in by mountains and rainforest, having a microclimate all its own and was isolated from the outside world until the spectacular La Farola road was opened in 1965 connecting the town with Guantanamo City and the south coast.

View from La FarolaSpectacular views from the bus as we climbed through the mountains on our way to Baracoa along La Farola

El YunqueThe table top mountain called El Yunque, the Anvil, is the symbol of Baracoa and is visible from many places in town including the roof terrace of our guesthouse.

Baracoa’s tiny cathedral (about the size of your average parish church) is at the centre of the town and is home to the Cruz de la Parra, the only surviving wooden cross of 29 planted in Cuba by Columbus on his first voyage and ‘discovery’ of the island in 1492.

Baracoa centreLooking along Baracoa’s walking street towards the cathedral

Cruz de la ParraThe Cruz de la Parra has been carbon dated to prove that it dates from the correct period but the wood is native Cuban and was not carried from Europe by Columbus as legend has it

The town itself doesn’t have much in the way of sights but we enjoyed strolling along the slightly dilapidated seafront to the even more dilapidated baseball stadium at the end of the beach. We also spent a fascinating hour nursing a beer on a balcony overlooking a street that was being resurfaced. It was amazing to see the hard work done by hand that we’re used to seeing machines do.

Baracoa baseball stadiumBaseball is Cuba’s national sport but its stadium was host to football practice when we poked our noses in

One morning we walked up the hill through residential streets, puzzling over why all the cockerels seemed to have no feathers on their legs or bellies until we realised they were for cockfighting.

Fighting cockerelCockfighting is a popular sport in Cuba judging by the number of cockerels we saw on a short walk through Baracoa’s streets

Dripping with sweat after the short but steep climb we arrived at the Archaeology Museum which has been imaginatively set up in a series of caves where burial chambers of the Taíno peoples had been found. The Taíno arrived in Cuba from Venezuela around 1050AD and were living there peacefully in farming communities when the Spanish arrived in the 15th century. Many died from European diseases and more when they were pressed into harsh slavery by the settlers.

Baracoa Museum of ArchaeologyThe entrance to Baracoa’s Museum of Archaeology

The displays were not so exciting but the cave setting was a quirky idea, the attendant was friendly and gave us a good explanation in English and the view over the town was superb (it’s from here that we spotted the cemetery that we visited later in our stay).

Museum of Archaeology exhibitsMuseum of Archaeology (clockwise from top left): display cases inside the cave; Taíno artefacts; a replica of the Ídolo de Tabaco, one of the most important Taíno finds in the Caribbean; burial chamber

View over BaracoaThe viewpoint above the museum provides a reward for the uphill climb

We had initially planned a hiking excursion to El Yunque, but changed our minds after hearing the descriptions of the Humboldt National Park, 40km north-west of Baracoa, and went there instead. The road to the north is not in very good condition and so our group of 15 plus our guide Benny were loaded into three jeeps for the dusty hour and a half that it took to bump our way there.

Jeep transport to Humboldt National ParkStretching our legs during a brief pause in the drive to Humboldt National Park

The Humboldt National Park is famous for its biodiversity with lots of endemic species. 70% of the plants as well as lots of amphibians, reptiles and birds are found nowhere else, and the park was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2001.  We’d hoped that we would see quite a bit of wildlife and certainly at the beginning of the hike we did with Benny stopping to point out Tocororos, woodpeckers and parrots as well as different kinds of plants. But as the path narrowed the group became too spread out to see much and the pace felt too fast for us to fully appreciate the forest.

Flora and fauna in Humboldt National ParkFlora and fauna in Humboldt National Park (clockwise from top left): Cuba’s national bird, the Tocororo; termites; the colourful Rat Pineapple is related to the normal pineapple but doesn’t produce an edible fruit; this huge millipede was about 25cm long and thicker than my thumb

Swimming opportunities seem to be an obligatory feature of excursions in Cuba – it felt like every time someone was trying to sell us an excursion it ended with ‘a chance to swim in the river / pool / sea’ (frankly this usually feels like a waste of excursion time to me but clearly I’m in the minority here).  Anyway this trip was no different; just before lunch we stopped at the top of a waterfall where anyone who wanted to could jump into the pool below and swim downriver to the curve where we would break for lunch. About ten of the group did, the rest of us followed the path along the river to meet them below.

Swimming in the river in Humboldt National ParkSome of our group swimming down the river to join us at the lunch spot

Crossing the river in the Humboldt National ParkAfter lunch we had to cross the river 8 times to get back to where we’d left the jeeps. I was glad that I’d carried my flip-flops to cross the stony riverbed, Andrew had to do it barefoot.

On the way back to Baracoa we stopped at Playa Maguana.  It was our first Cuban beach experience and the white sand and turquoise ocean were just as breathtaking in real life as they are in the travel brochure photos.  The sea gets deep quite quickly, and the wave swells were high enough to make bobbing up and down in the water fun.  It also helped that we could take turns with the others in the group watching bags and go into the water together.

Playa MaguanaPlaya Maguana, there’s even a guy who’ll bring you a drink direct to your beach towel

The Lonely Planet touts Baracoa as the best place for food in Cuba.  Now that’s not saying much as in general the island’s cuisine is not the most exciting, but still I had hoped for more than just one sauce, albeit tasty, which is served with different kinds of seafood.

Prawns in coconut milk saucePrawns with the Baracoan sauce made from coconut milk, tomatoes, garlic and spices

Cucuruchos are the other regional specialty, a cone of palm leaf stuffed with an almost sickly sweet mixture of fruits, coconut and honey. Baracoa is the only region in Cuba where chocolate is grown and processed (the smell wafting from the factory just outside town reminded me of driving past the Rowntrees factory in York) and we really enjoyed the huge flask of hot chocolate that was included with our breakfast each morning.

CucuruchosPeeling a cucurucho

Andrew’s Switzerland Highlights

We’d always had the idea to travel overland through Europe in the back of our minds so we could visit friends, making a nice, slow end to our two year trip. Our first stop was a few days with long-time friends Heidi and Olivier in Bern, Switzerland. There’s a bit of overlap with Julie’s highlights, but here’s the list of my favourite moments..

Old Bern and the Bears

After meeting Heidi and Olivier for coffee, cake and lunch when we first arrived in Switzerland, we had a few hours to ourselves in the afternoon to explore the UNESCO listed old town of Bern.

Bern old town, Switzerland

The main street that runs the length of Bern’s beautiful old town is full of things to see: clock towers and fountains separate the traffic, lined with old buildings

We loved aimlessly wandering through the cobbled back streets of the old town in the cool, crisp snow-filtered mountain air. We popped our heads in the cathedral whose spire dominates the skyline, and we also found the Rathaus or town hall.

The Bern Minster, Bern Switzerland

Bern Minster’s mighty tower reaches high above the old town, here viewed from the River Aare

Heidi was very keen that we visit the bears, and we weren’t quite sure we’d heard her correctly.. bears? did she mean the grizzly kind? in Bern? really?

Bern Bears, Switzerland

Yes, there are grizzly bears in Bern! A very excited woman explained that this was the first day of the year that all 3 bears had come out together after their winter hibernation. Just like Julie after a long sleep, they were a little bit grumpy!

Sledging in Grindelwald

It made Julie’s list and had to make mine too because it was so much fun! Sure, pulling a heavy wooden sledge uphill for 3 hours was tiring (and I nearly gave up after a particularly steep bit near the top), but the gruelling climb made the descent all the sweeter..

Sledging in Grindlewald, Switzerland

The 3 hour uphill hike was pretty tough, but just look at the views!

Julie sledging, Switzerland

I think we’ve found Julie’s winter sport!

I was surprised how little control I had – I remember trying to stop pretty soon after we set off as it’s the first thing you do when learning to ski or snowboard, and I couldn’t! It was easier to turn than to slow down or stop, perhaps that’s why it’s so much fun!

Gruyères and the H.R. Giger Museum

Sometime before we started this trip I’d read an article about the Swiss artist H.R. Giger whom I’m pretty sure you may not have heard of either, but whose vivid surrealist dreams were the inspiration for all of the alien elements of Ridley Scott’s 1979 science-fiction horror masterpiece Alien, which I’m pretty sure you have heard of.

HR Giger Museum, Gruyeres, Switzerland

The entrance to the museum is just inside the walls of Gruyères castle and while there is a sign and some artwork outside, if you didn’t know what it was you might miss it! (Photo credit: Limping Cyclist)

Giger worked on the sets for the movie Alien, and was part of the team that won an Academy Award for Best Achievement in Visual Effects. I’d read quite a bit about his work and the museum so I knew what to expect, and it didn’t disappoint.

Entrance foyer, H.R. Giger musuem, Gruyeres, Switzerland

The entrance foyer of the H.R. Giger musuem. Understandably we weren’t allowed to take photographs. (Photo credit: Josie Borisow)

Giger was a prolific artist, and most of his work explores the same biomechanical otherworldly evolution – the organic forms resemble a distorted or contorted humanity often augmented or shackled by machinery. Always dark, usually foreboding and sometimes sexually explicit. Olivier remarked that Giger might have had problems with women which was an astute observation given Giger’s early life.

We all liked the museum, but I think it’s fair to say that I enjoyed it the most. I remember the first time I saw Ridley Scott’s Alien, and even knowing there’s an alien in it (because of the title), the suspense, special effects, and feeling of being hunted by something so much more adept still frightens me when I think of it.

One question that isn’t answered by the museum is this – why is it in the grounds of the idyllic Gruyères Château St. Germain? Because Giger bought it in 1998!

Cheese

Yes, it made Julie’s list but it was a highlight for me too! Olivier was especially happy that we’d asked to share both fondue and raclette with them, though he suggested not on the same day..

Raclette, Bern, Switzerland

The modern apparatus for raclette where everyone gets their own “coupelle” or small pan to grill the cheese with. You know it’s done when you can easily pour the cheese over boiled potatoes and pickles. Delicious!

It’s a wonder to me how the Swiss retain their athletic figures, but then I quickly remember that the country is perfect for winter sports and summer hiking..

Hiking from Wattenwil to Thun

Speaking of which, on our last day with them, Olivier took us south for a hike through the rolling hills of Wattenwil to Lake Thun.

Hiking in Wattenwill, Switzerland

Spectacular views of the Alps, and not too far from where we were sledging just a couple of days before

Hiking in Wanderweg, Switzerland

Swiss Alpacas

We even made some new friends with these curious alpacas!

It was an overcast day but that didn’t spoil the views or our enjoyment.

Geneva Motor Show 2015

The main reason for stopping in Geneva for a day or so was to visit CERN as we’re both fascinated by science and discovery, but as soon as we arrived in Bern I saw posters for the 85th International Motor Show. A quick check of the entrance fees and I found the tickets are half-price for the last 4 hours of the day, which is probably Julie’s limit of looking at cars!

85th International Motor Show, Geneva, Switzerland

The lower halls of the 85th International Geneva Motor Show 2015

Koenigsegg Regera, Geneva Motor Show 2015, Switzerland

The first car we saw was the brand new Koenigsegg Regera and was Julie’s favourite. I hadn’t heard of Koenigsegg until the 2014 movie Need for Speed where the Agera R is the central supercar and this is their latest model – it’s so new that this is the first one they’ve made and it’s only about 85% complete!

Porsche 911 Turbo S, Geneva Motor Show 2015, Switzerland

Nothing new from my favourite marque Porsche at this year’s show, but plenty of Porsches throughout the floor demonstrating body kits and performance upgrades. This is my dream car – the 911 Turbo S (991)

Edag Light Cocoon concept, Geneva Motor Show 2015, Switzerland

We really liked the concepts on display, like this Edag Light Cocoon, which has lights inside and a waterproof fabric stretched over it. I wonder if it’s hand wash or dry clean only?

BMW and Jaguar staff dancing, Geneva Motor Show 2015, Switzerland

At the end of the show some of the larger stands turned it up to 11 and put on a little dance show! BMW at the top and Jaguar at the bottom

I visited the London Motor Show with my dad and my brother a few years ago so I knew largely what to expect, but I think the variation and the concept cars surprised Julie and in the end she enjoyed it as much as I did.

We had a fun-filled, jam-packed, cheese-fuelled week in Switzerland. Thanks again to our good friends Heidi and Olivier – we can’t wait to see you both again :o)

Julie’s Switzerland Highlights

We’ve visited Switzerland before as our good friends Heidi and Olivier live there. This time around we had an action packed week in the country, staying with them at their home in Bern for most of the time and ending with a couple of days in Geneva. Here are a few of my highlights:

Sledging

I didn’t learn to ski as a child and although I’ve tried it as an adult I think I’m too afraid to really get into it. Sledging on the other hand turned out to be much more my cup of tea and we had an absolute blast on the Saturday of our stay.

Views from sledge run above GrindelwaldSpectacular views across the valley above Grindelwald [photo credit: Olivier Kern]

Grindelwald is about a 1.5 hour drive south-east of Bern and is home to the longest sledging run in Europe – a total length of 15km and a descent of 1600m. From the village we caught a bus partway up the mountain to Bussalp where it was time for a fortifying glass of gluhwein (mulled wine) and a slice of Swiss fruit and custard pie on a terrace with views across the valley before hiring our sledges and beginning the hike to the top of the hill.

Gluhwein at BussalpGluhwein to give us energy for the climb! [photo credit: Heidi Kern]

The information website claimed that it was a 2.5 hour hike from Bussalp to the top of the sledging run and while this may very well be true if you’re walking unencumbered, for us it was closer to a three and a half hour uphill slog dragging the sledges behind.

Climbing to the top of the sledge runThe sunshine and views kept us smiling as we trudged uphill

Eventually we reached the top and were able to begin the descent. It seemed a little unfair that it took less than an hour to sledge down the section that had cost us so much energy to climb. As we’d walked up we’d seen others sledging down and seeming well in control of their sledges, we felt much less in command and both ended up ‘off-piste’ at least once.

Sledging at GrindelwaldIt took much less time to get to the bottom than it had to reach the top – Andrew and Heidi zip downhill while Olivier looks concerned as I lay face down cackling like an idiot after crashing my sledge!

Cheese

At times our stay in Switzerland felt like a bit of a cheese fest which is no bad thing as far as I’m concerned. Most people will have heard of cheese fondue, a famous Swiss dish, which Olivier cooked for us one night. Another local specialty is raclette which Heidi has made for us before and which we enjoyed again. For raclette, melted cheese is used to top boiled potatoes and pickled vegetables. Cheese also featured in miscellaneous breakfasts and lunches during our stay so that we thought that maybe we might need a cheese free few days after we left. Then we remembered that our next destination was France – better just buy a bigger pair of jeans now…

Cheese fondueOne evening we enjoyed cheese fondue for dinner. The purple bits are shallots which cook in the hot cheese as you dip in chunks of bread and are then ready to eat at the end of the meal

One of the cheeses which is almost always included in the mix when making a fondue is Gruyère, named after the medieval town of Gruyères. Although it’s technically a town, with a population of only about 2000 people, Gruyères is smaller than many villages. At its centre is a pretty town square (naturally surrounded by cheese shops and restaurants serving fondue) and at its eastern end is the castle with a fine view down the valley.

GruyèresThe pretty town square in Gruyères

Cheese shopOn the way back to Bern from Gruyères we stopped at a fantastic cheese shop in the nearby town of Bulle

Luzern

Switzerland’s cities are generally very well preserved and lovely places to visit. Luzern turned out to be no exception to this rule. The compact historic centre is full of half-timbered buildings with paintings on their fronts and is home to the oldest covered wooden bridge in Europe, the Kapellbrücke (Chapel Bridge). The bridge which dates to 1333 was originally 285m long and part of Luzern’s fortifications. In the 17th century painted wooden panels were added along its length under the roof, sadly 81 of these were destroyed by a fire which broke out on the bridge in 1993.

Kapellbrücke, LuzernLuzern’s Kapellbrücke zigzags across the River Reuss; only around 30 of the bridge’s paintings now remain

Luzern's historic centreLuzern’s historic centre (clockwise from top left): colourful riverfront buildings; painted building; clock tower in the city walls; an impressive shop sign

Unfortunately the city walls don’t open until Easter but it was worth the walk up to them for the view across the town and down to the lake.

Lion MonumentOne of Luzern’s stranger sights is the statue of a dying lion dedicated to the memory of the Swiss Guards who lost their lives defending King Louis XVI during the French Revolution

In the afternoon we ventured out onto Lake Luzern for a one hour round trip cruise (Rundfahrt in German which tickled our childish sense of humour no end). Although it was a bit hazy the mountain views were beautiful.

Cruise on Lake LuzernA beautiful afternoon for a short cruise on Lake Luzern

CERN

We considered moving into Heidi and Olivier’s spare room but eventually decided that we ought to move on so we headed to Geneva for a couple of nights. One of the things which Geneva is famous for is CERN – the European Organisation for Nuclear Research – and Andrew discovered that it’s possible to take a guided tour there, it’s even free!

'Wandering the immeasurable', CERNThe ‘Wandering the immeasurable’ sculpture is the first thing you see when you get off the tram at CERN. It is engraved with great discoveries in physics from throughout the ages

After checking in at the reception, our group was met by our guide Anastasis, a computer scientist. He gave us some background on why CERN was set up (to create a centre for science in Europe after WWII and be a place where different countries could collaborate) before leading us to the 600 MeV Synchrocyclotron, CERN’s first particle accelerator, built in 1957 and decommissioned in 1991. It now serves as part of a very fancy audio visual display to explain how particle accelerators work.

Synchrocyclotron at CERNCERN’s first particle accelerator, the Synchrocyclotron

We’d read that final preparations were in progress to restart experiments in the Large Hadron Collider (LHC). I knew that the huge particle accelerator is an important part of the science done at CERN, and certainly the highest profile, but I hadn’t realised that basically everything is centred on those experiments. Our next stop was at the control centre for the ATLAS detector, one of four points where the data from the particle collisions is collected and analysed.

ATLAS control centreATLAS detector control centre, the mural on the side is one third the real size, and the actual detector is 100m below ground

Anastasis’s explanation of the data collection was even more mind-blowing than the idea of tiny fundamental particles whizzing around and banging into each other. When the collider is operational, thousands of collisions happen every second generating 40TB of data. This is a staggering amount of information – equivalent to 8,500 DVDs every second. Fortunately the clever folks here have algorithms to sort it and filter that 40TB down to 300MB which is still quite a lot but can at least be feasibly stored.

Guide at CERNAnastasis explaining data collection at CERN beside a lego model of the ATLAS detector

I could go on for ages with the fascinating stuff that we learnt on the tour but I’ll finish with our favourite fact from the visit: when a proton is zooming around the particle accelerator at close to the speed of light it has the same mass as 6.5 mosquitos. We’re going to think of that every time we swat one from now on!