Monthly Archives: September 2015

Two midnights in Paris

Sunday 20th – Tuesday 22nd September
Zurich to Newcastle (via Paris)

Simon’s aunt, Julia, lives in Paris with her husband, Gotzon, and their two grown-up children, Thomas and Annie (although Thomas was unfortunately away during our stay).

We have visited them on several occasions before, but Annie was still alarmed by how little time we had allowed ourselves in which to explore her beloved city. Apparently before we arrived she had asked Julia: “Why would they spend two weeks in Switzerland and two days in Paris, rather than the other way around?!”

With only one full day to enjoy the city, we took the opportunity to pick Annie’s brains about the best places to visit, in addition to choosing an art gallery that we wanted to see (although that decision was taken out of our hands to some extent, as many museums and galleries in Paris are closed on Mondays!).

So, after a relaxing Sunday afternoon/evening spent chatting and catching up with family, we enjoyed a great day out in Paris.

Musee de l’Orangerie, Paris
We started at the Musee de l’Orangerie, where some of Monet’s best-loved pictures are displayed in two beautiful galleries, which Monet himself helped to design.

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Gardens, Le Palais Royale, Paris
After a delicious lunch in a small cafe in the Saint-Germain district, we had a look around some areas of the city that are slightly off the beaten tourist track. The gardens of Le Palais Royale are a fascinating mix of the old and new, and were hosting an exhibition of modern art sculptures.

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We also managed to sneak in a visit to a very up-market chocolate and macaron shop! We finished our walking tour with a great view up the Champs Elysee at the Arc de Triomphe.

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On Monday evening, Annie treated us to a viewing of one of her favourite movies, Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris, in which we were able to re-visit some of the sights that we had seen earlier in the day.

All that was left on Tuesday was to catch the Eurostar from Gare du Nord to St Pancras in London, then after a short lunch stop St Pancras station, the trip north to Newcastle.

Now we’re back home and back to work, after a fascinating trip around a new (to us) part of Europe. We hope you have enjoyed this brief resurrection of our blog!

Quote of the day
“Mum, what’s the English for ‘coup d’etat’?”
In a tri-lingual family (English, French and Spanish), sometimes translation is required….though, as it turns out, not all the time…

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Zurich: a great city, rain or shine

Thursday 17th – Sunday 20th September
Zurich, Switzerland

We have a theory that it’s sometimes just good or bad fortune whether you fall in love with a city. Beautiful sunshine or a fantastic meal and your memories are positive. Too much wind and rain and you perhaps miss your chance to see a city at its best. 

Zurich was grey and rainy when we arrived on Thursday, after a 45 minute train ride from Lucerne. But there was nothing the weather could do to dampen our love for this city. And by our final day on Saturday the sun was shining, so we could see Zurich at its best. 

It’s easy to walk for miles in the centre of the city, with each turn offering another great view, interesting narrow street, or fascinating-looking shop. And our achy legs are confirmation that we covered a lot of ground in our three days there!

[Views of the city, below: view from Lindenhof; view of St Peter’s Church; Zurich Opera House; view of Zurichsee from Burliplatz; us enjoying the view from Lindenhof]

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Macau Orchestra, Tonhalle Zurich
We decided to enjoy some of Zurich’s culture on Friday night. There seems to be a lot on offer, and the city is currently getting ready to host the Zurich Film Festival, which starts in a couple of days’ time. We got tickets for a concert at the Tonhalle Zurich. The Tonhalle is widely considered to have excellent acoustics, and was inaugurated in 1895 by Johannes Brahms. 

The performance was by the Macao Orchestra (on a European tour from China) with a Swiss soloist called Lionel Cottet on the cello. We heard ‘Dance of the Yao Tribe’, by Mao Yuan and Liu Tieshan (see below), Saint-Saens’ Cello Concerto No. 1 in A minor and Bruckner’s Symphony No. 6 in A major. It was great to experience a full orchestra in such a beautiful concert hall. We topped the evening off with cocktails at a great bar close to our hotel.

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Kreis 5, Zurich
On Saturday we decided to explore a different side of the city. Kreis 5, a short distance from the city centre, used to be the industrial area, but in the past few years has reinvented itself as a neighbourhood of funky shops and creative businesses. We particularly liked Viaducktstrasse, with great shops and a fantastic food market hidden under a railway viaduct.

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Music of the day
This is a recording of ‘Dance of the Yao Tribe’, by Mao Yuan and Liu Tieshan, which opened the concert we attended at the Tonhalle.

Dragons and Lions in Lucerne

Monday 14th – Thursday 17th September
Lugano to Lucerne, Switzerland

Train journey Lugano to Lucerne
The train journey from Lugano to Lucerne on Monday took us through the Alps. Often we read or work on our blog during long train journeys, but on this occasion we both decided to listen to podcasts on our headphones instead, so that we could watch the views passing by the windows. We enjoyed some amazing sights, including some incredible waterfalls caused by the large amount of rain that we had experienced while in Lugano.

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Mount Pilatus, Lucerne, Switzerland
When we were planning our trip to Switzerland one of the days out that interested us, and led to us choosing Lucerne as a destination, was “The Golden Route” up Mount Pilatus. Tuesday looked like it might be clear enough to enjoy some views from the top.

The journey began with a boat trip on Lake Lucerne, known in Swiss as the Vierwaldstättersee, the Four Forested Cantons Lake, after the original “cantons” (or states) that joined together in the Middle Ages to found Switzerland.

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Next we boarded the world’s steepest cog-wheel railway, to climb to the summit of Mount Pilatus, at over 2,000 metres above sea level. Although the track does not look too steep in the picture below, some sections are at a 48%, or close to a 1 in 2, incline (for those who know our street in Gateshead, the section downhill from our house is a 1 in 10 incline, which certainly feels steep enough when we try to walk – or cycle! – up it!). The railway here is over 125 years old, and was originally steam-operated, although it is powered by electricity these days. It also gave us brief glimpses of the lakes below.

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Initially when we reached the top we emerged into a world of clouds. But within an hour or so (during which we grabbed some lunch at one of the two hotels(!) at the summit) the weather had cleared, providing us with some fantastic views.

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We then travelled back down via two cable cars, including the modern “Dragon Ride” pictured below. As an added bonus, we could actually see the building housing the apartment that we stayed in during our time in Lucerne – it is one of the two tower blocks close to the football stadium about three quarters of the way up the right hand side of this photo.

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Walking tour, Lucerne, Switzerland
Lucerne is a very beautiful and historic city, and we were keen to learn more about it, so we took a walking tour on Wednesday morning. The guide was very knowledgable and engaging, and we enjoyed hearing about how the city originally became rich due to its location on the main trade route between Germany and Italy (allowing it to charge tax on the goods that passed through). Later, the source of its wealth switched to tourism, particularly visitors from Britain in the early days. This remains the case, although today they get visitors from across the world.

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We were also interested to hear about the modern culture and congress centre that was built in the 1990s, designed by the French architect Jean Nouvel. It houses a concert hall and other exhibition spaces.

Nouvel’s original vision was to place the building on an island in the middle of the lake, but this plan was rejected by the people of Lucerne in a referendum. (On this occasion, the vote took place at a local level, but even on the national stage Switzerland has direct democracy, meaning that any law or decision can be challenged by members of the public and, if enough people join the petition, a referendum will be called.)

Having been foiled by public opinion, Nouvel therefore decided to incorporate the lake into his design in another way, with pools both outside and inside the centre. Our guide told us that the pools are usually fenced off to prevent people falling into the water (which has apparently happened on several occasions) but Nouvel does not approve of the fencing, so the city removes it whenever it knows that he is coming to visit, and then replaces it once he is safely out of town!

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In the afternoon we also visited the Lion Monument, by Lukas Ahorn. Carved into a rock face and sitting ten metres long, it commemorates the Swiss soldiers who died during the French Revolution, while defending King Louis XVI (although Switzerland has been neutral for many centuries, that hasn’t stopped it providing mercenary soldiers to other countries, a tradition that continues to this day with the Swiss Guard who protect the Pope at the Vatican). The “dying lion” was a draw for tourists in the 19th Century and continues to be popular with visitors to this day. A lot may have changed in that time, but Lucerne remains a beautiful and fascinating city to explore.

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Linguistic challenge of the day
Although I speak (and understand) some German, it soon became clear to me that this would not be sufficient to allow me to catch all of what is going on in Switzerland. Although Lucerne is in the majority “German-speaking” section of the country, the mother tongue of the locals is actually Swiss German, which is very different. I am not certain whether it is a dialect of German or a separate language, as some of the basic words (such as “und” and “aber”) sound similar, but others (incuding “hello”, “goodbye” and the numbers) are very different. The accent is also very dissimilar to German, being somewhat “sing-song”, like the Swedish chef from The Muppet Show!

After reading a little about the language situation in Switzerland online, I was reassured to learn that Swiss Germans also speak Standard German, as all of their lessons are conducted in that language throughout school and almost all written communication (with the exception of short text messages, etc) tends to take place in Standard German. Therefore, I have been able to communicate pretty well while we have been here (certainly helped by the fact that most people seem to also speak excellent English), although I still find it odd to be greeted with “Grüezzi” rather than “Gutentag”, and to hear people saying “Merci” rather than “Danke schön”!

Lugano: Switzerland, Italian-style

Thursday 10th – Monday 14th September
Lugano, Switzerland

Just an hour’s train ride north of Milan and we found ourselves in Switzerland. The beautiful city of Lugano sits on Lake Lugano, which is partly in Italy and partly in Switzerland. And despite being on the Swiss side of the border, the feel in Lugano is still very much Italian, from the language to the food.

Lugano is an enjoyable mix of business and pleasure. The lakefront is absolutely beautiful. On arrival we soon found ourselves looking out at the view that tourists have loved for decades. The Civic Park, just a short walk from the city centre, is a particularly great spot to enjoy everything the lake has to offer.

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At the same time, Lugano is Switzerland’s third biggest banking centre. The designer shops and incredible array of expensive cars on the streets suggest a very wealthy, working city. And the age of some of the bank buildings we saw suggests this is nothing new.

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Friday 11th September – birthday celebrations
For us, the main event in Lugano was 11th September – my 40th! Thanks to my sister Claire and her family, I even had a special T-shirt to mark the day!

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We decided to spend some of the day taking two funicular railways to the summit of Monte Bre, which gives stunning views across the lake.

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In the evening, we found a great restaurant for some excellent pizzas and a very nice glass of Swiss wine.

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We had a restful few days in Lugano, and the fantastic food and drink made it a great place to celebrate my birthday. We have also been enjoying learning about the history of this fascinating country. The country has four official languages (Italian, German, French and Romansch) and is clearly influenced by its neighbours. But it has existed as an independent nation since 1291.

Its politics are also unique. Its neutrality has been in place for hundreds of years, and formally recognised since 1815. This has led to the country being an important international base for a range of organisations from the World Health Organisation to the UN. We can’t wait to see some of the other dimensions of the country.

Car of the day
At first glance, I thought this car in the car park of our hotel was a Smart Car. It was certainly about the right size and shape. Then I noticed the Aston Martin badge! The leather interior wasn’t too shabby either. Not sure it’ll be the next Bond car though!

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What in the world….!?

Wednesday 9th September
EXPO2015, Milan, Italy

We have been lucky enough to travel to some incredible places over the years, many of which have been linked by one or more of several common themes. For example, most have a decent railway system, because that is our preferred way of getting about. The majority have some kind of local food or drink that I am keen to try, as I tend to specialise in gastro-tourism. And, more by coincidence than careful planning, several have hosted a World’s Fair.

The generally-recognised first World’s Fair, also known as The Great Exhibition, was held in the Crystal Palace (then located in Hyde Park), London in 1851. This was followed by a series of exhibitions in the UK, France and the US, show-casing technological and scientific advances, as industrialisation spread. Over time, they were held in more diverse places across the world and developed into utopian demonstrations of cultural and social ideals, and then later into “nation branding”, setting out each country’s vision of how it wanted to be seen by the rest of the world.

Examples of places that we have visited on which a World’s Fair has left a permanent mark include Paris (the Eiffel Tower), Queens in New York City (the globe featured in the film Men in Black – picture below) and Seattle (the Space Needle and the Monorail). We have also come across reminders of these events in Vancouver and Chicago, amongst others.

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As we’ve discovered these remnants on our travels we have idly wondered, on one or two occasions, whether the concept of the World’s Fair still exists. Such events must have been incredibly exciting and exotic at a time when foreign trips were available only to the richest, but surely in these days of mass international travel such an idea would be obsolete?

Well, it turns out that World’s Fairs do still exist, although they are called Expos these days. It also turns out that the 2015 Expo is being held in Milan. With our history of discovering archeological evidence of this event in different places around the world, we couldn’t resist actually going along to a real, live example!

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Day tickets for the Expo were EUR35, whereas the evening tickets were only EUR5, so, with a keen eye for a bargain (I am my mother’s daughter, after all!) I voted that we should spend Tuesday exploring Milan and then go to the Expo for the evening.

A 30 minute subway ride (and a 20 minute queue followed by a 20 minute walk!) later, we were in the midst of EXPO2015, the theme of which is “Feeding the Planet, Energy for Life” – the biggest event ever organised on food and nutrition.

The venue is absolutely huge, with the capacity to host up to 250,000 visitors each day. As the event is running from May to October, they are expecting to get a lot of people (20 million, in fact) through their doors! We thought that it would be fairly quiet on random Tuesday evening in September, but we couldn’t have been more wrong – the entire place was packed with families, business people and trade delegations.

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We weren’t really sure what to expect and, to be quite honest, we are still not entirely clear on what the purpose of an Expo is!

Each country puts together a “pavilion”, in which it can do pretty much whatever it likes related to the broad theme of the Expo. Some (including fairly unexpected places such as Angola) had apparently spent a good deal of money on building an intricate architectural masterpiece, inside which they were presumably showcasing the best that their country had to offer (although we didn’t find out what was inside many of them, as the queues were fairly off-putting). Brazil had gone for an “inside-out” concept, whereby their entire site appeared to be taken up by a giant climbing frame, which looked as though it might enable visitors to feel that they were taking a tree-top tour of a rainforest. And still others had taken a simpler approach, with a small building housing only a couple of small attractions (such as Cuba, which contained just a Mojito bar – what else does one need?!).

The United Kingdom was represented by a country garden and a bee hive – inspired structure. It seemed to be focused on promoting the UK for business and technology primarily, though it also gave visitors the opportunity to sample traditional British food and drink (including Newcastle Brown Ale, naturally).

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France’s wine cellar-style display included information about the various ways in which science and technology can assist in the plan to provide food for the world in the future.

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There were also some more general exhibitions, showcasing the types of food and drink available from different regions of the world, such as this rice -themed area.

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A centrepiece of the event was the ‘Tree of Life’ – perhaps in years to come this will be seen as Milan’s equivalent of Seattle’s Space Needle?

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After walking the full length of the exhibition, we were ready for a sit-down and a Moroccan meal, followed by a visit to one of several “Eataly” sections which contained a Nutella Concept cafe. However, we were slightly disappointed to find that the foods on offer were no more “out there” than a tiramisu with a dollop of Nutella on top, and most people were simply tucking into Nutella on bread or on a crepe!

All in all, visiting a real-life Expo was a great opportunity, and a quite surreal experience. Milan’s hosting of the event has been controversial in some quarters (with even the Pope pointing out the irony of a global temporary exhibition dedicated to sustainability and feeding the poor, despite the fact that, prior to his tenure, Vatican City had committed to having its own pavilion). But getting even a small flavour of what it must have been like to visit the World’s Fair in London, New York, Paris or Seattle was absolutely fantastic.

Food of the day

Sadly, we only discovered this cart where one could order a cone of chocolate shavings after we had been to the Nutella Concept cafe, so perhaps this should be called “missed opportunity of the day”!

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Highlights of Milan

Tuesday 8th – Thursday 10th September
Milan, Italy

It’s a cliche, sure, but Milan is the best-dressed city we’ve ever been to. We only had a couple of days to explore, but that was long enough to notice that the inhabitants of Milan love their clothes. By the morning of our last day I found myself staring into my suitcase in distress because I had nothing suitably smart to wear.

We started our visit with an early evening walk from our hotel to the Duomo (the largest Gothic cathedral in the world) and the huge piazza in front of it. During our visit we also explored other bits of the city, from the medieval streets of Brera, to the glamourous ‘Quadrilatero d’Oro’ shopping district.

[Photos, from the top: The Duomo, with its bustling piazza, is the heart of the city; Castello Sforzesco; Via Fiori Chiari, Brera; window of designer shop; Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II; Prada window in Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II]

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Shop window of the day
The shop window displays in Milan were, at times, works of art in themselves. This display, advertising made to measure suits, was one of my favourites.

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Happy birthday, Simon!

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