Sunday, July 10, 2011

Chocolate, Cheese, and Castles

A great little day trip from the Geneva area is Gruyere, Switzerland. It's about an hour and a half drive (at least from Sergy). When the hubby's mom and her childhood friend came to visit in June this was one of our first trips in the area. The day after they arrived we packed them into our little Lancia and headed off for a day of tasting and touring.

Our first stop was the Cailler chocolate factory. Which is a bit confusing to get to as it's actually in Broc, not Gruyere and there are not as many big tourist signs pointing the way as you would think. So you often think that you are heading in the wrong direction and then suddenly, boom, there's a little sign pointing you on. Once you arrive at la Maison Cailler you buy a ticket for a tour in the language you would like. They have recently remodeled and they have a very spacious cafe/boutique where you can wander around planning what you will buy while waiting for your tour group to be called to the 'boarding gate'. In the boutique there is a floor to ceiling wall filled with all their different flavored bars of chocolate. Mouthwatering as well as cool to look at. I totally want one for my house!
hmm....which chocolate's should we buy?
Once your group is 'boarding' you line up and wait to enter the tour. The entire tour is automated. They tell you before you enter not to push or pull on any of the doors or touch anything. When you are expected to leave a room the doors will automatically open for you. Pretty cool! It sometimes feels like you are in a Disney ride. Sadly, much of it is quite dark so I couldn't take many good photos. Once you are finished with the automated tour you go into a room with bags and bags full of cocoa beans and big explanations about where they come from and how each different bean is different, which characteristics they possess, etc. You can pick them up, smell them, there is even a microscope so that you can look closely at them. I couldn't get the microscope to work...all I could see was black nothingness - oh well! Every day 56 local farmers supply fresh milk to the Cailler factory. According to the sign by these milk jugs, "The milk is condensed and is mixed within 48 hours with the cocoa by a secret procedure. This is what gives Cailler chocolate it's caramelized milk taste, which is incomparable and unique world wide. All other major industrial chocolate manufacturers use milk powder instead of slightly condensed milk. So suck it, Hershey's!" (I added that last part myself). Next up on the tour is to see the famous branches Cailler being made. If you grew up in this area you know what Branches are and most people seem to love them. In my opinion their alright but nothing to write home about. It is fun to see them being made. I'd like to sit underneath that sheet of chocolate with my mouth open. Yum! You get to taste one of the Branches chocolates and then you exit. At first you think, is that it? Is that my tasting? Really? One measly little Branches? But oh no, that's not it. You are in for the best part of the touring - the tasting room. There is a room with a circular counter filled with all sorts of Cailler chocolate. You are allowed to taste as much as you'd like. I advise you pace yourself because no matter how much you like chocolate if you don't go easy you will end up with a stomach ache. Trust me.

Now, while you are indeed welcome to try as much as you would like while in the tasting room, you are not allowed to put samples in a napkin and leave with them as one French lady attempted to do. She had to stand by the door with her napkin full of chocolates and eat them! I think she ended up throwing some out. Seriously, it's difficult to eat that much chocolate in such a short period of time. I mean, no one wants to be the person standing in the tasting room for hours munching on the goodies. Also, it's not like they have teeny tiny pieces for sampling. They have the regular old size pieces that you would buy in a box of assorted chocolates. So, don't gorge yourself on the first counter - remember you have 3 counters full of chocolate to sample. We love the Ambassadors so I recommend you save some room to taste those. Also, it's not a bad idea to share samples with the people you came with - each take a little bite of the samples. This way you can taste more varieties without feeling like you're about to vomit all over the other guests! Once your belly is full of luscious chocolate samples head back to the boutique and make your purchases. Those Cailler people are clever - we buy way more after sampling than we normally would!
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Then, if you can stomach it head off to la Maison du Gruyere for some Gruyere cheese tasting. This tour is not quite as high tech as the chocolate tour and let's face it a packet of 3 pieces of Gruyere cheese at different ages is not quite the same as an entire room full of chocolates for tasting...but then again it IS cheese. How much can one really sample? On this tour you get a little hand held audio guide and Cerise (or Cherry) the cow tells you all about the process of making cheese. There are photos to look at of the beautiful Alpine grasslands where she grazes in the summer as well as an array of different plant scents you can smell - not for those with sensitive noses or allergies. A few of them made me sneeze.

Then you get to view the work area from a window looking down into the factory onto a giant vat of cheese being swirled around. Well, it's not cheese yet, bu you get what I mean. If you are really lucky then you get to see a cheesemaker down there doing something. Like this guy who was checking the temperature or something on cheese that were packed in salt (I think) and waiting to be turned over (or something
to that effect). That's pretty much the tour. Once you go back downstairs to the entrance area you can look through windows at the massive cheese wheels being stored aging, you can stop in at the restaurant for fondue or other cheese based dishes or pop into the gift shop and buy all sorts of ridiculously wonderful tacky "swiss" items. I always want to buy something and my hubby always says no. What a spoil sport. I'm sure one of our loved ones would be thrilled to receive a gigantic cowbell with a swiss mountain painted on it for Christmas!
Isn't it nice that they had a little stuffed animal of Cherry, our cow guide? Isn't she cute?

Once you've done your tours and tastings (I immediately ate my 3 pieces of cheese others stored them away for later) you can hike up the steep path to the actual town of Gruyere. This little medieval village is on the top of a hill surrounded by walls with a castle, which you can tour. The town itself is very picturesque and very touristy. Hey, they've got to survive somehow. We've managed to go in off peak times and have not found it over crowded with tourists. From what others have said it sounds like in the summer time it can be quite packed with tourists and therefore not quite as lovely. But, we didn't have this problem. We stopped to get a drink a little bite toeat...well, I wanted something to eat. Yes, yes I know the only one to eat every sample. What can I say? I like food! Some of our party still had their cheese samples left, which gave birth to the phrase, "Would you like some cheese from my purse?" It still makes me laugh to think about it. How horrified would the Swiss wait staff have been to hear that!?!
The hubby and his cheese sample

After our little rest and refreshment - I had some soup to warm me up and decided to hold off on consuming the cheese from the purse until later - we headed to the Chateau de Gruyer (aka the Castle). A tip if you want to do both the Cheese factory and castle tour you can by a combo ticket from either place and save a few francs. The castle is interesting and very well preserved. I'll be honest, since there was no food involved I don't have all that much to say about it. So, I'll just post some photos. A picture is worth a thousand words, right? So here we go.

Well, that's about it from me. After our tour of the castle we were all done in I'm pretty sure I took a nap on the car ride home. We made tartiflette for dinner to top off our day of cheese and chocolate and drank lots of wine to help us digest the days tastings. I hope you enjoyed sharing in our excursion to Gruyere and if you're ever in the area I highly recommend a day trip. It's fun and filling!

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Ma nouvelle boulangerie

Whoohoo Sergy now has it's very own Boulangerie/Patisserie! Well, OK we've had it for a some months now...I'm just a bit late posting about it. It is so nice to take a walk with the dog and just pop into the shop for a loaf of fresh breads. Or, like this morning, to wake up to fresh croissants and pain au chocolat because your hubby walked the dog to the boulangerie early in the morning.
Yummmm, one of my favorite things about living in France is having fresh bread all the time. And now whenever we need some bread it's a quick walk down the road.

It's also a Salon de The. We had lunch there one Sunday afternoon. it's a great little place to go for a cup of coffee and a pastry or a sandwich. I can't wait to be able to take guests there when they come to visit. It is such a wonderful addition to our little French country town!

Even Ally is happy to have a shop in town. As the weather gets nicer she's looking forward to lounging at the outdoor tables while Josh and I sip our cafe au laits!

Merci, merci, merci beaucoup to the ville de Sergy for finally allowing this boulangerie to open up!

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Parc Guell photos

Here they are some more photos of the park. Enjoy!

Photo on left: The 'gingerbread' style gate houses. Now housing a bookstore and a museum...I think. We didn't go into either one. The right photo is one of the very cool stone arch colonnades, the road is on top of it! I want one my next estate.

Here is a close up of Gaudi's house. Also used as
a model home when they were trying to sell the idea of a gated community.

The terrace atop the area that was designed to be a market. Yep, all those columns were part of the market. Again, I'll have one on my next estate and hold a farmer's market every week. Those curve benches everyone's sitting on were designed by Gaudi to be ergonomically correct (is that how you phrase that?) For being what seems to be tiled cement they were mighty comfy...perhaps that was just because my feet hurt.

These guys were jammin' out and swinging their hat tassels in time to the music. Every time I tried to get a good picture someone stepped in my way. Cursed tourists. hee, hee, hee I hope you appreciate the irony in that statement. I have tons more photos of the park but I can't be bothered to post them right now and I'm sure you're bored with it anyways. It's much better in person. So go on, get to Spain.

Once we were done lazing about the park we hopped back on the trusty bus and settled in to have it take us around the outskirts of town and give a history lesson. We didn't learn much, but it seems that there is something designed/made by Gaudi everywhere you look! We hopped off because, once again I was desperate for the toilet and we needed to change to the red line bus to go up to Montjuic (the mount of the Jews) which was something DH wanted to do. As soon as we stepped off the bus two young girls asked us if we spoke English and if we could help them with their English assignment by answering some questions. I can't imagine how they knew we were Americans (dripping with sarcasm here). They were lovely girls and spoke amazingly good English asking us about the sights we saw and if we knew Spanish or Catalan ( They were slightly amused by our list of Spanish phrases which consisted of 'I don't speak Spanish', 'Hello', 'Check please' and most importantly 'Where is the bathroom?' Are we prepared tourists or what (I think we fall into the 'or what' category).

Speaking of the bathroom that's the very next place we headed. Luckily, there was a Starbucks on the corner and these are perfect places to sneak and use the bathroom without having to buy anything. There are always lines of people and there is no key code to get into the bathroom (like there is at many McDonald's here) so it's perfect! The only problem for me is that once I'm inside a Starbucks I really don't want to leave unless I have a Mocha in my we split one. That problem solved we went to wait for the red line bus to show us more of the city.

That evening after a full day of tourist stuff, we headed to the Barcelonetta area right down by the harbor to get some paella. We were told this was the place to go, no matter what restaurant you went to if it was here the paella would be good. And it was. Not liking seafood all that much the hubby opted for the chicken option - we read the menus first to make sure there was more than one choice of paella. I went for the more traditional fisherman's paella and it was delicious. The white sangria was not to my taste -too citrusy - but it was still nice. There was a guy playing a guitar and singing and 2 very drunk young women singing along with him and being a bit obnoxious. Thankfully, they left shortly after the musician left after getting advice from the waiter on where to go for some entertainment.

And once we walked back to the hotel after dinner that concluded our 2nd day. Our 3rd day consisted of checking out La Boqueria market which was just around the corner from our hotel, trying out the crazy juices they sell their, popping into souvenir shops, buying chocolates, and eating tapas and sangria before catching the train to the airport and home.

There, it's done and in only 3 blog posts. Did anyone actually make it through all this twaddle? Well, congratulations if you did and better luck next time. Thanks for playing!

Monday, April 18, 2011

Día dos en Barcelona hermosa

Day Two in Beautiful Barcelona ~ Antoni Gaudi's Creations

One of the best parts of going on vacation is the ability to sleep as late as you'd like. No dogs cuddling up to you demanding you arise at 6:00 and take her for a walk. No alarm clocks screaming at you that you better get out of bed immediately or be late for work. Ah, vacation. The Hotel Curious, our nice little hotel just a block from La Ramblas had a decent little continental breakfast with lots of different breads, toast, cheese, meat, yogurt, cereal, fresh fruit, etc. A good way to start off a day in Barcelona.

Once our bellies were full we were ready to start our day of exploring Gaudi's many creations spread about the city. We convinced ourselves the hop on hop off bus tour would be a good idea - it would take us to the sites, we'd see some of the city AND get some useful information about Barcelona! Bad idea. It was so crowded at the first bus stop we walked to our first destination - La Pedrera, aka Casa Mila. La Pedrera (meaning "The Quarry") was REALLY cool! A 40 minute wait was worth it.

Perhaps I should pause for a moment just give a quick run down of who Antoni Gaudi was. Gaudi was born in 1852 (died 1926) and is Barcelona's most famous Modernista Architects. La Pedrera was Gaudi's last major work before devoting himself to the La Sagrada Familia (coming up next) and was built between 1906-1910 commissioned by Pere Milà to be an apartment complex where Pere Milà and his family would live along with renting apartments out. It is considered by many to be Barcelona's quintessential Modernista building. Gaudi was had an organic style that was inspired by nature combining function and form. OK, architectural lesson over. Let's look at some photos, shall we? I thought the terrace or rooftop was completely awesome. That's where the tour started us off.
There are 3 different types of structures on the roof: the badalots (staircases) like seen at right; the ventilation towers and the chimneys. The undulating balustrades conform to the shape of the facade, as Gaudi sought a harmonic solution between the rhythms of the facade and the roof (thank you Casa Mila audio and paper guide). Wouldn't it just be amazing to have an apartment in this building and sit up on the roof terrace enjoying an evening glass of wine? I think so. Amazingly, people do live in the apartments as well as there being some offices here. I might not like having the tourists around all day long, but after closing hours it must be nice.
I didn't find the apartment terribly interesting so I don't have many pictures of it. It has been recreated as an apartment of a Barcelona bourgeois family during the first decades of the 20th century and decorated with period furnishing and household appliances. It was neat, but nothing overly exciting. We did get to sit in some Gaudi designed ergonomic chairs. They didn't look like they would be but they were surprisingly comfortable.

Now, onto our next stop! We did actually manage to take the Hop On Hop Off bus and sit on top. We hopped off at la Sagrada Família Gaudi's most famous and persistent work. He began work on this famous church in 1883 and continued until his death in 1926. It has been progressing in fits and starts ever since. Even today, the half-finished church is not expected to be finished for another quarter century! (again thanks for the info Rick Steves).

When we first got off the bus there was a line around the block waiting to go into the church! "Holy moly!" I thought, "I'm not so sure I even care about going in...I mean it's just another church, right?" But another woman who was on the bus assured me that it really was worth going in to see. Since I was starving (and BOY do I get cranky when I'm hungry) we decided to hold off making a decision about the church until after we had some food in our bellies. We were going to have lunch on the cheap, so we strolled around looking for a place to grab a sandwich or something. Just across from the church was this little hole in the wall that had these pizza like things so we thought, OK this will do. My pizza thing was still cold in the center, but I was hungry so it tasted good enough for me. Naturally, we didn't actually check the price before we ordered and we ended up paying way more for a crappy lunch than we should have. Oh well, live and learn. In retrospect we were across the street from one of Barcelona's major tourist attractions - we should have known prices would be jacked up. And second when you don't see the price listed on the board...that's another indication you are about to be screwed. Granted, being able to actually read the language helps with this second one. Anyways, after lunch there was hardly any line at all and bought our tickets and went right in.

This is the Passion facade built by Josep Maria Subirachs. There is controversy over this facade as some think that it does not fit with Gaudi's vision. Personally, I think it fits in very well. Gaudi also built a school on site for the children of the workers - you can see the roof of it in the above picture. It's the undulating rooftop in the lower right corner. Even his school houses are interesting to look at!
Inside the church is awe inspiring. I may have become desensitized to Gothic cathedrals but this is like nothing I've ever seen before. Do to the fact many of the windows do not have stained glass in them yet the interior is so bright and airy. I wish they would leave it like this, but there are plans to put in all stained glass. I'm sure that will look beautiful as well. The pillars look like towering trees supporting the roof. If I remember correctly this is what Gaudi intended.

Look how detailed the ceiling is. Wow, imagine being the workman up there completing that work.

After La Sagrda we grabbed that trusty ole' tourist bus and went out to our last Gaudi stop of the day - La Parc Güell. This was totally cool. He designed it for Senor Güell to be a gated community for the hoity-toity outside of the city in a lovely green space. Naturally, all those posh ladies of the early 1900's didn't really want to be away from the city center, despite the promise of fresh, smog free air. So instead of 60 palatial residences being built, there were 2. Gaudi lived in one and Count Güell lived in the other. I would have lived there, hell I'd live there today if I could!

Once you enter the park, this is what you see. It would have been WAY cooler if there weren't all those damned tourists! hee, hee, hee

OK, well...I'm tired so I'm going to stop writing and maybe if I can work up the enthusiasm I'll post some pictures of the parc tomorrow.

Buenos Noches, y'all