Author Archives: bdennisreid

Flying with the Aigles

Leysin, Switzerland

Leysin, Switzerland

Aigle, situated in the Vaud Alps and resting on the eastern side of Lake Geneva, serves as a base for poking around points skyward like Leysin and Berneuse.

What drew us to the area was the opportunity to view the impressive Mont Blanc, the highest mountain in the EU.

Aigle (translation:  eagle), is reachable by train from Lausanne in about 30 minutes.  The area offers opportunities for sightseeing, hiking, skiing, and relaxation.

From Aigle, you will need to hop on a cog wheel train to get to Leysin.  Not familiar?  Cog wheel trains act like the hook and chain mechanism of a roller coaster–guiding cars up steep grades.  In the U.S., you can experience a cog wheel train in Colorado as you climb to the top of Pike’s Peak.

During your journey to Leysin, make sure you take advantage of the slow-moving train by capturing photos of the postcard-perfect towns below.

Being a gloomy Monday during the shoulder season, I didn’t think Leysin was going to offer much.  We were also coming off of a pleasant-weather high from the weekend.  Honestly, we were just looking for something to do and see with few expectations.  We were both wrong and impressed.

A short walk from the resorts and international schools of Leysin is a cable car system that seats four people per car.  Now, I don’t like heights and I don’t like confinement.  In fact, I get panicky in either situation.

Don’t let either stop you.  You can handle it and the payoff is worth it.

Berneuse, Switzerland

Berneuse, Switzerland

Even on a cloudy day in Aigle and Leysin with zero chance of burn off and an ever-increasing chance of rain, Berneuse offers a dry and snowy atmosphere for gazing and picture taking.

The summit sits 6,700 plus feet above sea level.  It’s a little less than half of the elevation of Pike’s Peak which is 14,114 feet.

Berneuse offers views of the plush, green valley, town of Aigle, Lake Geneva (when clear), and Mont Blanc in the distance.

Hungry?  Warm up at Kuklos, a revolving restaurant atop Berneuse that offers regional food and lunch specials.

Berneuse provides an astonishing view during your stay in Lake Geneva and an alternative to visiting Mount Pilatus if your stay is limited and you can’t get to Lucerne.

Interested in snaps from Switzerland and the Lake Geneva area?  Visit the photo gallery.

Cruise to Switzerland

bdennisreid

Nyon, Switzerland – May 2013

Switzerland is landlocked by France, Germany, Italy, Austria, and Liechtenstein.

However, it’s not difficult to enter and exit the euro zone by boat when staying in the Lake Geneva area.  In fact, during our trip, my parents were disappointed that there was no checkpoint in France to add another stamp in their passports.

Lake Geneva (locally, Lac Léman) is surrounded by the Alps and Jura mountain ranges.  While we were able to admire the mountains high atop Berneuse and at the overlook of the Cathedral of Notre-Dame in Old Town Lausanne, we gained a different perspective of how vast and glorious the jagged and snow-capped mountains were by boat.

Lake cruises can be expensive especially when you factor in the luxury lines that serve meals.  I say this not to suggest that you shouldn’t take a cruise along the lake.  There is a cheaper alternative for your journey.

The CGN’s Navimobilité runs passenger ferries to points in Yvoire, Évian-les-Bains, (yes, that Évian), Thonon-les-Bains, and Chens-sur-Léman, France, and Nyon and Lausanne in Switzerland.  The CGN Mobilité is a public transportation system that operates ferries year round via the N1, N2, N3, and N4 lines.

Some things to remember:

  • Take your passport.  While we didn’t encounter checkpoints, we also didn’t want our excursion ruined if stopped.
  • Pay careful attention to the line you want to use for your destination across the lake.  Each line only connects to one destination.  For example, if you are in Lausanne, and want to get to Yvoire, France, you may want to consider taking the train to Nyon and crossing the lake on the N3.
  • Beware that although the ferries run year round, schedules may be reduced or cut on the weekends during low season.
  • Save some money and skip the first-class ticket, which runs about CHF32 to CHF77 depending on the destination.  Second-class tickets (CHF 32 to roughly CHF55) still offer comfortable seating and chances are, you’ll want to move around and take pictures during the cruise.
  • Want to hop through France during the day?  Trains from Thonon-les-Bains to Évian-les-Bains, for example, run frequently and only cost roughly €12-15.  Be sure you don’t miss Yvoire, a medieval city that is said to be one of the prettiest destinations in the Rhône-Alpes region.
  • Regarding currency, remember that crossing in and out of the euro zone means that you’ll be using different currency.  While some proprietors in France, for example, may accept Swiss francs, many do not.  You should have some Euros on hand for shopping or grabbing food.

Above all, be sure to look out and up at your surroundings.  Your journey to either country offers a picturesque landscape at sea and on land.

Interested in snaps from Switzerland and the Lake Geneva area?  Visit the photo gallery.

Weekender: Autumn Running

U.S. Capitol - Washington, DC

U.S. Capitol – Washington, DC

In my opinion, autumn is the best season in Washington for outdoor enthusiasts.  By late September, winds and lingering summer storms have swept the haze and humidity out of the city making room for crisp days and chilly nights.

For someone who loathes summers in Washington, I welcome autumn not only for the weather but for the abundance of races like the Army 10-Miler and neighborhood Turkey Trots on Thanksgiving.

Last week, The Washington Post ran an article about Washingtonians’ obsession with running.  The article suggested that the reason there are so many runners in the city is not due to the climate and terrain, but because Washingtonians are (stereotypically) more competitive and driven.

I don’t necessarily agree.

Washingtonians deal with extremes:  oppressive summers, crippling traffic, and self-induced job stress, to name a few.

We also know how to blow off steam, whether it’s checking out the newest neighborhood watering hole or getting up early to run on the mall, through Rock Creek Park, or along the Potomac River on the Mount Vernon Trail.

This autumn, consider walking, running, or biking the sights and take advantage of Washington’s history and flat terrain while lifting the mood and reducing stress.

Our days are numbered as we inch closer to the gray winter months.  Set a personal goal, sign up for a race, and get out there.  The city’s sights, set against blue backdrops and accented with vibrant oranges, reds, and yellows are yours for the taking.

Eat & Sleep: Francs and Beans

bdennisreid

bdennisreid

Switzerland can be yours for fewer francs than you may realize.

The landlocked country offers limitless opportunities for sightseeing and experiences for those who love to get out and explore the natural world.  From hiking through the snow in Leysin, to climbing a church tower in Bern or Fribourg, boredom has a scant chance of creeping in during a visit.

Ask a person what they think of when you mention Switzerland, and they’ll probably respond with:  The Alps, chocolate, knives, and watches.

However, how do you respond when the person clutches his or her proverbial purse strings and responds with “a post-vacation diet of beans”, like a friend of mine did when I mentioned I was traveling to Lake Geneva with my parents last May?

My friend’s response was somewhat fair.  According to Mercer, a human resources consulting firm, Geneva, Zurich, and Bern have found themselves in a Top 10 list of the most expensive cities for expatriates in 2013.  A quick cost-of-living comparison on Numbeo, a site that itemizes expenditures such as meals at restaurants, transportation, apartment rentals, and groceries, among others, confirmed that our destination in Lake Geneva was going to be higher than Washington, DC and much higher than coastal North Carolina where my parents live.

Even though other countries in the euro zone surround Switzerland, its form of currency is the Swiss franc, abbreviated as CHF.  Back when I was planning the trip, research confirmed that compared to the U.S. dollar, there was about a one-dollar-to-one-Swiss-franc exchange rate with a few extra pennies thrown across the Atlantic in the direction of Switzerland.  The comparison gave me some relief that the trip wouldn’t result in being “travel poor” even though goods and services are more expensive than what I was accustomed to in Washington.

I argue that frugal travelers can live rich while on vacation when they subtract expensive hotels, extravagant meals, and pricey tourist traps, and add free outdoor sightseeing excursions, low-cost cultural activities, and flavorful regional meals at cafés, sandwich shops, and walk-up food kiosks.

Minus a few meal splurges, we used our trips to the Coop and Migros supermarkets to our advantage.   First, we bought fresh fruit and non-perishables for breakfast and on-the-go snacks.  Second, several supermarkets have restaurants where we ate salads, quiches, sandwiches, and hearty meals (served on ceramic dishes and not on paper plates or in wrappers) while overlooking Lake Geneva into France.  Compared to full-service restaurant dining, we dined on fresh food for about 15-20 CHF per person.

Lodging wise, Geneva was out of the question not due to price, but availability.  Affordable hotels and apartments just weren’t available for the dates we selected.  Widening the search, I discovered Lausanne, the second-largest city on Lake Geneva.  Staying in Lausanne proved to be the best choice because it offered easy access by bus, light rail, train, and boat to the sites surrounding the Lake since it’s location is a little more than halfway between Geneva and Montreux.

Out of our choices, the Ibis Lausanne Centre won. Like any chain, I had heard good and bad things and had experienced excellent service and cleanliness in one city, and near paltry conditions in another.

The Ibis Lausanne Centre is a newer property with modern room decor, fresh bedding, wood floors cleaned daily, a large shower, and best of all, a price tag that allowed for separate rooms for my parents and me.  Much like its environs on Lake Geneva, the hotel is immaculate.  It also offers an efficient check-in/out process and coffee service in the morning that complemented our light breakfast.

As a bonus, the property throws in a public transportation pass (Lausanne only) for the duration of the stay, which came in handy for those days when we were too sore to hike from the train station uphill to the hotel via Avenue de Beaulieu.  The 3 and the 21 buses service the Lausanne Gare station and stop next to the hotel.  Also, the Riponne light rail station on the m2 line is a short walk from the hotel in a bustling shopping district and in a six stops will take you Lake Geneva.

The only complaint was that the rooms didn’t cool off during the first few days of the visit.  We were told by a front desk attendant that there was a hotel-wide outage with the air conditioning system.  However, the issue was fixed within a day and lucky for us, the remainder of the trip was cool and rainy making sleeping at night comfortable in an otherwise stuffy room.

One word about the flight cost to Geneva…I am not United Airlines’ biggest fan.  I’ve been delayed several times when traveling overseas and have found the response from employees to be lackluster as if delays are the norm and not the exception.  However, my non-stop flight from Washington, Dulles was only $950, and my parents’ flight that originated in Norfolk and connected through Dulles was around $925 per ticket, making it a cheaper destination for the time of year over other destinations such as Paris.

Therefore, consider Switzerland and rest easy knowing that you can fly, buy, eat, and sleep without becoming “vacation poor”, thus allowing you to experience all that this stunning  country offers.

In my next posts, I’ll discuss “leaving” the EU and high-altitude anxiety.

Interested in snaps from Switzerland and the Lake Geneva area?  Visit the photo gallery.

Weekender: New Music from L.A.

Los Angeles, California

Los Angeles, California

I’ve been to Los Angeles four times.  Its climate, fashion, cuisine, and pace are a refreshing break from the buttoned-down stuffiness of Washington, DC.  Unfortunately, something both cities share is snarling traffic.

Having good music is essential when driving anywhere, but especially in L.A. and Washington where you may find yourself at a standstill on an interstate day or night.

I really got into LA’s Best Coast, after the release of their first album, Crazy for You.  They have a sunny, guitar-heavy pop sound that reminds me of my favorite groups like The Ronettes, The Go-Gos, and the Dum Dum Girls.

Their new EP, Fade Away, is out on October 22nd, and is available to preview on Soundcloud.

Check it out whether you’re cruising around Santa Monica, venturing out to Great Falls, Va. to see the autumn colors, or spending your day sunning, walking, or sitting outside blogging anywhere between either coast.

Learn: Go Dutch!

Flag of the Netherlands

Flag of the Netherlands

I enjoy tinkering with foreign languages.  When I was in high school, I started with two years of Spanish.  Having never studied a foreign tongue, I had the best introduction to Spanish language and culture that an impressionable student could experience in Señorita Burr’s classroom.  Walking into her living language environment was like stepping into a lively street celebration in a Latin American country.  Learning to Señorita Burr meant three things:  reinforcement through repetition; participating in culture days (Latin American customs, cooking, television, games, etc.); getting out there and just doing it; and conversing sin inglés.

My acquired knowledge and practice of Spanish in an English-free environment gave me the thirst and confidence to widen my language horizons.  I decided in 11th grade to switch to French since Spanish helped to form a basis for studying other Romance languages.  French was the only other foreign language my high school offered except for German, which didn’t fit into my schedule.  In addition, because of an arrangement with a high school in Wallonia, in the French-speaking region of Belgium, I was able to take my first trip abroad.

Since college, I’ve flirted with Italian and German in classroom and travel settings.  The latter left me bewildered although I enjoyed my visits to Germany and appreciated the gracious language tips I received in Munich.  To keep up with my French, I’ve purchased bootlegged copies of French in Action DVDs which are a great immersion tool and have dug up my dogeared copy of the accompanying textbook that was left behind in my parents’ attic when I moved out in my late 20s.

Having visited Belgium and the Netherlands twice each, I’ve been curious about the Dutch

Flag of Suriname

Flag of Suriname

language.  To my surprise, this West Germanic language is spoken around the world outside of the Netherlands and Belgium in areas such as Suriname, the Caribbean, small pockets in North America, and to a small extent, in Indonesia, to name a few.  Incidentally, Afrikaans, an independent yet closely related language to Dutch is spoken in South Africa and Namibia.  The language is said to be easy to learn for Dutch and English speakers and learning it can provide additional opportunities for travel and cultural expansion.

Not having the luxury of being able to immerse myself in Dutch by moving to another country, I’m going to have to settle temporarily for some basic self study until A) I can find a Meet-up group of Dutch learners and/or speakers, or B) I can travel next year.

So, where does one begin to learn the basics on the cheap without dropping a few hundred on Rosetta Stone or Berlitz?

Unfortunately, PBS doesn’t offer a Dutch in Action immersion course.  I’ve checked.

Last year, I purchased a Groupon for Livemocha and created an account.  I liked the social component because there’s an opportunity to interact with native speakers who will critique your work.  You can also get the basics by following lessons based on your language choice and even switch languages with your membership.  What I didn’t like was the amount of e-mail spam I received and the points/tokens system which was confusing and reminded me of some sort of “Weight Watchers for Language Enthusiasts” scheme.

Byki Express, a free, downloadable program, offered some great flashcards and vocabulary lists, but the interface seemed clunky, and while I like repetition for learning a language, I received too much reinforcement on my way to progressing to the next lesson.  Biki Deluxe offers more flexibility (e.g., mobile access) but at a cost of $69.  I’m not knocking the learning system, nor have I tried it.  I’d just like to find something cheaper that works well on my aging Smartphone.

Since I wanted to gain exposure using available resources without paying a lot, I did a search on what would be needed to master Dutch if someone wanted to move to the Netherlands.  Simple enough.  I happened upon Expatica which led me to Dutch Grammar.  It was there that I found basic courses in a clutter-free format to learn (with mp3 audio) basic pronunciation and grammar.  Dutch Grammar is a no-nonsense site that is rich in content.

My search continued.  I love YouTube, not only for movie and music clips, but also for educational reasons.

Taalhuis offers some great resources that go over Dutch-language basics by way of YouTube videos with a recap of vocabulary words at the end of each lesson.  The lists also cover the articles for nouns de and het that can only be learned through memorization.

Where does this all lead and how does it connect to immersion learning?  Our world is getting smaller and more personal due to the Internet, particularly, social media.  Not having the luxury of taking time off to live in a foreign country is a valid roadblock to immersion learning.  However, you can log onto Facebook, Twitter, Livemocha, or other interactive site and connect with others who can comment, correct, and add confidence to your language skills.   You can find or start a Meetup group in your area.

Whatever your reasons for learning a new language, know this:  you will learn a lot if you get out there, try, and humbly ask for help; apologize up front for not being fluent, but eager to communicate;  and ask how you can improve.  Have patience and diligence and the language will follow.

I’m taking these words to heart on my adventure into learning Dutch.

Dank-u en tot later. 

Weekender: Postcard from the Edge

Thomas Circle, Washington, DC - 1940

Thomas Circle, Washington, DC – 1940

I grew up in the Washington, DC area as did my parents and grandparents.

Looking for work as young adults, each of my paternal grandparents moved to Washington from central Virginia.  It was in Washington that they met, got married, and started a family.

After visiting in-laws in Richmond, my grandfather sent this postcard as a thank you for a pleasant visit.  The postcard portrays Thomas Circle along 14th Street in 1940.  It was taken on the edge of the now re-developed part of the 14th Street corridor along Thomas Circle.

The three-story building on the right is now a hotel, but the National City Christian Church on the left and Luther Place Memorial Church in the middle still stand.  The statue of General George H. Thomas, erected by the the Society of the Army of the Cumberland also stands and is encircled by snarling rush-hour traffic and office buildings.

Interested in learning more about the neighborhood’s history?  Check out the Logan Circle Heritage Trail.

Scheveningen – Come Again?

Scheveningen - September 2013

Scheveningen – September 2013

Scheveningen may be the one of the most difficult Dutch words to pronounce for English speakers.  However, this beachfront destination shouldn’t be missed when visiting The Hague.

Scheveningen is located on the North Sea.  Its roots date back to the 12th century and before it became a travel destination for beachgoers, its main industry was fishing.

In fact, the painter Henrik Mesdag captured life in Scheveningen in 1881 in his famous work,  Panorama Mesdag.

***

I arrived in The Hague after a speedy two-and a-half hour train ride from Paris via Thalys, a Belgian rail company that serves Paris, Brussels, Amsterdam, and Cologne.  I checked into my hotel and decided to take a much-needed walk to stretch and enjoy natural air.  Plus, the skies were clear and the air was crisp, which was a welcomed change from my gloomy stay in Paris.

I’ve been to the North Sea three times, twice to Ostend, Belgium, and now Scheveningen.  Like most coastal areas, the weather can be erratic.  In the U.S., especially in the Outer Banks of North Carolina where my family lives, I’ve experienced these swift weather changes during hurricane season.  In the few hours I was in Scheveningen, I experienced sun, heavy cloud cover, drizzle, and strong gusts of wind.

Take an umbrella.

Shops, restaurants, and markets pepper the winding streets and it’s obvious that they swell with people and bustle during high season from June to August.   I was able to enjoy an intimate street market where I found food vendors, artists, and a guy selling old vinyl records.  Score!

In late September, Scheveningen was hushed and drawing its season to a close.  In any weather, however, The Hague is walkable with comfortable terrain.  If you’re adventurous, it’s also bikeable.  Trams and buses stop nearby making it a must-see destination while in The Hague for business or pleasure, in high season or low.  You’ll want to visit during your stay and you’ll definitely want to learn how to pronounce it to try and fit in with the locals.

Don’t miss the Panorama Mesdag.  You can find it here:

Zeestraat 65
2518 AA  Den Haag

Interested in snaps from The Hague and Amsterdam?  Visit the photo gallery.

Eat: The 100+ Year Old Sandwich

I’m neither a foodie nor a cook.  I enjoy exploring regional cuisine when I travel, but my tastes are fairly simple.  I like a lot of flavor, clean food, and a small price tag.

It has been said that the Netherlands consumes the most amount of bread in Europe.  I also know that during visits to Paris and Belgium, I’ve consumed more bread than when I’m at home.  Europe can be difficult for a gluten-free individual, but there are options.

The Dutch are known for their broodjes which are sandwiches.  You can also find broodjes in Flanders as I experienced on a trip to Antwerp, Belgium a few years ago.  Typical broodjes consist of meat, cheese, and toppings, like most sandwiches in the U.S.  Occasionally, as I experienced, a broodje can contain a light meat or cheese kroket or croquette, if you’re more familiar with the French variation.

On my trip to The Hague, I was lucky to experience a Dopmeijer broodje.  Dopmeijer’s is an out-of-the-way broodje shop that reminded me of a friendly neighborhood deli I’d find in Philadelphia or New York.  It is also an institution in The Hague.  It’s been operating for 104 years and in 2009, Dopmeijer’s celebrated with the publication of a book containing newspaper clippings and photos of the century-old shop.

My new friend and gracious tour guide Paul took me to Dopmeijer to experience a little bit of local food history.  There, we met John, one of the owners.  Ravenous, John introduced me to a variety of broodjes as well as a homemade goulash that was stomach-warming and spicy—perfect for cool and overcast September day.

My favorite broodje was the bal, which reminded me of a small meatball sandwich mixed with several spices, perhaps garlic and cinnamon.  The closest taste I could compare it to was a meatball I bought from Whole Foods that contained Moroccan spices.

I was still a little hungry, so I ordered a meat kroket broodje.  It was also rich with flavor and surprisingly light.  I’m not a huge fan of mayonnaise, so John made my broodjes with brown mustard and pepper.  You can have your broodje with either condiment and both are popular.

My friend Paul asked if I wanted to try something new.  Since I’m always up for an adventure, I agreed.

I then sampled a cow’s udder broodje.  Now, I’ll preface my reaction with the fact that I’m pretty funny about food textures.  For example, as much as I wanted to try the tartare broodje, I politely declined since I don’t care for the consistency of raw meat.  In hindsight, and for adventure’s sake, I should have gone for it.  Lesson learned.

The cow’s udder broodje was an experience.  On one hand, it tasted surprisingly good when mixed with mustard and pepper.  On the other, it had a chewy consistency as well as coloring similar to deli-sliced turkey.  My reaction was a 50/50 mix, but by then, I had had two bal broodjes plus the goulash and was becoming full.

The service and hominess at Dopmeijer is welcoming and efficient.  The shop is unpretnetious and you can eat cheap if you’re watching your money.

Dopmeijer is an institution in The Hague and I was glad I was introduced.

If you are in The Hague and want to try something new that comes with a long-standing history, stop by Dopmeijer.  You can easily access it by the Van Musschenbroekstraat tram stop or within a few blocks from the Holland Spoor station.  Also, be sure to ask John if you can purchase a book of clippings for nine Euros celebrating the 100th anniversary of Dopmeijer’s.

Dopmeijer
Rijswijkseweg 151
2516 HB Den Haag
Web site:  www.dopmeijer.net

Interested in snaps from The Hague and Amsterdam?  Visit the photo gallery.