Venice is Very Nice

Okay guys.  Venice. Venice, right?               So we had to take what I believe counts as every single type of ground transportation short of Segway (trademark) in order to reach the airport.  Having finances foremost in our minds we cancelled our cab (like 70 euros to the airport, uh say wha?) and instead got up at 4, dragged our bags on foot, onto the metro, onto a surface train, onto a bus, on to a moving walkway (thought I’d forget the moving walkway mode of ground transportation didn’t you!? HA!) and up a disappointing number of steps to get to the airport where we boarded a plane, taking one of the main modes of air travel available to humans, all the way to Venice, where we then deplaned, dragged our bags for twenty minutes to the Alilaguna Water Bus blue line, thereby completing the trifecta of travel, aka the sextuple-single-single. The water bus dropped us at its first stop in Venice and let’s face it, people call it pretty because of how damned pretty it is.  It’s like Labyrinth if there was more beautiful canals and less David Bowie crotch fantasia.  It is literally impossible to find your way from one place to another unless you happen upon a stream of people indicating that you are on your way hopefully to someplace important, and sometimes away from someplace important.  Luckily, no matter where you go Venice is still an enchanted maze of twisting, crumbling, shoulder width alleyways that cross marble and stone bridges over canals that wander off lazily in either direction. Our accommodation, recommended by trip advisor as 51st best B & B in Venice (nothing but the 51st best for my baby!), was the Hotel Vecellio, right across the street from the water bus stop and therefore looking straight out at the lagoon and at Murano, an island a short ferry hop away.  After a spirited chat with the owner Matteo we learned we’d be staying at the Annex to the Hotel Vecellio which was around the corner and down a teeny alley.  This was a perfect and for Venice incredibly spacious room with a huge for Venice bathroom.  Breakfast at 8-10, a lot of day and Venice to explore, so off we go. Here’s the thing about us.  The only time we’re not the shiny happy people you all know and love is when we’re hungry, and we hadn’t eaten yet, so we struck out at random, a small map in hand… actually let me just say, maps in Venice are useful only if you’re an Indian tracker in the old west.  There are no cars in Venice (imagine how hard it is to throw away the garbage, move furniture or restock your restaurant) and therefore no real streets.  They have a different word, and sometimes multiple different words, for alleys, alleys with an archway, alleys with shops, covered alleys, bridges, paths by the water, paths near a church, plazas near a church, alleys with courtyards, areas near a plaza.  So say your stupid little map indicates you should take Calle (street?) Madonna.  That path has that name for about twenty feet, then because you go under an archway, it changes, but not just the first part, the second too.  So now you’re at Sestiere Reggio, which is about to hit a plaza with a church in it, and now you understand that when there IS a name for what you’re walking on it, no guarantee in itself, it can sometimes have literally three different names in just one section of walking.  Couple this with the fact that three quarters of the alleyways aren’t listed on google maps or anything else, none go for more than 50 feet without a 90 degree turn, t-intersection where both directions lead into a canal, a gypsy woman just chuckin’ curses at passersby and a dead end where you have to answer a winged lion’s three questions in order to receive a fine locally made glass tchotchke.  This sounds like a terror nightmare but is actually sort of the point and only once did we get lost and have to answer that lion’s questions.  They were mostly sports so I did okay. Rather than a blow by blow account of each of the four days here I’ll just hit the highlights and discoveries. Venice is a tourist trap.  The whole city is built to get money from you, but with smart internet research (Celina) you can find amazing deals and even the few places locals hang out.  Being food tourists and secret snobs (hey Josh, it’s me, your wife. It’s only a secret to us, I think). we didn’t want to order off the menu turistica (a three course thing in most restaurants that always involves that hallmark of Italian cuisine, the French fry) of one of the countless traps lining the main thoroughfares.  We wanted to taste real Italian food.  In Venice, that’s seafood.  As far as we could tell the amount of green on the island is limited to a park in the south corner, everything but fish has to be brought in daily by boat, so with the goal of good Venetian bites we generally started each day’s journey. There are a few things to know about Italy.  The French café culture, where all the chairs on the patio face the sidewalk like you’re sitting in a theater and you just sit and drink teeny strong coffees for hours on end while looking at beautiful people, doesn’t exist here.  Instead, between noon and three there is a break, all the shops close and suddenly the countless little bars and trattorias are packed with locals first having a quick coffee, then a glass of wine and a sandwich.  Every single place you go into, sweet shops, restaurants, bakeries, has a bar and serves coffee and liquor.  And behind the counter are a myriad of different small sammies for cheap that you order, they fire in a Panini press, and you eat while standing.  But this isn’t typical bar food because it’s speck, or fresh mozzarella, tomatoes and olives, etc.  It’s something unique to here that is a cheap and delicious way to grab a bite.  Plus, there’s a two hour nap built in for me before things get started again!  Wine gets ya that early in the day man.

Weena enjoys a quick espresso with hideous old Italian ladies!

Another delightful sneaky snack for the pennily pinched is happy hour.  Some bars have a buffet they set out and for around ten bucks each you get a drink (the common after work one here is a Spritz, Campari and soda or an orange colored slightly sweeter Campari cousin and soda) and as many trips to the snack table as you want.  It’s mostly different types of bruschetta, little bread bits with various smears on there.  Anchovy, or fresh ricotta, or the traditional tomato, garlic, basil.  Plus one heaping, steaming bowl of fresh pasta with veggies, or a risotto with some seafood in there.  So at 5:30 you pile in, grab a seat and a very strong drink and start shoveling food.  Then, when you’re done your drink, off to someplace else for more spritz’s or wine and a dazed but warm and romantic wobble through the alleys hopefully towards home.  Everything shuts down at 8 except restaurants and bars, they shut down at 10 or midnight, especially in the off season where we are, so they even have early bedtimes!  It’s like Josh heaven! We were lucky enough to be here on a Saturday, market day, and we crossed the Rialto bridge, one of two that goes from the outer ring of Venice (where St. Mark’s Cathedral and square are) to the inner island where, like, that market I was talking about is.  It’s an open air farmer’s/fisher’s market and people crowd down to get the freshest catches from the Adriatic sea.  On the cheap eats tip we found a place called Muro’s which was a hopping bar and snack place inside that, on this day and this day alone,  has an outdoor patio where for 7 euro you get a glass of fizzy chardonnay and a huge bowl of steaming, lightly battered and fried whatever looked good at the fishmongers an hour ago.  We sat in this beautiful plaza waiting for them to haul out the steaming platter of squid, shrimp, sardines and scallops and hopped in line.   Did you guys know squid doesn’t have to be chewy?  It can be as tender as the perfectly al dente pasta.  The light but salty breading on everything was all the seasoning you needed, no sauces or anything.  Plus, for whatever reason I’ve recently become addicted to Sardines (they’re really good for you) because eating them, bones and all, makes me feel like a man.  A man who may be concerned about his omega-3 fatty acid intake but a man nonetheless.  This giant serving of perfectly fresh, perfectly cooked seafood that tasted of the sea but had no fishy smell at all, with the crisp white cutting through the little bit of oil, while sitting outside with thirty people all talking with their hands in the cold clear day… it was exactly what we’d hoped for.

(note how my part fits seamlessly into Venetian architecture)

I ate squid ink pasta.  It’s a local and very popular dish.  It came out and they weren’t kidding.  That shit is black yo.  It’s like spaghetti after an oil tanker crashed on it.  The squid ink is the sauce and is salty and oceany, again not fishy, and is actually amazing and delicious.  The fresh pasta is so wonderful here, cooked in super salty water so even on its own it’s a delicious thing.  Old news but your pasta water should taste like the sea before you add your pasta.  Also, add a little of the pasta water to your sauce after, the starch thickens the sauce naturally.  Here’s my concern though.  I’ve eaten beets and I’ve eaten asparagus.  I know how quickly those can become the boss of your guts.  They’ll take over the place and boss all your smells and fluids around and suddenly you’re positive you caught an STD from the toilet seat the night before (an impossibility here given that often its literally just a tiled hole in the floor.)  So um, after ingesting a pound of what is literally ink… everything came out normal.  Where did that ink go guys?  Where? Venice was the most powerful city and culture in the world for a bunch of centuries (research guys, I do it for you).  They’re major claim to fame in the tourist attraction line nowadays is St. Mark’s Cathedral and Square.  It attracts people from all over the world who, according to every sign, website and guidebook, are all pick pockets.  It is breathtaking though.  The square itself is a giant open rectangular courtyard, which considering every other inch of the place is jam packed with teetering buildings is all the more breathtaking, flanked on three sides by long wings covered in beautiful arches and pillars.  Added in three stages (the last by Napolean, that total dick), they show you three styles of architecture in one eyeful.  I think they are baroque (insert if it ain’t baroque don’t ba-fix it joke here), renaissance and neo-classical.  Does that mean anything to you?  Not to me either, but at the time, looking at them, I got it in a magical way.  At the other end stands a giant bell tower (that fell over once, ha!) the world’s first digital clock with two dudes hammering a bell at the top, flaps that show every ten minutes and an ornate clock face with the 24 hr clock on it.  Then, finally, the cathedral itself.

St. Mark's Cathedral and the Bell Tower

The Venetians, when they were the bosses of everything, went on a bunch of crusades and stole everybody else’s best stuff so this is like a greatest hits of the Byzantine era.  Steal a bunch of marble pillars?  Jam em on there.  Enslave some Bysantines?  Get em to gold leaf up the place.  Got four beautifully sculpted giant bronze horses?  Yoink!  They’re ours now bitches!  You’d think it’d look hodgepodge but instead it’s like one of those few antiques stores where everything fits. An interesting note on the religion of the time.  Europeans, particularly western ones, celebrate Jesus’ life, he’s an inspiration because he showed us by example how to be awesome.  Us new worlders seem hell bent on only celebrating his death.  He died for your sins so you better be good.  It’s a leading by example rather than by guilt thing that I hadn’t considered before.  As a result, churches here are a lot less about crucifixes or weeping folks at the foot of a dead guy and are instead about him doing the fun magic tricks with the wine and fishes.  St. Mark’s floor plan is the greek cross, just a plus sign symbolizing perfection, not the traditional cross we know which is another reminder that some guy did this thing we didn’t ask him to and now it’s on us to be nice or he’ll come get us if we say his name three times in a mirror (I’m getting my bible stories mixed up.) The coolest thing about St. Marks, and the reason it’s so important, is that one of the many things the Venetians stole was literally the corpse of St. Mark.  The guy who wrote a bunch of the bible.  A couple dudes stole his bones, brought them here and buried them under the church making Venice an instantly recognized religious center and increasing it’s power tenfold.  So we walked on top of one of the guys that wrote the bible’s bones.  That’s cooler than the time I met the drummer from Gowan’s band!  In the treasure room of the church, which completely non-ironically costs extra to enter, they’ve got crystal chalices from before Christ came on the scene, they’ve got ornate jeweled swords, AND they’ve got just a ton of bones of important people.  You know the guy at the gates of heaven?  I’ve seen his shin bone.  I’ve seen St. Mark’s femur.  The way they display them is they forge a golden or metal arm or leg with a window in there, then they put the bone in the window where it would be in that newly cast leg.  For sure those things are all coming together to form some ancient android super saint who’ll kick a bad guy’s ass (Captain America 2!  Coming this Christmas).  That’s cool stuff right?  Bones of bibilically famous guys.  Also, the church itself was real pretty.  No pics inside though… unless you a ninja!

Ninja Pic! That dome is the story of Adam and Eve!

We didn’t do the gondoliers.  It’s that thing where you say you like something about someone and then they kind of automatically don’t do that thing ever again, or they  consciously do it from then on ruining the fun?  Venice is like that.  TEAM DEAN: Oh Venice, we love those guys with the hats that sing while punting around the canals!  VENICE: Oh yeah?  In that case here’s billions of them.  And you said you liked glittery masks right?  Have we got a surprise for you! On the advice of my mom we did just take the aquabus which runs the whole grand canal, then out into the sea to another small island, then back, for like no dough whatsoever.  PLUS, on the way back we went by a gondolier where the guy was singing some opera, so it was like a twofer. There are dogs everywhere here and since it’s pretty chilly, the stones of the city just emanate cold, they all have clothes on.   It’s funny.  Another funny thing was that we saw a lady sneak up behind a guy and jump out and scare him and he literally yelled “Mama Mia!”  They actually say that! Our last night we had to change hotels, the one we were in was closing for some holidays.  We moved to a bed and breakfast in the same neighborhood but this one was actually just a lovely old couple’s home.  As chance would have it we had noted them the night before as we had a nightcap nearby because they were feeding a dog chips.  They were kind and they’re home was lovely and clean and spacious.  It did feel like a grandparents house, there were even hard candies in a dish, so we couldn’t get too overwhelmed by the romance of the city cuz ew, who wants to wake nana and gramps?  Sadly, the sweet old man that ran the place had MS so he was pretty herky jerky.  This was only mildly disconcerting until he brought us our boiling hot pot of freshly brewed coffee in the morning.  It was like a slow motion nightmare, his kindly, smiley face stuttering towards us with an old school espresso pot still red hot from the stove, lave hot blips of coffee popping out here and there.  We escaped unscathed, unscalded really, said good day to their spry 14 year old cat Dada and had one last jaunt. We found a teeny pizzeria completely unmarked down a teensy tiny alleyway which was so awesome and cheap and awesome.  Super deep dish pizza with a little mozzarella and dried salami on it.  While we were there they kept pulling giant beautiful loaves of bread out of the pizza oven and as though by intuition each time one came out another local would pop in, get a fresh warm loaf and a slice.  Then we sashayed into one of the bakeries.  It being around one o’clock it was packed with people standing around drinking either wine or coffee, we sidled up and ordered a couple cappucino’s, in Europe everything is cheaper if you order it at the bar, sitting automatically doubles the costs, and saw these fresh doughnuts they were just setting out.  We ordered a couple and listen people… holy kablam.  Picture the lightest fluffiest airiest beignet, make the outside a little crispier, roll it in cinnamon and sugar, then fill it with custard or sabayonne.  Then eat that warm.  Then change your pants. All in all, Venice was more than we could have hoped.  It’s a mystical place that you can’t describe.  You walk with no idea where you’re going, find a stunning church every thirty steps, cross bridges, turn randomly, and somehow find yourself in an even more beautiful part of town than the already beautiful part of town you were in.  It’s like a cartoon of itself in a lot of ways, a decaying, crumbling, sinking ancient city filled with either shiny gore-tex clad tourists or old, crumbling locals shuffling about with their dogs.  There are so many places trying to look like it, Disneyland or Vegas, that we’re almost used to the idea of it, but to actually walk those echoing narrow alleyways and pause on a bridge over a canal to kiss in the chilly air is an experience that can’t be duplicated in any city anywhere in the world.


Bonne Annee!

Celina here, playing catch up! With so much fun to be had, it’s been hard to find the time to jot everything down. So I’m gonna blow through the next couple days up until now and give you some highlights rather than the details. New Years Eve Day. Croissant, coffee, then on our way to see Notre Dame. It’s beautiful and haunting and I see where Victor Hugo got inspiration from. We toured through and saw relics from past popes and supposed pieces of the cross… it’s not the kinda place I’d go to seek comfort necessarily, but it’s terrifyingly impressive. There sure is a lot of gold and money within those walls. Whatever your thought are on religion, there’s no disputing the fact that it’s a masterpiece. We walked to the Eiffel tower (guys, it’s way taller and also wider at the bottom than I expected) but decided to come back a later date to see it from the top at night. A meander home, a nap, and then it was time to get dolled up to ring in the New Year at THE MOULIN FLIPPIN’ ROUGE. WHAT?!?!?!?! Yup and yup. Now, when we told Le Hipsters from the restaurant the night before  (Josh wrote about them last blog) where we were going to be, they kinda laughed at us, then admitted that they’d never been there. Which seems to be the case with most locals. They scoff at it, and then say they haven’t been there. So here’s the thing- they don’t know what they’re missing. The evening was a fantastic blur to tell you the truth, thanks to bottles and bottles and bottles of champagne (Champagne, oysters and Foie Gras being must haves for all Parisians on New Years, this was proven right by glances in the shopping bags of pedestrians throughout the day) and red wine. Though some of the details are hazy, I’ll tell you this- it looks more classic and elegant than I imagined it would, and just as I’d hoped. Everything was red, each table was lit with tiny lamps and from our balcony, we were perfectly poised over the table for the big show. We arrived at 9, were promptly escorted to our seats and poured glasses of 2004 Rose Crystal, just the best start to an evening. On stage was a band and two crooners, a sort of Corsican Tom Jones and a Patti Stiles look alike. They sang in French and English, and handsome and mismatched couples alike took to the dance floor between their dinner courses. We had the best seats in the house to observe (incidentally I recognized the perspective of our seat in a Toulouse Lautrec painting at the Louvre… once upon a time he sat exactly where we were. Radical.) and finally, once we made it through our first bottle of bubbles (part of the entry was a bottle of Crystal for each guest, it was sponsored by them, if they also sponsored vomitoriums they’d have gotten us both ways), we headed down to join the swaying throng. Amazing! Just like the ballroom scenes in the Muppet Show! It was the kind of thing I’ve dreamed of doing but didn’t really think existed anymore. Dancing and drinking and dining, oh my! We were served a set menu- a coddled egg amuse bouche, fois gras and toast, a scallop and lobster, tender veal with vegetables and a giant meringue with chocolate mousse and macarons for dessert. Solid, lovely, food and (too much) red wine to accompany it. A photographer came around and took photos of all of the couples in the room, and then our server for the night presented us with gift bags- and heck, I like gifts! And then! And then! And then confetti cannons were shot- it was midnight and we all clinked glasses and smooched and laughed. AND THEN the show started. That’s right, a midnight start time for a two hour, what I can only refer to as SPECTACULAR. Think Eurovision and that’ll get you to the right sort of mental place. Girls, all 5”8 came out in sparkly spandex costumes, and hair pulled back into tight buns- like the Rockettes, but topless. Yup! It’s the Moulin Rouge after all. Though I must admit, I expected the girls in cancan skirts without nickers doing high kicks, you know, like the movie and the olden days, but nope, it was a more modern show. There was an amazing male and female balancing act, a terrible ventriloquist act, and then the dance floor where we’d all been swirling about hours earlier disappeared to reveal a giant tank filled with water and SNAKES. I know what you’re thinking: and yes, a pretty naked lady did in fact get in and swim around with them. Hurp. The show was awesome and truly very similar to the Rockette’s . There were male dancers in the show too, but they were fully clothed so whatever and who needs’em? The show ended and the pretty French photographer came back with our prom photos and four matchbooks with our faces on them? Did we order them? Were they a gift? We’ll never know, but if anyone needs a light, we’ve got four. AND THEN? And then a DJ started playing fun dance music and all the servers came around with boxes of Eyes Wide Shut masks, sparkly hats, feathered crowns and so we grabbed stuff and headed down to dance our way into 2012. Josh and I are not traditionally into tearing it up, especially on New Year’s Eve, and I think we may have officially made up for years past, and yet to come. Good lord, what an amazing night. Except for the part where the taxi we had ordered never came, so we wandered through the Paris streets for an hour to drunkenly barely find our way back to the hotel.ImageBut the streets were filled with people shouting “Bonne Annee!”, empty bottles and streamers everywhere, and so, if that’s the worst thing to come out of the evening, I think it indeed will be a very Bon Anne! New Years Day? Well, sleep was necessary as was laundry, followed by a lovely roast duck at the nearby brasserie- a good way to cure a champagne hangover. Another solution? More champagne! Yup, we got a bottle from the corner store and went back up to the hotel room to drink more bubbles and watch/fall asleep to Cowboy’s vs Aliens. 2012! The Year of BUBBLES! Over the next four days in Paris we covered a lot of ground and even some of the sky- we got to the top of the Eiffel tower at night,

enjoyed hot chocolate and macarons at Laduree, went to the museums L’Orangerie (built to house the GIANT water lilies painted by Monet. My goodness, for me a more spiritual experience than Notre Dame)  and the Louvre,

to the cemetery to see the graves of Zola, Ionesco, Baudelaire, and others, dined at L’Entrecote for the best (too much) steak frites (you sit down and they simply ask you how you like your steak cooked, then bring it out with amazing sauce and fries- there are no other dining options here), and on our last night with Martin, enjoyed one more “night of bites” with oysters, cheese, and wines, all from different fun joints, and finally a dinner at la Poule au Pot. The place is lined with bronze plaques touting names of a million random celebrities from the Carpenters to Kanye, and of course, the food was delicious and the service well, hilarious. The evening ended there with us singing some French song with our waiter that involved a lot of train sounds and swaying. We said goodbye to our dear pal Martin that night- he’s now back in Canada making television (watch for the LA Complex on Much Music and this summer on the CW- CONGRATS Y’ALL!!!!).  We thank him for being INCREDIBLE, miss him terribly, but we must carry on- it’s what Martin would want. RIght buddy? We moved hotel locations to hang out in Mont Martre and ended up staying right behind the Moulin Rouge. The area is so fantastic- yes, it’s touristy (we’re in Paris so, where isn’t it touristy?) but the history is thrilling. We’re walking the same streets as Picasso and Modigliani and yes, even that pixie Amelie. Wind mills and Sacre Coeur and the Lapin Agile- now I really like French cabaret and yup, was really delighted to hear some Edith Piaf songs during our last dinner with Martin, but I wanted too to see what the current cabaret scene is like in Paris. We found out at a place called le Limonaire- somehow got two of the last four seats in the tiniest place where we ate lentils and sausage, drank wine and at ten, witnessed some crazy. The little place jammed full with even more folks standing at the back, and the front window was a collage of ears and eyes pressed to it to see what was going on inside. We randomly happened across one of the single weirdest nights of entertainment that I’ve experienced- a duo of dudes performing a mix of beat (?) poetry and songs. The head of the duo, rocking a bit of a Dali look really managed to confuse the folks who even spoke the same language as him, and as best as we could tell he transitioned from performing rousing, totally improvised speeches in either French or Italian to some of the craziest slap double bass I think ever existed. The other guy had a small mic he would attach to anything to instantly transform it into an incredible percussion instrument.  Throughout the night he played a squeaky wooden chair, a rubber band, an enormous oktoberfest beer snifter, the lead singer (as the guy gave one of his cuckoo speeches he grabbed him in the heimlich and forced a beat into his speech by squeezing him every once in a while), people’s tables, glasses, a chain on a high hat, a rusty dented old crash symbol pressed into the other guys bass strings, and then just sometimes the little drum kit.  It was AWESOME. And weird. And awesome.

Our last day in Paris took us to Versailles to see the Palace- whoa. Just whoa. It’s even grander than I imagined. The womp womp part is that due to bad weather, the grounds were closed, but that just means that we get to go back some day, right? Greedy greedy.

Our last night in Paris- well, to be honest, we almost quit. You know how you think you have a certain amount in the bank and suddenly when you look you have less than that by, oh, about all of it?  We almost came home instead of carrying on to the next leg of the journey. I mean, the time we’ve had? Amazing! And even subsidized trips aren’t free. We did the math and decided, since canceling would cost as much as carrying on, we ought to carry on after all. To Italy. Paris was, in a word, enchanting. In a bunch more, it was everything that I’ve waited for and I think like many people, it inspired me: to be better, smarter, a more rounded (and better dressed) human. What I’ve taken away: the point of work is to live well. I want to work and live, well.

We’re On Top Of A Mountain!!!

The view from Mont Blanc

An hour and a half from Geneva is Mont Blanc, the White Mountain, the highest mountain in the Alps and ranked 11th in the world in topographic prominence. It rises 4,800 meters, that’s nearly a staggering 16,000 feet above sea level. So don’t make fun of me for getting a l’il ol’ touch of AMS. You know, what we in the know know as altitude mountain sickness. BooYA! Ugh.

Family, friends. Mont Blanc was SPECTACULAR. At the base is a cable car that ascends to a halfway point, by way of some swaying and swinging that makes the passengers gasp and yip in terror/delight. You unload, marvel at the great heights you’ve reached, take a million pictures, and then get on a second cable car to take you up the rest of the way. There you unload once more- among the tourists just there for the photo ops with fancy cameras and the hipstamatic app on their iPhones (us! and a bunch of other folks), are actual skiers, snowboarders and hikers clad in just the fanciest cold weather gear, ready to hit the powder. Apparently there hasn’t been much snow so far this season in Switzerland, but the mountain didn’t look like it was suffering and the skiers certainly didn’t seem disappointed. And as far up as we got, there’s still further to go to reach the summit, and you need for real gear to get up there.

He's on top of the WORLD!

We disembarked for more photo ops and my lord, did we get them. The air was so crystal clear, the sky perfectly blue and cloudless, and the weather was cold and crisp without any breeze at all. Paradise. We climbed steps and steps and more steps to reach higher platforms, turned corners and saw views never in my life did I expect to see. A glider way up there circled us, around and around! The Matterhorn! We saw the real actual Matterhorn! And! In an instant, the staggering beauty gave way to a deep and intimate nausea within me. My legs turned into spaghetti and holy heck, without Josh to literally hold me up, I would have passed out onto my derrier (that’s bum, a la francais. See! I’m learning!) I pride myself on my iron constitution but I’ve learned now that sometimes you get the mountain and sometimes the mountain gets you guys. Sometimes the mountain gets you. Nope. Not really a metaphor. Ahem. The intention was to have lunch at the top of Switzerland, but my gracious travel companions assured me that it wasn’t my lameosity that prompted our return to the base, but a three hour wait to get a table. They were juuuuuuuust being nice to me, weren’t they? Clearly, I travel with a  swell bunch. Well, Josh basically carried me down the platforms and stairs, bodily supported me down two cable cars and wouldn’t you know it, once I got to the bottom and ate all the Carbonara that ever there was, well, I felt as right as pluie (that’s rain guys, rain, a la francais… which I just now learned from the internet…).

And in an instant, things took a turn for the blech

At the base of the mountain is a gorgeous town, Chamonix (also the site of the first Winter Olympics). It’s exactly what you might imagine a Swiss mountain town to be- though technically, it’s actually in France. Skinny roads lined with beautiful historic buildings that now house bistros, cafes with chocolate chaud and vin chaud and clothing boutiques. Vacationers tromp around in either Uggs or ski boots, toting beautifully dressed children tossing snow balls to and fro and dogs! Dogs everywhere! We perused a few restaurants before settling on a pretty Frenchish bistro, made complete with a fresh seafood stand outside the window to keep us distracted while we waited to eat. Escargot was ordered, and frog legs and roast chicken and Tartiflette (a potato, bacon and cheese casserole) and… all I wanted was a bunch of noodles in me. Pasta tossed with onions, garlic, bacon and parmesan cheese, then topped with a  fresh egg yolk and mixed to form a glorious sauce… oh my heavens, it was a revelation and exactly the thing I needed. Sated, our travel team departed the restaurant and found a patisserie for hot chocolate to warm us for our walk back to the car.

Josh + hot chocolate = two things i love in the winter

me + carbonara = aaaaaaall better

I’ve been told that AMS affects people different ways at different times and even if it isn’t true, I want to cling to that possibility. The possibility that I can return and kick that mountain’s derrier. Or at the very least, return for some Carbonara.

Boxing Day!

I, the guest blogger Josh Dean, would like to welcome guest blogger Josh Dean to thedeanteam.  Josh?

Thanks so much for having me!  I’m a long time reader and a first time writer.  So since the lovely Celina is still downstairs drinking Sauterne out of teeny crystal glasses with our incredible hosts I figured I’d hop on the ol’ compute and bring you up to speed.  I’ll cover Boxing Day quick like a bunny because there’s still more to cover after that, and then tomorrow we eat (and stay at) Paul Bocuse.  Yes.  He.  The titular Paul Bocuse of the Bocuse D’or.  I’m getting ahead of ourself.

How to celebrate boxing day in Geneva.  First, an espresso.  Then a beautiful spread in the dining room including fresh squeezed apple juice from just up the way, fresh baked baguette, croissant and pain au chocolat from the gas station up the way (that isn’t a joke, it’s always fresh and delicious, meanwhile we’ve got Tim Horton’s donuts that have travelled for three weeks from Mississauga in our gas stations), a variety of egg dishes including one with leeks, an underused aromatic in my opinion (I don’t even know if it qualifies as an aromatic… googling now… yup!  Okay, I didn’t google it, too lazy) and a fresh fruit salad.  This being Europe and an extremely civilized portion thereof we also had a delicious spread of cured meats and four cheeses, one of which would inspire our adventure for the day.

Gruyere, Switzerland is about an hour and half drive, or an hour and half snooze if Martin’s dad is driving, east of Geneva.  En route we passed through Lausanne, home of the Olympics museum, and by Montreux, home of the famous jazz festival.  Eventually the already mountainous regions surrounding Lake Geneva stop playing coy and just commit fully to being even more mountainous, dramatic, crisp and beautiful.  It is as we enter the higher altitudes that we pass our first stop, Broc, home of Le Maison Cailler, the Swiss equivalent of Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory.  It’s actually the Cailler/Nestle chocolate factory and, not being eedjits, we hopped out and bought a ticket.  Inside there are walls of perfectly wrapped chocolate bars in every color of the rainbow, nestled in their shiny foil and soft paper.  The advantage to being on a continent where grown ups eat chocolate is evident when you see that chocolate bars can look elegant.  They don’t need garish purple wrappers and cartoon alligators on them.  I think a well appointed bar of chocolate sets the tasting experience up so much better.  It says “Enjoy me, don’t just eat me.”  North American chocolate bars just say “Eat me” and that’s rude.  Except for Skor.  That shit is classy yo.

Too much chocolate. Just too much chocolate.

Oddly the tour wasn’t of the factory itself, rather it was like It’s a Small World, only a little more refined?  It took itself pretty seriously and mentioned the Aztec god Quetzalcoatl a few more times than was necessary.  Hint, necessary amount of times: one.  There was animatronic busts of Monsieur Cailler and shifting set pieces and a multimedia room with animated cows. But, and here’s the rad thing, at the end we were let into a beautiful wood paneled tasting room which was exactly the thing you want to see at the end of a chocolate factory tour.  It was the dream.  It was silver platters of perfectly organized little chocolates on a large rectangular counter that ran the length of the room, turned the corner and came back the other way.  Behind the silver platter was a large version of the chocolate bar or box of chocolates you were sampling.  And you just got to eat.  Like as much as you wanted.  But here’s how they getcha, they start with the basics, you’re eating little miniature versions of their basic bars, milk chocolate, dark, milk hazelnut, dark with honey and nougat, etc, then you round the bend, white chocolate, raisins, truffles, then on to the homestretch and THAT’s where the variety boxes are.  So from sampling one chocolate per tray suddenly you’ve got seven PER tray.  I’m ashamed to admit but I just gave up.  Celina and Martin’s step sister Chantelle figured out halfway round that if they shared each variety they could have them all.  They did not share this information with me and I will resent it forever.

Then we wandered through the chocolate shop and lemme tell ya, they could have charged fifty francs for a glass of milk and we’d have paid it.  Holy crow.  Just rich, sugar shock, diabetes blood coursing through our veins.  They have a chocolate themed playground on the way out which is genius because you need those kids to burn some energy off before packing them into the car.  I was too disappointed to play because I didn’t see one Oompa Loompa and apparently the best chocolate is not stirred by waterfall but rather than a guy named Fritz in a lab coat and a hair net.

We chugged up the mountain a little further, past picturesque green fields, old Swiss buildings and beautiful vistas to the actual town of Gruyeres.  One more factory tour, but this time of the Gruyere cheese factory.  Gruyere is one of my favorite cheeses in the world.  It’s sharp and creamy and deep and melts well and goes with lots of things.  This tour was much shorter and they gave us our samples of cheese beforehand so we could eat it on the way home (we didn’t, foreshadowing!)  I now know that it takes like a billion gallons of milk to make an amount of cheese, and that the process involves more guys named Fritz wearing basically the same thing only with the snazzy addition of white rubber Stormtrooper boots.  There’s milk, rennet, stirring, hoses, pressure, filtering, then this super cool robot turns the giant rounds of cheese to cure them, then I eat it.  That’s that.  I was still pretty high from the chocolate.

We climbed up the hill further to the medieval walled town itself.  Built in the 1100’s, also known as the eleventy’s, it looks like Harry Potter land at Universal Studios Florida, only I’m going to say thirty times more authentic.  There were turrets and crenellations and ramparts and all the cool castle stuff you learn about when building lego.  It’s now a respectfully developed tourist town with three thousand fondue restaurants and little churches and gift shops and the like.  Prior to entering the castle though there is one of the strangest non-sequitur’s I’ve encountered.  This is a castle village built on top of a mountain in the eleventy’s.  Yet, suddenly there is a cafe/bar with giant alien vertebrae framed windows, shelves filled with teeny baby heads, giant Alien skeleton tables and chairs.  Turns out H.R. Giger is from here.  The guy who created the Aliens artwork.  There’s an extremely lascivious sci-fi alien humpy hump museum right next to a lovely church.  Sure.  Why not?

After walking around the walls of the castle we felt we’d somehow earned a meal so we chose a fondue restaurant at random (when in Rome, eat Swiss cheese as they say) and sat down with Martin’s father as our interpreter/guide.  Sitting in the dining room along the window, looking out over the ancient town, the stunning mountains, and a steep grassy hill which slowly became entirely populated with deer that were likely hired by the Swiss Tourism Board, we ordered two fondues (each is for two) and two raclettes (same) and one plate of cured meats.  The fondue comes in one pot, a giant, fragrant bubbling pale golden gooey mess.  Accompanying it is a basket of bread which never runs empty.  You tear pieces of the bread, use your fondue fork to stab it, and then you give it a twist in the cheese.  It’s not thin or soupy like I somehow expected, it is completely melted but instead of coating the bread it completely obscures or envelops it.  It’s almost like a non sticky marshmallow, but the same consistency.  Curiously when it cools on your plate it doesn’t stick to it.  We also learned never to drink cold water with fondue or it will congeal in your guts and you’ll die.  I’ve dramatized the end there a little for effect.  Instead you drink an extremely acidic swiss wine to cut the fattiness of the cheese.  To say the least it was divine.

Raclette though, holy crow, RACLETTE!  I’ve never had it.  If you haven’t here’s how it goes.  In this establishment a heavy electric desk-lamp object is plugged in on your table.  It’s like a desk lamp but instead of a lightbulb there is a heating element like what you would find in an electric stove.  Below that is a metal plate with wooden knobs that swivels to either side on a little arm.  On this plate, which adjusts closer or further from the heat source as you like, is placed a brick of cheese.  Shaped like two pounds of butter or like an actual brick I guess.  Every person at the table is given a long stemmed utensil with a squat curving blade at the end.  We are also given a small wooden basket of baked potatoes, pearl onions and pickles. After two or three minutes the top few millimeters of cheese melts (it has a rind which helps it maintain it’s shape) and you swivel the metal plate towards you, lift your plate (with your potatoes, pickles and onions on it) underneath the edge, and using your knife you scrape the top melty gooey layer off the brick and onto your waiting food.  Then you eat the heck out of it.  Raclette is a semi firm cow’s milk cheese which is similar but not the same as Gruyere.  Eat it.  Do it.

After that amazing meal of approximately all the cheese ever we jumped back in the car and all fell asleep, except the driver against all odds, and then disembarked and slept until the middle of the evening when what else could we do but make leftover turkey dinner sammies.  Right?  RIGHT!?

Next installment to come!