Archive | July, 2011

A Vacation To-Do List

Tulum, Mexico, Summer 2008

I recently wrote about how I could adapt to a life away from the ocean, but couldn’t get rid of the beach person inside me. I will always search for sun, ocean and sand to load up my batteries.

As much as I love traveling across a country (or region), and stopping to explore the wonders of its cities and landscapes, my job has taken away big part of my energy during the last few months. In June, for instance, I took 14 flights and 18 trains, which may sound very exciting but really wears one out. Specially if, in the mean time, you have a project involving a whole range of incompatible time zones, and also doing some serious online flat hunting for my move to London. So, as much as I would like to go choose to backpack Azerbaijan (no, really, I would love to do that), I’ve decided to give myself a little break.

I need vacations, people – and I mean real vacations this time. Vacations without worrying about finding an affordable hostel, missing a train or bus to the next destination, or waking up early to do some serious sightseeing.

And what better place to take a break and recharge my energy than at the beach in the Mediterranean?

That’s right – I’m off to Ibiza and Formentera! I’ll be exploring the streets of Eivissa and probably spend most of the saturday shopping for some serious hippy clothes and accessories in Las Delias market. On Sunday, 3 girlfriends will be joining and we’ll all cruise our way to Formentera – the best kept secret of the Balearic Islands, with a population of only 10.000 people!

What can one do on an isolated beach paradise?

Glad you asked! I’ve been working on a very intensive to-do list for my 7 days on the island.

Tulum, Mexico, Summer 2008

  • Take a morning swim – at sunrise.
  • Take a nap at the beach.
  • Eat sea food paella until my body is about to explode, and then have a 2 hour siesta.
  • Prepare the best home-made mojitos (with authentic cuban rum!)
  • Watch the sunset from the beach while drinking some beers.
  • Ride a bicycle to another beach and/or to the other side of the island.
  • Read – Read at the beach, on the couch, on the terrace. Book in one hand, tinto de verano in the other.
  • Maybe even go to a nudist beach (I’m pretty sure there are lots of them)
  • Visit one of its many traditional markets.
  • Check out the underwater world – snorkeling and/or scuba diving (I read one can even find sea turtles!)
  • And… take a kazillion pictures.

Someone tell me there’s nothing to do on a paradisiac island!

I’ll be off for the next 10 days, without a computer nor internet connection (I’m taking the hippy lifestyle seriously, you see). But I’ll be back with many stories and pictures (and probably a broader waistline). In the meantime, I hope you have a great time! Any particular plans for the next days?

Disclaimer: The pictures used in this post are not from Formentera (sorry) but from my summer holidays in Mexico a couple of years back. However, I do believe that they reflect quite well the type of vacation I’m having in the island!

Photo Essay: Walking Lausanne’s Old Town

In all the time I’ve been living here, I’ve hardly ever been in the old town during daylight. Having been the address of Lausanne’s University for centuries (up until the 1970s, when it moved to Dorigny), it is no wonder that, still today, one can find many student bars in its narrow stone streets.

Things are quite different on a sunday afternoon – it’s peaceful, quiet, and there are hardly any people on the streets. The calmness makes one put more attention on the details, and this is what I found.

Details of he Lausanne’s Cathedral, which is considered Switzerland’s finest gothic building.

Many charming buildings, covered with climbing plants.

A castle dating back to the XIV century!
Individual wrought iron signs for hairdressers, restaurants, theaters and shops.

Beautiful fountains with drinkable water.

Have you recently seen a familiar place from a different perspective?

My Top 5 Cheese List

Did you think I had forgotten about my promise? Of course not. This is a serious subject, people. We’re talking about cheese – the one thing that always waited at home for my return. You think I’m kidding? During bad times I may have run out of bread once or twice, but I never ever was short on cheese.

It has been extremely hard for me to make a top 5 list for cheese – there are probably 10 (or even 15) that should be honored to a Top List (so don’t wonder if I suddenly pop in a second list soon – I simply don’t like leaving any great cheese behind!). Ok, I’ll stop beating around the bush (ha! just learned that at my english for business online class!) and get to the point – 5 of the cheeses you’ll find on my grocery shopping list.

  • Brie de Meaux. Real french brie is made of raw cow milk and has a not so inviting smell. It’s soft and creamy in the inside, and has a soft white crust around it. There are many variations in the (swiss) markets, including truffles, herbs and nuts. It’s taste is soft and has somewhat of hazelnut in it. I first became a fan of brie in Madrid, when I discovered a tapa that was a small steak with melted brie and fleur de sel on it. And now, I would eat it even without bread (I know I shouldn’t).

  • Mozzarella di Bufala. What’s the difference with regular mozzarella (for italians: fior di latte), you may ask? This mozzarella is made from the milk of the domestic water buffalo, rather than from cow milk. Even though its originally from Italy, we also have local producers in Switzerland. If you want to be a real gourmet, then go for the Mozzarella di Bufala Campana trademark, which was granted with a Protected Geographical Status in 2008. The cheese has a bright white color and spheric shape, a smooth and shiny surface and a very refreshing taste. If you find yourself in Milan some time, I’d highly recommend you to check out the Mozzarella Bar (in the roof top of a shopping mall next to the Cathedral) – not only can you taste your way through different mozzarellas, but you can also order a whole lot of dishes made with this delicious cheese!
  • Gruyère. Very swiss/french. I had eaten gruyère a few times before moving to Switzerland and never considered it as one of my favorites – but it just tastes so differently here. So much better! Even though its a hard cheese, I find it a bit softer here than abroad, and it has a milder nutty taste (maybe this is related to its aging – I’m really not an expert!). It was fascinating to learn about its history and production in La Maison du Gruyère (right after eating a shameless amount of cheese). Gruyère is one of the cheeses used in fondue moitié-moitié (the other one being Vacherin), but is also used for many other plates such as the french onion soup or quiches.
  • Queijo de Serra. Remember that cheese I ate in Lisbon? Now that has been a great find. Serra da Estrela (commonly called Queijo de Serra) is from Portugal and is made of sheep’s milk. The maturer the cheese is, the harder it will be. I have a devotion for creamy cheese (can you tell from my previous choices?), so the one I really like is the amanteigado – when its young and liquid, so liquid you can (and will) eat it with a spoon.
  • Tomme Vaudoise. Up to now, many of these cheeses are known internationally; but let me tell you about a little regional secret – the tomme vaudoise. One of my favorites because of its mild taste, this cheese is from my current canton – Vaud. It’s made of raw cow milk and ranges a wide range of textures and intensive tastes depending on its matureness. I’m pretty sure I’ve tried them all (no, really) – and my very favorite one (a fresh one) can’t be found in regular supermarkets. I always have to wait until saturday and search for it at the farmers market. That’s my plan for saturday by the way!
  • Now its your turn: Which cheese would be on your top 5 list?

Picture This: Living in a Fairy Tale

When thinking of cute villages, one will probably think of La Provençe in France. Switzerland has nothing to envy the french villes – or wouldn’t you love to live in this tiny street?

It’s everything about it. Its colorful but harmonized and traditional architecture. The climbing and twining plants covering the right building. The romantic street lamps and lovely restaurant and shop signs. The cathedral appearing in the background. I took this picture on a sunday at swiss lunch time and all I could hear were clinging plates and a a kid’s laughter. It was so peaceful, so calm. I will definitely miss this.

From City Girl to Townie

Before moving to Switzerland, I had an ideal image of the new life that awaited me. I pictured floral dresses, fresh bread and cheese every morning and friendly neighbors that would greet me by my name. I thought about the hikes in the green, boat rides on the lake while sipping some wine, and, ok, I also imagined finding a tall and strong swiss-french man who would teach me how to snowboard and prepare home made fondue. Why not.

My plan seemed to be perfect.

But the excitement one feels at the beginning will wear out after a couple of months and reality will kick in hard: not only are you missing out important family events and friends reunions, but you’re feeling like an outsider, you can’t understand the lifestyle (nor the language) and believe that everything is better at home.

After two years living in Switzerland, I’m now happy with my life – but it has been a tough way until I reached this point.

There have been some things that have helped me adapt to this new lifestyle.

  • Find a (new) hobby. The first few months, I had big plans – I wanted to do yoga or pilates (I was told I couldn’t, due to my lack of french), tango lessons (I had to bring my own partner, which, I obviously didn’t have) and french (that’s a separate issue). And so, I was left with the gym (or that’s what I had thought). But I was wrong. A limited budget, lack of french knowledge or incompatible timetables is not enough reason to stay at home and whine about my misfortune – so I started hobbies that I could do whenever I felt like it. I started blogging, I am learning french at home with Rosetta Stone, I go skating, hiking and am developing an increasing interest on photography. Once I started to have some hobbies, my view changed completely. My hobbies make me happy!
  • Jump out of your routine from time to time.. After the honeymoon was over, I got bored – I thought I had seen it all. My weekends were the same one after another. I really missed Madrid’s variety. Never knowing in which place we would end up having the last drink of the night. Always checking for another restaurant we had not been yet. The concerts. The many exhibitions. My recommendation? Never underrate the culinary and cultural diversity of a small city. Once I started to investigate, I found out about many cultural events (which mostly also involve food and drinks) that take place throughout the year – wine, jazz and city festivals (I mean, I even went to a chestnut festival last november), marathons, latin nights, jam sessions, open air art exhibitions… I really can’t complain – there’s always something going on!
  • Be social. This is often easier to say than to do, when you’re completely on your own. I used to be a strange being – in some cases, shy, and in others I would talk up any stranger. Now, the shy me is gone. It’s the rules of the jungle – the social me was stronger. How can you meet people when you don’t speak the language? Well, me I met a lot of people through Glocals (it’s like the swiss version of Meetup). They organize something almost every day in the main cities of the country. Through this group, I’ve been ice skating, to a tapper sex (which was a surprise during a girls’ night out) and went to several after-work drinks. Another way is using Couchsurfing to meet with someone near you for a coffee (it’s not only to have a free place to crash!). Or, instead, you can ditch the internet and do it the old-fashioned way (my favorite one) – just go to someone who seems nice and say hi. People will usually have a good response to that! For the record, the first non-company-realted-person I met was my neighbor in my previous flat. I heard someone talking spanish, knocked on his door and said hi. What do you have to loose?
  • Build a good work environment. Ok, I know. This doesn’t only depend on you but on your colleagues too (I mean, if they are a bunch of frustrated morons, you might want to consider changing your job). From my own experience, having a supportive and fun work team around me really helped me to stand up those mornings in which everything was grey. I know that I am going to have a good time at work, which, after all, is where I spend most of the day at.
  • Choose your apartment wisely. I have a theory: if you’re unhappy with your house, you’re unhappy with everything else. At least that is what has happened to me. During 9 months, I lived in a 15m2 studio with one window overlooking the parking and a tiny kitchen. I felt as if I was trapped in a cave for the whole winter. In April, my company confirmed that I was going to stay in Switzerland indefinitely and I quickly started my apartment hunt. If I moved to the next tiny town, I would pay less rent. If I moved to the end of the bus or metro lines, I’d get much more value for money. If I moved to the area where drug dealers whisper their latest offers while you walk by, you would get a 1 bedroom instead of a studio for the same (or even less) money. I didn’t listen. I knew what I wanted – I wanted to treat myself to a place that made my home coming easy, pleasant and safe. And you know what? I’ve never regretted this decision. Any bad day usually will fade when I watch the colors of the sunset on the Alps and the lake. If you can, invest in a home you like – its really worth it.

What, in your opinion, would help you to get out of the ugly phase of culture shock?

I Eat Lisbon

I consider myself as part of a particular breed of travelers – the gourmet travelers (at least whenever money allows me to be one).

What does this mean?

You may be someone who picks the next destination (including tours and hotels) for the food that you expect to get. Or you enjoy the world’s farmers markets, seasonal food festivals or speciality shops. Maybe you are the kind of traveler that wants to taste the local flavors and refuses to go to Starbucks or McDonald when traveling abroad. And if you’re adventurous, you might even try all the world’s strangest dishes, such as live octopus or fried tarantulas!

Me, I’m a variation of all of them.

While I will never even think about pushing a mini octopus down my throat, I would eat fried crickets in Cambodia and loved haggis when I had it in Edinburgh (ok, I know, haggis is not like eating monkey brains… but still). I also find out about the farmers markets and local food events taking place during my stay – which is how I ended up in London’s chocolate festival last winter! But most of all, I like tasting the local food (you know, the one that is not alive when you eat it).

And that’s what I did during my 5 days in Lisbon.

On friday night, we went to a cool restaurant called Lisboa a Noite (Lisbon by Night), that offers portuguese cuisine. At the beginning, each table becomes traditional appetizers, such as the queijo de serra pictured above, now on my top 10 cheese list – wait, I don’t have one yet? That’ll be my next post. Promise. The plates are generous and all of it was delicious. Even when we thought we couldn’t eat any more, we got tempted by their dessert trolley!

On saturday we had lunch at Meninos do Rio, a big terrace filled with chaise longues and poufs right next to the river side. Although the service was a bit slow, the food was fresh and of high quality. I had courgette com farinheira and bacalhau confitado. Farinheira is portuguese smoked sausage made mainly of wheat flour, pork fat, white wine and seasoning. Bacalhau is the portuguese word for codfish – more specifically, dried and salted codfish. This is a very common dish in Portugal and Galicia (the north-west of Spain) and it is said that there are more than 365 ways to prepare it, one for each day of the year!

To finalize the lunch, we took a short bus ride to Pastéis de Belem and had a decadent pastel de nata (custard tart) – the quintessential portuguese dessert!

Have you had tried any of these dishes? Which other portuguese traditional plates would you recommend?

Photo Essay: The Terraces of Lavaux

Now that summer has officially arrived, I can no longer hold myself back from telling you about one of my favorite places in the World (and no, I do not mean that my number one swiss cheese shop in Switzerland) – The Vineyards of Lavaux.

Thinking of Switzerland as a wine producer might seem odd to you, but the fact is, Switzerland is one of the World’s top wine consumers (and I’m a proud contributor to these statistics). Living less than a 10 minutes train ride from this picturesque terraces, it’s no wonder that walking across its vineyards has become one of my favorite activities for a sunny sunday afternoon. And while I move along small paths between the family-owned vineyards, I dream about living in one of those beautiful mansions…

Someday I will.

The 2 and a half hours walk starts in Grandvaux, a small village of around 2,000 habitants at about 500m height above sea level. Directions are always easily recognizable – one only has to follow the yellow arrows (or, alternatively, a green sign that reads Terrasses de Lavaux).

Although most of the walk is through vineyards, you get the chance to walk through the tiny villages in the region – such as Riex, Epesses or Rivaz. All of them are loaded with cozy wine cellars offering a different local wine each week or month.

I made a quick stop in Riex to do some wine tasting. What would be a sunday without wine anyway?

I even spotted some premature grapes on the way! Harvesting will take place in September (I can’t believe I’ll miss it!).

Each village is special and unique. Each of them have their own wine production, which proudly differentiates them from their neighbors. Not to visit at least of of the many wine cellars that lie on the way would be a crime (or a lot of self-control).

Isn’t this the most beautiful place you’ve ever seen?

Practical Information

Route: From Grandvaux to St. Saphorin (Canton Vaud, Switzerland)
Elevation gain uphill: none, really – it only goes downhill
Elevation gain downhill: 180m
Length: approx. 10 km
Duration: 3.5 hrs (including a stop for a glass of white wine!)
Difficulty: Super Easy
Map: The closest I could find was this route From La Conversion to Vevey (I took a shorter walk in between these two points).