Road food in Europe: leave the Corn Nuts and Red Vines behind

It was a 4+ hour drive from our weekend in Germany back to Switzerland. At some point we were going to need food, bathrooms and a coffee. I had planned on just making do with the many highway rest stops along the autobahn and some snacks I had in my bag, but fate intervened.

We pulled in at a gas station that had adjacent restaurants. There was a Burger King, some sort of buffet, and a coffee bar. But this was very different than the truck stops in the U.S.

German gas station dessert buffet

Forget the Twinkies and day-old donuts. These were just some of the choices at the gas station dessert buffet.

We sat in a cozy corner with leather chairs and a gas fireplace (I’m guessing we were in the “coffee shop” area?) Ken had ordered a meal from the buffet for us to share. Good thing. This plate of sausages and spaetzle was enormous. Two adults and a toddler could not finish it.

German gas station dinner

So. Much. Food. But pretty darn tasty!

We also enjoyed some great coffee, served with little almond cookies on the side. It felt very refined considering we were in the shadow of dozens of parked semis and a few tour buses of elderly tourists.

German gas station coffee

A cup of coffee and we were ready to get back on the road.

To really cap off the experience, there were the restrooms. Accessible through a turnstile after paying a small fee, the bathrooms were sparkling clean and it’s no wonder. They have robotics! It took me a few tries to figure out the cleaning vs. flushing thing, but it was so entertaining it hardly mattered. I was so surprised, I forgot to take a picture or a video, but luckily other people have found it equally fascinating.

A festival in Germany

We needed to spend a few days near Nuremburg due to Ken’s work schedule and we were lucky enough to find yet another small town festival!

It was exactly as you might imagine it: lagers and leiderhosen all around us, carnival rides, pretzel stands and even a marching band.

20140706-202515-73515955.jpg

20140706-202605-73565169.jpg

20140706-202622-73582665.jpg

A grey day in Zurich

Zurich clock tower

There is no excuse for being late in Switzerland!

When the weather won’t cooperate for another hiking day, that just means it’s time to take in the city sights. Ken has a former colleague who is living in Zurich, so we jumped on the train and headed over to meet him for the afternoon. Though we visited Switzerland last year, we never made it to Zurich, since we spent the majority of our time in the French-speaking western section of the country. In my mind, Zurich was a bit intimidating and imposing. As the epicenter of so much international business and finance, I imagined the entire city like a large bank: cold, shiny and austere. I was completely wrong.

boys in Zurich park

Don’t let the sweet faces fool you. Those boys are filling up the city-provided dog-poo bags with water and whipping them at each other in a make-shift water balloon fight.

Of course, in one afternoon, we only saw a small glimpse of the city, but what we were able to take in was full of charm, history and friendly faces. Our friend David met us at the train station and took us on a short walk through an older section of the city toward one of his favorite restaurants. walking through Zurich The pizza place seemed like a hub of expats, full of young families and groups of friends. Everyone was chatting in various languages, but the wait staff addressed each table in English first, then switched to any number of languages, depending on the response. The pizza was amazing. A crust that was almost phyllo-dough like, topped with all sorts of ingredients, but without a tomato sauce base. Mine was feta, ricotta, honey and rosemary. So delicious! We finished our meal with cafe creme, just right for a drizzly day.

pizza in Zurich

Honey, rosemary and feta pizza. Accompanied by croissants, of course.

But no afternoon out is complete without ice cream, so we walked over to a fro-yo shop. Tangy frozen yogurt with your choice of toppings and a sofa to sit on to watch the world go by–a great way to spend the day. Big thanks to David for being a wonderful Zurich host!

frozen yogurt from I Love Leo in Zurich

Some people like candied nuts, some people like chocolate cookies, and some people like fresh berries.

 

Bring on the Bratwurst! The neighborhood festival

The lovely and generous Eva, who runs the bed and breakfast where we are staying, invited us to a small festival at her church in Zuchwil, just down the road.

Zuchwil, Switzerland church festival

Though small, the congregation put on a great spread.

There was a buffet table with awesome sausages, potato salad and sides for a donation of a few Swiss Francs. We had to wait for the grill to finish, but it was well worth it.

dinner in Zuchwil, Switzerland

Hurry up grill! Bring on those bratwursts!

There was also a tent with, what I think were cocktails, and tables set up with bake-sale goodies. It was hard to pick, but we landed on two chocolate-and-hazelnut cupcakes that did not disappoint.

Swiss bake sale table in Zuchwil

You can’t make a bad choice at the bake sale table–and you don’t need to speak German. Just point and hand over your money.

Unfortunately, we missed Eva’s performance in the early evening when she and a group were singing gospel songs, but we did make it there in time for this. Not your standard church music program, but it made my night.

The everyday exotic: a stop at IKEA

After a rainy day doing inside things, we jumped on the train for a change of pace…but ended up somewhere very familiar: IKEA. Lame place to spend time during a European vacation. Maybe, but we had a pretty good time for reasons that are not available in the American IKEA.

IKEA chairs in Switzerland

The familiar “wall of chairs” greeted us as we took the escalator upstairs.

We thought it would also be an opportunity to pick us a few small items for the flat: toys, washcloths (not common in Europe) and maybe some things from the grocery. We figured while we were there, E could play and burn some energy and we could have an inexpensive dinner as well.

IKEA children's department

Setting up for a proper IKEA picnic.

It seems many families had the same idea. E spent about 30 minutes just playing with the pretend kitchens and workbenches. Other kids also drifted in, and soon there was a full-blown toddler pretend picnic, with E pouring everyone many cups of coffee and other kids making sandwiches.

While all that was happening, Ken had wandered away in search of other items. I knew something unusual had happened when he returned 20 minutes later SMILING. This man, (and usually me, for that matter) never has a smile while at IKEA. What was going on? Then I saw it: in his hand, was a beer. “I stopped at the snack bar, ” he told me excitedly. “They had a deal. I got two hot dogs and this beer for 4 Swiss Francs!”

IKEA beer

Now THIS could improve the shopping experience.

IKEA has beer? “They have wine too,” he told me, “in the restaurant.” We headed over to see this wonderment of civilized living and found a restaurant full of relaxed parents, happy children and organic food.

IKEA restaurant

Beer? Wine? Energy drinks? Everything a person needs to make it through a trip to IKEA.

So yes, we didn’t really immerse ourselves in Swiss culture this day. But while we were shopping, the rain stopped. We had a tasty, inexpensive meal, and in typical Swiss fashion, we did find ourselves next to a farm field and grazing cows–even next to an IKEA.

 

Watching the World Cup: Hopp Schwiiz!

Switzerland World Cup win, watching in Solothurn

While I would not in any form count myself as a soccer fan, it’s hard not to get swept up in the excitement of the World Cup when in Europe. Everywhere you turn, people are wearing jerseys, hanging banners from balconies and gathering in every possible place to check out the day’s football. On a train ride in the morning, we passed by a parking lot full of scaffolding and tents. We learned that they transformed one of the parking lots in old town Solothurn into a public World Cup viewing venue. Then we found out it was only 5 Swiss Francs admission–a bargain in Switzerland! The Swiss team was playing Honduras that night at about 9:30 so headed over at about 9:00 and followed the crowd. The “beach party” was well underway. There was a jumbo-tron screen, an AC/DC cover band(!) playing and a sand pit directly in front of the screen set up with beach chairs and outdoor sofas.

The crowd watching the World Cup begin

The crowd quiets as the national anthem is played over the loudspeakers.

We made our way through the throngs of people and snagged a spot on the stairs of the bleachers. All around us were groups of friends and families of all ages. The Swiss national anthem began and we became honorary citizens for the next 90 minutes: Cheering like crazy, yelling at questionable calls and enjoying a glass of the local brew.

Football Fashion for the World Cup

No one at the public World Cup viewing was wearing this particular dress that I saw for sale earlier in the day, but had I been wearing it, I don’t think I would have stood out too much.

What struck me was not only how much fun it was, but how, in what I’ve learned it typical Swiss fashion, organized and pulled together everything was. It was general admission only, but fans could abandon their seats to hit the concession stands and no late-comers stuck in the standing-room-only section would try to take them. People did their best to make sure everyone had a good view of the screen. When the Swiss team won (hooray! Hopp Schwiiz!) the “rowdy” celebrants honked their horns as they drove home and waved Swiss flags as they walked down the street in an orderly manner.

Switzerland World Cup goal

Gooooaaaal! The fact that Switzerland won this game made the experience even sweeter.

Not only were we lucky enough to watch the Swiss team play–and win–we were able to be a part of something that, for a few moments on a lovely summer night was uniting the entire country.

A little ramble in the hills: Weissenstein

Weissenstein Switzerland

Looking down the valley from Oberbalmberg.

We took a hike in a beautiful area above Solothurn, Switzerland this afternoon to explore the Weissenstein, known as “Solothurn’s mountain”, with the plan of seeing how close we could get to its 1400 meter peak. A relatively easy hike, in that it only requires endurance, we figured it would be a beautiful and manageable afternoon with the two boys. The trail did not disappoint!

We caught the bus at the main Solothurn train station and headed out of town until we reached the last stop in Oberbalmberg, after about 30 minutes of winding up the hill and honking to ensure no cars–or livestock–were coming the other way. We weren’t the only parents on the bus with a toddler in a backpack, so we knew we were headed to the right place.

Once we stepped off the bus, we headed to the Wanderweg sign. Small, but (mostly) noticeable, these yellow diamonds let hikers and walkers know they are in the right place, even when it seems you couldn’t possibly be.

Wanderweg trail marker in Solothurn on Weissenstein

Just follow the Wanderweg symbol and you’ll find yourself in the most beautiful areas in all of Switzerland.

We followed along meadows and valleys, with the sound of cowbells echoing between the rocky cliffs. Then we entered a forested area and the path narrowed. We climbed up until we reached a point near the peak. Then we promptly got lost. Oh well. We just continued to follow the path we were on until we hit another sign. No big deal. Along the way, we passed hillsides of wild flowers, dense forest, creeks that spilled into rocky gorges, and switchbacks.

Such is the Swiss wanderweg. Eventually, you will get somewhere, because the paths go everywhere. Getting lost just means going someplace else.

Weissenstein, Solothurn, Switzerland

That little hill up there? Oh yeah. We climbed it.

Packing list for European travel

I’m a big believer in minimal packing when possible. Lugging suitcases and tripping over piles of clothes and shoes in a small space is not my idea of a good time. But we will be in Switzerland for four weeks. The weather is a bit unpredictable and the climate changes with the elevation.

So my plan is to streamline when I can, but not have to do laundry more than once a week. Here’s my packing list:
1 skirt (can double as swimsuit cover up)
3 pairs of pants (one converts to Capri length)
1 pair yoga pants (for sleeping)
3 short sleeve t shirts
1 button down shirt
2 long sleeve shirts
2 cardigans
3 tank tops (use one for sleeping)
1 hoodie
1 running skirt
1 pair ballet flats
1 pair trail shoes
1 pair sneakers
A weeks worth of socks and underwear
1 infinity scarf

That’s it! I doubt I’ll use the running skirt for running (though I’d like to) but if there are any hot and steamy days, I can wear them in place of shorts. I have a mix of cotton and technical fabrics and everything is in a neutral color so they can all be thrown in the wash together and I can endlessly mix and match.

20140627-105457-39297913.jpg