The Livable Capitals: Santiago, Bern and Berlin

Santiago, Andes, snow, winter, skiiing, Cihle

As I listed the capital cities I have visited, I kept thinking which would could be the “most livable.”  Livable, for me, means not an intense place, not one with millions of tourists ruining summer months, with character, and some great redeeming feature (the ocean, the mountains, a great river running through it, an amazing spot in history, etc.).  There were several candidates (and some definite ‘nevers’…) but the top three I landed on were:  Santiago, Bern, and Berlin.

Santiago (Chile)

This may be cheating a little but I have lived in Santiago already.  Twice.  Sort of.  I lived there for 3 months over 20 years ago staying at an apartment in the area called Providencia near Tobalaba.  Then I spent a whole year traveling back and forth, spending 60-65% of the year down there (though this second time I stayed at a hotel, the awesome Marriott on Ave. Kennedy).

And I would happily do it again because Santiago is such a livable place.  Traffic aside, it has everything I would want in a place to live.  Quiet enough for a city, arts and culture, great food, neat things to do on day trips (beaches, skiing, wineries, hiking, etc.), friendly locals, interesting architecture and neighborhoods, and the magnificent Andes as a backdrop – my favorite feature of this city.

Andes, cordillera, Santiago, Chile, view, Marriott hotel, photo

A wonderful view to wake up to every day!

I would likely live in Vitacura or Las Condes: not too far from the city center towards the mountains but near the river, a nice mall, and close to many of my favorite eateries.  I used to go running along Americo Vespucio towards the river then meander through neighborhoods.

Santiago, Andes, snow, winter, skiiing, Cihle

Granted, that was not the prettiest of winter days but imagine the great skiing further up in the Andes!

Hopefully, my job would be towards that part of town to avoid the pretty nasty traffic though – I commuted from that area to “el Centro” and that was, on a very good day, a 45-min commute each way.

Bern (Switzerland)

I am not as familiar with the next two cities as I am with Santiago as I have only spent all of a day in each – severely limiting knowing, for example, in what of town I would want to live in.  In my one day visit to Bern its compactness and its location struck me.  Bern is hugged by the Aar River (I wonder if so named to make sure it sorted first in lists of rivers….) and surrounded by hills that look down upon it.  Its old quarter is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and this capital city of around 200,000 inhabitants has been included in the top ten best quality of life cities as recently as 2010 (do I choose them well or what??).

Aar River, Bern, Switzerland, old town, architecture, charm, capital

The Aar River along the old historic center of Bern

I think Bern would be a great place to spend a year or two, anchored in central Switzerland.  It may not be an easy place to fly in and out of which would be a drawback for getting back to the States but nothing that a good connection in Zurich, Munich, or –heaven forbid- Charles de Gaulle in Paris wouldn’t fix.

I enjoyed walking its old streets, enjoying the architecture and its details, and sitting at an outdoor café sipping some good beer!Bern, Switzerland, old town, architecture, charm, capital,

Perhaps the compactness of the town would get to me after some months but I think I could get used to it quite easily – plus there would be so many places to spend time visiting in a radius of less than half a day’s drive.  A little more ambitiously, it would not be much of stretch to launch weekend trips elsewhere to places like Bavaria, Austria, northern Italy, and –for sure- the rest of Switzerland itself!

Berlin

Berlin is clearly a major city and those can be a little too much in terms of livability but, in my short visit there, I got a sense for the variety of neighborhoods and cosmopolitan vibe of the place.  That, coupled with the deep and painful history this city has had, would draw me in as a place I could live in.

Berlin, Germany, history, architecture, Brandenburg gate

The iconic Brandenburg Gate – one of the many reminders of the city’s deep history

There seems to be a lot of turning over old areas into new districts to draw people in (I presume, a younger generation) and it would be interesting to see how Berlin continues to morph over the next 20 years.

Berlin, Germany, river, beach chairs

Berliners seeking some sun by the river – OK, it isn’t the Caribbean but let ’em enjoy!

Berlin, Germany, dark sky, architecture

Newer and older residential buildings

Living in Berlin would give me ample time to explore its arts scene while also geeking out on its Cold War, WW II, WW I, and imperial history.  Of course, German beer and food would not be far behind but that I could find anywhere in Germany too.  I just hope I don’t become “ein Berliner” after eating all that food!  (Thanks, JFK, for the idea.)

Great Drive Series – A Switzerland Sampler

Interlaken, Switzerland, travel, tourism, Alps, ice cold blue, Canon EOS Rebel

When I worked in Paris many moons ago for 6 months, one of the neat weekend trips I took was a rather rushed visit to Switzerland.  More than anything, we just wanted to leave France.  Having visited Heidelberg and worked in The Netherlands during that period, we opted to go south:  Switzerland (or Schweiz or Suisse, depending on which language you prefer).

We left work, grabbed our backpacks, and rode to the car rental offices in Paris to get our car.  We decided all this within i a day or two from leaving so had no big plans nor hotel reservations anywhere.  All we had identified was some target cities based on the easiest drive-around route.  This was when the Internet was not yet matured so even if we had had the time we would  not have gotten too much info on what to see and do.  So drive we did.

That Friday night, we overnighted in a French town named Besançon, a town of about 200,000+ residents, somewhat east of Dijon, and not far from the Swiss border for all practical purposes.  The town had an old casino which we thought we’d check out except it was all very smoky and we pretty  much just walked right back out, opting for dinner at some non-descript café before going to our small hotel to rest for the night.

The next morning we crossed the Swiss border where we had to buy a permit to drive in Switzerland.  I am not sure if that is still needed but make sure you find out before driving into the country.  We felt that to aim for Geneva would put us to far west and that we would have to backtrack on the same road to head eastward so we opted for passing on Geneva (much as it is definitely worth the visit).  We drove straight into Lausanne as our first stop though we made it a quick one to get info on the roads (i.e., get maps).  We spied the headquarters of the International Olympic Committee facing Lake Geneva, no doubt paid for by money the sponsors of the Olympics pay the IOC for their monopoly.  It looked like quite a pleasant city to live in, I must say.

Lausanne, switzerland, city, lake Geneva, travel, photo, Canon EOS Rebel

Sitting on the northern shores of Lake Geneva is Lausanne

Since we learned that Bern (Berne) and Interlaken were really the must-sees in the western half of Switzerland (we were not going to have enough time to explore the other half in one weekend AND return to Paris on time to show up at work Monday AM), we decided to not spend more time in Lausanne. The map below highlights in yellow the route we decided out which would take us close to Zurich but with no time to spend there, and would have us exit Switzerland at Basel, thereby minimizing backtracking in our route.

Switzerland, map, route, driving, Bern, Lausanne, Interlaken, travel, tourism

Instead we took off and decided the best route was along Lake Geneva (instead of heading back north of Lausanne and along Lake Neuchatel) where we were rewarded with views of the lake on one side and views of vineyards on the other (who knew!) before turning inland to head to Switzerland’s capital, Bern.  The weather, as you may notice, was not the best for awe-inspiring photography (as you can tell) but the sights were still beautiful.

Swiss, vineyards, Switzerland, Alps, drive, driving, travel, tourism, Canon EOS Rebel

Some of the many vineyards we drove by along Lake Geneva

Swiss architecture, Switzerland, Alps, drive, driving, travel, tourism, Canon EOS Rebel

THE narrowest steps I have seen, right by the road and NO handrail!

clock tower, Switzerland, Swiss architecture, drive, driving, travel, tourism, Canon EOS Rebel

Clock tower

Swiss architecture, Switzerland, Alps, drive, driving, travel, tourism, Canon EOS Rebel

Typical Swiss home along the shores of Lake Geneva

We arrived in Bern and sought the tourist information office – which you could count to be well-organized being a Swiss operation.  And it was!  The young woman helped us find a place to stay in the center of town – nothing fancy needed, just a clean bed and bathroom.  We checked in but immediately took off to our main target:  Interlaken.

The drive to Interlaken (“between lakes”), as the name alludes, requires you to drive along a lake.  The road was curvy and fun to drive.  We arrived at Interlaken and walked around, admiring the beautiful town and setting, with the ice blue waters flowing between Lake Thun (Thunersee) and Lake Brienz (Brienxersee) going right through town.  We found a neat spot to eat at and enjoyed a great late lunch admiring the view.

Interlaken, Switzerland, travel, tourism, Alps, ice cold blue, Canon EOS Rebel

Beautiful part of Interlaken

After some more walking, we headed back to Bern (wishing we had not found a hotel yet in Bern so we could stay at Interlaken instead… ) to have dinner and see some of the town.

Bern, Berne, Switzerland, view, vista, photo, travel, tourism, Canon EOS Rebel

Looking back towards Bern on the road towards Interlaken

The next morning we continued our drive (which took us back past Interlaken; the dreaded re-tracing of a route…) on our way to Lucerne, another Swiss town on the shores of the same-named lake.  We parked, walked around town, had lunch and started the long drive back to Paris.

One thing about driving in Switzerland is that there are never ending things to admire whether they be structures, lake, our mountains. You could say we barely scratched the surface on this beautiful country – clearly there are other great driving routes awaiting but for one weekend’s worth of sampling, I am pretty pleased!

 

A Quick Switzerland Sampler Trip

Back in the times when I lived in Paris, a fellow expat and I decided it would be a great idea to leave Paris a Friday afternoon and head down to Switzerland by car for the weekend.  It was actually crazy and last minute but most definitely worthwhile, even if rushed.  We realized we would only be scratching the surface of what western Switzerland has to offer but we kept talking about it as a “research trip” to see how Switzerland was.  A sampler trip if you will.

We departed Paris in the late afternoon and drove a few hours to our planned overnight stop at Besançon.  We stayed at a small hotel close to the casino.  We mistakenly thought it may be interesting to enter the casino but it was way too smoky so we just walked around town and grabbed dinner at a run-of-the-mill cafè.  What struck us was that Besançon itself could have been a destination as the city looked like it had areas to explore.  A visit for some other time…

Besançon was close to the Swiss border so Saturday morning it did not take us long to make it to Switzerland proper.  At the border we had to buy a sticker to allow us to drive a foreign car on Swiss roads – something we were not aware of until we got to the border.  We drove in the Jura region which had beautiful scenery (not an uncommon thing in Switzerland!) until we made it to Lausanne.  We were not planning on exploring it on this trip so we it was strictly a drive-by.  It looked like a town worth checking out but our goal was to get to Bern where we had planned to stay overnight and visit Interlaken that afternoon.

We wanted to see Interlaken that afternoon but since we had no hotel reservations for Saturday night, we drove into Bern first, went to the tourist info office, and got a hotel room.  I have to say the tourist info office was fantastic and efficient in helping us secure accommodations.  Why am I not surprised or am I stereotyping? 🙂   The small hotel was in the town center and we had fun driving to get to that part of town.  Bern is set in an enclave surrounded by the Aar River on 3 sides.  One of the best views of the town is actually from the opposite site of the river where you can take in the town’s setting and charming architecture.

After checking in, we quickly departed Bern to hit Interlaken before it was too late in the day.  The drive south to Interlaken was very short and, again, beautiful.  I remember listening to Billy Joel during the drive but don’t ask me what that has to do with anything; the memory just came up as I typed…  Interlaken is, as the name suggests, between lakes and the setting could not be more spectacular.  Of course, the tourist shops take away from the scenery a little bit so we walked away from that part of the town (after having a beer!) to find a place to eat that would not be at the heart of the tourist zone (yet, we were tourists – the irony, huh?).  We found a nice place and had a great meal.  Highlight of the meal was these two young women who were tourists who after the meal ordered what they thought was a dessert and it turned out to be this massive bowl of some sort of soup.  They kept giggling and since they were speaking English we asked them what was up.  They were embarrassed but we all laughed together at this example of the fun experiences one can have when one explores.

That night in Bern we went out to check out some of the night scene.  We ended up sitting outdoors in some bar that seemed happening.  We enjoyed sitting out there soaking in the scene before calling it a night.

Sunday came too fast (what did we expect?) and time to head back to Paris.  We decided to make our way back via Lucerne where we stopped to have lunch lakeside before the long road ahead.  We left Switzerland near Basel and made it “home” safely.

Though the trip was way too short, we enjoyed sampling some of what Switzerland has to offer.  And the research trip clearly yielded a desire to go back and spend more time.

Does anyone have recommendations on unique things in Lausanne, Bern, Interlaken or Lucerne to see or do?  How about any small towns in that part of the country that are picturesque/worth seeing?

Switzerland: Lausanne and the Lavaux wine region

Guest post by friend and fellow traveler, Chris Sanders.

After a few tortuous days on the Tour de Mont Blanc (see my related post), my wife and I were looking for a place in which to relax and recover…and we wanted to stay in the region…it didn’t take me long to decide on the perfect place…”we’re going to Lausanne” I told Wendy.

 

Getting there and finding a hotel

Lausanne is nestled on the shore of Lake Geneva, about an hour by train from Geneva. The city is sort of like Nice in France – except its smaller, quieter, cleaner, more quaint, more sophisticated, and I could see myself living there…come to think of it, I guess its really nothing like Nice…except that both towns sort of slope downwards towards the water’s edge.

We didn’t book a hotel ahead of time – the prices were just too expensive online. Instead, upon arrival, we immediately found the Tourist Agency (adjacent to the station), where we booked a nice room at a clean little place called Hotel des Voyageurs http://www.voyageurs.ch/en/index.php. The hotel was more than adequate and it was situated off of a quiet and narrow street in the old part of the city – perfect actually. We were pleasantly surprised to find our room also had a balcony overlooking the small street – at night Wendy and I would have a few glasses of wine and watch people coming and going below us…

Out and about in Lausanne

The old part of Lausanne is great to explore on foot. There are several small cobble stone type streets to walk, and since the town is perched on a hillside, there are also plenty of ups and downs to navigate. We were treated to a large outdoor market one day we were there…the streets were so alive with locals strolling and shopping for fresh produce and antiques.

Another “must see” located in the old part of town is the city’s gothic Cathedral – Notre Dame. The church is located at one of the highest points in the city…as such, it is accessed by foot via a quite long and steep flight of stairs, some portions of which lie on the Camino de Santiago (see my related post). After an arduous 10 minute trek, we arrived to the top of the stairs.  Off to the left hand side was the large front door to the Cathedral…in the other direction was a landing area overlooking  impressive panoramic of the city – you could see all the way down to the lake!

Aside from the old part of town, another great aspect of Lausanne is the lake front, which was very nice indeed. A wide asphalt path runs parallel for miles and on good days, people walk about,   rollerblade, and just sit on benches. Out on the lake, sailboats and rented paddle boats lazily sweep across the water…against the backdrop of steeply rising mountains of the opposite bank – it really is the perfect place to relax.

As if it needed more, the lakefront also boasts the headquarters of the International  Olympic Committee and the Olympic Museum (http://www.olympic.org/uk/passion/museum/index_uk.asp). Wendy and I visited the museum and actually watched some of the Beijing games (which were going on at the time of our visit). Among the many treasures on display in the museum is a large Olympic torch collection – its definitely worth a visit.

 

A day trip to Lavaux

After recuperating in Lausanne for a few days, Wendy and I decided to explore the nearby wine region of Lavaux – a region knows for stunning landscapes of steeply sloped vineyards that extend all the way down to the lake.  It was easy to get to by train and there were several small villages to explore.  We took a train to Vevey, where we then boarded a smaller “wine train” that passed through several small villages.  We ended up in a small village called Cully, which was supposed to the an epi center of the region…unfortuntelyit was Monday and the place was empty and pretty much closed down. But all was not lost – we found a small cafe where we sampled a local white wine and asked the waiter what we might do to pass the time. His suggestion was a walk through the nearby vineyards, which we did over the course of about an hour – it was absolutely beautiful!! Wendy and I decided if we ever returned to the region, we would book into a countryside bed and breakfast so we could really take in the beauty of the region and have a full experience.

Incidentally, the Lavaux wine region was designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2007 http://whc.unesco.org/en/list/1243. We were not surprised…

If you’ve been to Lausanne or the Lavaux region, please share your experiences and  recommendations. We welcome your comments!

A short happy life on the Tour de Mont Blanc (TMB)

Mont BlancA guest post by Chris Sanders.

Ok, I confess – this post has almost nothing in common with Hemingway‘s short story about Francis Macomber… and that’s probably a good thing!  But I thought a “short happy life” was the best way to describe a recent adventure that ended all too soon…

Last August, my wife Wendy and I embarked on a three week vacation to the Alps, with the full intention of hiking the Tour de Mont Blanc.

The tour de Mont Blanc (or “TMB” for short) is a spectacular Alpine hike on trails that circumnavigate Mont Blanc – Europe’s highest mountain. Over the course of ~12-14 days, hikers venture across ~ 100 miles of trail and traverse parts of three countries: Switzerland, France, and Italy. The TBM is demanding (the accumulated height gain and loss is ~32,800′) but the views are spectacular and the experience exhilarating! Nearly 10,000 people complete the TMB every year – the majority of whom are European.

TMB

Although Wendy and I trained (I use that word loosely) to complete the entire TMB, sadly, we only hiked for 4 days – 4 long and arduous days – before succumbing to a variety of ailments including tendinitis, sprained knees, and the unexplainable desire to lounge around in the vineyards of Switzerland… we do plan to return one day and complete the TMB – it is truely unique and wonderful experience – plenty of “the-hills-are-alive-with-the-sound-of-music” type moments, but next time, we’ll hike much slower and travel much lighter!

Anyway, here are a few memories from our short happy life…

  • Getting there and getting started – Most people begin the TMB in Les Houches, France (not far from Chamonix). Les Houches is most easily accessed by flying into Geneva and taking a ~45min-1 hour shuttle bus to Les Houches. There are several shuttle bus services that pick up from Geneva airport you can book ahead. Wendy and I did not book ahead but easily found a ride with a shuttle that was going to Chamonix and had only one person aboard. Les Houches is a small village but given its popularity as a winter ski village and its connection with the TMB, there are plenty of accommodations.
  • The accommodations – for our first night in Les Houches, we booked ahead via the internet at a cozy place called Hotel du Bois (http://www.hotel-du-bois.com/). Our second night was our first in a refuge – a dormitory style accommodation in the mountains called La Roselette. We shared a dorm room with two large families who were traveling via van with their children – actually, it was pretty quiet as the children went to sleep early. At La Roselette, we ate dinner at a communal table, which consisted of soup and turkey curry (not exactly typical regional food, but good nonetheless). Our third night was in a nice and cozy refuge called Nant Borrant (http://www.lescontamines.com/refugenantborrant/). The owners – an older couple- were super nice, the place was packed. Wendy and I enjoyed a couple of beers in the outside garden. At dinners, again served in a communal setting, we met an older couple from Montserrat – they invited Wendy and I to visit them… The forth night we opted for a small hotel outside of Les Contamines called Le Mont Joly (http://www.montjoly.com/). We recommend all the places we stayed!
  • Chamonix and Courmayeur– Both of these towns are on the TMB, though we arrived via bus on the fifth day of our trip. We could have done without Chamonix – ultra touristy and teeming with Europeans on holiday…in the winter time, Chamonix is a great ski resort, but in the summertime, its a “tourist trap” kind of place – where all the restaurants are the same, the food is mediocre, and so on…Now, Courmayeur- which is just a short bus ride through a tunnel under Mont Blanc is a totally different scene! Courmeyeur is in Italy – in fact it is an elite Italian resort village that was  largely undiscovered by the common man until the recent tunnel highway. Wendy and I stayed in Courmayeur a few days in order to get our Italian fix.
  • Mont Blanc– Ok, so we didn’t hike up Mont Blanc, but we did something almost as spectacular – we took the cable car (actually three of them) up to a look out station just below the summit! Truely incredible..freezing cold up there. We took a hot chocolate in the tiny bar at the lookout station…there was a picture of Pope Benedict, who had recently made the same cable car trip! This is one activity you must do if you ever find yourself anywhere near Chamonix or Courmayeur!

Ok, so I have many more memories of the short happy life on the TMB…if you want to know more, just ask! Or better yet, share your memories from the TMB…Ciao for now!

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