Tuesday, February 12, 2013

The Alps

Our next adventure takes us to the Alps for a few weeks for some fresh mountain air, snowboarding, sleding, fondue and other delicious delicacies. We will be starting our journey across the alps in Geneva and heading east to our departure flight in Munich.

With so many great places to visit in the Alps, we had a hard time deciding. Even though each region is close together, they vary in atmosphere, terrain, cuisine, and price. We decided for this trip we''ll be traveling mainly by train through one ski town in each of the French, Swiss, and Austrian Alps.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Flashback: Milan and Zermatt (January 2011)

Recently, we have been planning a trip to the Alps, which brought back a lot of memories of our last trip there. I had written a journal but now we have decided to clean it up and share it with everyone:


On somewhat of a whim, Laure and I bought tickets to visit Milan and the Swiss Alps. Here is the itinerary:

Our objectives:
  1.  Milan:
    • eat pasta
    • drink wine
    • drink cappucinos
  2. Zermatt (Swiss Alps) -- joined with Elaine:
    • eat fondue
    • eat chocolate
    • drink mulled (warm) wine
    • snowboard alongside MATTERHORN!

We arrived in Milan early in the morning and took an airport train right to the center of town.  We quickly noticed the abundance of Pasticcerias, where they bake a variety of wonderfully flaky and airy pastries. At one of these pastriccerias, I eyed some of the pastries, looked at the baker behind the counter and told her "molto bello!" to which she replied, "molto bello e molto buono!" That's where Laure and I had our first Milanian cappuccinos and croissants. Perfection.

We arrived at Piccolo Hotel, where the generous host showed us to our room containing a painfully springy mattress and an even more painfully slow internet connection. The hotel recommended a local family owned restaurant called "Monopoli" for lunch, and without fail, it served the best quattro formaggi (four cheese) pizza in the universe. With each bite, the oils of the cheeses flooded my mouth with sharp flavors of various cheeses. The waitress suggested Laure order an olive and mushroom pizza which was delicious.

After lunch, we then visited Duomo Cathedral, which is a huge church with spiky towers in middle of town. It is one of the most famous sites in Milan. 
After our holy tour, we walked around the streets of downtown Milan, filled with fancy stores.
Duomo Cathedral

On the second day, we went to the central train station to buy our tickets for Zermatt, Switerland. The train station has incredibly tall sculpted ceilings and vast areas that give the structure a sense of grandeur. 
After the train station, we spent the remainder of the day exploring the city. We visited an antiques market where we bought cake from boy and girl scouts. Next we headed out to the Cimitero Monumental (Monumental Cemetery) where the deceased wealthy citizens were buried. The cemetery has tombs with beautiful sculptures (such as elaborate angels) and creepy ones, such as the sculpture of a fireman with a broken neck.
Milano Central Train Station
Many elaborate tomb stone sculptures.
Tomb of a fireman with broken neck.

After a long afternoon of walking through the cemetery, we were hungry for Italian gelato. After a failed mission to find the best gelato in Milan (according to Trip Advisor), we settled for an alternative gelataria in the tourist area. We then wandered into Arnold cafe, which turned out to be a huge disappointment. The atmosphere was different from prior cafes we had seen around town. Arnold Cafe's decor looked more like a Starbucks and was filled with teenagers hanging out on couches. The menu (written in English, which was a bad sign) had items such as caramel moccha macchiatos, and latte art of smiley faces. It was undoubtedly the worst coffee we had in Milan. We stopped at a food stand to eat arancini, which are deep fried saffron rice balls filled with seasoned ground beef.

On the third day, we woke up early and took the train ride to Zermatt with a transfer in Brig. The second train had huge windows that allowed us to appreciate the spectacular views of the majestic ragged peaks of the surrounding Alps.
Passing by small mountain villages.

Upon arrival at Zermatt, we quickly realized it was the most magical Alpine village we had ever visited. Laure likes to think of it as Disneyland for adults, since this place is magical and has the real Matterhorn. The town retained some of the classic Swiss alpine architecture with old style buildings and chalets going back to the 16th century.

Zermatt village.


A neighborhood with historical buildings from 16th century.
Night life in Zermatt.

Despite everyone's warnings, I still had a small heart attack looking at the prices on the restaurant menus. Feeling embarrassingly cheap, we avoided the typical 45 Francs (50 USD) plates and opted for the more modest 25 Francs (28 USD) meatless plates.

The apartment that we stayed in Zermatt was nothing short of awesome. It had a small fully equipped kitchen, bathroom with heaters for the towels, comfortable bed (a godsend after the one in Milan), and a balcony with a terrific view of the Matterhorn.
Our chic Swiss home for the next few days.
View from our studio apartment balcony.

We met up with Elaine, who arrived from Zurich and stayed in another unit in the building. After buying lift tickets and renting snowboards, we searched for a restaurant to belatedly celebrate Elaine's birthday. Our criteria were simple but difficult: cheese fondue at a reasonable price. We learned that in Switzerland (or at least in Zermatt), cheese fondue is typically a lunch menu item. For dinner, the more popular fondue was the meat type called Fondue Chinoise or "chinese fondue" (i.e. hot pot). After doggedly questing for cheese fondue, we found Restaurant DuPont, which was a small rustic restaurant that fit the bill. The fondue was comprised of a powerful mix of cheeses that was well complemented by Fondant wine. This was no doubt a dangerous combination given the effects of alpine altitude. We also ordered a snail appetizer very similar to escargot.

By far, the most memorable part of our meal was the restaurant owner: a jolly bearded mountain man that went around every table to tormentingly jest with the guests. He came to our table several times full of energy ceaselessly speaking German disregarding the fact we did not understand a word that he said. Unexpectedly, he grabbed one of our snails and poured into one of our breads to show us the proper way to eat it. When Elaine asked him to take our picture, his eyes glimmered when he saw her fancy DSLR camera. When Elaine started setting up the camera to work in auto-focus mode, he looked indignant. Once he started using the camera, it became obvious that he knew how to use the camera's advanced settings. Afterwards, he wore a face full of pride as he showed Elaine a beautiful picture he took of the Matterhorn. Elaine and the restaurant owner talked about photography at length as Laure and Quarup watched them in amazement. Elaine would talk to him in English and he would reply in German. The conversation was baffling to watch, but they were somehow able to communicate with the powerful language of gestures and facial expressions.
Restaurant DuPont's amazing cheese fondue.
A snapshot of our awesome dinner experience.

The Zermatt ski area was by far the most impressive and expansive resort I had ever snowboarded. Not only was the terrain and descents huge, but the sights were breathtaking and the mountains had several attractions to visit. Riding every ski trail was a daunting task that would detract from enjoying the surrounding beauty. Instead we set out to visit every peak reachable from the lifts and the unique attractions.
Piste map of Matterhorn Ski Paradise, includes 3 town in two countries.
On our first day exploring the ski resort, we took a funicular (a train on an incline track) up inside the mountains. We got outside from the tunnel and were rewarded with a beautiful view.
Matterhorn could be spotted from nearly anywhere we stood.

At one of the peaks, we encountered an intimidating trail filled with huge moguls on an approximately 43 degree slope. However, the moguls were nice and soft, which was a pleasant surprise in comparison to the typical mogul fields in Tahoe that quickly harden into icy bumps. Since the weather surrounding the Alps peaks tend to be drier and colder, their snow remain soft and light for much longer than we were accustomed in the United States.

Unfortunately, Zermatt did not have many of these mogul fields. Most of their runs were groomed and gently sloped at an intermediate level. This likely reflects the ritzy environment of upper class Europeans that go skiing a few times a year in places like Zermatt. It may also reflect the fact that European resorts do not do off-piste avalanche control, which may be sprinkled with scary crevasses. Even so, most of the off-piste was bumpy and not worth the ride, so we spent most of the time exploring the mountains and taking in the beautiful views. The mountains in the Alps are relatively young and so they have dramatically sharp peaks supported by precipitous slopes that often run for several thousand vertical feet.

One of our favorite stops was an Igloo bar located in the middle of the mountains! Well, technically it was really an ice bar with an igloo theme. The walls were made out of packed snow, and there were tables and snow sculptures inside igloo rooms. On years with more snowfall, they actually build sleeping rooms and rent them out to the adventurous types. There we bought hot chocolate and mulled wine; the latter of which they boil in a huge pot over a fire. If you have not had mulled wine, it is wine mixed with citrus, honey, and spices warmed over fire. It is the perfect drink in a cold day and I have been making it since that day.
Igloo bar on the slopes of Zermatt.
The valentine bedroom carved into the snow.
Quarup at the throne.

At night, we sought more cheese fondue, since we still craved more delicious cheese. Since it was more of a lunch item, we took a while to find a restaurant that advertised cheese fondue at night. And when we found one such restaurant and got a table, we later realized they only served it during the day despite their sign outside. What was worse is that all dinner menu items were outrageously expensive. It truly felt like we were back in college when we counted pennies. Luckily, after a bit of tactful negotiation between Elaine and the restaurant owner, they decided to serve us cheese fondue. It was simple, good, and within our budget.

Next day, we had a huge breakfast before ascending via various gondolas and a tram to the highest peak, named Matterhorn Glacier Paradise. It boasted its record as the highest point in the Alps reachable via ski lifts.
Elaine, Laure, and Quarup at the top of Europe's highest lift.

Also at the peak, we visited an ice cave museum called the Matterhorn Glacier Palace. The ice cave is comprised of a small system of tunnels that lead to various rooms, each containing artworks such as ice sculptures and also information about glacial environments and wildlife. Some of the tunnels and rooms had ceilings covered in crystals and some were full of icicles. These crystals and icicles refracted a beautiful as we walked by them.
The beauty was difficult to capture on camera.

The most entertaining part of the ice cave was undoubtedly the narrow slide tunnel that connected two separate rooms. The entrance to the tunnel looked deceptively tame. But after a few turns, the slide picked up a bit of speed, which is disconcerting when you do not know the tunnel's length or its landing area. That is about the time you realize there is no way to safely slow down or stop. But the landing area proved to be safe and well worth the adventure.
The first ride was the scariest.

After several hours of entertainment, we realized we had not even started snowboarding that day. So we decided to ride from the highest point possible, the Matterhorn Glacier Paradise, to the lowest point possible, the Valtournenche village in Italy. This entire endeavor covered a ridiculous long descent of over 7,740 vertical feet. To put things into perspective, this is about three times the maximum vertical distance in a typical American resort.

The descent was long and breathtaking at each turn. As we crossed the Switzerland-Italy border, we made sure to be carrying our passports in case an Italian immigration officer stopped us on skis. At a short section, we cheated a little by taking a short 50 feet lift over a small hill. Whether or not that disqualifies our claim of 7,740 feet descent is up for discussion.

We mostly stayed on groomed trails although every now and then we would dabble off-piste, which frankly was not worth the risk because the lower elevation snow quality was poor and we did not want to test the Italian health care system. At the bottom of the ski trail, things got very icy and Laure found a big slab of it with her butt.

After one of many turns, we finally spotted the brown roofs of the buildings of the Valtournenche village.
We have almost made it to the bottom.

After a brief celebration at the bottom of the ski trail, we started taking a chain of lifts back up so we could cross back to Switzerland. We were dismayed to see one of the lifts stopped. When we told the lift operator that we were trying to get back to Zermatt, his facial expression was enough to respond that we were not leaving Italy that night. Skiing across the border was definitely the fastest way to Switzerland, but with the lifts closed the only way around is to take a very expensive (500 Francs) taxi ride. Buses would have been a possibility on the weekend, but not this day.
We were stranded in Italy with nothing but our snowboarding gear.

Luckily, we also had our passports and wallets, so we decided to make the best of it. Valtournenche is a beautifully quaint town especially in comparison to its ritzier neighbors Zermatt in Switzerland and Cervinia in Italy. It has a main strip of commerce with shops, restaurants, and hotels frequented by Italian families.
Valtournenche is a humble Italian ski town.

My mediocre high school Italian was repeatedly put to the test as not many people in Valtournenche spoke English. When my broken Italian did not suffice, I tried Portuguese, Spanish, and hand gestures. But whenever I mentioned the word "Zermatt", I was treated with the same "oh no" look.

We ultimately found a cheap hostel where everyone treated us very kindly. After we bought aspirin at a nearby pharmacy for Laure, the hostel staff and friends all tried to translate the aspirin's instructions from Italian to broken English as best they could. The sight was something you would expect out of a movie with animated friendly Italian characters. What was not to love about our situation?

That night we ate at a local pizzeria where we were happy to see reasonable menu prices again. We feasted like kings that night with a multi-course meal of cold cuts, pizza, gnocchi, cheap wine, creme brûlée, and the perfect ending of cappuccino and limoncello. We took our time to savor our well earned meal as we recounted the stories of our adventure. We went to bed happy in our dirty snowboarding clothes.

Next day, we woke up early to head back to the slopes. On the slopes we were awed once again by the beautiful sights even from the restrooms at the Italian - Switzerland boarder.
"How do we get back to Switzerland?"
The view was even better from the woman's restroom.

That day, Elaine went to check out of her apartment in Zermatt while Laure and I rode out to a second Italian village named Cervinia. This small Italian resort town that was cute although it had less character with a big advertisements by large corporations such as Burton and North Face ads. Even so, it was great to enjoy a proper cappuccino and dessert from a local bakery right at the footsteps of the slopes.
Cervinia, Italy.

After Cervinia, all three of us met up again at one of the peaks for a last meal together.

I took a liking to mulled wine.
Elaine enjoying her pasta.
It was surreal to eat lunch with an unbelievable view of the Alps.

On that last night in Zermatt after Elaine had already left, Laure and Quarup decided to eat cheese fondue again at Restaurant DuPont. Yes, it was that good.

We then took a train back to Milan and decided to spend our last two nights at a different hotel.  On our last full day in Italy we decided to spend the day in Parma, which was a short train ride out of Milan. We saw a lot of the classic Italian cobblestone streets with small shops. Ironically, we did not find a lot of Parmesan cheese.

We made it back to Milan in time for our last supper with Jesus and his disciples. Viewing The Last Supper in its original location was an eye opening sight. There are two paintings in the room both done at the same time by different artist. Compared to the other painting in the room done by  Giovanni Donato da Montorfano, Leonardo da Vinci was clearly a genius ahead of his time. For the few short minutes that we were allowed in the humidity controlled room of the monastery, we stood in awe. Our actual last supper in Italy was pizza at Monopli restaurant.

On the flight back to the States, we were very happy with our trip. The mountains surrounding the Matternhorn were amazing as were the villages near it. The highlight of Italy, in our opinion, was the ubiquity of good coffee. In nearly every cafe, restaurant, or hotel, we found good quality espresso and cappuccino. It is hard to ask much more than that.