Sunday, July 27, 2014

Resort Skiing 2013-2014 Ski Season

When conditions are not right for ski touring (backcountry skiing) or when we have friends visiting, we get to enjoy European resort skiing. Compared to resort skiing in the US, generally the resort food in Europe is better, the ski runs are longer, and you are not forced to cross country snowboard while skiing.

Since buying a season pass for one resort is much more expensive than in the US, we took the opportunity to try out multiple places. Here are the resorts we were able to ski this season.

Zermatt Matterhorn: November 23-24, December 14-15, March 15-16
Three years before we moved to Switzerland, we had visited this resort and now we were excited to go back. The area is a glacier with skiing available all year, so we headed there shortly after our skis arrived by cargo ship from San Francisco. With long groomers, several restaurants throughout the area, and plenty of intermediate to advance pistes, we made several ski trips there. This has become our go-to spot to take visiting skiers or snowboarders friends to show its large network of pistes, iconic peaks, great food, and charming ski town.
The mountain view never gets old.
Skied with Llew over to the Italian side ridge for a delicious, rustic Italian lunch.
Llew making his way back to Switzerland after a long day of riding.
Great food, great coffee, great views - that's what skiing Europe is about. I think Peter will be back.
Always time to stop at the Igloo bar for a warm drink.

Dachstein West, Austria: December 8
No fancy frills at this place since it's geared for the locals. We made a stop here after the Krampus Laufen in Bad Grosser on the way back to Zurich. It was two days after a major storm passed through and the snow was still in great condition. It was a cool quaint resort was super friendly locals.

Engelberg: December 1
We did a day trip to Engelberg on a beautiful day and got to enjoy the views along with some fresh snow. We arrived at the resort within two hours. This place has some wonderful views and it is worth waiting for clear weather to visit.

This place is a popular day trip for tourists from the neighboring cities of Lucerne and Zurich, although they are generally not skiers. Tourists flock here to visit Mt Titlis, which is easily accessible for even a non-skier in the dead of winter. A fancy rotating tram takes skiers (quite a surprise to us) and non skiers to the top where there's Europe's highest suspension bridge, a glacier cave, a watch store, and couple eateries. We were surprised to see billboards advertising watches written in Chinese. But the biggest surprise was the ski lift set up for non skiers to ride - with a photo camera set up to take your picture.
This is starting to feel more like Disneyland than a ski resort.
Of course we had to cross Europe's highest suspension bridge.
Best way to escape from the grey cloudy weather in the city valleys - go skiing!
Check out that layer of clouds below us.

Davos Klosters: January 11

Unlike many European ski resorts, this place was definitely snowboarder friendly. No long flat traverses, no T-bar lifts, and no unexpected uphills that force riders to have to take off their boards. I was definitely impressed with the level of snowboarders here. Everyone was bombing down hills or showing off their stuff at the terrain park. Definitely worth coming if you snowboard.
Roof top lunch.
And the view during our lunch.

Flumserberg: Januray18-19
In less than 70 minutes we can walk from our apartment to the train station where we catch a direct train to a gondola that brings us to the base of this resort. This is amazing! Getting to a ski resort quickly by train was part of the reason we decided to move to Switzerland.

Flumserberg is a nice sized resort with enough variety of winter activities to keep the many families that visit from Zurich busy. They have a nice sized beginner area, a cross country and sledging track. If you have some ski touring gear, you can leave the resort on the backside and have lunch at a mountain cabin. After skiing around the resort, that's exactly what we decided to do.
Enjoying a relaxing and cheaper lunch just outside the resort boundary.
We brought our ski touring gear in order to get back up hill to the resort. Others did not and had to get creative.

Andermat: January26
We read through Outsider that Andermat has the best powder in Europe and it did not let us down. A storm passed through during the preceding night and dumped plenty of snow. The morning fog didn't stop us exploring the mountain in order to get our powder runs. This might be Q's second favorite resort, right after Zermatt.
The sun finally joined us right before lunch. And just in time to find the fresh powder just outside the piste.
Riding fresh powder can be exhausting and by 2pm we were pooped.
We took an early train home and both sat back enjoying the landscape.

Friday, July 25, 2014

Christmas Markets

Ever since my first European Christmas Market in Aix-en-Provence, France I have been infatuated with Christmas Markets. There is something about Europe's Christmas markets that are so special to me but I can't put my finger on exactly what it is. I have not been able to find the same magic in New York's Christmas Market or in San Francisco's Great Dickens Christmas Fair. Maybe it is the feeling of being bundled up, eating seasonal and regional street food, and knowing that I'm taking part of an Old World tradition; or maybe the special feeling comes from drinking warm alcoholic drinks.

In years past, it was hard to justify flying out to Europe around Christmas time so I was really excited that I could gorge on markets this holiday season. Here are all the markets that we visited this past holiday season.

Zürich Hauptbahnhof, Switzerland
Europe's largest indoor Christmas market is located in Zurich's main train station. With market stalls located in the main hall and underground in the RailCity shopping mall, in my opinion, this place has the best selection of gifts and Christmas decorations for sale in Zurich. And to no surprise this swanky city has the swankiest Christmas tree I've even seen - a tree entirely covered in Swarovski ornaments crystal. There were plenty of gift buying opportunities but we only went there for dinner, dessert and some Glühwein.
Since my German class is across the street from the train station, I couldn't help but walk through here after each class in December.
Reminds me of my grandmother's Christmas village display that decorated the living room for the holiday.
But she didn't have this adorable piece.
My favorite part of Christmas, Glühwein!
Enjoying Raclette -- melted Raclette cheese over bread or potatoes, topped with seasoning.

Zürich Bellevue, Switzerland
This is Zurich's largest outdoor market, located adjacent to the Opernhaus. Food stalls here out numbered the gift stalls, which must have been why there was always lively crowds around lunch and dinner time. This market has an adjacent outdoor ice rink and something special for adults, a Merry-go-round converted into a bar that slowly rotates. We came here numerous times for dinner and a drink on the converted carousel.
Houses may not be lit up like back in the US, but these light-filled markets make up for it.
I love you too!
Moves just slowly enough to hop on and off.
It still has carousel decorations topped with Christmas decorations.

Basel, Switzerland
The Basel market is located in two spots in the city (Barfüsserplatz and Münsterplatz) and is known for being the prettiest and largest market in Switzerland. And I have to agree that it was pretty - even during the daytime. I especially liked how the underside of the roofs of the shops were decorated.
Münsterplatz Market

Hallstatt, Austria
This small picturesque village holds a small Christmas Market only one day a year in the village center. The low key atmosphere allowed us to chat with the people working at the tents who actually make the items for sale. Nothing can beat enjoying a cup of Glühwein with welcoming locals.
Small and quaint market.
We bought a hand made ornament from two teenage girls. It was sweet that they said an endearing good-bye to their creation.
Locally made garlic covered speck (cured meat).

Strasbourg, France
This is the oldest Christmas market (dating back to 1570), voted as Europe's Best Christmas Market, and is the self proclaimed Capital of Christmas. This market is so large that you need a map to navigate your way around. Multiple small markets are spread throughout the city, many with its own theme. As one strolls with the crowds from market to market, the beautifully decorated streets are a feast for the eyes. This market was hands down my favorite overall market for the best decorated and best variety of gift and food shops; plus the city is beautiful on its own. The market runs until the end of the year and it is definitely worth dealing with crowds during the evenings before Christmas.
Mulled Wine or Vin Chaud, a nice change from Glühwein in Switzerland but just didn't rock our boats.
I was in love with how the small pedestrian streets were decorated
So many streets and alleys were decorated.
The original market location is around the city's cathedral.
After sunset, the city's streets light up.
Walking around after sunset is a must.
So many different items for sale.

Prague, Czech Republic
Prague is known for being beautiful on a normal day. The Christmas market brings the city to a whole new level. We were able to visit during Christmas Eve and were amazed by how many locals and tourists were enjoying the market. We had no clue it was such a huge tourist attraction. In our opinion, Prague's market has the best variety of street food. The main market is located outside in the Old Town Square selling more food than gifts. There is also a second market in Wenceslas Square selling plenty of food as well.
Impressive Christmas Tree is the centerpiece of the Old Town Square Market.
Great place to grab dinner
Prosciutto di Praga -- the guys' favorite street food.
Deep fried, long, thinly sliced ribbons of potatoes. Think of a long curly potato chip.
"Trdlo" or "trdelník" is a warm pastry to which we were totally addicted.
"Baked" over coals and topped with cinnamon and sugar. We couldn't get enough of this treat.

Berlin, Germany
Germany really knows how to do Christmas markets. Without even trying, we stumbled across several markets. We found ourselves spending one evening in the Christmas Market at Potsdamer Platz with plenty to keep us more than content. It had Europe's largest mobile toboggan run 70 metres long and an Austrian Salzburg hut with a DJ and dance floor for an après-ski party. It also had a "curling bowling" court and ice rink just outside the hut.  Here you put down a deposit for your mug, which you can later keep as a souvenir or return for your deposit. I love it! We found this to be a common practice in German speaking countries. This market ran until the new year.
Super cute mug but I'd rather get my 4 Euro deposit back once I've polished off the Glühwein.
Lunch time at the Christmas Market
I am Single!
Q beat Guillermo down the toboggan run. Looks like someone owes Q a beer.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Berlin, Germany Dec 28 - Jan 2

Guillermo, Laure, and I went to Europe's biggest recurring outdoor party. Or at least that's what some claim about Berlin's New Year's party.

We'll get to the party, but first I will tell you about some details of our trip. In the spirit of staying up late and mingling with strangers, we decided to stay at a hostel named Three Little Pigs. Although we stayed at a hostel and shared common areas, we decided to have our own separate room so we did not have to worry about our luggage or have to deal with others snoring. That still allowed us to meet a lot of interesting people including some South American students on an exchange program in Europe and a few strangers that kicked our asses in pool.
Pool with fellow travelers

Even though Christmas had come and gone, Berlin still held theirs for a few days after. This gave us a chance to drink more Glühwein and eat cotton candy!
Guillermo behind a mountain of cotton candy.

We really enjoyed the free walking tour with a very helpful guide that had a thorough understanding of Berlin's history. She told captivating stories, challenged us to think about the living situations and tough decisions people had to make during World War II and the proceeding times with the Berlin wall.

One thing that is very clear about Berlin is their recognition of the Nazi atrocities during World War II. Taking a tour of Berlin, we constantly came across disturbing details of the brain washing, genocide, and destruction during the war. The experience is pretty sobering especially when you consider these things happened not that long ago. Alongside museums explaining the horrors of the war, Berlin also built parks and memorials as a sign of redemption and change.
Laure at the Holocaust Memorial
Walking through the memorial makes one feel a little disoriented.
The memorial's official name demonstrates that Germany recognizes its past:
"Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe"

I was very impressed at Berlin's transparency regarding the history of the war crimes during World War II. I cannot think of any other occasion in modern history where a community and its government admitted to committing a genocide. Berlin is not hiding anything under the rug, and that is probably the best way to keep something like that from happening again.

Laure spent one afternoon by herself to check out the Jewish Museum by Daniel Libeskind, a museum she's been wanting to see since architecture school. It turned out to be her favorite museum in the world that she has visited. The museum tells the story of the Jews before, during, and after the war were not explained only in exhibits, but also in the building's architecture.
The Axis of Continuity symbolizes the continuation of Berlin Jewish history.
Interactive map of Jewish emigration from Nazi Germany.
The Jewish Museum's two buildings are separated by a "line of Void" that represents "That which can never be exhibited when it comes to Jewish Berlin history: Humanity reduced to ashes.
-Daniel Libeskind, the museum's architect.

We also learned a lot about the era following World War II and the infamous Berlin Wall plus tons of propaganda from both the Soviet and the American governments.
A typical Eastern German kitchen as shown in the DDR museum.
Mochi and Rug at The Wall.

Some of the wall remains in its original place although most of it has been destroyed or shipped out to different countries for exhibits. I particularly like some of the parts that have been re-purposed as an open-air exhibit where artists from all over the world take turns in painting murals.
Einstein and the solar eclipse that confirmed his general theory of relativity.

Laure and I also took a tour of the graffiti art of Berlin. Some of the art was really interesting, although frankly the guide was pretty annoying -- she kept complaining about gentrification and fancy coffee shops but she is a recent expat from the UK drinking a latte herself. If you are are interested in street art, I definitely recommend checking out the graffiti in Berlin, but it may be better doing it on your own.
One popular graffiti alley in Berlin.
I particularly like the little monster with the white face.
A familiar face in Berlin.

Okay, about that party... Berlin hosts a humogous outdoor party every year that draws roughly one million people on a stretch of road that is famously nicknamed "Party Mile". It contains many mobile bars, carnival games, live music, and DJs. The main stage with the main acts is at the east end of the Party Mile in front of the Brandenburg gate.
The Party Mile is actually about 1.1 miles long.
Its real name is Straße des 17. Juni.
We found dangerously fruity alcoholic drinks.
Guillermo was drinking and shooting.
Nicht gut.
Guillermo with the cool Uschanka that he almost bought.

We decided to pop in one of the DJ tents where I found this awesome guy jamming to every song. Every now and then someone would join him, but he basically owned the dance floor. I decided to jump in.
 Unbeknown to me, I battled a local Berlin celebrity on the dance floor.

As we were leaving after a few songs, someone told us this guy is a kind of local celebrity that is always at local clubs and dances throughout the night until closing time. That's the kind of guy I like!

We headed towards the main stage hours in advance to get a good spot to watch the show and wait for the New Years fireworks.
Main stage.
Main stage with the Brandenburg Gate behind it.

As we were looking for a good spot to watch the show, we bumped into a few people that immediately made us their friends! They were two groups from opposite ends of Germany -- from Handewitt up north and from Bavaria down south. We had a lot of time to waste, which meant many shots of Jägermeister and some type of flowery liquor. We even practiced some German and our new friend Fabian was explaining the lyrics of his home town's band Santiano.
Zum Wohl with our new German buddies!
We learned there is some weird tradition of putting tiny bottle caps on your nose.
Or maybe they tricked us into looking dumb.

As New Years approached, our friends were impressed when we pulled out a few bottles of Champagne and some plastic glasses out of my backpack. And this is definitely something I recommend: buy a few bottles as soon as you arrive at the party because they will surely sell out before the clock strikes midnight! We made sure all our friends had Champagne by the time the countdown began. As the New Year rolled around, the sky lit up with an exciting display of fireworks. Definitely an experience to remember.
Plenty of Champagne to go around.
One last drink with our new friends.
Oh yeah, and happy belated anniversary.