Sunday, May 22, 2016

Wandering Through Wengen, Switzerland

Matt's cousin Nathan, his wife Sarah, and brother-in-law Todd are currently on a whirlwind work trip/vacation around Europe, so we decided to pile into the car and join them for a few days of adventures in the Swiss Alps.  

Lots of snow.  In late May.
Sarah and Todd stayed in Wengen as children, so they decided to visit again as adults.  We had been hoping to visit this area of Switzerland, so we were happy they made the recommendation.  

Wengen is a carless village that is only reached by mountain train and is about 2000 feet in elevation above Innsbruck.  After a mad dash to make the once-per-hour departure, we hopped on the train for the 15 minute journey up to Wengen.  The Wengernalp railway is a rack railway that uses a cog wheel to manage the steap grade, just like the Zacke train that travels behind our apartment in Stuttgart.  The train ride up made for some great views of the villages in the valley below.

For sale:  Cute house.  Comes with dramatic waterfall in backyard.
And we were treated to some amazing views of the moon over the Alps that night.

Kind of spooky, right?
We were lucky to have Kristin's mom join us on the trip, so Natalie got to have a fun day with her Nana in Wengen while we tackled a long hike in the mountains with Nathan, Sara and Todd.  The weather was lovely in Wengen as we started our trek up to Kleine Scheidegg.  

In May, a number of the area hikes are still closed due to snow, but we worked with the Tourist Information folks in Wengen to find a big loop around the Mannlichen mountain that would be open this early in the season.  We've heard great things about the hike from Mannlichen to Kleine Scheidegg, so we are excited to tackle that one later in the year.    


We started at 4,180 feet in Wengen and made it up to a well-deserved lunch at 6,762 feet at Kleine Scheidegg.  The views along the way were amazing as we got closer and closer to the snow line.

This girl wouldn't have made it without all the food she smuggled out of the men's backpacks.
Kleine Scheidegg is the departure point for the Jungfrau railway, a 120 year old rack rail system that tunnels through neighboring mountains and ends at the highest train station in Europe on the mountain called Jungfrau.  More than a half million tourists take the Jungfrau railway up for spectacular views over Europe.  Although we skipped the train to the top of Europe (and its $200+ pricetag), the views were still pretty spectacular from down below.
This guy looks like he just started the hike. Unfair.
We descended nearly 3,400 feet down to the town of Grindelwald.  Our legs were achy, but our spirits were high after completing the 10+ mile hike.  Nathan and Sarah wanted to keep going, but we convinced them that showers and food were a much better option.  We stumbled into the train back to Wengen and celebrated our success with a fantastic dinner at our hotel, the Alpenrose. 

This is not flat.  And does not feel nice on the knees 8 miles in.  But it is quite lovely to look at.
Even Natalie and her Nana survived the day.  But you've got to be in pretty good spirits if this is the view from your room.  

After the most beautiful weather the day before that topped 70 in Wengen, we were surprised to wake up to lots of big, wet snowflakes.  It made for a lovely atmosphere on our way out of the village.

Many thanks to Nathan, Sarah and Todd for letting us join them on their stop in Switzerland.  A great weekend all around.

Sunday, May 15, 2016

A Quick Trip to Brussels. No Sprouts

Two of my coworkers from the U.S. were on a project at The Hague, so we offered to meet them in Brussels for a quick weekend trip. We were excited to finally check out Belgium and Kristin found wonderfully cheap flights to go up Friday afternoon and return Sunday night.  So after a half day of work Friday, we hopped on a plane and were in Brussels about 40 minutes later.

After a quick train ride from the airport, we dropped our stuff and headed to a cafe to meet the other guys.  As expected, the menu was full of great Belgian beers, so we were lucky my friends had done their homework and had some good recommendations.  Soon we were hungry and went on a short walk to a restaurant recommended by a friend's brother who lives in Brussels.  On the way, we did a little sightseeing and walked across the Grand Place, pronounced more like Gran Plas since it's French.  The square is one of the most beautiful in Europe.

Brussels is so far north that during the summer it stays light well past 9pm
Maison du Roi (King's House) is a prominent gothic building on one side of the square.  No king has actually lived there and now it houses the Museum of the City of Brussels.  It blows my American mind that it was built in the early 1500s and rebuilt after the French attacked in 1695.

Opposite the King's House, several buildings were built by prominent guilds of Brussels, which included butchers, brewers, and blacksmiths.  They still have ornate decorations indicating the trades they were built for.

The next day we wanted to do a tour and obviously chocolate and beer are two of the most likely candidates for us.  Unfortunately, the beer and chocolate tour was sold out and the other highly-rated chocolate tour featured many of the same chocolate makers that we had actually visited in Paris last year (le sigh).  So we did a waffle tour!

Our guide/chef first showed us a few famous waffle places around town and explained the differences between the types of waffles they like to make (who knew there was more than one type of Belgian waffle? Wikipedia, that's who) and gave us some good tips about what to look for when we sought them out later.

Then he took us back to a big kitchen space and let everyone try their own hand at making Brussels waffles.  Of course Kristin was determined to make the best of the group.

Facing stiff competition from a group of 12 hungover guys as part of a bachelor party, she stayed focused and exacting.  She even remained unphased when the power went out a couple of times due to too many waffle irons on the same electrical circuit.

The traditional waffle with a little powdered sugar is too simple for Kristin, so she added some of her own flare.  And it was delicious!

Fortunately she made some plain ones too, for the baby.

Survey says: mom wins
Full of waffles, we next sought another famous Belgian product: beer.  Belgium produces over a thousand types of beers, many amongst the best in the world, but few breweries offer public tours.  Fortunately there is one in Brussels that does, and it was a fascinating experience.

Cantillon brewery has been in the same place, doing the same thing since 1900.  Wars, technology, and real estate development around them have left it unphased because what they're doing is far from broken.  They brew world-renowned lambic style beers that are still spontaneously fermented by basically letting the brew sit in an open pan so it can collect the natural yeast in the air instead of them actually adding yeast like a modern brewery.  This is only possible a few places in the world, and here for only a few months out of the year.

After absorbing the yeast in the drafty attic of the brewery, the brew is barreled and aged, sometimes with fruit such as cherries, apricot, or even Cabernet Franc grapes.

It is then bottle aged for a year or more before being sold.  All of this time and effort means it's pricy by the time it's sold, but all of this comes out in the complexity of the taste.

Our last day, Sunday, was spent sightseeing around the city. No tour of Brussels would be complete without seeing the statue of the boy peeing.  Don't ask me why.  Like the Mona Lisa, this thing was incredibly crowded and underwhelming...but still a must see.

Manneken Pis...Dutch for Little man Pee
All in all Brussels was a great city with loads of history and easy to see the highlights in a weekend.  The beer and great food were icing on the cake.

Someone get that poor girl a jacket that fits.

With waffles and beer covered, our trip wouldn't be complete with the other Belgian delicacies.  

Natalie enjoyed the frites.  This batch was marginal.

While a bit out of season, the mussels were still wonderful too.
Come Sunday evening, we hopped on the train back to the airport and returned home.  While a quick trip, the cheap and easy flight made it a great excursion, and my friends made for a great excuse.

Natalie's mind was blown by the people mover at the airport