Friday, March 30, 2012

Photo Friday: Spring at Keukenhof

It's springtime, and that means Keukenhof in Holland is open.  March 22 through May 20 is your only chance to see this extraordinary tulip and flower garden in 2012.  There will be 7 million blossoms this year.

Visit Photo Friday at to see more travel bloggers' photos.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Lisbon Apartment Search

I'm searching for an apartment for four nights in Lisbon right now.  The top websites for vacation apartment rentals that I'm looking at are, (owned by,, and (owned by

I love TripAdvisor.  I never book any hotel, bed and breakfast, or apartment without looking up the reviews on TripAdvisor first.  The reviews are honest and I trust TripAdvisor's recommendations.  But I can't say I love their vacation apartment search function.  It doesn't allow for many amenity filters, namely air conditioning.  And hubby will not stay anywhere without A/C, which means I have to click on every listed property to see if it offers A/C.

And then there's one problem I have with every search site.  It's the number of double v.s. twin beds - never a search filter.  As I've mentioned before, my teen son and daughter would rather not sleep in a double bed together, so I do my best to find a quad with two twins.  This means reading the body of text or looking at the photos for every listing.

I wish there were more rental agencies like Vacation In Paris (VIP).  Besides their outstanding service and great apartments, they offer the incredibly reassuring courtesy of mailing you the apartment keys before you leave on your trip.  I spoke to VIP to ask if they could recommend any apartment rental agencies similar to theirs in other parts of Europe, but they said they were not aware of any.  And so remains the ever so slight trepidation of meeting a Portuguese-speaking stranger in a big, unfamiliar city to exchange cash for keys.

Friday, March 23, 2012

Maison Cailler Chocolate Factory Tour

Where can you eat as much of this chocolate
as you want for FREE?

The internet information I gathered about chocolate factory tours before we left for Switzerland really paid off.  I can’t imagine a more entertaining factory tour for kids and teens than La Maison Cailler, and it is FREE for kids under 16 years old!  The Cailler chocolate factory is located in Broc, just outside Gruyères, and combining the tour with a visit to Gruyères on the same day is just about one of the best times you could ever have in Europe.

The train system in Switzerland is phenomenal, so wherever you are in the country, hop on one to Bulle.  At the Bulle train station you will find a little red and white trolley train that says La Gruyère on the side.  This 11 minute ride will take you to Maison Cailler and back to Bulle, with breathtaking scenery along the way.  The route travels right by Château de Gruyères, perched up on a hill with a beautiful backdrop of mountains.

Gruyères Castle perched up on a hill.

The town of Broc is dominated by the chocolate factory and a Cailler outlet store; besides that, a small train depot and a few farms are the only thing you’ll see.  (Though we didn't spot them, there are two hotels:  Romantik Hôtel Broc’aulit and Hôtel  de Ville.)  Don’t worry if you enter the Cailler factory and see a huge crowd of people – they’ve got their tours streamlined, and before you know it you’ll be ushered into a room with your fellow native language speakers.  (English at least every 15 minutes.)  I truly was expecting the usual, bored, heavily-accented tour guide walking us from room to room reciting her spiel, but we – especially my group of teen girls – were intrigued to enter a self-locking room with no tour guide, but mechanized exhibits, automatically spotlighted when featured by the recorded narration about the history of chocolate.  Aztecs performed sacred ceremonies with chocolate drinks in one chamber, the Spanish brought cocoa beans to Europe from Central America when we entered another, and the story of François-Louis Cailler came to life in the next.  Yes, folks, the Swiss have Disneyfied, and the teens loved it.  All age youngsters will love it.

The tour is even hands-on - visitors can reach into burlap bags filled with cocoa beans and compare the aromas of different varieties:

Near the end of the tour, visitors observe the manufacturing process of the foil-wrapped Branche L’Originale, or Original Branches, one of Cailler's specialties:

To the delight of everyone, a tray of samples of these delicate chocolate bars waits at the end of the assembly line:

But the denouement of all food sampling occurs in the tasting room.  Neatly separated selections of chocolate lined up in perfect rows on plexiglass trays await your trembling fingers as you realize that there is no signage limiting your intake, no thick-waisted matron standing guard, and no usher hurrying you through the room.  Milk chocolate, dark chocolate, white chocolate, truffles, filled, creamed and whipped chocolate beckon you.  As the trays empty a quiet staff member slips in and replaces them, constantly, repeatedly, heavenly.  It's like a dream.

All trays are labeled with their brands so that you can clearly identify your favorites when you step into the final stage of the tour:  the gift shop.  By the likes of what our group spent in the gift shop, I imagine Maison Cailler recovered the losses endured by letting eight unrestrained teenage girls loose in their chocolate tasting room.

The girls and their shopping bags.

This post is part of Photo Friday at

Related posts:
Wooden Shoe Making in Gouda, the Netherlands
Cheese Making in Gruyères, Switzerland
Violin Making in Mittenwald, Germany
Glass Making in Murano, Italy
Porcelain Making in Delft, the Netherlands, and in Oberschliessheim, Germany

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Are You Wearing Green Today?


This picture of my son in his pre-school's
St. Patrick's Day parade ran in our
local paper years ago.

I've never been to Ireland.  Sigh . . . .  It's second on my list of dream destinations though, right after Croatia.  As much as I love train travel, I kind of envision driving around the Irish countryside in a car, taking back roads, sleeping in cottage inns, and mingling with the locals.  I'd love to do it with the kids along, but it also sounds like a romantic little trip my husband and I could manage in our retirement.  We'll see.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Fountains of Old

In Part I (Bern Baby, Bern) of my post about the capital of Switzerland, I promised a Part II about the brilliantly colored historical fountains that are landmarks of the medieval city of Bern.  There are over 100 public fountains, eleven of which were carved from 1542 - 1549 and are topped with prominent statues depicting characters from history or folklore.  All the original fountains were built as a public water supply for the city's inhabitants and served over the centuries as local congregation spots.

A surprise for our group of 11 people who hadn't done much research on visiting Bern, the first fountain we encountered was Pfeiferbrunnen, or Piper Fountain.  It was designed after the 1514 Albrecht Dürer woodcut of the Bagpiper and originally stood in front of a hotel for traveling minstrels.  A piper, dressed in blue and playing a bagpipe, with a golden stork at his feet, crowns a bright red column decorated with bells, jesters, gargoyles and flowers.

Piper Fountain

Shortly thereafter we came upon the Anna-Seiler-Brunnen, or Anna Seiler Fountain.  Anna Seiler was the founder of the first hospital in Bern in 1354.  The stone pillar she stands on was brought from the Roman town of Aventicum.  Her hospital, now known as Inselspital, still exists today.

Anna Seiler Fountain

Next there was Schützenbrunnen, or Marksman Fountain.  The marksman holds a shooting banner and a sword.

Marksman Fountain

I found the Zähringerbrunnen, or Zaehringer Fountain, amusing.  The founder of Bern, Berchtold von Zähringer, commissioned the statue of the chainmail-wearing bear with the headpiece that looks like an old scuba helmet.

Zaehringer Fountain

The Simsonbrunnen - Samson Fountain - represents the Biblical story of Samson killing a lion.  The fountain was originally built of wood in 1527 but was replaced with stone in 1544.

Samson Fountain

The Vennerbrunnen, or Standard Bearer Fountain, stands in front of the 15th century city hall building.  A Venner is an old German word for a soldier in medieval Switzerland who protected the city and led troops into battle.  The Venner on top of this fountain is dressed in full armor and holds a banner.

Standard Bearer Fountain

These Renaissance fountains dot the streets of the historical city of Bern and add surprise and color to the  narrow alleyways, decorated façades, and cultural sites of this treasured UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Bern Baby, Bern

A rainy day in Bern, Switzerland

Bern, the capital city of Switzerland, although large and modern, will capture the imagination with its whimsical public fountains, animated Zytglogge clock tower, and its medieval covered shopping promenade through Old Town.  On a peninsula formed by a loop in the river Aare, the city is easy to navigate.  Exit the train station, take any street straight ahead, and walk right through the center of town to the end, or head for the river and stroll around the perimeter of the peninsula.

We arrived in Bern by train from our home base in Adelboden and walked down Marktgasse with some urgency since it was almost noon, and I figured that would be an excellent time to watch the Zytglogge glockenspiel chime the hour.  The Zytglogge tower was built around 1218 as a gate tower to the city, and every full hour the great bell, unchanged since the tower's reconstruction in 1405, is struck by a large clockwork-operated hammer appearing to be held by a larger-than-life gilded figure.  Other colorful mechanized characters such as a bear, a jester, a rooster, and a king then dance and play music for the crowd.

The most dominating features of the landmark tower, however, are the enormous clock faces on both the east and west sides of the structure, including a 15th century astronomical clock which displays relative positions of the sun, moon, and zodiac constellations.

Usually there are crowds in the square awaiting the hourly chimes, but the day we visited Bern it was raining, cold, and a public holiday in the Canton of Bern (January 2nd) so the tourists were sparse.  Unfortunately, because of the holiday, the churches, stores, shops, and Einstein-Haus were all closed.  (The ever-reliable McDonalds was open, which is where we got our Toblerone McFlurries!)  I must say the window shopping along Kramgasse was eye-candy though.  Very expensive eye-candy.  And one advantage of visiting Bern on a rainy day is that the Old Town has a 6 kilometer long - one of the longest in Europe - covered shopping promenade with low-vaulted roofs extending to the edge of the sidewalk.  We barely walked in the rain at all.

Pulling on the front doors to find them locked.

We avoided the famous Bern bear pits since we figured bears hibernate in the winter and the equally famous Bern Rose Garden, because we thought it might well look like the roses in the Münster Cathedral Terrace Park:

Rose garden on the terrace of the Münster Cathedral in winter.

We enjoyed the many historical buildings in Bern including the Rathaus (city hall), constructed from 1406 to 1415, and the very grand Parliament Building, which houses the Swiss federal government and parliament.

City Hall building in Bern.

Federal Parliament Building in Bern.

Do you know what the eight teenage girls I was traveling with were truly fascinated by?  The many (over 200 in the city!) steeply angled cellar doors at street level below the medieval buildings.  Where do they lead?  Why were they built?  Can we go in?  Many references to Dorothy and the tornado were made.  (We do not have cellars where we live on the west coast.)

After researching these cellar vaults sometime later, I learned that they were built in the Middle Ages for storage of goods to survive the cold winters.  Now these spaces contain fashion shops, restaurants, and wine taverns.  Too bad the whole city was closed for the holiday, it would have been very interesting to step inside one!

Read about the beautiful Renaissance fountains of Bern in Part II of Bern Baby, Bern here.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Happy 100th Birthday to Girl Scouting!

March 12, 2012, is the 100th birthday
 of the Girl Scouts of America!

Truly, Girl Scouts is an organization that will offer your daughter unique opportunities to travel.  Camping experiences, at the Brownie level, enable young girls to live together in simple outdoor settings, to make their own decisions, and to gain confidence in being away from home.  Older girls can join Girl Scout "destinations," trips facilitated by Girl Scouts of America and hosted by individual Girl Scout councils.  High adventure trips and financial aid are available.  As you well know if you read this blog, world centers in England, Switzerland, India, and Mexico provide inexpensive lodging for Girl Scouts and Girl Guides from all over the world.  Girls can join Girl Scouts as early as Kindergarten, but there's no previous troop experience required if a girl wants to join as late as high school.  Check with your local Girl Scout council for troops with openings, or start your own - the organization always needs more leaders.  I will always cherish the times I've spent with my daughter and her friends as their Girl Scout leader for 8 years.  We have had amazing fun.

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