Alps and Provence

This week, my brother and brother-in-law joined up with my sister, nieces, Soph and I to hit the Swiss Alps and Provence. Also, as it’s early August, the Fete de Geneve is in full swing, so it was a good time to showcase Geneva, as the city’s energy levels are a bit higher than usual.

The first day we kept it simple with a daytrip to Montreaux and some local vineyards. While the kids aren’t too big on vineyards, these are among the most beautiful in the world, in that they’re apparently the only terraced vineyards facing a lake, anywhere. They’re a UNESCO heritage site, and for those of you who might not be familiar with what that means, it’s basically a guide to tourist spots that are supposed to have culture and stuff older people like myself are interested in. The vineyards had a nice walking trail, and I’m surprised we hadn’t done it before now, as it’s only half an hour away. Unfortunately, we didn’t get to hit any of the wine caves before heading back, but as I’ve discussed previously, Swiss wines aren’t exactly world-class, so no big loss there.

Next, on to Gimmewald. Gimmewald is possibly my favorite place in Europe. It’s this little village – not even big enough to be a village, really – that sits on a giant cliff above the Lauterbrunnen valley. It’s steep, and it directly faces the Eiger, Monch and Jungfrau mountains, which are massive – so you essentially have this gigantic rock wall in front of you that stretches up almost through your entire line of vision. It’s impressive, and surprisingly not overly traveled, meaning it’s also peaceful and quiet. It also boasts what I call “cow hikes”, meaning that you tend to run into herds of cows on the actual trail. I love cow hikes. Anyway – we went there for two nights, did a couple hikes, and just enjoyed ourselves. Sam found an awesome cheese shop in the town over, and armed with local mountain cheeses, we were set to sit around and relax (assuming a nice hike is your idea of relaxation).

One quick thing about traveling with kids - the nieces are at that age where they’re able to travel and have fun while doing so. They’re also at that age where it’s possible to get them into trouble; for instance, Rachel, 13, is learning the power of “talking back”. So in return for all the meanness my sister inflicted on me growing up, I of course found the most opportune times to get her to say something that would bug my sister. Ahh, family bonding! Julia, on the other hand, will say just about anything if you agree to “heelie” her, so between ninja punching lessons, I also taught her to say “duh-uh”, when somebody says something stupid. Her mom loves that one…

On to Provence…I always thought of Provence as the land of paced living, sun-drenched landscapes, and herbs growing like wildflowers. I will admit I expected it to be…greener. That said, it was pretty cool, and had it’s charms. We started in Arles, a city known for something or other (Soph told me, but I wasn’t really listening), and used that as our base. It’s a medieval city with old walls and all that, and apparently was the place where Van Gogh painted a bunch of his more famous works (there are a couple of spots where they put his painting in front of the scene it was depicting, to show the similarities / differences). While here, we also saw a bullfight – although French bullfighting is different than Spanish bullfighting. They don’t actually kill the bull here, but rather, they have like 20 guys running around trying to touch it’s head. Yeah, weird – but it was in an old Roman arena, and it was cool to sit there and watch. Of course, we were all rooting for the bull – and he almost got one dude, which would have been great – but he didn’t have the closing speed I expected of him. For some reason, the bulls kept jumping over the fence, which was funny at first, and then got kind of boring. In the end it’s just a weird custom.

Les Baux is another town we stopped in. It’s basically this old castle on a hillside, with lots of touristy stuff to look at. The castle was kind of neat, and they advertised a “catapult shooting”, which should have been awesome, except for the fact they only shot it like three feet and didn’t destroy anything. What’s the point of shooting a catapult if you aren’t going to destroy anything? Ridiculous. Unfortunately, we had our only casualty of the trip here, as the mistral winds kicked up a rock that flew into Heather’s eye, and forced us to stop at a hospital. She was probably cool with this, however, as it meant we took the kids out to the lavender fields, while her and Sam got some alone time in France. It was during this period that Soph and I learned we will be terrible parents, as it was well past 2:00 and we hadn’t yet fed the nieces, whereupon we finally found a small little supermarket and bought them some…bologna. Yeah - I need to start praying for our offspring…

We also stopped by the Pont du Gard, which is an old Roman aqueduct that spans the Rhone river. It’s an extremely impressive feat of engineering, and it’s also a great place to stop and go for a swim! We spent a little over an hour here, and while Morgan and I didn’t don our speedos (much to the chagrin of French women everywhere), we did wade out into the water a little.

The last stop was a town called Avignon, which had a giant castle or something that we didn’t see the need to go into. As I’ve said before, it’s easy to get “castled-out” if you do it too much, and since we had seen a couple already, there wasn’t much of a need to pay 12 euros apiece to get in. The exchange rate is brutal right now!

Sadly, everyone had to leave on Saturday, as we all have work and stupid stuff like that to go back to. But as with all family trips, we got a couple of good lines that will be inside jokes pretty much forever, which is always important. We also started planning our next European family vacation, so there’s that to look forward to next year!

Next weekend: Man Weekend / Girl’s Night!

Paris Deux!

Some more visitors this week; my favorite sister in the entire world, Heather, and her two daughters (aka, my two favorite nieces in the entire world), Rachel and Julia, made their first trip to mainland Europe to come see what all the hype was about. And of course, they wanted to visit Sophia – I like to pretend they wanted to see me, but I know the truth. After spending a day or two in Geneva with them, we took them to one of the most visited cities in the world – Paris!

Now, let me step back a few months; last time Soph and I went to Paris, it was amazing. Nice people; great sites; cool bakeries on every corner; it lived up to its’ reputation. Let me step back even further, to the time when I was growing up in the Wintermeyer household. One thing we learned from watching our parents is that we have really bad luck. I’m not talking the “born into poverty in a third-world country” bad luck, because let’s be honest – that’s really bad luck. Rather, I’m talking “things that don’t really matter but are mildly annoying” bad luck, such as losing at raffles, getting served last at dinner by the waiter, and stupid things like that. Hey – it’s still bad luck! Just wanted to clarify though.

Since I met Soph, I’ve kind of laughed at the “bad luck of the Wintermeyer clan” theory. Sometimes stupid things happen, but I chalk them up to coincidence and the law of averages, or just figure that most people have these same experiences, and it’s just the way it is – not that it’s related to some divine force trying to slowly and methodically beat my family down. However, my family thinks I’ve abandoned the old ways, and that I’ve fallen prey to the glitz and glamour of that concept we call yuppie-hood (something my sister has clearly done).

Well, put my sister and myself together, and the bad luck forces are too strong to deny. Paris was apparently mad at the fact I liked it last time, and decided it would take some vengeance on us for leaving happy! I won’t bother you by going into the details, but let’s just say it got dicey (I actually planned on going into the details, but they sounded trite and silly once I got into them, and I realized it was merely coincidence and the law of averages.) Anyway…onto the trip.

The first morning (after having an argument with a waiter completely in French – all those hours of studying are starting to pay off!), we climbed the couple hundred stairs to the top of Notre Dame Cathedral. I hadn’t known you could do that, and if I had I probably would have complained and said “that’s a lot of stairs!”, but it was pretty cool once we were up there. Had some great views of Paris, as you can see the Eiffel Tower (as opposed to the view from the Eiffel Tower, where you can only see…well, all of Paris except the Eiffel Tower.) Soph also got some good pictures of me and the nieces doing our best gargoyle impressions – gargoyles rule. After that we walked to the Museum D’Orsay, which has an insanely great collection of paintings, and which I would recommend over the Louvre (while the Louvre is much more massive, the D’Orsay is nice because you can do it fairly quickly).

On Sunday we debated walking up the Champs Elysees to watch the end of the Tour de France, for as my brother-in-law Sam would say, “how could you go to Paris on the final day of the Tour, and not go see it?” Our response was easy – “it’s a bike race…who cares?” Sacrilege, I know, but seriously – I’m not wasting a day in Paris to stand in a huge crowd to have a bad view of a pack of bikers zip by. A couple of you can address the hate mail to the address on the right…I know we disappoint you.

Instead, we went to Versailles; I was looking forward to this, as I thought it was going to be cool. Well - it wasn’t - but we still had a good time. Why wasn’t it cool? First of all, the gardens, while nice, weren’t in nearly as good of shape as the gardens just about everywhere else we’ve gone. They just seemed kind of…lifeless - not sure how else to explain it. Second, the Hall of Mirrors was kind of gross; you could barely tell they were mirrors due to the amount of accumulated dirt and grime on them! I was hoping for something out of a Bruce Lee movie, but I guess that was just wishful thinking. Third, there is a “fountain show” in the gardens twice a day, which we patiently waited for, dreaming of Las Vegas-style Bellagio action. And you know what the fountain show turned out to be? Simply, the turning on of the fountains. Regular fountains; nothing synchronized, choreographed, etc. Just fountains doing what fountains are supposed to do all the time, only they turn them on twice a day and call it a show. In their defense, it’s an impressive marketing technique. So while I wouldn’t recommend Versailles for any reason, we still had fun running around and exploring it.

I unfortunately had to go back to Geneva that night so I could make it to work the next day, but I left Soph, Heather and the nieces to another day of exploring (or probably shopping, if Soph’s threats were true).

One last note – many of you in the States are probably aware of “heelies”, which are shoes for kids that have wheels in the back. I guess they’re not very common in Europe yet, as Julia was heelie-ing everywhere, and without fail, people would stop in their tracks and stare at her, wondering what she was doing. Pretty funny; a lot of people did double-takes, little children flipped out, and one old lady stopped in her tracks as if a spirit were floating across the subway platform. If she’d ever met Julia, she would have known it was a spirit of mischief…

Next weekend: The Brother and Brother-in-Law come!