Descent of the Cows & Aletsch Glacier

The Swiss have all sorts of random festivals and fetes that, to an outsider, are kind of strange. I guess all countries have things like this, though, and since we’re here we might as well partake, if it’s harmless. The village of St. Cergue, just outside of Geneva, had one of these seemingly innocent festivals this past weekend called “The Descent of the Cows” (actually that’s how I translated it, and considering my French is still pretty much awful it’s possible the correct translation is something like “the celebration of the awesome animal that is the Swiss cow as it descends from the heavenly pastures of the Alps”…but I digress.)

This festival is kind of funny, really. Basically the idea is that the cows are coming in from the mountains due to the fact the weather is getting colder. Makes sense so far, right? So the shepherds bring them in, and walk them through town to lower pastures. Simple. And, Swiss cows are really freakin’ awesome. So let’s make it a celebration! However, because it’s a celebration, it seems more fun to dress the cows up with giant bells, and put flowers on their heads. The more flowers, the more dominant the cow, or something to that end. No, I’m not making this up.

The thing is, in Switzerland, flowers are really expensive. Like, you can buy something cool, like a Wii, for the price of a bouquet. Don’t ask me why, but that’s just the way it is – you should probably blame globalization if you have a problem with it. Put this with the fact that Swiss farmers probably don’t make a lot of money, because in general that’s the plight of farmers across the world, and instead of flowers on the cows, you find cows adorned with plastic Christmas trees and paper flowers tied all over them.

Poor cows. They clearly deserve more than this. But they do get to spend a lot of time in the mountains during the summer, so I don’t feel too bad for them.

That said, the festival was kind of fun, at least in so much as it was a beautiful day and we got to go visit a cute Swiss village. They even served Malakoffs, which are these little Swiss delicacies of deep-fried cheese with spices – yum!

Outside of the cow descent, it turned out that on Sunday the weather was still pretty good, so I broke out a last-minute plan to get one final hike in before Autumn rears its ugly head. While we’ve had a couple of hikes here and there, and even had a somewhat intense one last weekend, I still feel we haven’t done enough hiking this year. As a result, I dragged Sophia, bad ankle and all, out to the Aletsch glacier, to see yet another UNESCO heritage site and one of the largest glaciers in Europe.

Now, you might be asking, “how did you get Sophia to go hiking if she has a bad ankle?” Well, the answer is simple: I bribed her with food. I agreed to let her order Chinese food tonight if she came along. Also, I took her to the Japanese store yesterday to buy yellow radishes so that she could make kim-bap, a sort of Korean sushi, that we took on the trail with us. Pretty good hiking food actually.

The only real problem with this hike is that it’s a fairly long distance from Geneva, just on the borderline of being a viable daytrip. As such, we were forced to wake up on Sunday morning at the ungodly hour of 7:00 am, only to realize that the sun hadn’t yet risen. It’s just a matter of weeks now before I have zero hours of daylight outside of working hours, meaning there’s yet another reason to get out of town on the weekend. Once on the train, we were treated to a sunrise over Lake Geneva and the Alpine peaks we were heading to, so that made it kind of worthwhile right there.

The actual mountain we started with is the Bettenhorn. Passing through a couple of cute Swiss mountain towns to get there, you’re greeted at the top of the gondola with the Aletsch Glacier, a massive block of ice sitting up in the mountains. This glacier stretches a long, long way – something ridiculous like 5 miles – and resembles an eight-lane freeway for gigantic automobiles. It’s a pretty amazing sight, as it’s essentially in the middle of some of the major Alpine peaks, and therefore is just this giant sea of ice between bare, rocky mountains.

The hike itself runs right along the glacier for quite awhile. Eventually you turn away and go up past a little man-made lake, but at that point the best of the hike is over. There is, however, a giant zombie tunnel cut into the mountains, which we took even though it was kind of weird going through this dark, dank tunnel rather than walking around in the open air. We’re getting old, though, so we figured we didn’t need to push ourselves more than necessary, and it cut a good half-hour off of the less scenic portion of the hike. I mean, it still would have been scenic, but the part we had already hiked for a few hours was more scenic, so I didn’t feel guilty about taking the shortcut. Normally I would, but I think shortcuts are part of this thing I’m learning called “maturity” and “wisdom”.

All in all, the Aletsch Glacier is a great daytrip to an area that doesn’t get too many non-Swiss tourists. Glad we got to sneak this hike in before the weather turned, and I can rest much more easily as a result!

Next weekend: Paris!

Extreme Mountain Hiking!

This weekend we went with some friends to Champery, Switzerland, to do some serious mountain hiking. I’m not talking about the “let’s walk through a pasture and look at some mountains across the valley” kind (although that kind of hike is pretty cool); rather, this was the “you need to hold onto chains in the side of the rocks or you’ll plummet to your death” type of hike. Ok, that’s being a bit dramatic, but there were chains cut into the rocks at various points, and you clearly would die if you fell, but being as we’re all rational adults, we simply held onto the chains and didn’t fall. Not nearly as bad as it sounds.

That said, the true appeal of this hike was the chance to get up into the mountains, hang out a bit, and stay in a mountain hut. Now, I hear “mountain hut”, and I think of this cool alpine mecca where a giant dog hangs out to help weary travelers, and everyone sits around a wood-burning stove telling crazy hiking stories (not that I have many of those, but that’s beside the point). Basically, I expected something rustic and close to nature. And in fairness, that’s exactly what it was. You had 30-some people sleeping in the same room (2 rooms total, so about 70 people), one bathroom – for everyone – and that was about it. Rustic? Check. Close to nature? Double-check. Giant awesome dog running around saving stranded hikers? Eh; there was a wolf-looking dog that was kind of cool, but he didn’t really want anything to do with the hikers. Can’t blame him – we probably didn’t smell too good by that point.

The other interesting thing about the mountain hut is that it’s obviously geared toward psycho-hikers. What does that mean? Well, specifically it means that they turn out all the lights at 10:00 pm. And I mean all the lights! You’re expected to be in your beds by that point (or rather, giant row of spots in which you theoretically have a place to lie down without being touched by somebody else). I can’t remember the last time I had to go to bed that early – and I know for a fact that I’ve never chosen to go to bed that early – so it ended up being one of those nights where I lay awake for ten hours, listening to a snoring competition from all those Europeans who haven’t heard of breathe-right strips.

Stories of snoring aside, it was actually a lot of fun, and I’d probably do it again. Sadly, it’s getting tougher and tougher to get these kinds of hikes in. The weather is officially cooling, the leaves are turning, and we’ve been doing a lot of these day trips of late and as such haven’t slept in for quite awhile. That’s ok, though, because you gotta make every weekend count!

Next weekend: The Descent of the Cows!


Zurich, the cultural heart of Switzerland. Home of secret treaties, financial intrigue, and a laissez-faire attitude of letting anyone do anything, as long as they aren’t breaking Swiss rules. They say there are vaults of gold hidden underneath the streets, while above ground you have a parade of virtually every major name brand in Europe. It’s the only city that consistently gets ranked as being more expensive than Geneva, yet also the only one that consistently is said to have a better standard of living. And they say money doesn’t buy happiness…

Considering Soph and I have been here for over two years now, it borders on being a travesty that we hadn’t yet ventured to Zurich. In truth we’ve been busy going other places, so I don’t feel too guilty, but we had a free weekend and it was time to make the journey. Awaking at the ungodly hour of 8:00 am on a weekend, we caught the early train in the hopes of being able to rush everything in before dinner.

Of course, the real reason we were going was because Zurich is home to one of Switzerland’s only Korean grocery stores. Since Soph has been running extremely low on seaweed for awhile now, this was the only motivation she needed…

For a day trip, Zurich is pretty nice. You can see it fairly quickly if you put your mind to it (and if you skip the museums). Stroll through the old town; see the shopping streets; take a break at a sidewalk cafĂ©…if you’re lucky you’ll even run into a marching band, something that happens way more often than you would think. Like almost every town in Switzerland, Zurich is perched on the edge of a lake, and also sports a river through its center. The old town is then on a slight hill overlooking the lake, which makes the city very scenic. While Geneva has a spattering of ugly, box-shaped buildings that prevent it from having a true “feel”, Zurich seems to have been built prior to the 1950’s, and has that centuries-old atmosphere that makes walking through the streets just a little bit exciting. It also seems well-preserved, and the buildings are solid and clean. Of course, it also does have its fair share of more modern architecture, but the wide tree-lined avenues with the tram running through the center somehow takes you back into an era that you just don’t see too often anymore. That, and there are a lot of interesting side streets. Side streets rule, especially if they have cool stores on them, and finding good side streets is pretty much the best way you can spend a day.

All in all, Zurich is a charming little city definitely worth exploring. Not sure if we’ll be going back, but at least we’ll now know what the hype is all about when it gets yet another “greatest city to live in” award.

Next weekend: Mountain huts!


One of the objectives of our travel this summer was to be around Switzerland a bit more; so while we had a run of trips outside of the country, we’ve now had quite a few weekends in a row at home, which has been really nice. Switzerland, specifically for us Geneva, is one of those places that really comes alive when the weather is nice. The lake changes from a scenic body of water into a scenic body of water that you can go swimming in; the restaurants, cesspools of second-hand smoke throughout the rest of the year, open their sidewalk terraces; and best of all, the mighty Swiss Alps become accessible for hiking.

This weekend, we decided we should get out of Geneva, and we headed to Solothurn, an old Swiss city in the Swiss-German-speaking part of the country. Solothurn has a nice old town with a big church in the middle of it (I’m starting to sense a pattern around medieval cities in that regard), and while not in the middle of deep mountains or anything, you can see Mt. Blanc way off in the distance, which is pretty impressive.

The hike we went on took us through a gorge and out into the foothills where a lone hermitage sits. Apparently there are still some actual monks who live out there, although they’ve had to give up their hermit status at this stage due to all the people who walk around back there. On this particular day, there was a Nordic walking event, which consisted of tens of thousands of people walking from the hermitage down to the old city, or basically the same path we were taking, except the opposite way. It was like something out of a bad horror film, with person after person coming at you with two walking sticks clicking on the paving stones. Luckily, the Swiss aren’t an aggressive people, so we were met mostly with blank stares and the occasional “you’re going the wrong way” looks.

The upside of the walking event was that there were food stalls and, well, you know how we like our food stalls. The highlight of this set was a place selling juices made from local fruits. One of those times when I wished I understood restaurant-German so that I could have identified what was in it, but man it was good!

We spent the rest of the weekend doing our annual Geneve-plage pilgrimage. Each year, generally at the end of August, we’ve ended up at the beach-like facility in Geneva, which has a nice pool and some diving boards into the lake. There is also a giant slide, which in the past I thought was only for kids, but this year I saw some older guy go up and, well, let's just say I took that to mean it was open season for the slide. Twelve slide-rides later, I even convinced Soph that she should go down it, which she did. You’re simply never too old to go down a waterslide!

Next weekend: Zurich!

More Random Weekend Madness!

It’s been a busy spring and summer so far, travel-wise anyway. But being as Geneva is actually a pretty awesome place in the summer (as is Switzerland as a whole), we decided to spend the second half a bit more local in order to enjoy what’s in our backyard, if you will. This doesn’t mean we aren’t traveling, but rather it means we’re keeping our jaunts within the realm of short train rides and few (if any) overnight stays.

That being said, we’ve also had some good excuses to stay in town. Within the past month, we’ve had two couples we’re friends with get married! Marriages are always fun, and it was cool getting to attend some nice Swiss weddings – and while technically there were no Swiss people actually getting married, the ceremonies and receptions did occur in Switzerland, so it counts. Also, one of them even had alphorns, and yes, “alphorn” is the correct noun for what those giant Ricola-sounding things are called (an interesting aside – if you look up “alphorn” on Wikipedia, there is a story about how the first recorded instance of this aforementioned instrument was when a missionary tried to convert some Swiss mountain men over to Christianity, and the Swiss beat him to death while blowing their alphorns at him. I can’t make this stuff up!)

Outside of weddings, the other thing we’ve been trying to take more advantage of is hiking. We’ve been averaging a very poor two hikes per year up until recently, and it’s one of my goals to increase that number. Unfortunately, you’d be surprised at how hard it is to clear a weekend to go hiking, because without a car you need to have some modicum of advance planning, and then the weather is so fickle here that a third of the weekends it seems to rain anyway. Regardless, we were able to make it to a couple of villages and get our hike on, although it’s tended to be more of the vineyard / ridge hiking rather than the mountain / pasture variety. Still a couple of weekends left before autumn hits us too hard though.

Lastly, I’ve been making it a point to try and get into Lake Geneva as much as possible this summer. That has resulted in, maybe, six trips to the lake – again, the season for being able to actually get in the water is surprisingly short – but those six trips were great. Four of them were on my lunch break; they were what we refer to as a “continental lunch”, in honor of the many fine French citizens who believe a two-plus hour lunch break is perfectly acceptable. In my opinion, this is yet another reason to like the French. That said, I know all the ladies are waiting for me to post that picture of myself in a speedo that’s been causing all the buzz on the internet of late. Sorry, but that’s for Soph’s eyes only!