Friday, February 29, 2008

We still have space on our hike through the land of fairy tales.

We still have space on two of our guided Engadine Treks. The first trip runs July 1-8, 2008 and the second trip runs September 1-8, 2008.

I strongly recommend that you consider this tour if you want to see a very special and unique corner of Switzerland. Romantic and magical are two words that easily describe this spendid region of southeastern Switzerland. I will admit that I’m somewhat bias and that candlelight dinners, good wine and warm days on the trail hold a special significance for me. That said, there is a reason that many of our guests choose to visit the Engadine and that many of them celebrate their honeymoons there.

Did you know that the four official languages of Switzerland are French, German, Italian and Romansch? Most people would probably guess the first three languages, or at least the first two. It makes sense, since almost 64 percent of Switzerland’s population speaks German and 20 percent speaks French. Few people are aware however, that one-half of one percent of Switzerland’s population, (that’s 0.5%), speaks a native tongue that originates from deep within the magical valleys and mountain ranges of a little land of fairy tales called the Engadine.

Many of the doorways are round with little half doors.

Even the gnomes have their own little doors.

People often ask us about water. The most refreshing water that you’ll ever taste just flows out of the Engadine forests and into the palm of your hands.

And what about the people? Some of the locals can trace their heritage all the way back to the Romans that founded the area. In fact, the towns feel more Italian or Roman than they do Swiss, as demonstrated by the extraordinary use of stone and plaster. The ornate exterior designs are called sgraffito. Literally meaning "to scratch" in Italian, this is a popular technique used in painting, pottery, and glass, which consists of putting down a preliminary surface, covering it with another, and then scratching the superficial layer in such a way that the pattern or shape that emerges is of the lower colour. This was a common technique during the middle ages and a hallmark of the Engadine region.

My favorite memory of the Engadine has to be the food.

And yes, the Engadine offers plenty of mountainous terrain. We advertise our Engadine Trek as one of our easier itineraries simply because an extensive transportation system allows it. The hiking will be as easy or as challenging as you like.

Please contact us for more information. We'd love to have you on this tour.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Are you plugged in: A guide to recharging on vacation.

Last evening’s lunar eclipse got me thinking about batteries. Don’t ask me how. At one point I imagined that I was Nicolaus Copernicus, the famous astronomer that lived during the late 15th and early 16th centuries. A few minutes later I was Galileo, performing gravity experiments and watching the eclipse from the leaning campanile of Pisa. How those thoughts led to batteries, I really don’t know. Perhaps it was the juxtaposition of the old world, where gravity had yet to be defined, and our world, a nuclear age filled with blogs, space stations, laptops and cell phones. Whatever it was, I imagined that despite a bit of lower atmospheric light pollution last evening, the lunar eclipse probably looked almost exactly the same as it did 500, 1000 or 10,000 years ago. The one vital difference today however, is that we’re surrounded by infinitely more electronic devices and distractions then we were even just 100 years ago. This becomes very apparent to me every time I head overseas.

I remember a time when two little Energizer batteries, size 357, were enough to power my Nikon F3 SLR camera for an entire year. Add two AA batteries in my Mag-Lite, and I had enough power for months of sightseeing abroad. If my batteries failed then I just bought new ones. They were pretty easy to come by.

Something happened though. As time passed things changed, and now I have two lithium ion batteries for my digital camera that always seem to need recharging. I have a cell phone with another lithium ion battery and I occasionally carry a laptop to send trip notes back home. Some of my colleagues also carry i pods, so it really isn’t a stretch when I say that one traveler can have 4 different items that they need to recharge during the course of a trip. Suddenly, going on vacation to “recharge” takes on a whole new meaning. Are these things necessary? The answer is no. You can enjoy your vacation without them, but as guides, we’ve discovered that they help us to do our jobs better in an increasingly competitive digital world. In some cases it’s just a matter of safety. Please read on if you also find the need to “plug in" during your travels away from home.

I originally planned to write a lengthy dissertation that explained the world’s electrical systems and how they affect your power needs while traveling abroad. Thankfully, someone else did a great job before me. The following link does a fantastic job of explaining the issues of using your electrical appliance in a foreign country. They also have some nice explanatory pictures. It does not cover regions without electricity however. If you plan to canoe the Coppermine River in Canada and you’re looking for solar panels then this is not the source for you. If you’re looking to go to Switzerland or Australia or to come to the U.S. and charge your camera or run your electric shaver, then this is good stuff.

Here are a few things to remember.
1. Not all countries use the same voltage or outlets as your own country.
2. A converter will change your voltage.
3. An adapter will only change the shape of the plug that fits into the outlet.

Note: You’ll fry your U.S. camera charger if you take it to Switzerland and just put an adapter on it. You also need a converter that will “step down” their higher voltage to meet the lower voltage requirements of your device.

We use the F-200 W Converter by a company called Seven Star. The 200 W stands for 200 watts, which is more than sufficient for most small electrical devices. If you plan to run a hair dryer then you’ll need something juicier like the 1600 watt model. I like the F-200 because it’s relatively small and the two-prong plug fits most of the Western European countries.

You can look at all of the Seven Star products by clicking here. Your local travel shop or Radio Shack should also offer a good supply of travel converters and adaptors. Just tell them where you’re going and what you’d like to recharge.

In fact, they may tell you to leave all that extra stuff at home. You might discover that the best way to “recharge” on vacation is to unplug and enjoy simplicity itself.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Valentine's Day: What's in a name?

What's Valentine's day without chocolate, especially Swiss chocolate? Don't just give sweets though. Demonstrate your depth of intellect and a willingness to rise to the occasion.

If you choose to slip a Toberlone to that special someone during Valentine's day then understand that it's not just the length of your sweet stuff that matters. Be sure to "wow" them with your knowledge of the popular chocolate's history.

First, call their attention to the bear jumping out of the Matterhorn logo. Then explain that it's the heraldic animal that represents the city and canton of Bern, Switzerland. Next, talk about the name Toblerone itself. It's a play on words that combines the original chocolate founder's name, Jean Tobler, with the Italian word, torrone, which means honey-almond nougat. In short, Tobler+Torrone=Toberlone.

"Slide over here sweetie. Let me sample your torrone!"

You can build your own "wow factor" chocolate box with more trivia by clicking here.

Don't talk too much though, you've got a long night ahead of you.

Happy Saint-Valentin!

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Hooray for the saucisse!

Prague protest saves traditional sausage stands.

Prague city lawmakers have swallowed their pride and caved to protests against plans to ditch one of the capital's most succulent landmarks -- the sausage stands in central Wenceslas Square. Read more

Friday, February 08, 2008

The First Morning

This is the most beautiful place on earth.

There are many such places. Every man, every woman, carries in heart and mind the image of the ideal place, the right place, the one true home, known or unknown, actual or visionary. A houseboat in Kashmir, a view down Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn, a gray gothic farmhouse two stories high at the end of a red dog road in the Allegheny Mountains, a cabin on the shore of a blue lake in spruce and fir country, a greasy alley near the Hoboken waterfront, or even, possibly, for those of a less demanding sensibility, the world to be seen from a comfortable apartment high in the tender, velvety smog of Manhattan, Chicago, Paris, Tokyo, Rio, or Rome-there's no limit to the human capacity for the homing sentiment. Theologians, sky pilots, astronauts have even felt the appeal of home calling to them from up above, in the cold black outback of interstellar space.

For myself I'll take Moab, Utah. I don't mean the town itself, of course, but the country which surrounds it-the canyonlands. The slickrock desert. The red dust and the burnt cliffs and the lonely sky-all that which lies beyond the end of the roads.

-Excerpt from Desert Solitaire by Edward Abbey-

Where will you be?

Thursday, February 07, 2008

What’s this? Christmas in February!

Mardi Gras, Carnival, the King’s Cake, and a not so brief history.

One of the many reasons that we enjoy taking people hiking in Europe is that our experiences overseas offer an opportunity for many of us to reconnect with the stories and traditions of our past. Even if your lineage skips Europe and stretches back to Asia, Africa or other locations around the world, you’ve probably been touched by western European traditions and folklore in some way or another at some point in your life. Regardless of your history or religion, it’s fun to know where other people come from, and the traditions that helped shape their worlds. One of those traditions is Mardi Gras and its sweet little delicacy called the King’s Cake, or the Galette des Rois, as it’s known in French.

The short story of Mardi Gras is this:

In mid February, long before Europeans set foot in the New World, the ancient Romans celebrated a pagan ritual called Lupercalia, a circus-like festival much like the Mardi Gras festival that we know today. Purification was the goal of the festival, and the word February actually takes it root from the purification ritual februa. When Rome embraced Christianity, the early Church fathers decided it was better to incorporate certain aspects of pagan rituals into their new faith rather than attempt to abolish them altogether. Carnival became a period of celebration that preceded the penance of Lent, thus giving a Christian interpretation to the ancient custom.

Mardi Gras came to America in 1699 when the French explorer Pierre le Moyne Iberville launched an expedition up the Mississippi River. Mardi Gras had already been celebrated in Paris since the middle ages, where it was a major holiday. Iberville set up camp on the west bank of the Mississippi about 60 miles south of where New Orleans is today. This was the day Mardi Gras was being celebrated in France so in honor of the important day, Iberville named the site Point du Mardi Gras.

Today, Mardi Gras or Fat Tuesday is not just a single day of celebration, as many people believe it to be. Rather, it’s an entire period of parties, abandon and merriment that precedes the upcoming fasting and penance of Lent. A wonderful example of this is Quebec’s Winter Carnival, which some believe to be the largest winter carnival held anywhere in the world. This year’s carnival runs February 1-17, 2008 and coincides with Quebec City’s 400th anniversary. You can read as much as you like by clicking here.

My family never really celebrated Mardi Gras, so the first time I ever tasted the King’s Cake was actually while living in France. I was so fascinated by the tradition that I started delving into the history books. What follows is the rather lengthy, but fun history of the King’s Cake and it’s connection to Mardi Gras.

The tradition of the King’s Cake actually goes back to the Christmas season. It has grown in popularity along with Christmas carols, Christmas Trees and Christmas lights. While most people simply look at decorations, the King's Cake is meant to be shared with friends and family on or after “Little Christmas,” an expression used for the feast of the Epiphany, observed for centuries on January 6.

In the middle ages, popular devotion during Christmas tide turned to the Magi, also known as the Wise Men or Kings who had followed a star and paid homage to the little infant in the crib. By the twelfth century, veneration of the Magi or kings themselves spread all over Europe. In time, Epiphany, from a Greek word meaning manifestation of Christ, in most countries became the feast of the Three Holy Kings.

The Gospel writers, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, do not mention the number of the Magi. In the western church, a slowly spreading legend put their number at three. Perhaps this limitation was based on the three gifts mentioned in the gospels, gold, frankincense and myrrh. Another reason may have been the early concept that the Magi represented all humanity in its three main races.

All through the middle ages Epiphany was the final day of the Christmas celebration. It came to be known as Twelfth Night. Pageants included men riding horseback representing the Three Kings, crowned and richly clad, bearing cups filled with myrrh, incense, and the precious metal gold. They rode through the streets of a city to the main church or cathedral, where they offered their gifts at the Christmas Crib.

In Spanish, Italian and other Mediterranean countries, January 6 is the day for giving presents to children. In Rome, the Lady Befana (derived from word meaning Epiphany) arrives on a broomstick and distributes gifts among the little ones. She is usually portrayed as an old lady riding a broomstick through the air wearing a black shawl and covered in soot because she enters the children's houses through the chimney. She often smiles and carries a bag or hamper filled with candy, gifts, or both. In the little French town of Besancon, where I lived, statues of these little witches hang from wires, lampposts and chimneys all over town. In Spain and South America, the Three Wise Men place small presents in children’s shoes during the night of January 6.

Connected with all these customs is the King’s Cake, a tradition of Mardi Gras in the U.S. Baked on the eve of January 6, it is prepared in honor of the Magi. For a long time it was eaten on the afternoon of the Epiphany in connection with either the main meal or a party for family, friends and neighbors.

The key feature of the King’s Cake the placement of a "fève" - a small china figurine – in the dough before baking. The lucky guest who gets the fève is crowned king and chooses his queen among the other guests. This takes place all over France in every family, between friends and work colleagues. The children absolutely love the game. Some people also place a coin in the dough and in recent times the cake sometimes has in it both a bean and a pea, making the respective finders “king and queen” of the party. It is not unusual for bakers to put a plastic infant inside the cake as well.

In medieval France, the coin finder was expected to make a donation to a worthy cause, usually the education of a youngster who otherwise might have been deprived of schooling.

What does any of this have to do with Mardi Gras?

In the New Orleans area, the King’s Cake is prepared and eaten during the Epiphany season, which according to the liturgy of former times, extended from January 6 to the third Sunday before Mardi Gras, or more accordingly, Ash Wednesday. Nowadays, with the season of the Epiphany no longer observed, (although the feast is still prominent on the church calendar), King’s Cakes are nevertheless prepared and consumed all the way to Mardi Gras. We received a King’s Cake in the mail yesterday and the little porcelain figurine inside is considered a collector’s item.

Who knew that Mardi Gras was nothing else but a throwback to the Epiphany pageantry of the medieval times, besides being a last fling before the penitential season of Lent?

Did you miss out on Fat Tuesday? Never fear, you still have time to celebrate, and the King’s Cake is an appetizing way to have fun during this month of Carnival.

Top photo from others copyright Ryder-Walker