Basel: A Springtime Stroll Along the Rhine

Those who know me well know that I am tennis-obsessed (see: Exhibit A, Exhibit B). So, it should come as no surprise that the first – and only, really – thing I thought of when it came to the town of Basel was Roger Federer, who was born there. Yet, as I wandered around town I didn’t see any signs of its most illustrious native son. I’m not sure quite what I was expecting – maybe a statue? A plaque? A display case of golden tennis rackets? I don’t know, but as far as I could tell, the town was Federer-free.

What did I find in Basel then? Well, a lot of loveliness. I didn’t do much of anything there; I didn’t poke into a single church or museum. Instead, I walked. And walked. I meandered through the town’s colorful streets, passed through its quaint squares, and spent quite a while strolling by the Rhine. It was our first real day of spring (note: I visited in early March; yes, I am behind on blogging), and the weather was just perfect. With all the sunshine and clear blue skies and warm temperatures, everybody’s coats quickly came off, and it seemed that everyone – Swiss and non-Swiss alike – was out and about enjoying the beautiful day.

A part of me feels guilty that I didn’t make any attempt to be more cultural in Basel; the town has plenty of museums and other attractions that I could have taken advantage of. Yet perhaps I’ll tackle those if I ever get the chance to return. For now, I’m happy enough with what I did do there. There are some days you just need to soak up the sunshine, and a city as charming as Basel is the perfect place to do just that.

Jungfraujoch: The View from the Top of Europe

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Sometimes, I wonder if I’m missing out on a big part of the Swiss experience: skiing. Switzerland is – to state the obvious – quite mountainous, and skiing is a big deal here. My dad has been trying to get me to embrace skiing for years and years now, but after trying it once in middle school and being absolutely terrible at it (seriously, it cannot be overstated just how bad I was), I have zero desire to try again.

Most of the time, my ski-free existence doesn’t bother me, but I must admit that a part of me thinks it would have been sort of amazing to go skiing in Switzerland. A larger, more sensible part of me also knows that it probably would have resulted in my imminent death, as the mountains here make our faux-mountains in Michigan look like a joke. Needless to say, that part of me wins the battle every time.

But while I never made it to Switzerland’s slopes, I did make it to the mountains themselves to soak up some pretty incredible views. I used the town of Interlaken (cute but, in my opinion, unremarkable) as my base, and then made a day trip up to Jungfraujoch, also known as the highest train station in Europe. From the viewpoints at Jungfraujoch, you can look out onto the peaks of three mountains: the Jungfrau, Eiger, and Monch. Despite bitterly cold winds, seeing the view from the top is definitely an awe-inspiring experience.

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While at Jungfraujoch, you can also make your way through the ice caves. Every surface – even the floor, so tread carefully – is made of ice, and the passageways are dotted with ice sculptures, too. To be honest, I thought the ice cave was almost more fun to experience than the mountain views, though that may have just been my windburned face and shivering fingers and toes talking.

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A trip to the top of the Jungfrau is lengthy (from Interlaken, you’ll have to take three trains) and pricey (even with my 1/2 fare travel card, the tickets were about $115 – yikes!). For that reason, I don’t know that I would classify Jungfraujoch as a “must see” in Switzerland. For me, however, I knew I had to get to the mountains at least once, and seeing the dramatic views from “the Top of Europe” turned out to be a solid way to do just that.

London: Bits & Pieces from My Favorite City

I had a theory about this semester.

My theory? That I should visit new places. I have traveled around Europe a fair amount, but there are still so many spots I’m dying to visit. Given that, it only seemed right that I seek out new adventures instead of revisiting old standbys. That’s a solid plan, right?

Except, one day, I found myself messing around on Kayak, and before you know it, I’ve discovered a super cheap flight to London and, really, how can you pass up something like that? And then, of course, I decide my semester would be utterly incomplete without a return to Paris, so I snap up an inexpensive train ticket there. And then it turns out I have a free weekend in April and - wouldn’t you know! - EasyJet flies to Berlin for a reasonable price.

So there you have it.

My theory was thoroughly demolished, and I find myself making several return trips to old familiar places. But the thing is, at the end of the day, I’m not all that mad about it. In fact, I’m pretty happy with my choices and with the fact that, while this semester has involved plenty of new places, I’ve had the chance to revisit old favorites and discover new things to love about them. Among these well-traveled destinations, London just might take the cake as my very favorite city of all.

When I was planning my time in London, a second travel theory emerged. I decided I would eschew lots of the things that tourists typically go to London for (e.g., no Tower of London, no St. Paul’s, no Buckingham Palace) and instead focus on walking around, exploring neighborhoods, and eating good food. Sure, I threw in a few touristy things here and there, but I was also determined to fit in plenty of new-to-me spots. In that, I think I succeeded. Here are a few of my new highlights from good old London town.

Champagne Truffling at Charbonnel et Walker:

If I’m being honest, I wanted to visit Charbonnel et Walker because I have seen many Europe-based Instagrammers post drool-worthy snapshots of the tasty truffles. I’m happy to report that Charbonnel et Walker’s truffles are just as delicious in real life as they appear through the filters of Instagram. I sampled the pink champagne and salted caramel truffles and both were absolute perfection. Plus, the store’s location – tucked away in the Royal Arcade off Old Bond Street – is super charming too.

Ascending the Shard:

I decided I wanted to go somewhere with a panoramic view of London, and since I’ve already taken a spin around the London Eye a few times before, I needed someplace new. The Shard, an 87-story skyscraper completed in 2012, seemed to fit the bill. I loved the building’s sleek, modern design, and it did indeed offer great views of the city. There was just one problem: as it tends to be in London, it was foggy the day I visited, making viewing conditions less-than-ideal. I was a little bummed, but it was still cool to be so high above lovely London, fog and all.

Seeing Les Mis:

Here’s a strange statement to make: I love Les Mis…but until this trip, I had never actually seen it. I’ve listened to various versions of the soundtrack millions of times (and, of course, I’ve watched the movie), but I had never seen it performed onstage until now. I finally remedied that in London, and I’m so glad I did. No matter how cheesy some of the songs are, I still got chills hearing them performed live, and it was so fun to see the musical as it is meant to be seen, onstage.

Snapping Spring Blossoms at Southwark Cathedral:

After visiting the Borough Market, I roamed around the surrounding area, happening upon Southwark Cathedral completely randomly. I’ll be honest: I was drawn to the cathedral not so much due to the cathedral itself, but rather because of the gorgeous trees blooming in front of it. In fact, there was a wedding that day, so I couldn’t even go inside. Still, I was perfectly content to snap some photos of the cathedral set against the magnificent blossoms. When I visited London (the first weekend of March), it was not quite spring yet, but this was a sure sign that it was close.

Wandering Notting Hill:

My hotel was located right on the border of Notting Hill, so I made sure to spend an afternoon walking around the neighborhood. I didn’t actually do much in Notting Hill (besides repeatedly imagining Hugh Grant running into me with a cup of orange juice), but I adored just walking around, even if it was a bit rainy. The streets are elegant and charming, and even under overcast skies, they looked gorgeous to me.

After my all-too-brief spin around Notting Hill, I hopped on the Gatwick Express and headed “home” to Geneva. As I left the city, I had two major takeaways. One, London remains one of my very favorite places on earth, even in the rain. And two, a weekend in London is simply not time enough to experience all the city has to offer. I did many wonderful things but left, as ever, hoping for the chance to return someday soon.

London: Indulging in Two Untraditional Tea Experiences

The last time I visited London, I had afternoon tea at Fortnum & Mason. The experience was lovely from start to finish; the tea service was impeccably done and oh-so-British. This time around, I wanted to experience another afternoon tea, but I thought it might be fun to do something a little more unexpected. In the end, I found not one, but two, unique tea experiences in London, both of which were highlights of my much-too-short weekend in the city.

BRGR’s Burger Tea:

Okay, okay – the afternoon “tea” at BRGR isn’t really a tea at all, but rather a clever lunchtime twist on the tea experience. You won’t find any Earl Grey here; instead, it’s iced tea and Prosecco to drink (and you sure won’t find me complaining about sipping Prosecco instead of hot tea). Instead of delicate finger sandwiches, you get sliders, and in place of dainty little petit fours, there are more common miniature desserts – think good old milkshakes and brownies.

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The concept is cute and the atmosphere is fun – so what about the food at BRGR? Overall, I would say it’s pretty solid though not spectacular. On the savory end of things, you receive three sliders and fries. I loved the Chicken Caesar Slider, and the fries were pretty tasty too. As for the other two sliders – a Butchers Cut Cheddar & Cheese and a Lobster Blat – they were only okay.

The desserts were the real stars here, I think – especially the Mini Vanilla Milkshake, which was so delicious that I would return to BRGR just to order a full-size one. The Mini Warm Doughnut with Salted Caramel was also fantastic, and the Mini Chocolate Brownie and Mini Strawberry & White Chocolate Cheesecake (served layered in a shot glass) were good too.

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Sanderson Hotel’s Mad Hatter’s Afternoon Tea:

My other afternoon tea experience, at the Sanderson Hotel, was more of an actual afternoon tea, but it too came with a twist – a delightful Alice in Wonderland theme. What impressed me the most about the Mad Hatter’s Afternoon Tea was how thoughtful every little detail was; each element of the tea service was whimsical and contributed to the Mad Hatter motif. Some examples of my favorite details included -

The riddle on the napkin ring:

(Do you know the answer? Stars, of course.)

The special teas in little potion bottles:

The menu in a vintage book:

And the sugar cubes in a real music box:

As for the tea itself, the Sanderson has all the usual selections plus four special blends created specially for the Mad Hatter’s Tea: strawberries and cream, rhubard and custard, apple pie, and mint chocolate chip. I figured I had to try one of the special teas, and while I was seriously tempted by the strawberries and cream, I could not resist the mint chocolate chip. As it turned out, I made a good choice: the tea smelled – and, more importantly – tasted just lovely. Plus: look at that teapot! Like I said, every little detail was just spot-on.

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When the tea tray came out, it was also quite impressive:

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The little sandwiches were the most traditional – and therefore, least memorable – aspects of the tea. They included a smoked Cumbrian ham, a cucumber and chive cream cheese, a cold smoked salmon, an egg mayonnaise, and a mini quiche (the latter of which was my favorite savory selection):

The scones were also fairly standard, and I have to admit that I missed my beloved lemon curd being served on the side. However, the herb butter turned out to be quite a good topper for these little guys too.

When it comes to the sweets, this is where the Mad Hatter’s tea experience truly shines. There was an incredible amount of creativity and cleverness on display, and I absolutely adored most of the dessert selections.

The most over-the-top and strange dessert sat perched atop the tray: a carrot meringue served on a bed of pea shoots with strawberries and cream homemade marshmallow mushrooms. Taste-wise, this was probably my least favorite dessert, but it was such fun to see regardless:

The other desserts were just as beautiful, yet even more delicious. First, the “Tick Tock” Traditional Victorian Sponge:

Then, the Melting Mango Cheesecake, which was served inside a beautiful rainbow shell. When you got to the center of the cheesecake, the bright mango filling spilled out, sort of like a soft boiled egg. This was absolutely delicious; I loved the mango/cheesecake combination.

Next, the Matcha Green Tea and White Chocolate Mousse. The green tea mousse was tasty, as was the edible chocolate cup it was served inside.

And finally, the “Drink Me” Potion. After the tea, I jotted down a few quick notes in my iPhone, and I described this as “layers of liquid-y goodness.” While I cannot recall what each layer consisted of (note-taking fail!), I do remember that this tasted completely incredible. Such a memorable dessert!

In case you aren’t stuffed enough by the goodies on the tea tray (unlikely!), the Sanderson also features a “Jelly Wonderland” with lots of jiggly jellos to choose from. Jellos aren’t really my thing – I cannot quite get on board with the texture – but I thought this was a neat addition to the tea.

The Mad Hatter’s tea at the Sanderson will go down as one of my most memorable meal experiences in a long while. Though I didn’t love all the items the Sanderson served, some of the dishes were amazingly yummy, and all of them impressed me with their creativity. I will always have a soft spot for the traditional London tea experiences, but I’m glad I went “down the rabbit hole” at the Sanderson, too.

Things That Are Awesome, Vol. 111

The weekly roundup of internet awesomeness:

  1. So fun: A Tour of the British Isles in Accents.
  2. I think a lot about the concept of “unplugging.” Sometimes I’m for it, and sometimes I’m against – which is why I thought these two completely different viewpoints were both worthwhile to consider: Experiencing Experience and The Pointlessness of Unplugging.
  3. This letter from Helen Keller is just beautiful: My Heart Almost Stood Still.
  4. A lot of gems here: Haikus to NY.
  5. That hair! That fabulosity! That hair! Watch 25-Year-Old Jon Hamm Lose on a 1990s Dating Show. Dying, just dying.
  6. The website Television Without Pity is shutting down, which is a shame because some of their recaps were downright brilliant. Case in point: this recap of Center Stage. It’s insanely long, but from recent experience I can report that if you’ve got a lot of time to kill in an airport, it’s the perfect read.
  7. Such a cool project: Eight Hours of Airliners Departing from Los Angeles in One Single Photo.
  8. I know they are celebrities and who knows what they’re really like, but, come on – aren’t we ALL rooting for these guys to wind up together? 35 Times Mindy Kaling and BJ Novak’s Best Friendship Killed You in the Heart.
  9. I freaking love her: Emma Stone Meets Mel C. from The Spice Girls.
  10. The French know what’s up: Two French Unions Ban Checking Work Emails after 6pm.

(Image via People)

London: Eating All the Things at Borough Market

Here’s something that rarely, if ever, happens in life: you read a bunch of raves about a spot, get excited because it sounds awesome, and then finally visit for yourself, only to find out that it really is just as fantastic as everyone says it is.

No, far more likely is this scenario: you visit and find yourself disappointed. It’s nice, but it was over-hyped and could never live up to expectations. It’s fine, but it wasn’t quite as magical as you were expecting. It’s fun, but you figured your mind would be blown and, sadly, it was not.

Luckily for me, visiting Borough Market was one of those elusive occasions where a place turned out to be just as amazing as I had hoped it would be. I had read a million blog posts about the market and was dying to go, so it was the very first stop of my weekend in London. I arrived bright and early and set out to exploring. Pro tip: you should arrive early too, as the market started to get really busy around lunchtime but was relatively peaceful in the morning.

Right away, it became apparent that Borough Market overwhelmed me, but in the best way possible. That is, there was so much foodie goodness around every corner that I couldn’t decide where to begin. Immediately, I understood I would never be able to try everything I wanted to try in just one visit. Which, of course, will necessitate future return trips to London. Naturally.

I did a few laps around the market, scoping out the situation. There were vendors selling cuisine from all over Europe, from France to Croatia to Turkey to Portugal. There were tables upon tables heaped with fresh produce, stands piled high with breads and cheeses, bowls filled with olives and nuts. There were serious shoppers having conversations with sellers about the merits of truffles and not-so-serious shoppers simply happy to snap colorful photos on their cameras. There were vendors who hung back, waiting for customers to come to them, and there were vendors who tried aggressive sales pitches (my favorite was the man who kept shouting, “3 pounds a pound them cherries!” in his delightful British accent).

Ultimately, I spent several hours at the market. I ate some food for breakfast, then wandered over to the Shard to visit the observation deck, and then came back for a second round of food for lunch. I had intended to visit a different market at lunchtime, but the pull of Borough Market was too great, so I happily stayed put. I think it was the correct choice, as I found plenty of delicious food to sample, including:

Mulled wine, which conveniently comes in a coffee cup so you can pretend you are not day drinking:

A spinach and feta croissant, which makes an excellent breakfast:

Paella, which I purchased primarily because there is a stand with absolutely gigantic paella pans and it totally sucked me in. The paella was good but not great:

Turkish delight, which I only bought because it features prominently in one of my favorite childhood books (The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, of course) (stupid Edmund!), and I’ve always been curious what it tasted like. It turns out that what it tastes like is not great, in my opinion. I bought three pieces, had a tiny bite of one, and threw the rest away; they were WAY too sweet and I found the sticky, squishy texture off-putting. Just not my jam:

(As it turns out, I’m not the only one with a similar reaction to this stuff)

The chorizo sandwich from Brindisa, which I had read about in one of the aforementioned million blog posts and knew I had to try. Honestly, it was so tasty I could have wept. Not really, but you know what I mean:

Gluten-free miniature cupcakes – one red velvet, one tiramisu. The tiramisu one was so delicious I almost wished I had gone for the full-sized version – but I knew I had to conserve stomach space:

And finally, sea salt caramel fudge. This was incredibly, incredibly rich yet phenomenal in small doses:

If it is not yet clear, I completely enjoyed my time at Borough Market and would recommend everyone stop there on a trip to London. I know that the next time I’m lucky enough to return to the city, I will be paying the market another visit – and eating another chorizo sandwich, of course.

Broc: Sampling Sweet Treats at the Cailler Factory

The fact that the towns of Gruyeres and Broc – home to fine Swiss cheese and chocolate, respectively – are so close to one another is both a blessing and a curse. It’s a blessing in the sense that you can easily visit both in the course of a single day trip. And it’s a curse in the sense that, if you do, and if you go full-out at each, you will be consuming an epic amount of cheese and chocolate. Inevitably, you end your day with a bit of that Thanksgiving afternoon food coma feeling: happily stuffed, but almost uncomfortably so.

I visited Gruyeres first (climbing up to the Chateau in an attempt to atone for all the cheese and chocolate consumption) and then headed on to Broc. Upon arrival, I made my way to the Cailler Factory, home to some seriously delicious Swiss chocolate. The best part of the Cailler experience is the unlimited chocolate tasting, but to get there, you have to pass through the exhibits and factory first. Unfortunately, you aren’t allowed to wander through on your own; rather, you are placed with a group and ushered through a series of rooms with doors that open and close automatically to coincide with the narration coming through the speakers. So, there’s no skipping the displays on chocolate’s history, which is slightly unfortunate, as this part of the tour is pretty cheesy. For example: you’ll see cheap recreations of Aztec jungles with silly narration and overly dramatic music playing in the background.

Once you get through the rooms chronicling the history of chocolate, you arrive at the factory portion of the tour, where you can see how the chocolate is made. At this point, you’re released from your tour group and are free to explore on your own. I found this portion of the tour much more interesting!

But the real reason for visiting Cailler is, of course, the chocolate itself, and when you come to the end of the tour, you’ll find an all-you-can-eat selection of Cailler’s chocolates. You can’t take any of it with you (though there’s plenty more to purchase in the gift shop), but you are free to sample to your heart’s content while you remain in the room.

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There were obviously many varieties to choose from but my favorite remained plain old lait – that is, milk chocolate. In my opinion, Swiss chocolate is so delicious on its own that you don’t need to add anything to it – better to enjoy it in its purest form.

After finishing the tour, you can head to the gift shop to buy even more chocolate (not that you will need it at this point). I did notice that many of the prices here were slightly cheaper than you would find in stores, so even if the thought of consuming more chocolate makes you slightly nauseous at the moment, it’s not a bad place to stock up for the future.

Ultimately, I felt about the Cailler Factory like I did La Maison du Gruyere: the museums is not anything to write home about (and, indeed, it’s downright silly), but getting a chance to sample those gourmet treats is worth the trip. Just make sure you go on a very empty stomach.