The Piedmont wine region in Italy is spectacular! And the wine ain’t bad either.

I am asked from time to time, “what’s your favorite European country?”

There’s something to love about every country we’ve visited, but I never hesitate in responding: It’s Italy. Italy totally rules. It’s got everything: coastlines on two seas, magnificent architecture, the art, the fun-loving people… I could go on and on, so I will for a minute: the food, the historic cities both large and small, the wine, the scenery… So when you decide to visit Italy, there are lots of really good options.

If wine and scenery are your key criteria, I recommend visiting the Piedmont wine region in northwestern Italy. Just a hop, skip, and a jump from Geneva, we’ve visited the area around Alba four times so far. The name Piedmont, is constructed from the french words “pied” and “mont”, or “foot of the mountains” which in this case refers to the western Alps separating Italy and France.

The topography of the wine region is characterized by around a dozen “hills”, each with its own village with names like La Morra, Barolo, Novello, Barbaresco and Verduno. Between the villages, and as far as the eye can see, there are vineyards. Lots and lots of vineyards.

Here’s a photo of the landscape. I think if you click on it, it will automatically expand the photo.

 Slate tile roofs and vineyards

Slate tile roofs and vineyards

Here’s a video of the area from the Barbaresco Tower. The river is the Fiume Tanaro. The music was being piped in during our visit.

The Piedmont has become a destination we choose for some of our guests. When Robin and her family visited, we made the 5-hour trek over the Alps and under Mont Blanc to Italy and onward to Piedmont. We stayed in a B&B run by a super cool dude named Omar and his family. Like many of the B&Bs in the area, they are run by families that are also in the business of making wine. One afternoon, Omar had us all pile into his truck and tour the vineyard. Here he is showing Robin how to use a refractometer.

Robin

Robin checking the sugar content of Omar’s grapes.

I’ve written before about Cliff and Ellen, and how they are the most serious oenophiles that I know. Here we are at Omar’s B&B again. (We loved the place so much, we took two sets of guests there!)

Omar

That’s Omar sharing his wares at a pre-dinner wine tasting.

True in the Piedmont as all of Italy, you never have to venture far to see and visit some really cool old buildings. I can’t remember anymore which hilltop village this castle is located in. I do remember tasting some nice wine while we were there.

Piedmont chateau

Got too buzzed to remember where this was exactly…

The thing to do on a typical day in the Piedmont is to drive around to five or six of the villages and stop along the way at the vineyards for tastings! The best part is that every tasting experience is different. And I’m not referring to the wine. The experience of the wine tasting itself is always an entirely new adventure! The wine, the hosts, the scene and the setting are always unique.

Here is one place we sat and tasted wine. I actually do remember this one. We heard some commotion behind a closed door, so I knocked, opened it up, and saw a big family group all sitting together drinking wine. Afraid we might be intruding, I asked sheepishly “can we taste some of your wine?” Next thing I know, we’re sitting with everyone tasting great red wine, and later joining the whole family group on a tour of the wine making operation! They totally made us feel completely welcome! We thanked them by purchasing a substantial amount of their wine! Here’s where they keep it before they put it in a bottle.

Oak barrels

These are 500 litre oak barrels

The Piedmont region is home to 42 “controlled designation of origin”, a quality assurance label for Italian wines, like the French “Appellation d’origine contrôlée (AOC)” designations. With so many choices, it can be difficult to select just the right bottle of wine. But we’ve discovered that it usually turns out pretty well.

Wine

decisions… decisions….

Death or Glory! We hike 2,100 meters up to snowy Piz Gloria on Schilthorn!

Followers of this blog will recall my affinity for the Lauterbrunnen Valley and the mountains of the Bernese Oberland region, including the Eiger, Monch, and Jungfrau mountains. I’ve taken virtually every visitor we’ve had to Lauterbrunnen, usually incorporationg the hike between Grutschalp and Murren, then down to Stechelberg and back to Lauterbrunnen through the valley.

But every time I’ve been there, when the weather was clear, I’d glance up the valley to the highest peak, called Schilthorn and say to myself, “Some day I will hike all the way up there.” I mentioned this to one of my favorite hiking companions, Patrick, who was in town for a visit, and the two of us decided it would be a great adventure and a lot of fun to hike it together.

I took this photo of the map of the hike. Maybe if you click on it, it’ll get bigger. We started down on the valley floor in Stechelberg, on the left side of the map. Our destination: Piz Gloria atop Schilthorn, that peak at the top of the map. The hike is supposed to take 6 hours, and the vertical climb is 2,100 meters, or about a mile and a quarter.

Map

An artist’s rendering of the mountain we climbed

Because you are climbing over a mile from the valley floor up to a mountaintop, the hiker experiences several transitions – topographical, geological, and meteorological – along the way. I found that the hike might best be described by three distinct phases: Green, Black, and White.

Green
We arrived at the trailhead in Stechelberg at about 10:30 AM and started up the trail to a gentle sprinkle. We had been warned that we might encounter some snow at the higher altitudes but at the beginning, it was lush and green, as well as a little damp. This part of the hike was along a mostly forested trail that climbed the valley wall, from Stechelberg up to Murren. An hour or so into the hike, we passed the tree line and walked along a gravel road through grassy green pastures.

Here’s the video I took as we approached Murren.

Black
We stopped for water and a snack in Murren then made our way back to the trail, headed upward to a gondola station named Birg. This portion of the hike was mostly on a rocky roadway, although to call it a “roadway” is a little misleading. It’s incredibly steep, I don’t think any ordinary vehicle could make it up there, even under ideal conditions. We thought maybe its a skier’s trail, but not one I’d ever want to ski down.

We did encounter some slushy snow on our way up to Birg, but the feature that really stands out at this altitude is the blackness of the stones, those underfoot as well as the big rocks that make up the mountain. I took a photo of this giant rock along the road.

Black rock

All the rocks, including this big one, are pitch black.

Here’s another short video I shot. This one does feature some snow and some mostly white woolen friends we encountered, but note the blackness of the road we’re walking.

White
The final phase of the hike was white. At this point, there wasn’t just snowfall from the night before. The snow was actively falling. The good news was we were still on a very secure, wide road so we decided to push on beyond Birg.

Here is a photo I took from a brochure which shows our destination, Piz Gloria, which is the name of the building at the summit of Schilthorn. It’s claim to fame, and the way they aggressively market it, is that it was the setting of the Bad Guy’s lair in the otherwise forgettable James Bond film, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service starring Timothy Dalton as James Bond, Telly Savalas as the bad guy. In any event, as we would soon discover firsthand, the whole building is a shrine to the flick, including a James Bond gift shop, a James Bond “museum” featuring props from the movie, video screens everywhere that roll scenes from the movie, and images that appear on the bathroom mirror that recite dialogue from the film as you wash your hands. It’s all a little annoying, to be perfectly honest.

Piz Gloria

Piz Gloria stop Schilthorne. Bond film On Her Majesty’s Secret Service was shot here

So that’s where we were headed, and before long, we could see the gondola through the fog coming and going from Piz Gloria! Our destination was in sight, six hours and 2,100 vertical meters after heading out that morning. Here’s the final video I took as we approached the Schilthorn mountaintop. Yes, it’s snowy but we can see it!
We’re almost there!

As we made our way up through the snow toward the summit and the warmth of Piz Gloria, it wasn’t hard to imagine what real mountain climbers must experience. We could very easily imagine that we were carefully considering the best route, or that we were using ropes to secure ourselves along some of the steeper slopes, or crossing narrow land bridges on the final approach. It felt just like we were real mountaineers, climbing a snowy Swiss peak!

The last 45 minutes or so were a real challenge, but we made it! We entered the warmth of the Piz Gloria, and were heartily welcomed by this woman who manages the James Bond-themed restaurant. She said they were preparing to close and offered us free sandwiches that she was getting ready to toss out. Patrick and I sat and ate our sandwiches and reminisced about an adventure that we’ll both remember for a very long time.

Piz Gloria restaurant

This kind woman fed us for free!

Our friends Philippe and Linda at ArtyGlaces make the best ice cream in Geneva… no, make that Switzerland… no wait, Europe… scratch that, ON THE ENTIRE PLANET!

One hot summer day a couple years ago shortly after arriving in Geneva, we were wandering around town and had a hankering for some good ice cream. So we googled: “best ice cream shop in Geneva” seeking hints on where we might go to find some. Up came a place called “ArtyGlaces”, located right in town, a few blocks away from the junction of the Rhone and Arve rivers. We put away our phones and made our way there.

Three years and much incredibly delicious ice cream later, I can honestly say that it was the best recommendation I’ve ever received from Google. This is a fun story about friendship and making delicious ice cream.

Here’s who you see when you enter the shop.

Linda and Philippe

Our best friends, Linda and Philippe on the job.

That’s Linda and Philippe. They have been making ice cream at ArtyGlaces since 2012. They are the entire operation, just the two of them. Philippe (who also has an MBA from a prestigious university) is a trained ice cream maker, having learned the craft in Italy. He is the “chemist” crafting the detailed recipes for any particular flavor, and they make roughly 40 different flavors of gelato and sorbet. Watching Philippe work is like watching a scientist in a lab, measuring out each ingredient to the gram, using a hand-held refractometer to measure the content of sugar in a specific fruit, and obsessively cleaning as he goes about his work. Here he is adding some sugar to the base for his next batch.

Philippe pouring

Philippe is pouring some sugar into the machine that mixes the milk base used in production the following day.

Linda is a very talented graphic artist and designs all the packaging – cups and lids – that feature beautiful images of the natural ingredient used in each flavor, as well as all the promotional materials. She’s also the friendliest person you’d ever want to meet, a trait that shines through when it comes to customer relations and service. On our first visit to the shop, she insisted we take a taste of every single flavor before deciding. That day I thought maybe there was something special about us, but it turns out that’s how she treats everyone on their first visit. She’s an outstanding cook and knows her way around a kitchen, a skill that is very valuable for an ice cream maker. Here she is working with some fresh vanilla.

Linda working hard

Linda is painstakingly extracting the heart of these vanilla fruit stalks for their next batch.

Here the two of them are working together.

Philippe working

Philippe and Linda filtering the vanilla

We know good ice cream when we taste it, so it wasn’t long before we started making regular visits to ArtyGlaces, not just for the ice cream, but also to drop in and say “bonjour” to our new friends. It’s safe to say we became “regulars”, finding any excuse we could to buy their ice cream. We hosted a party with around 30 people on two occasions and what did we feature for desert? Eight flavors of ArtyGlaces ice cream, that’s what. We brought just about all of our house guests, there, too Here’s a picture I took of Linda with my brother-in-law Bruce and sister-in-law Julie along with their daughters Laura and Grace on their visit last October.

Linda with friends

Linda with Bruce, Julie, Laura, and Grace. Yep, all 4 of them tasted every flavor!

As time went on, we moved beyond a business/customer relationship and built a solid friendship. Whenever we visited, they would give me tips on my French (Linda once told me that I just needed to improve my grammar and my vocabulary… what else is there?, I wondered) and we helped Linda once edit a cover letter in English for a potential client. They invited us out to their home in the French mountains outside of Geneva, and we had them over for a lasagna dinner at our place.

Now fast-forward to just a few months ago. We were talking about their business one day, and I happened to mention that some day it would be fun to spend a day helping them make the ice cream. They readily accepted my offer, and the next thing I know, I’m spending the day helping to measure and mix the ingredients, writing “best-if-used-by” dates on all the cups that they sell to restaurants, outdoor parks and other places… (They have one client who is a “naturalist” and Linda and Philippe tell a funny story joking about who’s job it was to make that delivery run!), and any of the many other tasks required to make the best damn ice cream you’ve ever tasted.

Here’s a short video I took of me entering the shop to report to work one day. You’ll recognize the trademark SwissSojourner video production quality, or lack thereof, but it’s still fun to see.

Here’s another short video of Philippe, my mentor, making darn sure I don’t completely screw something up, which is easier to do than you might imagine.

These days, I try to get over and help them out once every week or so. I always really look forward to spending the day with Philippe and Linda. Having a relaxing coffee and croissant after arriving, then donning our aprons and getting to work, all the while speaking French and English (depending on how important it is that I understand what I’m being told) and just having a great time making really awesome ice cream. Its fun seeing the customers’ faces – kids, especially – light up when they taste it for the first time, or to hear the “regulars” discuss their favorite flavors.

One time, I noticed Philippe chuckling to himself. “What’s so funny?” I asked him. He just replied in his french way of speaking “who would have thought when you came to Geneva that you’d soon find yourself in this shop making ice cream?”. Life’s kind of funny that way.

ArtyGlaces double scoop

This is the best ice cream on the planet. This one is Cassis (blackcurrant) sorbet and Fleur-de-Lait – Photo credit: Kelly Reykdal

I “race” hiked up a Swiss mountain!

About three months ago, a friend of mine happened to mention that he had registered for a “race hike” up a mountain near Montreux, on the east end of Lake Geneva. I was like, “Seriously? Mountain race hiking? That’s a thing?” and when he replied yes, I went and registered for the race.

It’s a “race”, but many of us treat it more as a challenging hike. But because participants pay for the privilege, wear a bib with a race number (mine was 1010, a good binary string, for you IT types) and a timing chip, that makes it a race. I entered in the category of “Hiker” (as opposed to “Runner”… more on that in a minute) along with about 200 other people. The starting line is on the main street of Montreux, home to the world famous Montreux Jazz Festival, so early the morning of the race, we all went down to Montreux, on the Lake Geneva shoreline (copyright Deep Purple). The finish line was the top of a nearby mountain called Rochers-de-Naye, which translates roughly to “Rocks-of-Naye” in French. The course is 18 kilometers long, but more importantly, it’s 1,600 meters (5,250 feet or essentially one mile) up. Here is a really cool two-and-a-half minute video clip I just found on youtube that shows the entire course. This is really neat. Check it out!

I arrived in Mantreux for my 7:30 race start at about 6:45 and stepped off the train into a steady rainfall. The forecast was for rain all morning, which is fine. I can hike in rain. Here’s a short video I shot of the start of the race.

The first four of five kilometers was along a narrow trail, which meant we had to basically hike in single file. I settled in behind a comparably fast hiker, shown here.

Woman in poncho

I drafted off this poncho clad woman for the first 4 K.

After five kilometers or so, the trail opens up to a narrow, paved roadway that winds through some pastures. There were no human spectators along this section of the course, so I drew inspiration from the dairy cows and goats along the way and imagined they were cheering us on. Here are some photos I took of our four legged fans.

Cows along course

They’re not saying BOOOO!, They’re saying MOOOOO!

Sheep

They’re not saying BAAAA!, they’re saying MAAAAAT!

A nice feature of this race course is that it was so well marked. You always knew exactly how far you have come and how far you have to go. To illustrate this point, I took this selfie at the 8K to go marker.

8 K to go

10K down, 8 to go!

Here’s another video I shot at about the same point in the race. The problem with the rain isn’t that I was wet. I was prepared for that. The problem with the rain is that it obstructed what is ordinarily a beautiful view from the mountain down to Lake Geneva and the alps across the lake. Majestic views can be a great distraction on an 18K uphill hike. But alas, on this day it was not to be.

Another nice feature of this race is the live entertainment provided at some of the water stations. I shot this as I hiked through the 6K-to-go waterstop. This trio totally rocked the alpinehorn!

Alpinehorns

It wouldn’t be a Swiss event without the Alpinehornists!

As I indicated earlier, there are some people that actually run this damn thing. The runners started 90 minutes after us, which means they started passing us with about five or six kilometers to go. This is not a problem as long as the path is wide enough for a runner to easily pass you, but the last three or so kilometers was back on a narrow (very steep) uphill trail, which means us hikers had to keep one eye on our rearview mirrors in order not to be “that guy” who doesn’t know enough to get out of the way of a runner. The winning time among runners was 1 hour, 26 minutes, by some freak of nature from Great Britain. That compares to my time of 3 hours 23 minutes. I’m pretty sure the winner didn’t stop to take pictures and videos along the way, though, so you need to factor that in.

Here’s a picture I took of a runner who was in third place as he passed me.

Runner

Some people actually run this thing, which is insane!

My goal was to finish in 3 hours and 20 minutes, and I think I was on pace to do just that, until I hit the last kilometer, which consisted of a narrow path with switchbacks every 20 meters or so, and as you looked ahead on the trail searching for the end, all you could see was a line of hikers basically right above you (as opposed to in front to you) snaking up the mountain. So my last kilometer was a little slower than the first 17. I did manage to get out my phone and record the following video as I approached and crossed the finish line. But as followers of this blog will attest, my video production skills are sometimes lacking, and for some reason there is no audio, but it still gives a sense of the scene at the finish line.

I think I’ll do this race again next year.

I took an epic solo hike along the south coast of the Portofino peninsula in Italy

I’ve written before on hiking the Cinqua Terra trail along the Mediterranean coast in northern Italy, an adventure I’ve done twice – once with Patrick and again with my friends Ken and Jane. This time, on a trip to Italy with our most frequent visitors Cliff and Ellen, we had the opportunity to explore a new stretch of the Italian Mediterranean coastline, the Portofino peninsula. Continue reading

If you love mosaic stone paving, you will love Lisbon, Portugal.

One feature of many European cities that I especially enjoy and that distinguishes them from a typical American city is the craftsmanship that goes into paving the streets and walking surfaces. Wander around virtually any American city, and what do you see? Concrete and asphalt mostly. But wander around any European city, and the the streets, sidewalks, boulevards, plazas are very often characterized by beautiful stonework that is itself an art form.

We visited Lisbon a few months back and since we love to explore every city we visit by foot, we discovered that Lisbon is a city where virtually all of the sidewalks and plazas are themselves works of art. Continue reading

Para-gliding looks like fun. Sort of.

Setting aside for the moment the fact that I am pretty scared of heights, I have recently found myself thinking that if I had my life to live over again, I might go ahead and get my high school degree because I might need something to fall back on, but then move to Switzerland and become a para-glider guide. From my vantage point, those dudes seem to lead a pretty good life.

Paragliding is that sport where you rely on updrafts to lift you (and a partner, for a tandem flight) up off the earth as you basically run off a cliff. Continue reading