Tuesday, 22 November 2016

Four Countries in One Day

There were only two days left on our vacation, but over the course of the next 12 hours our journey would take us through four countries:  Germany, Austria, Liechtenstein, and Switzerland.  You can do this in Europe, set foot in four countries in one day, especially when some of those countries are rather small.  

Our day started in Germany.  Eric got up early that morning, as he usually does on our trips, and snuck out of our cozy apartment in Pfronten and headed out for one last drive through the Bavarian countryside.  He found his way back to Mad Ludwig's castle, and I can't blame him.  This most famous of German castles is something to see sitting up on it's perch nestled between the Bavarian mountains.  

But he also saw this...

And this...

Such incredibly beautiful scenery.

 And don't forget the cows...

Those gentle giants we saw and heard over and over again standing knee deep in the lush green Bavarian grass with nary a care in the world. 

I was excited to visit Switzerland for the first time in my life, which is where we would be by day's end, but was I really ready to leave this scene? 

Despite our reluctance to move on, we packed our things and waved goodbye to our lovely little Bavarian apartment and the town of Pfronten.  But my sadness didn't last long that morning because within a few minutes we had crossed into Austria and had to pull over for some more cows.  Yes, we may seem a little obsessed here with the dairy herds, but these cows are really beautiful.  First of all, look at the setting they get to live in.  

I mean come on!  Can you have any more of a stress free life than spending your day grazing in the rolling hills of the Austrian Alps while listening to the rush of the water in the mountain creek nearby? 

And these cows were unlike any we've ever seen.  These are Allgau brown cows, specific to this region.  We had never seen cattle of this color before, a soft color that sits somewhere between gray and brown, much different from the black and white herds we are use to seeing back in the states.  In the summer, they graze on lush alpine grass higher up in the mountains which gives their milk a unique flavor, making it and the products made from it quite popular.  And those bells, that delightful jingling we heard over and over and over again.  Now, to be honest, I wondered if that bothered the cows.  I don't think I would like an object that jingled every time I moved wrapped around my neck.  But these cows didn't seem any worse for wear.  They seemed positively unconcerned about the bells.    

We continued on, driving through a valley heading deeper into the Austrian Alps and following the river Lech.  The limestone rock combined with the cold alpine waters makes this river the most intriguing milky color, and of course we didn't get very far before we once again pulled over for some photos...

And some fun.  The huge fluffy white heads of these huge dandelions were just too much to resist.

Soon we continued on, bumping into one small town after another.   

By small, I mean most were not more than a few blocks long, if that.  We stopped to take a short walk through one, the few buildings lining the narrow, main road through town was the entire town.   

But despite it's tiny size and population, there was a church, a small chapel that the road wrapped around.  

In fact every town we passed through, no matter how small, had a church, and often the route of the road through town was dictated by the placement of the church.   As happened over and over again on our travels through Germany and now into Austria, when we stepped inside one of these rural Austrian churches so modestly decorated on the outside, we were simply amazed by the interiors… 

The paintings on the ceilings…

and the ornately decorated alters. 

What a spectacular drive…

through a spectacular country.

But there was more to see that day.

From Austria, we passed into one of the smallest countries in Europe, Liechtenstein, with a population of approximately 37,000 and covering a mere 62 square miles.  

This tiny country is long and skinny and we were driving across it the short way.  Needless to say, it didn’t take us long to get through Liechtenstein... 

Literally 20 minutes, maybe.

I don't know in these next few photos where Liechtenstein ended and Switzerland began.  

Both countries look the same, and often in Europe you cross the border from one country into another and don't even know it.  

We had plugged our final destination into the GPS, as we had done numerous times before while traveling by car through Europe.  And every time it had gotten us to our destination, until this day. By late afternoon, we were following its' guidance across the Swiss countryside heading towards the town we had plugged into it, but a GPS is only as good as the information we humans enter, and on this particular day, our information had been wrong.  Well, not entirely.  We had plugged in the correct town name, only, there was more than one town by that name in Switzerland, something we hadn't realized when we had chosen the wrong town from the choices on the screen that afternoon.  After a couple of hours, the GPS signaled that we had reached our final destination and we found ourselves well out in the country on the side of a hill on a narrow road barely wider than our car with not a hotel in sight.  In fact there wasn't much of anything in sight but some farms and cows of course.  After driving around for several minutes trying to figure out what we had done wrong, we pulled out the paper map and discovered our mistake - there were in fact two towns in Switzerland with the same name.  Even though the scenery that day had been stunning, it was now early evening, the drive had been long and we were ready to get out of the car and rest.  Only our hotel was nowhere in the vicinity.  All was not lost though, if you can find a silver lining in this little snafu.  We plugged the correct destination into the GPS and were a mixture of happy and deflated.  First reaction - our hotel was only 1 1/2 hours away.  Yeah! It could have been much worse.  Reaction number two - Ugh.  Our hotel is another 1 1/2 hours drive away!

Well, we had no choice so off we went, seeing more of the Swiss countryside than we had expected to see that day.  We were all starving as it was into the evening now, so we stopped at the easiest and quickest place we could find for a bite to eat - McDonalds.  I'm not proud of this fact.  Not exactly the first meal I had wished to have in Switzerland, but sometimes you gotta do what you gotta do.  The irony though is that we had to economy shop the menu at McDonalds of all places because holy cow Swiss McDonalds are expensive, like everything in Switzerland, so we weren't all that surprised, but this was McDonalds.  We bought in bulk in an attempt to keep the cost down - no happy meals today girls.  Sorry!  We all shared a 20 piece Chicken McNugget, one order of french fries (which are listed as pommes frites on the Swiss McDonalds menu and although that makes them sound fancy, their price isn't fancy at all), and one medium soda.  In the US, a 20 piece Chicken McNuggets cost $4.99.  In Switzerland, it costs $15.90, triple the price.  Ouch!

Anywho, we trekked on and even though the drive through the countryside on narrow twisting and turning roads through a very beautiful but rural setting for the last half hour of this drive also left us wondering if we were heading in the right direction, we finally rounded a bend at the top of a beautiful Swiss hill and there it was, the family run guesthouse we would be spending the night at.  

A beautiful sight indeed after our long day and misdirection.  And a surprise as well.  First of all, the inn was huge despite it's very rural setting.  There were only simple houses and farms for as far as the eye could see.  But this building houses not only the guest rooms, but a restaurant, bakery and the living quarters for the family that runs it as well.  

 Our room was large, dated, and very simply furnished, but very, very clean.

  The girls slept in an adjacent room, or more like a large cubbyhole in the wall.  

They loved it!  It was like their own secret hideout.  

But what really blew us away about this first place we stayed in Switzerland was the incredible view from the top of the hill that this humble and modest guesthouse stands on.   

Just a short walk up the road from the inn and you reach the very top of this hill, and in every direction you turn...

Rolling green hills, farms, and moutains... 

Majestic, breathtaking mountains, some still covered in late spring snow.  

This is the Switzerland I have always imagined.  We had no idea this inn would be located in such a setting.  What an awesome surprise!  

And those cows again...

It just makes me shake my head to think that the cows get to see this picture each and everyday as they graze away on the lush grass.  

We Americans would pay an obscene amount of money to have a house or cabin in the Alps but these creatures get to call this place home for free.  Well, I guess they do have to give up their milk twice a day and you could consider that payment, but these cows are spending their lives how cows should, eating grass and looking positively lazy while doing it.  I don't suppose they appreciate how lucky they are.

We had arrived that evening too late for dinner in the restaurant which I greatly regret because I would have loved to have seen and tasted what this family that runs the guesthouse/restaurant/bakery has to offer.  The head chef and baker is a friendly 70 or so year old man with a head full of white hair that perfectly matches the white chef's jacket he was wearing ever time we saw him.  We may have missed dinner, but we did get to enjoy breakfast in the cozy dining room.  It was a seemingly simple breakfast but sometimes it's the simplest foods, lovingly prepared with good ingredients, that are the best.  Fresh breads and crossaints from the huge oven that jutted out into the dining room.  Jars of jam, five or six different kinds, made in the same kitchen as the bread (the plum was the best jam I've ever had, but the rose hip I can only describe as interesting).  And local cheese, yogurt and coffee.  We could have ordered eggs as well, but when you have a table full of fresh bread and homemade jams in front of you, why bother with eggs.  

After breakfast, the bakery/head chef/inn keeper was kind enough to bring us back into the kitchen to see the bread oven.  While the oven was originally woodburning, it's been converted to gas which means he doesn't have to get up quite so early every morning to get this behemoth heated up for the day's baking.  He starts at about 4:00 am and it's early in the morning that the temperature inside the oven gets the hottest.  He bakes a variety of breads and pastries, and the order in which he prepares and bakes this deliciousness is dictated by the heat of the oven.  Items needing more heat are baked earlier in the morning, and later as the oven cools, the more delicate items are baked.  When we were in the kitchen, he had individual apple strudels in the the oven.  He asked if we wanted to see them.  We eagerly nodded our heads yes, so from the corner of the kitchen he grabs a paddle, like a pizza paddle except that the handle was five or six or maybe even seven feet long.  He opened the iron door on the oven and slowly inserted the long paddle deeper and deeper into the oven.  This oven is so deep that there is no peaking to see if your bread looks done, usually signified by a lovely brown color.  With this oven, the baker just knows when his creations are done.  He simply uses his instincts and years of experience.  He slowly extracted the long paddle from the oven, and after what seemed like an eternity of waiting to me, there emerged on the end of the paddle beautiful apple pastries.  I wish we had been sticking around long enough to sink our teeth into one.  But we didn't leave empty handed.  Sitting out on the counter behind us was a tray of freshly baked braided bread.  After checking out of the guesthouse, we walked out with a loaf of this fluffy still slighly warm bread under my arm.  We didn't even make it to the car before the bag was open and everyone was grabbing for a piece of the braided bread.  We had no butter or jam, but from the chorus of "oh my goshes" and "my goodnesses" that immediately erupted, we didn't need them.  

Now, as you can tell from the pictures above, this guesthouse is located on top of a big hill out in the country down a narrow road with not a town in sight.  So who, you may be wondering, exactly do they sell all of this delicious bread and other sweet confections to?  Well, as we were checking out of the guesthouse, we were surprised when we turned around in the tiny, low ceilinged reception/bakery room to find a line of people waiting behind us.  As we sat outside on the trunk of the car indulging in our own treat from this country bakery, we watched as these people emerged one by one with their bakery goods tucked under their arms.  One turning left and heading up the hill, disappearing over the rise as he returned to his house on foot.  Another woman got into her little car and headed up the hill as well.  And it wasn't more than a minute or two before we watched as a young teenage boy walked up the hill from the farm in the other direction, disappeared into the guesthouse/bakery and reemerged a few moments later with his loaf of fresh bread.  Such a simple thing - bread - gave us such a beautiful peak into everyday life in the mountains of Switzerland.

I leave you today with some more photos from Switzerland, from our walk around that hilltop with the bakery/guesthouse and from a Swiss town we stopped in for a couple of hours just to wander around.  We didn't spend much time in Switzerland, but yet I feel we got a wonderful and beautiful glimpse of what it would be like to live there, at least in a rural setting.  Peaceful, gorgeous, close to the earth, and with the kindness of neighbors who depend on each other.  That seems pretty darn idyllic to me.

Okay, I lied, I have a little bit more that I just have to share about Switzerland.  As we walked from the guesthouse up the road and over the top of the hill, we came upon this dairy farm.  The worn brown building in the back is the barn, and immediately to the left of it and not showing in this picture sat the farm house.  When we came back from our walk and passed the house again, they were bringing the cows into the barn, right past the house, and this is how they blocked the driveway to prevent their escape (that is the house sitting to the left in this photo with the window box full of red geraniums).

What a funny sight!  And a little further on, we watched as another farmer brought his cows into the barn as well, and they literally walked right through the yard to get there.  

After seeing all this quaintness in rural Switzerland, I have considered moving here and becoming a farmer.

As we walked and drove through the countryside, we would see these troughs filled with water over and over again, like this one that was sitting in front of the guesthouse.  

Was it actually for the cows?  Fresh drinking water?  We never figured it out.  

On our walk, we passed several informational signs along the side of the road.  They were in German so we couldn't tell exactly what they said, but each contained a picture, mainly of plants.  It wasn't hard to figure out that they were educating the public on the native and maybe invasive plants found on this hilltop.  But this one was a bit puzzling... 

And finally, the last thing I'll share and then I promise to be silent and let you just enjoy the rest of Switzerland.  We stopped in a charming town on our drive back to France where we would be catching a plane early the next morning back to England, and in this town, we found a church with a cemetery next to it.  We wandered through it for a bit, amazed by the beautiful and creative etchings on many of the headstones, like this one...

Piglets suckling from their mama.  A pig farmer or someone with a great sense of humor?  Maybe both.  Obviously I didn't know this person, but it brought a smile to my face, and I bet that is was they intended.

Small church.

Medium church.

Big church.

Lots of churches.

And that my friends was our first glimpse of Switzerland.  We will be back!