Saturday, August 27, 2011

Switching over to Switzerland

Vista of Bern from the Rose Garden

See, who wouldn't want to live here?
(the water of the Aare River really is this colour!)

We took a late afternoon TGV from Paris - Gare de Lyon heading for Bern, and not knowing anything about either the town or Switzerland itself we were going “naked chef” - without recipe. Bern would be the first of many couch-surfing visits we were hoping to make on this European trip. We arrived at Banhoff Bern pretty late in the night and were greeted by two of the world’s loveliest people, Chantal and Marco. They rode their bikes down to greet us at the station and they even let me ride Chantal’s bike back to Marco’s place with him where we would be staying. This was the first event that really allowed me to see just how relaxed, civilized and held together life in Bern really is.

Vinko & Chanti, like old friends.

Marco and Colette and The Unmistakably Swiss Cow

On the way I saw Marco weaving across random roads, in front of buses and cars, onto tram lines and over traffic bridges…and no one seemed to mind! In fact they made space for us and slowed down, they were quite accepting of our presence there. This I thought must be something that many people can do and it is quite normal to treat cyclists with care and acceptance. And there was not a single sign saying you can’t do this or that…wow, common sense rules here.

...well, there was this sign.
Bern immediately took to me, and I took to it. It’s a beautiful town, it is the capital of Switzerland and so no expenses are spared on making it public and pedestrian transport friendly, while keeping it utterly stunning and magical. The landscape is dramatic enough with the river making a strong curve on both sides of the UNESCO centre old town, the banks on either side drop sharply to the cold gushing crystal water and beautiful bridges allow you to cross easily between both sides. From the bridges you can appreciate the lovely water a long way down below you and the charming magic of the amber glowing historical town, it’s castles and churches, bell towers and clocks, houses and cobble streets.

A couple having coffee on their 4th story "balcony"

In a few short words, Bern is what architects and urban planners all over the world dream of. It is picturesque, cultural and historic, easily navigable with outstanding public services and transport, high density and active, with bounds and bounds of beautiful green country side just nearby. Of course Switzerland being Switzerland, and this being the capital, everything works like clockwork, smooth and accurate, and everything runs on time and is reliable.

It would be a crime for a designer to miss out on this
(Lucia, look out for our little pink friend)
 We basically stayed in a 5 star hotel or holiday apartment while in Bern. Marco stayed over at Chanti’s place while we were there which meant we had his whole lovely apartment to ourselves! And what a nice apartment it was…spacious, bright, logical and functional, with Swiss taps, sinks, shower, toilet, cupboards, lamps, all of which work perfectly and look well designed.

One thing that really strikes you in Switzerland is just how much appreciation the people have for good graphic representation, and they implement this fantastically which tells me they really appreciate good design. This wonderfully clear visual communication if evident in everything that’s…well visual, from public transport diagrams to street signs, advertising posters to shop signs, warning signs to menus, door numbers to bus shelters. Everything appears thought out, designed and well presented…really, it is a great place for graphic design, architecture and in particular industrial design.

We took a quick trip out to the Westside Shopping Center to appreciate the design.
These were just your average public toilets
Westside, outside. This is a shopping center, for goodness sake!
So you could say we had a very comfortable stay in Bern, Chanti and Marco made sure we felt completely spoiled the whole time. They treated us like good old time friends or family, invited us home for a traditional dinner, took us out in the town, showed us the sights and sounds, and even tried to tell us as much as they could about the towns and countries interesting multi-cultural history. Marco even bought a historical guide book to Bern just to satisfy my intense curiosity!

The Kornhauskeller, founded beneath the 18th century granary, is spectacular to behold (and bedrink)

The start of the amazing raclette dinner that Chanti made us.
This was a couch surfing dream, not only a place to stay but what a place to stay and awesome friends to go with. All of this added up to me wanting to live in Bern, without joking if I got a job in Bern tomorrow I would be there at the drop of a hat! Ok, so I may be a little biased…I am an architect after all. Thank you guys for making us feel so welcome and giving us a great introduction to this amazing country! (…and see you soon)

We also spent a day in Lausanne, in the south of Switzerland on Lac Léman. It's also a very pretty place, so here is some eye candy:

Jose, another new Couch Surfing friend, was a wonderful host who took us to a free jazz concert in the park

The End.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Gayer Paree - Bienvenue à Paris!

That was the title of my good friend Dan Homewood’s email before we met up in Paris, I liked it a lot.

I can hear opera music

As far as I am concerned we covered just about everything one should and could cover when in Paris for only five days. We ate great food (not overlooking the all time favorite baguette and croissant), visited many cultural and historical places, drank good wine and beer, ran ourselves off our feet walking all over Paris and yet never lost that emblematic notion of being happily immersed in a romantic and exquisite place.

Now this looks a little dangerous to do stark naked, right?

The best crepe in, actually really

Finishing one of these babies is no walk in the park!

Here are three myths about Paris that we busted:
  • Parisians are not all rude, only on the metro and even then only certain cultures.
  • The prices are not that ridiculously high, you can eat, drink and play at quite a reasonable price – the stunning Tour d’Eiffel was only €4.70!
  • Nothing spectacularly amazing happens after midnight (damn you Woody Allen), mostly you get exhausted from all the days colorful experiences and you end up in bed.
The fountain at Sainte Michele

This mosque was turned into a rather stunning cafe/restaurant with some really nice garden seating outside too

Paris' own Pantheon
Off with his head!!!
The Vinkoyle...

The watch tower of Sainte Jacques, so many little time

Now, here are three things you did not know about Paris:
  • They have an amazing living archive of art history and culture, and they have always been very proud of it so unlike some other nations they have really looked after it.
  • Contrary to popular belief most people can and will speak English at least to some reasonable degree, some even take English lessons (my sister Ana is a language teacher) and therefore are looking to practice – but you do have to try being respectful and polite, don’t assume everybody should be able to understand your English immediately; try bonjour, s’il vouz plait, merci and you will be amazed at how much more approachable the people become.
  • Parisians are not just people that wear funny hats, drink coffee and smoke cigarettes all day while plotting their next revolution, some actually hang out at parks and play bocce with a beer in their hand…they are actually quite normal life-loving people!

Colette captures this rather romantic instance in front of Notre Dame in Paris, the plaza in front is swarming with little finches that tourists feed from their hands

This Asian bride wanted wedding photos at night in front of the Paris Opera, how nice!

Miraculously walking on water in front of the Louvre
Ever had the fleeting feeling that you are just flying through a place?

Colette's most accomplished photograph to date, this flying chair ride over the Tullerie allowed us to see Paris in an entirely different way

My family passed through Paris in a flash back in 94’ when we flew out of Croatia for the first time to immigrate to New Zealand. I don’t remember very much from that time, I was only 11, but I remember thinking that I would always like to come back sometime again and get so see it a bit better. I feel very fortunate that I was indeed able to do that again, and as an adult I was really able to get into it for this short but packed-in period of time. Of course it helped quite considerably that my sister and her boyfriend both live and work in Paris, and were excellent hosts making themselves available for touring us in and around Paris.

In front of Sainte Chapelle
Inside the amazing Sainte Chapelle

Intricately carved plates of the Creation Myth at Sainte Chapelle...

...and here is Noah's Ark too!

One really stand out day was the one where all four of us jumped into a Hertz hire car and drove to Champagne to try the origin of sparkling wines! I thought I was a well seasoned wine taster from my days in the wine regions of a few continents, but trust me when I tell you that champagne is something quite different. Sparkling wine tends to make you drunker, quicker…so much so that you are looking at twice the rate usual wine touring would. Add to that really nice hot summer weather and the general fatigue that comes from running about the whole place, and you have yourself quite a challenge to back up. But what an awesome day we had! The absolute highlight for me would have to be the short tour of a small section of the 18km of catacomb tunnels that exist below Pommery, topped off with a tasting of some of their best champagnes…the Blanc de Noir at Pommery is to die for, and still reasonably affordable – I truly recommend you buy the bottle when you see it.

Happy Champagne birthday to these two little happy birds in front of the Notre Dame of Reims!

The man watching over the champagne valley

Tasting champagne at Chateau La Fond

This intricately carved barrel at Pommery was used when sending a gift of champagne wine to America way back in time and it can hold the equivalent volume of 100,000 bottles!

The hippo was shaped using the clay soil which forms the floor of the Pommery dungeon cellar

Champagne at Pommery goes through a very intricate turning and storing process which lasts 18 months, each day during their time here every one of the bottles are turned 1/4 clockwise and then 1/6 anti-clockwise the next day

All in all a massive thanks to Ana and Andrea for hosting us so well, we had a great time in Paris and would look forward to visiting again sometime in the future. Au revoir, bon journé!

Good friends, good food and good drink - it's what life's high points are all about!