Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Alpine Biking - Tour de Romandie

In selecting the countries/regions for  my blog, I checked in with friends and family to get their suggestions, and my Dad is the one who inspired me to check out the Alps. Dad is a big cyclist these days, and he's been following some of the races that wind their way through Alpine regions, and there happens to be one going on right now!

The Tour de Romandie is a 6 day race through the French-speaking part of Switzerland, and it began in 1947.  The race has a little bit of everything - flat stages, time trials, and a tough mountain finish that ends in some breathtaking Alpine scenery.  The race is known for having some narrow passages and for traversing ancient roads - some of which dating back to the Romans!

Here are some pix of the race in years past:

I loooooove this picture. I watched a Rick Steves Alpine show the other day and there were cows EVERYWHERE in Switzerland, so this seems super fitting!

This is the map for this year's race.

I read one cyclists' description of the yesterday's route - which tackled classic Romandie countryside complete with narrow, twisty roads and lush hills, and climaxed with a climb up Col du Pillon, with the cyclists reaching 1545 meters before descending to a ski resort. Whew!

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Alpine Skiing - a firsthand perspective

I stumbled upon this video during my lunch break today  - two skiers in the French Alps testing out head-mounted HD cameras. It starts off a bit tame, but then they fly off the edge of the mountain and parachute down. At one point they look back to see an avalanche that started on their heels. Crazy!

Monday, April 25, 2011

Der Biergarten - Alpine eating in Atlanta!

I recently visited my parents in Atlanta, and as they are avid followers of my blog, I figured it'd be fun to involve them in a culinary adventure!!!

Finding Alpine cuisine can be a bit tricky - it is quite difficult to find restaurants that specialize in food just from Alpine regions, however if you scour the menus of many Swiss, German, Austrian, French, and Italian restaurants, you can often find a couple of dishes that correspond with Alpine cuisine. As such, we figured we'd try out a German restaurant - "Der Biergarten" and try to find some Alpine delicacies from the Bavarian region of Germany!

This is the street view of "Der Biergarten" - it's located on the top floor of the structure.

The sign outside said "Come in - Drink Beer" ....I, of course, was happy to comply.

Mumsy dearest on her way up to the restaurant.

We sat in an outdoor patio. They had tables set up, I think to be reminiscent of a beer hall. The murals on the back wall featured beautiful landscapes, some of which with some Alpine mountain ranges in the distance!

I started off with a "Radler," which I mentioned in a previous blog. It's a mix of beer and lemon-lime soda. It was nice, but a bit sweet for me!

The bar was dark and seemed to be fashioned in an authentic manner.

We started off with a super yummy soft pretzel with three accompanying mustards...we were soooooooo happy.

And then the feasting began!!!!

My sister, Joyce (up in the top left hand corner) got some kind of beef stew that my dad thought was unbelievable. Mom and I split a few things I learned about in my research - spatzle (plate at the bottom), and potato pancakes (similar to reiberdatschi). We also got some salad, roasted potatoes, and a cucumber salad (which I had also read about in my research). Dad got some kind of roll with corned beef and saurkraut. Everything was super yummy!

I had a beer from the Paulaner Brewery, located in Munich, just north of the Bavarian Alps. Yummm - I liked it better than the Radler:)

For dessert we had German Chocolate Cake, and the Alpine treat Apple Strudel. Don't even think about trying to steal some from my sister!!!
I couldn't help but make my parents pose for this lovely photo op- the only time you'll ever see my mom holding a beer stein!

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Visiting the Alps in the lap of luxury

Well, after eating some delicious Alpine treats I've become more and more enamored with the idea of doing an Alpine tour. Today, I came across a few fabulous looking options for "roughing it" in the mountains:

Nuit Nature

Does the idea of sleeping under the stars appeal to you? How about waking up to see the sun rise over Mont Blanc?  If so, you should DEFINITELY check out Nuit Nature, an eco-friendly option for staying in the French alps.

Estelle and Olivier Isoux run this eco-tourist venue just outside the French mountain village of Combloux.  Visitors stay in a transparent plastic bubble in an isolated grass meadow away from any prying eyes (unless you count nearby donkeys), and experience total immersion in nature.  Depending on the season, visitors can watch snowflakes drift by, hear rain drops hit the plastic ceiling, check for constellations in the night sky, and revel in the sun rising over Mont Blanc.  

Now, don't worry, you don't have to run off to do your business in the woods - there are bathroom facilities about 50 meters away at the edge of the forest.  Olivier built a wooden cabin complete with sunken wooden tub, shower, sink and dry toilet. A generator runs to ensure that hot water is available, and you can even use handmade soaps in the shape of the donkeys that roam the property. 

A stay in the bubble will run you about 270 Euros a night, however that comes complete with a gourmet dinner, wine, and breakfast!

I'm basically obsessed with this. It's my new dream.

Alpine Snack-time!!!!!

One of my favorite things to do when I visit my parents in Georgia is to visit "Your DeKalb Farmers Market."  Starting in 1977, this market features foods from around the world and is a massive warehouse of ethnic delights. The store hires a lot of recent immigrants, encouraging them to bring their cultures and recipes.  They also feature a cafeteria where you can sample some international dishes and beverages.

So, while there I decided to pick up some Alpine snacks to share with my family. The result was delicious!!!

Well, obviously, I had to get some Swiss chocolate!  I went with some Lindt - I went for the "Swiss Classic" which was dark chocolate with crushed hazelnut. Oh man, delicious!!!! I love dark chocolate, but sometimes it can get a tad bitter, but not the case with this delicious specimen!!!!

Also, I picked up some swiss cheeses - Alpenhorn and Raglette.  Alpenhorn is a gouda produced in an Emmentaler style and is known to have sweet, nutty flavors.  It looked kinda like swiss cheese to me - it has holes and was kinda firm.   The Raglette is a Swiss mountain cheese and supposedly has a mix of wine and fruity aromas. It was melt-in-you-mouth smooth and soft, really yummy!

We picked up some fresh soft pretzels from the market's bakery - they remind us of the ones we used to get back when we lived in Pennsylvania Dutch territory..mmmm delicious! Pretzels are very German and are popular in the Alpine Bavarian region. I picked up some specialty mustards, including a French one to try to tie in another country that the Alps runs through. 

And, since the market has a great wine and beer selection and helpful staff, I picked one wine worker's brain to find an Alpine wine. He recommended an Austrian wine - the 2009 Kurt Angerer Gruner Veltliner.  Now, I am horrible in describing how wine for this I'd say "it's nice and light  and not too sweet and is easy to drink!" which says basically nothing, so I looked up a bit more and found out that it is is "singularly associated with Austria" and has "a bright, slightly vegetal scent with notes of flowers and white pepper accenting the green berry fruits"

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Alpine Cuisine - just a taste!

I love food, and as such every month of my journeys so far I have spent a significant amount of time looking up recipes and photos of regional foods. It has been tricky finding "Alpine" food, because there are so many regions falling within different international borders. I've seen some overlap and similarities, and also how some cuisine is linked with their national heritage as well. So here's my best attempt to share some alpine cuisine with you! - by the way, since I'm a vegetarian, I'm mostly avoiding discussing the meat dishes - sorry!!!!!

Breakfasts in the Alps often consist of meats, cheeses, fruit,  rolls and pastries with fruit jams, with variation from region to region.

Muesli/Birchermüesli (Switzerland) - a common breakfast cereal made of uncooked rolled oats, fruit and nuts, developed around 1900 by a Swiss physician for his patients in the hospital.

Appetizers and Side Dishes
Well, be prepared to see a lot of food with high fat content and a lot of dairy and carbs. The alpine villagers traditionally needed hearty food, derived from local sources, and as such a lot of cheese, butter and potatoes are involved in their diets!

Spätzle (German/Bavarian, Austrian, Swiss) - type of egg noodle with a soft texture
Käsespätzle (German/Bavarian) -   spätzle mixed with Emmental cheese

Obatzda (Bavarian) -  soft cheese mixed with butter, paprika, salt, pepper, onions, garlic, horseradish, cumin, caraway, spread on bread or pretzels

Reiberdatschi (Bavarian), Röschti (Swiss) - potato pancake.

Knödel (Austrian/Tyrolian, Bavarian), Canaderli (Italian) - Large round poached or boiled potato or bread dumplings, made without yeast.  They can be made from flour, potatoes, old bread, or semonlina.

Main Dishes
So, I already know that if I go to the Alps, I'm going to be eating a LOT of side dishes because their main dishes tend to be very meat-centered. That's ok though - there seems to be a lot of yummy sides, and just wait til we get to dessert!!!! But, anyways, lots of meat dishes are popular, including suckling pig! YIKES!!!

Alperrosti (Lichtenstein) - Similar to Swiss Röschti, this dish has a base of shredded fried potatoes which is flavored with bacon or ham, topped with a slice of Gruyere cheese and is served with a fried egg.

Gnocchi (Austria/Tyrol, Italy) - Thick, soft dumplings, often made from potatoes and featuring creamy sauces and Alpine herbs.

Älpermagrone (Switzerland) - Basically, this is Swiss mac n' cheese, but that's a bit too simple of a description. This dish originated from the men who would go high up in the pastures with the cows every summer. They would stay there for months at a time and lived on what they brought along and milk from the cows. They would even boil the macaroni in milk! It is a very rich and hearty dish that would stick to their ribs:) Bergkaese is the cheese commonly used and it would often be topped by fried onions and apple slices, or applesauce on the side.

The drinks from various regions of the Alps vary significantly. Some areas, like Bavaria, feature numerous breweries and are renown for their beers.  In fact, in Bavaria there are more than 750 breweries including the worlds oldest, which was founded in 1040.  Some varieties include wheat beers, Marzen, Bock, and many more.  Other regions, like Tyrol (Austria) and Ticino (Switzerland) are better known for their wines including Reislings, Gewurstrameiners, and Chasselas.

Schnapps (Germany/Bavaria, Austria) - clear, colorless alcoholic beverages with a light fruit flavor. Common flavors include apple, pear, plum, cherry, and, particularly in Austria, apricot.
Brandy (Slovenia) - made from fruit - Blueberry brandy is very popular

Radler (Germany/Bavaria) - beer mixed with citrus flavored soda

Spezi (Germany/Bavaria) - mix of coke and orange soda

Ovomaltine (Swizterland) - known as "Ovaltine" here in the U.S., this chocolatey drink originated in Switzerland. Sometimes they sprinkle the dried powder on top of buttered bread!

Whew! Ok, I didn't even get to desserts, but I gotta wrap this up right now. I'll write a post about desserts later on this month!!!!!

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Alpine Ingenuity

So, what do you do when you need to get some giant bulldozers to the top of an Alpine summit to harvest mountain water?

Drive them up? .......Yeah right!

Fly them up on a helicopter? ......Good luck!

Adapt a ski-lift? there's a good idea!

re-fitted ski lift in Glarner, Switzerland

Crossing the Alps: Hannibal's Famous March....with Elephants!

The Alps were the site of one of the most famous military marches of all-time, Hannibal's infamous trek. His journey with thousands of men and numerous animals was considered impossible at the time, however, Hannibal's determination and cunning won him a spot in the history books and is the focus of my post today!

Hannibal was born in 247 B.C.E. to a Carthaginian commander who gained fame in the First Punic War. Now, if you are like me and have no idea what most of what I just wrote means, here's a little background info. Carthage is basically a suburb of present-day Tunis (Tunisia), although it has been an urban center for around 3,000 years. The Carthaginian Empire grew from the Phoenician colony and flourished in the 3rd century B.C.E. - corresponding with the Hellenistic Era. Now, I know about Hellenistic Greece because they made some damn fine sculptures, but if you are unfamiliar with that era it is the time after Alexander the Great's unification of a vast territory including the eastern Mediterranean seaboard and parts of the middle east. His empire broke down quickly after his death in 323 B.C.E, however, and about a hundred and fifty years later, we find ourselves in the midst of the Punic Wars - probably the largest wars that had taken place up to that point - which were being fought between the Carthaginian Empire and the Roman Republic. Here's a break down of who had what territory:

This map may not be the most perfect, but it's the best I could find to show both groups at this point in history. The Romans had some outcroppings of soldiers in other areas outside of Italy as well, and I believe Carthaginian territory expanded a bit further into the middle east.
Part of the Iberian peninsual (present-day Spain) was under Carthaginian control at this point, and was the point of departure for Hannibal's campaign to take on the Roman Republic.  Hannibal departed from New Carthage in 218 B.C.E.

The Roman senate wasn't too worried - they felt that the land was secure, and that there was no way Hannibal would be able to make it past the natural wall of the Alps. Hannibal was determined, and made his way with extraordinary troops - nearly 45,000 men with him and 37 war elephants.  He fought his way through various outcroppings of Roman soldiers, crossed the Pyrenees mountains, and fought his way across southern France. The Romans sent some reinforcements, but weren't too worried.  Hannibal was a cunning military leader and worked his way through by using a great deal of strategy, including a number of sneak attacks.

When Hannibal reached the Alps, however, his primary enemy was nature, not Roman soldiers. We have some accounts of Hannibal's journey that come from Roman historians such as Livy (unfortunately Carthaginian records are mostly non-existent).  Here's what Livy had to say about how the Alps appeared to Hannibal and his troops:
The nature of the mountains was not, of course, unknown to his men by rumor and report - and rumor commonly exaggerates the truth; yet in this case all tales were eclipsed by the reality. The dreadful vision was now before their eyes: the towering peaks, the snow clad pinnacles soaring to the sky, the rude huts clinging to the rocks, beasts and cattle shriveled and parched with cold, the people with their wild and ragged hair, all nature, animate and inanimate, stiff with frost: all this, and other sights the horror of which words cannot express, gave a fresh edge to their apprehension.  - livy

From what I have been able to glean, it sounds as if Hannibal's journey through the Alps took about two weeks and was fraught with difficulty. First off, it was cold. Yuck. Secondly, they were frequently at treacherous altitudes and on poorly hewn paths. Third, many of the alpine villagers fought on the side of the Roman Republic and attempted to thwart Hannibal's advancements. Fourth, even if Hannibal could speak with his troops and try to rally them, the animals proved a significant challenge. According to Livy, the horses that were brought were terrified by the noise of the troop movement in some narrow passages, which was "echoing and re-echoing from the hollow cliffs and woods, they [the horses] were soon out of control...lashing out in agony and fear, causing serious losses...many non-combatants, and not a few soldiers were flung over the sheer cliffs which bounded each side of the pass, and fell to their deaths thousands of feet below."

One of the most well known facts about Hannibal's trek is his use of elephants, which ended up being both a blessing and a curse. They took a great deal of time getting through the narrow and precipitous parts of the paths, however the native Alpine villagers had never seen any creature like them before and were reluctant to go near. In the end, all but a few of the enormous beasts perished in the brutal journey.

Altogether it took 9 days to reach the summit after taking wrong paths (partially due to deception on the part of guides from the villages). They were exhausted, and rested 2 days at the summit, but to add insult to their injuries, it started to snow. To rally the troops, Hannibal spoke out saying "my men, you are at this moment passing the protective barrier of Italy - nay more, you are walking over the very walls of Rome. Henceforward all will be easy going - no more hills to climb.  After a fight or two you will have the capital of Italy, the citadel of Rome, in the hollow of your hands" (Livy).

As they journeyed on, they were thwarted by impasses, and the men at the front of the march would trample fresh snow on top of old snow, causing the old snow to turn to ice and leaving no foothold for the troops at the end, giving them no option but to, according to Livy's account, "roll and slither on the smooth ice and melting snow."

Eventually they even had to cut through rock, which brought about one of the most ingenious components of the trek: they would cut down trees, set them on fire on top of the rock layers, would wait for the rock to get hot, and then would fling their rations of sour wine on the rock, with the temperture juxtoposition causing cracks in the rock which they would then widen using their picks to carve a zig zag track.

When Hannibal finally arrived in Italy his number had shrunk considerably to around 24,000 men (about half what he had starting his alpine trek) and just a few elephants.  By winning a few minor victories in a row, Hannibal was able to bring in warriors from other tribes and to gain a stronghold in Northern Italy.  His journey continued to be a struggle (he even lost an eye during his crossing of the Apennines), and as he continued to move forward eventually lost more of his forces and the remaining elephants before arriving in Etruria (just north of Rome).  He had a decisive win in the battle of Lake Trasimene - it was one of the most costly ambushes the Romans had sustained.  Although inferior in numbers, Hannibal managed to use traps and cunning to continue beating Roman forces. In the battle of Cannae, Hannibal's men killed or captured an estimated 50-70,000 Romans. His troops killed several consuls, and eighty senators (25-30% of the governing body). It was a catastrophic defeat - one of the bloodiest battles of human history.  Hoever, despite Hannibals successes, he eventually ended in a stalemate as he received no further rinforcements from Carthage and was unable to attack the city of Rome.  After nearly 15 years of fighting in Italy, Hannibal was recalled to Carthage.

Although Hannibal was unable to defeat the Roman Republic, his tactical ingenuity is still heralded today, and his trek across the Alps continues to be an epic chapter in military history.

Monday, April 4, 2011

What you might see looking around an Alpine village: flowers, chapels, skiiers!!!

One of the first things I did in my exploration of the Alps was to look up a bunch of google images of Alpine villages, and I very quickly realized that there are some shared sights you might see at just about any town in the area.  Here's a little photo-journey!

Even though I usually think of snow and frigid weather in the alps, there are a number of delicate flowers that thrive in the alpine climate.  Here are some examples:


Alpine Rock Jasmine - it literally grows in the crevices of boulders and stones!

Alpine Pasque Flower

Edelweiss - everybody sing along....

Glacier Buttercup
Also, most alpine villages have small chapels that exhibit traditional architecture from the area:

Saas-Fee, Switzerland

Hockenalp Chapel, Lötschental, Switzerland

Mittenwald, Germany

The onion-domed St. Bartholoma, shores of the Konigssea, Bavaria, Germany

I also found a number of pictures showing visitors taking advantage of both winter and summer alpine activities:

Skiing is the lifeblood of Sauze d'Oulx in the Piedmont Region in Northern Italy

Snowboarding is popular at Le Grand Bornand in France
Paragliding in Unterwasser, Switzerland

And then there's...curling? I think? Zermatt, Switzerland

Snowshoeing in Heidiland - where's Heidi???

Cycling is popular in the summer months in Mitzoen, France