Sunday, July 31, 2016

An Event to Celebrate Wherever You Are: The Swiss National Day August 1

Happy Birthday Switzerland and to all the 100’000s of Swiss 

who live all around the world!

Geneva displays Swiss pride: image courtesy of malias, flickr
Solid red square flags with a white cross will be flying everywhere on the 1st of August. Every public and private building as well as homes and chalets will be flying the Swiss flag.
Other flag décor will reign such as the gigantesque Swiss flag which covers the entire “Place de la Palud” in front of the city hall in

Swiss Flags Everywhere: image courtesy of Samuel de la Lumiere, flickr
Lausanne. Swiss flags and Swiss flag images placed on all types of food and party items will be out for the big day.
Switzerland and its visitors gather in important public places, listening intently to speeches on the events of 1291 which was the beginning of the Swiss Confederation as we know it today. Unlike most countries’ National Day, Switzerland is not celebrating a revolution or a breaking up of a nation but rather, the coming together of different cultures and regional “nationalities”.  As most of you know, Switzerland is a delightful composition of the French, the Germans, and the Italians in terms of medieval nationalities and more recently has added many immigrants from Austria, Belgium, Spain, Portugal and many other countries who are residents or who are now naturalised Swiss citizens.
This mix of nations is  reflected in the 4 national languages in Switzerland: German, French, Italian, and Romansch (an ancient Roman language still spoken in Eastern Switzerland in Engadine). Three of these languages will always be available for government documents, most businesses and organisations as well as on product labels. August 1 is when they all gather together to celebrate the creation of this tiny Alpine country filled with national pride but also a special multi-national ambience.
But don’t be fooled into thinking it’s all about long speeches (yes, they are long and in the regional language).  These are usually held in the afternoon or evening in between the many other festivities, barbecues, diverse food and craft stands and the grandiose fireworks everywhere (and I do mean everywhere – just my neighbourhood alone could compete with some small cities). More on where to watch the fireworks displays follows below.
Capital Building in Bern, the centre of patriotism. Image courtesy of Dominique Schreckling
The Swiss celebrate their national day with village and city-wide festivities with children parading through the streets with paper lanterns, Swiss bands, family activities, lakeside beach parties, activities and sports competitions of all sorts. What is the most interesting (and perhaps the most patriotic) is that the Swiss people tend to celebrate in their own village/city/commune and not go to big cities which would have more spectacular events for their own Swiss citizens. But between residents and visitors there are thousands of people attending the festivities in Switzerland’s largest cities (Zurich, Geneva, Bern, Basel, Lausanne and Lugarno).  In the North, the main celebrations take place at the Rhine Falls near Schaffhausen and at the Rueti Meadows along Lake Lucerne. All villages, communes, cities and even private families will have fireworks of various aesthetic degrees. They start after dark (a little after 10:00 PM so find a good vantage point). But they do not always start at the same time on Lake Geneva (Lac Leman) so that people can view several displays around the Swiss Alpine lake.

Lausanne to Montreux shoreline for Swiss National Day Picnics, Barbecues and Fireworks: image courtesy
The main fireworks for Geneva Canton will be the city of Geneva (best view at “La Rade” near the “Jet d’eau” fountain.  Nearby lakeside towns will also have displays at different times (try positioning yourself uphill on the vineyards of La Cote for a more distant but panoramic view). Similarly, in Lausanne the first and biggest displays are on the shoreline at Ouchy which are shot off of barges out in Lake Geneva (Lac Leman). Then going east, the village of Pully begins their fireworks (and it’s fairly spectacular in itself), and then the village of Cully right afterwards. If you don’t want to be level with the inevitable smoke and crowds of people, choose a vantage point uphill such as the “Parc Montebenon” in the center of Lausanne or the vineyards of Pully, the ancient church terrace at Pully Centre and many other parks around the area even higher up. Another fabulous view is from any of the specially operating CGN ferry boats from either Geneva or Lausanne (or from the boat of new friends?). For the Swiss, the fireworks displays are not just ShowTime. They also symbolize Swiss patriotism and the expulsion of the foreign bailiffs in the Swiss Confederation in the 14th century (a while ago).

Swiss Flags from Alp to Alp: image courtesy of ianlord, flickr
Switzerland literally comes alive from Alp to Alp to endless Alp. The Swiss National Day (known here as “premiere août” in French for 1st August) will definitely provide you with a unique occasion celebrated by the Swiss worldwide.
If you’re in Switzerland, you will have an authentic experience of Swiss pride as well as their multi-nationalism…and, no doubt, a taste of the "cervelas", the Swiss National sausage!

Swiss Cervelas Sausage is at All Festivals and Events: 
image courtesy of bigbirdz, flickr

Monday, June 27, 2016

Absinthe Anyone?

Although our thoughts immediately go back to the bohemia cultures and writers and artists of 19th France, absinthe, also known as “La Fée Verte” (The Green Fairy) was created in the Canton of Neuchâtel, Switzerland, notably in the Jura Mountains bordering France. Most of the production has been done in small quantities.
Absinthe glass and customary spoon: Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons by Eric Litton
The high alcohol content anise-flavored liquor is made from plants such as anise, fennel, flowers,and leaves of the medicinal plant called Artemisia Absinthium which we know as wormwood which is found in Switzerland.  Other herbs that have been known to be included are lemon balm angelica, dittany, coriander, juniper and nutmeg. The nickname Green Fairy comes from its color a pale green.
Chemist and absinthe expert, T.A. Breaux describes it as “a push-me, pull-you effect of the various herbs, some have a heightening effect while others have a lowering effect”. It gives the double impact of inebriation but with a heightened state of clarity.
Romanticized by many famous people in the 19th and early 20th century including Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Edgar Degas, Vincent van Gogh, Édouard Manet,  Pablo Picasso, Oscar Wilde, Charles Baudelaire Paul Verlaine, Ernest Hemingway and the list goes on, absinthe is ever-present during this part of history and in the works of these creative people.
“L’Absinthe” by Edgar Degas 1876. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons Public Domain
Practical uses were also found during this period of history and absinthe was given to French troops to prevent fever. Naturally, they acquired a taste for the “Green Fairy” and when they return home they also popularized the drink in bars bistros and cabarets. At first, the drink was expensive but as prices declined more French were drinking it to excess and experience addictive psychoactive reactions and opposition movements started scare campaigns that resulted in the ban of absinthe in 1914 in France.
Ironically Switzerland had already banned it in 1907 although the production went underground and home distiller produced the much sought-after liquor clandestinely in small quantities. In the US it was banned in 1912. By 1915 most European countries, except Britain where it was not popular, had made the production and the consumption of absinthe illegal.
In the mid 1990s the legal practices regarding absinthe were highly ambiguous. Drinking it was legal but producing it was illegal. Former French President Jacques Chirac drew criticism from his own citizen because he drank absinthe during a state visit to Switzerland in the late 1990s. President Chirac and I had something in common but no one really cared if I drank it! Anyway, it was difficult to get and you had to have friends the Canton of Neuchâtel.
With renewal of interest of producers and consumers, the Swiss Parliament lifted the 97 year old ban on the production, sales and consumption of absinthe in 2004. A French absinthe producer, Lucid, was the first absinthe producer to receive certification in France in 2007.
Other European countries followed and by 2008 there were nearly 200 brands of absinthe available in a dozen countries such as Switzerland, France, Spain and the Czech Republic.
In the US the first legal brand of absinthe was approved in 2007 called St. George Absinthe Verte, made in Northern California.
Kubler Swiss Absinthe: image courtesy of
While visiting Switzerland, some of you may want to taste this once forbidden elixir. Kubler Absinthe was the first Swiss absinthe to become commercially available and has an excellent reputation for the highest quality of all international absinthe brands. They use only natural plants in accordance with local traditions, rather than extracts or oils that are used by some other European producers.
Another excellent Swiss brand is Absinthe Studer, made of distilled wormwood, a blend of 8 different secretly selected herbs, pure alcohol and fresh water from their own spring! The original recipe has been preserved and passed down from generation to generation despite the 97 years of legal issues.
But the Studer family is open to innovation and have collaborated with the famous “haute couturier” chocolatiers, the  Beschle family in Basel producing Studer’s Absinth filled milk chocolate pralines shaped in the form of the most famous Swiss Alp, the Matterhorn.
Beschle’s Studer Absinthe Swiss Collection: Image courtesy of Beschle
The country fair stand “Absintissimo” serving absinthe from the local producers of the region is always a highlight at the Fall Automanales Fair held in Geneva every November.
“Absintissimo”. Swiss Made The Green Fairy. Image courtesy of
So fascinating is the story of absinthe, that  this elixir is being used as the backdrop for a film currently being produced called “Les Absintheurs” (The Absinthe Drinkers) due in 2012. However, the plot is not about the drink, but rather the people in the famous era when the Green Fairy was a part of daily life in Paris. The story is about a young talented woman painter in an art scene dominated by men in 1889 (one year before van Gogh died). It takes places during this Impressionistic period of painting in the then decadent Montmartre neighborhood of Paris.
Enjoy your taste of the once forbidden Green Fairy while in Switzerland, but if you must go home via the United States Customs, keep in mind that despite the allowance of local production of absinthe in the US, it is prohibited to bring it through customs.
For more about Swiss culture and travel follow me on Twitter
Image in the upper right hand corner courtesy of
Originally published on

Saturday, April 30, 2016

Spring in the Lake Geneva last year

March 2016 Lake Geneva or more locally known as Lac Léman. View from Belmont.

April 2016 Lac Léman with leaves on (some) trees but still snowing. View from Belmont

May 2016? Could be most any type of weather. Sometimes it's about 85-90° F. Sometimes it snows.

 We'll see tomorrow!

Saturday, March 5, 2016

"Kinder" Zürich Just for kids... of all ages

From the onset, it is wise to create a Zürich itinerary focusing on your children since you know that their cultural interest will wane quickly. However, there are numerous activities that
children would enjoy while still allowing their parents to see
historical and dynamic Zürich.

Hotel: Choose Wisely

The first family challenge in most cities is to find an authentically kid-friendly hotel. Palace hotels and luxury accommodations in the heart of Zurich are as outstanding as their room rates and the appeal to children is sometimes minimal. Rather than staying in the historical centre, there is a relatively new developing lively area in Zürich West with fresh new hotels and renovated factories that are now funky restaurants and shops. One hotel in particular that specializes in hospitality for children is Novotel City Zürich West. This 4-star hotel with “Family Rooms” is more affordable than being “downtown” and it’s free for kids who can enjoy a safe children’s play area with digital games, free WiFi, and healthy (but appealing) food. For those on a tighter budget, there is an Ibis Economic Hotel as well as an Ibis Budget Hotel which are also in the Accor group next to the Novotel City Zürich.

Kids Playroom Novotel Zurich City West — Photo courtesy of Novotel Zurich City West

Getting Around

The Zürich West neighborhood is only 1.2 miles away from the center where you find the main train station, the Hauptbahnhof. All areas of Zürich are easily reached by excellent public transportation. Do buy the  “ZürichCARDs” for your family for everyday so you will not have to fumble around for coins. Buying tickets in strange machines in 3 languages (or more) can be frustrating for you and for all the people waiting behind you. Besides, the ZürichCARDs are good on all of the public transportation in the city as well as on the lake and river boats and most museums. They also offer discounts at certain shops and restaurants.

Toys and Chocolate

One of the highlights of Zürich, at least for adults, is wandering through the Medieval winding streets with shops and cafés of Old Town on the Right bank of the Limmit River. This can be best arranged to please everyone in the family by heading to the Toy Museum in the heart of Old Town. Exhibited here are 18th c. to 20th c. toys of all kinds which could stimulate the imagination of your digital-era
born offspring. Entrance is free with the ZürichCARD. Have lunch near there which is like dining in another century. Just minutes by foot you can join the Bahnhofstrasse Boulevard and head down to the 175-year old chocolate company, Confiserie Sprüngli at the Paradeplatz.

Antique toys — Photo courtesy of Jo Naylor

During the walk down to the chocolatier, a delight of all children, interested parents may be on the lookout for nearby shops such as Bucherer for Swiss watches, Channel, Cartier, Louis Vuitton, Hermes or other interesting shops in which you have pre-planned stops for rapid and discreet shopping. This will cost you at Confiserie Sprüngli but it may be the only shopping time you get with small children.

Get On the Water

If it is a good weather day, you may want to take a Lake cruise on the 19 c. Paddle Steamers departing from the Quays of Zürich. Kids love it (I love it!). There is a lot of room on the boats for your kids to move around and the price is included in your ZürichCARD. You can sail to Rapperswil, a charming village with a deer park, zoo and castle at the other end of the 25-mile long lake and return by train or return by boat. There are also other shorter cruise itineraries from which to select.

Historical paddle steamers on Lake Zurich — Photo courtesy of Dominique Schreckling

A Welcoming Castle and Park

The National Museum Zürich, called the Landesmuseum, is a fascinating castle to see even if you don’t go inside for the exhibitions or collections. It is free entrance with the ZürichCARD so you could always leave quickly if your children were not pleased. Located just across the street from the train station, the Landesmuseum has political and cultural historical displays of Switzerland as well as handicrafts and articles from Swiss homes throughout history to the 20th c. There is a collection of arms that might intrigue your children, in particular, the Medieval armour and jousting helmets along with 19th c. and 20th c. Swiss Army uniforms.

Behind the castle there is a beautiful park called Platzspitz in which to play or picnic. Right near the Landesmuseum is the embarkation for the cruise on the Limmat River which runs through the centre of Zürich, This is a fun and relaxing way for families to see the major architectural highlights on both sides of the river without having to walk too much. The cruise is free with the ZürichCARD.

The Limmat River Zurich — Photo courtesy of Dominique Schreckling

Explore and Learn

A good area on the Left Bank of the Limmat for families is the delightful, safe, pedestrian Medieval neighbourhood of Niederdorf. It has at least a couple toy shops and many other shops and cafés. You could lunch here and then go to the Tram Museum if it happens to be a Wednesday, Saturday or Sunday which opens at 1:00 PM, closes at 5:00 PM. Free with the ZürichCARD, the museum has a lot of historical trams and related objects and encourages “hands on” visits which children love.

Animals, Movies, Heavenly Bodies and Soaking

The Zürich Zoo is an ongoing scientific conservation project offering views of snow leopards, Andean bears, elephants, penguins, sea lions and more. The centre piece is a Madagascar recreated “Masoala” tropical forest into which you can immerse yourselves.

There are many other activities that families will love in and around Zürich including an outdoor cinema, a zoological museum, an observatory, a recreated solar system trail, lake swimming and an exciting Technorama Science Centre in nearby Winterthur.

When you’ve done it all there is the reward for both parents and kids in Baden thermal baths just 15 minutes away by train or at Alpamare, one of Europe’s largest water parks 30 minutes away by train. Alpamare has 4 pools, 10 slides, 6 saunas and 2 steam baths. Ahhhhh....

The perfect end to "Kinder" Zurich — Photo courtesy of Counselman Collection

So Much to Do, So Little Time

The only real difficulty you may have with “Kinder” Zürich is deciding which of the many child-friendly activities to do. Be sure to allow enough time in your visit to Zürich as you will find that it is a very welcoming city for the “Kinder”.

Originally published on USA Today 10 Best by Sonja

Friday, February 12, 2016

It's the Swiss Alps!

The wildly costumed Swiss defy their conservative reputation
Several are surprised to learn that Carnival is celebrated in Switzerland but there are no bikini-clad, Samba-dancing school gals in this climate. However, there are cliques of bands, dancers, and organizations that know how to put on an extravagant parade or two.  These celebrations take place in several Swiss cities and villages that you'll never forget if you attend.
Many Swiss cities and towns organize Carnival festivities called Fasnacht in German; carnaval in French; and carnevale in Italian. Some of the most exciting Swiss cities that celebrate (some for several days!) include the following.
Zürich FasnachtFriday, Feb 12, 2016 - Sunday, Feb 14, 2016
Basel Fasnacht:  Monday, Feb 15, 2016 - Wednesday, Feb 17, 2016
Lucerne Fasnacht:  Thursday 4 Feb. 2016 - Tuesday 9 Feb. 2016
Fribourg Carnaval:  Sunday 7 Feb. 2016 and Tuesday 9 Feb. 2016

You may have noticed that there are no overlaps of Carnival celebrations in the schedule. As with many families today, relatives may be living in different places all over Switzerland. So, you could attend the Fasnacht in your city of origin, like Zürich, and still be able to participate in your city of residence later.
Basel, the largest, most elaborate Carnival in Switzerland, sets the pace with some 15,000 to 20,000 masked, uninhibited citizens who begin the Carnival on Monday at 4:00 AM (Morgestraich) following Ash Wednesday. It ends three days later on Thursday at 4:00 AM.
However, all of the Carnival cities celebrate differently according to their history, heritage, culture and languages. In Basel, there is a theme chosen each year, usually of some ironic political nature that only the residents understand. Leaflets are given out to the crowds on the current topics written in the local dialect ofSchweizerdeutsch.
Swiss crowd-pleaser — Photo courtesy of Sonja Holverson
Bern, the Swiss capital city named after bears (Bärn - which are still kept in the large Prison Tower and along the spacious banks of the River Aare), is the third largest Carnival in Switzerland. Bern focuses their Fasnacht around the bears’ annual hibernation. Each year, on a Thursday evening, the bears are woken up by the residents (and a few 1,000 visitors) by Ychüblete (drumming).
Some years, the bears are out before the Bärner Fasnacht starts. However, there are other years when there's so much snow in Switzerland that it's not so easy to wake them up.
Following the bears' awakening on Thursday night, the entire city of Bern fills with excitement, strangely costumed participants, Guggenmusik (brass) bands, lanterns and floats for many activities which are scheduled mostly in the Old Town area of Bern. The children have a parade on Friday and the unrecognizable parents and other citizens have their parade on Saturday.
The 3-mile long parade takes place in the heart of Old Town with hours of riotous fun. The disguised adults in the parade toss confetti at the crowds and throw candy to the children. The masked revelers, their bands and cultural groups end up in the enormous square in front of the Swiss parliament where each band has a designated spot to stand.
After all of the groups arrive, you find the concert conductor (a bear), along with a relatively official-looking gentleman who stands on the ledge of a large government building just opposite the parliament. He leads all of the musicians in what's called the ‘Monster Concert.'
Sooner or later, the crowds covered in confetti wander home or to the train station, happy that the bears are again up and about playing along the River Aare.
For the well-traveled among you, you now have the explanation as to why you've seen the Swiss Rail Trains cluttered with confetti. This is especially strange when you board a ‘trans-Swiss’ train not knowing that a Carnival is going on somewhere in another part of the country.
The Carnival celebrations are linked to the Catholic regions, but the Protestant regions have their own forms of Carnival as well. These festivities are most related to the ‘chasing away of winter’ and the celebration of the arrival of warmer weather.
There are many festivals of all sizes related to this theme. In various villages in the Canton of Graubünden (Grissons in French), there is an ancient celebration called Chalandamarz.  It's held at the beginning of March to celebrate the arrival of spring.
The Carnaval de Lausanne is held every year on the first weekend of May. In fact, with so many different languages, cultures and traditions, there's almost always a Carnival or festival of some type taking place in Switzerland.

Orginally published on USA Today 10 Best.

Friday, February 5, 2016

The Month of Love ....and my Birthday

Find Love in Zermatt: Under the Matterhorn

Overwhelming and mystical, the Matterhorn provides nature’s most romantic stage in the world. Towering majestically over the ancient fairytale Swiss village of Zermatt (5’310 ft), the Matterhorn is omnipresent in this isolated valley and will lovingly accompany you throughout your romantic winter escape here.
Matterhorn above Zermatt Switzerland — Photo courtesy of Dominique Schreckling
The Matterhorn rises to 14,692 feet, and is also known as Mont Cervin in French and Monte Cervino in Italian), pro.  Its gateway is Zermatt, located on the Italian border of the Canton of Valais in the southeast of Switzerland.  There is something magical and eternally romantic about the soft snow and the silence it creates in winter. Furthermore, there is the fascinating natural beauty of the fresh snow that constantly changes the heart-stirring landscape all around you which inspires love…and snuggling after an exciting day on the ski slopes.
Matterhorn Gotthard Bahn (MGB) Sunday Brunch — Photo courtesy of Zermatt Matterhorn Tourismus

Getting There

This Alpine paradise for lovers is easily accessible and the voyage to Zermatt is part of the romance. If you are traveling in the St. Moritz and Davos areas, you can take the famous panoramic Glacier Express train that seems to simply float around alpine curves and up the steep slopes using cogwheels to arrive in Zermatt.
In the winter, the Matterhorn Gotthard Bahn (MGB) is offering Sunday brunch in a panoramic Glacier Express coach on a shorter trip from Brig or Visp to Zermatt which operates until the beginning of April. Regional products from the cantons of Valais, Uri and Graubünden will be available in a self-service buffet for the brunch. If you are on a Sunday evening return trip from Zermatt there will be cheeses and a large variety of Swiss desserts.
Many other trains in and out of Zermatt are available with convenient connections to major cities in Switzerland and other European cities.
Old Village of Zermatt — Photo courtesy of Dominque Schreckling

Welcome to Zermatt

Arriving at the train station in the center of Zermatt you will encounter old-fashioned horse-drawn carriages or electro-taxis and electro-buses if you need transportation. These circulate in idyllic car-free Zermatt (pop. 5’775). Chances are that your accommodations are not far and you will be able to walk from the station.
As well as keeping pollution out of the air in Zermatt, the residents are intent on preserving their culture, heritage, and quaint ancient wooden chalets and farm buildings. Moreover, due to the isolated location there is no “city light” and the skies provide you with some very romantic starry and sometimes moonlit nights.
In addition to the always awe-inspiring presence of the Matterhorn, there are also other majestic Alps above Zermatt such as the Monte Rosa (15’203 ft) also calledDufourspitze which is the highest mountain in Switzerland. In fact, almost one third of the Swiss Alps which are higher than 13,124 feet, are located around Zermatt. This altitude equals 4’000 meters. Therefore, the Alps about this high are nicknamed “the 4’000s”.

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

GMB Akash...humanitarian photojournalist delivers holiday gifts to the impoverished

GMB Akash, Bangladesh


"That is the note every child received. In five straight days I had reached more than 500 children and gifted goodie bags that consisted of a piece of new clothing, a pair of slippers and chocolate. Then together we headed for the group lunch. The children smiled ear to ear, screamed in joy and burst out in happiness. 

All this happened through a ‘three day campaign on my Facebook fan page’. I would like to thank every friend who has donated HAPPINESS to these children. Thanks for sharing your world with these children. Five days from morning to noon I had unforgettable memories with street children, child labourers and unprivileged rural children. 

My friends, in this video I am sharing a glimpse of those happy moments which many of you have created along with me. I am welcoming you to have a look at what you have brought to these children!"  - GMB Akash