Weekend in Switzerland

I’m not sure why I waited so long to return to Switzerland, but my weekend visit this fall is certainly not going to be my last! People are always asking me which country is my favorite. I tend to have different categories - favorite place for food, outdoor adventure, beach, nightlife, etc. New Zealand, Chile, and the U.S. are among my favorites for outdoor exploration. Switzerland just gave them all a run for their money though - The Jungfrau region is by far the cleanest place I have ever visited (I saw one piece of liter the entire time) plus it is super accessible with public transportation.

I traveled by train from Paris to Interlaken and then from Interlaken to Florence. If you are studying abroad or planning to travel to either place, Interlaken is easy to get to while still being scenic enough to give you a break from the hustle and pollution of the cities.  I stayed three nights at an Airbnb in Interlaken. Staying at an Airbnb is one great way to save money, plus I got some great tips from my host. There was a mini-fridge in the room, so I was able to buy groceries for breakfast, snacks, and store left overs. My host provided me with a discount card for travel within the region as well. You will need to take regional trains for day trips into the mountains.

fullsizeoutput_fd8.jpeg

Interlaken was a great home base for exploring the Jungfrau region. You can easily catch a train to surrounding mountain towns. My first full day I took the train to Lauterbrunnen (recommended by my Airbnb host). It was only a 20 minute train ride and return trip cost 11.40 CHF (including a discount with my Eurail pass). You can purchase a ticket at the ticket office in advance or on the train. Be sure to carry some cash with you, if you plan to purchase tickets on board the train or bus. I didn’t have much of a plan, so I allowed myself to become entranced with the beauty of the valley and kept walking what seemed like the entire length of the valley. There are waterfalls along the mountainside and farms selling fresh cheese in vending machines. It was a mostly flat walk from the train station through the Lauterbrunnen Valley to Stechelberg (you can also take a bus).

At Stechelberg I hopped on a cable car up to Murren (8.60 CHF one way). I explored the village, took in the dramatic views from above, grabbed a picnic lunch at a small grocery store, and then decided to walk back down into the valley.  The walk from Murren to Gimmelwald is stunning and on a paved path that only takes 30 minutes. If you are fit and enjoy walking, I recommend walking all the way down to the valley. The walk from Gimmelwald to Stechelberg took about 1 1/2 hr (all down hill) on well maintained and marked hiking trails. In Stechelberg I caught a bus (5.40 CHF) back to the Lauterbrunnen train station. This whole day trip took me around 7 hours, though I stoped to take LOTS of photos.

path from Mürren to Gimmelwald 

path from Mürren to Gimmelwald 

My second full day I took the train from Interlaken to Grindelwald. Grindelwald is about 30 minutes from Interlaken and a roundtrip train ticket cost 18 CHF (with a Eurail pass holder discount). From Grindelwald I decided to walk up to Bort, a steep climb of about one hour on a paved path with stunning views of the town and surrounding snowcapped mountains. You also have the option of taking a cable car to Bort, or further up the mountain to First. At First you can also rent mountain carts to ride down to Bort. This whole region is very touristed, but many tourists don't go far from the cable cars, so you can still enjoy some serene wilderness if you choose to walk rather than ride up and down in the cable car. There are signs at regular intervals and the towns are so small it is really difficult to get lost. 

View of Grindelwald from Bort

View of Grindelwald from Bort

After having a picnic lunch in Bort, rather than following the paved path up to First, I veered off to a wilderness trail and meandered up the mountain a bit further before returning to Grindelwald via different wilderness trails. I didn't really have much of a plan, just went where the views guided me and I was not disappointed. Happy trails!

Staying Fit While Traveling - Europe

Having spent most of the last four years traveling, I learned that maintaining a fitness regiment while on the road requires commitment and planning. I am a runner, which also happens to be a great way to exercise while traveling, because you don't need any equipment, other than running shoes. Running also allows you the chance to move about a city the way locals would. Rather than just hitting the tourist destinations, you get to see what everyday life is like in the place you're visiting. I explored some pretty amazing parks, coastlines, and palaces on my runs in Europe. If you are planning a trip to any of the following cities, I hope this helps you maintain your routine and enjoy some sights that are not typically part of the tourist circuit.

We started our trip in London where our schedule was pretty packed. I was able to get to Hyde Park once on an unusually sunny Sunday. If you are staying in or near central London, Hyde Park is easily accessible via public transport, or you can run to the park. Even if you are not into running, Hyde Park is worth a visit. Grab some friends and a picnic or take a paddle boat out on the Serpentine. Regents Park is another great place for a run and you get to experience the lovely English Gardens. London weather might not always be conducive for outdoor activities, so when it is you better take full advantage! 

English Gardens at Regents Park in London

English Gardens at Regents Park in London

Madrid has one of my favorite parks for running - El Retiro. I jogged the mile from our hostel near Plaza del Sol to the park and found myself right at home among many runners in a green leafy oasis. There is a worn path along the perimeter of the park where most of the runners were. I did 2 loops and estimated it was about 3 miles. There are plenty of grassy areas for stretching or cross-training exercises. There is even a lake in the park where you can rent row boats for an upper body workout.

It's no surprise that Barcelona is great for outdoor activities in September. From La Rambla head towards Barceloneta beach and then follow the boardwalk to the North as far as your legs will carry you. The further you go from La Rambla, the less crowded it gets and the more runners you will likely encounter.  I suggest going in the early morning or early evening to avoid some of the beach crowds and the heat. There is also an outdoor workout along the boardwalk area with basic equipment where you can do pull ups, dips, sit ups, etc.

Paris is a sprawling city with lots of beautiful architecture, art, and some elegant historical parks. Our hostel was only 1/2 mile from the beautiful 19th-century Parc des Buttes-Chaumont. This is a great place to explore on a run, go for a walk, or take a picnic. There is a lake with a waterfall and impressive stone bridges, and even a hilltop temple modeled after the ancient Roman Temple of Sybil. You'll get a great hill workout here too. If you are staying in or near the 10th arrondisment, you should definitely visit this park. 

While Paris has incredible cuisine, Florence is my personal favorite European city for food - gelato, pizza, meatballs, cannoli - everything tastes amazing in Florence! The secret is out because, Florence seems to be more and more crowded each time I visit. It would be difficult to run in or around the city center due to the crowds unless you wake up super early. I discovered a park just west of the city center - Le Cascine, perfect for escaping the throngs of tourists. From the historic center head towards the river and without crossing, follow it west for about 1.2 miles. As you approach the park the sidewalk ends and you need to cross a pedestrian bridge to your right to get to the park. There were mostly locals jogging, biking, and roller blading so it feels a world away from the crowds around the Duomo. There are several options to make a loop of the park on paved or dirt paths. One loop is about 3 miles. There are plenty of open grassy spaces in this park as well.

Vienna wins the award for most unique and palatial running space. You can run in the Schönbrunn Palace Gardens. You do not need a ticket to enter the palace to enter the gardens (which I found more impressive than the palace interior). Enter the gardens from the front gate of the Palace, continuing around to the right side and behind the palace, or you can enter the gardens directly from from the Eastern entrance. Part of The Sound of Music was filmed here, so I suggest downloading the soundtrack to make your run a bit more whimsical. There are ornate shrubs and flowers, Roman statues and marble fountains. There is a hill directly opposite the palace from which you can get a nice view of the city. If you get to the top of the hill, rather than returning back down the middle path, I suggest veering towards the Western entrance and finding some of the forest trails to meander your way back down the hill. Be sure to check the Park hours which change seasonally before heading out for your run.

Schönbrunn Palace Gardens Vienna, Austria

Schönbrunn Palace Gardens Vienna, Austria

There was a marathon in Budapest during our visit in mid October. I ran in Széchenyi-sziget Park where the race was finishing. While the park was rather small for a long run, my jog from our hostel in the Jewish Quarter to the park was quite nice. It probably helped that some of the traffic and smog was diminished due to car traffic being limited for the marathon. After your run you shouldn't miss soaking in the thermal baths located in the park or at Gellért Baths across the river in Buda.

Berlin is one of the easiest cities in Europe for running, walking, or biking. Our hostel was located in Mitte which is dotted with quaint parks, but nothing large enough for a long distance run. I ended up running along the sidewalks through Mitte towards the Spree, where I joined a paved pedestrian path that follows the river towards the Central Train Station. I followed this path until just before the train station (opposite side of the Spree), when I climbed the stairs near the Bundestag and headed towards Tiergarten Park. Tiergarten is an expansive shady park right in the middle of central Berlin. From Mitte to roughly the middle of Tiergarten and back was about 6 miles.

Brussels was another favorite running destination for me, especially on the weekend when the city is less crowded and many shops are closed. I ran down Koningsstraat to Brussels Park, passed through the park and continued down Wetstraat towards Cinquantenaire Park. Cinquantenaire is a large park with a path around the 1.4 mile perimeter. I never tried this route on a weekday, but I suspect, given the proximity to EU Headquarters, there may be a prohibitive amount of pedestrian traffic during the week. Definitely worth a visit during the weekend. 

Cinquantenaire Park, Brussels

Cinquantenaire Park, Brussels

Amsterdam is another pedestrian friendly city, as long as you respect the bike lanes! The Dutch enjoy being outside, no matter the weather, and they are also one of the more fitness oriented cultures in Europe. During my first visit to Amsterdam I stayed right by Vondelpark which was a great place for running close to the Rijksmusem and Van Gogh Museums. The loop around the park is about 2 miles. Last fall we stayed at the new Generator Hostel which backs up to Oosterpark which is smaller but easily accessible for a shorter run or cross-training workout. 

Vondelpark in early November

Vondelpark in early November

I use the app Strava to map my runs and find other common running routes in new places I visit. Its free and works everywhere, as long as you have a good international data plan. 

A day in Paris' 10th arrondissement

Planning a trip to Paris, but want to see more than the typical tourist traps? Here's a brief guide to some of my favorite spots, mostly around in the 10th arrondissement. In the 10th arrondissement you'll find cafes, design shops, delicious ethnic food, local designer fashion, and people -  immigrants, young expats, and hip Parisians. 

I start every morning with breakfast at 10 Belles - a tiny coffee shop with superb coffee and delectable breakfast treats. I usually order granola (best I've ever had) and a cappuccino. They have a rotating variety of breakfast buns, as well as sweet cakes. There is always a hip crowd hanging around here, a mix of international folks and locals. If you're a fan of coffee culture, 10 Belles is definitely worth a visit.

After breakfast I suggest a wander around the streets just on the other side of Canal St. Martin. Here you'll find design shops, bookstores, clothing designed and made in Europe, and more cafes. Artazart is my favorite design art bookstore. Even though I am not an artist, not even remotely, I love perusing the books in this beautiful little shop. 

On Saturdays and Sundays check out some of the local farmer's markets. I've found my best meals at some of these farmer's markets - sausage, crepes, cheeses, fruits, baked goods, etc. You can also find artisan crafts. If you happen to be staying in an Airbnb (of which there are many in the 10th arrondissement), this is a great spot to stock up on some fresh ingredients for cooking.

After all that eating, you might find yourself with a few excess calories to burn. Paris now has an incredible bike sharing program that allows you to borrow or return a bicycle at nearly every other city block. On Saturday afternoons and all day Sunday, the streets around Canal St. Martin are closed to vehicle traffic. I highly recommend borrowing a bicycle and going for a ride. Everything is automated, just follow the instructions on the screen to set up your initial account (a credit card is required). Keep your ticket as this will be used every time you borrow a bicycle. It is free for the first 30 minutes and then just a few euros per hour after that. 

Canal St. Martin

Canal St. Martin

There are a few days a year when all of central Paris is closed to vehicle traffic. If you are visiting during one of these days you should definitely consider hiring a bicycle and exploring the city on two wheels.

If you're a runner, or just enjoying exploring city parks, I recommend visiting Parc des Buttes-Chaumont. It is a hilly park with a lake, pagoda, and even a natural stone bridge. This is my favorite place in Europe to run. In the mornings you can find runners, walkers, and people doing tai chi. Later in the afternoon you'll see more families - kids on scooters, musicians, and couples at one of the cafes or sunning in the grass. This is a really beautiful place to take a break from the hustle and bustle of Paris, get some exercise or just chill for a bit.

There are new restuarants popping up in the 10th arrondissement all the time. During my last visit, about a month ago, I discovered SAaM Kitchen, an affordable Korean restaurant that serves balanced healthy meals. This was my favorite meal in Paris. I had a set menu for dinner with 2 bao buns and a side of vegetables. I was bummed I was leaving the next morning and wouldn't get to eat there again until next time. Check it out!  

OK so you'll obviously also want to check out the Louvre, Museé de Orsay, Eiffel Tower, Notre Dame, and maybe cruise the Siene. Just don't forget to take a little time to see what is happening in the contemporary art and culture scene in places like the 10th arrondissement. Bon voyage!

Laos Travel Tips

Few people know much about Laos, or even where to locate it on a map. Laos is a landlocked country sandwiched between Thailand and Vietnam with China looming to the North and Cambodia to the south. Laos has a fascinating history with influences from the ancient Khmer empire of Cambodia, which brought Theraveda Buddhism, and Chinese linguistic influences on minority groups such as the Lanten people. Laos was colonized by the French in 1893 and their influence can still be seen in the cafes of Luang Prabang. Despite its long history of foreign interference, the remoteness of many villages has helped to preserve the unique ethnic minority traditions that make up this small yet diverse Asian nation.

Laos only became open to tourism in the 1980s, and it is now a regular stop on the Southeast Asian backpacker circuit. Laos people have traditionally used boat travel to navigate the lush tropical landscape that makes up much of the country. Taking a cruise along the mighty Mekong is one of the best ways to explore, although opportunities are becoming fewer as China builds more damns along the Mekong River. There has been a push towards developing eco-tourism, with local companies, such as Green Discovery, offering one day or multi-day kayaking, trekking, and bike tours. Many overnight treks offer a chance to see authentic village life during a homestay. As tourism in this small country of just 6.6 million people grows, opportunities for true cultural exchanges diminish. If you want to experience the real Laos don't wait, go now!

If traveling from Thailand you can cross the border via land from Chiang Khong, Thailand. You will need to get a visa on arrival which costs around $35 USD for United States citizens. Many travelers continue on to Luang Nam Tha for a jungle trek and community homestay.  After exploring the northern jungles, check out the UNESCO World Heritage city of Luang Prabang. With meandering streets perched at the convergence of the Mekong and Nam Ha Rivers, Luang Prabang is the perfect spot for a luxurious vacation on a backpacker budget. The small city is smattered with beautiful Buddhist temples, French cafes, and stores selling textiles woven in traditional patterns. Luang Prabang is the destination for relaxation in Southeast Asia. After enjoying a delicious breakfast of Lao coffee and pan au chocolate at Cafe Banneton rent a bicycle and explore some of the historical temples or check out the Traditional Arts and Ethnology Center near Dara Market to learn about ethnic minorities. It is small, but well curated and the museum shop has high quality fair trade handicrafts for sale at reasonable prices. Grab lunch at Cafe Ban Vat Sene and escape the afternoon heat with a relaxing massage. Just before sunset stroll by some of the larger temples to hear the monks' rhythmic chanting. Later explore the night market, and try street food for dinner. I recommend fried dumplings and spicy noodle soup on the walking street near the post office.

Wake up early the next morning to see the procession of the alms, where local Buddhists offer food to robed monks. Please remember to be respectful by dressing modestly with shoulders and knees covered. While it may be tempting to participate, it is best to hang back and observe, taking pictures without getting too close and corrupting the ritual. Later catch a Tuk Tuk to Kuang Si waterfall, bring a picnic lunch with you. In the evening try one of the riverside restaurants for a delicious dinner of traditional Laos food, or enjoy some French fusion food at Tangor

Upper Kuang Si waterfall

From Luang Prabang you can catch a flight to your next Southeast Asian destination or take a bus or minivan headed south to Vang Vieng for a day of outdoor adventure in this backpacker dominated riverside town before continuing on to Vientiane. If you make it as far south as Vientiane I highly recommend visiting the Cope Center to learn about the history of land mines in Laos. 

Laos is an incredible country with diverse people, delicious food, and beautiful landscapes to discover. Whether you are looking for adventure or just want to be pampered, Laos has something for everyone. Before you visit be sure to learn a bit about the nation's history and issues facing contemporary Laos people.