A sudden impulse to see a friend, a couple of phone calls and emails exchanged, and there I was, off in a plane to Geneva over the Thanksgiving weekend. Just like that. And within four hours I was in a different world.

im002682And what a very cute and kitsch world I went to! Although Europe does not have the equivalent of the American thanksgiving holiday, it too starts to decorate itself for Christmas around the last weekend in November. Everywhere I went, booths were going up for the local Weinachts Markts (the Christmas markets) in the center of town, vendors were selling hot roasted chestnuts (marroni) and the streets were decorated with lights etc, shops with all the traditional symbols etc. And the weather matched the season — it was chilly , the landscape was dotted with snow, and walking around in my bright red wool coat, I felt like I was in a snow globe. All one had to do was shake.

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Christmas lights up in Old Zurich

I flew into Geneva, a town I’d never visited before, and still don’t count as having visited since I did little else there but fly in and out as it is the only Swiss city that EgyptAir flies to. Sanja, bless her heart, had scheduled her meeting there on the day of my arrival, which meant that I got a ride back to her town rather than having to ride the 2 hour train by myself. It is actually a gorgeous ride via Lausanne with a long stretch alongside (as I found out on my return on Monday morning), but it was even more fun to spend the time with Sanja. We had dinner in a little restaurant in her new hometown of Murten aka Morat, a tiny village on the cusp of French and German Switzerland with 3 or so streets within its medieval (well, they looked medieval) walls.

Thursday I explored the town while Sanja went to work, which meant, I wandered for about half-an-hour trying to access the wall, looking down to the lake  and then settling for a classic Swiss hot chocolate (yum!) a cheese pastry and strawberries with fresh cream at a charming little cafe in town. As I said before, everything  the very embodiment of kitsch, what with large X-mas candle like lights dotting the various buildings in town. It was a foggy day and there was not much opportunity for pictures. Night saw us at a little French restaurant in Bern, where a black truffle topped flatbread sent me into swoons of delighted gratitude to all the powers that might be. For the record, the rest of the dinner wasn’t too shabby either but the first bite was the highlight.

The next day I took a train bright and early (relatively so anyhow) to St. Gallen, which is clear across the country (the Northeast corner) nearly at the Austrian border. The main purpose of this trip was to see Jochen, an old friend (actually he’s quite young having only just turned 30 a few weeks ago) from Heidelberg/Yale days. While it’s at the opposite end of the country, St. Gallen too offered more than its fair share of Swiss kitsch, beginning with the fabulous fondue lunch in the heart of town and ending with my lovely sleeping quarters in Jochen’s attic apartment – by a damped down fireplace under sloping roofs where each window nook formed a natural refrigerator (a good and necessary thing, as I will explain shortly). Between these two landmarks, I visited St. Gallen’s monastery which has a reknowned library (the Spitzbibliotek) with rare old books dating to the 14th century at least, if not earlier. It is in fact one of the few libraries that has survived unscathed from the Middle Ages, and would have been a remarkable treat had it not been for the unfortunate fact of its being closed for renovations. I did get to see the underground Lapidarium however, with its marvelous collection of colored keystones, as well as a fine exhibit on bookmaking. After which I took a funicular up the mountain and went for a walk along a ridge which gave me a nice overview of the town or at least, would have had the day been clearer.

Jochen is very much part of that phase of my life when my culinary adventures were proceeding at full throttle, and he was one of my two German “adoptees” as Bidjan (the other one) put it. Since then any meeting has been an excuse for an evening of cooking and eating and this time was no different. The final headcount for the evening was that magic number 7, which included Andreas, another Yale connection who actually drove down all the way from Zurich to St. Gallen, but then turned right back and drove back the same night rather than stay the night. The other four were local friends of Jochen – and a real pleasure to meet. Dinner was an elaborate affair of Indian food, or rather, Indian-inspired food based on available ingredients, which was just about everything. The menu included the following:

Chicken liver katthi roll appetizer.

Rice – we kept it basic and simple. But it had to be Basmati rice.

Tamarind Chicken curry. Flavored with lots of curry leaves (which we found by the bagful at the Indian store), and garam masala spices ground then and there.

Fried Okra sabzi

Spinach daal (first recipe on page) using yellow split peas

South Indian Podimaas-style potatoes. i.e. mashed lightly and seasoned with mustard seeds, fresh ginger, green chillies, plenty of friend cashews and fresh cilantro (coriander leaves)

Yogurt for the tender-tongued or thirsty amongst us

Tomato chutney (variation of first recipe with garlic, ginger and lots of chillies)

Dessert: Dried figs stewed in a cheap Gluhwein with cinnamon and cloves and served with a mascarpone/creme fraiche whip.

(For readers wanting recipes, please be patient, I’ll post those on my food blog by and by, and provide links to them from here when I do).Though the food diminished in quantity with gratifying speed, the Swiss refrigerators were still too small to accomodate the leftovers, which is why the aforementioned window niches came in handy. With outside temperatures falling to -9 Celsius or thereabouts, these nooks formed natural refrigerators, at least for the night.

im002677 Saturday morning was a sleep-in sort of morning, a natural consequence of our late-night revels which had only ended at 3 in the morning. Plus the toasty bed next to the fireplace and a dead phone conspired to keep in bed till about oh…. Suffice it to say that the sun, which cooperated with my holiday plans and shone nice and bright that morning was well past peeping into the windows, by the time any of us had stirred. Coffee, breakfast and a chat later I was on a train to Zurich, where I met up with Sanja and wandered around the streets of the old part of the city. Days are noticeably shorter, on the other side of the Mediterranean Sea right now, and once it gets dark it gets really cold, so we headed indoors once dusk set in. A ride up to a bar called Jules Verne, housed in what was once an observatory, proved too crowded and smoky, and so we came back down and settled down to a marvelous tapas dinner at the Urania hotel at the base. One taste of a seared piece of foie de canard – marinated in a Porto and served on buttered toast, made everlasting fans of both of us and we got a second helping of the same. Washed down with a dry sherry (I decided to stick to a Spanish theme) with almost salty undertones (reflective of some aging near the sea, I’m guessing) this was a snack worth immortalizing.

im002706Sunday, my last full day in Switzerland. Joined by Gabi, a long-time connection through Sanja, we drove down to the village of Gruyere, whose kitsch factor surpassed all the others. A cobble-stoned village set upon a hill complete with a turret-bearing castle that houses a museum, which, not wanting to waste either time or sunshine, I opted out of visiting this time. Besides its famed cheese, a must-have ingredient for most fondues, Gruyere also boasts a spectacularly rich double cream that without any help from whisks or whips has the consistency of ice-cream. I got my taste of this cream was with fresh raspberries as my dessert, which followed a lunch of the “other” must-have cheese experience when in Switzerland, Raclettes.  Truly a town to clog your right main is Gruyere… but what the heck, at least one dies happy.

Gruyere is also the town that the set designer of the Alien movies hails from,  and he brought his peculiar vision back home to roost in the form of a rather bizarrely done-up cafe/bar. Behold some pictures:

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Alien pleasures in Gruyere

But really, these are not the images I want to leave as a last impression of my visit to this beautiful country, which Sanja got me into the habit of calling “Heidi-land.” The pictures of the mountains and landscapes are much pleasanter, and on the whole, form a more fitting impression of hills that come alive with music (Yes we did indeed sing that song) and whose snowy heights are unreachable but to a small group of intrepid types. Me, I was content to admire the peaks from a distance!

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