Thursday, December 1, 2011

Johann Wanner - Swiss Father Christmas

Weihnachtsbaumschmuckausstattungsspezialgeschaeft. It's said to be the longest shop description in the German language. Who says? Johann Wanner.

In Basel’s old town, 71 year old  Johann Wanner's Weihnachtshaus at Spalenberg 14 has been a tradition in Basel for over 30 years. He's an integral part of Basel's Christmas season and proud to be referred to as their own Father Christmas.

A majestic display of handcrafted ornaments fills the shop from floor to ceiling, with wreaths, trees, crafts, various fabrics, vintage postcards, gift wrap and a few other random items thrown in for good measure. Around the corner, his seasonal salons are part Parisian Bistro, part Santa's workshop, glowing with pure Christmas memory.

He's a trendsetter in the world of holiday decor and is relied upon locally and globally for the very best decorations and styling. It’s no wonder that his clients have included the Clinton White House, a who’s who of European nobility, and even The Vatican.

If you're in Basel for the holidays, or any time, a visit to his shop is a must. 

Johann Wanner in front of his shop

Interior of the Christmas salon

Check out my article on Johann Wanner in the current issue of German Life.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Dive into Zwickau's Johannisbad

If you're visiting Dresden or Leipzig and looking for a day trip, you'd be well-advised to make a short trek to the north side of Zwickau to see some fantastic Jugendstil (Art Nouveau) architecture. Wealth from Zwickau's industry, which included automobile production (this is where August Horch founded AUDI), led to the building of beautiful villas and apartments around the turn of the 20th century. 

One of my favorite places is the Johannisbad, Gründerzeit bathhouse from the 1860s with a Jugendstil interior from 1904.Though it fell into disrepair during the GDR period and was closed shortly after reunification,  the Johannisbad was magnificently restored and reopened in 2000. Today the historic structure, with its intricately designed tiles and railing, is on par with other notable Schwimmbäder in Vienna and Budapest. It's certainly a surprising find in this small Saxon town. 

Learn more and check out more photos at 

Johannisstrasse 16
08056 Zwickau

Friday, October 7, 2011

Halle an der Saale - Saxony-Anhalt's Cultural Capital

Most people don't think of Halle as a particularly pretty city. They are right in that it is still a little gritty, but that's part of the charm. And, if you scratch the surface, it's an interesting place.

Halle has a surprisingly good collection of museums making it worth a visit, including the Händel Haus, birthplace of its most famous son, and the Landesmuseum für Vorgeschicht (State Museum of Prehistory), which houses the famous Sky Disk of Nebra. There's even a museum devoted to The Beatles, though its doubtful any of the Fab Four ever stepped foot in the city.

Add to it two universities, a renowned Renaissance cemetery, and the impressive ruins of Burg Giebichenstein - It's no wonder Halle is known as the Cultural Capital of Saxony-Anhalt.

Plus, they have the ultra-sweet Halloren chocolates, one of my favorites from the region.

Händel Haus

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Hotel 25 Hours Hafencity Hamburg

25 Hours Hafencity is a trendy new boutique hotel that opened earlier this year. Aimed primarily at a younger crowd, as easily assessed by the current 15% discount they offer to those 25 and under. While the views outside are still mostly of construction, the cool retro rooms with maritime themes, seafaring industrial chic, and a vinyl listening room make this hotel a good choice. Rates currently start at 105 Euro per night. 

The 25 Hours group has five hotels in four German-speaking cities (two in Hamburg), each with a unique theme. Their sixth location will open in Zürich in 2012. 

25 Hours Hotel 
Überseeallee 5

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Best of Zurich (for Free)

Zürich enjoys one of the world's highest standards of living. Not surprisingly, it's a great (and easy) place to part with your money. But, even this most stylish of Swiss cities has a few exceptional experiences that will cost you nothing but time. So, here are a few to consider after you realize how much you spent enjoying great restaurants, museums and gorging on Sprüngli chocolates ....

1. Morning on Lake Zurich
Enjoy a quiet morning with breakfast along Lake Zürich. Calm water, a nice breeze, graceful swans and a gorgeous view of the Alps.... a perfect way to start any day!

2. Strolling through Niederdorf
This is Zürich's old town, filled with restaurants, bars, and shops, particularly along busy Niederdorfstrasse.  Many of the side streets dart off into more serene surroundings. Check out Vladimir Lenin's former apartment at Spiegelgasse 17, then get a drink from one of the city's many fountains in this shady courtyard. 

3. Panoramic view from the Lindenhof
Once the site of a Roman fort, the Lindenhof is on the opposite side of the river Limmat and offers a spectacular view of old town. In 1798, citizens swore an oath to the Helvetic constitution on this spot. Take on a local at the oversized chess set. 

4. Stained Glass at the Fraumünster Abbey
Dating back to 853, the abbey was very influential, gaining the right to mint coins, collect tolls and hold markets. Check out the more contemporary addition; 5 stained glass windows by Marc Chagall added in 1970. 

5. 360 Degrees of Zürich atop the Uetliberg
Ok, this one you may want to buy a train ticket for, but technically you can hike all the way up this small mountain for an outstanding view of the city and Alps. If you still have energy - and don't suffer from vertigo - climb the observation tower for 360 unobstructed degrees of Zürich.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Hin & Weg Comptoir - Fresh and Freundlich

In a city so gastronomically rich, it's somewhat surprising to find one of the best restaurants not in the charming Old Town or bustling Bahnhofstrasse, but in a blue-collar neighborhood on Zurich's west side. Hin & Weg began as a catering partnership between several friends, including Marc Muggli and his girlfriend Katja Jeisli, and blossomed into a proper restaurant this year. 

Hin & Weg's simple, classy decor and a French-inspired menu focusing on fresh ingredients make it worth the trek outside of the usual tourist spots. But, as anyone in Zurich will tell you, the west side is where everything is happening right now.

The introduction to the special lunch menu began with three delicious morsels made from the Chef's fresh market finds, most notably a lush melon soup. Salad served from a jar? Yes, it absolutely makes sense. Fresh spinach, asparagus tips, thinly sliced duck and a special honey sauce, followed by Veal served over Mini- Röstini. Just when it appeared things couldn't get better, a tray of desserts appeared.... 

In addition to all the tasty Hin & Weg goodness is their eco-friendly take-out. For a small deposit your food comes served in glass containers and a cardboard carrying box that can be recycled. 
The Küchengruss, a special offering fresh from the market

Jungspinat ... fresh spinach salad with asparagus and duck

Milchkalb with mini-Röstini
Birmensdorferstrasse 171
CH - 8003 Zürich

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Discovering Bern - Switzerland's almost secret capital

I’m pretty sure I woke up at the Hotel Allegro with a smile on my face, recalling the warm and fuzzy feeling I had upon seeing the Alps from my window the evening before. Right as I was about to spring from bed with the giddiness of a schoolgirl, I heard the thunder; warm and fuzzy feeling gone.

My first words uttered, however, were more in line with those of a sailor. Bern had been on my “must-see” list for over a year and, though disappointed at the lack of sunshine, I was certainly not going to let the rain dampen the experience. However, it thoroughly soaked me. 

The day began with a city tour of the Swiss capital via scooter. Not with a Vespa as I imagined, but rather a small two-wheeled device that required a little footwork. Amazingly, I managed to get a fantastic tour of this charming city without injury.

Bern’s old town, a UNESCO World Heritage site, is filled with beautiful sandstone architecture, nearly four miles of shopping arcades, the Berner Cathedral, and the Zytglogge tower with clockwork from the 16th century. Legend says the town’s name came from the first animal founder Duke Berchthold V von Zähringen killed. Was it really a bear or just big dog?

The rain didn’t wash out Switzerland’s largest mass sporting event, the Bern Grand Prix. Each May runners take to the streets of the old town for “The Most Beautiful 10 Miles in the World”, an occasion that also sees the capital city bring out the canton flags.

Market day brings out fresh produce, flowers, strange meats, and some of the most fragrant lavender north of Provence. After sampling at 5th generation cheese maker Mike Glauser’s Jumi stall, I was convinced that the Swiss produce not only the best chocolate, but the best cheese as well.

One of the most prestigious spots in Bern is Bellevue Palace, located next to the House of Parliament. After checking out the view from the rooms, experiencing the impeccable service, and enjoying an outstanding meal at its five star La Terrasse restaurant, it’s pretty easy to see why. The King of Spain has just stayed there a week prior. 

The warm and fuzzy feeling came back at the Kornhauskeller, one of Bern’s trendy bars. Was it the ambience or the absinthe in the air? Either way this cozy cellar is a great place to wind things down, relaxing with old friends or making new ones.

After a delicious Sunday Brunch at the Schwellenmätteli, which I’ll pretend means “Swell Meal” for the moment, we were briefly rewarded with clear skies. After taking in stunning view of Bern from across the river at the bear pits, it was time to say goodbye, warm and fuzzy feeling fully intact.

The flags only come out on important occasions, which I'm fairly
sure includes my visit.

Bern's Zytglogge

View from Bellevue Palace

Runners in the Bern Grand Prix.
More information about Bern can be found at 

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Live blog: Copenhagen

Arrived in Copenhagen today and set out to explore my first Scandinavian city. Since it's a port, a boat tour (70 Kroner, 1 hour) seemed like a logical way to see the city, so I jumped aboard. There were sights to see, but the hum and sway of the boat was a little too calming and I briefly fell asleep. 

Friday, July 1, 2011

Walter - Zürich's Industrial Chic

We had just passed the ultra-trendy Freitag storefront in Zürich’s old industrial quarter when we saw it. Here in what could be called the Anti-Zürich was Walter Vintage Möbel & Accessoires and it caught everyone’s attention. 

Opened by four friends in April, Walter features vintage, typically industrial grade furniture, along with a mix of decorative art and even dishes. It feels like both a shop and gallery all in one, both complementing and contrasting the gritty surroundings. 

Bettina Bucchéri has an eye for the unexpectedly chic

For Bettina Bucchéri, her passion for this Industriechic may be inherited from her Italian father, who grew up in poor conditions and learned very early on how to work with various materials. “Old damaged pieces of furniture were restored, old thrown away objects were repaired and used for purposes other than intended”, she recalls. But, a more recent need turned her to opening a business.

“The idea came up when I wanted to buy a vintage industrial multi-drawer cabinet” says Bettina, “It was a mission impossible to find one of this kind here in Switzerland”. She eventually found what she wanted in France, but saw a void that she believed she could fill in Zürich. “I realized that industrial chic was still a niche in Switzerland. Voilà! The idea was born.”  

Most items come from outside Switzerland, with the exception of items like hand-knitted key holders and linen table mats that are made in-house. Walter will definitely appeal to interior designers and architects, as well as individuals looking for unique items for their home or office. Need something unconventional for your next photo shoot? They'll even rent items.

Travelers might have a tough time finding something they can easily carry home, but this unexpected gem is definitely worth checking out. 

Geroldstrasse 15
8005 Zürich

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Kunstmuseum Basel: Konrad Witz Exhibition

Among Basel's many world-class museums is the Kunstmuseum Basel, which will be closing a special exhibition on Konrad Witz after July 3rd 2011. Witz lived in Basel during the first half of the 15th century and is most noted for several altarpieces, including the "Mirror of Salvation", as well as his rather eerie Grossbasler Totentanz (Dance of Death), a cemetery mural from the Predigerkirche in Basel that today exists only in fragments. 

View more about the exhibition here.

Kunstmuseum Basel 

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Les Halles - Funky and French on Zürich's west side

Though I'm a longtime Germanophile, I've become increasingly fond of France in recent years. So, it was nice getting a little dose of France here and there in Zürich. Les Halles is a funky French flavored restaurant in a former warehouse on the west side. In some ways it feels like sort of an anti-Zürich.

As it turns out the food is excellent. They're known for their "Moules et Frites", so most of us tried the mussels in white wine sauce at lunch. A very good choice. A little disappointed that, despite having branded umbrellas at the tables, they did not in fact serve Kronenbourg beer. I'll give them props for all the organic goodness, but the "bio" beer they felt was a good substitute fell a little short. 

Pfingstweidstr. 28a
8005 Zürich

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Kohlmanns Feuerkuchen

In Basel, where the French, German and Swiss cuisines collide, is the very trendy and tasty Kohlmanns. Their specialty is the Feuerkuchen (literally "Fire Cake"), also known as Flammekuche,a sort of regional flat bread with a sour cream base. After trying several versions, I found the "Classic" (wheat dough topped with a spiced bacon and onion) to be just that. 

If you took away the lasagna's tomato base and drowned it in cheese, you'd have something similar to the Kohlmanns Nudelauflauf. Good, but nowhere close to the Feuerkuchen.

Steinenberg 14
4001 Basel

Vitra Design Museum, Weil am Rhein

Though it's claimed by Basel, the Vitra Design Museum is actually across the border in Weil am Rhein in Germany. It is focused on furniture and interior design, though perhaps most noted as Frank O. Gehry's first building in Europe. I preferred Tadao Ando's conference pavilion and Zaha Hadid's rather quirky fire station, built on site after realizing a little too late that the nearest village fire department couldn't respond fast enough.

Conference pavilion by Japanese architect Tadao Ando

Charles-Eames-Str 1
79576 Weil am Rhein

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Acqua Osteria - Basel, Switzerland

What Basel may seem to lack in actual sights, it more than makes up for in great museums and restaurants. Today's lunch was at Acqua Osteria, a former pumping station turned restaurant. It has an interesting blend of modern and rustic design and a quaint little garden. Very nice roast beef, good wine, and a little ice cream and espresso to top it off.

Binningerstraße 14
4051 Basel

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Tasting Swiss cheese in Bern

Cheese is a family affair for Mike Glauser, a 5th generation traditional cheese maker based in the Emmental area near Bern. It doesn't take long to see that he and his partners are passionate about what they do, and it's easy to taste why when you sample his varieties of cheese, including the outstanding "Belperknolle", coated in garlic and black pepper. Seriously, best cheese ever. (German Only) 

Yep, cutting some cheese. 

How can you not smile with cheese this good?

Well, it's cheese. Lots of delicious cheese. 

Welcome to rainy Zurich ...

Zurich’s old town has no shortage of shops, good when it's rainy. In addition to the chocolate, (which is enough, really) there is a good selection of clothing, antiques and even a nice shop for kids. The water is quite possibly the cleanest I’ve ever tasted. Even the river has this clear, clean, teal color that makes you just want to jump in. (Ok, maybe that’s just my warm nature talking.)

Friday, May 13, 2011

Morning along Lake Zurich

Spent some time relaxing along Lake Zurich this morning, a relatively shallow and clean body of water. The lake's most famous residents were also out.

Friday, May 6, 2011

Chocolate, Cheese .... must be Switzerland

Heading to Switzerland next week ... Bern, Basel, Zurich .. followed by
a couple days in southern Germany.