Sunday, December 30, 2012

Farina Bona - Ticino's "Good Flour" makes a comeback

After a long, winding drive up into the Valle Onsernone, we took a hike through the rough terrain as we made our way to meet Ilario Garbani. Though temporarily working out of the basement of a shop across the street, Ilario has restored an old mill where he produces Farina Bona, a finely ground toasted corn flour.

Once part of the everyday diet in the Valle Onsernone, Farina Bona fell out of favor following World War II. After the last millers died in the sixties, production ceased entirely.

Farina Bona, meaning “good flour”, only survived thanks to a few family recipes that had been passed down. Efforts to revive Farina Bona began in the 1990s and it was mentioned in the Ark of Taste of Slow Food in 2001, gradually expanding its appeal beyond Ticino and the Swiss borders.

So what is Farina Bona used in today? We sampled soup, cookies, ice cream and a delicious, creamy Nutella-like spread called Bonella, just a few of items Ilario produces.

If you can't make it into the valleys of Ticino, you'll likely find Farina Bona in COOP supermarkets across Switzerland. 

Read more about my travels in Ticino in the February/March issue of German Life.

Saturday, December 1, 2012

All aboard the Wilhelm Tell Express

It's no secret that I love Switzerland. But, somewhere along the line something was lost in translation with the term "express". As a rule of thumb, Swiss trains labeled with the word end up being pretty much the opposite. Not that it's a bad thing with scenery like this.

Take the Wilhelm Tell Express, a route you begin aboard a paddlewheel steamer in Lucerne and switches to a train at Flüelen before chugging its way down through the Gotthard 
Pass to Switzerland's Mediterranean style canton of Ticino.While Tell may be the stuff of legends, the route connects two very real - and incredibly scenic - parts of the country.

After two nights in Lucerne, we embarked on trip aboard to Wilhelm Tell Express for lunch and marvelous views of the Alps and lakeside towns. Along the way you'll pass by Rütli, where Swiss patriots from three cantons took the oath of the confederacy in 1291. We disembarked for a short walk to the station at Flüelen to begin a couple hours of scenic train travel.

Dramatic landscapes with gorges, rivers and melting glacial ice mixed with quaint church steeples and small villages along the way. After passing through the darkness of the Gotthard tunnel, the light greeted us with a new world, Ticino, Switzerland's rustic, Italian-speaking Garden of Eden. 

The journey ended at Locarno along Lake Maggiore, where we would feast on risotto, polenta and pizza, sipping the region's acclaimed wine. 

Further information about the Wilhelm Tell Express and
the Swiss Pass can be found at

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Mannheim - The City of Squares

If you’re looking for charming, old world Germany, you’re in the wrong place.
But, don’t let its well-worn modern façade fool you. Once you take a closer look you’ll find a youthful city with a thriving arts scene, great shopping, several fine museums, plenty of green space and a magnificent Baroque palace.

Known as the “City of Squares” or “Quadratestadt” in German, the city’s chessboard grid layout, created over 400 years ago by Prince Elector Friedrich IV, is rather unique in Germany. Also distinctive is that the inner city streets have no names. Blocks simply consist of letters and numbers, like A4 or Q3.

For a quick visit, take the short walk from the station to Friedrichsplatz and see the landmark Wasserturm, a beautifully designed 19th century water tower with a small park, both featuring intricate art nouveau designs.

From here you can see Mannheim’s National Theater, said to be the oldest stage in the world still hosting performances. Mozart, who met his future wife in the city, conducted in this theater on a return visit.

Mostly modern architecture houses the various shops that fill the streets on the way to Paradeplatz. Here you’ll find Stadthaus N1, home to several restaurants, cafes, and shops, as well as the city library.

Making your way back towards the station you’ll come to city’s crown jewel, Schloss Mannheim, the second largest Baroque palace in Europe. Completed in 1760 as the residence of the Prince-electors of the Electorate of the Palatinate, its size was meant to highlight the importance of the electors in the Holy Roman Empire. Inside the rooms showcase two periods and feature beautiful tapestries, Second Empire furniture, and the former apartment of Stéphanie, Grand Duchess of Baden and adopted daughter of Napoleon Bonaparte.

These are all recreated rooms with one exception. Behind a curtain and glass on the ground floor you can get a peek at the Electress Elisabeth Augusta’s rococo library room, almost completely preserved in its original condition from the 18th century. It’s a real treat and further proof that, in a city that could so easily be overlooked, you’ll find a few gems if you’re open to it.

Mannheim’s strategic position on high-speed rail lines means you can zip to Frankfurt in under an hour, or go directly to Paris in 3 1/2 or Berlin in 5 hours.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

100 Years of the Jungfrau Railway

Today, August 1st, marks 100 years since the Jungfrau Railway officially began carrying tourists up to Europe’s highest train station at the Jungfraujoch. They’ve just opened a new Alpine Sensation exhibition - a sort of consolation prize for those who make the trip only to be cursed with poor visibility (which happens frequently). Thankfully, I was lucky enough to have only sunny skies and could gaze across the mountains and Aletsch glacier in wonder ...

It's also the Swiss National Day.... Happy Birthday, Switzerland!

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Hotel Review: Motel One Stuttgart Hauptbahnhof

Lounge at Hotel One Stuttgart-Hauptbahnhof

Travel plans can change, occasionally at the last minute.

So, I arrived at the new Motel One Stuttgart-Hauptbahnhof on a rainy Thursday night with a Saturday reservation. After a short explanation, the friendly staff had me on my way to one of their 231 rooms. 

Motel One is a small chain that bills itself as a "Low Budget Design Hotel" and that’s exactly what it delivers. The rooms have a fresh and functional design, with comfortable beds and a clean, spacious shower - not always easy to come by in the older European hotels. But, don't think of it as an IKEA hotel. It's far more stylish - and the bed doesn't fall apart because you've assembled it wrong. 

The Stuttgart-Hauptbahnhof location (there's another at Stuttgart-Feuerbach) is a excellent spot for both checking out the city and using it as base to visit other nearby towns such as Heidelberg or Mannheim, or explore the castles and wine of the Neckar Valley. You can even day trip to France in as little as an hour and seventeen minutes with a direct line to Strasbourg. Free WiFi is available in the lobby, but unfortunately not in the rooms. Perhaps that's a blessing as some of us may be inclined to spend too much time online instead of experiencing the city. 

(Yes, I forgot to take photos inside the room.)


Sunday, June 3, 2012

Hotel Hofgarten, Luzern, Switzerland

Hotel Hofgarten is tucked away in a relatively quiet corner of Luzern, though still not too far from the train station. Individually designed rooms were simple, but fairly charming, and the garden area very nice. Only complaint: horrible WiFi connection.

Stadthofstrasse 14

Monday, April 30, 2012

Bacharach am Rhein

With winding streets lined with half-timbered buildings, cozy taverns, and a castle providing an unbeatable view of the river, Bacharach is the quintessential wine town. Though the streets are filled throughout the day in summer, the tourists thin out a bit in the evenings. The warm glow of sunset on the vineyards and cool breeze from the river make it a perfect spot to enjoy a glass of riesling.

Friday, March 2, 2012

Cathédrale Saint Étienne de Metz

One of the most beautiful cities in northern France, Metz is a great place to experience the blending of German and French cultures. It's primarily known for its cathedral and with good reason.

The origins of its Cathédrale Saint Étienne de Metz go back to the 13th century, through the Gothic cathedral, built within the walls of the predecessor, wasn't consecrated in the 15th. With its breathtaking architecture, the third highest nave in France, and an incredible amount of stained glass works by artists like Marc Chagall and Laurent-Charles Maréchal, it's a must-see if you're anywhere near Lorraine.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Frankfurt in a Flash | A quick guide to Germany's financial capital

After ignoring “Mainhattan” for years, I decided to do a whirlwind tour of the old town immediately after arriving on overnight flight. With just a few hours to spare, here's what I found is the best way to "do" Frankfurt in a flash. 

Take the airport train to the Hauptbahnhof, catch either the U-4 or U-5 subway and exit about 3 minutes later at Römerberg. You can alternately walk up Kaiserstraße, which takes about 20. After exiting you can go south a few steps and reach the river Main for a quick view, then move towards the red tower of the Kaiserdom and the Römerberg, Frankfurt's historic heart. 

The first thing to remember as you're standing in the square is that pretty much everything around you was rebuilt after Frankfurt was flattened during World War II. But, don't let that spoil the view of the half-timbered buildings and the town hall.It was here that the city's first trade fairs took place in the 13th century.

One of the most important structures here is the Paulskirche, considered the birthplace of German democracy, It was here that the first freely elected national assembly met in 1848 and drafted the first German Constitution.

Modern architecture echoes the old pre-war designs on Saalgasse. At the end of Saalgasse you'll find the Kaiserdom (St. Bartholomew's Cathedral), where ten Holy Roman Emperors were crowned. In front of the cathedral are some Roman ruins as well as a monument to Charlemagne, who gave the city it's name. (His Franks could ford the river here.)

Remains of the city's former Jewish ghetto (15th to 18th centuries) were uncovered to the east of the cathedral. Frankfurt once had Germany's second largest Jewish community, which can be explored at the Juedishes Museum at Untermainkai 14-15.

Heading back westward you'll notice the skyscrapers above the rooftops as you pass by the birthplace and boyhood home of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Germany's most famous literary figure. The Goethe Haus has been refurbished in period furniture and artwork across several floors, and includes the desk where Goethe wrote "The Sorrows of Young Werther".

With more time you can explore the city's many museums and the restaurants in the charming Sachsenhausen district south of the river. But, for now, you're back at the station with the best of Frankfurt tucked safely under your belt. 

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

A Taste of Sweet Zürich

Sure, there's a charming old town, a beautiful view of the lake and Alps in the distance, as well as an outstanding culinary scene. But, let's face it, if you're in Zürich chocolate is on your mind.

For the serious chocolate lover, Kerrin Rousset's Sweet Zürich tours is a must. You'll take in the best of the city's sweet side, from the famous Sprüngli to small artisan shops. Be aware, however, that you will never be satisfied with your average supermarket candy bar after this.

Want to explore on your own? Be sure to check out the charming Cafe Peclard Schober in the Niederdorf, Truffe near the Lindenhof, and the Sprüngli flagship store at Paradeplatz with their decadent made-fresh-daily truffles. For fun souvenirs, several Merkur locations throughout the city have a great selection of chocolates from across Switzerland, some with fantastic vintage packaging.

Read more about Sweet Zurich in the current issue of German Life. 
More information on Kerrin's tours can be found at

Monday, January 23, 2012

Happy Birthday, Alte Fritz

January 24th marks 300 years since the birth of Frederick the Great, or Friedrich der Große, one of the most notable figures in German history. Though more interested in the arts than the art of war, he nonetheless succeeded in several important military campaigns that united a previously sprawled out Prussian kingdom. He’s also credited with modernizing Prussia with political and economic reforms, as well as the cultivation of the potato.

Of course, “Alte Fritz” is also known for his Sanssouci palace and massive park complex in Potsdam, listed as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO. Here the king retreated from the pomp of Berlin and immersed himself in music, philosophy, and French literature.

In addition to a guided tour of the main palace (there are several), be sure to see the Italian Renaissance styled Orangerieschloß, Friedenskirche, and the Chinese Tea House. It’s a beautiful concentration of stunning architecture and history, all sandwiched in one of Germany’s most beautiful parks.

Frederick died at Sanssouci after a 46-year reign and was buried at the Potsdam Garrison church. During World War II his remains were moved a Thuringian salt mine, then on to Marburg by the Allied army, and finally the ancestral home at Hohenzollern Castle in Swabia. After reunification, his remains were finally buried according to his wishes (after only 205 years)– on the terrace at Sanssouci, without any pomp, and at night. Be sure to bring a potato for his grave. 

Friday, January 13, 2012

Halle's Stadtgottesacker

There's something eerily beautiful about Halle's Stadtgottesacker. Inspired by the Camposanto in Pisa, Italy, construction on the cemetery began just outside the city walls in 1557. Considered one of the most beautiful Renaissance cemeteries north of the Alps, it was the final resting place for more than 2,000 of Halle’s more prominent families in the 16th and 17th centuries. World War II bombing destroyed a portion of the cemetery in 1945 and the years under the DDR saw only further decay. Since reunification, restoration has continued on the cemetery and the beautifully adorned arcades.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Weitenburg Castle | A Baron's Hideaway

Castle stays are one of my favorite parts of traveling in Europe. But, truth be told, they can be hit and miss, and price alone isn’t always a good indicator of quality or authenticity. Some, however, provide just the right mix of charm, history, and atmosphere.

Schloß Weitenburg is a small castle near the village of Starzach, south of Stuttgart. The castle dates back to the 11th century and has been in the family of current owner, Baron Max von Rassler, since 1720. His family was elevated to noble status by Emperor Leopold I, whose royal “L” can be seen in the family coat of arms. 

Located among rolling hills in the middle of nowhere, yet close enough to great sights for day trips, it’s a charming spot to relax and soak up the medieval surroundings.  Inside the one-meter thick walls are high wood beamed ceilings, hunting trophies and curious ancestral portraits, evoking a spirit of a long gone age – and maybe a few cheesy castle horror movies as well. 

Though there are a few modern rooms and beautifully garish suites, most are decked out with antique furniture, charming tiled stoves and stucco ceilings; simple and somewhat understated. I'm pretty sure the lady in the portrait above my bed was scolding me, though I'm not sure why. 

A portion of the once massive kitchen now serves as a dining area, where regional favorites are not to be missed. A small balcony area offers gorgeous views of a lush green valley. 

Sitting quietly in the castle courtyard under the light of a full moon, it was easy to imagine what life may have once been like here and wonder what stories those portraits could tell.

When a member of the staff offered to show me the private dining hall as I slowly wandered the halls before bed, I jumped at the chance. Passing through a beautiful red salon we arrived at a long table with walls surrounded by generations of the Rassler family. Nearly 300 years in 360 degrees. Pretty impressive.

Entrance to the castle

View of the courtyard from the room

Baron Max von Rassler tells us a bit about the castle

One of many period portraits found in the castle.
She looks pretty sassy, no?