Calm before the Oberammergau Storm

by Brian Jewell 23. July 2009 20:43

On the streets of Oberammergau today, it is quiet. There is little indication that, less than a year from now, this small German village will be packed with visitors from all over the world.

Oberammergau’s Passion Play, which will take place next summer, is perhaps the most anticipated event in the world of tourism. Locals have performed the play once every ten years since the 1630s, when they vowed to re-enact the Passion after being spared the ravages of the bubonic plague.  Over nearly 400 years, what started as a small local tradition has grown into the largest, most elaborate Passion play in the world, drawing throngs of visitors from every corner of the globe.

Next year’s play will be performed five times a week, from mid-May through early October. It is an effort of the entire town, and already preparations are well underway. Work crews have completed renovations to the permanent theater that the play takes place in. When we visited today, set designers were busy preparing the stage for one of the numerous backdrops to be used in the production. Throughout the town, local men stopped shaving just before Easter this year, in order to be appropriately scruffy to appear in the play next summer. All told, around 2,000 locals will appear on stage.

Beyond the theater, Oberammergau as a town is charming. Many of the buildings in town feature prominent exterior murals or well-manicured flowerboxes. Visitors can visit a woodcarving museum, or one of several shops that sell Christmas items year round. Typical restaurants, cafes and beer gardens are easy to find.

Beginning next May, all of these places will be packed with tourists and visitors. To get a look at the village while it is just a village is a privilege that far fewer are able to enjoy.


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A Meal Inside the Mountain

by Brian Jewell 22. July 2009 20:22

Salzburg, Austria is a city with lots to see and do, including a mountaintop fortress and the birthplace and childhood home of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. But one of the most interesting facets of our visit there today was dinner at St. Peter’s Restaurant, which is well over a thousand years old.

Founded in the year 803, St. Peter’s is the oldest restaurant in Austria, and many locals claim that it is the oldest in Europe or even in the world. The restaurant has hosted a wide range of history’s most important people from Charlemagne and Christopher Columbus to U.S. president Bill Clinton.

The restaurant is part of St. Peter’s Monastery, which was also founded around the same time, and which is still home to a number of active monks. The monastery owns and operates the restaurant, which was originally carved into the side of the mountain that the monastery sits on.

Today, there are many more rooms to the restaurant, and some of them are quite elegant. But guests can still eat in the large cavers which were hollowed out from the side of the rock if they wish.  It’s a dining experience that few other cities – in Austria or elsewhere – can offer.



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Images of Innsbruck

by Brian Jewell 21. July 2009 00:22

If a picture is worth a thousand words, then snapshots of Innsbruck, Austria are worth 10,000.

This city high up in Austria’s Alps is the second largest in the country.  And while there are many noteworthy facets, including a thriving cultural and educational scene, nothing is more impressive than Austria’s Old Town.

The area known as Old Town was constructed during the 14th and 15th centuries. Today, only a few blocks remain (much of it was destroyed in the bombing raids of World War II).  But those few blocks are an absolute treasure: narrow pedestrian streets wind their way between the facades of centuries-old buildings, trimmed and decorated with Baroque-era artwork and immaculately maintained.

The fanciful architecture, tiled streets and pastel colored walls seem like something out of a storybook. Sidewalk cafes, jewelry stores, and candy shops add to the appeal. For a tourist in Innsbruck, there is no better place to spend an afternoon or evening.

And no matter which alley you look down, the Alps linger in the distance.




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A Home in the Alps

by Brian Jewell 20. July 2009 02:54

It’s hard to visit the remote Alpine villages of Switzerland without wondering what it would be like to live here. Although there must be downsides to living in small, difficult-to-reach places, the natural beauty and cultural charm of these places makes them feel like heaven on earth to visitors.

This morning we visited the small town of Brienz, a village of 3,500 people in the Swiss Alps known worldwide for its history in woodcarving. But it wasn’t wood that caught my eye today – it was the magnificent houses that sit between alongside the beautiful Lake Brienz.

Historic, huge, and immaculately manicured, these houses are an attraction in themselves. Their architecture and gardens make many visitors drool, or envy or both. But perhaps their greatest asset is the view out of their picture windows: the houses face the lake, with the towering, snow-capped Swiss Alps as a backdrop. Standing looking at this view, I can’t imagine how rich life her e must be.

Apparently, the people are rich too.  Our Collette tour manager Jeff Scott told us that all of these lakeside homes are worth millions of Swiss Francs (which are very close in value to U.S. dollars.) And many times, once a family moves in, they never leave.

When a family wants to buy a house in this area, or build a new one, they take out mortgages with 100-year terms. When the original purchasers die, their children take over the mortgages, and thus the homes stay in families for a century until they are paid. The houses are built so large to accommodate the many family members that will inevitably live there together.

“You often die in the same house that you were born in,” Jeff said. “It’s not at all uncommon to find four generations living together under the same roof.”



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Dining at a Bernese treasure

by Brian Jewell 19. July 2009 02:19

Kornhaus Keller doesn’t look like much from the outside. But inside, this historic restaurant proves to be one of the great secret treasures of Bern.

The building was constructed between 1711 and 1718, a sandstone work in High Baroque style. During its lifetime, it served as a granary and market hall, an alehouse and a museum before city planners came together to refit it as a restaurant in 1893.

Today, restaurant patrons can still see many of the beautiful artistic touches added to the building during the transition. Twelve columns throughout the dining room depict important traditional costumes of Bernese women; arches throughout the room depict musicians in traditional men’s costumes of the Renaissance. Other corners of the restaurant are decorated with images of mythological characters, such as dragons, angels and mermaids.

As in all restaurants, ambiance is only half of the equation at Korhaus Keller; the other is the fantastic food. The restaurant features and impressive wine cellar, and an even more impressive menu. Tonight, our tour group’s dinner included salmon steak with red pepper sauce, roast lamb Provence style, and Poulard on lemon sauce.

Great restaurants like this come along rarely on an average group tour; it’s rarer still that they feature such a unique history and ambiance. Tonight we drunk it all in, making the most of our time at one of Switzerland’s best offerings.


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History on the banks of Lake Geneva

by Brian Jewell 18. July 2009 02:12


There’s nothing like traveling in Europe to shake up your perspective on history.

In the United States, we get excited about things that are 200 years old; in the West, where some states have yet to celebrate their centennials, even newer items and places get the historic treatment. But visit Europe, where cities and buildings have stood for over a thousand years, and you begin to see the past along a different timeline.

A classic example is Switzerland’s Chateau de Chillon, a castle built by French dukes in the 800s. Sitting atop a bluff on the banks of beautiful Lake Geneva, this castle was lived in and expanded by nobility for over 1,000 years – the last residents moved out in the 1800s.

The castle was made famous by the English poet Lord Byron, who wrote about it in his popular work “The Prisoner of Chillon.”  During our tour of the castle, we visited the dungeon, where as many as 250 prisoners were held at one time, and saw where Byron carved his initials into a stone pillar.

The tour of the large castle afforded us interesting glimpses into the lives of people who lived there.  We saw the artwork and furniture that was created for them centuries ago, and much of it is still beautiful today. A full-time staff of curators and maintenance personal works to make sure the castle is preserved in its original state.

Along the way, our guide also pointed out how the inhabitants dealt with more mundane affairs, such as cooking and bathing.

“We often think that in the middle ages, people were very dirty,” she said. “They were not – they were very clean. They washed their hands and faces often, and took baths just about every day.”

Nobles, she explained, had baths in their homes, while commoners used public bathhouses. It was only after the bathhouses became frequent spots for illicit rendezvous that that Catholic church ordered them closed, and spread the rumor that contact with water was dangerous.

When  you do a little bit of digging, history is always more interesting than you expect.



My Favorite Things

by Brian Jewell 17. July 2009 02:07

If Switzerland is the land of cheese and chocolates, we wasted no time diving in to the heart of the country.

Our first full day of the tour has taken us from Bern, the capital city and our home base in Switzerland, to Gruyere, a small village area in the French-speaking part of the country. A medieval village built in the mountains, Gruyere is still a picturesque home to about 1,000 people, who live behind the original city wall.

But Gruyere is known not for its scenery, but for its exports – this is one of the chief dairy production areas of Switzerland, and is famous for its namesake cheese. Gruyere cheese, noted for its mild flavor and smooth texture, can be found in fine food stores and restaurants across the world.

Today’s tour took us to a cheese factory, where we learned about the production of the area’s specialty from beginning to end. Along the way, we saw milk being skimmed, cultured and processed into cheese, and took a peek inside the “cave” where cheesemakers leave their wheels to sit for up to a year before selling them. Upon leaving, each member of the group received three different gruyere samples, which demonstrated how the cheese’s flavor changes with age.

We also got our share of chocolate, too. Just outside of Gruyere, the town of Bloc is home to Cailler, one of Switzerland’s historic chocolatiers. On a tour of the factory, we learned about some of the raw ingredients used in making chocolate, and saw examples of both antique and modern machines used in the factory.

The best part of the tour, though, came at the end, when we were invited to unlimited samples of all of Cailler’s products. Though it was just after lunch, we all noshed on chocolate squares, pralines and other candies until our stomachs’ content.



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