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Josh and friend enjoy pedal bikes in  Brugge, Belgium.
GoNOMAD in Belgium, France, Germany and Switzerland

By Lauryn Axelrod

Leaving Paris

On July 10, I rented a car in Paris, and afterovercoming my fear of driving the "Teriferique" (the highway ring that circles Paris), we were on our way to Belgium to visit my boarding school roommate, Margaret, and her family. The drive north on the A1 was easy, and three hours later, we arrived in Koksijde, Belgium, a lovely seaside town popular with French tourists.

I had been in Koksidje last summer and liked it tremendously. The wide, calm North Sea beaches are perfect for walking (or sandboating, which is very big here), and the seafood restaurants (moules frites!) are worth the trip alone. For Josh, however, this was an opportunity to meet and play with Margaret's son, Tim, and to indulge in Belgian Waffles and Chocolates.

Margaret met us at the door with a plate of steaming fresh crepes filled with Belgian Chocolate sauce, and I think Josh decided then and there to move in. For the next three days, he would have chocolate at every meal (and in between).

He and Tim also hit it off fantastically. They both have a deep love of Legos and Tim has the largest collection of little pieces I have ever seen. It took much coercing to get the boys to leave their Lego universe for anything other than chocolate.

Still, we managed to extract them long enough to make a visit to the beautiful medieval city of Brugge on the day of the 700th anniversary of its rebellion against the French, the first people's rebellion in Europe! We wandered the narrow streets, rode on the canals in the rain, and admired the architecture and churches.

On another outing, we went for a hike in a castle-filled forest nearby, and later, a stroll through the sand dunes by the ocean, filled with wild donkeys.

But the highlight for Josh and Tim was riding pedal bikes up and down the boardwalk while Margaret and I drank coffee, watched the ocean and caught up on life since we were 18.

On the last day, Josh and Tim unveiled their Lego masterpiece: over 8 intricate space ships, launching pads and various other buildings and vehicles. They were so proud! And as we were leaving, Tim and Josh promised each other there would be more Lego building to come. Watch out Legoland!

Alsace

We drove southeast from Belgium through the golden fields of Champagne to the Alsace region of France and the lovely old town of Colmar, the center of the Alsatian wine region. Granted, going to a wine town isn't exactly a kid-oriented stop, but Colmar was surprisingly kid-friendly. The romantic, medieval city is filled with narrow, cobbled lanes, lined on all sides with colorful, half-timbered Alsatian buildings and crisscrossed by flowery canals aptly named "Le Petit Venise!"

We spent two rainy days wandering the fairytale-like streets, gorging on Alsatian staples of hashbrowns topped with meats and cheeses (Rosti), sampling Alsatian Rieslings (me), sitting in sidewalk cafes drawing, and eventually, finding our way to the Toy Museum, which houses very artful displays of antique trains, planes, boats, cars, Barbies, and a life-sized replica of Cinderella's carriage. It was a fascinating find!

On our last night, we were awakened by the sound of fireworks and, excited to see them, we ran through the quiet streets chasing the sound. Finally, in a crack between buildings, we saw the Bastille Day display…Josh was thrilled. Happy 14th of July!

The next morning, we departed early and followed the Route Des Vins, a winding, picturesque road that heads north to Strasbourg through the vineyards and villages of the Vosges foothills. We stopped along the way to sample a few wines and buy some country pates, breads and local cheeses. We would have a picnic later, en route to Ludgwigsburg, Germany to see my brother, John.

Ludgwigsburg, Germany

Located 10 minutes or so north of Stuttgart, mellow Ludgwigsburg is not really a tourist stop. However, my brother John was conducting an all-Gershwin program there at the Schlossfestspiele and invited us to come stay with him for a few days. In spite of being more a bedroom community for the big city to south, Ludgwigsburg has a few attractions, especially the Residenzschloss - one of the largest Baroque palaces in Germany , known as the "Schwabian Versailles"-- and its attached gardens.

The castle is currently undergoing restoration, but John, Josh and I took a walk through the elaborate rose gardens and spent two hours wandering the Marchengarten, or the children's fairy tale garden. Filled with replicas of fairytale stories, including a labyrinth, a moving giant and lots of evil witches popping out of thatched roof huts, the garden proved to be a fun kid-friendly stop. Josh and John had a fantastic time chasing each other through the labyrinth and seeing who could get to the center first!

The next day, we attended John's rehearsal, and Josh was fascinated by the amount of effort it took to get an orchestra together. After lunch, we spent a few hours wandering through the pedestrian streets of the market area and then dressed for the performance. John had a surprise for Joshua, but wouldn't let on what it was.

The concert was fabulous. The program, consisting of "An American In Paris," "Cuban Overture" and "Porgy and Bess," was wildly received by the normally staid German audience. The soloists and the choir received standing ovations and at the encore, John surprised everyone by calling his nephew, Josh, up on stage to help conduct the last piece! Standing behind Josh and directing his arm movements, John led him through a short excerpt from "Porgy and Bess." The audience was wowed and so was Josh. Seeing his uncle conduct was thrill enough, but conducting with him made this stop one he would definitely remember!

Switzerland waterfall.

Interlaken, Switzerland

We said goodbye to John the next morning and headed down to Interlaken, Switzerland. It was raining hard, which made driving the autobahn at 140 km/hour in a VW Polo a challenge. But, we arrived safely and checked into the Backpacker's Villa, a friendly, clean hostel right on the park in the center of town.

Josh had wanted to see the Alps, which was why we were here. Interlaken is situated between two beautiful, blue lakes, but it is also surrounded by high mountains: seven peaks over 10,000 feet including the Eiger North Face, the Monch and the Jungfrau. Unfortunately, when we arrived, the low cloud cover obscured the high snowy peaks. Patience, I told him. The mountains will appear.

The following morning the clouds were still hovering, though it had stopped raining. Interlaken is known for fantastic hiking, so we decided to try a hike or two, in hopes of catching a glimpse of the Eiger or the Jungfrau. We first stopped at the Trummelbach Falls, 10 glacial waterfalls pouring down the INSIDE of a mountain! Thousands of gallons of icy water drain from the Eiger, Monch and Jungfrau glaciers in a thunderous, swirling downpour, twisting and turning, carving its way through the rocky core of the mountain. It's quite impressive, but we were soaking wet by the time we left the falls!

Next, we headed over to the village of Grindelwald, 20 kilometers from Interlaken, and caught the cog railway to Kleine Scheidegg to hike along a 7,000-foot ridge to Mannichen. In the winter, this region is a fantastic ski bowl, but in summer it's filled with easy hiking trails. While we still couldn't see the peaks through the clouds, the almost level, hour-and-a -half hike was spectacular, across high alpine fields filled with wildflowers. The path ends at the Mannichen gondola, and we took a ride back down the mountain on the longest gondola in all of Europe.

We drove back to Interlaken and went shopping for food for dinner. At last, we would have a home cooked meal, even if it was pasta in a hostel kitchen!

The next morning the sky was clear blue, and the live video feed at breakfast from the top of Jungfrau was perfect! We ate quickly and hopped in the car to Grindelwald to catch the train to the Top of Europe.

The first train took us as far as Kleine Scheidegg again, where we caught the Jungfrau Bahn for a 40-minute ride up through the mountain, past the Eiger Glacier - it's jagged crevices frightening and cruel--to the observation station on the Jungfraujoch.

There is no apt way to describe the sublime beauty of the Jungfraujoch. At 11,300 feet on a clear day, you can see for miles across an ice-covered universe. The feeling of freedom and awe at what Mother Nature can make by herself is palpable. The sun was warm, so even outside on the glacier, you can play in the perpetual snow in a T-shirt! Now, I know why high-altitude mountaineers get hooked on this. I never wanted to come down from this white world.

Swiss glacier at Junfraujoch. (photos by Lauryn Axelrod.

Josh and I wandered (slid!) through the Ice Palace, intricate alleys, tunnels and sculptures carved from the ice below the surface. Then, we went outside to go sledding. It was a blast. I could have spent hours trekking the glacier, but unfortunately, Josh was feeling the effects of altitude sickness, so we cut our visit short. Before leaving, we climbed to the top of the Sphinx observation tower to learn about the scientific experiments that take place on the summit and to gawk at the view one last time.

Back at Kleine Schiedegg we have some apple strudel and contemplate a hike along the Eiger North Face, something I really wanted to do. But Josh was still a bit woozy from the altitude, so we called it a day. As we took the train back home, I couldn't bear the thought of never seeing these mountains again.

The next morning was as glorious as yesterday, so we plan a hike up to Schynige Platte, a panoramic ridge with stunning views of Interlaken and her lakes to one side, and all 7 icy peaks on the other. The Schynige Platte was one of the first hiking paths ever carved in the region, and for good reason. The views are spectacular! I could have lingered here forever, amongst the rocks and wildflowers, but time was running out. We descended and began our drive back to Paris.

Beaune, France

We stop for the night in Beaune, the center of the Burgundy wine region. We find a place to stay - the charming L'auberge Bourguignonne -- right in the center of the old city. The auberge also happens to have an excellent, Logis de France restaurant, so I splurge on a real Burgundy meal, complete with a half-bottle of wine and desert of a plate of regional cheeses.

Josh is tired, so he goes back to the room to rest while I wander the city. Beaune is lovely. Not as colorful as Colmar in the Alsace, but here, on the Cote d'Or, the stone buildings glow in the sunset, and the cobbled lanes are filled with vintners' cafes. A hot air balloon floats overhead and a carousel circles in the square. I stop into a café for a sample glass of wine and enjoy the warmth of the summer night and the ease of this town.

I can't bear the thought that Josh might miss this, so I go back to the hotel to wake him up. We spend an hour riding the carousel together, wandering into a jazz club for a rendition of "Take the A-Train" where he takes a sip of good Burgundy wine - and likes it-- and arm-in-arm walk back to the hotel, convinced that someday, we will have to spend more time here amongst the neighboring vineyards and villages.

Back To London

The next morning, we drive back to Paris to deliver the car. Again, I overcome my fear of driving in the city, but we easily negotiate the highways and roads to arrive at the Gare du Nord. Our little VW Polo had served us well over 2,500 miles and four countries, but we had to return the car in time to catch the Eurostar back to London.

Our last night. We check into the Lancaster Hall Hotel and head to Leicester Square in hopes of getting some cheap (and tasty) Chinese food and catching a movie in one of the HUGE theatres on the square. Coming from Vermont, where the biggest screen is the drive-in, this would be a treat, so we splurge on stall tickets for the new Spielberg film, "Minority Report." Josh is thrilled with the plush, assigned seats and the size of the screen. I am excited by a sound system that pulses through the theatre.

The film is much better than either of us expected, and as we walk back to the Tube for our last "Mind The Gap" moment, we feel both sad and happy. Our European summer is winding to a close, but it has been fabulous: filled with diverse experiences and landscapes. We will relish being home for the next week - in time to repack - before going to Asia.

Tonight London, next week, China!

COLMAR, France

Where to Stay
Hotel St. Martin
38, Grand Rue

Right on the main square in the old city, this charming hotel offers comfortable, affordable, clean rooms, and a good breakfast buffet! $65/double

Where to Eat
There are numerous little cafes and restaurants, but the cheapest and tastiest meals in town are at the Schwendi café, right across from the Hotel St. Martin. Excellent Rostis and tarte flambees!

What to Do
In addition to wandering the streets, riding a boat down the canals of Petit Venise and sitting in the wine cafes to sample the vintages, take the kids to the Musee Jouet, a fun toy museum on 40, rue Vauban. Open daily in the summer from 9-6.

INTERLAKEN, Switzerland

Where to Stay

Backpackers Villa
Alpenstrasse 16
Spotless, large rooms (some ensuite and with balconies), helpful staff, good breakfasts, nightly movies, internet access, and games rooms make this hostel one of the best we stayed in. It's great for families, too. Right on the main square in town, facing the park and the playground and the elegant, historic Victoria-Jungfrau hotel is across the way! 44 CHF/per person/private double.

Where to Eat
Des Alpes Restaurant and Bar
Hoheweg 115
On the main drag across from the park, this friendly, affordable restaurant offers the best fondues, raclette and Swiss grills (a huge platter of meats, veggies, fruits, cheeses and more that you cook in broth or grill at your table) in town. Live music in the evenings makes this THE gathering place in Interlaken.

What to Do

Tickets on the cog railways and cable cars that go up the mountains are expensive. But if you are planning to do any hiking (or go to the Jungfraujoch), it is cheaper to buy a five-day pass, which, at 185 CHF, gives you free run of the cog railways, gondolas and cablecars that crisscross the valleys.

For children, a Youth Card is by far the best bet. For 20 CHF, kids ride free for a year!
You can buy the passes at any train station in the area.

There are over 50 hiking trails and biking trails to choose from, and most are kid-friendly. But, if kids get bored, you can always take them whitewater rafting, paragliding, alpine side running, or the newest craze: downhill scooter riding.

BEAUNE, France

Where to Stay and Eat

· L'Auberge Bourguignonne
4, Place Madeline, Beaune
Tel: 011-33-(03)-80-22-23-53
A charming older hotel on the square with big bathrooms and an excellent restaurant. At $52 a night, it was a deal.

 

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