Austin IS Weird

One of the things we’d heard about Austin was the slogan Keep Austin Weird*. Having never been, and looking for a place that would be relatively warm in early January, we decided to go. We were very wrong on the weather— just bad luck that they were having unusually cold temperatures—but right on the money with our decision to check the city out. Quirky but sprawling, Austin is definitely “weird” and in a very good way.


A Texas-size welcome Photo: C. George

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Feeling Fabulous at Frey

From the title, one might think Frey is the hot new spa in town, but in fact it is a chocolate company, and that in and of itself is, of course, fabulous. Like a spa, there was a dress code, but rather than undressing it was covering up, donning hairnets, shoe covers and coats. Not the most fabulous or flattering look but for the chance to see inside the factory, well worth it. It must be noted, however, that our guide, Petra, who was ever so wonderful, somehow did manage to look fabulous in her hairnet. Most definitely unfair, but we were there for the chocolate, not the fashion.


We couldn’t take photos in the factory, but here’s what I took out of the factory store!

The Frey factory is located in Buchs, Switzerland, about an hour from Basel. The company was founded in 1887 by the Frey brothers Robert and Max, and purchased by Swiss supermarket giant Migros in 1950. This is why all the chocolate you buy in Migros comes from Frey but make no mistake, this is no ordinary supermarket chocolate. It’s wonderful and it is my chocolate of choice these days.

We were greeted with a waft of deep chocolate aroma as we approached the building, and could catch additional bits of it as we wound our way through the labrythn of corridors that gave us a bird’s eye view of the factory floor. At times, the air was almost sickenly sweet, but then we would enter another patch of pure chocolate, and delight in its purity.

We learned all kinds of things, such as that Swiss people eat between 11 and 12 kilograms of chocolate per year; that Easter is the busiest time; and that if you buy posh “Swiss Chocolate” outside Switzerland, say at your local Marks and Spencer, it was likely made at the Frey factory.

The industrial process was fascinating. As in any factory, there are a number of specialized machines. We saw one that wrapped chocolates in gold mouse foil wrappers, inserted a gold thread tail, and passed them into a box. A new machine filled six slots in a praline tray, which then went to the next station to have a few more slots filled. The final stages, however, were done by hand, since machines cannot handle cocoa-dusted truffles. There was also a visual check that all the slots were filled correctly and any errors corrected. This station was the closest we saw to the setup in the classic I Love Lucy chocolate factory episode.

While many competing chocolate companies would have you think that the reason Switzerland is so famous for chocolate is because of the milk that goes into “dairy milk” chocolate, Petra told us it is actually because of Switzerland’s expertise with machinery. To give chocolate its ultimate rich, smooth texutre, the cocoa power mixture undergoes a 24 hour “conching” process (developed by Rodolphe Lindt), which converts the cocoa powder to smooth chocolate. Machines are therefore the magic behind the chocolate. As we like to say, “Swiss engineering at its finest”!

Due to the demand for their products, the Christmas season production was completed in August. The day we were there, mid-November, the chocolate Easter bunny lines were in full swing. It was fascinating to learn how they are made. I had always thought the two halves were poured separately and pressed together, but no. Chocolate is poured into one side of the mold and as the mold halves move two by two through the machine, the tops are put in place and the complete molds are flipped so that centrifical force creates the full, hollow bunny. Each one is inspected by hand as they are automatically unmolded and moved along a the conveyer belt to be packaged.

During our tour, there were several sample tables. The first one displayed a selection of Suprême bars and our group selected three to try: Macadamia Nut, Hot Chile, and a nice 69% plain dark. Subsequent tables offered bowls of treats and trays of pralines and we were welcome to taste as much as we wanted. I must say, it was the first time in my life I’d ever felt I’d eaten just too much chocolate.

On our way out, we of course stopped at the chocolate shop. I loaded up on chocolates for the holidays – and when I got home I stashed them safely away. We’ll see how many are left when it comes time to wrap them up.

If you go:
Frey is changing the format of its tours. Tours like the one we went on are being phased out, and being replaced with a new “visitor experience” and visitor center on site. The new center is due to open in spring 2014.

Switzerland’s Strada Alta

You take the high road, I’ll take the low road… We were in Switzerland rather than Scotland, but we couldn’t help but repeat this refrain on our recent adventure in Ticino, the Italian-speaking part of Switzerland.

We had friends coming for a visit and knowing how dismal it can be in October in Basel, we decided to play it safe and head to the sunny side of Switzerland, as their very fun ad campaign calls it. The sun is very much a part of the culture of Ticino. It directed the way life developed there. There are vineyards and terraces, beautiful gardens. In fact, if not for the Swiss stores and the prices listed in francs, you would think you were in Italy proper.

We made a good decision: it was grey and rainy in Basel as we departed but when we came out of the tunnel into Ticino, the sky was blue and bright. Hooray!

along the Strada Alta

The Strada Alta (high route) is a trail in the Leventina Valley. To access it, we took a train from Bellinzona to Airolo, and then headed to the hills. The train did most of the uphill for us, so our 17 kilometer trek took us on an undulating path through a few villages. As usual in Switzerland, there are places to stop along the way for snacks and meals, making multi-day hikes a breeze to plan and easy to do, even with kids along.

The woman at the Leventina tourism office was very friendly and helpful. We were clearly not the first people to take this hike, but despite its popularity, we pretty much had the trail to ourselves, seeing just one couple during our hike. And lots of cows.

We spent the night in Osco in a dormitorio, then hiked out the following day. The poor weather caught up with us, but the forecast promised snow at higher elevations, which was extremely exciting for our friends from warmer climes. Of course the thought of it was better than having to deal with is and fortunately we were below the snow.

Back in Basel later that day, we went to the corn maze up in the Bruderholz, and from the platform in the center, we could see the fields of freshly fallen snow in the nearby hills. Winter is on its way!

If you go:

Book accommodation ahead if you’re going in the busy season as options are limited. You can find travel details at the Leventina Tourismo site.

The More Things Change, The More They Stay The Same

We arrived at our new destination – Basel, Switzerland – on 19 August 2011. One great thing about moving is the opportunity to reinvent yourself. While I’m not sure I’ll do that completely, I  have decided I will once and for all start the blog I’ve been meaning to start for years, so here goes!

I’ve been amazed to find that despite a major change like moving across the ocean, again, things are remarkably the same.  We are staying in temporary accomdations in Binningen, in the same building where we stayed upon arriving in Basel the first time in August 2001. Fortunately the building has been upgraded – new, lighter and brighter furnishings – but we easily fell back into the same routines.

Jason is back in the same office building, though in a new job and therefore on a different floor. We arrived on a Friday and Jason went off to work the following Monday, leaving the business of settling in, again, to me.  Not to sound mean, but that’s the way it’s been the past five moves, so no great change there.

We spent the first week looking at apartments, considered a few in the outskirts of Basel but decided to take one in the Gellert, the neighborhood where we lived last time. In fact our new apartment is all of two and a half blocks from our old apartment. As I said…

The best “same” is our friends. We have stayed in touch with several families  from our Montessori days, and it’s been great to reconnect with them. And some of our new friends here are actually friends from Hong Kong – a family we knew well there has also moved to Basel (that’s tale for the “Small World” category) and it’s been great to maintain that connection too.

A lot in Basel has changed, but much of what I loved about it before is still here. Looking forward to getting out there and exploring more!