Bluette Matthey's Blog

September 25, 2017

Visiting Les Moulins Souterrains in Le Locle, Switzerland, is a bit like a trip into a Tolkien dwarf cave. At a constant temperature of 44.6 degrees, the subterranean caves, unique in Europe, offered a work environment more amenable than the typical Swiss climate, so in 1652 three millers set up a system of water chutes using the below-ground streams for the purpose of powering water mills located in the underground caves.

Wheat was brought to the caves for grinding into flour, which was used to make bread, a mainstay of the local diet. The leftover stale bread then became the basis for fondue, a popular national dish. The subterranean area also became a sort of factory where clothes and rope were made from flax grown locally. Hemp was also used for making rope, and its cousin, cannabis, was smoked by the workers to help pass the tedium of working underground.

In 1898 the caves became an abbatoir, or slaughterhouse. Livestock brought in from France (Les Moulins Souterrains was almost on the Franco-Swiss border) was inspected for quality, and all diseased or poor-quality animals were killed and dumped in the caves, along with parts of the animals that could not be used commercially. This went on for almost seventy years, filling up the caves, creating a major site of pollution.

Reclamation of the caves began in 1973 and continued for fifteen years. Today, Les Moulins Souterrains has become a museum, recounting a major facet of the lives of residents of the small Swiss town of Le Locle in canton Neuchatel.
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Published on September 25, 2017 23:35 • 8 views

May 21, 2017

The Languedoc region of southern France has a bit of a problem with dog waste. Some towns and cities are worse than others. Dog owners simply don’t feel the need or responsibility to clean up after their pets. Last fall, when staying in Ceret down near the border with Spain, it was a daily challenge to watch where you put your feet. I felt like the little boy who never looked up! Street cleaners would be on the streets every day blowing and sweeping up fallen leaves, but the dog poo would stay put.

Recently, I spotted this sign outside a park in Pezenas, France. About twenty minutes from the Mediterranean, Pezenas is an intriguing, historic town full of character and culture, especially in the old village at its center. The narrow, winding streets give on to interesting façades, stone archways, and small, hidden plazas with café’s and shops snugged everywhere. A large, lively street market takes center stage each Saturday.

Artisans abound in Pezanas, and it is famous for antiques, with two major antique fairs each year. The town also lauds Molière, who lived in Pezanas for a time, and hosts an annual Molière Festival. A small mince pie, shaped like a large spool of thread called a petit pâté, is a staple in town. The pie was introduced when Lord Clive visited from India with his cooks in 1768. The Mince Pie Brotherhood meets annually to promote its namesake and keep it flourishing. Any excuse for a party!
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Published on May 21, 2017 11:34 • 30 views • Tags: france-south-of-france-languedoc, pezanas

April 9, 2017

Why is Swiss cheese so excellent? Because it comes from really contented cows!

I live in Le Locle, Switzerland, surrounded by pastures on rolling green hills in the Jura Mountains. This time of year the hills are darkened with cow manure that accumulated as the cows were shut up for the winter in barns while mountains of manure piled up outside. With the advent of spring, the farmers are busy spreading the natural fertilizer over the pastures, which will result in the greenest, healthiest grass you can find. The air is ‘perfumed’ with what I call ‘Eau du Locle’. The Swiss farmers excel at sustainable agriculture.

I’ve also noticed that farmers hang large brush contraptions outside the barns. The brushes are activated when the cows stand up against them and, as they rotate, the cows get a stiff brush massage. I’ve actually seen cows standing in line, waiting their turn at the spinning brush.

And then there are the bells the cows wear around their necks, tinkling and jangling as they meander the Swiss hillsides, creating their own symphony of sound. Some farmers have switched the bells out for a GPS tracking device attached to the cows’ necks with a collar … not nearly as poetic.
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Published on April 09, 2017 04:49 • 70 views • Tags: swiss-cows-switzerland

March 5, 2017

The Engadine Skimarathon is a cross-country race held annually in the pristine Engadine Valley in eastern Switzerland. The second Sunday of March sees anywhere from eleven to thirteen thousand skiers in a race on trails that cross the valley’s frozen lakes and zig-zag through a handful of villages for a total of forty-two kilometers. The population of the Engadine Valley swells, and the buoyant attitude of the guests and their hosts gives the valley a festive air.

Starting at the famed Maloja Palace Hotel, the race participants glide across Lakes Sils and Silvaplana, and then through the resort town of St. Moritz. After climbing into the Staz Forest, the trail descends to the village of Pontresina. Many of the trees in this descent are wrapped in bright, orange mattresses to protect out-of-control skiers as they careen down the long glide, avoiding trees and fallen comrades. Hence, the nickname, ‘mattress alley.’ This section of the race is the most entertaining, as race observers watch flailing bodies pile up before them.

The race finishes in the small village of S-chanf, where the Upper Engadine Valley ends, amid cow bells clanging andh cheers from an appreciative, enthusiastic crowd. Some of the racers glide across the finish line, upright, while others collapse in the snow, gasping for breath.

The race debuted in 1969 and became a part of the Worldloppet, a ski federation of long-distance cross-country ski events established to promote the sport of cross-country skiing, in 1978. It’s a major event in the Engadine Valley, where life is to be lived out-of-doors no matter the season.

My latest Hardy Durkin Travel Mystery, Engadine Aerie, takes place at the Skimarathon. I’ll be visiting St. Moritz for next week’s race to promote my book at a Saturday book-signing in the Hotel Laudinella, and enjoy life in the High Alps. Hope to see you there!
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Published on March 05, 2017 05:48 • 69 views

February 19, 2017

Besides being France’s premiere city for gastronomic delights, Lyon is also famous for its traboules, the hidden passageways and staircases woven throughout the buildings and courtyards of Old Lyon. Dating back to the 4th century, the traboules allowed Lyon’s citizens a more direct route to their water supply, the Saône River.

Lyon was also a major Templar stronghold since it was the departure point for overland crusades to Jerusalem. The Templars, it is believed, added to the existing traboules by building subterranean passages, allowing them the secrecy they desired in their activities. When Philip the Fair of France ordered the roundup and detention (and torture and murder) of the Templars in France in 1307, it seems the Templars located in Lyon escaped Philip’s dragnet by using the secret passages to avoid capture.

In the 15th and 16th centuries, Lyon was important in the silk trade with Italy, boasting 25,000 silk looms in the city. Ships laden with silk would dock on the quai running along the Saône. The streets of Old Lyon were laid out to run parallel to the river. The solid blocks of tall Renaissance apartments did not allow for cross streets, so the courtyards of these buildings were connected by secret passages and stair wells which allowed for shortcuts through the old city.

These passages were especially helpful to the silk merchants, who could transport their silk from the river into the heart of Lyon using the traboules. It not only saved them time and work, but protected their precious silk from inclement weather. Ever see silk fabric that has been spotted with water?

The traboules are hidden behind massive doors throughout the old section of Lyon, many of them closed off to the public. However, there are numerous traboules available for the public to explore if you know how to look for them. Facing a closed door, you will see the key pad for accessing the apartments within. If this is an accessible passageway, you will also notice a small, white square with a white raised button in the middle. This indicates that the traboule can be accessed by the general public.

The architectural design of the traboules is fascinating. Some of the ceilings in the passages are frescoed; some are vaulted. The covered staircases are equally impressive, though quite a few of these are closed off by iron gates to protect the privacy of those living there. In any case, visiting Lyon’s traboules are a step back in time. A word of caution: when visiting the traboules please do so quietly so as not to disturb the residents.

If you’re interested in the fate of the Knights Templar, join Hardy Durkin in his next travel mystery, Engadine Aerie, to be released 26 April, 2017.
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Published on February 19, 2017 04:53 • 24 views • Tags: traboules-lyon

February 11, 2017

The Vermillion Coast is a twenty-mile stretch of coastline along the Mediterranean Sea in the Pyrenees-Oriental region of southern France, stretching from Argeles-Sur-Mer in the north to Cerbere at the Spanish border. You could say it is a counter-part to the French Riviera, except it isn’t as expensive, chic, or exclusive as the renowned beaches in Provence. Be warned: the beaches here tend to be less sandy and more inclined to pebbles, with the exception of the vast expanses at Argeles-sur-Mer.

Collioure, France, is an idyllic seaside village on the Vermillion Coast. The village has all the required ingredients for a perfect Mediterranean village: Catalan colors in the charming buildings, a castle, lighthouse, winding streets, boutiques, and restaurants and cafes that line the beaches along the aquamarine sea beyond. Matisse and Picasso found inspiration here.

The Sunday morning market is a weekly event that draws hordes of people, but come early to get a coveted parking space. After browsing the wares of numerous vendors selling everything from sewing thread to fresh fish, enjoy a meal at a seaside café, and taste one of the local wines bottled nearby. Sun, sea, wine … life really doesn’t get much better.
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Published on February 11, 2017 04:58 • 78 views

January 30, 2017

Great Food in Bled, Slovenia

You can tell a lot about a country or region by its food. We recently experienced the culinary delights of Bled, Slovenia, when we ate in the restaurant located in Bled’s castle. The restaurant is contemporary and pleasant, with spectacular views out over the lake and valley. It was peaceful.

We ordered the charcuterie and cheese board, which provided a litany of yums and ahs from one end of the board to the other with an extensive sampling of dried meats, cheeses, pickles, olives, nuts, fig tapenade, and lovely rustic bread. The presentation was a work of art. One of our party ordered a large salad which was a palette of colors, textures, and tastes that raised the bar for salads to a new height.

Our main dish was a Slovenian specialty, fried chicken legs. I was curious. Having lived in the South for decades I have a pretty good idea of what fried chicken is, but this dish was something else! The chicken legs were short, extremely plump, sweet, succulent, and fried to perfection. And the mashed potatoes (again, I’m somewhat of an aficionado) were unique and delicious. Stuffed, I decided not to order the cream cake, a signature dessert for Slovenia.

The wait staff at Bled Castle Restaurant topped off the dining experience. They are very professional, pleasant, and impeccably trained. We left with full tummies and warm feelings for Bled, Slovenia.
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Published on January 30, 2017 01:50 • 54 views • Tags: bled

January 21, 2017

Ceret, France is a wonderful small town in the Pyrenees-Oriental department of southern France fifteen minutes north of the Spanish border. Unlike many of the towns in the area that are affected by the various winds that blow up and down the Mediterranean Coast, Ceret is nestled in the foothills of the Pyrénées and protected from the Tramontane.

Once a part of Catalonia, Ceret still has the flavors of this culture in its architecture, foods, and language. It is common to see the Catalon flag displayed, and bullfighting is a big part of Ceret’s culture, as well. The feria, or running of the bulls and bullfight, takes place on the weekend nearest to Bastille Day.

The town has long been a beacon to the artistic community and was a safe harbor for the likes of Picasso, Soutine, Matisse, Chagall, and Modigliani. An excellent Museum of Modern Art in Ceret’s old town houses collections from many of Ceret’s visiting artists.

The old town is very charming, with the remnants of the ancient ramparts visible, and narrow, winding streets. Mornings are especially pleasant, with the residents going about their business in an amiable environment. Afternoons, with the warming sun, attract residents and visitors to the welcoming cafes for a coffee or glass of fortified wine.

Ceret is a big agricultural area famous for the cherries is produces. These cherries are the earliest of the season and for decades the tradition has been to send a crate of the delicious fruit to the French president. The ever-present vines also surround Ceret, since wine is almost as cheap as water, and the area is a microclimate that grows oranges, figs, pomegranates, and apples.

A big draw on Saturdays is the weekly market that snakes through the streets of Ceret’s old town. In addition to vegetables and fruit, vendors sell local cheeses and sausages, breads, seafood, meats, all manner of clothing, crafts, art work, sewing supplies, prepared paella and Catalan stews … anything and everything … in a festive, friendly environment. If you’re lucky, you might see Catalonians dancing the Sardana.
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Published on January 21, 2017 10:41 • 25 views

January 14, 2017

Cinque Terre (five lands for the five villages encompassed) is a totally unique area in Italy’s Liguria region. Five fishing villages, their harbors full of colorful fishing boats, hug the mountain sides overlooking the Mediterranean Sea in a rugged part of the Italian Riviera. Mule paths, trains, and boats connect the picturesque villages: cars are almost taboo.

The five villages of Cinque Terre are Vernazza, Corniglia, Monterosso al Mare, Manarola, and Riomaggiore. I took the train from where I was staying in Livorno to La Spezia, and changed for the stop to Riomaggiore. The walking paths that connect the pastel-hued villages wind through olive groves and vineyards that cling, literally, to the sides of cliffs that plummet into the aquamarine sea.

The views are beyond breath-taking, and walking the trails trodden for centuries by villagers and mules is an experience that feeds the soul. Just take lots of bottled water for the hike, and stop in the distinctive towns for an honest feast from one of the little shops that sells sausages, cheeses, a hard roll, and piece of fruit, or stop in a trattoria for some of the freshest seafood available.

Check before you go to see that hiking paths are open, since the area is pre-disposed to trail mudslides. And please, leave the pristine paradise like you found it: it’s just that special!
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Published on January 14, 2017 01:37 • 39 views

January 10, 2017

It’s not without merit that the Croatian city of Dubrovnik is called the ‘pearl of the Adriatic.’ Perched along the Dalmatian Coast, Dubrovnik is one of the hottest tourist destinations on the Adriatic Sea and one of the most perfectly maintained medieval walled cities anywhere. Its stunning architecture, topped by red-tiled roofs set against an aquamarine backdrop, lure tourists the world over, and during sailing season the protected harbor is a beacon and sanctuary for the yachting crowd.

Dubrovnik’s main street, Stradun, is a limestone-paved esplanade that runs the length of Old Town Dubrovnik, with fifteenth century fountains at each end. The Stradun is lined with specialty shops, restaurants, banks, and historical buildings, and the narrow side streets contain more bars, shops, restaurants, and living quarters. Dubrovnik’s Old Town is not just a tourist attraction: people actually live and work there.

Designated a UNESCO site, Dubrovnik’s old town maintains beautiful churches, monasteries, and palaces built in Gothic, Baroque, and Renaissance traditions. Monuments and statues record the city’s lengthy history. Walk the fort’s perimeter atop its massive walls, with the gorgeous Adriatic Sea all round. Or, for an aerial view, take a cable car from just outside the fortified walls to the top of Mount Srd for a breathtaking panorama.

P.S. The Bosnian restaurant, Taj Mahal (not Indian!) located on Nikole Guchetica, serves really good food. If the weather is pleasant, you can eat on the narrow sidewalk. Hardin Durkin and I give this place a big thumb’s up.
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Published on January 10, 2017 01:49 • 20 views • Tags: dubrovnik