I’ve heard that the Santa Barbara area was good for both cycling and interesting wineries so with a very slight lull in the work schedule and very little planning in advance I thought I’d take Southwest Airlines up on their ‘wanna get away?’ slogan and take a little break from Austin.

I make a point to note Southwest Airlines because when I travel with my two bike cases that measure at the limit of what’s considered ‘checkable’ luggage they are one of the few airlines that include 2 checked bags with the fare. With fares about the same in any case, it’s been convenient in the past so I booked ‘em for a direct flight to LAX.

As you can see in the photo at right. Santa Barbara also has some interesting people wandering about. This photo was captured at the weekly farmers market in the heart of Santa Barbara. I think it says something about the casual outdoors culture of the city.

My ultimate destination wasn’t actually Santa Barbara, but rather Solvang or more generally the Santa Ynez valley. But with a long flight plus a pretty good car drive up there I opt’ed to spend at least one afternoon and evening bumming around Santa Barbara.

I found a little motel (they call it an Inn but seems like a motel) just a block from the beach called the Harbor House Inn. TripAdvisor led me there – as it often does to the destinations I find – and it was a really great find. Nice room. Clean. Even a little kitchenette. It’s the sort of place you could spend more than the one night I was planning.

It was convenient to everything I was likely to find interesting for one day stay. And by convenient I mean it was easy to walk to beach, to the ‘funk zone’ (as they call it in Santa Barbara) nearby for restaurants and winery tasting rooms and even close to the main downtown State Street with all its shops and things – including that farmers market I mentioned.

It didn’t take me long to venture out and about and take in some of the pier, beach area and one of the tasting rooms. I’d done at least a little online browsing and had concluded I wanted to check out a place called The Lark for dinner. Pali wines was a block or so down and given that the Lark didn’t open till 5 (which was 7pm my time) I pulled in. They had a nice selection of wines and an inviting little space and while the wines were good I wasn’t up for lugging any around or signing up for delivery/club membership.

The Lark turned out to be a fantastic restaurant. I like finding a place like this one – especially when traveling solo – where you can find a spot at the bar and they serve the full dinner menu at the bar. The bar staff was really friendly and helpful. And seated like this inevitably you strike up a conversation with others at the bar. The couple next to me was from Dallas.

Food at The Lark was great. I started with their appetizer of fried brussel sprouts. Nice flavors. Who’d a thought brussel sprouts would ever become so popular? but, it’s a staple of this and many other places I’ve been in the last few years.

The main dish was really, really good. It was a braised lamb served with house made pappardelle. Can’t tell you at this point what all was in the sauce but there was also acorn squash in the mix and it worked really well. It was something really different and delicious.

Fast forward to the next morning… I was up early. That 2 hour timezone change always has me up with the birds when I visit the West coast. It was good though because it would be time I could reassemble my bike. That always takes at least an hour and more like two.

On my walk around town the evening before I’d noticed a nearby bike shop. A little online snooping suggested it was highly regarded so I planned to take the bike over there after assembling so I could get it checked out. It was a place called Hazard’s Cyclesport. Really nice bike shop and some friendly folks. They also let me change into bike gear in the shop dressing room. Handy. From there I took the bike out for a spin up and down the coast and around town a bit.

Santa Barbara Cycling

I didn’t spend too much time riding though. I still needed to make the trip up to Solvang. So I packed up and headed north.

In my last post, I mentioned visiting the VinoRama. It reminded me a lot of some of my recent visits to regional enotecha in Piedmont. In this case, the VinoRama represented many wines from the Lavaux region.

If you’re just inclined to try wines of the region or are headed to Lausanne or Montreux it’s pretty easy to get to the VinoRama, you don’t even need a car. You can take the train from Geneva (or whereever) to Lausanne and then from there, grab a more regional train to Rivaz. From the train station there, it’s walkable.

There were hundreds of regional wines on display and available for purchase at the VinoRama, which I must say is a pretty great name for a wine showcase. You can also taste a set of wines as well. There are several choices on the tastings. I chose an option that included some bread and snacks with it. The tasting I got included 3 whites (Chasselas) and I think 3 reds as well. Though the guy helping me, Louis, may have sensed I was interested in something else and he brought out the Z Collection you see here. It was my favorite and this was the only one I bought. I wish I could tell you what is in it but my notes are sketchy and I couldn’t find too much of a description of it at the web site I dug up for it.

The VinoRama is set back into the hillside next to a pretty little waterfall. Once you get in, it’s really dark. I guess they’re going for a kind of ‘cave’ like setting. In addition to the wines, there is also a little movie theater that does a show about growing wine in the area. It’s done in a different language depending on what you want to see. I think they do it by request.

My tasting started with a set of 3 of Chasselas wines. I don’t know much about Chasselas wines. In fact, this recent visit to Switzerland may have been the first time I can recall them. Who knows, years ago I was in Switzerland and maybe had some, I don’t remember. These three were good but my memory is that the 2nd one in the photo here was more to my liking. The wines are definitely minearly but more round in texture. I’d try them again if I can find them back home.

If you like hiking, and you like wine, you’d be hard pressed not to like to spend a little time trekking through Lavaux in Switzerland.

I can’t quite recall how I heard about this area but considering I was going to be in Geneva over a couple weekends, I put it on my agenda once I read about it. It’s a beautiful area of terraced vineyards above Lake Geneva.

First of all I had no idea that Switzerland even did wines (though I should have probably figured that it did) and second of all that they would do something else besides white wines in this region. Live and learn. As to whites, they do a lot of Chasselas but they also do a fair bit of Gamay and Pinot Noir.

I chose to stay in the little town of Grandvaux and it turned out to be a fine base. Directly from my stay I could connect up with a walking route that took me through the vineyards. While it may look like it’s just a walk in the park it’s not quite as trivial to go up and down some of the slopes as it might look from the photo here. For the most part you can easily follow routes that are paved like a city hiking trail but there are some places you go up and down where the grade (according to the signs) is upwards of 25%. Trust me, you will use all the muscles in your legs as you go up and down. But the views are spectacular, you can stop in little towns along the way and just do as much as you want.

I’d been given a tip to make my way to Vevey. As you can see in the map below that I got from the B&B owner, Grandvaux is on the far left of the map and Vevey is on the far right. A pretty good hike. As it turns out, Saturdays are market days in Vevey and they have a wine tasting done at the market during the summer at least. I was told that it showcased a different producer each week. So, that’s where I headed.

Now turns out that last section to Vevey is not quite as nicely hikable, and because the wine tasting ends on the dot at 1pm I dropped down the hill to take a local train over to Vevey. I got to Vevey with time to spare and really enjoyed the tasting of a couple of wine from nearby Yvorne. They had both a Chasselas and a Pinot Noir. Both were good.

With the market going on at the same time, I was able to find some tasty pizza to have with my little bit of white and red wine. Hit the spot after the walk over.

Later in the afternoon, I started backtracking and ended up at the “Vinorama”. See the other red highlighted box in the map. More on the Vinorama in another post.

So you’ve come to Geneva and need to get around. Maybe these few tips will help some similarly lost soul when they first arrive here from the US and aren’t used to taking public transport.

Arrival

Before you leave the arrival area where you get your baggage, pick up a pass good for 80 minutes. It’s free, but not once you leave the arrival area. Once you get out into the regular part of the airport, a ticket will cost you something like CHF 3.50 to get a one-way 2nd class ticket that’s good for an hour – which is all you need to get to the main train station in the city.

Once you hit your hotel – if you’re staying at one – ask them for the go-anywhere pass that is given to visitors. If you’re staying like I am – in a rental, it’s not quite so nice. You have to go buy one. In that case, go read this and decide which kind of pass you need.

Routine Use

While you’ll find the passes are rarely checked (so far in a week nobody has asked to see my pass) you can be fined. From what I’ve read, it’s CHF 80 if you pay immediately, or CHF 120 if you are only able to pay later. Sounds like a real hassle you don’t want to deal with. Get the pass from your hotel or buy one.

I found the info desk at the main train station very useful for pointing me in the right direction – and giving me a local transit map. That was enough to get me pointed to the right stops for the routes I was after. Even if you just happen by a tram/bus stop, they’ll always tell you what routes will stop there. And timing. Some have electronic displays that show how many more minutes before your bus/tram arrives.

The thing that I’ve found pretty amazing is how often the tram or bus I need comes by. I may have waited 15 minutes once but more often than not it’s a few minutes. And many times I’ve been lucky and just walked up to find the tram/bus arriving. Also in many cases you can take one of several different buses to get you to the same place. For example, in the morning for me to go to the office, from the location in the photo here I can take the 6, the 10 or the 19. They all go by the office.

Leaving

Well I haven’t left yet but I’m pretty sure it’s not that hard. From the main train station you can take the Geneve Aeroport train. There’s one going all the time – and it’s still in zone 10.

When I went to Grandvaux it was similarly easy though I did need to buy a ticket because my pass was only good for zone 10 of Geneva. You can arrange to get a train to any of the little towns along the lake – at least the north side of the lake all the way over to Montreux.

I’ve now been in Geneva for a week. I came here for a two week stint following my trip to Italy. This visit is less about vacationing and more about kinda being back into the work routine – albeit from a distant location.

As the crow flies, this is actually not all that far from my Piedmont, Italy stays. As Lufthansa flies, you have to first go to Munich and then fly back. Strange, but that’s what I was able to arrange.

We have an office here in Geneva and I am simply working out of this office for a couple weeks. The primary motivation aside from the interest in seeing one of our European offices was to see some of the area nearby on the weekends. The 7 hour time difference makes the weekdays a bit of a challenge, particularly if meetings back home are in the afternoon there. That means they are at night here.

I’m doing a short term rental rather than a hotel. I have a private room with bathroom in an apartment a couple of stops from the main Geneva train station. The picture below was taken from the patio just off the shared dining room. Nice.

The Geneva water spout gives some sense of where the center of everything is. It’s not too far away. But then, with public transit being what it is here in Geneva, you can get anywhere pretty easily.

As cities go, Geneva isn’t all that big. I think someone told me it was just over 200K people. As you can see from the photo, there aren’t many big tall buildings in the city either. I was told that is by design (and probably ordinance though I’m not 100% sure of that one).

Despite being as small as it is, the city is extraordinarily expensive. In fact, by what I understand, it’s among the most expensive cities in the world. Even the most basic of lunches with something to drink are over CHF 20 which would put it over $22. Generally I’ve found food to be on the order of double what it would cost in the US. Have dinner in a decent place and it’ll be over CHF 50.

I’ve had a mix of weather since getting here. The weekend I arrived it was cool and on again off again rain. Today, a week later it’s pretty similar. In the mean time during the week it was very nice. Sunny and drier. I’ve been surprised at how humid it’s been here. And with little if any air conditioning, it can sometimes be stifling inside buildings. Woe is you if you end up stuck inside a restaurant instead of out on their terrace. By comparison I guess we’re used to frigid indoor temps in the summer.

You can see in the photo below how nice the weather was during the week. This photo too was taken from the patio at my apt rental. If you look close, that’s not a white cloud but is instead the snow capped peak of Mont Blanc. At least that’s what I’m told by the owner of this place.

I’ve mentioned many of the high points of my visit to Piedmont here already (though I may yet backdate another post or two for some specific things I never got around to commenting on) but at this point the visit there is done and I’m just trying to gather a few last notes.

For me, this was not a look at old historical things and museums and things like that. My visit to Turin was short and mainly transitional from one thing to the next in the area. I made the visit to Piedmont primarily because I wanted to bicycle there and I wanted to learn about and taste more of the wines of the region. In both cases, I found what I came for.

Whether they were places I found and arranged or places that were arranged by as part of the bike tour, I had fantastic hotels and B&Bs to stay. Similarly I managed to eat at some great restaurants. But I wanted to note two places in particular that were standout favorites for me in the event someone just happens by these notes and takes these as tips.

The first was my stay at Hotel Castello di Sinio. On top of being a beautiful place the service and food were perhaps some of the best I can recall. Driving in you have to buzz in at the intercom down below the castle. So they knew I was coming up. As I rounded the corner to the entrance I was met by a small team of people that greeted me and helped me with my bags, took my car to park it and helped check me in. Immediately someone handed me a glass of sparkling wine. And then Denise Pardini (who runs the place and is exec chef) walked me through some really helpful notes on the area. I really just can’t recall ever getting this kind of helpful and personal welcome anywhere.

I found this place via TripAdvisor. I otherwise didn’t know anything more about it. But if I have a good enough reason or chance, I’ll go back. Check out the rooms at this place. I had the “Superior Room No. 3″. Dinner there was by arrangement and appeared to be only for guests of the hotel. Similarly excellent. If the weather was good and the timing was right then breakfast was out in a patio area to the left in the photo. While you can’t see it, between those two buildings in the photo is a nice little pool.

And one final note on the hotel: when I got ready to leave they went and got the car for me, backed it up to the entrance and the guy cleaned the windows and mirrors before sending me on my way. Meanwhile Denise was there to say ‘so long’ and hand me some of the seasoned salt and honey she uses at the hotel. Seriously, I don’t think a hotel can do much better than this.

Ok now switching gears. I wanted to mention a restaurant. Now I’m not going to say it was better food than every other restaurant and certainly not that of the Hotel Castello di Sinio but it was great food and the service was also excellent. The place was the Da Felicin in Monforte D’Alba.

It was a bike tour group I was with that night and there were lots of choices and we weren’t really sure what to order. So here comes what I can only assume was Nino (see web site) to help us. Basically he said ‘just leave it to me’ and we did. He then essentially arranged a prix fixe menu of a set of appetizers and a main course + a nice (but not crazy expensive) Barolo to go along. All were good. Among the choices was a veal tartare. I’m not big on raw food of any kind other than vegetables but this was pretty darn tasty. I didn’t take photos of all the food served but I did of this one so I’m including it below. Sorry it’s half eaten. ;-) Taking food pics gets a bad rap these days but a picture is worth a thousand words so you’ll keep seeing them from me from time to time.

Ultimately I’d like to visit Piedmont again some time. I really enjoyed the small hill towns and the great little hotels and restaurants – not to mention some really great wines. I never ventured too far from home base in the heart of the Langhe so if I were to go again I might consider venturing to other places too. I might check out Asti. I might take a drive down to the coast. I purposely avoided that this time because past experience has suggested to me that trying to take in too much always has you on a timetable with no time to just relax and enjoy a place. The other interest I now have based on seeing just how close the alps are would be to explore the mountains near Turin.

As with most bike tours, you don’t really get a completely full week. It’s typically 6 days/5 nights and both the first and last days are somewhat abbreviated to account for transfers. This final 6th day of riding was one such day.

There were at least 7 of us that decided to ride the last morning – plus Alessandro, one of the tour leads. The rest were just enjoying the last bit of down time. Unlike previous mornings the ride was to get started at 7:45 instead of the usual 9am so that probably had something to do with it too. We needed to be packed to hit the road by 10:45 and the bus was going to leave at 11am so we didn’t have a lot of time to ride plus get some breakfast, shower up and pay any last minute bills from the night before. So, it was a quick out and back of just over 10 miles.

We were treated again to spectacular weather that morning and it was just cool enough that it felt great to be on the bike. Our turn-around was in a sleepy little town named Mango. We all stopped in a little coffee place there before heading back. Total elapsed time of the ride, even with the coffee stop, was just over an hour. And if you check out the elevation data for the ride you can see it was a lot easier heading back to the hotel than going to Mango, so it was a fast return trip.

After the ride, only time for a quick breakfast, a shower, and last minute packing before we were all loaded up for the bus ride back to Turin.

Everybody on this trip seemed to get along pretty well and mix together well. That’s not always true on these kinds of tours. And even though 6 of the people all came together they didn’t just hang together, and that was cool. In Turin it was handshakes and a few hugs and then like that, we all scattered to the four winds. Below is a good photo of the group right before one of the dinners. You can see everyone is having a good time.

And one last photo below of the vineyard hillsides as seen from the Relais San Maurizio. Couldn’t get enough of the vistas in Piedmont.

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