Department Stores and Travel

ZurichWhen you travel, how do you approach your visit to a new city, country, or community? What do you make a point to see or experience?

Museums, restaurants, plays, or other cultural activities?

In this post you will learn how I plan my visits to a new city or country and why I always make it a point to visit a local department store.


Zürich, Switzerland

Last week, I had the good fortune to accompany Tim on a week-long business trip to Zürich, Switzerland. A cheap airfare prompted us to arrive a few days early and we made good use of this pre-work time by visiting Montreux, Gruyères, and Luzern. Our mini-vacation on Sunday evening when we returned to Zürich so Tim could report to work on Monday morning.

I am a planner.

I like to know what I am going to see and experience before I get to my destination.

To his credit, Tim planned our long-weekend outing to Montreux, Gruyères, and Luzern. I told him I wanted to see cheese and chocolate and that is how we decided to visit in those cities.

I planned how I would spend my time in Zürich without Tim.

Zurich ZooI devised a schedule of tours and museums to fit my interests and work schedule. My plan included a bus tour of Zürich, the Swiss National Museum, a 3 hour walking tour of Zürich dedicated to the history of chocolate in Zürich and Switzerland, and a visit to the Zürich Zoo, world-renowned for its animal habitats.

I also built in time to walk around to both explore and observe the people of Zürich.

It was during one of my walking explorations that I had a realization: I set the same three priorities every time I visit a new place.


My 3 Priorities When Visiting a New City


As you know, I am a history junkie. I don’t think I will ever tire of learning about how the people of yesterday informed the way people live today. Therefore, museums and historic sites are the first aspects I research about a new city.


Eat Local Food

I am an adventurous eater so I love to eat local foods or foods that are particular to a certain city, country, or region.

I attribute my culinary explorations to my Dad.

My Dad loves food. Each time we took a vacation, my family would hunt down local eating establishments and food items. I love this tradition and I have carried it forward into the trips and vacations I take with Tim.

In Switzerland, we found restaurants that allowed us to try Rösti (traditional Swiss hash browns), fondue, raclette, and chocolate. We also found that the Swiss enjoy a yogurt dish called Bircher Müseli, which I ate it nearly every morning for breakfast.

Swiss Food

Department Stores

This realization took me by surprise, but it’s true. In every major city we visit, I make an effort to visit that city’s major department store(s).

But why?

Admittedly, I am not a big shopper. However, I love to watch and observe people and department stores provide a great glimpse of the products and fashions that local people value (or the stores think they should value).

They also tend to be great places to find and eat local foods. Almost all major department stores have a food store and/or restaurant.

Department store visits also provide me with comparison points between my culture and the people and culture I am visiting. I am always curious what an iPod or other state-of-the-art gadgets cost in other countries (usually a lot more than in the U.S.). I also enjoy seeing items that I cannot readily get at home.

In Zürich, I visited two out of the three different department stores: Coop and Globus. Coop is more affordable and Globus is more middling in terms of price. I did not have time to visit the high-end store called Jelmoli.

The home goods department in both the Coop and the Globus had an extensive display of fondue pots.

The stores displayed the pots for a local audience; they were located behind the stand mixers and hand mixers. The displays allowed side-by-side visual comparisons of the different types and styles of fondue pots. They catered to a people that love to consume melted cheeses with friends and family. Where as an American department store may have one or two fondue pots on display, both of these Swiss department stores offered five to ten different options. (I apologize for not having the foresight to take a picture of these displays.)

I make a point to visit department stores because I enjoy the intimate glimpses of local life and culture they provide.

Swiss Department Stores


If you had asked me about the types of experiences I prioritize when I visit new cities and countries, before I left for Switzerland, I would have told you about how I visit museums and historic sites and seek out different local foods.

I am not sure I would have told you about my interest in department stores, even though I have always made it a point to visit them.


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How do you plan your trips and vacations?

What types of experiences do you prioritize?


Secret Swiss Bunker: Fortress Fürigen through Google Glass

Fortress FürigenOn Sunday, August 24, 2014, Tim and I visited Fortress Fürigen (Festung Fürigen) in Stansstad, Switzerland. The fortress used to be a part of the secret Swiss defense system of bunkers and fortresses, which the government used during World War II and the Cold War.

Today, you can visit Fortress Fürigen as a museum.

In this post you will find a brief history of Fortress Fürigen as well as a video that tours the interior of the bunker, which I took with Google Glass.


Brief History of the Fortress

From the outside we nearly missed Fortress Fürigen, which is concealed inside a rock face overlooking Lake Luzern. We entered the fortress from a camouflaged wooden shed that thankfully had a large, red open flag flying outside of it; without the flag we might have walked passed and missed it.

In 1941, the Swiss built a series of bunkers like Fortress Fürigen to combat a Nazi invasion. The invasion plan called for the Swiss government to fall back to a secret bunker at Brünig in the Berner Oberland, and for the Swiss troops to fall back from the border regions into alpine strongholds like Fürigen.

The Swiss built Fortress Fürigen to protect roads and rail lines that led from Luzern and Zürich into the Berner Oberland. Fürigen stands as a small example of a hidden Swiss fortress as it could house and feed only about 100 people for three weeks.

After World War II, the Swiss renovated its fortresses to defend against the Soviet Union and nuclear war. When the Cold War ended in 1990, the government decommissioned Fortress Fürigen and opened it as a museum.

The fortress extends 200 yards inside the mountain. The tour includes the troops’ living and dining quarters, an ammunition room, sickbay, and two concealed gun rooms.


Google Glass and Fortress Fürigen

Fortress Fürigen seemed like it would be a really neat place to visit and I knew there would be no way to capture its elaborate tunnels with my camera. So, rather then take pictures, I seized the opportunity to experiment with Google Glass. The 28:00 minute film below is the footage I took with Glass.

The occasional narration you hear in the background comes from Tim. I tried to keep bystanders out of the video as much as possible.

What Do You Think?

Do you have any suggestions on how I might improve my films through Glass?

Do you have suggestions for other ways I could use Google Glass videos to capture historic places?

*Please note that Glass does not have the capability to focus or add light to its photos or videos.


Luzern and a Novel Approach to History Interpretation

IMAGE_2037On Sunday, August 24, 2014, Tim and I toured the city of Luzern, Switzerland. Situated on the edge of the Vierwaldstättersee (Lake Luzern), with a panoramic view of the Alps, Luzern stands as the tourism capital of Switzerland.

Luzern used to be on the “Grand Tour” route of all persons making their way through Europe in the 18th and 19th centuries.


Brief History of Luzern

The history of Luzern dates back to about 750 when a group of Benedictine monks founded the Monastery of St. Leodegar. A fishing village grew around the monastery.

Luzern had become as a bustling trade center by the 13th century. The village sat amid the Gotthard Pass trade route and many traders passed through and settled in Luzern as a result.

King Rudolph I von Habsburg brought Luzern and Switzerland under his rule in 1290. Unhappy with Habsburg rule, Luzern joined three other Swiss cantons (similar to counties) and formed the “eternal” Swiss Confederacy known as the Eidgenossenschaft in 1332. Three other cantons joined this alliance and together they pulled free of Austrian rule in 1386.

The Swiss Confederacy lasted until around 1520. While most of the other cantons became Protestant, Luzern remained mostly Catholic.

The Swiss saw a change in governance again in 1798 when Napoleon marched into Switzerland; the French brought democracy to the country.



Chapel BridgeThe Kapellbrücke or Chapel Bridge stands as one of the most iconic sites in Luzern.

Built during the first half of the 14th century, the bridge connected the town’s medieval fortifications. It also stood as a defensive structure. Built at an angle, the “window” openings facing the lake are smaller than its inland facing windows. The smaller openings provided defenders with more cover.

Next to the bridge stands the Wasserturm or Water Tower, which the people of Luzern built around 1300.

During the 17th century, artists decorated the bridge with paintings that depicted the history of the town as well as two patron saints.

The bridge you see and walk on today is not 100% original. In 1993, a pleasure boat moored under the bridge caught fire and set the bridge ablaze. The people of Luzern rebuilt the fire-damaged sections of the bridge, but they could not replace the paintings the fire destroyed. Therefore, only a few of the 17th-century paintings remain.


Reuss River Weir System

Luzern sits at the place where the Reuss River flows out of Lake Luzern on its way into the Rhine.

Lake Luzern receives most of its water from snowmelt. Therefore, the lake can fluctuate in depth depending upon how much rain north-central Switzerland receives and how fast the winter snow melts off the nearby Alps.

Prior to the 19th century, lakeside towns experienced flooding when lots of rain or fast melting snow flooded the lake. In the 19th century, the people of Luzern devised an extendable dam called the Nadelwehr or Spiked Weir, that allows them to maintain the water level of the lake by controlling its flow into the Reuss.

Each spring, the weir operators remove spikes from the weir to increase the flow of water out of Lake Luzern. When the water level of the lake drops in the summer, they replace the spikes to slow its flow into the Reuss. The weir operators close the weir entirely during the winter months to keep the water level high enough for the boats that ply the lake.

The Weir


Mill BridgeLike the Chapel Bridge, the wooden Spreuerbrücke (known in English as the Mill Bridge) dates back to the 13th century. “Spreu” manes chaff and this bridge connected the town to its mills.

As many as 10 mills used to line the edge of the Reuss River.

Artists in the 17th century also decorated the Mill Bridge with paintings, all of which are visible overhead as you walk across the bridge. When you reach the halfway point you will find a little chapel, which the town built during the 16th century.

Today, volunteers decorate the chapel according to the season.


The Depot History Museum and its Novel History Interpretation Method

After Tim and I walked across the bridges and along the Reuss we visited the Historisches Museum of Luzern.

The museum is located in one of the oldest buildings in Luzern and it bears the nickname “The Depot” as the townspeople have placed all of their historical odds and ends inside of it.

Walking into the museum feels like walking into a warehouse. Spread out over three floors, the Depot displays its massive collections of paintings, toys, clothing, clocks, weapons, coins, pottery, and even toilets on industrial shelving units protected with glass or chicken-wire enclosures.

Given the sheer size and depth of this collection, the Depot provides each visitor with a barcode scanner. Each item within its collection has a barcode. When you come to an item you want to learn about, you scan the barcode and information about the object appears on your handheld scanner.

IMAGE_2039Upon presenting you with your scanner, the museum docent presents you with two options for how to view the museum's collections: 1. Walk around the museum on your own and scan objects that interests you. 2. Scan one of the blue tags before you head upstairs and have the scanner guide you through a themed tour of its collections.

Initially, Tim and I attempted the first option, we scanned any item that piqued our interest. However, we became overwhelmed before we reached the first floor.

Few of the objects we scanned shared a relationship with one another. Not being well-versed in the history of Switzerland we lacked the context needed to place the disparate items we scanned in our minds or to connect them with one another.

Within 5-10 minutes we gave up our self-guided approach and returned to the ground floor to select a themed tour.

The museum presented several different themed tour options. One tour offered to guide visitors through items related to maps and geography. Another offered a medieval archaeological tour. Tim and I picked the “Lust & Vice” tour.

Our scanner directed us to objects that fit within the theme of “Lust & Vice.” Each time we scanned a blue tag associated with our tour a bit of narrative appeared on our scanner screens. These narratives provided us with the historical context that we had missed during our initial do-it-ourselves approach. For example, in front of a shelf filled with different playing cards our scanners informed us that “the vice of card-playing was widespread among soldiers. Many who survived battles became addicted to gambling.”

With that said, some of the narratives stretched an object's relationship to the theme of “Lust & Vice." One tag led us to a display of different police caps. The blurb on our screens informed us that although police caps changed in style over time they always projected a "racy style" or something to that effect.

I applaud the museum curator's efforts at trying to explain and connect the Depot's bric-a-brac. Although the narratives on the “Lust & Vice” tour sometimes left me wanting more information, or scratching my head as to how certain objects had made this themed tour, the connections the scanner made between the objects proved a valiant effort to help visitors make sense of the hodgepodge collection.



Depot MuseumThe Historisches Museum of Luzern is the first place where I have encountered a total reliance on a barcode scanner system of interpretation. I have seen other museums place QR codes on exhibit panels that allow visitors to receive additional information about the object through their smartphones.

After my visit to the Depot, I thought about how much I enjoyed being able to select how I wanted to learn about the museum’s collections. The plethora of proffered tours allowed me to choose my own museum adventure.

The feeling and freedom involved in choosing how I wanted to learn about the history of Luzern made my experience more fun. It also ensured that I chose a topic that interested me.

Additionally, the use of scanners made the tour more fun. After I finished reading about one group of objects, my scanner told me which tag I needed to look for next. This instruction provided a treasure hunt-like experience. Not to mention, that the act of scanning the tags provided a certain amount of fun too. My observations of the other museum visitors told me that they felt the same way, especially the kids who raced around the museum’s three floors in search of their next tag.

I would love to see more museums in the United States (and elsewhere) adopt Luzern’s “create-your-own-adventure” approach. However, this approach really needs to include themed tour options that will guide visitors through the ways they can connect the various objects to each other and to the larger interpretive themes of the museum.

I believe that the interpretive model offered in Luzern would appeal to museums that are looking to attract more visitors. In our age of flashy technological gadgets and shortened attention spans, the “choose-your-own-adventure” model offers a fantastic approach that well suits our present-day culture.


ThoughtfulManWhat Do You Think?

What do you think about the “choose-your-own-adventure” model of museum interpretation? Have you seen it applied anywhere else?


Montreux, Gruyères, and the History of Swiss Chocolate

MontreuxGreetings from Switzerland! I am once again the beneficiary of Tim's need to travel for business.

On Thursday August 21, 2014, we arrived in Zürich. We purchased a 4-day Swiss Pass at the train station and enjoyed a 2.5-3 hour journey to Montreux.

The Swiss Pass provided us with unlimited access to the Swiss rail system and to most Swiss museums.



Montreux is a beautiful town on the shores of Lake Geneva. It may be the most beautiful place we have visited thus far and we are fortunate to have traveled a lot.

The water in the lake shifts from bright to dark blue. Depending on the time of day, you can see the local Alps and clouds reflected in its surface. Nearly all of the water in the lake comes from mountain snow melt.

After we checked into our hotel, Tim and I walked the pedestrian path around part of the Lake. The Montreux waterfront reminded us of a boardwalk-like area with restaurants, shops, and people on foot, bikes, and rollerblades along its paved paths. Statues of Charlie Chaplin and Freddie Mercury stand along the waterfront as both established homes in this scenic and relaxing town.


Chocolate Train

We visited Montreux so we could take the “Chocolate Train” into Gruyères, which we did on Friday August 22, 2014. The train featured antique rail cars pulled by a modern, electric engine. The train ride to Gruyères took about an hour, but that hour was filled with scenic vistas of the Alps, Lake Geneva, and the towns and valleys in between.

At Gruyères we disembarked our train and went inside La Maison du Gruyères, a cheese factory. The factory makes up to 12, 35 kg cheese wheels at one time. La Maison du Gruyères provides a multi-lingual audio tour that discusses the uniqueness of Gruyères cheese and how it is made. Windows above the manufacturing operations allow visitors to view the cheese makers at work.

Gruyeres 1In the United States we have a penchant for calling Swiss-made cheese “Swiss.” However, there are many different kinds of Swiss-made cheese. Gruyères is a distinct cheese because the cows graze along the slopes of the Alps and ingest many different kinds of flowers, herbs, and grasses. The scents and flavors of the flowers, herbs, and grasses pass into the cow’s milk, which provides cheese from Gruyères with a distinct taste and smell. The audio guide stated that scientists have identified at least 75 different scents and flavors in slices of Gruyères cheese.



After 45-60 minutes at La Maison du Gruyères, we boarded a bus for the town of Gruyères.

Gruyères received its name from the grue or cranes that flew in the area and inspired the initial lord to settle the lands. The noble family adopted the grue as its family sigil and today the sigil continues to fly above the town and region on local flags.

The town of Gruyères contains a medieval town and castle, which dates to 13th century.

We enjoyed about 2 hours in Gruyères. We toured the castle and explored its medieval town. We stopped for lunch at the site of the old grain house where we enjoyed our first traditional Swiss meal: raclette. Our raclette included potatoes, bread, gherkins, and onions over which we scrapped melted layers of Gruyères cheese. It was delicious.


Since no vacation meal would be complete without dessert, we splurged on a traditional regional dish: fresh strawberries with double cream. The cream of the Gruyères region is very thick and heavy. It is sweet and its consistency reminded me of greek yogurt.


CaillerCailler and an Interactive History of Swiss Chocolate

Following lunch, we boarded a bus to the Cailler chocolate factory in nearby Broc.

Cailler is the oldest chocolate brand in Switzerland. During the Great Depression the firm merged with Nestlè.

The Cailler factory tour proved to be an interesting experience with historical interpretation. The experience seemed to be part Walt Disney World attraction and part sales pitch.

Our tour began by entering an elevator. The elevator descended one floor below and opened into a re-creation of a mesoamerican jungle. A voice overhead informed us that the Aztecs of Mexico were the first people to eat and drink chocolate. The narrator told us the Aztec origination story of chocolate and how they received it from Quetzalcoatl, the god of wisdom.

The Aztecs used cocoa beans as currency and to make a warm chocolate drink, which they consumed before battle or sex. Only Aztec men consumed chocolate as its heat and effects were considered too much for women.

The Aztecs introduced chocolate to Spanish Conquistador Hernan Cortés.

After the program introduced Cortés, a door opened to another room. The room we entered looked like a ship. The narrator explained that along with gold, Cortés had filled the hold of his ship with chocolate. Cortés introduced cocoa beans and the spicy, bitter Aztec chocolate drink to Spain. The Spanish decided that they really liked the drink after they added sugar to it.

Chocolate spread throughout Europe during the sixteenth century. However, its consumption caused controversy as some Catholic groups feared that its consumption constituted a sinful act. These groups argued the chocolate came from heathens (the Aztecs) and broke fasting rules. Pope Pius V ended the controversy in 1569 with a declaration that Catholics could consume chocolate drinks without fear of sin or of breaking their fasts.

After the papal blessing of chocolate, another door opened and we entered 18th-century France.

Anna of Austria grew up in Madrid and brought her love of chocolate to the French Court in 1615. The French loved chocolate and developed additional ways to make it sweeter. However, chocolate was expensive and a pound of it would have cost your typical French laborer about a year’s salary.

The French nobility loved their chocolate. Like the Aztecs, they believed it to be an aphrodisiac and often consumed it before sex. Chocolate consumption among the non-nobility did not increase until after the French Revolution. By 1830 the French had developed ways to make chocolate more palatable in solid forms

The Swiss became involved with chocolate in 1819 when François-Louis Cailler opened one of the first mechanized chocolate factories in Corsier, Switzerland. His original chocolate recipes are still made today by the Cailler plant in Broc. World appreciation for Swiss chocolate grew as tourism to Switzerland increased between 1890 and 1920.

The rest of the tour discussed the history of Cailler and its merger with Nestlè during the 1920s. The interactive history lesson ended with a trip through Cailler advertising history. Several TV screens flashed old commercials and chocolate bar wrappers at the audience.

After the history lesson, the tour let out into a room that contained different types of nuts and cocao beans in large boxes that you could smell and touch. From these boxes we wound our way through the corridors where we viewed how Cailler makes some of their chocolate products. The tour ended with a tasting room reminiscent of all your Willy Wonka fantasies: Unlimited tasting of different Cailler chocolates.


Return to Montreux

Once we had filled our bellies with chocolate, we walked back to our train, which met us at a nearby train station. Our ride home proved just as scenic as our ride to Gruyères. However, as we rode back to Montreux, I couldn’t help but appreciate the grasses, flowers, and grazing cows I saw along the Alpine slopes. These natural wonders are not only beautiful, but they help make the cheese and chocolate we enjoy.


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What is the most scenic place you have ever seen?

What is your favorite type of cheese and/or chocolate?


Coming Attractions: Book, Podcast, Blog, and Travel

Coming-SoonOver the next few months, Uncommonplace Book will feature posts about exciting projects, content, and trips. In this post you will find a sneak preview of upcoming blog posts as well as status updates on my 3 major projects.



For the last two months I have felt frustrated with my first chapter. I am just about finished with my second draft and until last week I felt like I had all the pieces of the story, but no idea about how they fit together.

Last week I had a eureka moment: Why should I begin my narrative with Henry Hudson?

The realization that I do not have to cover Hudson's voyage or the early days of the New Netherland and West India Companies has led me to decide that I will begin my chapter with an example from 1657. I will use this example to explore the community of Beverwyck and expound upon its earlier history when necessary.

Will this tactic work? I have no idea.

I am giving myself until Friday, August 15, 2014 to finish this draft. I need to be quick with this third draft because I have to move onto my second chapter by August 15, if I plan to finish 4 chapters by early February.  I have to have to submit a good draft of my fourth chapter to the Boston Early American History Seminar by February 3, 2015.



I have scheduled the first interviews for “Ben Franklin’s World: A Podcast About Early American History.” I begin recording on August 13.

I have requested 7 or 8 interviews and the responses have been positive. I have booked 5 interviews, I am coordinating dates with 2 guests.

My goal is to record most, if not all episodes on Wednesdays. A set recording day will allow me to better organize my workflow.

I am trying to book 1 guest per week as I would like to turn my twice monthly podcast into a weekly show by the beginning of 2015.

I am still looking for guests and plan to send out more e-mails once I have set the interview dates for the 3 guests I am coordinating with.

If you have a project related to early American history that you would like to promote to a non-specialized audience please checkout my “Be a Guest" information page. I would also be grateful if you would send the URL (http://www.elizabethcovart.com/ben-franklins-world/guest/) for that page to any historian you know who may like to be a guest.



Here’s a sneak peak at posts that will appear over the next several weeks.


Conference Recaps

I attended both the Conference on New York State History and the Society for Historians of the Early American Republic conferences this summer.

You can expect to see 2 posts recapping panels from the CNYSH this month. The first post will summarize a panel about writing historical narratives. The second post will review a panel about life in the 17th-century Hudson River Valley.

I had the opportunity to attend several great panels at SHEAR. Topics include women and property, yellow fever, citizenship, relations between the United States and South America, early American contact with the Muslim world, and slavery and freedom. Recaps of these panels will appear over the next few months; they will be interspersed among other content.


TravelTravel Posts

I have 2 trips coming up that will likely result in multiple posts.

On August 20, I leave for 8 days in Zürich, Switzerland. Tim has to travel there for work and asked if I would like to accompany him. (A rhetorical question.)

Tim and I plan to tour Lucerne during the weekend and I will spend the rest of the week in Zürich visiting museums and cultural sites in the morning and working on my book revisions in the afternoon.

On September 13, Tim and I will embark on a cruise from Boston to Canada. Tim calls this trip a vacation, but I refer to it as “French and Indian War Tour 2014.”

The ship will stop in Maine, Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island, Québec City, and Montreal. I am wicked excited to travel down the St. Lawrence River and imagine how some of my Albanians used the river to conduct the fur trade.

I am also excited as our stops will include a look at the first Acadian settlement areas along the Bay of Fundy; Fortress Louisbourg, famous in New England for its capture by the Yankees in 1744; and Le Château Frontenac and the Plains of Abraham in Québec City. The British won a decisive battle over the French at the Plains of Abraham in 1759; the victory led to the British acquisition of Canada at the end of the French and Indian War in 1763.


Thursday Posts

In February, I mentioned that I would experiment with posting on Thursdays. Since that initial post I have posted nearly every Thursday.

Over the next several weeks you may see fewer Thursday posts.

I intend to remain as regular as possible with these posts, but I am working out a new workflow. I need to figure out how I can best add my podcast project to my present workflow that consists of book, blog, and freelance project time. As you know, some weeks present more challenges than others and I may have to give something up in order to meet my larger book, blog, and podcast goals.

You will not miss out on any content if I find that I need to reduce the frequency of my Thursday posts. I maintain a list of every post idea I have and I take notes at every conference, seminar, and event I attend. You will still receive great content here at Uncommonplace Book.


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What projects, trips, new endeavors will you be working on over the upcoming weeks and months?