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Month: May 2016

Munich

Munich

Munich

Memorial day morning we took a water taxi to the airport.

and waded through the frustrating clusterfuck (yep, more cursing in Italy) of Venice Airport: late, disorganized, and rude employees at every point in our journey. We didn’t have a gate or the ability to even check in until an hour before our flight. The only way to find out where to check in was to keep asking employees until someone knew which anonymous “web check-in” line was for our airline. Despite this, all the passengers managed to check in and get downstairs to the non-airconditioned gate. However, our wait in line was only to get on a crowded bus (the other only time I’ve ever experienced this at an airport was in Guangzhou China) and ferried out far away from the main terminal to stand in line to board. Good thing it stopped raining in the morning.

Our plane finally took off almost an hour late and we were glad to say goodbye to that “flexible priorities” part of the trip. We heard that our treatment was worse because we flew Transavia, a budget airline (think Southwest for Europe). But hey, it was $60 a person for an hour flight instead of an even more expensive eight-hour train ride.

In Munich, our luggage came right out and we walked to a clean and efficient tram (albeit packed with travelers) to the city. After checking into our teeny tiny hotel (Munich is ungodly expensive to stay in) we walked to the Marienplatz to have dinner at the famous Zum Augustiner, in business since 1328.

Dinner did not disappoint. Our waiter was nice and the food came out impossibly fast. Sam, who stated at every point of the lead up to our trip that (despite an obsession with kimchi) she was not a fan of sauerkraut, ordered pork knuckle and sauerkraut. I have to admit I used to loathe sauerkraut myself, and only recently warmed up to eating it on a burger or sausage – but the kraut in Germany is on another level. The pork knuckle also was magnificent – crusty and fatty baked pork skin hiding long-marinated slow cooked soft meat. The order came out with a big pot of spicy mustard that we slathered all over the sausages, (buttery) mashed potatoes and knuckle.

We washed it down with a glass each of the smoothest best-tasting lager we’ve ever had: Augustiner Helles. (Calanda and Radler in Switzerland are tied for second place with Italy’s Peroni in a distant third nearly tied with Corona et. al.)

To top it off we discovered the restaurant prices in Germany are much more reasonable than Switzerland or Italy. Our entire meal with two liters of beer was under $40 and our waiter tried to explain that tips were not expected.

More than anything I was happy to give Sam a good experience and good food in my literal Fatherland. A few months before our trip I’d finally taken a deep look into my genealogy and proved that I was more than half German, with my mother being a European mix (mostly English) and my father being full-blooded (although many generations American) Bavarian. The bulk of my paternal line transplanted itself to Pennsylvania and/or Ohio from the Baden area (neighbors with Luxembourg) before the civil war. Since claiming Marietta Ohio heritage leaves little to brag about, I was hoping to find something to feel good about in the old country.

While we ate it started to rain on the Marienplatz. We decided to hide in St. Peter’s, only a few blocks away. Luckily they had started to observe summer hours and-just like last night in Venice-we made it up the 306 steps of the belltower before it closed. We were surprised to find that the tower shakes when the bells ring, a slightly unsettling experience.

After walking the streets more (and going into a packed Hofbrauhaus) we settled down into a tiny crack by the door of another Augustiner for two more liters of beer and a plate of bavarian apple strudel. The other Augustiner beers were sour, not as much to our liking as the helles.

Tuesday morning we headed to the train station to meet up with our tour group to go deep into Bavaria to visit Neuschwanstein Castle.

It was an all-day excursion including a guided tour of the inside. However, the one famous shot of the castle with Huffen and the surrounding farmland was impossible to get. At every destination on our trip, we’d seen scaffolding up for renovation or construction. When we walked up to the castle we were delighted to find it completely intact and unfettered. The catch was that the cliff-bridge, the only place to get a shot of the broadside of the castle without a drone or a helicopter, was-you guessed it-closed for renovation. Not only the bridge was closed but the entire hiking trail leading up to it.

We guessed our way back down from the castle, taking a dirt trail through the forest that eventually met the paved one. With a few minutes to spare, we walked up to Hohenschwangau Castle but didn’t go inside.

Back in Munich, we took the s bahn to Marienplatz to have a fancy authentic meal at Spatenhaus across from the opera house. This time, my meal came with a cucumber yogurtish salad akin to a Persian dish that went great on top of the berry-covered wiener schnitzel. NOTE: despite the best efforts of an American  fast-food chain, you should never confuse wiener schnitzel with a hot dog dish. Weiner schnitzel is a thin breaded Austrian veal cutlet. Sam, of course, ordered another pork knuckle.

Venice

Venice

Venice
After a four-hour train ride we walked out of the train station to see a rain-clogged city of canals. We bought tickets in the rain (why are the ticket machines not inside the terminal?) for a public water taxi to our hotel. After checking in we walked down the narrow streets looking for dinner.

We picked Trattoria Pizzeria Da Gioia at random and were treated to a great meal. Sam was elated to have cuttlefish ink pasta for the first time in 20 years. We washed everything down with a bottle of local prosecco. When we told the waiter we were too full for desert he said he had another idea. We were already a little tipsy from the wine, but he brought out (large) shot glasses of limoncello. We refused to drink unless he joined us- so of course he did. We were pleasantly surprised to find a waiter that worked to improve our dining experience. Our earlier waiters in Italy were benign at best and downright rude at worst. It was refreshing to be in a place where the staff seemed to be enjoying themselves.

On that high note, we stumbled down to Piazza San Marco and ran to the campanile, which would still allow rides to the top for the next few minutes.


Just like in other towers we managed to go up for a bell ringing. Unlike other bell towers the bells themselves were literally only a few feet above our heads.

After coming down from the tower and our alcohol buzz dissipating we walked to other landmarks and partook of what we were sure would be the last gelato in Italy. We stayed out in the piazza until the lights came on and the orchestras started playing.


Rome

Rome

Rome
After arriving at the main train station in Rome we went to a “tourist information booth” and were told what I can only imagine translates to: “Fuck off!”  Welcome to Rome. Our friends who live in Italy (one born there) admitted later that the country has somewhat of an antagonistic attitude toward tourists. Can’t live with them (tourists are everywhere and trampling all over your history), can’t live without them (the Italian economy is essentially clothes and tourists at this point after the recession hollowed out traditional labor industries). The resentment is palpable and understandable, but a striking contrast to the enormous warmth of the Swiss a few days before. Sam and I started a running contest after Milan to find someone in Italy that would interact with us in an authentically nice way. It would take us until our second day in Rome, talking to a bored Vatican souvenir shop cashier to find that, and it vanished again until dinner in Venice (more on that later).

Eventually, we found our own way to the standing room only sweaty sardine can (only sardines don’t have cigarette breath) without air conditioning that Rome calls a public bus. We got off at the closest stop, but still had fifteen minutes of rolling our luggage over the hard cobblestone streets (I swore I’d be a Samsonite customer for life if my wheels survived) to reach our hotel by (and named after) the bridge over the river Tiber. We discovered the hard way that, unlike Switzerland, the public transportation systems are designed for the use of regular Italians (going to work away from the historic core), not tourists. One would think getting a hop-on, hop-off bus ticket would be a good idea, but the Italians are smarter than that: to get a hop-on ticket you’re required to purchase a regular metro pass too!

However, the truth is that in Rome (as in most Italian cities) the tourist spots are all very close together, as they were all built at a time when the fastest transportation system was a horse, and most people didn’t own one. If nothing else Italian cities are effortlessly walkable. Well, except for the effort of walking on those stone streets. Over the next few days, I developed a blister the size of a sixth toe from walking in the heat.

Sam picked a locally famous restaurant for dinner. Like many other exclusive eateries in Italy, this one opened at 7pm. Arriving early, we decided to walk to the nearby castle of Saint Angelo.

When we came back we joined a line of diners and received the penultimate last table in the tiny restaurant. It was so tiny, in fact, that there were no two-seat tables. We shared a table, elbow to elbow, with a retired couple from Boston. The food wasn’t the best, but the wine was cheap and plentiful. We spent the next 2.5 hours sharing drunken stories of dangerous travels (our stories of Iceland and their’s of bears in Alaska) while a line of jealous onlookers glared from the doorway (our table abutted the open door).

We had planned to walk the Janiculum, across the river from our hotel, that first night, but leaving the restaurant late and inebriated left us little to do but stumble home.

Friday we slept in to chase away hangovers before heading to the total clusterfuck (yes, this post has cursing – because Rome has cursing, and somewhat deserves cursing) of the Vatican Museum. After waiting in line for our reserved “skip the line” tickets we were herded through the antiquities elbow to elbow with all the other tourists.

It’s worth noting that our experience had already been soiled somewhat by the process of which Vatican City passes out information on-site. Instead of docents, rangers, police, or any other kind of public official, the Vatican is teeming with private “tour guides” who masquerade as public information resources but really are only interested in you to sell an unnecessary (personal audio tour machines are available inside) and overpriced tour. We did notice, however, that once you show them you already have tickets and need to know where to go they are (I’m guessing legally) obligated to tell you. Their smiles turn upside down upon realizing they won’t get a sale. Some don’t even waste words anymore and just point. The actual entrance to the Vatican Museum is a far walk, halfway around Vatican City, from that famous plaza you see on TV.













We were most surprised to find the food inside is worse than 7-11’s version of Italian and the staff is somehow even more annoyed to be “at work today.” We made sure to trudge through the entire museum (Sam enjoyed this quite a bit more than I) and visited the Sistine Chapel twice before going around the corner to wait an hour and a half in the sun to see St. Peter’s Basilica.

While the museum felt like a slog, the beautiful church was (as it was designed to be) awe-inspiring. To boot, it had far fewer visitors despite all of them being free to walk (with a few exceptions) the vast ornate chamber. 


Eventually, we made our way to the dome ticket office and took a leisurely hike up to enjoy a nice breeze at the top. There’s even a little restaurant up there, bathrooms, and water fountains just behind the famous statues of the saints on the front facade of St. Peter’s.


Back on the ground we walked through the crypt and discovered it ends with even more things inside St. Peter’s we didn’t see on the first walk-through with general admission. As the sun dropped over the dome we ended our visit to Vatican City with pasta and pizza. However, again we were disappointed with the quality.

In the long evening light we hiked up and through the tree-lined city overlooking monuments of the Janiculum. We took a turn downward at the Tempietto and went in search of Trastevere for gelato, but ended up finding a lot more.

Wandering Trastevere is a bit like wandering Venice Beach; a tight clutch of young bohemian night crawlers searching for cheap drinks and even cheaper entertainment. We finally found the authentic beating heart of bohemian Rome. We saw merchants selling art, spices, and trinkets. We salivated in shop windows at gorgeous pizza and sandwiches, wishing we hadn’t eaten earlier. We watched the ends of two different fire twirling acts within blocks if each other. Somewhat ironically this hip area ends at the Ponte Sisto, immediately across the river from our hotel. This information would have been more useful 24 hours prior and would be useless the next (last) night as we had already scheduled dinner with friends.

Back at the hotel, I saw that the blister forming on my toe had swelled to nearly equal its host in size. Mitigating this monster would be a constant concern for the next week. Using the tools at hand (hotel sewing kit) we popped and bandaged it. Band-aids and alcohol would be on the to-do list tomorrow.

On Saturday, we rose a bit earlier to try and beat the weekend crowds to the Colosseum. This time our skip the line tickets really did let us do that and we walked through the Colosseum much easier than the Vatican. 

Even though our tickets included the ruins we decided to skip it as we were hungry  (and tired already even before noon) and the entrance queue was backing up down to the colosseum. After all, you can see the ruins without actually going down into them.

We chose to eat at a place adjacent to the Altar of the Fatherland and were, again, disappointed in the quality. Minutes later we were at the top of the Altar. It was hot. The sky was gray not from rain but unmoving humidity. A ghost of the sky hung over Rome, making its inhabitants wet not from precipitation but from osmosis.

The Pantheon was at least cooler inside but packed with tourists. We walked to the adjacent Piazza Navona before seeking out what Sam would declare her favorite gelateria of the trip: Frigidarium. What this literal hole-in-the-wall gelateria does differently is dip your gelato in liquid chocolate with a cookie and wait for it to harden before handing it back. The result is delicious but messy. Everyone walks away with hands dripping uncontrollably and nowhere to sit down to mitigate the damage. However, as with most neighborhoods in Rome, there is a public water spigot not far away you can drink from or wash your hands in.

Our legs were too tired to continue walking so we took a bus to Trevi Fountain. Even more than the Vatican Museum, Trevi Fountain was overflowing with tourists to the point where it was more interesting to photograph the spectacle of crushed humanity fighting for selfie space than the famous water sculpture.

We took another bus to St. Maggiore. After roaming under high ceilings for a bit we decided to skip our last destination (a city gate) and head back to the hotel for a much-needed shower.

Days before our visit Sam had coordinated with her friend who splits her residence between Rome and Bangkok for a dinner visit. We ate the best (and most plentiful) plates we would have in Rome and then proceeded to another gelateria. They first tried to tell us we would walk there, just to see the looks of horror on our faces. Instead, we (both women brought their young sons) poured into a tiny Volkswagen and whipped us around the city on the ancient bumpy streets.

Sunday morning we had bad pizza (you’re seeing the theme by now, right?) outside the train station before boarding a high-speed train to Venice.

Florence

Florence

_DSC5942

In Florence we checked in and headed to the duomo where we ascended the 400+ steps for a breezy view of the city.



We then ambled toward the Ponte Vecchio, stopping for dinner along the way (ossobuco, risotto, and very good d’asti). Before we reached the river we picked up gelato and ate it as we ascended the steps to the Michelangelo’s David replica in the high plaza overlooking the city. We stayed to watch a cloudy sunset and slowly walked back to our room.



On Wednesday morning we had booked a truffle hunting tour, but it was outside a tiny city half an hour away called San Miniato that required euros for payment. We went to five banks, including the one recommended by our hotel, for money exchanging and were denied by all of them. Eventually we figured out we could go to the post office. After learning how to take a number (the machine is not in English).. we watched the minutes tick by, edging closer to our train time to the tour.

We got our cash after 15 minutes and ran to the train station only to see long lines everywhere. When we finally got to the Italo ticket machine we couldn’t find our destination in the options and started freaking out. A young Italian woman came over and translated for us, even cutting in front of others to validate our tickets before pointing us to the right gate. It was a good thing she came along as our train was leaving in one minute!

Or not. We found the train with doors locked and other travelers waiting outside. The screens eventually noted a 25 minute delay and kept climbing. Other tourists said it was likely a strike.

After more than half an hour the train was finally cancelled and Sams dreams of hunting truffles in Tuscany were dashed. Instead, we walked back down to the baptistery of st. John, ate pizza and gelato and wandered aimlessly around Florence.

In the early afternoon we were exhausted from a late night yesterday and a stressful morning. We sat down on a store window ledge in an alley a block south of the Ponte Vecchio. I believe it was on Borgo S. Jacopo near the Roberta Firenze store.

Sam was doubled over in a lower back stretch, but I pulled her up because I thought I saw Giada De Laurentiis walk by us with what must have been family. We trailed them to a nearby pizza place trying to determine how accurate my memory was. She was literally running and after she ducked into the pizza parlor we decided not to stalk her any longer. I posted something about it on facebook and a friend who follows her noted that she posted about “being in Italy with family” the night before. The picture featured the same people we saw following her down the alley. Half an hour later that same friend told me that Giada posted on facebook again about “delivering pizza.”  So basically we saw this sans pizza:


Conclusive proof. Never thought we’d have a celebrity sighting in Florence.

After that we took it easy, shopping for watches and purses in the fashion district before taking a break back at the hotel.

After making sure to have steak florentine for dinner (which is surprisingly close to steak “Ohio grill” style) we decided to wander aimlessly to burn off the calories. Well, not quite aimlessly, we struck out eastward since none of our planned activities had been in that direction.

On our way to nowhere in particular we wound up in a funky artist corner and then happened upon Mago Merlino Tea House. While looking through the dark window at the vaguely medieval/Indian interior the proprietor came and unlocked the door, ushering us inside. He showed us a hippy room at the back with carpeting and rugs everywhere that has a strict no shoes policy and has remained largely unchanged since the 70s.

We thanked him and turned back toward our hotel. We reached San Lorenzo Market after all the vendors had packed up. With all the tents gone we could see the signs for the Florence Central Market, a bigger and better version of the central market in downtown Los Angeles. We walked around and decided to have our last meal in Florence there the next day.

On that last half-day in Florence we walked to the cathedral of Santa Maria’s dome. The line took 90 minutes to wait through, then it was another 30 minutes of starting and stopping inside, climbing the tight old stone steps. Part of the walk included striding along the painted visions of hell at the lower part of the cupola.

Eventually steep stairs wound up and over the dome to the small circular viewpoint at the top.

The viewing area was very crowded and coming back down still took 20 minutes, mostly because of waiting at the top on people who didn’t realize the stream of people coming up the stairs was never going to break.

We had just enough time to eat a fine lunch (truffle pasta) at the central market before grabbing our bags and taking our high speed train to Rome.

Milan

Milan

Milan

We woke at 6am on Monday to catch the early trains to Milan. After checking into our hotel we set out on foot to explore the city. First, we visited the inside and roof of the duomo. Then we walked to the Scala Opera Museum but decided not to buy a ticket as the theater (the whole point of a museum ticket) was closed. We stopped by Peck, which was a little underwhelming (like an Eataly-light) and ate at a few gelato shops before heading to Sempione Park. The Torre Branca was already closed so we took the old fashioned 10 tram to the old city gate and then walked the canal for a while before heading back to the hotel.

Tuesday morning we were up early and grabbed some focaccia from a nearby market and headed to the Santa Maria delle Grazie. We had checked the ticket website for months before our trip (and intentionally booked a hotel a block away) but tickets for the two days we would be in Milan never became available. We crossed our fingers as we approached the ticket office. There were two canceled tickets available for 3pm, but we’d be in Florence by then.

While standing outside talking about our disappointment a man walked up and told us he had four tickets for the tour that would start in ten minutes. He said he’d sell at face value (8€) and we decided to take the chance. Turns out it wasn’t a chance at all, he was a tour guide for a group of Japanese tourists and four of them either slept in or missed their flight (he didn’t tell us). So, ten minutes later, by a stroke of luck we were inside and staring at Leonardo’s masterpiece.


We bought iced coffees and walked back to Sempione Park. The Torre Branca was still closed (opening at 3pm on Tuesdays) so we took the metro to the Pirelli Tower, which is supposed to have an observation deck open 8am to 8pm every day.

We arrived at the barricaded gate and were questioned by a guard with a big dog. He called another guard that spoke better English who explained that the tower was not open to the public (despite the sign she stood next to proclaiming-in English-that the public observation deck on the 30th floor has excellent views of the city).

We went back to the train station and ate a long lunch before taking a high-speed train down to Florence.

Lauterbrunnen Valley

Lauterbrunnen Valley

Lauterbrunnen / Interlaken

On Thursday morning we headed to Lauterbrunnen, Tolkien’s original inspiration for Rivendell, remembered from his travels as a young man before the first world war.

When we arrived in Lauterbrunnen it was raining, but by the time we checked in and had lunch it had turned into fog and mist. Here is the view from our hotel balcony:

We went for a stroll for a few miles by the waterfalls in the valley before heading back for dinner (we bought food at the Coop market below the hotel) in the room. Afterwards we took the train to Wengen and walked slowly all the way down to Lauterbrunnen taking in the rainy but still arresting vistas.



On Friday morning we took the funicular to the Schilthorn’s “James Bond” Piz Gloria.

We actually enjoyed the lower station at Birg much more, as it had a glass overlook that shook when you walked on it and many of the tourists skipped it. The overlook was very slippery and covered with melting snow and ice, enhancing the feeling of danger. Even more dangerous looking was the cliff walk still under construction below the station on the steep rock face.

Before eating lunch in Murren where we met our pilots. We took off paragliding from Murren and soared up alpine thermals to about 4000 feet.

Hiking to take-off point:

Waiting for the right moment and then running to catch the wind:

Right turn into another valley:

We had purchased the “James Bond” experience that launches from Birg, but a recent snowfall would have prevented any running. Instead, our pilots caught drafts and soared up to the same height we would have enjoyed on the James Bond flight.


Sam in front:

Then from up there we turned left and headed down into Lauterbrunnen valley, Sam’s pilot just feet above mine.



As we gradually got closer to the treetops our pilots took us within a hundred feet of some of the massive waterfalls that we’d seen from below down in the valley.



At the end of the flight our pilots let us take the controls for a minute before doing some tricks.

My pilot was a “trick pilot” and so I got a real roller coaster ride. He asked me beforehand if I could handle it. Are you kidding? I grew up spending summers going to Cedar Point, rollercoaster heaven. I could have done flips up there all day.

You can also just barely catch some of this at the thirty second mark in Sam’s gopro video below:

We landed (me on my feet and Sam on her behind) in a pasture in Stechelberg.

UPDATE (6/21/16): in the original post I forgot to include the gopro video taken by the pilot:

Our tour gave us a lift to nearby Trümmelbach Falls, where the swiss built tunnels encircling a glacial waterfall that cut deep into the mountain. I immediately regretted not bringing my tripod as most of the great photo opportunities were inside the mountain in low light.







 After that we took a bus back to the train station.

Then we boarded the train to Interlaken and walked across the river to the gondola up to the lookout on top of Harder mountain (harder kulm).





While we were up at the top a high-speed train hit a tour bus right in front of the gondola station at the bottom of the mountain. The police closed the bridge forcing us into a long walk down the Aare river path to a much farther bridge. The accident also pushed our train to Lauterbrunnen back to 10:02pm. We found a local pub by the youth hosteI and i had a beer while we waited.

Saturday we went canyoneering in the morning. We couldn’t bring our own cameras as they’d be damaged, so these photos are from the photographer that followed along on the sides of the canyon (full album is on my facebook).

We were supposed to have a longer version of it, but the crew decided it was too dangerous (due to the same snow that altered our paragliding plans). We still jumped into, swam through, and got carried away by glacial currents in the saxeten canyon gorge.

We wore heavy thermal wetsuits but it was still very cold and the thickness made it hard to move around. That’s a problem when your guide wants you to jump and pose like superman in flight. Well, unless you’re Sam, her pilates and genetically enhanced flexibility made it a little easier for her.

I had trouble sleeping the night before and took a unisom, which further drained my energy before we even began. My helmet said “Homer” on it and it seemed apt, as I felt I was slowing the whole group down. The only truly enjoyable part for me was when they let us just float downstream for a bit.

The tour operators were originally going to take us bungee jumping from a gondola over an alpine lake after canyoneering, but a recent cold snap left the lake partially frozen.

After a long lunch at the hotel, we headed to Grindelwald to see the famous glacier gorge. Of course, when we got there we were told the gorge was closed because of the cold snap. The tourism folks gave us some other options and we decided to go up to First, which is a gondola station 7,111 feet up the mountain.

This year they opened a cliff walk with metal grating drilled into the cliff that ends in a point sticking out over a gorge.




The very end is made of glass and shakes when anyone else steps on the platform.



We only saw a few other people up there. Just when we were starting to congratulate ourselves on this find and start a picnic an employee ran out and said the last gondola down the mountain was leaving at 5 (i.e. “now”). If we hadn’t made it to that gondola we’d probably still be on that winding mountain path.

We returned to Lauterbrunnen and went to the paragliding cafe for our free drinks (included in our flight) then walked a bit farther down the street to visit Staubbach Falls again. The path up to the falls was still closed,  but a farmer had brought sheep to the adjacent field.

On our last full day in Lauterbrunnen, we went to see Staubbach Falls one last time up close, but this time with the morning sun on it. The trail up the hill was still frustratingly “closed for winter” as it had been every other visit. Also just like every other visit someone came along to challenge the concept of “strictly prohibited.” This time, we went with him. However, after walking through the tunnel to the beginning of the rock walk behind the falls we turned back. The man who had jumped the fence with us went up the steps and yelped at the cascading glacier water wafting in from the falls. We had jumped into glacier water the morning before and had no desire to do so again without wetsuits.

We headed back to the train station and took the next one to Wengen. At the station we walked down a different trail than a few days prior, looking for good shots of the valley before getting back on at the next stop.

We went to Interlaken for lunch and walked along the Aare before shopping for watches in town. At four we took the swiss chocolatier class. My nose had started to run like a faucet because of all the pollen blowing through the valley so I looked pretty miserable while Sam was in chocolate heaven.




After class we went back to Lauterbrunnen to turn in early since our train journey to Italy would start at 7am.

 

Zermatt

Zermatt

zermatt

Although St. Moritz is known for being a posh pristine mountain town for playboys to show off expensive ski boots, Zermatt is only famous for the rugged peak of the Matterhorn. Since summer season was still officially a week away our hotel was underbooked and gave us a free upgrade to a room that could see the famous pyramidal shaped peak that most Americans recognize first as the centerpiece to a Disneyland ride.

Zermatt has a more rugged and “authentic” atmosphere, full of old original looking wooden houses and livestock barns jammed up against hotels and watch shops. Our hotel restaurant had an intriguing menu so we opted to eat in. We enjoyed one of the best meals of our trip; Sam ordered a baked local fish and I struggling to finish what I can only call MegaGrilledCheese Sandwich (a baked dish of bread, fried eggs, bacon, cheese and more cheese with a hearty herb-laden tomato soup).

To burn off those calories we headed for the Matterhorn trail, which began a short walk down the street from our hotel. We hiked up the winding trail, watching the peak get smaller and smaller as we got closer. That’s the way it works when there’s always another peak in the way. After sunset we stopped on one of the benches and watched a local sheep herd graze, just listening to the “white noise”-app-like sounds until darkness set in and the sheep wandered up to their barn.

The next morning we took the Gornergrat bahn up to the 10,000 foot top, which has 360-degree view of several peaks including Matterhorn.









On the way down we got off at the first station (Rotenboden) and hiked in the snow to the next. We wanted to find the famous Riffelsee, a lake high in the alps that reflects the Matterhorn.

We quickly found out the snow was so high it would be dangerous  (we received numerous warnings about this) to move too far away from the train tracks over the hills into the unknown landscape of lingering winter.

It turned out later we had gone the wrong way anyway. The tourist maps showing the summer hiking trails are notoriously confusing about the location of the lake, so much so that the Glacier Express operator told us it was “wrong” – and he was right. The lake we searched for and considered risking our lives for was actually above us the entire time, a hike UP from Rotenboden, not down! However, due to recent snowfall, it wouldn’t have reflected any peaks that day, anyway.

Back in town, we decided to try the famous Swiss Fondue, ordering the white wine cheese pan. The wine made the cheese a little too bitter for our tastes and our enthusiasm for fondue withered and died faster than the bread wilted in the hot cream.

We spent the rest of the day looking at swiss watches and eating chocolate before heading up the Matterhorn trail for a second try at sunset photography.

Glacier Express

Glacier Express

Glacier Express

When we boarded the Glacier Express panorama train in St. Moritz we shared the car with only one other couple. This made the first few hours an enjoyable experience of gliding down from the “Top of the World” while jumping from side to side shooting hundreds of photos pressed against the high windows.



When we got a bit lower to Chur things took a turn (pun intended). A group of retired-but no less rowdy-German tourists, complete with barking guide, filled up the rest of the car and started downing shots of-they were German so I’ll assume-Jagermeister. That was the end of our moving about in the cabin, or sliding through the countryside in peace.

However, the views were still dramatic as we ate a surprisingly delicious lunch next to the “Grand Canyon of Europe,” the Verdon Gorge. It was nice, but the Swiss part is just a little grey gorge with a blue stream, reminded me of Colorado. The grander parts must be on the western side in France.


With lunch all done we headed up to the snowy peaks of the Oberalp Pass.  We’d driven Mount Evans, which tops out at 14,000 feet, but somehow the nearly 7,000 feet of Oberalp Pass felt higher. The reason is that, unlike the roads through the Rockies, the ascent and descent are very swift and you can often see all the way to the bottom from the top by looking down instead of far out. In Colorado, you have to drive for hours to go all the way to the summit. In Switzerland, they whisk you up in minutes on twisty train tracks or a vertical funicular.

After crossing through the snowcaps we surged down into Andermatt, where most of our German friends stumbled out.


The next few hours were spent in a wide (by Swiss alps standards, which means maybe a mile or two at most) green valley with farmlands fed by the visible glacial waterfalls tumbling from the snowy peaks.


Eventually, we headed up again, climbing to a little town clinging to the cliffs called Brig and then eventually lifting through tighter canyons until we reached the end of the line (and farthest west we’d go on this trip): Zermatt.

St. Moritz

St. Moritz

St. Moritz

We left Zurich in the early afternoon on a train that straddled the brilliant teal Zurichsee for about thirty kilometers before heading further south to Chur and then landing in St. Moritz. We learned that about a third of the journey (between Chur and St. Moritz) is part of the Glacier Express.





We arrived in St. Moritz late in the afternoon and then had to figure out the local bus system to our hotel. Turns out it was very simple, and also turns out we could have just walked along the lake, but the maps and routes were a bit confusing without understanding the layout in intimate detail as we would later.

After dinner in the hotel restaurant (the only one open!) Sam called it a day as she was suffering from jetlag. I went to walk around the lake with my camera and waited for sunset.

On Monday morning, we headed out on the Bernina train for the Bernina Diavolezza.



We were lucky to find some sun at the top.


We ate lunch before heading back down. On the way back to St. Moritz we stopped in Morteratsch to hike out to the glacier. Having stood on glaciers in Iceland it was a bit of a disappointment when we reached the little glacier finger muddied with sediment at the end of a long valley.

Hungry after the hike we walked to a restaurant in St. Moritz Sam found on Yelp, but found it closed. As was everything else. Again. So we ate at our hotel. Again.

Turns out May 15th and 16th are observed holidays in Switzerland that shutter entire towns.  The front desk said it was a “bank holiday,” but we learned later it was called Pentecost, a common Christian holiday, just not observed in this “shut everything down and vacate” way in America.

After dinner we walked along the lake to see the sunset, but, unlike the day before, snow clouds blew in and obscured any color.

We took a leisurely walk in the morning sun along the lake to the train station for our glacier express reservations. We picked out a postcard to send to my parents and dropped in the post box before boarding the train. It was days later before I’d realize I never wrote their address on it (and Sam wouldn’t know it well enough to write it without me).

Zurich

Zurich

Zurich

On Friday, May 13th, Sam and I embarked on a 23-day European vacation. We ubered to LAX and flew over eleven hours on Swiss Air to Zurich, landing around 4pm local time on Saturday.

The Zurich airport is quite small, but tidy and neat, like an airport built by Ikea. We took an easy train into the city and discovered “Zurich’s got talent” taping at the main rail station, just a short walk from our hotel.

After settling in we went out to find dinner. We tried Rheinfelder Bierhalle as it looked open and not too busy. We weren’t sure what to expect in Switzerland, and our waiter was very rude when we asked questions about the menu. We gave up and ordered salad and a vegetable plate (the traditional raclette). Both ended up being more cheese than anything else, which isn’t as good as it sounds.

We didn’t know it then, but we should have expected a certain “rudeness” in a bierhalle (beer hall = pub = bar), as German/Swiss versions are set up for rowdy hearty drinkers who demand what they want from no-nonsense waiters. That said, unlike the Hofbräuhaus in Munich, the Rheinfelder wasn’t boisterous when we walked in (or out) and nobody was sharing a table with a stranger.

After dinner, it started to lightly rain as we walked towards Linden.


By the time we got to the lake heavy rain obscured the lights shining in the dark on the other side. We broke out our umbrella (the first time of many on the trip) and wandered back along the (mostly closed) shops on the western riverbanks.

Sunday we ate at a cafe before taking the train up to Uetliberg.


After hiking up the hill we discovered the automated entrance to the “top of Zurich” steel platform was broken. The platform offers the only view unobstructed by trees. This was the first of many unexpectedly closures of attractions we’d have to grin and bear during the trip.

As we started back down I began to sneeze. Allergies, too, would become a staple of our trips to nature for the next three weeks. We had both planned ahead and brought an ample supply of Allegra that would be completely exhausted by the time we boarded our return flight to LAX.

After checking out of our hotel and eating lunch back at the main station in Zurich we boarded the first train to St. Moritz.