Friday, August 7, 2009

Epilogue (as opposed to ...)

To begin with, a two-week trip to Europe in the middle of a struggling economy and uncertain times may be a reckless enterprise, and we certainly pondered that before we booked our trip. However, we decided that we may never have another opportunity for such a wonderful, outdoors, walking in the clouds over rocks, snow and cobblestones trip again. So it felt right. And we didn't look back.

In 2008, Genevieve and I spent nearly three weeks abroad in celebration of our 30th anniversary; photos from that trip are available on my Flickr account. We learned that Italy was chaotic, so was Prague, and Vienna, while a large city, was quite orderly and manageable.

We discovered how much we each could perspire, and knew enough this time to keep away from the heat. Heck, there was too much of that already in Austin!

We also learned that as bad as the economy was over here in the States, it was worse in Europe, so the bleeding of worthless dollars into Euros might not be as bad this year as it was in '08.

We learned that Rick Steves is a European travel guru, mentor and god, and that we would always be in good hands if we stuck with his guides.

And, oh yeah, we learned that we both packed WAY too many things in too-large suitcases that didn't fit into the overhead rack on the train.

Using these basic learnings, we had a much easier, cooler, simpler and relaxed trip. We spent less money and didn't panic for lack of food or direction. In other words ... we learned that if you plan to take it easy and know how to take it easy, you can run from dawn to dusk every day and not get worn out. In fact, neither of us was ready to come home.


1) Transporation in Bavaria, Austria and Switzerland is AWESOME! We did not encounter one late train, bus, tram or boat. Every connection we had to make -- even the seven minute train connections -- we made with time to spare. By comparison ... well, I don't want to bad mouth America.

2) Well planned infrastructure WORKS! Granted, we didn't visit any slums (didn't see any in fact), but when the city's streets are maintained and the water system, parks and public areas are taken care of, it's easy to live there. Less stress. Fewer heart attacks. More healthy lifestyles. MUCH less obesity. By comparison ... well, I don't want to bad mouth ...

3) Health care ... well ... let's just say I'd rather not comment. Pharmacies/primary care offices on most every corner... health information technology that works ... OK, that's all I'll say.

4) CNN International is annoying. Watch the BBC. In Munich, there's a woman who does a call-in game show wearing nothing but a smile. Watch her instead!

5) German beer is better than Austrian beer is WAY better than Swiss beer. We started at the Hofbrauhaus in Munich and ended up in a French bistro in Lausanne. Beer started out a lot better than it ended. On the other hand, pot is legal in Switzerland ...

6) German food, Austrian food AND Swiss food can be combined into a single pig's intestine and served with a chunk of cheese and a liter of beer and would probably taste the same. I happen to like that stuff... if you're into haute cuisine, stay in France and Italy.

7) People picnic so much in Switzerland because a Whopper, fries and a coke costs $15.00. When we picnicked at Lake Geneva, I realized that the food was a lot cheaper and our meal was quite delicious.

8) You really don't need to build amusement parks when you've got the Alps in which to play. They may not be the biggest mountains I've ever seen, but they sure seem like it. A younger me would be hiking, skiing and biking in those meadows year-round.

9) Good for Germany for making EVERY school child visit a concentration camp.

10) For two weeks, stepping into a COMPLETELY different world is exciting, tittilating, envigorating and enriching. But, no matter how hot, dry, frantic and downright frustrating it is ...


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Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Day 11 - En Francais, s'il vous plait!

One last day in Switzerland. We'd seen mountains. Heard muffled yodels and cowbells. Eaten cheese and chocolate.

Genevieve had heard enough German to last her a lifetime. Two and a half hours to the south, they spoke Italian. Two and a half hours to the west, they spoke French.

Guess which direction we took?

It was a pleasure riding the remarkable Swiss train system one more time, taking full advantage of the four-day Swiss Pass we'd purchased prior to our trip. The pass paid for itself within the first day, I figure, and if you ever go to Switzerland, buy that instead of the Eurail pass. You get unlimited travel on all trains, boats and buses in the cities and throughout the country. You get half off the price of cogwheel trains and cable cars in the mountains, and you get free access to most every museum in the nation. What a deal!

Oh yeah, it even works in French.

Weather gave us a break and it didn't rain as we went through the north east of the country, turning south at Lake Neuchatel and heading down to Lausanne on Lake Geneva. Genevieve was thrilled that the announcements on the train shifted from German to French. I was surprised that I also understood them better in French than I had in German.

The town of Lausanne is on the bank of Lake Geneva, and is built on an extremely steep grade. The train station is midway up the hill, and the Metro is actually a funicular railroad that links the lakeside "beach" with the top of the town.

We decided to walk the old city before heading out onto Lake Geneva. So we went up over the cobblestones of another delightful medieval European town. Open air produce market. Expensive shops. Eateries. Well dressed business people and even a few tourists (though not that many). Much of the architecture was French, and even though the famous French spa town of Evian (home of the water) was right across the lake, we still knew we were in Switzerland.

Rick Steves' walking tour of old Lausanne was quite helpful and also pretty strenuous, and by the time we got to the old castle, we had reached the top of the city. View was tremendous, especially since the sun had come out for a change. The lake sparkled, the mountains loomed, etc.

While on top of the town, we looked for and found public WCs near the castle, located in what looked to be caves carved out of some ancient fortification. I had no idea what I was looking at! A shiny metal pan on the floor with a hole and footprints where I assumed you were supposed to put your feet. No paper. Genevieve thought she'd gone to the men's room and called into me. It was then that I realized that we might have been in Switzerland, but we were close enough to France to share some of their less savory customs. WOW! I held it!

Gorgeous marina, playgrounds, eateries and, of course, very expensive hotel resorts, including the original Beau Rivage, an old grand hotel in the 19th century tradition.

After a lakefront picnic, we walked past the Beau Rivage to the International Olympic Museum and park. Lausanne is the home base of the International Olympic Committee and the sculpture park, gardens and museum are all spectacular. On the way up, we stopped to admire the REAL Olympic flame and saw a number of beautiful sculptures, including two enormous sand sculptures -- one of Michael Phelps and the other, a giant statue of "heroes," including likenesses of Muhammad Ali, Katerina Witt and of course, Roger Federer.

The interior was very much like the Smithsonian Museum of American History in that it was full of awesome memorabilia. Jesse Owens' shoes. Jean Claude Killy's skis. Muhammad Ali's gloves. Al Oerter's discus. Katerina Witt's, er, dress. You could take your photo on the medal podium, which I did. Stick your head in Jim Thorpe's likeness, which I did. Pose as a naked Greek athlete, which I also did. My were those folks little!

After the museum, we hopped a train for Montreux, home of the world-renowned Jazz Festival. From there we got on a bus to Chateau de Chillon, one of the truly delightful medieval castles open to tourists in Europe and one immortalized by Lord Byron. This compact castle was in fabulous shape and gave a wonderful insight into life in the middle ages under the house of Savoy. It was also home to the Bernese for a couple of centuries. Lots of rocks, dank dungeons and tiny loopholes. Very much a fortress rather than a palace.

We cruised back to Lausanne and guess what happened? IT RAINED. That was the bad news. The good news was that Lake Geneva is so large that the sun was shining behind us, so we were treated to a spectacular rainbow on the trip back. Tres magnifique!

Hadn't originally planned to see the French Swiss countryside, but when we return to Europe we'll definitely want to come back to see Mont Blanc and Chamonix.

It was after midnight when we got back to Zurich. Packed our clothes. Checked on the Astros and prepared for a long flight back to Austin and return to reality. We'll wrap everything up in the next few days with some overall observations and heretofore unreleased photos, videos and the like, so stay tuned!

Enjoy the entire day's worth of photos!

NEXT STOP -- Austin, Texas! YEE HAW!

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Day 10 -- A Walk in the Clouds

When we decided to visit Switzerland, the first thing we did was plan a day hiking in the Berner Oberland, which both excited and scared me, for obvious reasons.

Rick Steves, and most everybody else for that matter, recommended hiking in the Lauterbrunner Valley, about half an hour south of Interlaken and about 15-20 miles north of the Italian border. Glacier country. Big mountain country. Home of the Eiger, Monch and Jungfrau, the "Top of Europe," as the Swiss call it. Besides, Zermatt and Mont Blanc were just a tad too far away from Zurich to make a decent day trip out of it.

OK, so I'd climbed the stairs a few extra times and joined Genevieve on a few hikes in the Turkey Creek wildlife preserve in Austin's Emma Long Park. I didn't die then, so I figured I wouldn't die up in the Alps.

Up early. Laced tight the hiking boots. Packed the daypack with hat, windbreaker and emergency UT plastic rain ponchos, and off we went.

Trained down through Bern around Lake Thun to Interlaken, where we caught a regional train to Lautebrunnen (very cute little train... shoulda had a bell around the engine). From there, we hopped about an even cuter cogwheel train that slowly shlepped us up the mountain to Wengen, which was quite humid since big gray clouds were rolling in over the mountains above. From there, we hopped a cablecar which shlepped us up into the big gray clouds to the village of Mannlichen, starting point of our Alpine hiking adventure.


Visibility in Mannlichen was about 50 feet. The fog was so thick, you could cut it. We started down what we thought was the right trail but turned back worried that it wasn't. Finally, a helpful transportation worker told us the way to go. We asked him how long he thought it would be before the fog lifted. "Ten minutes," he said, with certainty. "But ten minutes from now I'll be down the mountain, so it doesn't matter what I tell you, ja?" He laughed and we started walking.

The view was, well, let me put it this way. From the photos you can see we're on the north slope of Mt. Everest. Or is that Mt. McKinley? Or Mt. Bonnell. I challenge you to look at the first photos and prove otherwise! The fog was so thick and damp and cold that we were just doing our best not to fall off the mountain into the mist below for the first 45 minutes or so.

The trail was pretty mellow and we saw a lot of ice and snowpack, some beautiful flowers and occasionally a view into the valley below, but not much of one. The fog did begin to lift, though, in time for a cold, hard rain to start. Thank God we had our trusty UT Longhorn plastic ponchos. We looked like dry cleaning in Austin! But it kept us marginally dry until we reached a shed behind a bunch of benches. Obviously this was the place we were supposed to see what we'd come to see... the Eiger, Monch and Jungfrau ... but all we could see was the fog and hear the big drops hitting the plastic bags over our heads.

Oh well... at least we were getting our exercise!

When we were convinced that the rain wasn't going to stop, we decided to just tough it out and hike as quickly as we could down to Kleine Scheidegg for a warm meal and proper shelter.


The rain stopped, and almost on cue, Switzerland FLASHED US! I saw it first, an outline of a shape up above us. Genevieve couldn't see it. I started shooting photos. Didn't know what mountain it was but it was certainly a mountain.

Thirty seconds later, the clouds parted, the sun came out and there they were, the "Young Girl" (Jungfrau), protected by the "Monk" (Monch) from the "Ogre" (Eiger.) Breathtaking, huge, snowcovered, glacier covered mountains right in our face. It gave us a sense of awe and confusion similar to the feelings we had when we first saw the Grand Canyon... only WETTER!

The clouds that had once parted were coming back. Ten minutes after we saw them, the mountains were gone.

Some older women stolled by singing in German, soaking wet. A couple and their dog marched past up. The rain started again. And we continued toward Kleine Scheindegg, where we stopped at a small family restaurant for lunch. The owner knew by the look on our faces that we'd felt gypped so she gave us a picture book of the mountains to enjoy while they made our lunch and oohed and awwwed at the photos we were able to snap during that 10 minute break in the clouds.

As we headed down toward Wegernalp and the train back to Lauterbrunnen, we heard cowbells off in the clouds below us. Just couldn't see where they were coming from. As we got further down into the high meadows, we not only heard the bells, but smelled where they were coming from. Soon, we were face to face with a herd of some of the most beautiful Simmental cows we'd ever seen. And Genevieve, being the product of a dairy farm herself, knows cows when she sees them. One even reminded us of our dog. She followed us to the electric fence but wouldn't fetch the paper. I mooed in her general direction and all her sisters also came running...we were fast becoming heroes with the domesticated farm animal set!

Cold, wet and tired, we got back on the train down the mountain, admired some waterfalls and spent the evening in Interlaken. It's supposed to be beautiful, and there were certainly some glimpses of that, but in a raintorm, Interlaken was like anywhere else in a rainstorm ... WET and NASTY.

Before heading back to Zurich, we had a light supper at a lovely little tea room. The owners kept it open so we could eat and dry out. He served us some hausgemacht (home made) chocolate - OY - and told us how proud he was of his new, high-tech bathroom. I didn't have any idea what he was talking about until Genevieve came out of there and told me I HAD to see it. Looked like a regular toilet to me but after it flushed, a little panel extended with a brush and disinfectant, scrubbing the seat as it rotated under it. BIZARRE!

Leave it to the Swiss to develop a self-cleaning toilet!

Now if they could only do something about the weather!

LAST STOP: Lausanne and Lake Geneva

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Catching up soon!

As you might have figured out by now, the blog is running a day behind "real time."

In the morning, we head back to the US -- with two incredible days yet to chronicle: 1) Our day in the clouds above the Lauterbrunner Valley, searching for the Eiger, Monch and Jungfrau, and 2) Our last trip across Switzerland to Lake Geneva and a glorious day in Lausanne, Chateau Chillon and the Lake.

Both days were full of surprises, delights and challenges. And both will be described in full detail -- right down to the self-cleaning toilet seat in Interlaken (did I spill the beans?) -- when we get back on Friday.

I'll also be stringing together some of the videos we shot into something I hope you'll find entertaining. So stay tuned. It'll be a mooooo-ving experience!

(Sorry. Couldn't help myself!)

Auf wiedersehen Alpen! Und danke schon.

Bonjour Etats Unis!

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Day 9 - Lake Luzern

Rick Steves, our travel guru went one for three today: 1) he said that Luzern was the best place to make your base camp for a series of day trips across Switzerland. Boy was he right on that one!

We were enchanted by this lakefront city. (Have I said that before about anywhere else? Probably!) But Luzern was yet another incredible destination on what's been the vacation of a lifetime. Only 45 minutes from Zurich, the difference between the two cities is night and day.

Wandered the very interesting old town and then spent a couple of hours at the Rosengart family art collection, enjoying one of the most extensive and intimate collections of Picasso paintings, sketches, sculptures and photos we've ever seen. Actually, this is where Rick's advice was a big stee-rike!

Didn't quite have a "When Animals Attack" moment like we did with the sheep in Innsbruck, but the swans on the Reuss River were rather interested in my video camera until they realized it wasn't something to eat.

The book sent us to the FORMER location of the Picasso museum, which had been relocated to the main Rosengart gallery across the river. So we walked around the block several times looking for a collection that was no longer there at an address that frankly was gone. Good thing we were in Switzerland and not, say, Philadelphia!

Great collection.

Then after a quick lunch on the run, we hit the lake and spent nearly three hours cruising Lake Luzern in a turn of the century paddlewheel steamboat, stopping at about half a dozen quaint little lakeside villages along the way. AND IT DIDN'T RAIN!

Dinner took us into the world of Swiss Cheese and Chocolate. (But Rick sent us somewhere else for fondue and they looked at us like we were N-V-T-S, NUTS!) We did succeed in clogging our arteries, burning holes in our teeth, etc.) I think Weight Watchers will probably make me give back all the stars I've earned this year.

Great day, great weather, beautiful city, delicious food. Early to bed because tomorrow, we rise early and head down to the Berner Oberland for some high Alpine hiking in the shadow of the Eiger, Monch and Jungfrau.

Pray for the fat guy!

Meanwhile, enjoy the slideshow.


Monday, July 6, 2009

Day 8 - Zoaked in Zurich!

We made Zurich our base in Switzerland mainly because that's where the flight home would depart from, knowing that we'd be making three day trips across the country and have a half a day on either end to visit the financial capital of the country (and arguably the world.)

However, after the high speed shlepping we'd done since leaving Austin (I traveled for 10 days before we left for Europe) we were beginning to get a big goofy... and finding our hotel in Zurich turned into an ordeal. The place turned out to be a good 45 minute walk from the Hauptbahnhof, which we did, dragging our luggage and tuchises behind us. It only made sense that a tram stop was around the block. (Hopefully those stupid "coincidences" will stop before we take the wrong turn and fall off a mountain or bridge or something!)

So using Rick Steves as our guide, we got on the tram (whew!) and headed down to wander the old town of Zurich. It was surprisingly beautiful and very much what we'd expected cities in Switzerland to look like.

It was a very pleasant afternoon and evening, as the slide show will bear out (enjoy!).

Sometime after dinner, we discovered that the umbrellas we'd dragged around with us the entire trip were now missing. No telling where we'd dropped them or how they'd fallen out of the daypack...we just knew they were gone.

So of course, the heavens opened up with the heaviest rainstorm we'd seen since we arrived in Europe. (I guess we had another one of those "coincidences!") When we walked into the hotel, the front desk clerk started laughing and said, "You got vett! Ve haff umbrellas for you to borrow!"

("Coincidence" number 3!)

Assuming we can wade through the piles of vett clothes and towels on our bathroom floor, we'll head down to Luzern tomorrow... and we'll take ALL the rain gear. So I'm sure it will be sunny!

NEXT STOP - Luzern (Lucerne for all you Safeway shoppers!)