Friday, April 30, 2010

The Bernina Express and the Glacier Express

Thursday, April 29

Breakfast was fairly standard fare for Europe - much, much better than anything we get back in the US, but nothing spectacular. Lots of cheeses, fruits, some meats (which I always find odd in the morning), rolls, chocolate croissants, and juice and coffee. No tea, though. I did have an amazingly sweet kiwi, homegrown in Italy - much sweeter than the kiwis we get from New Zealand. We slept as late as we could, and then walked leisurely back to the train station. It was a short visit to Varenna, but this was really just meant as a way to recover from the flight before starting our real trip through Switzerland, and I thought recovering would be much more pleasant in Lake Como than in Milan. We took the train to Tirano, which is supposedly in Italy although I noticed my phone was picking up "SwissCom" and lunch was charged in Swiss Francs rather than Euros. We had just under two hours in Tirano until we were ready to board the Bernina Express, so we had some very tasty pizzas and, of course, wine, at the pizzeria across from the train station. Tried calling the boys at the AT&T's 'discounted" International rate of one dollar a minute, as opposed to the regular two dollars a minute. It was 6:30 a.m. and Alex wasn't the most talkative, but Ryan made up for it. The Bernina Express is a rail route that is celebrating its 100th anniversary this year, and when it was first built, it was considered quite an engineering feat. The train itself was immaculate. Lovely and clean, with a bathroom I wasn't afraid to use. We had upgraded to the panoramic windows, and they were crystal clear. Unlike the Italian trains which were dirty, graffiti-covered and don't even get me started on the bathrooms. Women are not meant to pee standing up, This is Italy - not a third world country. I even took a picture I was so horrified. Needless to say, I waited.

Back to the Bernina... its a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and I think it  and the Glacier Express are the only trains to be one. I'd seen photos of it, and of some of the bridges and tunnels it goes through, and watched a video about great Train Rides in the World, so I was fairly pumped for this trip. This can often lead to disappointment for me. I'm happy to say that the Bernina was so beautiful it even surpassed my rather high expectations. There is this very cool circular viaduct we traveled over, the only one in the world, and you can actually see the first part of the red trains in front of you circling around it. There were three other people in our compartment (the beauty of traveling off-peak times when school is in session) and while we started out sitting down, there was very little sitting as we were constantly up and down, running from one side to the other to see what was awaiting us. Lots of vineyards and apple orchards, and according to my brochure, we went through 55 tunnels and over 196 bridges and viaducts. We passed a few ski resorts (Davos, Klosters) and saw some snowboarders, and back down in the valleys I even saw some cows. The tourist in me has a goal of seeing a real Swiss cow wearing cow bells this trip. These guys were too far away to see if they had the cow bells on, and Carl was fiddling with the camera and couldn't get it to me fast enough to get a picture (yes, he is still alive. just.) so the photo is still to come.

Our destination for the day was St. Moritz, picked solely because it is a meeting point for the Bernina Express and the Glacier Express, the other famous Swiss train ride we'll be doing tomorrow. Our hotel for the night is the Waldhaus am See, which is conveniently close to the train station, and not so conveniently UP from the train station. Its situated at the end of the lake of St. Moritz, so its away from the noise and congestion of most of the town. It is also stunning, and we selected the half-board option, so dinner is included. We spent about two hours walking around the town - it has a big, glitzy ski area, so they have lots of shopping options, like Chanel, Dolce and Gabana, Gucci and Armani. Fun to look at, but its not like I would ever buy anything there. We did find an ATM and got some Swiss Francs - they have 200 ch bills, which is fascinating to me since we don't - and the exchange rate now is almost dead even. Its kind of odd walking around with 200 bills that actually are worth $200. We found a Co-op, and went in to buy some diet coke and investigate the chocolate situation. Its my current mission (next to the cow picture) to personally sample all the Swiss chocolate so that I can make a fully informed decision as to the best to bring home to loved ones. In the lead thus far is the Lindt Double Milk Chocolate - a milk chocolate bar with a creamy milk filling that literally melted in my mouth. 
Our hotel:

We then walked around Lake St. Moritz - it took about an hour, but it was lovely and we even had a snowball fight. :) Then it was back to the hotel for dinner, which was nice, although I'm not sure it was as nice as the price seemed to think it was. The beds were... interesting. Apparently the Swiss don't believe in flat sheets - just a fitted sheet and a duvet cover. I suppose it could work, but it was hot in the room, so we opened a window. Then it was too cold, so I would close it. Then it was too hot, and I platyed this game for way too long into the night before I finally managed to fall asleep. Carl wasn't bothered at all. Typical.

Friday, April 30

Woke up nice and early for breakfast (which inlcuded a make your own omelet station, and my own tea pot, so both Carl and I were a bit happier). Today was our journey on the Glacier Express. It started out equally as spectacular as yesterday, with a few more waterfalls, more bridges and viaducts and an obscene number of tunnels. Its kind of freaky how they just blast through these mountains to make a tunnel, and  it was odd going  down from St. Moritz to some valleys, then back up into the Alps towards Andermatt before finally descending again. The train continues all the way to Zermatt, but we hopped off in Brig to catch our next train. 
The glass on the Glacier Express train had a bit more glare to it than the Bernina Express so I don't think my pictures turned out too well. And it was a lot more crowded, so it was harder to run from side to side of the train for pictures. They serve a three course lunch during this train ride, which was way overpriced, but we did it anyway. With a bottle of wine, of course. :) It helped break up the journey which was LONG - too long. I don't think I'll need to do this one ever again. It was about eight hours total - 6.5 on the Glacier Express, and another 1.5 hours to Vevey. I did see lots of cows today, on a plus note. And some even were wearing their cowbells. Not the most ornate cow bells, but cow bells nonetheless.
My cows:
Where Heidi is set:

We arrived in Vevey about 5:30 p.m., and checked into our hotel. Its a much smaller room than our last two, and an even smaller bathroom with a note warning us not to open the bathroom door after showering until all steam is gone or else it will set off the fire alarm. This should be fun. Vevey is beautiful, with a lovely promenade along the lake. You can see France quite clearly across the water, and I think we just might have to go over to Evian-des-Bains for some water. The boat rides are included with our Swiss rail passes, so it would be a shame not to use it to its fullest.

We're done moving around for a bit - it was a whirlwind few days so Carl could get his train journeys. Now its my turn for castles, wine trains, cheese factories and the Chocolate Train. Vevey has a fruit and flowers market tomorrow morning - I can't wait.

Planes, Trains and Boats

Tuesday, April 27

We used FF miles for this trip, so of course we had to fly unbelievably out of the way before actually arriving at our destination (ie, Austin to Chicago, Chicago to New York, New York to Milan).

The first leg went well - had picked a particularly enjoyable trashy novel to read on the plane (because what else is there to make the time pass quickly?) about a federal prosecutor and a US marshall. Stopped in Chicago, where we had a 2.5 hr layover, ate lunch, got a chair massage, and found out our plane was late. Then our plane was delayed some more, and then some more, and even though we should have had 2 hours in NY to make our connecting flight, we were suddenly scheduled to land five minutes past when our Milan flight's doors would close. Panic starts to ensure, gate agent tells me to go down and pick up the "rebooking" phones and call. Steve with American Airlines is on other line, extremely unhelpful. Steve wants to rebook me for 24 hours later (apparently, only one flight per day to Milan). Hang up on Steve, Two other women show up to make a similar phone call - turns out there are seven of us on the Chicago flight needing to get to Milan. Wait and see if they find someone more helpful than Steve on the other line. Turns out no. Do find out from one helpful agent, Elissa P., that there is an Allitalia flight 2 hrs later, and she thinks in NY they will re-book us, but they can't do it from Chicago. Decide that we would rather be stranded in NY than Chicago with family and friends, so hop on next flight. Our two new anti-American Airlines (or at leat, anti-Steve) friends are headed to the Cinque Terre to go hiking for two weeks, and they are a lieutenant and captain with the Madison sherriff's office. Linda talks to us mid-flight, and apparently she runs marathons for fun, so she is going to give her partner her pack and take off running to try and hold the flight. This works for us. After a disturbingly bumpy landing, where my plane actually jolted from one wheel to another and then back again a few times, we taxi forever and a day, and then a lovely announcement is made for everyone but us to stay seated so we can hop off for our flight. So we run, Linda a bit faster than I, and run and run and run and finally make it from gate 37 to gate 2, and magically, our plane is still there. Even more magically, our luggage make it on board, and seven hours later, I have landed in Milan. The food was nasty, the movies blah (Up in the Air and 17 Again - really - I mean, who, who, who would want to see this movie??) but otherwise the plane ride was uneventful.

Wednesday, April 28

Seems odd starting a new day here, since I never really slept exept for an hour on the plane. I actually got a passport stamp for Italy, which was kind of exciting. This passport hasn't been nearly as many places as my last one, so its been feeling unloved. Plus. they don't stamp the way they used to. We took the Malapanesa Express Bus to the train station, and saw what must surely be the ugliest parts of Milan in the process. The highlight was the "Sexy Shop," which really isn't much of a highlight at all. Exchanged some money and the Euro exchange right now is just painful. Took the train to Varenna, which was our destination for the day. The train ride was just under an hour, and the first 1/2 was an extension of the Worst Highlights of Milan Tour. All the graffiti.. ugh... and the parts that are in English are just wrong, like "F*ck In Asshol."  (although, on second thought, maybe that is what they meant?) I dozed a bit - jet lag catching up with me, and when I opened my eyes again, suddenly the ugly was gone and it was ... spectacular. Lush, green mountains, and crystal blue waters. It was Lake Como, and it was every bit as beautiful has I had imagined it to be. We saw some castles near Lenno, and I was tempted to hop of for a bit in this town - its definitely worth a future visit. But Varenna, and its promise of a shower, was calling.

As we approached Varenna, we are waiting near the exit doors when a man in his fifties approaches us. We start talking, and he is a professor who visits Varenna frequently to teach a class. He offers to walk us towards our hotel, and since I'm with my red-belt husband, we agree. Turns out 'Claudio' is the highlight of our day. He is incredibly knowledgeable, and helpful and was full of great little tidbits about Varenna and Italy. I'm still feeling guilty for thinking I was about to be robbed at every corner we turned, but he was great. He told us which restaurants are the best, which shop keepers are honest, pointed out the shortest river in Italy, where we would catch the boat taxi to Bellagio, and the perfect beach to sit and read. Our hotel, Hotel du Lac, was about a 15-20 minute walk from the train station, and if course, my room was not ready (it was only 11 am so I knew it was a long shot, but stilll... I really wanted to clean up a bit). But we left our bags and went our ways. First stop was the Villa Capresi. We toured the gardens while we waited for noon so we could eat lunch, and I don't think I can even find words to describe how breathtakingly beautiful this place was. The wisteria was just as fragrant as you can imagine, hanging everywhere. And the views of Lake Como... we had clearly died and gone to heaven. Lunch was incredible, we sat outside with white tablecloths, had wine, barley risotto, beef stew and gnocchi.

After lunch, we wandered over to the Villa Monatsero, where more beautiful gardens awaited us. We were a bit annoyed we had to pay 10 euros to see them (about 22 USD) but there were a LOT more to these gardens then at the Villa Capresi. Next, we walked around the town of Varenna, and found a quaint little Church that was built in the 12th century, Chiesa di S. Giorgio. It steeple can be seen in many of the photographs of Varenna, towering over the rest of the town. It was time for some gelato - had I mentioned its been a bit on the hot side here? Carl went with (what else) chocolate, while I opted for Sour Cherry. Like so many towns built around a lake, Varenna is a very steep town, with lots of long staircases that look as if the stones will crumble underneath your feet if you step on them. We walked back down one of the stairs towards our hotel, and our room was ready. Its often hard for me to get excited about European rooms - they are always smaller than I want them to be, but this one wasn't too horrid, and it came with our own balcony overlooking the lake. And our bed was actually two twins pushed together, a plus, since most European rooms are a max double or queen size. After I freshened up and Carl napped for an hour, we took the boat over to Bellagio. It was ... eh. Its a tourist town, a big tourist town, just one junk shop after another, mixed in with a restaurant here and a hotel there. We weren't impressed, so we only stayed for about an hour before we hopped back to sleepy little Varenna, which is much more our speed. Our hotel had a lovely little bar, so we sat outside and decided that since I was in Italy, I needed a Bellini. They call cocktails "Long Drinks" in Italy, so I was expecting a long, tall glass, especially since that's how they come at the Macaroni Grill. Hotel du Lac's Bellini came in a martini glass. Go figure. Still, it was delicious, and I was sitting in a wisteria covered bar overlooking Lake Como, so I made do. We did more walking, and soon realized that no place serves dinner before seven pm. We did find a wine bar that was open, so what else could we do but go inside for a glass of the house red. This was a wine bar frequented by the locals, it reminded me of an Italian "Cheers." People would walk in, and they would say, in unison, "Ciao, Claudio!" Wine is truly the drink of choice here - some of the people stopping by were in their paint-splattered overalls. Any country that favors wine over beer is a-ok in Annalynn's book.

We had had two recommendations for the Lido Restauant for dinner (including from our beloved Claudio), so even though it was the restaurant furthest away from our hotel, we tried it out. We both opted for pasta, Carl's was the tastiest, a Pasta sauce with paprika and peppers mixed in. We shared a liter of wine (yes, we are apparently drinking our way thorugh this trip) and a tirimisu for dessert. And then they bring us two shotglasses of limoncello as an appertif with the bill. Again, I love Italy. I'd fogotten just how much I love it. We stumbled back to our hotel, and congratulated ourselves on surving our first day of jet lag until 9:30 p.m.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Mid-week Fun

Yesterday I was shopping over lunch at, where else, Target, when I came across these shoes. I've been looking for some new walking/hiking shoes to take to Switzerland. So imagine the beating of my heart when I found these, for only $39.99, and with a Swiss flag on them! They are made by the Swiss Army Knife folks. Could they be any more perfect for my trip? I used them this morning on the treadmill, and my feet still felt pretty good. I'll give them a good trial run at Saturday's 5K Walk Like MADD, and assuming all is well, into my suitcase they are headed.

My fear that the roses were waiting for me to leave on my trip was all for naught. Look what I found outside this morning!

And here is Ryan on his way to school, in his bathing suit, flip flops, and yes, that is a long sleeved Halloween t-shirt. On school picture day, no less. He has his spare, nice set of clothes in his backpack, theoretically ready for pictures to be taken. However, when I picked him up, he came home dressed exactly the same. I'm not sure what to expect. His afternoon teacher didn't know what he had worn for pictures, so we just get to wait and see. Should be fun.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Danger Daddy is so proud of Safety Mommy for starting the blog.. she's so with technology... the thing is though, she STILL cannot join Team Danger.

"The Enemy Known as the Mosquito."

I'm trying not to freak out too much about the giant cloud of volcanic ash hovering all over Europe and closing down the Milan airport, into which Carl and I are scheduled to be flying next week. Which is near impossible. But in line with my futile attempt to forget I may be loosing hundreds, if not thousands of dollars in too-late-to cancel fees, not to mention a much needed vacation, I shall relate my favorite Alex and Ryan stories of the day.

Favorite Ryan story of the day: Ryan was singing "I've Been Working on the Railroad." As all good Texans know, this song is sung to the same tune as the Texas fight song, "The Eyes of Texas are upon you..." Ryan was getting them mixed up, not to mention confusing "railroad" with "rainbow," so it came out as "I've been working on the rainbow, all the Long Horns Day..."

I think its quite catchy, really. He might have a hit tune on his hands. He can go on American Idol in twelve years and make me a millionaire (that's right, me, since he'll be a minor and his money will be mine). Gen. Larry Platt and his "Pants on the Ground" will no longer be the most famous original Idol ditty around.

And my favorite Alex story of the day: a mosquito was flying around the kitchen table tonight while we tried to eat dinner. I was seriously displeased to 1) see a mosquito in my house and 2) see a mosquito at all. I remarked that it was the first mosquito of the season. I was then corrected by my eldest. "This was not the first time this season we have seen the enemy known as the mosquito. I saw one the other day."

I was awestruck. Such a complex sentence, such beautifully strong words put together, all from my six year old. And I fell totally, irrevocably in love with the phrasing of "the enemy known as the mosquito." Now that's a best-selling book title just waiting to happen. I won't even have to wait twelve years for Alex to write his best-seller. He is already a genius with words. He can write it now, and then I will be a multi-millionaire even faster (again, he's a minor and I'm keeping all the money for myself).

And then I won't have to worry about volcanic ash-holes possibly destroying my first trip to Europe in eight years. Because I can afford to lose non-refundable deposits on boutique hotels. Yeah, that's the ticket.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Tanks, Grenade Launchers, Rifles, and More: Team Danger is in Seventh Heaven!

This weekends was the annual "American Heroes" celebration and airshow at Camp Mabry here in Austin. Happily, Team Danger was able to attend, and even more happily, Safety Captain Mommy did NOT attend. :)

But it would be remiss to not include the Boys' joy at being able to touch actual weapons.

Here is Ryan channeling his inner Grenade Launcher. Amusingly, he has no idea what it even does.

And look at actual tanks.

Here are the boys with Papa in front of the type of tank Papa used to help build back in Connecticut.

They also got to watch a World War II re-enactment. Now, that, I actually would have liked to have seen, History major with a thesis on women in the French Resistance during WWII geek that I am.

Alex's favorite part of the afternoon? He got to go 'hunting' for spent artillery shells from the WWII re-enactment. We are now the proud owners of six empty shells, which he is playing with like they were Legos. Oh joy.

*apologies for the quality for some of the pictures. Danger Daddy had the camera on the incorrect setting for a bit. ;)

Garden Updates, April 2010

Spring is definitely here, so I snapped a few photos of the garden thus far. Its still coming along.

Here is the Mexican Buckeye, which my uncle, Glenn, planted for me back in 2005, right after we put the pool in.

It has some lovely pink flowers when the leaves first start blooming each spring, and this year I managed to get out with the camera while they were there.

My rose garden is in the front of the house. I've been watching them start to bud, and I;ve been fearful that with the close to 100 buds that are there, they wouldn't open until I was off on my trip. But happily, one opened up today.

And it looks like at least one other isn't too far behind.

Our herb garden in the back, in the nice planter Carl built:

And a close-up on my beloved Lavender, which is blooming so prettily right now.

And underneath the Texas Red Oak we planted two years ago, I added several flowers last summer which I am happy to report are coming back without any damage from the frost.

Saturday, April 17, 2010


Mom came to visit for her birthday, and we took advantage of the beautiful day we had last weekend to go for a drive out in the Hill Country to spot wildflowers.

Despite the protests from my THREE boys, we all had a great time. The hardest part of the drive was heading out of Austin along Highway 1431, towards Marble Falls. Both Ryan and Carl had fallen asleep, so Mom, Alex and I played "I Spy" for WAY too long. Eventually even Alex was bored with this game, and the drive, and began to moan, quite loudly, "When are we there? This is boring! How much longer until we're home?!" His moaning woke Carl up, and then the two of them were moaning together. I reminded Carl he was the grown-up, and we started to play spot-the- best-patch-of-bluebonnets so we can take a picture.

Carl quickly won - a ploy, perhaps, to get us to stop the car. Ryan woke up, but wasn't really in the mood for pictures.

We stopped several times for pictures, and Alex soon decided that he liked bluebonnet drives. I had to drag him back to the car several times. He even picked some flowers, but not the bluebonnets, as I had warned him by spreading the urban legend that it was illegal to pick them.

It wasn't that much further to Marble Falls, and we realized we were near Sweet Berry Farms, so it seemed like a crime NOT to stop and pick some new strawberries. They were sweet and messy, and we also bought some delicious Berry Berry Ice Cream.

We went around Lake Buchanan, and then to Inks Lake, before stopping in Burnet for some dinner and then completing the circle back home.

At the end of the day, Alex is getting ready for bed and tells me, in total honesty and sincerity, "I didn't think I was going to like taking bluebonnet pictures. But it was a lot of fun! I really liked it. Let's go do it again."

That's a deal, Alex.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Do Boys

Now that Ryan is four, we are officially a two children-in-sports family. He started TaeKwonDo, following in the footsteps of big brother and Daddy, and he now plays soccer. His team is the Roly-Polys, and Alex plays for the Barcelona Dragons.

Last weekend was the first time Ryan was able to test for a new belt. He was pretty psyched getting all dressed up for his 8:00 a.m. (!) testing in his crisp white uniform, with all his new patches freshly sewn on. He did a great job, and, unbiased, proud mom that I am, must note that he was the only one to raise his hand when he said his tenants, "I promise, to use, tae-kwon-do, in class, and to escape from strangers... I will not, use taekwondo, to cause trouble. Yes, MA'AM!" Admittedly, he rose his left hand to swear, but hey, it was a hand. And he said "yes Ma'am" to a male instructor, but he still passed.

Ryan and his friend Matthew. Ryan quickly noted that Matthew was already a yellow belt.

A few hours later, it was Alex and Carl's turn to test. They were both at the same time, so I could really only watch Alex. And he did not disappoint! He did an awesome job on his red belt form. I especially love his flying jump kick - he was several feet off the ground! (tip: single-click on the photos to enlarge so you can really see his fancy footwork)

He did some great kicks during sparring, too.

And here are all three Team Danger boys tonight with their new belts. Daddy's new L1 red belt hadn't come in yet (kinda sad), but Ryan has his new Tiger Cub Yellow Belt, and Alex has his L2 Red Belt.Alex still outranks Daddy, and he's been very considerate, offering to teach Daddy his new red belt form.


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