Sunday, May 9, 2010

Final Trip Blog: Wine, Beer, and Everything (but Mountains) in Between

Sitting on board the Golden Pass train between Interlaken and Lucerne, and I thought this was a nice time to blog. We're going past beautiful green meadows sprinkled with yellow wildflowers, and the cows are grazing on these flowers. Lots of cows. I've seen so many cows in the past week, that I've stopped taking pictures of them. Shocking, I know.

The train started off along Lake Brienz (one of the two lakes that Interlaken is "inter") and it was beautiful - waters more pale green than blue, with little towns periodically appearing, and the occasional large building - a castle, a chateau, who knows? I rather like the mystery of these buildings - not everything has to be labeled in a guidebook.

Ok, I lied. I did find a cow picture from this train ride. :)

So our time in Lauterbrunnen was not what I expected. We enjoyed ourselves, but the weather definitely hindered our planned activities. We had three nights here, and I felt certain that with the possibility of four days surrounding those three nights, certainly we would have at least one good weather day and be able to ascend to the Jungfraujoch, the tallest point in Europe, or at the very least, to the Schlitthorn, the tall mountain on the other side of the Lauterbrunnen Valley, and famous for being the site where James Bond had a big fight at the Piz Gloria in "Her Majesty's Secret Service." But no. We couldn't even see anything from Wengen.

Monday, May 3
Our last morning in Vevey, and we check out of the hotel (good riddance), check our bags in the lockers at the train station, and board the "Train des Vignes" (Wine Train) up to Chexbres. It crawls along through vineyard after vineyard, all of which are part of the UNESCO World Heritage Lavaux Vineyards. It takes about twenty minutes, and we then start our walk back down to Vevey. There are dozens of wine caves along the way, all individual sellers. Some have signs outside their vineyards that they have been purveyors of wine since 1600 and something.

We spent about 1.5 hours walking down, until we reached the town of Rivaz. Its adorable. If I ever come back here, I think I might prefer to stay here than in Vevey. Its much sleepier, and I don't think I'd be kept up late until the wee morning hours here.  Several Fodorites had recommended stopping for lunch at the Auberge de Rivaz during the wine hike, and I was so very glad. We sat outdoors, on a terrace overlooking more vineyards and Lake Geneva, and had a delicious lunch and bottle of wine.

We took the train the rest of the way back to Vevey, and then boarded our train to Lauterbrunnen. I say 'train' - we actually had to transfer three times, and they were fairly short connection times. Racing up and down stairs in train stations, moving from platform to platform, with an increasingly heavy suitcase made the connection times even more impossible. Still, we did it.

We arrived in Lauterbrunnen late afternoon. Its a little town in a valley, which is between two large, famous mountain ranges. On one side is the Jungfraujoch (the highest in Europe) and the Eiger, and on the other side is the Schlitthorn. Lauterbrunnen is also famous for being the valley of seventy-six waterfalls. We had three nights booked in a one-bedroom apartment at the Chalet Horner, another Fodorite recommendation.

What a deal! It was only 110 Swiss francs a night, and was about five times the size of where we stayed in Vevey. We had our own kitchen and a beautiful balcony looking out towards the Staubbach Falls and six other waterfalls that we counted (and the Schlitthorn, if we could have seen it). From our bedroom, you could see more waterfalls facing the Jungfraujoch side of the mountains. Lauterbrunnen is a small town, with a mini-Co-op (grocery store), one baker, one butcher, some souvenir shops, an internet cafe, a bank, a bike/ski rental store, and a laundromat. And numerous hotels/chalets/campgrounds. We loved the town, and since we were on our own for breakfast, bought some eggs, cheese, bread, wine, and coke/diet coke. After walking around the town for a bit, we headed back to our chalet, and opened some wine to enjoy the view.

We went to eat dinner that night at the Hotel Oberland, just across the street from our chalet. The food was wonderful, and we were the only ones eating outside, which was even more special. It was a bit chilly, but they had something like bear skins over the chairs, and the wine warms you up quite well. I ordered fondue for dinner, and they brought a huge plate of different spices, garlic, and onions, so that I could 'make my own' fondue. I added lots of garlic, chives, a few onions, and some pepper. Carl ordered German Sausage and rosti for his dinner.

Tuesday, May 4
Having checked the weather the night before, we realized we would be implementing a  Bad Weather planned day. So we slept late, and set out to see some waterfalls. Lauterbrunnen is home to the Staubbach Falls, the main waterfall seen in countless photographs of the valley. It is also home to the Trummelbach Falls, about a one hour hike from the town. It was a gorgeous walk, with lots of cows and barns, and while it was foggy and overcast, it was happily free of rain.

The Trammelbach Falls are a series of waterfalls actually inside a mountain that are accessible. Its pretty darn slippery, though, and up quite a few stairs that don't really have handrails. Plus there is one sign they felt was important enough to put in in five languages - warning you that glacier water is below freezing and will lead to death, and that they bear no responsibility for any accidents or injuries. Adding to my comfort level inside these falls was the man adding caution tape to the next set of stairs we were about to climb, and sealing it off to visitors. My mind was on overload - had someone already been hurt (or worse?) today? Is there a moisture level on these steps that was reached? How does he make such a determination? Is danger du mort awaiting me as I walk back down these steps? So, I can't really say that I enjoyed these falls. It was stunning when you were there. But I was a bit too freaked to really enjoy it.

Before we had left in the morning, we looked at the mountains cams on the computer.  There are live cams at all these points in the Berner Oberland, and I was checking them regularly. At one point, it looked as if we could actually see something beyond fog at the Schlitthorn. Not as much as I would have liked, but enough to justify the expense, time, and panic attacks at riding the cable cars. So we rode the bus from the Falls, over to the other end of the Lauterbrunnen Valley to buy our lift passes  for the Schlitthorn (these lifts aren't covered by our rail passes). The weather had changed again, though, so the ticket seller cautioned us  against going up. He suggested we ride the cable car to Murren (which is covered by our passes) and then decide from there if we wanted to continue. We got up to Murren, and it was so foggy that we could barely even see each other, let alone any buildings. Seeing a vista to the valley floor or to the Jungfraujoch across the way was completely out of the question. And since the lift tickets are pricey (about $100 each) we passed.

When I had been trying to decide where to stay in the Berner Oberland, many people said Murren or Wengen was the way to go. I was a bit concerned that these towns were mostly shut down during April and May. Yes, each seemed to have one or two restaurants and hotels, but otherwise, nothing. Some of the Fodorites said we should still go with Murren or Wengen, because its not as if the views shut down. But I didn't want to not be able to buy water if I needed some. So I went with Lauterbrunnen. When we got up to Murren, and couldn't see a friggin thing, I've never been more happy in my life that we had chosen Lauterbrunnen.

As disturbing to my plans as the weather has been while we're here, I would have been massively depressed to have gotten up to Murren, solely for the views, and then not have been able to see a thing. We took the cog-wheel train back down to Lauterbrunnen.

Next, we took the train up to Wengen, on the other side of the valley. It wasn't completely immersed in the clouds - I could at least see more than three buildings at a time - but still, there was no view. You can start catching the lifts to the Jungfraujoch from here, so I chatted a bit with the train-master here. Again, the cams are annoyingly quite accurate, and you can't see anything. Current weather forecast is that on Sunday (its Tuesday) it will start to clear. Most annoying. We hiked back down to Lauterbrunnen from Wengen. One thing about the Swiss - they like to hike. So they have excellently marked trails and paths everywhere, and there are often benches along the way. Its about a one hour hike down - but it is steep. Very steep. Two days later, my calves are still complaining about the steepness. By the time we got back to Lauterbrunnen, we were pretty tired. We went back to our chalet, and started on some wine. We finished the bottle from yesterday, and before you knew it, we had finished the other bottle. We're not sure which one of us opened the third bottle - events from this time on have become a bit hazy. At some point, we went back to the Hotel Oberland for dinner. We had enjoyed it so much the night before, and its close proximity to our current location was a bonus. I had a chicken for dinner, and then we shared a chocolate fondue for dessert - our first chocolate fondue of the trip.

Wednesday, May 5
Woke up AGAIN to bad weather. Today, in addition to the fog, there is an unpleasant rain. Checked the cams, and its not any better up at the top of the mountains. Went back to sleep in hopes it would miraculously improve. Um, no, it didn't.  I was running out of Bad Weather Day options, so we left the Berner Oberland, and went to Thun. What a delight Thun is! It is located on Lake Thun (the other lake that Interlaken is between), and neither my Rick Steves or my Fodors guidebook had anything to say about it, other than it has a nice castle. But some of my Fodorite buddies had recommended it, and we were so glad. (the fact that it didn't rain while we were in Thun was a nice bonus)

Its a charming town, with two rivers intersecting it, and a castle perched at the top.

Its annoying thing, these castles always being at the top of a mountain. Clearly back in the 12th century they weren't thinking about making it easy for twenty-first century tourists to visit. But we also found a market (!) and bought some cheese, pears and apples, and we had a picnic up on the castle's grounds.

We also found lots of shops, so we bought lots of goodies for ourselves and family members. There were lovely buildings everywhere, with lots of flags hanging from them. I think the Swiss might be even more into their flags than us Texans, and that's saying something!

I was fascinated by these 'double-decker' streets. You would have to walk up and down each street four times to make sure you didn't miss anything. We also found a delicious pretzel vendor, who was selling more varieties of pretzels than imaginable.

From Thun, its a twenty minute train ride to Bern. Bern is the capital of Switzerland, and I had read it is a perfect rainy day city because they have numerous covered walkways. We walked down the main street, saw the church, and the famous Bern clock tower. We visited some more shops, saw Albert Einstein's house (where he developed the Theory of Relativity) and made our way down to the Bears. Bern keeps two bears in a bear pit alongside its river. Kind of odd.

The bears are the symbol for Bern, so you see bears everywhere in this city. We had some wine in a bear cafe, for instance. They have some amazing fountains every so often, and again, even more flags flying from the buildings. They aren't all Swiss flags - the different cantons of Switzerland are represented. I had wanted to see the Paul Klee museum, but unfortunately, its on the outskirts of town and closed early this day.

We took the train back to Interlaken (where we would have to change for Lauterbrunnen)  and decided to try for dinner in a restaurant recommended as having the best potato soup in the world. Alas, there was no potato soup today, but Carl did get some Bread Soup that was positively sinful with its cream. I had chicken schnitzel, and Carl ordered cheese fondue with beer and bacon. Not the best fondue combination we've had, so he helped me with my dinner. Interlaken has two train stations, and the restaurant was in the middle. So we had a nice walking tour of Interlaken. It doesn't get dark here until about 9pm, so there was still plenty of light to see everything. Its a huge place, much larger than Lauterbrunnen, but there are definitely some lovely parts of Interlaken. It was a twenty minute train ride back, and then we were in our chalet, planning our next day.

This wasn't the trip I had envisioned the past three days, but we've had a great time. And not being able to see the Jungfraujoch and the Schlitthorn simply means we'll have to come back some day. So I can't cross this one off my Bucket List just yet. ;)

Thursday, May 6
Woke up early on my last day in Lauterbrunnen and there are more mountains visible to me.

Run to the computer, and you can actually see a mountain vista from the Schlitthorn. Do we try and go up, and risk the weather changing on us again?

After much deliberation ... no. We've already made our plans for the day, and already decided we simply must come back in the future some time, so we are just not going to settle for a less than perfect visit to the top. We take the train to Interlaken, and then board the Golden Pass train, which will take us to Lucerne.

Lucerne had been a two night city stop on my original itinerary. It was the last cut I made, so that I could give more time to other places, and partly because the hotel prices were by far the most astronomical ones I was finding. [seriously, like USD $500 / night for a really grungy looking place, about $750 for a two star hotel] So I was happy that I was getting about 1/2 a day to see some of the sights, and the weather wasn't too bad. It only started raining towards the end of the afternoon. We had quite a bit of bread left over from the past few days, so Carl fed it to the swans on the lake. I think pretty much every swan on Lake Lucerne got the memo he was there - at one point I counted over twenty-five swans with him!

We saw the famous "Lion" of Lucerne - a statute of a sleeping lion. Unlike the Bears of Berne, which were real, live bears, this is simply a marble statue.

Lucerne is also famous for its covered bridge. I was saddened to hear that the original bridge caught on fire in 1993 - so much of what we see today is rebuilt.

After Lucerne, we continued on our way to Zurich (another 45 minutes). We checked into our hotel at about 4:30 p.m., and then went for a quick tour of the town, basically down its main street, the Bahnhofstrasse. My main goal was to see the Fraumunster church, and I knew they closed at 6pm. The Fruamunster is not the biggest church in Zurich, but its definitely the coolest -- its stained glass windows were created by Marc Chagall. They don't allow photos inside, which I have to respect, so here is a web link to them:


We then went to our most touristy dinner of the trip, at the Zeughauskeller, a relatively new restaurant that has been in business since 1487. I even ordered myself a "masskrug"  of the local beer. The food was decent enough - but the atmosphere is really why you go here.

We called it a night fairly early - we packed our suitcases for the final trip home and were asleep by 10pm. Our flight home on Friday was scheduled to leave at 10:20 a.m. Alas, it did not leave on time - it was 3.5 hours late, causing us to miss our first connecting flight back to Austin.

From Zurich, they went ahead and re-booked us on a new connecting flight. Which we then missed.

So upon landing at JFK, we were then re-booked again on a new connecting flight, out of LaGuardia, and told to take a taxi to the other airport. Which we did, and which flight also was delayed by 1.5 hours.

Which would cause us to miss the final connecting flight to Austin of the night, so did we want to sleep in Chicago or New York? We opted for New York, hopped back in a taxi (except without luggage), this time to Grandma Rita's house. Went to dinner with Grandma and to Walgreens to buy toothpaste, deodorant, allergy pills, and cheap clean underwear. Tried to drive home in Grandma's rarely driven 1993 Buick, and it decided this was the perfect time to die. Forever. Waited 1.5 hours for a tow truck, finally went to sleep at 6:00 a.m. Zurich time. Flew home Saturday afternoon, and finally, FINALLY saw two very happy little boys at 7:20 p.m.

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