Sunday, June 8, 2014

Wrapping up

Saturday we had a flight out around 2PM, which meant we had plenty of time to pack, and check out of our hotel in the morning. We stayed the night at the Hotel St Gotthard, which is very close to the train station and is very nice. I thought it was quite luxurious at the price, at least compared to Swiss prices overall.  I would recommend it if one is staying in Zurich.

Our flight from Zurich left about 30 minutes late, but still managed to get us to Reykjavik with plenty of time to make our connection to Boston. That flight was on time, and we made it home in one piece.  I think we might fly Icelandair again some time. It was really a very pleasant flight, and the scheduling worked well for us. I think it did aid us both in recovering from jetlag and made for a more comfortable trip.

Finally, a few bests and worsts from our trip...

Best Hotel: the hotel Baeren in Wengen. Confirming once again, that we prefer smaller, low key, more casual places to the spiffier city hotels.  We loved the view, ands the hotel had character. We were more comfortable there than anywhere else.

Best dish: the cheese fondue we had in Gruyere.  All 3 fondue's we had were wonderful, but this the heart of cheese country....juat seemed the best.

Best meal overall: this was really a tough choice. We had wonderful fondue in Zurich, we had a terrific French dinner at Brasserie Bodu in Luzern, we enjoyed the first dinner at the 45 in Montreux, and all the meals served at the Hotel Baeren. But we decided our favorite was the very first night in Luzern at the Hotel Stern Restaurant. That's the one from my early post where the appetizers were served in shotglasses. That meal was a lot of fun, very Swiss but with contemporary flair, and just felt more original than any of the others.  In general, Switzerland is not a great foody place, and meals were very expensive. But we still ate well as always.

Best view: Have to go with the Jungfraujoch, although the Matterhorn was pretty awesome.

Best discovery: Swiss particular the Carnelin, the red that we had several different bottles of. Its very nice, kind of reminds me of a pinot noir...maybe a little more fruit and less of the herbal notes...say its more like an Oregon pino than a french one.   We'll have to look for it here.

Worst discovery: that the Swiss can't make coffee. Ugh. Everybody uses machines that spew out weak espresso. Ordering Cafe Americano usually got you weak espresso mixed with water to make it weaker.  Caffe Latte was hot milk with almost no cafe.  Capuccino was indistinguishable from the latte.  The best coffee we had was unfortunately, from Starbucks. And I don't particularly like Starbucks.

I hope I haven't bored you all with this. Fewer food pictures than my past blogs I think :) I will be adding a few more pics to some of the postings as I go through them and edit. I have over 2000 photos, so it will take a while to sort through everything. I'll be enjoying dwelling on the memories for a few more months as I do so.

Last day...Zurich

So we left Brienz on Friday morning to take the train to Zurich where we would spend our last night before heading home. The first leg of the journey takes us to Luzern on one piece of the "golden Pass" line (which if you've been reading, we already rode part of on our way from Zweissimen to Montreux. The missing piece, between Zweissimen and Interlaken we mostly covered on our trip that took us from Montreux to Zermatt to Interlaken.)

This section has lovely rolling hills, lakes and farmland. The tallest mountains retreat behind us as we roll.

A quick view from our train window
Zurich is kind of an underated city.  Yes, its a modern city best known for banking, But it has a lovely historic district, a few nice museums, and a couple of fabulous churches. We arrived, checked into our hotel and had lunch. But we didn't have a lot of time. We strolled through the old town, and window shopped.

A view of the old city:
The doors on the Grossmunster

The Fraumunster:

This last church was one I specifically wanted to visit.  Because those tall stained glass windows that you can see in this picture (well, you can see the trip of windows on the main body of the church, but can't really see the detail) were designed and built by Marc Chagall when he was nearly 80 years old in 1970. They are absolutely stunning. Unfortunately no photos are allowed inside. But you can get a good look at them here.  Definitely worth seeing if you are ever in Zurich.

Hotel Brienzenburli

We liked this hotel in Brienz. It was small, and while plain, it was also charming. We actually had quite a large room on the top floor with a great view.  I guess it was there honeymoon suite, because when we arrived the bed was made up with the comforters twisted into a heart, with lots of cute bears and heart shaped pillows. Okay, actually that part was a little sickening, but they meant well :). In any case, the bed was comfy, and the bathroom was a decent size.

They are a 5 minute walk from the Brienz West train stop, and about 10-15 minutes from the main station and boat docks. They do provide a shuttle to pick up or drop you off with bags at the train station. Normally this shuttle is a van. But I forgot to mention it in advance (one should always ask about these things the night before) and the van was apparently full of tables for an event they were setting up.

So the hotel owner showed up to take us to the station in this :) :)

A spectacular morning in Brienz

After all the misty, drizzly days we've had, it was a pleasure to get a beautiful sunny day.

This is the lake, looking west towards Interlaken.

Ballenberg Village Museum

The main reason I had for staying in Brienz was to go to the Ballenberg Village Museum, just 20 minutes by bus from the town. It'sa cool place with many old buildings from various parts of Switzerland. I love museums like this which attempt to show how people lived. This one is particularly focused on farming, as there are many farm buildings, stables, granaries and supporting trade shops here. Its also quite picturesquely situated on a steep hillside.  The various clusters of builindgs are organized by the region of Switzerland that they came from.  Its interesting to see the idfferences from building from the warmer southern valleys of Switzerland, and the cold mountain regions. Mostly the differences are kind of subtle, such as the use of different roofing material...the area of Ticino near Italy used terracotta tiles, in the Bernese alps the roofs are often made of slate and other stone.

A few pictures:
This first one is a Bernese industrialists villa, so its fairly upper class. Inside there were displays of traditional Swiss costumes and musical instruments.

Here's one of the costume exhibits
These are 18th century Bernese buildings, a farmhouse and barn:

This next one is a Vintners house from the Eastern Midlands, ca 18th century. The picture following it is the wine press this vintner might have used. That beam on the press is huge.

Across Lake Thun

It was raining pretty hard during this boat ride, so not a lot of photos. We kept warm and dry in the ships dining area, and had some lunch.  The waiters English was not very good, and he kept apologizing because they weren't serving their full lunch menu, only snacks. But that was good enough for us...the Swiss idea of snacks is superior to the Americans. In the US, that would mean we could get chips and packaged cookies probably. Here it meant a nice cheese and charcuterie plate, fresh bread and a bottle of wine.  And we watched the hazy scenery pass by.

This is the approach to Interlaken. Isn't the color of the water amazing?

After we get to Interlaken west, we have to take a short train ride to Interlaken east. There we collect our bags, and make our way to our next hotel, the Hotel Brienzenburli in the town of Brienz.  We have a great view of the lake from our balcony room on the 3rd floor.

Here's the view

Lake Thun and Oberhofen Castle

Thursday is another moving day. We have to check out of our hotel this morning, and we get the hotel electric cart to ferry our luggage (and me) up to the train station. The station isn't far, but its steeply uphill, and we aren't going to be able to drag our bags up there.

We jump on the train down to Lauterbrunnen for the last time. Then we catch the very brief train to Interlaken Ost.  On arrival in Interlaken, we find the luggage lockers and stash our bags for the day. We wait about 20 minutes and then catch a train to the small town of Thun on the lake of the same name.  Here, we cross the street from train station to boat station and get on a boat headed towards Oberhofen.

This is a particularly nice, and very large boat. Its got three levels, the upper 2 are both for first class ticket holders. We go up to the middle level, so Todd can settle down under cover and order coffee. I head out to the deck in the bow with my camera at the ready. I understand the approach to Schloss Oberhofen by water is quite photogenic. This is the view from the ship while leaving Thun.

And a view of Schloss Schadau which we pass along the way. I'm told this is a gourmet restaurant...if I'd known we might have gone, its so lovely:
Its a fairly short sail to Oberhofen...only about 20 minutes. It's overcast and a little drizzly. But the castle is still very impressive
And a view from the land side:

 Inside the castle has some furnishings and decor, its intended to give an idea of the various different generations that lived there from the 16th to the 19th century.  The keep you see in the center was probably built in the 13th century, then it belonged to the Hapsburgs in the 14th. After that it was a Bernese Bailiwick run by several different bailiffs for several hundred years. Ultimately, it was bought by an American lawyer in the 1940s and opened as a museum in the 50s. Its got some interesting displays inside of furnished rooms, and an armory.  Here's a sample room.

After a couple hours wandering around, we are ready to move on. We hop on the 2PM boat, and take the somewhat longer sail all the way back to Interlaken West across the lake.

Hanging out in Wengen

After all the train riding and sightseeing of the last few days, we decided we needed a down day. The weather isn't so great today anyways, and we're both feeling a bit tired. So we decided to just hang out in Wengen. It's really not necessary to go anywhere to find beautiful views. We hang out on our balcony for a bit. Then we took a nice walk on the small road that rings the town. It's peaceful, and the views across the valley, and of the snowcapped peaks are incredible.

We had lunch in town at a pizzeria called Da Sina. Why can't we get pizza like this at home? I love the hand tossed, very thin crust, crispy pizza that we've found in Italy and here in Switzerland. It's delicious.

It's a quiet day, topped off with dinner in our hotel restaurant and a lovely bottle of Swiss wine. The Swiss do make some very fine wines, a white grape called chasselas and a red called cornalin. We have had excellent bottles of both. Sadly, they don't export much of it.

I think this is the only day of the trip when we don't ride any kind of mass transit.

Some pictures from around Wengen:

This is a viewpoint just down hill from our hotel:

Looking back at Wengen:

A view across the valley towards Murren:

A small cascade on the road outside of town

Trummelbach Falls

Instead of walking back across Murren on our way down, we jumped from cable car to another cable car, heading straight down into the valley below, into the town of Stechelburg. This was one of the most interesting cable car rides because it runs right along the cliff face with several waterfalls visible. Also, this is a popular jumping off spot for base jumpers, so we could see several parachuters sailing around over our heads.

Looking at the valley from the cable car:

A base jumper sailing around the mountains:

Looking down the cliff into the Lauterbrunnen Valley from the final cable car:

At the bottom there is a Post Bus waiting, so we get on and ride just a little ways down the valley to Trummelbach Falls.
Walking from the gate to the entrance to the Falls is a riot of wildflowers:

Trummelbach falls is an amazing sight. It's a series of cascading waterfalls inside the cliff. We take an elevator most of the way to the top then climb up some steps inside tunnels that were cut inside the cliff. At various spots along the way there are overlooks where we can see the water running out of the rock, spilling down into chasms. It's amazing.

It's also very damp, and involves climbing a fair number of steps. When we finished, we stopped at the cafe for a coffee. It was our intention to walk back along the valley to Lauterbrunnen, but the steps were tough, and it's now raining, so we hope on the post bus, and then the train to make our way back to Wengen for the evening.

Here are a few shots of the falls. It's dark inside, and hard to get a good photo angle, but I hope this will convey the flavor of what we are seeing.

The Schilthorn was a bit of a dud, but Trummelbach saved the day.

Bond, James Bond

What does James Bond have to do with Switzerland? Hang on a sec and I'll tell you.

So, Monday morning the skies seemed pretty clear, although there were some ominous clouds in the distance. We thought we'd try for our fourth mountain top in four days. So we set off to make the trek to the top of the Schilthorn.

It's a fairly long and somewhat complicated trip. First we take the cog rail from Wengen down into the valley to Lauterbrunnen. Then we walk across the street to get on the cable car up to Grutshalp. From there we get another train which takes us to the tiny town of Murren. We have to walk across town, which is very pleasant, as this town, like Wengen, has no cars so it's incredibly quiet. At the other side of Murren is another cable car which will take is to Schilthorn in two stages.

Here's the cable car at the station in Murren.

Looking out from the cable car:

When we get on the cable car, they start playing the 007 them music. Why? Well, at the top of this mountain is the revolving restaurant, Piz Gloria. The restaurant was in the process of being built in 1969 but was in financial difficulty. Then the James Bond production team came along and decided it was the perfect location for Blofeld's lair in the next Bond was "On Her Majesty's Secret Service", the original one with the awful George Lazenby as Bond, Diana Rigg as the future Mrs Bond and, yes, Telly Savalas as Blofeld. Worst Bond movie ever....but a most excellent location.

Unfortunately the clouds rolled in about the time we were walking across Murren. By the time we reached the peak, it was completely encased in fog, with visibility about 8 feet. We stayed and had lunch at the restaurant, it revolved, but one couldn't really tell since the view stayed uniformly white. We visited the James Bond exhibit, which was actually kind of fun, and we hoped the cloud cover would blow over, but it would not cooperate. We finally headed down the cable cars back into the now grey and overcast day.

The "viewing platform" at Piz Gloria:

Friday, June 6, 2014

Okay, so I'm several days behind here....

As so often happens, I have gotten behind. It's a combination if some technical difficulties, and very bad internet connection at our last stop. Okay, plus a dose of laziness that always happens on vacation.

I will try to write about the remaining parts of our trip, but will most likely add the pictures later. We're in Zurich now, with one day left, tomorrow we fly home. I was sad to say goodbye to those glorious mountains!

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Top of the world

I know I posted a quick picture earlier when we were actually at the top of Europe, up in the mountains. Here is a bit more.

Sunday was a gorgeous morning, and even though we had just seen the Matterhorn the previous day, we decided we had to take advantage of the weather and make the trip up the Jungfrau to the so-called "Top of Europe". It's the highest railway station in Europe at 3500 meters up. As a point for comparison, Mt Washington in New Hampshire is around 1900 meters high. Wengen, where we are staying is at 1300 meters. The top of the Gornergrat rail where we saw the Matterhorn is at 3100 meters.

So from Wengen, first we have to catch the cog rail up to Kleine Scheidigg. There we change to the Jungfraubahn which winds it's way through a number of tunnels, up and up, until it ends inside the mountain. You walk through a tunnel, then take lift up to the Sphinx observatory where you finally step out onto the mountains, with views of the Jungrau, Monch, and maybe the Eiger peeking through the clouds. There are glaciers all around. It's about 20 degrees Fahrenheit here today, which is actually pretty balmy. It's frankly amazing.

This is the view looking back at Wengen from the train

This is Kleine Scheidigg. As you can see, the clouds are pretty low up here.

Looking up, ahead of the train:

And here we are at the top.

There's also a part of the complex which winds through the glacier itself. They have dug out an "ice palace", and filled it with ice sculptures. Here' style rather cool entrance

See the small building in the center of this photo, on the ridge? that's where we were!


Arriving in Wengen

It's a long, somewhat complicated trip from Zermatt to Wengen. First, after taking the train down from Gornergrat, we then get our bags from the lockers and hop the train back to Visp. In Visp we have 10 minutes to catch a train to,Spiez, a trip of about 35 minutes. Then we have 6 minutes to catch a train to Interlaken Ost. In Interlaken we change to a train for the short hop to Lauterbrunnen. Then one more change to the cog rail for the ride uphill to wengen. Finally, we have to drag our things downhill to our hotel, the Hotel Baren. It's about 6PM by this point, and there is no one at the front desk of our small hotel. But a key is on the counter with a checkin note for me, so we grab it and head up to our room. At last, we can rest. And we've booked this hotel with half board, so we can stroll down to dinner whenever we feel like it.

This is the view from our balcony


Monday, June 2, 2014

Next up...a gorgeous view

Saturday we are due to leave Montreux, to make our way to Wengen. We awaken that morning to fog, clouds and drizzle. That can't be right...I was hoping for this to be a nice day! So I check the weather reports and look at the webcams and decide this bad weather is localized to the lake. We will go ahead with our plans. We pack up our bags, and go grab breakfast at the bakery next door. Then we head to the station, check our bags on to Wengen, and board a train for Visp. It's only a few minutes out of Montreux when the sky begins to clear, and it's sunny and beautiful. Excellent!

We arrive in Visp a little after 10AM. Instead of heading directly to Wengen, we turn south, and board the train headed for Zermatt. It's maybe 11:30 when we roll into Zermatt and get our first glimpse of the mighty Matterhorn above the town. We stroll across the street and buy tickets on the Gornergrat cog rail, and then begins the amazing climb into the mountains. The sky is now crystal blue with a few puffy clouds. Some of them cluster around the peak itself. Finally, we arrive in Gornergrat, where we are greeted by this sight

Amazing, isn't it? I wasn't sure the timing would work. And the trip from Zermatt to our accommodations in Wengen is a pain. But this side trip was utterly worth it. I heard a lady at the gift shop saying this was the nicest weather they had for a week.

I did have a minor bout of altitude sickness at the top, which is 3100 meters up. I just felt a little dizzy and had a headache. Not too bad, but I had to remember to move slow and take it easy.

About hotel and restaurants in Montreux

This is a food and hotel review post...please feel free to skip if these things don't interest you.

We stayed at the Grand Hotel Suisse Majestic. The location, across the street from the train station, and a very short walk from the lake and docks made it very appealing. It was hugely convenient for sightseeing. And we loved the room. Decently sized, very comfy bed, balcony with spectacular lake view, very good shower.

There weren't a lot of restaurants close by though. And the ones that were, also were in hotels and hence fairly pricy. In fact, this seems a recurring issue in Switzerland. There are expensive restaurants, mostly in hotels, many very good but feel overpriced. And there are less expensive, casual cafés where you can get pizza or sandwiches. But there really seems to be a missing category of moderately priced, independent places. It makes it very difficult to find places to eat.

We ate in our hotel's restaurant twice, the first time enjoying it very much, the second time not as much. They were busier on Friday night, and service reflected that. The staff is formal, a little stuffy really. The second meal we both order steaks. Todd had the sirloin which was quite good, I ordered the smaller "Paris Bistro" steak which I thought would be entrecôte, or a hanger steak. But was like the tail of a ribeye...incredibly fatty and gristly. Also undercooked. It was nearly inedible, but no waiter came for me to send it back. By the time they came to ask if it was okay, I didn't want to have it cooked more, so I simply expressed my surprise at the fatty cut. The waiter was incredibly patronizing when he told that was the Parisienne style. I thought he must have eaten in very different Paris bistros than me, since I'd never been served such a thing. But I kept my opinion to myself.

We had a more comfortable Italian meal at a restaurAnt near the lake called La Rouvenaz. We both ate pasta, which we shouldn't....but my risotto with mushrooms and tallegio was such a treat, I didn't worry about it.

Sunday, June 1, 2014

Last evening on Lake Geneva

After we returned from Rocher de Nays, and after the rain stopped, we had a couple of hours before dinner. We didn't feel like doing much walking. So we decided to spend a little more time on the lake. We checked the schedule and discovered there was a boat leaving around 4:30 that does a loop of the eastern end of the lake, taking about 90 minutes. So we wandered down to the docks, and hopped on the boat.

Here's our boat approaching...

And a couple shots of the lake scenery in the late afternoon sunshine