Sunday, July 13, 2008

European Adventures (and Misadventures) Part 2

If you have jumped into our story half-way, check out Part 1 to find out how you can accidentally end up in Italy on the way to Switzerland.

We finally got on the right train that would take us to Switzerland! We might have checked with 3 or 4 or 10 different people to make sure we were on the right train. :) I was still a little twitchy, worried that we'd get in trouble for having tickets from the night before, that we were in someone else's seat, etc. But as we got closer to Switzerland, I calmed down. Especially when we started to hear a little German spoken by other passengers. One of the big problems with our unexpected trip to Italy was...errr...Italian. Doug can speak a little French and I can speak a little German and neither of us (or our handy France & Switzerland guidebooks) has any Italian!

But we finally make it into Switzerland, made our last train change for the day (in Spiez, not to be confused with La Spieza) and we made it to Interlaken. We stashed our bags at our hotel and began to explore. After picking up maps and touristy info, we found some lunch. And WOW, it is expensive in Switzerland! But tasty! Bellies full, we decided to hike up the side of a mountain for little while, then deciding we don't really want to go up anymore, we followed another trail to the Goldswil Ruins. "Castle!" says Doug. "Nono, just some ruins" says Fiona. "CASTLE!" says Doug. Fiona sighs.

Even though it wasn't really a castle the ruins were still pretty neat. We followed another wanderweg (walking trail) and walked along the river back into town. Interlaken more or less means "between the lakes" The very cold, very bluey-greeny river Aare connects the two lakes (Thunersee and Brienzersee). Back in town we actually do see a castle...but it's a very uncastley looking one. But, we do learn the German word for castle, Schloss, which is very fun to say! We also get to see paragliders landing in the big grassy park in the center of town, lots of fun statues & fountains, and cowbells. Lots of cowbells. I really start to want cowbells. They're everywhere. We've also run into LOTS of disaffected youth in the streets all day. We had seen a huge crowd of them, pelting some poor man with empty water bottles while he was trying to announce something. Since my german isn't really up to translating mob muttering, we weren't sure what was happening. But, on our hike we'd run into a nice man with a chainsaw. :) He explained to us that the load noise (music, not the chainsaw) was some traveling music festival. And weren't "all those young people going to go deaf", says the nice man with the chainsaw. We're guessing that the angry teenage mob downtown couldn't get tickets to the festival.

As it gets toward evening, we start to walk toward the last items we want to see on our maps (another Schloss!) and we end up in Unterseen, the town next to Interlaken whose name also means "between the lakes". We find a grocery store and stock up on some slightly less expensive food and tasty cheese (yay!) and start to head back. We stop to try our first swiss cheese fondue (yum!). After a quick stop at a cybercafe to check in at home, we head back to the hotel and plan the next day's adventure.

One of the big reasons we'd traveled to Interlaken was to take a train up to Jungfraujoch, the highest peak in Europe. But, futzing with schedules, the length and expense of the ride, and the weather we'd seen, we decided to take a trip to a lower peak, Schynige Platte, at 6,564ft. Rising crazy early the next morning, we hopped on the first cogwheel train of the day up the mountain. We were very pleased with ourselves, the day was very overcast and cold, and the cloud cover hovered just above the where our train stopped! We hiked through a wonderful alpine garden park, saw marmots, got snowed on, and slid down a very fun slide! Then we hopped back on the train (it was VERY cold up there) and headed back down the mountain. With 6 minutes between trains, we managed to get our bags (craftily stored in lockers at the station) and left Interlaken to head to Montreux and THE CHOCOLATE TRAIN!

In Montreux, we ended up at a fairly fancy hotel. Woohoo! We took a nice dip in the hot tub, and then took a wander around town. Montreux is on the eastern tip of Lake Geneva (Lac Leman). The town also seems to go straight up into the mountains from the shores of the lake. So, mostly we walked uphill. Our guidebook had suggested a restaurant, Caveau des Vignerons, which sounded interesting, so we walked (uphill) to the oldtown only to find out it was closed on Sundays. Boo. After walking uphill some more, we decided we'd admired enough of the architecture and giggled at the old church surrounded by tons grape vines enough and headed back down to the lake and our hotel. We wandered the lovely trail along the lake and finished the night up with a lovely diner. Doug was brave enough to try the beef tartare, which was pretty tasty.

But really, we were in Montreux because the next morning, we boarded THE CHOCOLATE TRAIN. Really. Look closely at the pic of the departures and you will see that "Chocolat" leaves at 9.36. Woohoo! Pretty much every guide book and packaged tour I saw for Switzerland included this trip, so of course, we took it! While serving us chocolate croissants and coffee, this very pretty train took us to Gruyères (yep, like the cheese) to tour a cheese factory and to explore the town, its kinky weird alien museum (HR Giger Musee) and its huge castle. And we finally bought a cowbell. Because everyone needs more cowbell! We couldn't resist. But back to our story, we got back onto the train to the town of Broc and the Nestle-Calliers chocolate factory! We had a tour of the factory that ended with the most amazing chocolate tasting ever. Miles of tasty chocolate! As we all sugar crashed, the train took us back to Montreux. We we headed for Lausanne that night, but Doug and I tried to catch dinner at Caveau des Vignerons again, only to find out they didn't serve dinner until after 7pm. It was only 5:30, and we wanted to head out to our next hotel, so we sadly missed dinner there again. Sigh.

We arrived in Lausanne, on the north shore of Lake Geneva, and made our way to the prettiest hotel of the trip. It was a tiny little room, but best of all, we were staying here for TWO nights in a row! With maps in hand (I LOVE that every city seemed to have tourist info at the train station!) we went off to wander Lausanne before full dark hit. And we found another grocery store. We actually had been craving salad for days, so it was perfect, along with a bottle of "Frizzy" sparkling peach wine.

As we read through our guidebook that night, we realized that we'd missed out on "the most photographed castle" in Switzerland when we were in Montreux. So after hitting a few museums (Olympic Musee and the Photography Musee) we headed back there, only a 20 minute train ride. Our book claimed that we could walk the 3 km along the lake trail to get to the Château de Chillon (a.k.a. Castle of Chillon). Our guidebook was deluded, it was at least 3 miles. Regardless, the walk was well worth it. Now this was definitely a CASTLE!

"Audiotours" were one of the cool things we encountered on this vacation at most of the museums and historical sites. For a small fee, you have the use of an iPod with a self-guided tour in your language. Very nice! So, we got to learn stuff! Building on this castle began about a thousand years ago, but the current structure of it is probably from the 13th century. We tromped around the castle, from the dungeons where we pretended to be the "Prisioner of Chillon" (a famous poem by Lord Byron) all the way to the top of the keep.

As it began to rain on the way back to town, we managed to catch the bus back to Montreux and on our third attempt, finally got to have dinner at Caveau des Vignerons. Our Frommers guidebook had recommended this restaurant, and I was pleased with the description, "traditional Swiss cuisine is served in a candlelit cave". And we WERE pleased with the restaurant. Even though it wasn't a cave. :) Turns out that the building had formerly been a winery. Another tasty fondue for me and a traditional swiss dish of "horse entrecote" (steak) for Doug. Honestly, I was hoping the horse would be terrible, but it was probably the best piece of steak I've ever tried. Oh, and we finished up with "Macerated grapes in 'lie' " We ordered this dessert mainly because I liked the name of it, and we couldn't remember what "macerated" meant. Turns out that we were served a dish of giant green raisin-looking things in a clear liquid. The liquid ended up being some potent liquor and raisins that were still fairly grape-like, juicy and almost firm. Very weird. And, it turns out that "macerated" means (in cooking) letting food, usually fruit, soak in a liquid to absorb flavor. Fruits are usually soaked in liqueurs.

That brings us to our last full day in Switzerland. We headed (finally) to Geneva and stashed our bags in a locker at the train station while we touristed around the city. We decided to try out our guidebook's walking tour of the city. Sadly, about half of the items on the walking tour were not working, or under construction. But in the midst of our wandering, we di
d find the St. Pierre Cathedral. Impressively huge with gorgeous stained glass, the very interesting bit about this site was the archeological excavations going on beneath it.

To finish off our trip, we did have a little bit more travel nuttiness. It turned out that our last hotel was just over the border into France. The nice bus information lady had given us some great advice on bus routes out to our hotel. Our Swiss rail passes gave included bus fares, but since we needed to cross into France, we would need to pay 2 Euro per person to go the one bus stop further past the border. She suggested that we get off a stop early and just walk the rest of the way. Which we did. Then walked 30 feet or so to the border crossing and 30 feet further was "our" bus stop. And we giggled a lot about the the 60 feet of walking that would have cost us $6 to ride on the bus.

Our last night was fairly uneventful and we got to the airport without a hitch. And then things got just a little absurd. It turns out that the Geneva airport is on the France & Switzerland border. Literally. Some airlines check in at on the France side and you have to go through customs to get to the rest of the airlines on the Swiss side. And of course, Doug needed to check-in in France & I needed to be in Switzerland. :) After wandering a bit lost, we figured it out, and Doug flew off home an hour before me. But as I tried to check-in for my flight, I found out that they had no record of me on the reservation list. After lots more questions with the customer service desk, it turned out that when I missed my connection at the beginning of the trip, the airline folks had reported me as a "no show" for my flight & canceled my return flight. Aggghhh! Luckily, I still got on the flight, made the rest of my connections, and arrived home in Indianapolis just a few minutes after Doug. Whew.

All in all, it was a great trip & we had a wonderful time. And we have some REALLY funny stories about trains & Italy! There are also a ridiculous amount of photos in two albums here.

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