Thursday, July 10, 2008

European Adventures (and Misadventures) Part 1

Last month Doug and I took off to Europe for a few weeks. Earlier in the year, Doug found out that his company would be sending him to work at a conference in south of France and training meeting Switzerland. I was pleased to tag along so we could make a vacation of it after Doug finished up work!

Our adventure started off with separate flight plans. Since Doug's travel was arranged through his office, we weren't able to take the same flights. So, Doug took off on his own an hour before me and flew off to catch his connection to Amsterdam and Nice without a hitch. (I'm leaving it to him to talk about his interlude in Amsterdam)

On the other hand, my trip started off a little shakier. Before we even left for the airport, I was a little off my game. Sadly, that morning before we left, we had to put one of my cats to sleep. My poor scaredy-cat, Dugan, known for frantically hiding under and behind every piece of furniture in my house for the last 6 years, had come out of hiding the night before. It was quickly apparent that he was very sick and a trip to the vet the next morning confirmed my fears that there was probably nothing we could do to fix him. So...I was already a little shaky. Then my connection from Indianapolis to Chicago was delayed and delayed and delayed. And I missed my flight to London & France. After uncharacteristically bursting into tears at the ticket agent, when he told me I couldn't get onto another flight until the next day (I blamed the poor kitty for the tears), I ended up getting to spend the night with my parents & flying out the next day.

Finally getting to Nice, France a day late, I took are really crazy expensive taxi trip to the Club Med Opio en Provence, where Doug was still be wondering where I had gotten lost. :) I crashed for a while and was wakened with much rejoicing by Doug after the last conference session was over. Doug took me on a little tour of the resort, we found some tasty appetizers & free drinks (woohoo!) and relaxed on some lounges around the pool. Sadly, my bags were still in Chicago, so I never did get to partake in any of the lovely swimming pools...but Doug did his best to enjoy them for me.

For our last few days in France, we moved from Opio to Nice. Doug's conference had finished up, and now we were at a new hotel (cheaper) where he still had a few more days of work meetings. These meetings had originally been planned to happen in Switzerland, but ended up taking place in Nice. But, since my plane tickets were already booked, we still ended up our vacation there. I finally had gotten my luggage (3 days later!) and was ready to be touristy. I managed to navigate the bus system without getting too lost, and spent 2 days exploring Nice. Swam in the Mediterranean, went to museums (Musee Matisse was very cool), took a bus tour on the windy roads above the city, ate tasty food, hiked up a billion stairs to the top of "The Rock" called Le Ch√Ę was all very good!

This brings us to the end of the first week. Doug was finished with his meetings, and we were ready with our train tickets to Geneva. Or so we thought. We had booked our train tickets, Swiss rail passses, and hotel reservations with Virgin Vacations. At some point when we were planning the rest of our trip, we'd found out that EURO 2008, the football (soccer) championships were also going to be taking place in Switzerland. So we needed to try and avoid some of the sport instanity and carefully arrange reservations in our 2nd week. We had been pretty pleased with dealing with Virgin Vacations. We gave them our list of cities and they found us hotels. We said, "We want Swiss Rail Passes" and they got them for us. And finally, "We want train tickets from Nice, France to Geneva, Switzerland" and they did. Well. Kinda. It turns out that nobody (including us) noticed that the tickets ACTUALLY said "Nice to Genova". And, Genova (just one little letter different) is in Italy. Not in Switzerland. Like our Swiss Rail Passes. Like our hotel booked for that night in Geneva, Switzerland.

Still blithely unaware, Doug and I get to the Nice train station and we show our tickets to the nice informaton lady, who directs us to the train we're booked on. We take our first train ride, and we have a hour or so in a town called Ventimiglia to change trains. It turns out Ventimiglia is just over the border into Italy. "Neat!" we say, "We got to go to Italy!". We get back on the train, and start poking through our Switzerland guide book, planning what we'll do when we arrive in Geneva at 4:30 that afternoon. As the afternoon passes, we realize that all the stop names still seem to be Italian sounding city names and we've still be traveling along the coast. Which is not good, since we should be heading north into the mountains. I start frantically digging through our travel documents to figure out what's gone wrong. Finally realize that our tickets have us headed for Genova, and that this is probably NOT where we were supposed to be going. None of our books (France & Switzerland) have any maps of Italy in them. Aggh!

Finally I find a Eurail map, and we figure out that our tickets have in fact sent us to Genoa (or Genova) which is a city at the top of the "boot" of Italy. Way further east and south of where we were supposed to be. Oh, and in the wrong country. :) We burst off the train and race into the station. Doug stops to wait in the REALLY long ticket line, and I head for information line. The nice man at information, speaks English (yay!), quickly flips through all his timetable books, and writes down our new set of trains to get to Geneva (3 or 4 trains, arriving at 2 am). I boogie back to Doug, and we get our tickets. The nice ticket lady is a little concerned because she isn't sure about the route that the info man has set out for us, but books the tickets for us anyway. For a mere $142 Euro ($225 US). Eek. Turns out that our Swiss Rail passes really don't work in Italy.

So we get back on the train, this time heading for Milan. During the ride, Doug and I figure out that it's pretty foolish to go all the way to Geneva that night, just to arrive at 2 am, then to hop back on the train the next morning to head out to our next city. We should just skip Geneva and go directly to Interlaken, and have an extra half day to spend there. We have a little time when we change trains in we run to the ticket folks to find out if our new plan will work. It turns out that the next train that we are booked on, will actually get us to a train to Interlaken if we get off at a different station, a city called "Spiez". And since we'll actually be in Swizterland by then, our Swiss Rail passes will let us go anywhere. Great! So, we have 15 minutes or so to find our train to Spiez. We look at the departures train numbers. But, we do find the train to "La Spieza". Woohoo! Off we zoom to train platform with the train going to La Spieza. We hop on the train and toss our luggage up on the racks and breathe a sigh of relief. Doug is in his proper seat #33 and my assigned seat is #38, which isn't in this section. The train isn't very full, so it's probably okay that I'm in the wrong seat. But just in case, Doug goes checking the next section to find my real seat. And comes back to report that there is no seat #38. And I start to get a bad feeling. As I frantically start searching though our tickets and maps again, I ask Doug if he's sure we're on the right train. We start to pull our luggage back down and drag it back out to the door...but the nice lady in the hall assures us that this is the train to "La Spieza" just as I find the tiny little map I have that show Italy, and figure out that "La Spieza" is NOT Spiez and is FURTHER into Italy. And then the train leaves the station. Agggghhhhh!

Let me say, at this point, Doug is wonderful. He was still cheerful and optimistic and generally keeping me from completely bursting into tears.

Hoping to find a conductor to help us figure out what to do next, Doug starts walking down the cars of the train while I hang out with the luggage. This is a VERY long train, and Doug said that when he got about 10 cars from me, he realized that we didn't have a plan for when the train stopped. Was I going to get off at the next stop with all the luggage or no? And would he be able to see me if I did!?!? Doug comes sprinting back. In the meantime I've been working myself into a state, worrying that if we did get off at the next stop...would there even be a train back to Milan that night? And would we have to buy ANOTHER set of train tickets for the train we just missed?!? AGGGHHH!

Luckily, the train make a stop about 10 minutes later and we were able to catch another train back to the Milan station. We knew that we'd already missed the real train we were supposed to be on, but there was another train there early the next morning AND we could still use the tickets we already bought. So, we finally trudged out of the train station at about 10:30 pm...into the pouring rain. We found a hotel fairly close by and giggled at the bidet in our bathroom. And we managed to find a cafe that was still open and finally got some dinner. And then finally got some sleep. A very short sleep, since our train left at 7:20 the next morning.

But finally, it seems that the train gods were bored of messing with us, and we finally made it to Swizterland! Don't miss the thrilling conclusion of our misadventures in Part 2!

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