Trains & Planes & Boats & Buses & Packing & Packing & Packing
One of the first problems I have in composing a trip narrative is trying to put a proper title on it. I was considering calling this "Prague and the Czech Republic and East Germany and Berlin and Switzerland and the Matterhorn," however that seemed too long and clumsy. Then I considered "Europe 2000," however I thought some soccer (football) fans might confuse it with an account of the competition for the European 2000 football championship. So I settled on the above title although it doesnít really say anything about where we went.
Our trip started with several days in Prague then we boarded a river boat, The M/S Eurostar, for a week on the Elbe, called the Labe in the Czech Republic. After the river boat we spent several days in Berlin then struck out on our own for 10 days in Switzerland. Almost all of the first part was spent in areas that were once behind the Iron Curtain. It was interesting to see how vital these areas now are. I was surprised, for example, by the wide presence of cell phones. (Of course, this seems true in all areas of Europe we visited. I think they have gained wider usage than in the US.) There is new construction everywhere. Much of this is to make up for the lack of any activity under Communism.
One feature of this trip is that we will be traveling for most of it with our long time friends, Barb and Herc Smith. Although we have traveled in the motor home with them, this will be the first "formal" trip.
Tuesday 6/6/2000. Well, here we are in Praha (Prague, Czech Republic), after an unpleasant trip on Swissair. It is difficult to understand why a country with the well earned reputation for hospitality, a country with such a well developed hotel industry, tolerates a grossly inferior air line as its national carrier. To start with, our previously obtained seat assignments were not honored and instead were given seats against the bulkhead. I assume that some more valued clients objected to those seats so we lost our window and aisle seats to them and we got jammed against the bulkhead. As an interesting variation, business class was boarded last, after first class and tourist. In spite of the discomforts of the business section, steerage was worse. Jodie visited the Smiths and found the seats very cramped and the place teeming with passengers standing because the seat pitch was too close for comfortable seating. The cabin crew made up for the discomforts by offering no significant service. Requests for such items as water were ignored. Since this was a night time flight I assume that the cabin crew slipped off somewhere to party.
We flew in to Zurich and spent two hours in the fairly nice business lounge. Jodie found a money machine and got some Swiss money to be ready for our return to Switzerland. I found the train station that is part of the airport complex and picked up a schedule for trains to St. Moritz.
The 1 hour flight to Prague on Crossair was pleasant and uneventful. We waited over an hour for our prearranged pick up at the airport. The driver was delayed by traffic. We rode in an Opel Omega, the car upon which Jodieís Cadillac Catera is based. Taxi drivers in Prague have a very bad reputation so we felt the prearranged pickup was a better choice.
The car became a time machine as we drove from the industrial-modern airport to medieval old town. Orthogonal street layout wasnít a feature of medieval town design. Everywhere you look there are beautiful old buildings, massive stone buildings with statues, colorful buildings of graceful lines, buildings with decorative art painted on the sides.
Hotel Inter Continental Praha is located on the river at the edge of Old Town and is very nice and modern. (By the way, Praha is what Prague is called here.) Our room was quite comfortable and had a faultlessly working air conditioning system, significant since it was quite warm during most of our stay. The beds were fitted with a duvet, a thick comforter, filled with either down or polyester. These were to be present on every bed we used on the trip, in spite of the generally high temperatures and lack of air conditioning. There was no other covering available. Another interesting practice we encountered was that something similar to a bath mat was placed by the bed when it was turned down at night.
After unpacking our luggage from the airplane configuration we spent the rest of our arrival day wandering around the old town, getting lost even with a good map. We finally had to ask for help and in spite of no common language we were able to find where we were and made our way back to the hotel. For ease, we had dinner at the hotel. Our choice of traditional fare was excellent.
Wednesday 6/7. We spent the morning in more wandering then came back to the hotel to meet the Smiths at noon. After they arrived and checked in we all set out to find lunch. Our random choice of a small tavern turned out to be a good one. The soup was excellent and the Czech beer was tasty. We then walked across the Charles bridge, pausing frequently for photography.
The rest of the Intrav tour group was arriving throughout the afternoon and the welcome cocktail party was that night. Since the intermittent rain seemed to have departed the party was held on the roof with spectacular views of the city. We met Tanya Girlus, the tour director, and Sarah Haynes, her trainee. The booze flowed quite freely! After the party we walked to one of the many local restaurants for simple dinner since we had snacked extensively at the party.
Thursday 6/8/00. Today was our first scheduled Intrav activity, a walking tour with a local guide. Fortunately the group of 75 was divided in two. One story related by our guide:
Statues of great persons line the parapets of an old building. During the German occupation of WWII the Germans learned that one of these statues was of Mendelson, a Jew, and demanded that he be removed. No one knew which statue was of him so they consulted with the local Jewish community, before they were exterminated. They said, "Look for the one with the biggest nose." So the statue with the biggest nose was removed from the building. Later it was discovered that this was the statue of Wagner, Hitlerís favorite composer so it was restored to the top of the building. When Mendelsonís statue was identified it was simply tipped onto its back on the top of the building, breaking an arm. After the German defeat it was simply tipped back up.
There are permanent wreaths with name plaques on the sides of buildings throughout Prague. These are the places where that Czechs were killed by the Germans during the war.
It was interesting to be in an area that was under Communist domination until just 10 years ago and hear the people talk about how it was under the old government. Our guide spared them no criticism. Of course, she isnít keen about the current government either. The Communists still comprise 50% of the government. Unemployment is 20%. Little repair of WWII damage occurred under the Communists and certainly no restoration or maintenance of historic buildings was done. In spit of this and other problems, there are still people who want to go back to where they were supported without working.
As part of the tour we visited the Jewish memorial and old cemetery. Since land was limited, the people were buried 12 deep. This was before the Nazi extermination. The memorial is similar to the US Viet Nam War Memorial in that it is simply walls of the old synagogue covered with the names of Jews who lived in the city and country who were exterminated. You can be told the numbers who died however seeing the list is much more impressive. There were 118,000 here before the extermination; now there are 1,200 to 1,500. There are also 18,000 "new" Jews here who are entrepreneurs who came after the war and have not been accepted by the few older residents left.
The tour ended at the Charles Bridge so we had lunch at a river side restaurant under the northwest end of the bridge. Afterwards we walked around the area on an island where some of Mission Impossible I was filmed. We encountered two girls who were photographing themselves where Tom Cruise had been. Unproductive shopping filled the rest of the afternoon. Dinner that evening was at a rather expensive place. I passed on the octopus lasagna and had St. Peter fish instead.
Streets in the old town are narrow, very narrow, and serpentine. I felt like asking some women walking on the cobblestones with the very high spike heels how they do it. After seeing the cobblestones I understand how rioters in some of these towns are always able to find stones to throw at the police. They simply pry them up out of the streets.
Friday 6/9. The formal activity today was a bus tour of town. We had dinner at U Kammenného Mostu on the water under the southeast end of the Charles Bridge. The menu stated, "30 krona charge per plate for bread and seasonings." Thatís equal to almost $1.
Saturday 6/10. For our last day in Prague we decided to skip the bus tour and walk instead. We got out of the hotel at 7:30, to avoid the heat, and climbed the 241 steps to the Metronome. This is a giant structure that replaced a statue of Lenin on top of a hill. It represents the timelessness of democracy, or something. Its hand sweeps back and forth, day and night. The immediate area around the thing is a rather barren stone area that must have been used for ceremonies in the Communist era. Beyond that is a lovely green park which we strolled through to Prague Castle.
When we walked by a small pool we encountered a woman throwing a ball into the pool for her dog to retrieve. As we walked by the dog saw us and brought the ball to us rather than the woman. Jodie threw it back into the water and the dog brought it back to us. I threw it over near the woman and we left.
Prague Castle is actually a complex of buildings and gardens. Our admission ticket allowed us to see the Old Royal Palace, St. Vitus Cathedral, the Basilica of St. JiÍì, and the Powder Tower. Most of the Cathedral exterior was obscured by construction scaffolding. The interior was quite nice. We left the castle via the Golden Lane which was lined with vendors selling souvenirs.
This was a pleasant way to spend the morning. In the afternoon we packed for the boat.
Late that afternoon we boarded the Eurostar and met yet another Intrav tour director, Brian Thilenius. He is Intravís dedicated European boat tour director. Dinner was on the boat, adequate but not great.
Sunday 6/11. The Eurostar has a draft of 4 feet, a crew of 22, and a captain who is 26 years old and was raised on river boats. Our trip will start on the Vlatava river and then merge with the Elbe. Apparently the river boats donít run at night since we remained tied up until early morning. Because of the drought the river level is quite low. Our cabin is on the bottom level and we can occasionally hear the bottom scrapping across sand bars. The journey down the river will require passing through many locks and under many low bridges. For this low clearance, the Sun Deck can be cleaned off and the control cab (bridge) may be lowered so that its top is flush with the deck. Since this places the front windows inside the boat, the captain steers using a TV camera mounted on the bow.
Breakfast and lunch are buffet style while dinner is served, except for a salad bar. There are usually two choices for an entree. The Sun Deck was closed for two hours over noon to get under some low bridges. After it reopened there was an Ice Cream Social there. This was also the night of the Captainís Welcome Dinner preceded by the Captainís Welcome Cocktail Party. The captain put in a brief appearance then hurried back to the "bridge" to drive the boat.
Random facts: A nice home costs $20,000 in the Czech Republic but a similar home would cost $300,000 in Germany. There are at least 113 breweries in Germany and 38,000 castles.
Monday 6/12. This was a day of speed challenges. The first was to pack all our stuff in one hour so we could get off of the boat. We had reached a point where the river was too low for our passage. The Czechs had promised to release some water from a lake to increase the Elbe level, not just for us but also for some freight river boats coming up river. They did not do this so we left the boat for a bus. The boat will off load some fluids and attempt to meet us in Dresden.
We left on the bus for the scheduled tour of Königstein Fortress, our second speed challenge. We had 20 minutes to view the place after the messing around, elevator ride to the top, and potty stops. Then we drove to Pillnitz Gardens where we squandered an amazing 30 minutes for our third and final challenge. Both the fortress and the gardens are worth at least a half a day each. One of the palaces by the gardens was the home of one of August the Strongís mistresses. He was so named because he had 50 mistresses and 365 children! There is a camellia growing there that is reputed to be the largest in the World. It was planted in 1905. A large glass dome is rolled over it and heated in the winter.
After dinner at the hotel we enjoyed a concert by The Dresden Philharmonic Chamber Quartet. The quartet consisted of a flute, violin, viola, and cello. Since it was organized by the flutist, most of the pieces they played featured the flute. There was a steady sleep-induced audience attrition during the concert so that by the end about half of the chairs were vacant.
Tuesday 6/13. After a night in the elegant, unairconditioned Kempinski Hotel in Dresden we ate a leisurely breakfast, repacked to correct the errors of the hurried packing, then set out to do a bit of sightseeing at 10 am. After the concert last night we learned that we would be able to rejoin the ship, leaving the hotel at 5:30, only to leave the ship again at 7 pm for an elegant dinner at Eckberg Castle. (A fortress is fortified; a castle is on a high place and has pointy things on it; a palace is on the flat.)
For our tour we sought out the Green Vault which is the location of many treasures. Besides jewels there are ornate serving pieces, other odd pieces of decorative table wear, and jeweled clothing. Dresden was 80% destroyed by WWII bombing, much of it in voracious fire storm Feb 13 & 14, 1945. The first night raid was 245 Lancaster bombers; the second 217. With the exception of a few churches, most of the city has been reconstructed. Our hotel was the reconstruction of what once had been the palace of one of Gus the Strongís mistresses. Although the exterior was duplicated, the interior was built to be suitable for a hotel. There is a bridge connecting the hotel with a neighboring palace which allowed Gus to visit discretely.
There were 10x106 m3 of ruble that once was the city.
West Germany paid 18 billion Deutsche Marks to cover the relocation cost of 440,000 Russian troops who were in the G.D.R. This covered wages and housing since there wasnít housing available in Russia when the were pulled out.
Lunch was in Sophienkeller, a dark, crowded basement vault under the hotel. Iíve no idea what I ate.
We opted for the optional afternoon tour of the Semper Opera House and the Zwinger Palace. Both involved a great deal of standing around, although the brief glimpse of the opera backstage was almost worth the other idleness. Zwinger is the name of an open area between defensive walls and used for festivals and games when a war isnít going on. The Zwinger Palace was built in that area after castle defenses became obsolete.
We did go back to the boat at 5:30 and not only had time to unpack but also had time for a shower and a cocktail! It is much easier to unpack when you know where the stuff goes.
Wednesday 6/14. Gus was an Elector, one of the seven who could vote for the Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire. There seemed to have been a lot of intrigue over this position and changing of religions.
We stopped in Meißen and toured the Meissen China Factory and the Albrechtsburg Castle. After the castle we strolled down to the town square where the guide bought a Meißen Fummel. This is a highly inflated but unleavened bread product that has a large internal void. Supposedly messages were placed inside this so that any tampering would be obvious since the fummel would be broken.
A local wine maker came on in Meißen and sampled four white and two red Meißen wines, none of them his. Because of the short growing season the wines are quite dry and of a lower alcohol content than most wines. We bought a bottle of red and had it with dinner.
We arrived in Torgau in early evening. After the usual slow dinner service we left to boat to find the Elbe River Crossing Monument that marked the location where the US and Russian troops met at the end of WWII. After we found it we joined the rest of the group for an organ concert at Martin Lutherís first custom built church. Prior to this he had used churches that had been built as Catholic. In line with his beliefs, the exterior was quite plain and unchurch like. The interior was starkly beautiful. It must be quite a feeling for the minister to preach from Lutherís pulpit. Although the organ was new, it was built in the Baroque style.
After the concert we strolled around town with a local high school teacher. She and her husband have just built a house. This wouldnít have been possible in the G.D.R. since she worked for wages and the money was not worth much. Everything was done by barter at that time and she had nothing to barter but knowledge.
Thursday 6/15. The Elbe has become like many US rivers, a channelized ditch flowing between high levees. There is nothing to be seen except when a town comes into view.
Today we visited Wittenberg, the town where Luther posted his 95 theses. The original church door has rotted away but has been replaced by a bronze one with the theses molded into it. We also visited the house and rooms where he lived for a time. It is interesting to visit the locale of one who has had such an impact on western civilization. It would have been nice to have had a lecture about Luther before these stops rather than at least one of the not very interesting architecture lectures we have had.
Sometime after his death, some Catholic partisan petitioned a local ruler to dig up Lutherís body and burn it, then scatter the ashes to the winds. The ruler said he didnít fight the dead.
Friday 6/16. The shallow river continues. Several times we have heard the hull scraping the sandy bottom.
Germany has a tax on paved driveways and garage roofs to encourage leaving surfaces unpaved to allow more rain water to enter the ground aquifers. If a citizen designates himself as a member of a specific church, the federal government deducts additional taxes from his income which is given to his church. I think it is 0.5%.
A study of 1Ĺ years is required before you can get a hunting license in Germany. You must learn how to kill humanly (?) and how to skin the animal. After you get a license you may buy a rifle and ammunition. The rifle must be kept in locked storage at home when not in use. The police have the right to enter your home at any time an verify that your rifle is properly locked up. I wonder what the NRA would think of that?
Yesterday we avoided the bus tour and walked into Magdeburg. Found a farmersí market in the town square along with a nice, modern shopping area. One interesting feature of the market was several very long meat markets built on minivan chassis. These looked like regular refrigerated meat counters with butchers in back. As in many European towns, many people use bicycles for transportation, adults, not just kids.
While we were there, the streetcars began discharging bizarrely dressed high school students who paraded through the town blowing horns and whistles. It was the end of the school year and completion of exams. I saw one young man whose costume consisted of a sheet that was fully open in back. He wore nothing under it.
Our brief river journey is over. We had the Captainís Fairwell tonight.
Saturday 6/17. Off the boat and onto a bus for a tour of Potsdam, lunch, then on to the Four Seasons Hotel in the former East Berlin. We visited the rooms where the Potsdam Conference was held near the end of WWII in Europe.
Many of the buildings in Potsdam still have bullet holes from that war. Buildings in a poor state of repair do not have clear ownership as a result of the war and the communist government that followed the war. Until the title can be cleared, no one is willing to invest in repair or restoration. The communist governments seemed to have just sucked the life out of the countries, just like leeches, only to collapse when there was nothing left. Now things are booming, relatively speaking. There is much restoration going on. Most churches are surrounded by scaffolding, all the way to the peak of the steeple. I didnít realize there was that much scaffolding in the world.
There is a 15 to 20% unemployment here, as in the Czech Republic, although most people are pleased with the collapse of communism. There is graffiti all over, in both countries, but the quality seems much better, more artistic, than in the US. There was none in the Czech Republic before the collapse since they didnít have any spray paint then.
After our arrival and rapid check-in at the hotel we walked to the Brandenburg Gate and then shopped a bit.
Sunday 6/18. All the stores are closed on Sunday in Berlin. This wasnít a problem since we had a bus tour of the town which ended at the Pergamon Museum. Pergamon was a town in Turkey in which a rather considerable ruin was located. I say "was" since it was removed to Berlin, restored as much as possible and placed in this specially built museum. Now the Turks want it back. I have mixed feelings about all the looting of antiquities performed in the name of science. The things taken have been preserved and if left where they were they would have either been sold off by the locals or ground up to make mortar for other building.
We stayed behind after the allotted hour in the building. After lunch at a nearby café we went back and "did" the place more thoroughly. We were issued little audio devices that explained various aspects of the display. Each resembled a telephone, except no mouth piece. There was a key pad that was used to enter the number corresponding to the particular exhibit. Through this you could learn far more than you would ever want about the display.
The tour also included a visit to the Checkpoint Charlie museum, located quite near to where the checkpoint was situated. There are many photos of the checkpoint. The infamous wall still stands in some parts of town, as a memorial, although now decorated by vivid, imaginative painting. The location of the wall is marked everywhere else by a double row of stones set in the pavement or sidewalk. It must have been strange having this barrier dividing the city.
The museum contains several things that were used to smuggle people out of East Berlin, cleverly modified cars, hot air balloons, ultra light aircraft, powered scuba devices.
After visiting the museum and viewing all the photos, including the ones of US and Russian tanks facing each other at the check point during one of the periods of heightened tension, we went out and I stood with one foot on either side of the row of stones marking the location of the checkpoint. I experienced a strange feeling of emotion thinking of what the wall meant and what those times were like. I then watched a young family stroll on the sidewalk across the marking stones with no impediment, probably not even thinking about where they were walking. How strange that a government felt it necessary to wall their citizens in, as in a prison.
We walked back to the hotel so the Smiths could be there for an expected 6 pm call from daughter Diana concerning her July 9th wedding.
After all the museums and churches we have visited so far I think I have had my fill of statues and paintings. Many or most of the paintings and statues feature nudes, mostly robust, voluptuous, women. This was in an era when people wore massive amounts of clothing (and didnít bathe since it was considered unhealthy.) I wonder how the pervasive depiction of nudity was received?
Monday 6/19. Most of our Intrav group is departing today however we and the Smiths have added a day in Berlin to our trip. We started at the reconstructed Reichstag Dome. As Iím sure you remember, Hitler and his buddies burned the Reichstag down before WWII to justify eliminating the elected government. It has been beautifully restored. When the time came to rebuild the massive stone dome it was decided both in the interests of economy and beauty to do something different. The new dome is transparent and has an inverted cone of mirrors up the center. These reflect light into the Bundestag chambers below. There is a spiral ramp ascending to the top. The 360o views are of the entire city but as seen through the construction cranes that populate this area of the city like some flock of giant birds.
There is normally quite a wait to get up to the dome area. Since we were fairly early we got in with only a 20 minute wait. The delay is caused by everyone having to pass through a security check point including X-ray and metal detectors. An elevator took us up to the bottom of the dome from where we ascended the spiral path to the top.
Our next adventure was locating an entrance to the Uban (underground streetcar) and figuring out how to buy all day tickets from the dispensing machine. With some difficulty we eventually succeeded and set off to Ka De We, a giant department store where we shopped without buying and had lunch.
We walked on up the street both to try and locate the Warner Bros store that Carrie Smith supervised building and to visit the "Broken Tooth." This is the former Kaiser Wilhelm church that was destroyed, except for the foyer, in WWII bombing. This part is decorated with exquisite mosaics on the ceiling and walls that somehow survived the bombing. Adjacent to this memorial is the new Kaiser Wilhelm church. The walls of this simplistically beautiful church are composed of variegated, mostly blue translucent glass tiles.
After this spiritual experience we needed a bit of relief so we took the Uban to the 203.78 m high TV tower with rotating restaurant. A 6 m/s elevator took us up. After doing the views we settled down for cocktails while the vistas whipped past at 2 r/h.
Tuesday 6/20. It is exactly 7 pm and all the church bells in St. Moritz are ringing. We are seated on our balcony at Hotel Steffani. It was an easier day in many respects than I anticipated. The airport was a quick 35 dm taxi ride from town. The airport, however, was not easy. I think is was designed for day-trippers. We arrived early and were told we couldnít check in until an hour before the flight. There is no seating except in the snack bar where we had breakfast and waited with all the smokers.
Finally we were allowed to check in. Security is performed individually at each gate. The Crossair flight to Zurich was uneventful and, after claiming our luggage, we found the train station at the airport. I activated our Swiss Rail Pass and we boarded the train to the main station downtown. (The trains run every 20 minutes.) After a bit of a wait we boarded the train to Chur; changed trains by walking across the platform, and went on to St. Moritz. I wonít even try to describe the scenery.
Things became a bit difficult when we arrived. We somehow missed the hotel phone at the train station, perhaps because of the hordes of oriental tour groups massed at the station. The information booth in the station was completely unhelpful. They are really only there to sell lodging, not to help. Eventually Jodie found where to buy a phone card and we called the hotel. The pick-up arrived quickly and wafted us off to the center of tourist town.
St. Moritz-dorf is a resort town on a lake but built on a steep hillside with twisting, winding streets. The part of town where the hotel is located has only souvenir shops, restaurants, bars, and trendy shops. There are no stores in which locals would shop. I imagine they shop in St. Moritz-bad which is on the lake at the bottom of the mountain.
Wednesday 6/21. We decided to hike today which is why we came to Switzerland. There is a funicular and a tramway that will take you to the top of the ski area. We took it and started hiking down at 10:30. The vistas and the wildflowers were superb. The "trail" was awful. It was steep and covered with loose rubble. In spite of that, because of the weather, the flowers, especially the flowers, and the views, it was a great hike. We hobbled into the hotel at 3:30 and found the Smiths leaving a message at the desk for us. (They arrived a day later than we did.) We went up to our room and chatted a bit then went down to one of the many sidewalk cafes and had a drink. We all do the Bernina Express tomorrow.
Thursday 6/22. Like lemmings in their inexorable march to the sea, promptly at 9 am the tourists started down the hill to the banhoff, some by foot, some by tourist bus. The tour bus phenomenon is also interesting. In late afternoon they start wending their way around the narrow twisting streets to their respective hotels. Passengers and luggage are disgorged then they wend their way off to tour bus land where they spend the night. The whole process must be reversed in the morning.
Anyway, we met the Smiths at the train station, and with some difficulty, found seats on the train. We were advised by the train folks that reservations were necessary for groups only. That is wrong! The only nonreserved car was quite full.
The trip to Tirano, Italy was nice with several incomparable views of glaciers, waterfalls, and snow covered mountains. We had a pleasant, unremarkable lunch at a sidewalk café, Italian, after all it was Italy. Had to pass through immigration at the station exit. After lunch we set out to shop. Stores close from 12:30 to 2:30 so no shopping. We strolled a bit then boarded the next train back to Switzerland. Once again we had problems finding seats but were eventually successful. All in all a pleasant, restful day however a useless visit to Italy.
Friday 6/23. We joined the lemmings again this morning, but this time using the hotel minivan since we were one our way to our next stop in Zermat and had our luggage with us. Our mandatory reservations on the Glacier Express were 9:30, wagen 21. When the "wagens" were shuttled into the station we found #21 the last on the train. Our seats were single, facing seats on the right side of the car. Mine was right next to the glass door that divides the smoking and nonsmoking sections. As a result, the door banged into my seat whenever someone went through, which they did frequently. This also turned out to be the side away from the scenery.
The first part of the ride back to Reichenau was a repeat of the ride from Zurich. In a biblical reversal ("The first shall be last...etc") the operating company changed in Reichenau and the new engine was coupled to our end of the train. This was reversed later when a third company took over the train.
Zermatt is billed as being without cars. There are, however, little electric vehicles zipping all over the place being driven by frustrated Grand Prix drivers. There are also many bicyclists who are frustrated Tour de France riders. When we arrived we fought our way through the Oriental tour groups and found a representative from Hotel La Ginabelle. He loaded us and our luggage onto a cart and we too zipped off to the hotel.
We checked in and went to our room. There was the Matterhorn posing majestically in the sun light, easily visible from our balcony. After our 8 hour train ride a little "freshening up" was in order before we set off to become reacquainted with the town. The hotel is two or three blocks from the main street, located in a very quiet area.
Main street was teeming with tourists. We slowly made our way to the south (Matterhorn) end of town then back. At one point we moved a block off of the main street and found peace and quiet. In addition to the aforementioned electric carts, there is an electric bus system and electric taxis. There are even (gasp) diesel trucks. I suspect there are even some conventional automobiles secreted away somewhere.
Saturday 6/24. The brilliant sunshine of yesterday turned into low clouds or high fog. There were only fragments of the Matterhorn visible during odd moments. We set out on a little hike up to Blatten, a tiny community. There is a small Ricola herb display garden there. After completing the loop we stopped at a restaurant in town for lunch then shopped the afternoon away. The crowds werenít nearly so dense as yesterday. Probably because they leave in the morning and the next group arrives late in the afternoon. Met the Smiths at their hotel at 6:30 for drinks. It was a nice low key day. (On the first six days of our Switzerland tour the breakfasts and dinners are included at the hotels so we didnít dine with the Smiths.)
Sunday 6/25. The day started quietly. Met the Smiths at 9:30 and walked to the end of town. The Matterhorn is a little more visible than yesterday but still not fully out. Walked up to Winkelman. Had lunch at the restaurant at the south end of Zermatt, all the time watching for the mountain to appear but it didnít. I had rösti potatoes. These are the Swiss version of hash brown potatoes. However they are different than the US hash browns. These are much thicker and are cooked with onions, bacon and lots of cheese!
After lunch we repaired to our room and watched for the clouds to clear. When they finally dissipated we hurried off to visit the Rothorn via an underground funicular, 4-person gondola, and a 150 passenger gondola. The mountain became progressively more visible and spectacular. Between the four of us we must have taken more than 50 pictures of the Matterhorn. Although we dressed warmly the coldest part of the trip was the long tunnel from the entrance in Zermatt to the base of the underground funicular.
Monday 6/26. Caught the 8:10 train to Interlaken. With some difficulty we figured out the schedule we had and learned that we would be required to change trains twice. Not too much fun with our day packs and two pieces of wheeled luggage to lug up and down stairs and off and on to trains. Finally arrived and found that the hotel, Chalet Oberland, offers no shuttle service. Took a cab and found it to be about a 1Ĺ star hotel, quite a step down from what we have experienced so far. Among other things, there is a total of about 15 watts of light in the room distributed between two bedside lamps and a table lamp that sits on the floor. The two bedside lamps actually had Christmas tree bulbs in them. (Dinners are not included on this part of the trip.)
Interlaken seems most touristy town we have been in. There are, however, grocery stores and a quaint McDonaldís set in a chalet.
As we were wandering around town we spied a Mexican restaurant. We decided to give it a try for dinner. It was quite good. The owner/chef is from Mexico and is a good cook. Quite a welcome change to the heavy Germanic cooking we have experienced on the trip so far.
Tuesday 6/27. Since the Chalet Oberland had been told by Railtour Suisse that we had changed our schedule and should have arrived a day before we actually did I decided I had better call the next hotel in Lucerne and see when we were expected. I did this at the Interlaken West train station while we were waiting to start our journey to Jungfraujoch. The Hotel Krone was expecting us to arrive that night and did not have room for us on our correct schedule. I then called Railtour Suisse and told them the problem and that I expected to have a message at the hotel that afternoon when we returned telling me which hotel we should stay at in Lucerne. (They complied with my request.)
It looked like the Jungfraujoch was going to be a similar SNAFU. There were far more people going than the trains could accommodate. All was well until we reached Kleine Scheidegg where we should board the Jungfrau Bahn. It was mobbed. We unsuccessfully attempted to board two trains at half hour intervals and then gave up and went for a hike. Once again, the carpets of wildflowers made all well. After about an hour we noticed that the crowds waiting for the train had dissipated so we hiked back down to the station and were able to board the next train.
After running outside for a while, the cog railway enters a tunnel and crosses inside the face of the Eiger to Jungfraujoch, the highest railway station in Europe. The structure is bolted to the face of the mountain. We had lunch, mailed some post cards at the highest post office in Europe, walked through the ice cave, then went outside and walked a bit on the glacier. The ice cave is the heat sink for the station environmental control and is 7 to 10 m under the surface of the glacier.
In addition to the hordes of oriental tour groups we have encountered so far we have now run into an East Indian tour group. They brought their own food to Jungfraujoch, vegetarian I assume.
I believe that the Swiss have built trams, funiculars, cog railways, or gondolas to the top of practically every promontory in the country. It must be a matter of pride for every town to have some sort of access to the higher country.
Wednesday 6/28. Pulled our suitcases two blocks to Interlaken West train station, pausing to photograph the aforementioned McDonaldís. A 10 minute ride took us to Interlaken Ost where we boarded the train for Lucerne. Went up a long valley. At the end they added a second engine, with cog capability, and we climbed back up the side of the valley and down the other side. At the first stop on the other side the supplemental engine was removed and we sped on our way.
Many of the trains we have ridden in Switzerland have cogs since the tracks are frequently too steep for friction drive. Even the rail cars have cog gears on the axles to aid in braking.
In Lucerne we pulled our suitcases across a bridge right across from the train station and then a couple of short blocks to Hotel Weisses Kreuz. We were too early to check in so we stashed our bags and checked out the town. A light rain started around noon so we ducked into a sidewalk restaurant for lunch.
This hotel, and the Hotel La Ginabelle in Zermatt, both have an interesting approach to key management. When you leave the hotel you place your large room key into a key lock which releases a smaller key which goes nicely in your pocket. In Zermatt, this key also unlocks the hotel front door which is locked late at night. In Lucerne, the room key is required to select floors in the elevator.
This seemed to be an appropriate time to have cheese fondue. We havenít had any so far on the trip and, after all, we are in Switzerland. We did have Chinois fondue in Zermatt. This is thinly sliced meat that you cook in hot broth at you table and then dunk in condiments before consuming. I prefer cheese.
Thursday 6/29. Last day to the true trip. All that is left after this is two days of getting home.
In spite of low clouds we set off to do the Mt. Pilatus thing. One of the big lake boats carried us down to lake to Alpnachstad. There we boarded the Worldís steepest cog railway or funicular. At some points the incline is 48%. When we reached the top the lowlands were mostly obscured. We had lunch while waiting for more clearing. It never really cleared but there were some good views. The "cheeky" black birds were quite entertaining.
We took a fairly long, level hike on an asphalt path chewed out of the mountain side. Not many wild flowers but some good patches of Edelweiss, the Swiss national flower. We then caught the cableway down to the next level where we caught another very long cableway to the bottom. A city bus completed the loop for us. There is a summer bobsled run that starts at the middle point. A metal chute snakes its way a thousand feet down the mountain side in which wheeled carts run.
Friday 6/30. Another trip on Swiss Rail, about a one hour trip to Zurich and a taxi to Hotel Tifeneau. It was built as a country home for a wealthy merchant. The town is all around it now. Although the room number was 120 it is on the same floor as reception and not on the same floor as the other 100 series rooms. The room door enters the side of a sort of hall way. The other side of the hall way opens into the room. At one end of the hall is a room containing the bathtub and a sink. At the other end of the hall, some 20 feet away, is the shower and a small room containing the toilet, not the most convenient arrangement. In spite of that, it was a very nice room in a pleasant hotel.
Once again, we arrived before the room was ready so we stashed our luggage and set out for town and a last session of shopping. After our last sidewalk café lunch we shopped more then walked back to the hotel to repack for the airplane. Zurich is the largest Swiss city we visited. It is a vital commercial city with little tourist affectations. The streets are filled with well dressed business women and men. I searched for but did not see any apparent Gnomes of Zurich.
Saturday 7/1. Shuttle to the airport; hassle the VAT refund; hassle Swissair who again tried to assign us the bulkhead seats. Finally the gate agent was able to give us better seats. Flight home better than trip over. Since it was daylight all the way the cabin crew seemed much more attentive. As opposed to the crew on the way over you could actually get something if you asked for it. There seemed to be an almost unending food service.
Most of the first phase of the trip was behind the former Iron Curtain. With few exceptions people seem pleased with the change. Prague is a vital, active city with a seemingly young population. There is construction everywhere. Buildings that are still in a state of disrepair have a clouded title. Construction has slowed somewhat in East Germany. The 50% tax credit offered by the German government expired two years ago. In spite of this, the construction cranes have flocked in East Berlin.
The Swiss rail system is magnificent. Imagine, if you will, a non English speaking person flying into LAX, catching very convenient public transportation to Union Station where they transfer to a frequently running train to Las Vegas. All of Switzerland seems highly organized. When things donít go as planned, however, there seems to be no work-around capability.
Cell phones are ubiquitous and in constant use. I suspect there are people in the former Communist areas who were never able to get a wired phone who now have only a cell phone. In general, things seem more modern electronically in Europe than in the US.