Thursday, June 27, 2013

A Brief Stop in Zurich

On our way from Lucerne to Hallstatt, we stopped in Zurich for about eight hours.  We checked out some churches, including one with unique stained glass windows by Marc Chagall (no pictures allowed, of course).

At one point, we found ourselves many sheets to the wind:
And finally, we checked out the very neat Google office in Zurich:
My favorite room was the jungle room, followed closely by the water room (both photos are from this article, if you'd like see more - much more than we saw, actually!).  The Zurich office has a print map with a walking tour for visitors.  Clearly, a popular place to tour if you know a Googler.

It Doesn't Get Much Better than Lake Lucerne

On our first night in Lucerne, we ate at Rathaus Brauerei, a restaurant and brewery recommended by Rick Steves.  Paul enjoyed a delicious beer and pondered the tubes of mustard:
We feasted on sausage and sauerkraut and on a cheesy noodle dish traditional to the region: 
Our second day in Lucerne, we left the city to go for a beautiful hike around Lake Lucerne on part of the Swiss Path (from Sisikon to Brunnen).  Paul said it might just win the award for prettiest place we've been so far on this trip:
Here's a link to the full panorama.   Hopefully it works!
I think I might have to agree.  Toward the end of the walk, we came upon a sight that I thought only existed in US parks - exercise stations.  Apparently I was wrong:
Paul is attempting the exercise, but at this point, our arms and legs were quite sore...
Swans are a common sight in Lucerne.  I think this old guy is glaring at me to stop taking his picture (it probably didn't help that I wasn't the only one snapping photos):
Some of the buildings are decorated in a pretty interesting manner...
In the course of two days in Lucerne, we went for three two-hour boat rides (covered by our Eurail pass!).  We rode a steamboat and enjoyed watching the crankshaft and piston rods (at least, that's what Paul tells me they are called):
The final boat ride was a sunset cruise:

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Wenger in Wengen!

There are only two things you need to know about Wengen.

1. I tried to pretend my name was everywhere (the sign actually says "Wengernalp"):

The sign says Wengernalp AND Wengen.  :)
and 2:
That folks, is more cowbell.

Okay, fine, a third thing = even more beautiful mountain views!  (This one isn't actually in Wengen, but is a not-terribly-long train ride away):

The Mighty Schilthorn

It took us three cable cars to get up to the peak of the Schilthorn, and my, what a view!
If you have a Google account, click here to view the full panoramic (hopefully it works!)
Paul laughs at me, but I have decided that cable cars are really not my preferred method of travel.  I wouldn't love them anyway, but I don't particularly enjoy it when the cable car rocks when it passes over support towers (about 10 seconds into the video below, although this particular car may not have rocked much).  It's also not helpful when Paul tells me how crazy it seems to him that so much of the equipment (the car, etc) is so sturdy and big, but we glide up on a wee little cable.  Thanks, husband.
Us and the mountains!
Hot chocolate in the revolving dining room:
And yet more mountains:
And finally, a video of a bird soaring on the mountain updraft:

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

The Glacier Field of Chilchbalm

Welcome to Gimmelwald!
On our first day in Gimmelwald, we went for a hike to something Rick Steves described as a glacier field.  It's called Chilchbalm, as you can see in the photo below:
Paul poked the snow:
And I stuck my fingers in the icy cold water:
On the way back, we checked out the wildlife and beautiful wildflowers:
Also, speaking of glaciers, the hotel at which we stayed had an interesting shower experience, which I dubbed the Alpine Freeze.  You had to pay 1 franc for five minutes of shower time, the machine to add another franc was no where near the shower, and when you got near the end of your 5 minutes, your only warning signal was that the water became absolutely freezing cold (like, top of the mountain water cold).  It also did that occasionally during the shower, presumably when someone flushed a toilet or similar.  Not an experience you'd want right before bed, I'd say.

The hotel itself was run by an 89 year old gentleman, Walter (his photo is on the website linked above - check it out!), and his assistant, Tim, who has been working there on a somewhat informal basis for something like 14 years.  They have an amusing relationship.  Tim tries to get guests to eat elsewhere so Walter doesn't have to cook dinners by saying that Walter isn't feeling well.  When we arrived, Paul said to Walter that he hoped he was feeling better, and Walter was like "who told you I wasn't feeling well?"  And then he proceeded to joke about Tim making things up and telling us how Tim sticks around because he wants a room so he can paraglide in the area and see his girlfriend.  Pretty funny.

In many ways it was a great place to stay - we had some great conversations with people over breakfast and dinner (including the mother of Paul's best friend in second grade!), and Tim and Walter were both very friendly and super helpful.  However, the number of spider webs was amusing - in doorways, in the corners of rooms, everywhere.

CSI Schilthorn

Amusing signs from the viewing station at the summit of the Schilthorn in the Alps:
CSI: Don't talk to the hand!

CSI: Ummm, a dinosaur put the cap on your bottle?  Anyone else have a better one for this one?

Monday, June 24, 2013

Lovely Interlaken

We spent one night in Interlaken in an amazing hostel.  If you are ever in Interlaken, I cannot possibly recommend Backpackers Villa more highly.  It was one of the cleanest places we stayed, and it had free lockers in the rooms.  Now that is a genius idea for a hostel.  Everyone was super-friendly, and there were lots of places to sit and relax.  We would happily have stayed there many more nights if we weren't eager to be on our way to Gimmelwald.

Switzerland is, well, beautiful, as you might expect.  The train ride in was quite pretty (and included breakfast - woot!).  Paul snapped several photos:
For lunch, I enjoyed a burger that included shredded carrots, something I think our US burgers are sorely lacking:
Interlaken is sandwiched between two lakes - Lake Thun and Lake Brienz.  We had hoped to ride one of the ferries to a castle on Lake Thun, but the ferry hours just didn't work out.  Instead, we hopped on one of the Lake Brienz ferries and floated along for three hours as it made its loop around the lake.  Switzerland has some great Eurail pass benefits, among them the ability to ride the ferries in Interlaken and Lucerne for free (or, as Paul is keen to point out, more like pre-paid, since our Eurail pass was pretty pricey!).  Paul got himself a beer:
And we enjoyed the endless views:

We topped off the day with dinner at the top of the ugliest and tallest building (a hotel) in Interlaken and enjoyed watching the paragliders land:

Friday, June 21, 2013

23 Hours in Paris

On our way from Spain to Switzerland, Paul and I spent 23 hours in Paris on June 15.  This followed a night train from Barcelona to Paris, which was rickety and less than comfortable, so we weren't running on the best night of sleep.  I mention that to preface a little accident I had in Paris, which I'll get to later.

We arrived in Spain before 10am at the Gare d'Austerlitz train station and walked immediately across the river to the Gare Lyon train station where there is a Eurail ticket office.  We needed to make reservations for a train from Switzerland to Austria, and apparently all the Eurail aid offices in Spain have been closed.  I reported this to the Eurail folks, who had no idea and are still looking into it (Eurail passes are truly a mixed bag, but perhaps that's info for a future post).

Over two hours later, we had our tickets.  A large chunk of this time was spent waiting unnecessarily in the long distance train line because the folks at the information desk did not know of the existence of a Eurail ticket office in their own train station.  And it's not like we were being confusing, we held up the pass and asked specifically for that office because we knew there was supposed to be one in the Gare Lyon.  The long distance ticket lady was able to point us to it, which is good, because there is no way on earth you will find that place without help.  It was tucked downstairs away from just about everything else.  Then, we waited in line for ages while two British girls tried to get out of Paris that day.  At that time, Paris had just completed a 36 hour train strike, so I'm amazed that they managed anything at all.

After that, we caught the metro (man, do I love public transportation in Europe - it's wonderful!) to our hotel, checked in early, and then went for a food hunt.  We found a market where we bought falafel, some sort of large pita stuffed with spinach and cheese (it looked like a ginormous pierogi), and fresh strawberries.

Next it was back to  Gare d'Austerlitz to join up with the Blue Bike Tour folks for a 4 hour whirlwind tour of Paris.  We were turned on to this company by the Canadian folks we met in Carcassonne who couldn't speak highly enough of it.  The bikes all had fun names - Paul chose Blaise Pascal.  I forget who I had.  We saw Notre Dame:
with its nearby bridge covered in an insane amount of locks (Paul and I wondered how much weight this added to the bridge):
the Eiffel Tower:
along with the Louvre, bridges, statues, the golden flame sculpture the US gave France as a thank you for the Statue of Liberty (to which the French were apparently like "what are we supposed to do with this?"), and more.  The sights were great, as was the information provided by the guide.  The tour is intended as an intro to Paris where you can get a sense of all the sights you want to go back to later, so we only paused briefly at the sights - not enough time to walk around or anything.  But it allowed us to see most of the important things in just 4 hours, which will be helpful in deciding if we'll pass back through Paris later, or just skip it in favor of crashing in Belgium with cool peeps for a while (the latter is more likely at this point - we are travel weary).

However, I'm not sure I recommend this tour as highly as others do.  It involved an insane amount of pedestrian dodging while trying to keep up with the other 10 folks in the tour,  look at all the sights around you, AND keep an eye out for all red lights so as not to run them and be smushed by a car.  It's a level path but you go over a lot of curbs and around a lot of sharp, blind corners.  So, as you can probably guess, this is where my little accident comes in.  While rounding a corner and trying to dodge a pedestrian at perhaps too high a speed for little old me, I wiped out.  Gracefully, I'm told.  Honestly, it even felt graceful and rather slow motion to me.  As far as bike accidents go, I am very lucky.  Just a bit bruised and scraped - scraped a knee (didn't even tear the pants - woot!), scraped my chin (less than desirable for pictures, wish I had some makeup with me...), and have a few bruises on my right thigh.  More embarrassed than anything, really.
You can see the mark on my chin from my fall.  However, the 5 bruises on my legs are much more colorful.
Moral of the story?  Be careful on bike tours.  :)

After the bike tour, we went back to Notre Dame so we could get a view of the famous flying buttresses:
The cathedral was still open (it was past 7pm at this point), so we poked around inside.  Definitely neater on the outside.  At this point, we've seen so many churches that they all start to look the same (minus the Sagrada Familia, of course).

Then, we went back to the hotel to clean my pants.  And me, too, I suppose, although my scrapes weren't very dirty and barely bled.  Then, out for a view of the Eiffel Tower at dusk:
And a little people watching (this shot is taken from where we were sitting but in the opposite direction from the Eiffel Tower):
It's really cool that this huge lawn in front of the Eiffel Tower is a gathering place at dusk for locals, mostly of the 18-35 age range, I would guess.  Groups of people sat in circles with wine (I wish outdoor drinking in the US wasn't banned in so many places!), picnics with all sorts of random food from grocery stores, and even hippy singing circles.  The one near us regaled those around it with a variety of US songs.

We ended the evening with dinner at a Thai restaurant which was absolutely delicious, due in no small part to the fact that the meal included no bread or cheese.  We are thoroughly sick of bread and cheese and sandwiches at this point, so curry and spring rolls were a welcome reprieve.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

The Second Coolest Churches in Europe

The Sagrada Familia is the coolest church in Europe, in my humble opinion, but I also really liked the churches with cloisters, too.  Something about a garden attached to a church just really appeals to me:
Another cloister church also had my favorite cross so far.  So much of the Christian iconography we have seen has been so dark, but this cross seems a bit more hopeful even though it is depicting a rather awful death:

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Castles, Dali, and Picasso, oh my!

We visited a castle on the top of Montjuïc in Barcelona. It had some neat stuff, including a big gun:
a lovely garden:
and a great view of the shipping port:
It's unbelievable how big that place is.  Thousands of shipping containers, and many ships out at sea waiting to pick them up.

We also took a day trip out to the Dali museum.  That was certainly an interesting place!  From shiny things:
to paintings of rock people:
to Abe Lincoln's "cheeky" (look closely, folks) portrait:
We also visited the Picasso museum, but weren't allowed to take photos.  Paul and I concluded that we like Picasso's earlier work - you know, before he was about 19 when he still painted and drew quite realistically.  The first piece of artwork they had by him was a drawing that Picasso did when he was 9.  Pretty neat!

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Barcelona: The Food

We spent five nights in an apartment in Barcelona:
It. was. awesome.  We were so happy to have a place to ourselves with a kitchen to cook full meals for the first time on this trip.  I was very very very sad to leave it.

We purchased fruits and vegetables from La Boqueria, a famous market on the Ramblas in Barcelona:
And made delicious home-cooked meals and homemade sangria:
Rick Steves has a "sweet walk" that involves 3 delicious stops.  The first stop, however, was not selling Horchata (also spelled Orxata, in Catalan, I think), a drink made with the chufa nut, but we found some later in the Gelateria and Orxateria below our apartment.

The second stop on the sweet walk involved churros dipped in hot chocolate - hot chocolate as thick as the stuff in Lake Como, if not thicker.  It was delicious:
The final stop was a very old candy store with delicious chocolates that came in a fancy little bag:
And, of course, we tried tapas: