31 December 2008

The Land of Sir Ulrich

Thursday, 7 August 2008

European Adventure Travel Day 6
Part 3: Vaduz, Leichtenstein

Getting to Liechtenstein was an adventure. After arriving in Buchs by train, J and I had to catch the lime green bus that would take us over the border to Liechtenstein's capital city, Vaduz. We had to wait for the bus in the rain, and when we got on board, it was chock-full of people returning from a trip to the swimming pool and speaking a language we didn't recognize. Later we figured out that it was the fourth Swiss language, Romansch.

Fürstentum Liechtenstein
(Welcome to the Principality of Liechtenstein)

J and her handy-dandy guide book got us safely off the bus. Unsure where to begin our visit, the rain turned into a thunderstorm and decided for us. We ducked for cover inside this church. St. Florinskirche is a gothic cathedral where the members of the Liechtenstein royal family are married and baptized. It's beautiful... and huge.

St. Florin's Parish Church

After most of the lightning had subsided, we continued on down Staedtle Street towards the pedestrian town center. I was backed up against a wall trying to fit the whole of the Government Building in my frame (hence its former affectionate nickname "The Large House"), but finally gave up and settled for the coat of arms over the entrance.

The Government Building, once known as the "Large House," and Liechtenstein's princely coat of arms

I like national flags, but when you find a cow painted as the flag it's even more fun. Mooooo. I hope you know that I sacrificed my dignity to post this picture...

I never saw a purple cow. I never hope to see one... but red and blue cows are okay.

The storm picked up again, so J and I waited it out in the tourist center, where there were lots of stamp collectors wandering in and out. I'm not a philatelist, so J and I had our passports stamped instead. We also picked up loads of free stuff like stickers, postcards and candy. Also temporary tattoos. That's right... I have a Liechtenstein tattoo!

We moved on to the shops, where I could have purchased all manner of things to authenticate my time in-country, but being happy with my temporary tattoos, I decided to forego the steins and cuckoo clocks.

Castles are everywhere!

As we headed back toward the lime green bus stop, we came across this. Now, wikipedia claims that Liechtenstein is a capital of winter sport, so this was really funny. We stopped and watched for a bit. Didn't hurt that the guys were easy on the eyes.

One thing I never expected to see in a tiny mountain country:
an international beach volleyball tournament

We stopped at a grocery store for dinner (those Coop signs in the above picture are one of the two major grocery stores in this part of the world... Migros is the other) because that's what J and I do. The grocery stores over here sell lassis of all flavors to go. I picked out a chai lassi, and then, besides the usual assortment of fresh bread, cheese, meat (chorizo, this time), and chocolate, I found Guaraná Antarctica. Yes, I know it's Brazilian, but Vaduz is where I tried it for the first time. It is amazing. J was laughing at me because I went a little bit crazy in the store.

Vaduz, Liechtenstein, as seen from the Swiss countryside

A sign on the bus forbade the partaking of food and drink enroute, but J and I surreptitiously snacked on some candy called Maoam (fruit flavored chews similar to Laffy Taffy). Shhh, don't tell. We were soaked and starving, very bad combo. We did have a great view of the city on the way out, after the clouds had cleared off a bit. Vaduz is literally a mountainside city.

Painted cows, beach volleyball and an attack by lightning. All in a day's touring.

29 December 2008

The world's language

As you may or may not have noticed, soccer was my first love. My mother actually forced me to play when I was nine years old in September 1994, coincidentally just after the World Cup was held in the US. Since that summer, I reconciled myself to playing with boys and fell in love with the game. Of course, now that I've experienced all aspects of the game on multiple levels (and by "all" I mean playing, coaching, reffing, and watching it) I can be snobby and call it "football." I have stories about all the places I've experienced because of it, why I have so much passion for it, and how much the people I've met through it has changed my life. My sisters and I have even been on Brazilian television. No doubt eventually some of these stories will trickle out of me, but for one second I just have to be Super Excited.

Clint Dempsey is my favorite American player. I met him twice a couple of years ago; he's a really fantastic guy. He currently plays for Fulham FC in London as well as the US national team. Today, he scored the two goals that held Chelsea to a draw. Now, I'm not strictly a Fulham supporter--I follow the club for Dempsey--but I do love watching pretty football from any country. Anyway. Tying Chelsea is kind of a big deal. :) Up Fulham! Come on you Whites!

I can't think of any one thing more cosmopolitan and global than soccer. Therefore, sometimes I must natter on about it because it's one of those hard-to-explain passions that fills up my heart and it just spills over. It has something to do with the taste of sweat and grass, the intensity of living in the moment, and the way I made instant friends with a boy in a Dutch pub because I could name a few Nederlands footy stars. It has to do with my brother playing street soccer with urchins in Mexico, and with the drums in the stadium that never stop during a match. The whole world speaks this language. All you need is a ball.

25 December 2008

Happy Christmas!

Before it's over...

I just want to take a second and look past all the commercialism, the busyness, the stress, fights and tears that often accompany holidays, and the bad weather that cancelled plans all over the nation.

Christmas is for family and friends. It's for traditions and memories. It's for fellowship and giving. Most of all, it's to celebrate the birth of Jesus.

This is a lyric from one of my favorite Christmas songs, I Celebrate The Day, as done by Relient K:

And so this Christmas I'll compare
The things I've felt in prior years
To what this midnight made so clear
That you have come to meet me here

To look back
And think that
This baby would one day save me
And the hope that
That you give
That you were born so I might really live


Happy birthday, Jesus.

24 December 2008

Santa has a sunburn

I love Christmas. I usually spend it with my family, indulging in our holiday traditions both at church and at home, but two years ago was a little bit different. Four days after Christmas 2006, I was in Honolulu on the first leg of my South Pacific adventure with my school. It was a warm December in Boston, so there wasn't any snow when we flew out, but our arrival in Hawaii still made us feel like we'd flown from winter to summer. On our first day, we were turned loose to find food at the Ala Moana mall. Santa was on the roof!

You don't expect to see Santa in the land of palm trees and luaus.

Not even four days after Christmas.

(...I always knew there was a reason that my parents paid my brother and me in macadamia nuts for reciting Luke 2 at Christmastime when we were small)

Walking around downtown Honolulu, we, the group of students raised with all four seasons (and I, having spent my formative years in Oregon, formerly found a nor'easter to be a culture-shock!), were amused by people in flip-flops and bathing suits ambling past the light-up snowflakes and other festive paraphernalia decorating the palm trees. We rang in 2007 in the air over Hawaii, looking down on the fireworks exploding all over the island.

By the time we arrived in New Zealand, we were slightly more accustomed to our summer/winter paradox, even though the Christmas holidays being in the warm season still took some getting used to. I'm not the only one who feels that way, as I found when I recently saw a bit in the New Zealand Herald asking for Antipodean views on the best and worst Christmas carols. One commenter from New South Wales summed up general opinion: "worst: ...anything that mentions snow, sleighs, reindeer, winter wonderlands. It's summer, people!"

So this Christmas, whether you are wishing your loved ones a "Mele Kalikimaka!" or simply a Merry Christmas*, remember that it can be merry and bright, no matter the weather. Also, there's nearly two feet of snow where I am, so please stop singing White Christmas.

*Or if you're doing your wishing in any of the following languages-

Feliz Navidad
Vrolijk Kerstfeest (Dutch)
Hyvää joulua
Joyeux Noël (French)
Frohe Weihnachten (German)
Buon Natale (Italian)
Feliz Natal (Portuguese)

-then Merry Christmas to you, too!

20 December 2008

Modern fairytales

Thursday, 7 August 2008

European Adventure Travel Day 6
Part 2: Stein am Rhein, Switzerland

In the end, I'm not sure how we found this beautiful little town, but I think J read about it in her ever-present guidebook. I had a roommate who lived in Basel (due west along the Rhein) for a year, but she had never heard of this place. Too bad. She missed out. Stein am Rhein was one of the highlights of my trip.

We got off the train in the newer part of the city and followed the procession of bathing suits, inflatable rafts and picnic baskets down the street and around the corner to the river. Next to the bridge, which leads to the medieval town center, there's a lovely pushing-off point for boaters. Naturally, it being a gorgeous (and hot!) day, there were a plethora of ambitious paddlers crowding the area. We dodged them and continued across the river. You can't tell from the pictures, but the entire length of the bridge is bedecked with flowers, and all manner of boats displaying both Swiss and German flags move up and down the river with varying degrees of speed and jollity.

Looking from new to old, under the shadow of the castle: Burg Hohenklingen

As soon as we crossed over the Rhein, we figured out what gives the town the reputation of being one of the most beautiful cities in Switzerland. All the buildings are exquisitely painted, some have colorful shutters and trim, some are giant canvases for bright, fairytale-esque murals. Most have window boxes full of geraniums. The old city center is beyond picturesque... it's like stepping into another world. J describes it as 'Hans Christian Andersen.' The façade paintings on the building date back as far as the early 1500s. Stein am Rhein was bombed during the second World War, but all the pretty stuff made it through.

Medieval Stein am Rhein

In the middle of the square are all the tables that belong to the sidewalk cafés. We arrived at lunchtime, and most shops close for one hour around noon. The intense heat appeared to have little effect on the average appetite, as evidenced by the delicious smells we caught as we passed families carving into whole roast chickens and dipping into pots of fondue.

Even the streets fit the theme of the town. Saint George battles the dragon every ten feet or so. The ladies of the town must be so proud. But then again... it's not a very big dragon.

The fairytale town's own Knight in Shining Armor

One of the best things about Switzerland: public water fountains! They can be a lifesaver in August. I may have bought several large bottles of water and Rivella before I understood what they were. Most of them are pretty, some are plain, but all of them provide cold, fresh, running water for your hydration needs.

On a side note, Rivella is good. It's made from milk serum, but it tastes kind of citrus-y. J and I were not able to identify it satisfactorily, but yum. I love trying all the crazy foods in other countries that I can't get at home.

And you thought cats didn't like water!

Since most of the shops were temporarily closed for lunch, J and I ambled outside the north city gate to see this church. Its copper roof has turned as green as the Statue of Liberty from years of inclement weather. I love Swiss graveyards. Rather than grassy fields or bare church floors, the graves are turned into well-kept flowerbeds.

After lunch, J and I browsed a few shops in the town. One shop was four or five rooms absolutely filled with blown glass: vases, ornaments, jewelry, tiny animals... everything you can imagine. I was tempted by the glass animals, because my mother has collected them since childhood, but I thought it best not to chance it in the backpack for another three weeks. J, heading back home long before I would, bought the most adorable frog (which did make it back to the States in one piece).

After shopping we went down the to riverbank, where J tried to convince me not to jump in, pack and all. It was that hot. I compromised with my toes, then we walked away from the land of enchantment, back to the train station. We headed for Buchs, via Rorschach and Romanshorn. Not that you particularly needed to know that, but I think those are fantastic city names. :)

Next adventure, Liechtenstein!

09 December 2008

Bumpy water and the world from on high

Thursday, 7 August 2008

European Adventure Travel Day 6
Part 1: Neuhausen am Rheinfall and Schaffhausen, Switzerland

Neuhausen am Rheinfall and Schaffhausen are both towns in northern Switzerland, near the Swiss-German border. Neuhausen, obviously, boasts the majestic waterfalls of the Rhine River. But you knew that. We followed the yellow feetprints painted on the street from the train station to this:

First look at the Rheinfall. We're about to go over...

...a huge waterfall, sharp rocks at the bottom...

Bring it on.

Believe it or not, a little tour boat pulls right up to that middle rock so people can get a real close look at the power of the water. As impressive and beautiful as the Rheinfall is, despite the churning and the rainbows, I just couldn't help but think of a certain General George S. Patton in connection with the infamy of the Rhine. :)

This weird girl kept getting in all the pictures.

We walked up to the bus stop so we wouldn't have to climb all the way up the very steep hill. That's not cheating. That's taking advantage of the amenities at our disposal. J asked a lady to direct us to the Roman ruins, and she looked very confused and pointed to the Munot.

The Munot is a very-definitely-not-ruined medieval fortress on top of a (very tall) hill. It's the town symbol; a large, round, stone fortification built in the 16th century. The Munot is surrounded by a deep trench that might once have been a moat, and said trench is now home to a baby red deer. It smelled a little funny, so we crossed the little drawbridge and entered. Just inside, the Munot is gloriously dungeon-y and reminiscient of the underground caverns of the Dwarves in Lord of the Rings.

The Munot, medieval fortress of Schaffhausen: outside

and inside

I couldn't take a picture of the front because there was a river in the way. To get to the top of the fortress, you walk up a cobbled ramp that winds around and around, but it wide enough to move wheeled cannons up and down. On top of the Munot, there is a giant screen for projected movies under the stars. And some cannons. I like artillery.

Schaffhausen from the Munot

The Swiss don't waste an inch... the entire hill is banked with vineyards. Excellent drainage, I'm told.

Some awesome building with a hole in it

In my completely unbiased opinion, the Rheinfall was one of the coolest things I saw in Switzerland.

Day 6 to be continued in Stein am Rhein (aka the fairytale town) and Liechtenstein. :)

07 December 2008

No wonder people are distressed by lifesize Orlando Bloom posters.

Wednesday night, 6 August 2008

We spent the night of the 6th in oldtown Zürich, in a little rock-n-roll inn called Zic Zac Rock Hotel.

Oldtown Zürich has narrow cobbled streets for pedestrians only, and the entrance to the Hotel is around the corner from the address given. This is because the Hotel begins on the second floor, and the address is to the building and the stairs are around the side. There is a bustling sidewalk cafe below the hotel. We arrived there after dark and bumbled about for a bit trying to decide exactly where we belonged, until a nice waiter took pity on us and led us around to the door.

Zic Zac Rock Hotel is a unique little place. Each of the rooms is named after a musical group or artist, designated by a little plaque on the door, and there are little guitars in the carpet and rock memorabilia on the walls. J and I were placed in the George Michael room (spelt "Georg" Michael on the door plate... he must be Austrian).

The Georg Michael room was quite a terrifying experience.

The proprietors must not have been able to find many George Michael mementoes, but we also didn't see inside any of the other rooms, so that is based purely on assumption. On one wall was hung a small photo of George Michael at a concert. On the wall next to my bed was a GIGANTIC MURAL of George Michael leering into the room. J made me sleep next to him.

I distracted myself from the prying eyes of the mural by tuning into one of the three television channels to watch some soccer. Bellinzona played FC Aarau in the Swiss Super League. Tragically, even my beloved footy couldn't take away the utter creepiness. Maybe it was the lock of painted hair falling suggestively on the painted forehead. Maybe it was because the entire room was a delicate yellow color. Maybe it was the creepy eyes that burned this image into my brain forever... actually yeah. I think that was it.

Our window opened above another sidewalk cafe, so the fabulous smells and the sound of laughter drifted up to us long after we fell asleep under the watchful eyes of Mr. George Michael. In the morning we took the tram back to Zurich Hoptbahnhof (main station) and caught the early train to Schaffhausen, away from Zurich and George Michael.

Why couldn't we have stayed in the "John Bon Jovi Room"?

01 December 2008

Feedback feeds my soul

There's something about long, chilly evenings that makes me want to tweak my blog layout. Or maybe it's the merlot...


Apologies for the infrequent postings. I have, however, edited 1300 of my 1500+ pictures... and yes, I did return from this trip three months ago. I ambitiously told my family that I would update from hostels along the way, but that definitely didn't happen. Surprise surprise.

I've had more blog traffic than I originally expected. I know sometimes commenting is scary, but writers loooove feedback. So, for you to feedback in a totally non-threatening way, I added another annoying little button at the bottom of every post. Read the post, and then click a reaction word*. Or not.

"Sweet as" is a colloquial New Zealand expression for good, cool, awesome, yeah, agreed, etc. Of course, in Kiwi vernacular children are called "sprogs," so take that as you will. There is a NZ restaurant called "Sweet As" though. When I go back, I will eat there. That is a threat AND a promise.

"Funny" and "interesting" are both words that have described me at one time or another during my life. Usually in the context of "funny peculiar" and "dear me, that is an... interesting... use of interpretive dance as an art form."

Just kidding. I express myself in other ways.

Let me know if you like clicking words. I might change the words. Or take them off. Whatever.

*subject to change according to whimsy

ETA: took 'em off. They annoyed me. And no, that is
not how I deal with all my problems. ;)

21 November 2008

He who falls in lake gets wet.

Wednesday, 6 August 2008

European Adventure Travel Day 5
Part 2: Luzern to Lugano to Zurich, Switzerland

To help you get the idea of the ridiculousness of our travel, I made a map detailing our journey on August the sixth. Practicality? Pssssh, who needs it? Although we did feel a bit like we were leaving a trail like the kids in the Family Circus cartoons...

We made it to Lugano, so far south that the only thing distinguishing it from Actual Italy is paying with francs. And the uniforms of the police. Anyway, I think everything sounds prettier in the language it's meant to be said in, so I present to you Città di Lugano, the city of Lugano.

Lago di Lugano through some trees and a pointy thing

Italian Switzerland is very hot. The sun beats down on the lakes, and since I'm sure most of you had high school chemistry, you can imagine the humidity. So, the pictures are a little hazy. Sorry.

Inside the Cattedrale di San Lorenzo, Lugano, Switzerland

This church is high on the hill above the city. It's decorated inside with red and black marble, and there are old frescoes on the walls that are partially rubbed away by time. The ceilings and pillars look like they are inlaid, the wood is old, and all the grates are wrought-iron. There are all sorts of other delights hiding away in the dim recesses of the alcoves. It's absolutely beautiful.

Prayer Candles

Some things are newer than others. Some things don't change.

Steep streets in Lugano

After leaving the cathedral, we headed for the lake. The streets in Lugano are steep, as evidenced by the shallow steps in the 'sidewalk' in the above photo, but they're home to loads of sidewalk cafés, full of customers all day long. The tables don't tip. The physics defy me.

We stopped by a gelato stand on the lakeshore. J didn't want any, but I love the stuff. I hope they serve stracciatella gelato in heaven. Because greed does not apply to gelato, I also had the Fruita Esotica. :)


For those of you who have never had the pleasure, gelato is Italian ice cream, but denser and lower in fat (but not in flavor!) than American ice cream. Stracciatella, also known as Romeo & Juliet, means 'torn apart' in Italian. Makes sense, right? Anyway, it's made of amazing vanilla with shaved chocolate. But if you're not into that, gelati comes in zillions of other flavors. Not even kidding.

The church bells were ringing, but I didn't go to service. Please don't tell my mother.

We continued around the lake for awhile, before facing the flight of several hundred stairs that took us back to the road the train station was on. We noticed an old trolley track next to the steps as we dragged ourselves up, but we figured that it had died of exhaustion long ago.

When we climbed, gasping, to the top of the hill where the train station was located (naturally), who did we see walking toward us but Sabit, the Turkish boy we got to know in Interlaken? His face was absolutely priceless as it morphed from recognition to shock to glee in just a few seconds. We told him where to go for good gelato, then hopped a train back to Zurich.

03 November 2008

Lucerne is for Lovers

Wednesday, 6 August 2008

European Adventure Travel Day 5
Part 1: Interlaken to Lucerne, Switzerland

A commentary on some pictures for you all. Lucerne was one of my favorite places in Switzerland.

This photograph was our last look at Interlaken, as the train rolled out around the eastern lake.


Lucerne/Luzern is absolutely breathtaking. The city is built on the shores of Lake Lucerne, straddling the Reuss River. It has a medieval town center, two medieval bridges, and an old city wall, not to mention the awesome lion monument in my last post. We literally walked out of the train station and saw this:

Kapellbrücke - Chapel Bridge

J and I followed a map up to the top of this hill so we could check out the view from the city walls, which now divide the old city from the modern city. Hills get steeper when you take your 20kg backpack with you. And, the towers actually being quite old, the staircases inside them are steep and narrow, and sometimes the steps are really tall. We had shaky-leg syndrome by the time we reached the top.

City walls and watchtower of Lucerne

This man was on the roof of the watchtower. I may have been guilty of making a "manskirt" comment. Or two. He took them stoically.

Friend of the Roof Squirrels

The view is worth the climb, shaky legs and all. Idyllic. The lake, the mountains, all the beautiful old churches and bridges. Gorgeous.

Land of Yoghurt and other Dairy Delicacies

This fellow and some friends were grazing at the base of the wall. I love his horns. And the look on his face. My brothers give me that look sometimes. I'm sure I don't deserve it.


We had to return to the train station eventually. We went to the grocery store inside the station for lunch, and I found a rack of rolls shaped like animals for children. Let me tell you, if you've never had European bread, you are missing out. J and I ate a lot of bread and cheese on our trip, mostly because we didn't want anything else. Soooooo good.

Turtles can be bread, too!

If you don't know already, I am a soccer/football/footy fanatic. Thus, I was excited to see this sign hanging in the train station. If you sound out all the vowels in the word, it sounds just like the commentators say it on television (Gooooooooaaaaaaal, not abfahrten). The same in any language. :)

Train station sign with priorities

Just as Mark Twain found true of the city over a hundred years ago, there are still myriads of trinket shops. I bought Swiss Army knives for some of the men in my family.
I do wish that we'd had more time in Lucerne. We visited Hofkirche, a 16th-century church with huge, heavy doors that is just beautiful inside. There was an old man praying alone in a pew, and I felt sorry for him because a large group came in after us and weren't very respectful. He lit a candle and returned to the sunshine. We had to get back on a train to go south to Lugano (between Bellinzona and the Swiss-Italian border), and it's a three-hour ride.

22 October 2008

The Lion of Lucerne

Our next destination was Lucerne, but before I write about the city, I want to introduce you to my favorite monument, the Lion of Lucerne. In his book A Tramp Abroad, Mark Twain calls the Lion "the most mournful and moving piece of stone in the world."

The Löwendenkmal - The Lion of Lucerne

The Swiss have been politically neutral for centuries. They also have a history of supplying mercenaries to foreign governments, and dignitaries trusted the Swiss Guards not to turn against them with shifting politics.

In 1792, after trying to escape the French Revolution, King Louis XVI, Marie-Antoinette and their children were hauled back to the Tuileries Palace in Paris, which was stormed by an angry mob of blood-thirsty Parisian revolutionaries. More than seven hundred Swiss officers and soldiers died there, unaware that the royal family was already gone.

The Lion of Lucerne was designed by Danish artist Bertel Thorvaldsen, and carved into the sandstone cliff of an old quarry in 1820 by Lucas Ahorn, a German stone-mason.

The Latin inscription HELVETIORUM FIDEI AC VIRTUTI means "To the loyalty and bravery of the Swiss". You'll also find the engraved names of the dead and of the saved officers of the Swiss guard, as well as the death toll among the Swiss soldiers (DCCLX = 760) and the number of surviving soldiers (CCCL = 350).

Because Mark Twain is more gifted with words than I, here is his description of the Lion:

"The Lion lies in his lair in the perpendicular face of a low cliff - for he is carved from the living rock of the cliff. His size is colossal, his attitude is noble. How head is bowed, the broken spear is sticking in his shoulder, his protecting paw rests upon the lilies of France. Vines hang down the cliff and wave in the wind, and a clear stream trickles from above and empties into a pond at the base, and in the smooth surface of the pond the lion is mirrored, among the water-lilies.

Around about are green trees and grass. The place is a sheltered, reposeful woodland nook, remote from noise and stir and confusion–and all this is fitting, for lions do die in such places, and not on granite pedestals in public squares fenced with fancy iron railings. The Lion of Lucerne would be impressive anywhere, but nowhere so impressive as where he is."

-Mark Twain, A Tramp Abroad, 1880

I think Twain is right. Somehow, standing before that pool of water in the unnatural stillness that is rarely found in the presence of a multitude of tourists, you can almost feel the lion's anguish. Because it touched me, I wanted to share it with you. And it doesn't have to be soldiers who died 200 years ago, but stop for a minute and remember those who have died defending others.

14 October 2008

and there I met a boy with long eyelashes...

Tuesday, 5 August 2008

European Adventure Travel Day 4:
Zermatt to Interlaken, Switzerland

Morning in Zermatt. J and I woke up and stumbled around our tiny room, trying to keep from waking the snoring mountaineers, then we went down to a real Swiss breakfast of muesli, yoghurt, bread, jam, cheese and cold cuts, with tea or juice. There were no tourists in the dining room. Everyone was dressed in hiking or mountain biking gear, showcasing their windburned faces and sunbleached hair. After we repacked our bags, we retraced our taxi ride by foot back to the center of town. This passed us on the way:

(All pics are clickable)
Zermatt electric car with concrete mixer

Because there are no cars allowed in this town -and therefore no heavy equipment- they have to transport stuff to building sites the hard way. After the concrete vat guy went past, he was followed by several loads of sand and gravel. We also met lots of people dressed to the nines in ski gear, walking up the street in ski boots with not a trace of snow in sight.

We caught our train to Interlaken, but the view was spoiled because most of the trip was through tunnels. When we pulled into the station, J pulled out her handy map that told us to "follow the brown signs to the hostel." As it turned out, the "brown" signs were really a mustardy-yellow.

View from my room

Balmer's Herberge is a famous European hostel, the oldest private hostel in Switzerland. We were on the second floor of the main building, right under the sign. There's an underground bar and the floors are creaky and old. It's been expanded until it resembles a maze. We ditched our stuff and walked around town for awhile. Interlaken is the country's adventure capital, offering canyoning, glacier climbing, skydiving, and whitewater rafting, among others.

Paragliders in Interlaken, Switzerland

Since it's not cheap to participate in any of the above, J and I explored the town and the shops for several hours. Eventually we came across the park where the tandem paragliders were landing. We watched them land, fold their chutes and stuff them back into the bags. I want a job where I can soar through the air all day so tourists can get their thrills!

Grounded paragliders

Back at the hostel with our picnic lunch, J and I met a Turkish boy named Sabit. He was on his own, so he ate lunch with us before having a go at whitewater rafting. After he came back that evening, J headed for bed, so he asked if I wanted to walk. Interlaken has an enforced noise curfew of 10pm (hence the bar being underground), so we wandered in the gathering dark until we met an elderly couple. Sabit asked which lake was prettier, so they pointed us east. We decided to go as far as the canal, so we walked to the place where there are steps down into the icy water.

Interlaken canal bridge

Then we went shopping. He was looking for a Swiss watch, so I picked out the biggest mens watch I could find and told him I wanted it. He looked confused and told me "is for male," so I amused both of us instead by trying on ridiculous orange sunglasses. We walked again under the trees with camoflage bark and leaves that cast shadows shaped like flowers in the light of the streetlamps, until he abruptly decided he was tired and we should go back. Before long neither of us recognized the area. He wanted to stop and ask directions (!) but I could see grass just down the street. It was the paraglider landing park, so I practically dragged him up the street and found our way home. He bought me Toffifay candy from a vending machine because there was a footballer on the package in honor of EuroCup 2008. Sabit speaks 5 or 6 languages, and he told me that Aussies sound like Americans. He gave me double kisses and the box of candy and said goodnight.

Sunrise in the Alps

Interlaken is beautiful. My one regret is not taking the train up to Gimmelwald and to Jungfraujoch, the "top of Europe." I understand it to be breathtaking there. J was exhausted, so we just stayed in Interlaken. We had a good time, even without the extreme sports. :)

01 October 2008

Espresso, dungeons and chalets

Monday, 4 August 2008

European Adventure Travel Day 3:
Milan, Italy to Zermatt, Switzerland

Have you ever tried making a call from a pay phone that is in another language? Harder than it sounds. I think it only took me 15 minutes to figure it out... I almost gave up twice, but I didn't think that the friend (J) I was scheduled to meet in Switzerland would appreciate my misplacing myself and not warning her, so I dug deep and found the extra determination necessary to defeat the Italian phone lines and leave her a message. Then, I reserved myself a seat on the next train headed in a north-easterly direction, and sat outside the station in the bright sun for two hours.

Best thing about Italian train stations: espresso bars. Men in expensive business suits standing around and sipping coffee out of tiny cups and reading newspapers and/or talking animatedly. Not to mention the amazing espresso and cappucinos. And gelato.

Worst thing about Italian train stations: terrible currency exchange rates. And pigeons indoors.

The train route took me back up through the Lake District and around Lago Maggiore, which is so beautiful that it was all I could do not to jump off the train and stay there for the day. The man with the cappucino cart and the knowledge of my call to J saved my sanity. I want to go back someday. Maggiore, Como, Lugano... each lake is unique, but all are breathtaking. Some call the Lake District the "best-kept secret of Italy." I'm inclined to agree.


On to Montreux, Switzerland. The train track curls around the northern edge of Lac Léman, otherwise known as Lake Geneva, and past the château; the hills and lakes of northern Italy having given way to the mountains and vineyards of southern Switzerland.

The train pulled into the station at Montreux, where J found me without further ado and herded me downstairs and across the street to the bus. Because there are perks that come with a Eurail pass, the château waived the 12CHF entrance fee. J rented an audio guide to share so we could learn Cool Stuff.

Château de Chillon

In the summer of 1816, Lord Byron and his buddy Percy Bysshe Shelley visited the Château de Chillon, taking an especial interest in the dungeons where the political prisoner François de Bonivard spent several years in captivity. Lord Byron was inspired by his story and, envisioning a path worn around the base of a pillar by years of Bonivard's pacing, carved his name in the pillar. He went on to compose his famous poem The Prisoner of Chillon in Bonivard's honor.

In Chillon's dungeons deep and old,
There are seven columns, massy and grey,
Dim with a dull imprison'd ray,
A sunbeam which hath lost its way

Contrary to the theme of the poem, however, the dungeons are not actually underwater, but right next to the water, and the sound of waves lapping at the shore is constantly heard. The château is built on and encompasses a small rocky island just off the shore of Lake Geneva. The island acted as natural protection and as a strategic location to control movement between the north and the south of Europe.

There are three major periods of the castle's history. The earliest mention of the castle dates back to 1150, during the Savoy period (12th century to 1536) when the Savoy family controlled the fortress and the lakeshore. Then the Bernese conquered the Vaud (Chillon being in the canton of Vaud) region, chased the Savoys out, and occupied Chillon in 1536. For the next 260 years the castle was used as a fortress, arsenal, and prison. The current period, the Vaudois era, began when the Bernese left Chillon at the time of the Vaud revolution in 1798.

Swans in the Chillon "moat"

The castle was originally whitewashed stone, but now the stone is bare because people thought that bare stone looked more "authentic" on a castle than whitewash. Silly people.

Windows in the great hall looking across to France

The dungeons are on the south side of the castle, looking across to France. They are built with huge vaulted Gothic ceilings, and on either side are rooms of convenience including food storage and execution chambers. Pleasant, I know. The upper levels are fortress on one side (including the keep and armories) and residential (chambers, halls and courtyards) on the other. This photograph is of a staircase between the lord's chambers and his chapel, worn away by centuries of use.

Chapel stairs

Once we had absorbed all the history we could, we returned to the train station to catch a train to Visp, where we boarded a little red mountain train bound for our evening's destination of Zermatt, under the shadow of the Matterhorn. The train's windows had knobs on them so you could pull them open. This picture may have been taken with the entirety of my upper body leaning precariously out of the train toward the glacial river...

Zermatt mountain train

As we climbed higher into the Swiss mountains, we began to pass tiny villages snug up to the tracks. At one station, I waved to a grandma in a rocking chair on the balcony of her chalet. She waved back until our train disappeared from sight. There were herds of cows with bells and donkeys grazing in fields of wildflowers. Further along, the tall mountain peaks dropped steeply away from the train tracks, into a river grey with rock flour.

Zermatt, Switzerland

We arrived in Zermatt after dark. Zermatt is a pedestrian-only town, the only vehicles being tiny electric taxis and trucks that whiz around the streets with little regard for pedestrians and bicyclists. We hailed a taxi for a ride up to our hostel due to our decidely un-adventurous desire to drop our packs and fall asleep. As it turned out, we were in a "mixed dorm" with one old man and three young men, the latter having hiked 160km through the mountains in the past 9 days. I slept like a baby and missed out on their snoring. :)

I took this photograph of a white cross on the hillside above the chalets by leaning out the window above one of said sleeping boys. It's a charming little town (with an intense shopping district for the wealthy ski clientele) but it's definitely expensive to get to. I wanted to ski!

J blogs her perspective of the day's adventure here.