The Great Swiss Outing, Day 8: On the Mountain of Dragons & Auf Wiedersehen

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I awoke to an overcast day which was rather fitting for my mood.  I was feeling a little melancholy as today marked the final day of this grand adventure.  I looked back on all the great events of the week and the new friends made and still found it hard to believe that it was already at an end.

The morning started in the usual way though we had a bit of a breather as we didn’t have to get going until 8:45am.  At that time we were on the bus and heading to Mt Pilatus (Dragon Mountain).

We were to reach our destination via cogwheel railway, but this would be no ordinary journey.  The train used to get to the top of Mt Pilatus has to traverse the steepest incline in the world at a jaw dropping 48% meaning that the train is almost traveling up a straight vertical line.

It was quite a pretty view as we came chugging around the mountain.  But nothing compared to the view from the top.  Mt Pilatus contains two peaks and between them lies some of the prettiest scenery this side of Heaven with forests, valleys, distant mountains, and villages.  It is also a popular hiking spot and we saw people hiking up from the very bottom of the mountain.

I climbed both peaks and even found a little side exit that led me to a knoll where I did a little free climbing and just sat in and soaked up the view.

 

At 11:30am, we began the journey down via gondola, boarded the bus, and headed back to the bus where we were driven back to the hotel.

We had 15 minutes to put our colder gear away before Brane took us on a walking tour of the “old town” of Lucerne.  We walked across the famous Chapel Bridge and stopped into Jesuitenkirche, a Jesuit church.  As our afternoon was going to be free, I thought I might be able to catch a service, but this church did not offer a Saturday night mass.

 

After our brief walk, we were left to our own devices for the rest of the day.  I walked along the river and wandered about the streets before returning to the hotel.  I spent the afternoon reorganizing my luggage for the trip home, taking a small catnap, filling out my Globus questionnaire, and getting cleaned up for dinner.

We had a farewell dinner in our hotel where we supped on seasoned leaf salad with a homemade dressing, a main course of wild garlic risotto and braised tomatoes, with a dessert of chocolate mousse and cream served over fresh fruit.

Once more it was a pleasant night of conversation as we regaled each other with stories of the week.  As I write this as I once more feel that slight twinge of sadness to be leaving this country and this remarkable group of people whom I may never see again.  Marty & Val.  Mr. & Mrs. James Bond.  Bill & Bonnie.  Carol & Perry.  All the rest.  It was a joy to share this adventure with you.

I have many fond memories of this trip, yet I look forward to the next time my little corner and I visit another country.  But for now, it’s back to the homestead.

The Great Swiss Outing, Day 7: Ain’t No Party Like a Folklore Party

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Bern, Switzerland

What an amazing night!  But I seem to be approaching the story from the end.  Let’s go back to the beginning.

The jangling of the telephone woke me up at 6:15am and I went through the normal routine again.  At 8:10am, we were once again on our way.  Today we stopped at the capital city of Bern.  According to legend, the town’s founder named it after the first animal he saw which was a bear.  Hence, Bern.  And the town does have a prevalent bear motif as you see statues and real bears within the town.

We met our guide, Hector, who took us on a bit of a tour of the city.  We began in Bern’s famous Rose Garden which was actually a little threadbare of roses being close to winter, but still had some pretty things to see as well as a stunning view of the only mile long city.

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From the garden, we went to the town’s city center where we walked along the streets and Hector pointed out important and interesting sights.  Some of the highlights of the walk was a detailed relief on a church that showed the Last Judgment; fountains of Moses, Samson, and the founder of Bern; the home where Albert Einstein lived and wrote his papers on special relativity and the equation E=MC2; and the Bern Clock Tower.

We actually saw the clock tower strike the hour and that was an interesting little show.  First a rooster crows, then the jester plays a joke on the Lord of Time by ringing the bells too soon, then the rooster crows again, and the Lord of Time turns over his hourglass which sends a signal to the Golden Knight to strike the hour before the rooster crows a final time.  If you haven’t guessed, the three crows of the rooster are inspired by the Gospel story of Jesus telling Peter he would deny him 3 times before the cock crowed.

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When the tour was done we were driven into the countryside where we had a lovely little lunch at Zugel Farms.  Nine different farms are present on the property and each farms in a different way.  For lunch we were served salad, a beef roast (not unlike turkey roast) in gravy, and homemade scalloped potatoes.  For dessert there was a variety of items such as mousse, cream, fruit, and cake.  Then we wandered around the time a bit before heading for Lucerne.

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Heading inside to lunch at Zugel Farms.

Upon our arrival at Lucerne, we bumped up one of the next day’s activities as the lighting was better and that was a visit to the Lion Monument.  This monument was dedicated to the sole survivor of two intense weeks of fighting.  The monument is a reminder that they “fought like lions”.

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The Lion Monument of Lucerne

After admiring the monument, we checked into our final hotel, Hotel Wilden Mann.

The building housing this hotel has existed for over 500 years and it has been a hotel since the 19th century.  My room was comfy, if tiny, but the extra large bathtub was a major plus.  We had a few hours to ourselves so I spent my remaining coins on a Coke and a shot glass, took a long, hot bath, and uploaded some pics before beginning the night’s main event.

Tonight we attended a Swiss folklore party at Stadtkeller.  This restaurant served a fantastic meal of salad, cheese fondue, veal strips in mushroom sauce, grated & fried potatoes, and a dessert of Swiss chalet (a melange of meringue, applesauce, and strawberry ice cream).

Along with the incredible meal was a show where the performers dressed in traditional Swiss costume and sang, yodeled, danced, and played theremin, hammer dulcimer, and alphorns.  There was even audience participation with a yodeling contest, a traditional Swiss dance, and a conga line to close the night.

What an amazing night!

But now it’s too bed.  One final day of adventure awaits.

The Great Swiss Outing, Day 5: An Island of Beauty and a Secluded Village

I awoke to another one of the mornings that makes you want to fall to your knees and praise God for being alive.  Another beautiful sunrise.  Another breakfast buffet.  Into the bus and off at 7:45am.

Our road took us back through Italy today.  Specifically the town of Stresa where we stopped on the bank of Lake Maggiore (it literally means The Biggest One).

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At last we would be taking another formal tour as we were visiting the island of Isola Bella (Beautiful Island) where Borromeo Palace is located.

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Borromeo Palace

Borromeo Palace is a palace, but it is not owned by a royal family.  Though the patriarch does hold the title of prince, it is strictly an honorary one obtained through wealth and power.

The place is a work of art and the family still lives in the palace.  I marveled at the treasures secreted within including a bed used by Napoleon Bonaparte who once resided at the palace, grotto rooms, a piece of art made with an estimated 35,000 pieces of glass, and a tapestry room where optical illusions of depth and movement of water were stitched into the fabric.

After the tour, you can tour the palace gardens and also find a variety of food and goods kiosks.  To break up some of my coins and since I was in Italy, I decided to snack on a slice of authentic Italian pizza.  It was pretty good.  The crust was similar to a pan crust, but was light and didn’t weigh on the stomach.

As I ate, a cute spaniel wandered over to me and politely sat down, clearly wanting a bite off my plate.  I looked around for an owner, but didn’t see anyone in sight despite the fact that the dog had a collar.  Those puppy dog eyes melted my heart and I gave the pooch a bit of my crust.  Then I heard someone calling for the dog and waving her finger in a “no no” motion at me, indicating that I shouldn’t feed the dog.

The dog wandered off and I trashed my plate and went to wait for the boat to return to the mainland.

When our group reboarded, we were off again to the city of Zermatt, but stopped briefly at the Simplon Pass.

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The pass is 3,000 feet above sea level and a biting wind ripped through us as we took pictures of the place.  Swiss soldiers were running training exercises for new recruits and the explosion of cannons echoed throughout the pass.

After our photo break, it was back on the road.  Zermatt is an interesting city as it is a secluded mountain village located 6,000 feet above sea level.  One also has to stop in the city of Tasch to take a train to the village as combustion engines are not allowed there.  Any motorized vehicle is electric.

Zermatt is a very quaint rustic village that feels like one is stepping back in time.  In spite of that feeling the city does boast modern conveniences such as grocery stores, outlet stores, restaurants, grand hotels, and even a McDonald’s.

We checked into the Hotel Pollux where the rooms have actual keys instead of cars.  I opened the door to my room and saw a plush king bed awaiting me.  I smiled as I plugged my camera in for a charge and explored the village.

It was very peaceful up here and I watched children having races at an outdoor rec center and I stopped at Stefanie’s Crepiere to snack on an oh so hot and gooey sugar cinnamon crepe.

We were on our own for dinner tonight though Brane had made arrangements with the restaurant at the nearby Hotel Derby for anyone who was interested.  If we said we were with Globus we would only be charged 19 CHF for the meal plus costs for drinks.  The restaurant had a wide variety of choices so I made use of the offer and enjoyed a delicious mozzarella and tomato risotto and a salad.

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Tomorrow we get to sleep in a bit, but some of us still have to be in the lobby by 8:20 as we will be braving a climb up Kleine Matterhorn.

Stay tuned. . .

The Great Swiss Outing, Day 4: Well, I’m Sailing

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We got to sleep in an extra 15 minutes today.  But waking up to this beautiful sight made it all worthwhile.  Not a cloud was in the sky and it looked like it was going to be a perfect day.

I organized my luggage before heading down to breakfast.  It was a zoo!  I made a small plate of ham, bacon, hash browns, cheese, and orange juice before finding a seat at the front of the restaurant.  I ate quickly, then returned to my room for my carry-on bag and heading for the bus.

Once more, we were all on early and began our trek down the mountain.  Now I’ve ridden on mountains before, but nothing had switchbacks like this behemoth.  The lower we got, the higher the temperature rose.  Today’s journey would take us to Lugano, but we would have to pass through the tip of Italy to make it.

We took a small break at a bakery/cafe in Italy where people loaded up on baked goodies and snapped a few pictures of the vista.  We continued on our way until reaching the legendary Lake Como when another photo break was taken.

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From there we made our way to Lugano where we stopped to take an extra long lunch break of nearly three hours which would allow us to eat, shop, and explore.

I decided to grab a bite to eat at a nearby McDonald’s to find out what the local fast food palate was like.  I opted for a Big Tasty meal.  The Big Tasty is apparently McDonald’s response to Burger King’s Whopper.  The name was apt as it was quite tasty and used a tangy Swiss cheese sauce that really added some punch to the sandwich.  For further proof of how expensive Switzerland is, I paid 14.90 CHF or roughly $15 American.

As I lunched, I noticed quite a bit of school aged kids in the restaurant and wondered if they got a long lunch break from school.  As Brane told me, kids in Switzerland start school at either 7, 7:30. or 8 in the morning and only go until about 1pm.

From there, I began exploring the city center marveling at the myriad shops.  Outside of a drug store, I bumped into fellow travelers, Bill and Bonnie, and joined them as they walked around the area.  We stopped at a Coop City (a popular department store/grocery store chain) where there was a gelato stand and I had a small cup of vanilla gelato with a chocolate topping.  Quite creamy and served as a good dessert.

On our ambulations, we found a large staircase that Val O’Brien nicknamed the Stairway to Forever.  I decided to run up and down the stairs.  All 267 of them.  But it was worth it for the view I had of Lake Lugano from the top of the stairs.

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At 2:45, our driver, Max, picked us up and drove us to our next hotel:  Hotel De La Paix.

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Hotel De La Paix

This was a swanky hotel and provided me with my biggest room so far.  Loads of room to stretch out and relax.  We would be leaving for a cruise on Lake Lugano followed by dinner at a grotto restaurant at 4:45, so I drew a hot bath where I had a soak and shave and dolled up in my set of dress clothes for the night.

The cruise was quite pleasant and relaxing and we got interesting tidbits of information on the city and islands.  Before I knew it we had arrived at Ristorante Rocabella.

Our host for the evening was Brian who provided us with a bit of comedy as our courses were served.  I sipped on white wine while I enjoyed a meal of prosciutto wrapped melon, veal chops and noodles, and teramisu.  Such an enjoyable night of food and conversation before we sailed back to the hotel for the night.

This night gave us the most free time we had experienced so far which allowed plenty of time for writing and photo posting.  But a good night’s sleep is needed as we have another early day and an earlier leaving time as we head for the city of Zermatt.

The Great Swiss Outing, Day 3: It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas

Sleep was a little sketchy for me on the first night as my mind was dog tired, but my body still believed itself to be on U.S. time.  I awoke in the dead of night and wondered how long I slept.  Turns out I had only been asleep for two and a half hours, but it felt a great deal longer.  I watched TV until my eyes began to droop and managed to fall asleep again, though I had odd, jet lag dreams.  It was as if my wearied mind couldn’t put together a cogent story for a dream.

I was awoken from a deep sleep by the ringing of the telephone for my wake-up call.  It was a persistent little cuss as I had an auto call, a real person, and another auto call.  I organized my stuff, set my bag in the hall for the porter, and went downstairs for breakfast.

Breakfast was a buffet and I shared a table with Marty and Val as I enjoyed bacon, some incredible seasoned potatoes, smoked salmon, a bit of cheese, orange juice, milk, and a multivitamin drink that was actually pretty tasty.

We proved ourselves an organized bunch as all 43 of us were on the bus for us to leave at 8am on the tick.  First we would head to the Old Town of Zurich for a brief little tour.

Brane proved himself quite well versed in the history of Switzerland as he provided interesting tidbits of information.  We took a small walking tour of the town which was capped off with a visit to the Sprungli Confectionery.  They had assorted delights for a pretty penny.  FYI, Switzerland is the second most expensive country in Europe.  A bottle of pop costs 3.50 CHF (Swiss francs).  We were given a sample box of chocolate to nibble on at our leisure as we boarded a bus to visit the principality of Liechtenstein.

Liechtenstein is the smallest country on the planet and is ruled by a prince.  The royal palace sits high upon a hill and visitors are not permitted.  We stopped in the city of Vaduz which also doubled as our lunch break.

I wandered around the streets, marveling at the architecture.  I stopped at a convenience store for a Coke Zero.  Prices are much lower in Liechtenstein and I paid 1.60 Swiss francs for this beverage.  I walked back into the main part of town and stopped in at a Catholic church.

I’m not sure if this church actually has services as there was a bar in front of the altar with a sign saying, “Don’t approach.  Alarm in service.”  I did kneel and say a quick prayer that the tour would continue to go well before lighting a votive candle for my grandparents and my friend Kay.

I got back to the bus and we began driving up the mountain to the Julier Pass which has some spectacular views as it stands nearly 3,000 feet above sea level.  During the drive, Brane told us that the optional excursion of a buggy ride through the Roseg Valley was canceled due to inclement weather as it had started snowing hard.  We got a taste of the bad weather as the snow began to fall on us as well.  As Roseg Valley was another 4,000 feet above our current position, I can only imagine how much snow was pummeling them.

We took a brief stop at the top of the Pass for photos and restrooms, but only for a few minutes as the weather had turned mighty cold, mighty quick.  Then it was a speedy drive down to the spa town of St. Moritz.

St Moritz is known for a couple of things.  It has been the site of the Winter Olympics and it is split into 2 sections known as Bath and Dorf.  Bath is the resort/spa area of the town.  Dorf is the village area.  Specifically, it’s a village for the wealthy and I mean the very wealthy.

Tonight’s hotel was the Hotel Laudinella.  Since I would be getting a refund on the canceled carriage ride, I decided to reinvest the money into a massage.  If I’m at a spa hotel, I might as well get the full experience.  Right?

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Hotel Laudinella

I got the last appointment of the night at 9pm, then proceeded to take a long walk along Lake St. Moritz.  This gave me a great opportunity to test out my new camera as it can take panoramic shots and be adjusted for vista and night shots.

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I walked along the river as far as I was allowed, then turned back to the hotel.  At 6:15pm, we had dinner at Stuvi where I ate with Marty and Val and Mr. and Mrs. James Bond (not a joke).  Dinner was also buffet style and I had salad, water, turkey, shrimp cocktail, pork steak, rice & corn, potatoes, and a really ripping parfait for dessert.

Afterwards it was back to my room to get cleaned up and begin writing this article until it was time for my massage.

My therapist was the spa manager, Sonja Martocchi, who really worked the kinks out of my back, shoulders, hands, fingers, and especially a tight spot just below the back of my left knee.

I felt like a liquid when I was through and knew I would be guaranteed a good night’s sleep.

Tomorrow we get to sleep in for another 15 minutes before going through the drill for another 8am departure.  The road will be taking us through a bit of Italy before our final destination which will feature a cruise on Lake Lugano followed by dinner in a traditional grotto restaurant.

 

The Great Swiss Outing, Days 1-2: Smooooooth!!

At long last my latest international excursion was upon me.  After the great experience I’d had on my tour of Ireland last year (see articles entitled When Irish Eyes are Smiling), I was going to utilize the tour’s co-sponsor, Globus Journeys, to take a round the country tour of Switzerland.

Globus did bum me out over a couple of things.  For one thing, if you’re traveling solo, you are not given the option of agreeing to room with another solo traveler, so you have to pay the single supplement up front.  On the other hand, that does guarantee a room for yourself.

The other item is that I had joined the Journeys Club after the Ireland trip which gets tour discounts and, most importantly, absolutely free currency exchange at the top market rate.  However, apparently the Journeys Club is no more and I don’t recall getting notification about it, so there went the currency exchange.

The day of the trip didn’t start out all that rosy either.  My trusty laptop gave up the ghost so I had to borrow one until I returned home.  Then my first flight was experiencing a slight delay and I cringed inside.  My flights didn’t leave me much room for error.  I flew from Omaha to Chicago with a layover of 1 hour, 20 minutes.  Then I was to fly from Chicago to Newark, NJ with an hour layover so I didn’t have much breathing room.

Mercifully, my flight actually made up the delay, arriving earlier than expected.  I also had enough time to grab a quick bite at a McDonald’s before taking off to Newark.  That flight was also early, allowing me to exchange currency at Travelex so I would be ready when I landed.

The flight to Zurich was perfect.  I had a seat at the back of the center section, so I could lean back without disturbing anyone and I was right next to the restroom, if needed.  I spent the flight watching Paranormal Activity and Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, eating a surprisingly tasty chicken pasta dinner, and playing Phoenix Wright:  Trials and Tribulations in between a few snatches of sleep.

The flight arrived in Zurich nearly an hour early.  I breezed through customs in a few minutes, grabbed my bag, then met Brane (pronounced Bra Neigh), who would be the tour guide for the trip.  He pointed me towards the shuttle where I met Marty and Val O’Brien of Syracuse, NY who would also be on the tour.  We zipped over to Movenpick Hotel Zurich Aiport, where I was able to check in immediately.

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Movenpick Hotel Airport Zurich

I organized my room and then decided to take a walk around the neighborhood.  I discovered that Zurich is like small town America from yesteryear where everything is still closed on Sunday.  That included the City Centre, so I opted not to take a train down there to explore.

Instead, I darkened my room to relax and took a 2 hour nap to beat off some of the jet lag.  I actually managed to find some episodes of Columbo in English after I woke up so I had that on for a bit before washing up for dinner.

At dinner I sat with Emiline and Dorothy of California and Brane talked over what to expect on the tour.  We drank a toast to the success of the trip where I sampled the “famous Swiss white wine”.  As you may or may not know, I am a borderline teetotaler, but this was rather good.  Just the right amount of sweetness and not dry.

Then we were served a 4 course dinner that included a salad with a creamy vinaigrette dressing, an unbelievably awesome pumpkin soup, Chicken Schitzel Parmegiano, and plum pudding for dessert.

After the meal, I could feel the jet lag setting in, so it was time to bang this article out and get some shuteye, though I also met Bruce and Carol of Australia as we were taking the lift.  Tomorrow the adventure truly begins!!!