Good things come to an end, Part Two

We are about to give up the greatest ground-transport deal going in Europe: Our beloved SwissRail half-pass cards.

These blue translucent pieces of plastic have been with us on all our travels, halving our transportation costs, thereby giving us the endless impression of getting a great deal, and so travelling even more. And more.

In fact, we have been to so many places that my achilles are in a permanent state of near-rupture and my knees are filing complaints daily – because along with train-transport comes trekking a la foot once we arrive at our destination. We love walking, but in this case, the saying “love hurts” applies.

The half-pass, available to Swiss citizens and foreigners bearing a residency card, costs 165 CHF for one year. We handed our 330 Francs over (U.S. dollar equivalent $589,000)* for two cards on April 2nd last year, and through the magic of a rigorous touring schedule, quickly recouped the cards’ cost.

Those happy days are coming to a close as our cards expire in three weeks. To quote Prince Charles: Gloooooom.

As an example of how lovely this card is, our four-hour trip through France’s countryside to Paris cost about 600 Francs for two comfy first-class seats with an elegant supper service. Without our cards, the cost would have been 1,200 Francs. The card extends to bicycle rentals as well, so when we go out for a pedal, it costs us 25 CHF for the pleasure of a day on the bike trails instead of 50 CHF each. Not bad. A quick zip to Bern costs about 30 CHF return for the two of us, instead of 60 CHF. I have not tabulated how much we have saved over the past year, but it has been considerable.

The card can be renewed, but only in 12-month or greater increments, so it is a wash as to whether we will make up our costs by the time we depart this lovely continent in a few month’s time. But if the above math creates this air of sorrow, maybe some more math is the fix. **

Our little town is only 40 km from Bern, about the same distance as Sooke is to Victoria back in Canada, which we used to drive in about 40 minutes.

Biel to Bern via train:             $20 x 2 passengers = 1 return trip @ $30

Sooke to Victoria via bus:     $5  X 2 passengers  = 1 return trip @ $10

Sooke to Victoria via bike:   $0 x (infinite number of pedaling passengers) = $0 return trip ******

Sooke to Victoria via car:      $40 for a tank of gas x (1 to 5 passengers) x (8 to 10 return trips) = Feathers! The Swiss are ripping us off!

Now I feel better.

$589,000 is a joke. All other figures in this post are real.

**All currency in Canadian dollars as it is near par with Swiss Francs at the moment.

*** CHF is Swiss Francs. How do you get a “CH” from Swiss? By calling Switzerland’s currency by one of the country’s many names, in this case, the Confederation of Helvetica. Yes, Swiss Cheese, Helvetican Cheese – go on, make your cheesy jokes. 

**** Switzerland – German: die Schweiz; French: Suisse;  Italian: Svizzera; Romansh: Svizra; in its full name the Swiss Confederation (Latin: Confoederatio Helvetica, hence its abbreviation CH). 

***** In high school history classes, our teachers often lauded Switzerland’s neutrality as though it were the only well-behaved child in a class of fractious European nations. As usual, it turns out closing the geographical gap between us and Switzerland reveals that maintaining neutrality was not a given, but a hard-earned negotiated position. Switzerland shot down both Allied and Axis fighter planes during WWII, and at one point were so sure the Germans were about to invade that they were preparing to literally head for the hills, that is, a portion of the Swiss Alps that they were more likely to be able to defend from attack. There are still people alive here who remember that. 

****** Bicycle travel drawback: It takes five hours to cover the 100 km/h trip, which is a lengthier Sooke-to-Victoria trip through Vancouver Island’s Galloping Goose trail, a trip that is so enjoyable that it is one of the first things I plan to do when I get back to Victoria.

******* I just like asterisks. 

The top of Europe? Not quite.

The forecast was for sun, but heavy cloud-cover cancelled our final leg of the journey up to the "top of Europe."

We arrived at the end of the Kleine-Scheidegg trail and discovered the “top of Europe” was obscured in fog. Hand it to the Swiss, they won’t try to sell you a ticket to nowhere. When we queried the ticket agent on whether it was worth taking a chance on the $100 one-hour train trek up to the top, she looked at us as though we had lost our minds. Don’t go, is all she had to say.

At another time, we planned to go to Zermatt to see the legendary Matterhorn, at which Daniela, our hotel concierge said, “Do not go there! Do not! It is covered in snow and fog! Do not go!! Achtung!”

Actually, she didn’t say “achtung,” but we find her hilarious for the way she speaks politely in English to us and then sternly in German to someone else,  such as the time the hotel was a little slow on securing our room’s safe to the wall.

When we alerted her that our request had been unheeded for a few days, she gently said, “Oh, I’m sorry. I will take care of it.” Then she picked up the phone and spit a few sharp German words into the receiver. When she was finished, I asked if I should meet the maintenance man up in the room, to which she replied. “He is already there.” And then she sent a translator along to make sure there were no language gaps between me and the maintenance man.

Daniela is only 22-years old, but if I were embarking on any business venture, I would hire her in an instant. She is a “get-it-done” kind of gal.

And so, we put off our trip to the “top of Europe,” but we still came back with these lovely photos.

Looking south from Mannlichenbaln toward the Lauterbrunnen valley, which you may notice has nearly perfect vertical walls. It is the site of 10 beautiful waterfalls, as well as the Trummelbach falls, which we hope to visit.

Heading down Kleine-Scheidegg.

The rare Alpenkuchenschelle flower. I did not make that name up. Another hiker with a flower guide book let me photograph the page identifying this rare blossom. At least, she told me it was rare. The book was in German, so I couldn't verify anything, but she looked honest.

More heavy equipment along the Kleine-Scheidegg trail - this one looks a little worse for wear. What the heck - are the Swiss using the Alps as a backhoe-graveyard?

This house needs a new coat of paint, but there's no denying the occupants enjoy a lovely view.

We did not expect to find a Canadian icon at the end of the Kleine-Scheidegg trail. What the heck - teepees!

The roof on this mountainside cabin appeared to be made of irregular shale sheets.

Good-bye to the Swiss Alps. We hope to visit this region again - there is no end of amazing sights here.

Watch your step

The Swiss version of Inukshuks - a more stream-lined design, lacking in pretension.

We turned away from the Mannlichenbaln look-out with the satisfaction that came from knowing that the rest of the hike would be a gentle downhill stroll,dropping from 2,342 metres to 2,061 metres over a 4-km (2.5 mile) trail.

The problem is that a good piece of that drop appears near the beginning of the journey.

I could be wrong about that – the pitch might be only a 30-foot drop over about 50-feet, but as a borderline acrophobe, it looked pretty bad to me. Remember, I’m only five-feet tall – the slightest undulation in the earth’s surface looms larger at my height, or lack thereof.

Every time Dave sees an Inukshuk, he threatens to kick it down. It is his schoolboy playfulness that makes him say that, but as soon as he got within range of a stone-statue field at Kleine-Scheidegg, he started fixing broken statues. What the heck!?

Dave quickly covered the worst of it owing to his long legs and impeccable sense of balance. I, meanwhile, scurried down crab-like, sideways with my fingers clenched to the rope bordering the steepest part of the slope. I would have got down on all fours and crawled, but there were Swiss everywhere and I was mindful that they not see me fall to such depths symbolically, even as I feared falling to worse depths literally.

The path gradually tilted back into a reasonably level grade as we headed south.  Looking back from the glory of relatively level ground, the pitch did not seem so bad, and I decided to adopt a non-chalant attitude towards this mountain-hiking business.

The trail winds along the ridge, without benefit of a single guard rail, which as I pointed out before, is how the Swiss “thin the herd,” and also thumb their noses at safety-conscious Canadians.

I am not wrong about Canadians and their national obsession with safety. As a three-term parks commissioner, I had the unfortunate experience of sitting through meetings listening to shrill arguments against accepting a particular piece of oceanfront parkland from a developer because it featured a narrow rock gorge, the very thing that I asserted made it a steal-of-a-deal while other commissioners fretted over how to protect the public from it by installing concrete blocks, high fencing and an abundance of bright yellow signs depicting human figures falling from great heights with a crown of exclamation marks about their heads as they contemplated their surprising and very imminent deaths.

To listen to the phobic commissioners, one would such think such a fatality occurred weekly, but there have never been any recorded deaths at that site.

I lost that vote, but I am not bitter.

I do wish, however, the Swiss considered guard rails with a more generous eye.

The beetle was clearly coming after me!

As we made our way along, we spied a sparkly hued beetle picking across the path. As I photographed the beetle, it crept gradually in my direction and so I took a step backwards, then another and still one more.  At that point Dave started to twitch and say “Jo!” with an air of urgency.

We have raised two boys, one of whom put us on a first-name basis with the emergency room staff at a hospital in a town where we had then lived only eight months, so Dave and I have both developed immunity to airs of urgency, not because we don’t care, but because they are so common and the ensuing trips to the hospital so much a regular and predictable part of our lives.

I was unknowingly within a spit of going over the edge, and as is always the case in these matters, things got complicated. An elderly undoubtedly Swiss couple – and I say “undoubtedly” because people of that age from any other nation would wisely stick to golf or some other sport that keeps one within a reasonable proximity of sea level – where was I? Oh, the couple – they were just readying to pass between us, and Dave wasn’t sure if any sudden movements on his part, such as grabbing his wife before she started a new life as a quadriplegic, would cause everyone to flinch and thereby more assuredly send me, and maybe a few others over the edge.

He repeated “Jo!” to which I said “What!?” in irritated tones.  I did not see anything to worry about, but then I never do, primarily because I never look where I am going. I leave that to Dave, so you would think I would listen to him. But I don’t.

It suddenly occurred to me that we were in the Swiss Alps and that if Dave thought I should stand still, it might be a fine idea, so I stopped and disaster was averted. The Swiss couple passed by, commenting that the beetle was of the Schoenborgh valliagnachtunggesselschaft variety, which I asked them to spell, but they only repeated the name as though its spelling was as self-evident as the spelling for the word wow. I suppose they did not want to embarrass me by treating me like a second-grader incapable of mastering a simple 17-syllable word.

We did not expect to see cyclists up on the Kleine Scheidegg trail, but there they were.

We made it to the end of the trail, once having to duck out-of-the-way of speeding cyclists, their presence and velocity suggesting their own ends were nigh. One bump of the wheel and that would be it, although they appeared to be Swiss, and so having attained adulthood, were likely not of the accident-prone variety.

By way of interest, while the Kleine Scheidegg trail is long-famous for its dramatic mountain topography, this has been added to in more recent times as it is the model for the Gran Turismo video race-driving game series.

If you go: The trail is mostly level with a well-maintained gravel-and-soil-packed surface that would likely hold well even in wetter seasons. Hiking boots are recommended, but sports shoes are okay. Going at a relaxed pace owing to my burned-out achilles tendons, we covered the 2.5-mile trail in 73 minutes.

Food & Water: Eateries are plentiful at the base of the gondola leading up to the Kleine-Scheidegg trail, however, stopping in at the local grocer “Coop” to purchase a submarine sandwich and a bottled beverage is recommended, particularly if you choose to hike the trail in the hotter season. Cafeteria-style food is available at the end of the Kleine-Scheidegg end of the trail, but not at the Mannlichenbaln gondola station.

Curious about the cost? 

  • 95 CHF Return train travel from Biel/Bienne to Wengen
  • 25 CHF Gondola between Wengen to Mannlichen
  • 16 CHF Two sandwiches purchased from the grocery store
  • 20 CHF Two more sandwiches purchased at another grocery store
  • 22 CHF Lunch at the Crystal Bar Cafe Wengen
  • Total: 178 Swiss Francs (CHF) – or $204 Cdn or $211 US

Tomorrow: More photos from the Kleine-Scheidegg trail and the cogwheel train trip down the mountain.

Dave does not trust me near steep drops. Yes, he is right to not trust me.

Kleine-Scheidegg trail, Swiss Alps, Jungfrau region

Does Dave work?

Today’s topic: Does Dave work?

For decades, I have asked him the same question every weekday: “What did you do today, Honey?”

Undone again by the Swiss rail system.

The answer always sounded something like, “We couldn’t get 1100 01010011 111011010000 to 0001 01011 and 000111 was really nasty 000011 010101.”

Dang it. He was speaking in binary. Things didn’t get better as new computer languages evolved: Cobol, SQL, CSP, DRDA – they were all French to me.

The truth is, I have never fully understood Dave’s work.  He traveled a lot, dressed in dark  three-piece suits and carried a black leather briefcase. He could have been a hit man for all anyone knew.

Fearful, I sent one of our boys off to university, ostensibly to study computer science, but really, he was there to acquire enough knowledge to investigate his father’s occupation.

Then he graduated. He started wearing designer jeans, taupe popped-collar jerseys, and carrying an expensive backpack – the latest uniform of computer tekkies.

“What did you do today at work, Mark?”

“%: post.php?post=1543&action=edit&message=10,” he replied. “Boy, I am tired! I’m going to unwind with some rlz=1C1SKPL_enCA410CA410&aq=f&sourceid=chrome&ie=UTF-8&q=nintendo.”

Dang. They got to him.

Turning aside from the huge investment of time (raising child) and money (partial payment of university tuition, room and board) I had invested in my now-double-crossing spy, I recognized I would have to investigate Dave’s work myself.

Dave “workplace” is a 25-minute train-ride away, so after obtaining detailed directions from Dave (my first mistake),  I set out determined to uncover the truth. I arrived at the station just as a sleek train pulled in. It was on the first platform, as per Dave’s instructions, and it was marked for Chaud de Fond, just as Dave said it would be, although that is not the name of the town where he “works.”

I was suspicious, but he assured me the town is too small to merit a sign on the train, but it is on the same route as the Chaud de Fondue train.

I had nestled in for a pleasant ride when a young man took the seat across from me.  I asked him if this train stopped in Corgemont. It turned out he is one of the few under-25-year-old Swiss who cannot speak English, either that, or he is a Frenchman. His response did not include the words  “c’est bien,”  “oui” or “d’accor.”

After getting lost on the train to Murten/Morat (click here for a refresher), I promised myself I would never again leap up from my seat to race up and down a train frantically pushing random buttons in an attempt to stop the train. It turns out I was wrong about that.

What a cute train station. What a pity it's not the one I wanted.

A young man of Arabic descent pursued me … this is the great thing about Arab boys, they really do love their mothers and by extension are disposed to helping hysterical women in the over-40-years-old age group, which would be me.  As I clawed at the auto-locked door, he assured me that the train would stop in the town before my destination, where I could get off and wait for the next train.

It’s hard to regain one’s composure after such a public display. The rest of the passengers gave me sympathetic smiles as I returned to my seat where my not-so-helpful French companion eyed me warily, weighing the odds that I might burst into another psychotic episode.

The Arab boy helped me off the train at Sonceboz-Sombeval and explained the next train would arrive in 40 minutes.

“Just stay right here, here on this platform and it will come. Do not go to any other platform or get on any train other than the one arriving here at 4:10 p.m. ,” he said, looking at me with the earnest anxiety of a man about to leave his grandmother to fend for herself at a giant international airport and not in a three-track Swiss village train station. “Remember, the train will be going that way,” he added, pointing in the direction of the train we had just left, as if I did not already know that.

Lost among livestock in a Swiss village.

He left, looking behind him several times as though I were a dog that did not often obey the command “stay.”

Which I didn’t. I popped out the cell phone and called Dave (the rogue) and informed him of my misadventure.

“It’s only a 30-minute walk away. Take the road that runs along the train track,” Dave said. Forgetting his track record – no pun intended – I decided to walk.  I meandered past a cowyard, some horses and goats and found a pothole-pocked yellow gravel road next to the tracks.

Funny thing is, Swiss roads don’t have potholes. The Swiss are picky about these things.

The road is long, with no real winding turns, but it turned out not to be a road at all. Dang.

I went along, hoping to not run into any territorial farm dogs, until I saw a large barn-like building in the distance. Weird that a barn would look as though it is at the end of a road, but the Swiss like to arrange things compactly, so maybe it was just right next to the road.

As I drew near, I saw that I was wrong about that. I was not on a road at all, but a long driveway. There was no road beyond it. There was no road on the other side of the tracks either.

I checked my watch. The next train was due in about 13 minutes and I had been sauntering for about 25 (including the time I stood on the train platform debating whether to walk).

I booked it, making it on to the next train just as I had got off the last one, hair frizzed, sweat pouring down my face, laboured breathing, leading my new fellow passengers to give me a wide berth.

I arrived in Corgemont to see snug barnyards, dairy cows, chickens and geese – hardly the setting for the international giant firm that allegedly employed Dave.

Dave appeared on the platform, apologetic for the train mix-up, and admitted he had left out some information from his directions on the grounds that it might confuse me. I will get him for that, but first, I wanted to see his place-of-work.

Dave and his boss model what an ordinary work day looks like for Dave, but let me point out - they are posing, raising the question: Does he really work? Or are the people I met all hired actors? A hit man could afford that.

Dave led me past more livestock and gently aged Swiss village buildings  to a modern facility where he introduced me to people who looked like they knew him, and then to a friendly Swiss-German who claimed to be Dave’s boss, along with a Croatian coworker. There were computers, timing devices, a massive shipping department. It seemed Dave’s story checked out.

“You really do work,” I said.

“Does he?” muttered the Croatian. “Have you seen him actually do anything since you got here?”

It’s a good question, but I am not chancing another solo train ride to find out.

Weekend wanderings – Off to Appenzell, also known as cowbell country

A Swiss cow, WITHOUT a cowbell. What is the land of cheese coming to?

I did not make up the nickname “cowbell country” for Switzerland’s Appenzell region. The Swiss did that all by themselves.

How the cowbells earned higher billing than the cows themselves is beyond me, but we aim to find out. In the meantime, we wonder what kind of conversations dairy farmers have out there. Instead of discussing how many heads of cattle they oversee, maybe they discuss the pitch and tone of the cowbells.

“Good chiming on the up-pasture trip yesterday,” Franz says.

“Yah, yah, it vazt gutt!,” Johann replies.

My goal will be to see the cow museum. Woo hoo!

Dave’s goal will be to get me to ride the Kronberg bobsled ride. Click here to see it. Skip to the 20-second mark to get straight to the ride. Skip to the 1:20 mark to see how close the “bobsleds” get to each other at the bottom of the ride.

Dave says, “What could go wrong?” and I have to admit it looks not-so-bad, except that is the same thing he said just before I slid down an enclosed waterslide tunnel at Whitewater in Atlanta, minutes before I got lodged in said tunnel, which eventually spit me out in a tangled glob of humanity. I will only tell you what that ride was like if someone asks me. It’s better not to ask.

In the meantime, this blog will likely pass the 3,000 mark some time today. As one editor told me, “It’s the photos, dummy. Nobody cares what you write. They care about the pictures.”  Editors. You gotta love’em.

Happy weekend!

When things go right

Solothurn's St. Ur's cathedral roofline. We climbed up 250 poorly lit, uneven wood and stone steps to the top (see people there on the right tower - they look like ants. 15 minutes later, that's where we were). Because this was the trip where nothing went wrong, we did not plunge to our deaths. Nice.

My albatrossness began in early childhood, when my Uncle Guy gave me my first lesson in the fine art of fishing.

At 4 a.m. we hiked out to a sparkling clean river with rock waterfalls. At 5 a.m. we returned to the camper. Uncle Guy sported a hole in his ear lobe … this in the day before men got their ears pierced except in fishing accidents … his favorite childhood lucky fishhook was somewhere at the bottom of the river and my right leg was scraped up and down from plunging into a hidden rock crevice as we crossed the waterfalls, bringing the water right up to my chin.

Uncle Guy fished me out – the only catch of the day and one he restrained himself from saying he’d like to throw back.

A year or two later, my Aunt Rosie listened to Uncle Guy’s account and determined that the flaw was in the teacher, not the student. She took me fishing at Rainbow Falls in the Whiteshell. It was the first time she had ever seen anyone hook a seagull.

Fast-forward a few decades and my older brother brought his boat out to our cottage for a fishing excursion. It was the first time he had seen someone hook a loon.

The common thread in these accounts is not fishing, although that might seem reasonable. It is travel. In every instance, bags were packed, gas tanks filled and coolers jammed with sandwiches. It makes my one-city-four-hotels story of Paris appear in a new light.

Solothurn's main promenade.

It’s also why I’m a nervous traveler. I don’t think things are going to go wrong. I know they will.

This is what makes the last weekend so amazing. We hopped the train for a short 15-minute ride to Solothurn, a village so un-noteworthy that even Rick Steeves (our travel guru) gives it no mention in his guidebooks.

It turned out to be the best day-trip yet. And nothing went wrong, ergo I have nothing to write about it except to say that Solothurn, despite it’s somewhat weird name, is outstanding for its baroque architecture, narrow cobblestone streets, Italianesque styling and museums where entrance is by donation (we figure $10 is about right).

Click here to see a 54-second video of Solothurn’s marching band – sorry that my videography skills are substandard. I’m working on it. As Dave says, much would improve if I would just stand up while videotaping. I was standing up.

Solothurn's clock tower.

Dave's ancestor? We don't know. Solothurn art museum held an original Van Gogh, Cezanne and Picasso - not bad for a village of 15,000 and canton (state) of about 245,000..

Paris thieves – prettier than you would expect

Gare de Lyon Paris train station on a slow day.

The girl was wide-eyed, frantic. About 20 years old, fresh complexion, dressed in clean, crisp spring colours, with her hair pulled back into a girlish pony tail; her words spilled over themselves as she rolled a smart-looking suitcase up to the cafe table just behind us.

We were at Paris’s Gare de Lyon train station, which sees something like a 10 million passengers a year. I could have made that figure up, but actually, I read it somewhere, but cannot remember where at the moment, so cannot vouch for its accuracy.

She hoisted an expensive-looking camel-and-turquoise-beaded leather handbag over to the man seated at the table behind us. She spoke French but it was clear she was asking him to watch her baggage, while she accomplished some errand. At that moment, it did not occur to us the errand was to escape capture.

Gare de Lyon train station, Paris. The launch site of many exciting travels as well as thefts.

He said no as he passed the handbag back at her. It was then that her purpose became clear. She punted the suitcase to the next table, but instead of beseeching anyone else’s help, she took flight, the handbag under her arm, and the suitcase abandoned.

Even then, we were too baffled to shout “Stop thief,” although I’ve wanted to do that all my life. The man she had approached got up and rolled the suitcase away, presumably to security. Later, we realized how dangerous this situation could have been – a girl fleeing luggage – the case could have held a bomb.

As it was, we lamented some poor woman who would likely get her suitcase back, but not her purse and whatever possessions or passport were inside it.

European thieves – who knew that in addition to being conniving and criminal, they’d also be cute.

And now for a few well-worn travel tips:

  1. The money belt is your friend, even if it makes you look like you’ve put on a pound or two: Could a pickpocket worm his/her way through your shirt, belt, pant-waistband to get at your money belt (which is where you should keep your passport)? I don’t know, but it would be interesting to see them try.
  2. Spread the cards around: Carry credit/identity cards in different spots, so that if you do get robbed, you will still have some resources.
  3. Do not carry valuables in a knapsack on your back. Those are just open store shelves to thieves.
  4. For those who are live in a world dominated by Murphy’s Law: If you’re travelling as a couple/group, both/all should wear money belts (there’s no reason why only one person should look plump). While one of us carries the passports, the other carries photocopies of the passports, just to make life easier when we show up at the embassy, in the event we do get robbed.
  5. Be cautious of any attention-grabbing event, however innocuous it may seem. Dave’s work-colleagues put their luggage up on an overhead compartment on a Swiss train from Geneva. A person came down the aisle and “accidentally” sprayed coins all over the floor. Dave’s colleagues, nice guys both of them, obligingly helped the person retrieve the coins. Later they discovered their baggage had been pilfered. In another more gripping incident, a woman faked throwing a baby off a bridge, after which she disappeared and so did the wallets and valuables of the onlookers/rescuers. The “baby” was a bundle of rags.
  6. Don’t stand on the street when opening a map: Find a seat in a cafe or a bench.
  7. This is not the time to exhibit your hugginess. Anyone coming close to you is suspect, but it is almost impossible to avoid physical contact while getting on or off a train/subway, which is why those are prime pick-pocketing times, so the best you can do then is be aware of your surroundings and make sure your valuables are not in easy-to-access spots.

What’s wrong with Switzerland

This is not me. Judging by the dozens of paragliders floating over the valley, the Interlaken is an excellent place to catch an updraft. Dave spotted one glider just jump up on a mountain side and take off. Not jump "off," just jump "up." The laws of physics and gravity appear to be suspended in Switzerland.

What’s wrong with Switzerland is that it has mountain peaks that stand on tiptoe at over 13,000 feet above sea level. I’m only five feet above sea level. You can see how scary the Alps can be for someone like me.

We decided to check out (not go up) some of those mountain heights in Switzerland’s famous Interlaken region. After two hours of travel via Swiss Rail for the return-ticket price of $80 for two of us, we arrived at the valley floor of Lauterbrunnen, a quaint Swiss village surrounded by quaint Swiss farmyards that looked very much like Vancouver Island’s Saanich Peninsula, except where the peninsula is surrounded by the Pacific Ocean, the Lauterbrunnen valley is surrounded by mountains.

Dave calls this a “material” difference.

Lauterbrunnen cemetery - placed suspiciously close to Lauterbrunnen gondola

We began what appeared to be an aimless stroll by admiring the Lauterbrunnen cemetery, without argument the tidiest, least-scary graveyard I’ve ever seen, except that only six kilometres away is what I call the Gotten Himmel gondola ride, a five-minute 1,600-foot sweep up from the valley-floor to the mountain-clinging village of Gimmelwald (4,593-feet).

Gotten Himmel means “God in Heaven” and certainly my mind was on spiritual matters, being so close to the resting place of the dead and the gondola, an efficient agent of death if ever I saw one.

The enchanting stroll along the Lauterbrunnen valley, that ends at Recipe for Death gondola ride.

I started to climb the wrought iron fence into the cemetery, reasoning that I might as well just lie down and take root, rather than go through the heart-stopping gondola ride, but Dave convinced me we would just walk the valley and see its famous 10 waterfalls. That the gondola was at the end of the valley and we were walking in its direction did not mean we had to get on it.

The sun was hot, the views hypnotic and the walk long, so that by the time we arrived at the gondola site, I had temporarily lost my mind, which is the only explanation for how I found myself standing in line with a gondola ticket in hand.

I made the ride, without screaming, which proves that living-in-denial is the roadway to achievement, even a modest achievement such as getting through five-minutes of this (click to see 54-second clip of end of ride).

More to follow, including a mountain-side restaurant review.

Murrenbach waterfall plunges 417 feet to valley floor. Lauterbrunnen is a classic glacial valley with near vertical cliffs on both sides.

Travel travails continued


Arc de Triomphe, commissioned by Napoleon in 1806, and new symbol of our goal to get to Paris. Will we triumph? In a side note: We have several Spanish coins dated to 1802 with a Napoleonic visage on them. Must remember to get them appraised.

As I made my way through throngs of commuter passengers at Biel’s train station, a middle-aged man in a tan jacket and faded denims unzipped in the train square and let’er rip.

I’ve lived in Spain, so I’ve seen public urination before – usually on the side of the highway where the Spanish men do not give passersby the courtesy of turning their backs to the road as they empty their bladders.

A location for public urination? According to one fellow, it is. Yuk.

This fellow, who stared straight ahead and otherwise appeared sober, had opted for what must be Biel’s  most public venue for such a private act. It was only 6:30 p.m., still broad daylight and the square was jammed.

Maybe he had just come off a day of dealing with a cantankerous travel website, or perhaps he had just discovered his train ticket cost double what he expected.

So I walked on by, noticing that no one else seemed to notice or care much about Mr. Public Urination.

A few minutes later, after meeting Dave inside, we/I learned our train costs will be over $500, according to a different booking agent than the one who earlier in the week had quoted $260. The agents had a good belly laugh when we mentioned the $260 quote.

Because we are Canadians, we did not shout or make any display. We simply groaned inwardly as we felt our stomach ulcers dig in deeper.

At that point, we were still in recovery from the lastminute.com fiasco and it seemed that as Tuscany was for Seinfeld, so Paris would be for us (click here to find out what I’m talking about). It has become our “white whale.” We must get there, and so we ponied up the cash, realizing that we are already at over $1,000 for two days in that famed city.

It goes a little over budget for we frugal types, but we are rapidly losing the ability to care … at least about that. I’d still rather men chose more discreet locations to relieve themselves.  After all, this isn’t Spain.

Postscript: And now a well-traveled friend warns us to stay away from Paris over Easter.  Cue the Jaws theme music.

Making friends fast

As in so many places in the world, it is in Switzerland: It’s easy to make friends when it appears you’re carrying a 24-pack of beer.

This isn’t to say the quality of friends is that which your mother would approve whole-heartedly, but friends all the same.

It started when I gave  into my very North-American vice and picked up a 24-case of Coke Zero for about $13 – quite a bit more than in Canada, but as I said, it’s a vice and today I am missing a few of those.  With the case propped atop my right shoulder, I made the short walk back to our hotel.

Swiss soldier on the look-out for beer.

I didn’t get there before I heard two men shouting at me in German from a car waiting at a red light. The two, dressed in army fatigues  were waving me over enthusiastically, asking me to spare a beer or two for a soldier.  I look German, so I got away with laughing derisively at them before they drove away, all smiles, but no beer (or Coke).

The hotel manager, Reiner, and our helpful front desk clerk Daniela were on their break by the side of our hotel, and as I approached, their wide smiles and exultations expressed their mistaken belief that I was carrying some brewskies. Their faces melted in dismay when I came near enough they could identify the Coke Zero.

The dismay turned into shock when I told them that a. I’ve never carried a 24 of beer and b. generally, speaking I avoid alcohol.

“How can you live this way, how can you be happy?” they demanded to know.

“In wine is a cure for all things,” Daniela said, ” You don’t need vitamins, just wine.”

I can’t say that I agree  – too many tragedies, traffic fatalities, high levels of stupidity start with the bottle, but I’ve got nothing against the occasional glass so I promised to test Swiss wine at the coming autumn festivals.

In the meantime, Dave is spending his evenings reading to me from our favorite travel guru Rick Steves’ guide book, suggesting that this weekend we head up to one of Switzerland’s mountain-peak chalets where sixty beds are jammed into a four-bedroom house with shared baths, but the views are spectacular.

“Just pretend I’m Leslie,” I say.

Leslie is an Atlanta friend of ours who emancipated me from all socially induced pretense back in 1996 when she said to me, “Let’s not pretend that I will ever cook anything,” and “Camping? Never.”

Switzerland's famous Interlake region

Up to that point, I was under the delusion that a love of camping held some mystical virtue and cooking was a necessity, but happily Leslie showed me another way, and that way started with a firm  “No” to crazy ideas that would have me doing either, or anything even remotely resembling such. That includes booking into hostel-style accommodation.

So, no. We are not heading up to any mountain peaks this weekend, but instead will enjoy a train ride through the mountain range’s valleys. Much more civilized.

Luscious Lucerne

Saturday we took the 90-minute train ride east to Lucerne, past lush, meticulously kept pastures, rolling hills, quaint farms with cows lolling about, a trip made sweeter because we now have our Swiss Rail resident half-price cards.

It looks like a great deal, bringing the price for  two return tickets down to $78. We were pretty pleased with that until we realized that we were travelling only 48 miles – what the heck? That’s like a $1.50 a mile.

Swiss comedians? Or the Swiss version of a chain gang (ie. not breaking rocks, just colouring on them).

We arrived in Lucerne to discover the city in the throes of an international comedy festival called “Fumetto” – at least, that was the explanation we got for the men in orange suits studiously scratching a chalk path into one of the cobblestone squares, which didn’t look funny at all, but I’m sure something hilarious was about to happen. We had our doubts, because orange suits are prison gear back in the U.S., so we were suspicious this was the Swiss version of a prison-work program.

We checked out a kitchen store where laundry bags sold for $99 and shoe stores, at one of which I found a pair of  loafers priced at $269… others were priced higher, but my brain could not compute such numbers well enough to recall them now.

Lucerne is, after all, Switzerland’s Monaco, and the well-heeled were in ostentatious abundance from stylish couples strolling the lakeside promenade to high-end sports cars inching through narrow cobblestone streets that until their arrival, we thought were pedestrian-only. Maybe the rules are different for those driving Bugattis and Lamborghinis.

Even the McDonalds restaurant was high-end with vintage ceiling tiles, orange cube leather seating and a McCafe pastry bar. Ooo la la! It was a beautiful city. I’ll let the photos speak for it. Click on photos to get a larger version.

At a swank chocolate shop called Merkor - I think it translates into "No chocolate under $40"

About half of the chocolate in Merkor's main showcase, and I do mean "showcase." The word "display" just doesn't quite make it.

Lucerne's waterfront. Not so bad.

The inside of Lucerne's Jesuit Church. Very white. Very bright.

Lucerne. Very pretty.

Lunch for the uber-rich - also, where they are on display for gawkers like us.

 

Many of Lucerne's Old Town buildings sport frescos (murals) - this one depicts the city's Mardi Gras celebrations.

A wall mural depicting the building's former street level cafe-owners in Mardi Gras celebrations.

Lucerne has two homeless men. We found them both. It's noteworthy that this man's wardrobe included a colour (red/orange pepper) that matched many park benches, and that is also favored among the rich (see other photos). Even Lucerne's homeless fall under the dictates of fashion.

The photo quality is not very good, but this stylish 8-10-year-old girl's pic is worth posting - we saw fashion-conscious kiddies everywhere. What is this? France?

A woman parading her control over her husband on Lucerne's Promenade - his attire matches hers right down to his shoes. Somebody help this guy.

View over Lucerne Lake with the Alps in the background. This body of water is also called Vierwaldstattersee. Yes, it is.

How friendly are the Swiss?

When the woman took a seat across from us on the train ride back from Murten, she looked normal.

She had come on with a pack of senior citizens, all rattling in lively conversation. She hovered over some people who we thought must be old friends, clutching about half-dozen twigs in her hand. They were only about two feet long – too short for basket-weaving.

Snug alleyway in Murten.

She then eyed our cluster of seats, flopped down with an exaggerated gasp of exhaustion, and appraised us silently with her enormous brown eyes. Her chin-length hair was auburn brown and her posture suggested she was fit, but she had bags under her eyes and what looked like a patch of skin cancer on her cheek – she could have been 55 or 80.

She addressed us in German, then raised her eyebrows at our fumbling response: “No German,” not meaning that there are no Germans, or that we refuse to associate with Germans, much less attempt the language.  She leaned closer, waved at the bundle of twigs and said in English,  “I put sticks  in and get wine. You know, sticks, water.”

No, we didn’t know, but we were sitting knee-to-knee within grabbing distance so we nodded politely and mentally calculated how long to the next train stop.

Was she insane? Would she pinch one of us by the arm and force more alcohol-related recipes on us?

As she pressed us into conversation with her not-totally-broken, but not quite all-there-English, we tried to not look like we were thinking about the distance to the next train station, but it didn’t work. She somehow deduced that our estimation of her mental faculties was not as it should be, even though neither of us gave into the rising urge to claw madly at the stop-buttons and demand the train doors open (we had already done that earlier on the ride into Murten).

She returned to the wine-twig topic and elaborated until her meaning became clear: That she would stick the twigs (dried vines) in the ground, water them, and eventually they would take root, produce grapes and then wine. She was not expecting to get wine from them that evening.

Swiss trains are spotless, their schedules and routes relatively easy to understand, but be ready for a sociable time as the Swiss love to chat.

Her mental stability established, we relaxed.

We have seen signs of such friendliness before. The day earlier,  in a grocery store line-up  a woman discerned our foreign-ness and invited us on a boat trip over Lake Biel. Suspicious North Americans that we are, we politely evaded the question, but we can’t help noticing that overall the Swiss are extraordinarily friendly.

Either that, or they are all stalkers-in-waiting. We shall see.