Friday, June 25, 2010

Europe 2010 – Days 3-5

Sorry for the absence of our Monday (June 21) update. We milked our day for all it worth. In fact, we cut it as close as possible and could easily have been stranded away from our hotel for the night. But I’ll get to that later.

The forecast in the Berner Oberland region called for fog and rain again Monday, thus wiping out our chances of paragliding there. I’m quite bummed about that, but there’s always next time (I’m already working on Brooke, trying to talk her into a return to Switzerland in the summer of 2012).

So rather than hope the clouds would clear long enough to catch some good glimpses of the peaks of Eiger, Monch and Jungfrau, I called an audible and we set off for Lake Geneva. Originally I hadn’t planned on visiting the French-speaking part of Switzerland this time around—we spent a couple days in Montreux in 2006—but Lausanne (loh-zahn) seemed like an interesting destination. The city is built along a steep hillside overlooking Lake Geneva. It boasts a nice lakefront district (Ouchy) as well as an “Old Town” area. And had it not been for the easy-to-use metro train that whisks back and forth from the waterfront to the top of the town where its cathedral resides, we would have had some sore legs.

My only complaint about Lausanne was the noise, and that wasn’t even the locals’ fault. Portugal played a World Cup game Monday, and I don’t have a clue why, but I think every fan of Portugal soccer who was not in South Africa Monday was in Lausanne—and they all had those damn vuvuzelas! Portugal ended up beating whoever it was they played, and these fanatics paraded through town, blowing the vuvvuzelas, blowing air horns, honking their car horns, singing and waving flags out their car windows or wearing the flag as a cape—or best of all: wearing the flag as a cape while hanging out the window of a moving car and simultaneously blowing a vuvuzela.

We had a nice lunch in a small eatery on a cobblestone side street, but the woman who took our order at the counter had little patience for those who couldn’t speak French. We didn’t care much for her. That kind of experience seems to be common in the French-influenced region of Switzerland. The German areas seem to be much more warm and welcoming. It’s interesting picking up on those sorts of things as you travel from place to place.

We decided we’d have dinner at a particular restaurant in Interlaken that has received many good reviews. But on the way from Lausanne to Interlaken, we stopped in Bern again to visit some of the shops that were closed when we visited there on Sunday.

I found a great paisley blue pocket square that was on sale in one of the men’s clothing stores on the main street, and Brooke found a pair of earrings in the Swarovski crystal store. So… that cleared the way for me to get the clearance on some black crystal Swarovski cuff links that I look forward to rockin’ during the 2010-11 season!

We finally got to Interlaken and had a solid meal of cordon bleu (me) and rosti with fried egg (Brooke) at Restaurant Baren. We also had apple pie and ice cream with fresh strawberries, respectively, for dessert.

Things did clear up enough by the evening that we saw a very colorful sunset over the mountaintops from the window at our booth in the restaurant. We had kind of lost track of time. It was already dark when we boarded the train at the Interlaken Ost (East) station en route to Lauterbrunnen. When we finally got to Lauterbrunnen, we had to wait nearly an hour for the last bus of the night that headed to the cable car station.

Remember, you can’t drive up to Gimmelwald; you must take the cable car. If you miss the last one, you are out of luck and I guess you would have to basically beg the driver to take you back to Lauterbrunnen and then hope to find a hotel room there.
So our 11:28 bus finally arrives at the stop, and we make it to the Schilthornbahn station just in time for the 11:45 cable car up to Gimmelwald (last of the night). The station attendant literally turned off all the lights and locked up the station right before we started the ascent.

When we got to Gimmelwald, there was some poor guy who must have been out drinking or doing something in Murren, and he tried to get on the cable car as we were getting off. But there was absolutely no way they were going to take that one passenger back down after they had already closed up the station for the night. Heck, when Brooke and I rode up on the last car, we were two of only six people on board—and that includes the operator!

As that poor guy and the operator tried to talk back and forth, Brooke and I headed for our room at Pension Gimmelwald (only about a 100-yard walk from the station). I would really love to know what that guy ended up doing. I’ll bet anything he had a car at the Schiltohornbahn station lot and he was trying to get back to it. Who knows what the guy did. If he tried hiking down, he’s probably still walking (or dead from falling off the ledge in the pitch black night).

Day 4 – Tuesday, June 22, 2010

We decided to skip breakfast at the Pension today and hit the road early. I checked out and said goodbye to David and the crew at the Pension. I hope to be back there again for a third stay at some point.

I’m writing this from Murten, which was today’s ultimate destination. We arrived here in town just after noon and checked right in at Hotel Murtenhof & Krone. What a great hotel in a great city! This place has a great vibe and a lot of history to it.

Unbeknownst to me, our arrival in Murten coincided perfectly with an annual celebration. June 22 is comparable to the Fourth of July in the states.
On July 22, 1476, Mighty Charles the Bold and his well-armed 20,000 Burgundian forces, who had been laying siege to Murten for 10 days, were surprise attacked by a makeshift Swiss army of about 10,000. They compare the Swiss surprise attack, which took place when Charles’ forces were hungover from a Midsummer Night’s Eve celebration, to George Washington’s attack on the British when the Brits were celebrating Christmas. All 20,000 Burgundians were slaughtered; many of them were driven into the lake in their armor, where they naturally drowned. French bones washed ashore here for centuries (Charles escaped on horseback, bloody hell!).

So today the main streets were closed to traffic and there was celebrating in the streets all day long. All the children get out of school and come to town dressed in white. It was really something cool to be a part of as we walked along the cobble stone streets and took in all the excitement.

Popular American travel writer Rick Steves touted Hotel Murtenhof & Krone’s lakeside terrace restaurant as the best in town. He also exclaimed, “sipping a glass of local white wine, with the right travel partner, while gazing across the lake at hillside vineyards as the sun sets, is one of Europe’s fine moments.”

So, we reserved a table for 8:30 p.m.—after being told the sun would set at 9 p.m.—and the experience was outstanding. It was certainly among my top three or four dining experiences ever. We both got perch (known here as “egli filets” and a local favorite) with different sides. Brooke got a red wine from across the lake since she had a white wine the previous night in Interlaken. We got some great photos of the sun setting over the lake. It was the kind of dinner that defines a top-notch vacation.

But… there was one other experience today that rivaled our dinner. Right after checking into the hotel, we went to the local co-op grocery and bought items for a picnic. We then walked back to the Bahnhof (train station) and rented bikes. I had planned to make the approximately 9 km bike ride to Avenches for a picnic at the Roman ruins there.

Avenches was once known as Aventicum, and it was the Roman capital of Helvetia. It was one of the largest cities in the Roman Empire and in recent years has often won the title of “most livable place to retire.” I can definitely see why. Its population now is very small, and not a lot of tourists know about the place. So you can be sitting on some old Roman ruins from the days of Emperor Marcus Aurelius all by yourself, enjoying the world’s coolest picnic.

We biked around and saw the old Roman amphitheater, the remains of an ancient sanctuary and some smaller theater ruins. The lone standing tower of the original 73 towers that lined the city walls in ancient times now houses a museum with some really interesting artifacts that have been dug up over the centuries. The coolest item is a gold bust of Marcus Aurelius (circa 80 A.D.) that was found in an Avenches sewer in 1939! The French woman attending the small museum in the tower offered a book explaining the contents of each exhibit in English, and our Swiss Passes granted us free admission. We spent the better part of an hour in there and I saw a lot of really awesome stuff that is certainly priceless—much of it in great shape given its age.

Biking through some peaceful fields and past numerous small farms was really, really enjoyable. I found myself thinking, “I can’t believe this. I’m biking along the Swiss countryside right now.” We’re really fortunate to be able to experience things like that.

Brooke is out cold right now, and our bedside clock is displaying 23:13 (that’s 11:13 p.m. ET for the folks back home), so I better wrap it up.

Tomorrow we’ll walk around a bit more here in Murten in the morning and then make our way to Luzern for a couple days.

We really miss Crockett. We’ve seen some great-looking Bernese Mountain Dogs here and wish Crockett was with us to meet them. They may be distant relatives

Day 5 – Wednesday, June 23

We woke up and showered before heading to the complimentary breakfast spread at Hotel Murtenhof & Krone. I explained how fantastic dinner was Tuesday night at their terrace restaurant; well the views from their breakfast sun room were just as gorgeous. The morning view overlooking Lake Murten made for a great setting in which to enjoy an impressive spread that included fresh breads, meats, cheeses, yogurt, granola and fresh fruit.

After breakfast we walked around the cobblestone streets of the town in the area known as the “ramparts.” Brooke had wanted to visit a few stores that were closed when we passed through on Tuesday.

We then made our way back to the hotel to pack our bags for the 11 a.m. checkout. Then we were off to the train station, ready to make our way to Luzern.

We arrived in Luzern right at 1 p.m. It’s the first city we visited during our honeymoon trip in August of 2006. I don’t know what it is about this place exactly, but it’s definitely one of my favorite places I’ve ever been to. It just has that great European feel to it (a video I shot).

We returned to a familiar hotel, Jailhotel Lowengraben, which is actually a former jail (our room door is a wooden jail door and our room window has bars running from top to bottom when you open the glass panes.

Brooke isn’t the biggest fan of Jailhotel, mainly because it has a disco on street level (we’re just one level above) that stays open to very early in the morning—I think it’s 5 a.m. on the weekends and I’m not sure about weeknights.

But there’s no place like it. Folks who stayed in the room previously have written messages on the cinder blocks in the wall such as “Nothing like this in Australia! Thanks for making this the most memorable stay of our European holiday. – Mary & Paul, Queensland”

Yes, I added to the "graffiti."

We had a nice dinner at a cozy side-street restaurant called Fondue House. I’ll let you guess what we had. Fondue meals are priced per person and are usually among the most expensive things you find on most menus. It was for that reason that we decided to pass on a fondue experience during our honeymoon. But this time we gave in, thinking that we really couldn’t make two trips to Switzerland without having said we tried it. I couldn’t eat like that often, but it was very good and a nice change.

We continued to wander around town, taking in the sights. Of course, you can’t do Luzern without walking across Chapel Bridge. I also wandered over to the huge and ornately designed Post headquarters to check their hours. We may make some purchases tomorrow if it’s not too terribly expensive to ship them home—we’re not interested in doubling the amount of baggage we have to haul with us with more than a week remaining here in Europe.

Speaking of purchases, I thought the $4,000 Swiss watches I saw earlier in the week were impressive. Well today I saw some designer Swiss watches priced at $40,000, $32,500 and $28,000. Who buys this stuff?

Then we ducked into a dimly lit pub called “Bar Konige” to get a couple drinks while watching the Germany-Ghana World Cup match with a bar full of rabid Deutschland fans. Soccer fans don’t mess around over here. Luckily for all involved, Germany emerged with a 1-0 victory. It was interesting that our bartender was a Brit. She seemed more interested in the Australia-Serbia match. Am I crazy or didn’t Australia start out as an “island prison” used for deported Brits? I could totally be making that up. I don’t know.

During our walk back to Jailhotel, the streets were alive with honking car horns, proud chanting soccer fans and, of course, a chorus of vuvuzelas.

Oh! Prior to Bar Konige, we had made a rest stop in our hotel room before walking over to the Post headquarters. It was around that time that the Germany-Ghana game was just getting started. We heard a lot of commotion going on right outside our window. So I climbed up on the bed and peered out to see about 50 people looking right at me. Apparently the landing outside or room was being used for a World Cup viewing party sponsored by some European energy drink, and they were using the exterior wall of our room as a projector screen for the game!

Educational nugget of the day: I learned today how to say cuff links in German. Phonetically, it’s man-CHET-in kuh-NOP-fay (I’ve said that over and over to myself all day long. Try it. It’s fun to say). One place sold cuff links that were roulette wheels, and there was even a little ball inside that could land on the numbers. If anybody needs a pair like that, they were only CHF 25 (close to $25). Let me know.

I’m now about to hit the sack for the first of two nights in Luzern. Then we’ll be off to explore new territory along the Germany-Austria border. I hope that all is well back in the states.


PS: I'm posting this from Salzburg, Austria, on Friday night (June 25). I'm two days behind but will try to get caught up. Some highlights from the past two days: Cruise on Lake Lucerne, Mozart's birthplace and the Salzburg Cathedral (no photos or videos can do that place justice).

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