Monday, August 29, 2011

Zurich and life in a youth hostel

We flew from Amsterdam to Zurich on the 24th of August.  It was a pain to take an airline after the very convenient train system.  You have to get to the airport much earlier than to the train station.  You get searched.  You can’t take certain things with you – like a bottle of wine and a pocket knife – and you always have to take a train from the airport to town anyway!  So we have definitely become converts to the train system.  This is a good thing, because come November, Darrell and I will pretty much just be train vagabonds.

When we got to Zurich it was hot again – after the cold and rain of Amsterdam – so we decided to go to our hostel, get some lunch (the $40 salads I referred to earlier) and head to the “beach”.  The beach in Zurich is really a boardwalk built along the river – but at least we could cool off.  Lindsey did another bridge dive and swam to where Darrell and I were hanging out on the boardwalk.

The "beach" and river in Zurich
The river in Zurich, or at least the section we were in, was primarily a young person's hang out.  To contrast, in Bern there are people of all ages swimming in the river.  It is a lot more of an extended family and friends kind of feeling, than just a youth scene.

It started to rain lightly so we wandered back through a park to our hostel.  Our room was up four flights of narrow stairs (but not nearly as steep as Amsterdam!) and we had to share a bathroom with the other rooms in our section.  The kitchen everyone shared was up another two flights, and then there was a rooftop area that the Lonely Planet guide had said was the best place in town to get a sunset view of the city.   Unfortunately, it was raining hard by then so we missed the "best" accolade for the hostel.

Why stay in a hostel?  Well, it was the least expensive place in the city at $150 euro's per night.  Sometimes you can meet interesting people.  But sometimes you get music all night when your room is right over a bar - though that has happened to us in hotels as well!  Here is a view from our hostel room - which I have to say was quite large, and had three windows and a sink.

Some noise kept us up but overall it wasn't too crazy!
Darrell did some research in the Lonely Planet guide before dinner and it steered us to a near-by restaurant that was clearly filled with more locals than tourists.  Many were playing cards and the noise level was pretty high.  But that worked out because we could just talk normally and still have a private conversation for our last night together.

The next morning I took one last picture of Lindsey and Darrell on the bridge.

Lindsey's last morning in Europe
Then we took the train to the airport to see Lindsey off.  Now she is home in Flagstaff and is in the midst of her first day at NAU again!  We had a great visit and miss her soooo much...

Amsterdam - Canals and Drunk Houses

We arrived in Amsterdam in the rain on the 22nd of August - so I am still a week behind here.  We had a challenge figuring out how to use the tram system in Amsterdam as it was so different from Bern.  We kept looking for ticket machines, but you pay on the tram instead.  In Bern, you buy a ticket before you get on, and then it is very rare that anyone checks the tickets - but everyone still buys them!

If you do a word association game for Amsterdam you may think of canals (all over) and bikes (all over) and marijuana (fairly ubiquitous in "coffee houses" and in quiet areas in the parks)!  You may have also heard they have the narrowest and steepest stairs in the world...

Lindsey falling down the stairs in our Amsterdam hotel!

The canals are beautiful but too busy with tourist cruises to canoe on.
We got to our room – up three of the very steep flights of stairs – and then went back out to look for dinner.  We found a place with reasonable prices – everything was 5 euros – and so we got two salads, a pizza, and a calzone for only 20 euros.  Of course, 20 euros is $30 these days, but soon we will get used to this and stop keeping track and checking our bank balance...  plus the calzone was great!

It was already dark - and on the way home we passed by a Febo, which may be unique to Amsterdam.  Febo's are basically a large, open area of vending machines that serve hot food like fish and chips.  Must be good for people with munchies, ahem...

Febo food action
The next day we walked through a large park near our hotel.  Here you can see the primary transportation for everyone!  Notice no one wears helmets.  Bikes have supreme right-of-way and often have their own lane that pedestrians have to check both ways before they cross.  We came close to collisions a few times until we got used to that!

Bikes in the rain.  It is out of focus because they were moving fast!
We bought the 24-hour tourist card that gave us free or reduced entry into different museums.  We went to the Van Gogh museum (my favorite), a photography museum (Lindsey’s favorite) and then did the canal tour.  Trams and buses were also included in the pass so we could get around the city easily.

L and D in front of the "I Amsterdam" sign outside the museum area.
On the canal tour we learned that because the ground is so soggy, a lot of the houses have some serious lean to them.  They are called drunken houses and you can see them pretty clearly in the picture below.

Leaning on its neighbor may not help it much...
Since the houses are so tall and narrow, and since few of them have been retrofitted with elevators, there is a brilliant solution to move furniture in and out.  Your basic hoist - here attached to the gables of the houses, and still used today!

Even more modern houses like these have hoists
Another interesting thing about Amsterdam were some of the short doors.  Reminds me a bit of Alice in Wonderland.

Lindsey would only have to duck a little to get in!
And of course, Amsterdam has lots of tulips.  We walked along a canal that had loads of tulip bulb sellers.  The westernmost part of the Netherlands is called Holland - though many non-Dutch people use the two terms as synonyms.  If you want to read an interesting story about the Dutch tulip craze, it is well-described in Michael Pollen's book "The Botany of Desire" which I highly recommend.

Crazy for tulips?
The next morning we had to wake up early to catch our flight to Zurich.  We all loved Amsterdam and wished we had more time to see more of the city and the surrounding country.  Rain or not, Amsterdam is a beautiful city.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Paris, encore!

I will slowly catch you up on all of our adventures.  Today's post will be the Paris portion, with a short prelude to the trip showing Darrell and Lindsey jumping off a pedestrian bridge into the River Aare!

Truly the most fun to have in a Bern summer!
We left Saturday, August 20th on an 8 am train to Paris and arrived in the early afternoon.  We then tried to figure out how to buy métro tickets and find our way to our hotel.  We were too early to check in so we left our bags at the hotel and went for a walk to a nearby park for a picnic.  The parks seem to be mostly crushed gravel – not much grass – but at least they have a fountain to drink from and some benches to eat your lunch at.  There are definitely a lot more homeless people, panhandlers and people with some serious mental issues on the streets in Paris than anywhere we’ve seen in Switzerland.  There is also a lot more dog poop.  Yuck.  After we settled in our room – which was fantastic by the way – Shanghai 202 in the Monte Carlo hotel if you want to book it for yourself – we walked towards the Seine.

Typical street corner in beautiful Paris
We walked to Pont Neuf, along the Seine, where dozens of book sellers have their shops set up.  It was a hot day in Paris, but I was still surprised to see a sandy beach along the river!

Man-made beach along the busy Seine
We crossed over to the Latin Quarter on the left bank where we had a nice cold drink, and then we walked back to Île de la Cité to see Notre Dame.  The line going into the cathedral was long but went very quickly.  I had forgotten how absolutely huge and amazing the space was inside.  I'm sure we would have gotten a lot out of an English-speaking tour, but we are on the quick visit trip this time, so anything I learn will have to come from our Lonely Planet guide and Wikipedia I'm afraid. 

On the way back to our hotel I caught this man hanging out of his balcony.

He has a great place for people watching
The next morning we took the métro to Le Louvre.  We got in fairly early but it was still super crowded.  We went straight to the Mona Lisa, assuming the crowds would only keep building, and then we wandered through some of the Greek and Roman antiquities.  We spent five hours in this amazing museum – just seeing a tiny fraction of it of course.  

Lindsey took this picture from one of the windows inside.  There are three large wings to Le Louvre and in the middle is the pyramid, designed by the Chinese American architect  I.M. Pei.  This addition made Le Louvre the largest museum in the world.  Underneath the pyramid is the information area and gift shops and entrances to all three wings.

Lindsey's photo of the outside of the pyramid at Le Louvre
After being indoors for so long, we were ready to brave the heat and walk in the Jardin des Tuileries.  We didn't last long before we needed a cold drink!  Here is the view from our cafe spot.  There are many, many statues (most with birds on them) in the garden.

Birds dominate the statues in the Jardin des Tuileries!
We walked through the garden to the Place de la Concorde with its obelisk, and then onto the Champs Elysées.  We cut to the south and walked between the Grand Palace and the Petit Palace – where Lindsey got some interesting photos in the puddles there!

Lindsey's puddle image of the Petit Palace
We ended up walking all the way to the Eiffel Tower – somewhere I hadn’t gone when I was here in college.  It was especially interesting to me as I was reading a mystery that takes place at the same time as the tower is finished – on time for the world's fair on the same grounds in 1889.  The tower is 324 meters (1,063 ft) tall,  and was the tallest building in the world for 41 years until the Chrysler building was completed.  We didn’t want to stand in line or pay for tickets (you can walk up the first two levels and then take an elevator to the top), so we just sat on the grass in the park and stared up at it for awhile.  

Le Tour Eiffel
For dinner that evening, we found a fantastic French restaurant where Darrell and I ordered the “menu” for 20 Euros (about $30) each.  For that price though we got a before-dinner aperitif, a salad and bread, the main dinner where we had choices so we tried two different things (I ordered the boeuf bourguignon, and Darrell had fish with a cream sauce), a glass of wine with the dinner, as well as a choice of dessert and an after-dinner coffee!  This was clearly the best meal and meal deal of the entire trip!  In comparison, when we were in Zurich on our last day together, we stopped at the local grocery store and picked up three salads that were marked “reduced”, one small bag of potato chips, one serving of French fries, and one juice, and we paid over $40 for that!  I have to say Bern seems reasonable after trying to eat in Zurich!

On our last morning in Paris we walked uphill to the Montmartre area – the highest point in Paris.  The first thing we saw was the Moulin Rouge – complete with red windmill – and then we walked up to the artist’s area near the Sacre Coeur church.  There were tons of artists selling paintings as well as doing portraits and cutting profiles of tourists.  We then walked around the church, and went inside.  A service was going on inside but many tourists just walk in a counter-clockwise direction around the whole service going on in the middle, just like at Notre Dame. 

Lindsey dancing to some street musicians outside the church
From here, we walked back to our hotel to collect our luggage.  On the way Lindsey found and photographed one of the Space Invader tiles!

So the space invaders have seen Montmartre as well!  I blogged about them earlier, and if you google space invaders you can find out more about this modern cultural phenomenon.

Next post - Amsterdam!

Friday, August 19, 2011

Lindsey is here!

My posts might come to a screeching halt after this, as Lindsey came to visit two days ago, and we leave soon for Paris and Amsterdam - as if Switzerland doesn't have enough to offer!  So you will get some new scenery soon, but for now you just "have" to go back to the Jungfrau region again and look at some more mountains, glaciers, and cows!

First though, here are Lindsey and Darrell making faces on the train from Zurich (where Lindsey flew in) to Bern.

We're so happy to have our girl here!
Yesterday we did some local Bern things including take a picnic to the Martzili pool, and go for a swim in the Aare along with half the population of Bern.  The river is more crowded with floating and swimming people on a hot day than the trails are!

Today we are all up a little after 5 am (not normal for Lindsey, so we get to give credit to jet lag) and so we caught the 7 am train to the mountains.  We were some of the first tourists there and actually ended up having one of those Swiss clockwork days - where there was always a seat for us, we didn't have to wait in any lines, and everything went smoothly!

Step 1 was a gondola ride up the east side of the valley from Grindewald to a place called First.

Lots of green below us as we look back down towards Grindewald
Step 2 was Lindsey and I getting some Lowa "tester" hiking boots.  Here is Darrell unzipping the pant bottoms off his pants (such a handy invention) and Lindsey striking a pose with her groovy boots.

Just another ho-hum Swiss mountain scene
Then we hiked up, up, up to Faulhorn peak.  This minor peak is just under 8,800 feet tall and, you guessed it, there is a restaurant at the top!

After a well-deserved beer, we climbed up a little past the restaurant to the peak and there was an amazing view of course!

Looking down at Brienzersee (the large lake in the background)
We ate our picnic lunch and then headed down, down, down - back to the smaller lake, Bachalpsee.

Bachalpsee with Wetterhorn and Schreckhorn Peaks in the background
Darrell took a series of pictures of Lindsey at Bachalpsee.  Here is my favorite below!

Lindsey ready to dive in
Step 3 - after the wonderful hike, was to get on an 800 meter zip line!  It is called the Flieger and I will have to search for a commercial picture of it - as I was too busy screaming to get any pictures myself!

Pixelated, but you get the idea!
Lindsey actually took her hands off, but Darrell and I were pretty much just clutching on for dear life the entire ride!

Step 4 - we got on these scooter-bikes called trottibikes and cruised down the mountain.  These were REALLY fun!

Lindsey on her trottibike
After we got back to Grindewald and returned our trottibikes and the borrowed hiking boots - we got back on the train to Interlaken and home.  I will just leave you with one last picture of the adventure we didn't do today - parachuting.  You should be able to see four parachutists in the sky above the peak.  They were actually riding thermals UP instead of coming down!

Parachutists over Wetterhorn
Needless to say, we fell asleep early when we got home.  The next blog will probably come in about a week after we return from our Paris-Amsterdam-Zurich trip and put Lindsey back on the plane in time to catch the beginning of her new semester at NAU.  We will miss her!

Monday, August 15, 2011

Biking, Brats and Beer

Yesterday I biked toward Ostburg (hoping the bakery would be open on a Sunday but it wasn’t) and ended up heading past the Paul Klee center to the small town of Stettlen.  There I picked up (accidentally of course) a mountain bike route.  I hadn’t taken any of the mountain bike routes and since I now have my trusty steed with 21 gears I decided to go for it.

It started out as just an amble through the country, complete with a new kind of cow...

And I thought the Swiss only had grass-fed cows!
but soon I found myself on a STEEP gravel hill going through the woods.  Not even my granny gear helped me up that hill, but near the top I got passed by other mountain bikers that rode all the way.  And one was pulling a kid carrier with a sleeping kid inside.  Good thing I don’t shame easily – but I did try harder on the hills after that!  I did get breaks taking pictures of interesting garden art.

This is for George Wittke!
I see a lot of painted wooden kid figures attached to people's fences.  I don't know if they are reminders for people to drive more slowly, or are just colorful figures.  This one was homemade and much more creative than the usual cut-out figures.

This darling girl marked someone's driveway
The trail kept going uphill, and more uphill, and eventually topped out at the small town of Mänziwillegg.  There was a restaurant at the top and I had been biking two hours, but I decided to just eat my own lunch a little bit down the hill where the wind wasn’t so strong.  This is some of the view as I finally started to go down, down, down!

High mountains are hidden in the background of this lovely farm scene
When I got to the bottom of the first big hill, my route had disappeared down a different street in the town of Wikartswil and it looked like I was on a part of the Herzroute that I hadn’t been on yet.  (These regional routes are long and so I can see different bits of them on different rides.)  I talked to two other bikers that had a map and realized I really need to buy one.  Darrell was going to print out pdf’s for me of each route, but the map shows all the criss-crossing trails and all the small towns so nicely.  Just because I've been lucky finding routes so far, doesn't mean it will continue!

But this day I was super lucky.  I was just looking for a place to eat my lunch and saw some large tents that I had seen earlier from the other side of the hill.  Miraculously, I had wandered back towards my original route heading back to Bern, and I got to join in with the local celebration.

The jumping kids at the festival.
 To celebrate, I ditched my cheese sandwich I had packed, and bought a bratwurst mit kartoffsalat (potato salad) and a beer for lunch.  I'm afraid I have discovered why all my biking does not result in the loss of my "muffin top"!

My muffin top and I enjoy this lunch!
Coming down was very fast and I was home in no time!

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Buskers Festival - Old Town Bern

Last night was the final night of the 3-day Buskers Festival.  Buskers are street artists, and there were many musical groups, as well as mimes, yo yo experts, jugglers, and more!  There were over 300 different acts, so we only got a small sampling.  There were probably almost that many food booths as well, so we shared some Thai, and then some Indian, as we wandered the cobblestone streets from performance to performance.

It was often difficult to see over the heads of all the people in front of us - so not all the pictures are great - but you can get a feel for some of the individuals and groups we saw!  Plus you can see the spirit of fun that the onlookers brought to the festival!

These guys were just getting in the mood!
I was hiding behind Darrell but this girl loved the mime
This group was awesome with their home-made instruments and creative music
Besides the music and other artists, there was an entire park that was devoted to a lot of great kids activities and artists.  There were several spray paint artists making some great canvases.

Spray paint artist
There were also all these crazy toys for kids to play on.  And no one had to sign any liability waivers to use any of the equipment.  Parents were sending their kids down a ramp made of rolling conveyors in trays.  There was also an old car tire on a base with four wheels that parents were spinning their kids in.

This girl had an attentive parent.  Most were just sending them sailing down on their own!
Older kids were whirling by on unicycles and crazy bicycles.  Check out these two bicycles.  Notice how the pedals are arranged on the second bike.

It was really fun to watch.  There was also a contest for power tool-driven creations to go down a wooden ramp.  We missed the contest but we saw some amazing contenders.

The five-wheeled chicken-mobile
After the craziness of the park, we headed back into the streets to see more performances.  By the end of the evening (for us, not for people who can stay up past ten!) we had heard rock, folk, Irish, Asian throat chanting, latin dance, and more.  We checked in again on the stick-builder below.  We don't know if he got as tall as the Munster tower, but he was trying!

He's got a ways to go, but he is making progress!
I will leave you with an eastern European folk group.  It was a fantastic evening.

A lovely way to end the evening

Friday, August 12, 2011

Climbing the Eiger (or not)

Darrell and I bought Swiss train passes that give us six days (during a one-month time frame) of almost unlimited train travel in Switzerland.  We immediately learned what “almost” means on the cog-wheel train from Grindewald to Kleine Scheidegg – a pass that tops out at a slightly lower altitude than Flagstaff, at 6,762 feet.  We paid the extra 48 franks that weren’t covered by our passes (oops) and sat back to enjoy the scenery.  It was our first trip together to the Bernese Oberland and we had impatiently waited until we had spectacular weather.

Darrell reflected in the train window out of Grindewald
 Our plan was to hike to the viewpoint of the Eigergletscher, the glacier that descends to the east of the Eiger’s famous north wall.  So we hiked up about 1,000 feet where we had a good view of the glacier and could even walk on the moraine.  The train in the next picture is ascending to the restaurant and site known as “The Top of Europe” between the Mönch and Jungfrau mountains.  This cog-wheel train ascends mostly through a tunnel to 11,333 feet.  I’m sure the view is spectacular up there, but going through a tunnel to a giant tourist destination just didn’t feel quite right to us.

The restaurant sits in the snowy saddle straight above the train
Hiking in Switzerland is different than hiking in some other places we’ve been like the Rockies, Alaska, or Iceland where the sense of wilderness is more present.  I’m sure if you are halfway up the Eiger, using your own sweat, it has plenty of wildness; but at the base, there were cows serenely eating grass.

Bessie at the base of the Eiger
I figured if a cow could get that close to the Eiger, I’d give it my best shot.  They have a nice rock with gear showing how both ropes and hardware have changed over the decades that the Eiger has been climbed.  I’m sure my form needs some work – but I managed to get a foot off the ground at least!

Look ma, no harness!
From that high point, we walked down the well-defined Little Ice Age moraine toward Lauterbrunnen, the small town that Katherine and I had visited two weeks ago when it was too cloudy to get great views.

Note that fresh-looking moraine!
While our quest for the elusive edelweiss flower was unrewarded, we did see some beautiful meadows.  Darrell has always had a fondness for monkshood.  The scientific name of this beauty is Aconitum napellus for all my botanist friends.

Monkshoods, glaciers, and Darrell!
And I guess I have a fondness for water fountains as I couldn’t resist a photo of this one either.  The town in the right background, perched high on a cliff, is Mürren, where Katherine and I ate carrot soup while waiting for the view…

See the village perched above the cliff?
As we hiked farther east we got new views of different mountains and glaciers in the Jungfrau region.  I was happy to see one of our favorite flowers, fireweed.

How much prettier can a place be?
Soon after this point we started a relentless downhill hike.  We ended up hiking over 5,000 feet downhill – almost like going from the South Rim of the Grand Canyon to the Colorado River – but the weather was not as hot as summer in the canyon, and it was honestly more continuously steep.  Most of the trail was dirt, but there were some paved switchbacks as we got closer to the village of Lauterbrunnen near the bottom of the valley.

Well-engineered switchbacks that still hurt my legs!
The view of the valley was gorgeous.  This is looking upvalley toward the falls that Katherine and I walked to and toward the village where we took the gondola up to Mürren.

Definitely worth the hike!
I’m not sure the pizza and beer we had in Lauterbrunnen revived us – or just let us give in to our exhaustion.  But it was a welcome ending to a great day!