Roman Ruins and Medieval Towns and Bears-Oh My!

For our last full day in Switzerland, V took the day off and we spent 11 hours touring the Swiss countryside and hopping from train to train from Lausanne to Murten to Avenches to Bern and back.

Up and at ’em, we headed to Murten first since I was very excited V hadn’t been there before either so we could explore it together. We made a beeline up to the ramparts of the town wall and enjoyed amazing views and imaging what it would be like to fend off attackers to protect our little town. Built primarily within the walls, the town was picturesque with gorgeous public water fountains, cobbled streets, and a few front doors that I was so enchanted by I thought about making them my own.

We checked out the clock town, a statue of Adrian von Bubenberg, and window shopped before picking a little pizza place to sit down for lunch. We each had a pizza and sampled the local wine produced from grapes grown on nearby Mont Vully. I was a fan.

Then off we went to Avenches (pronounced avon-ch) to check out the BEST Roman ruins in Switzerland; note lesson learned. We briefly explored the ancient amphitheater that was under construction to prepare it to be a venue for a summer concert series. The drilling and hammering didn’t exactly allow for the quiet contemplation ruins I had hoped for, but I saw a few photos of what the venue looked like at night, and decided it was cool that they still used this space so many centuries after it was built for the same purpose.

Next we traveled to Bern, the capital of Switzerland. Since it was nearly 3 pm when we arrived, we made a beeline to the three sites I really wanted to see: 1) Einstein’s apartment 2) Bern Cathedral and 3) the bear pits. But of course, we found the time to stop and sample a buttered pretzel at V’s recommendation that was absolutely delicious.

Our first site in Bern was Einstein’s apartment because I am a nerd. He lived in Bern for eight years in the early 1900s and while he was working as a patent clerk, made some of his most stunning scientific breakthroughs, including his formative work on the theory of relativity. Such a humble home for such a great mind; it had just one room. In addition to touring his apartment, there was an informative little museum that was just big enough to feel like I learned something, and small enough I wasn’t overwhelmed.

Next we checked out the dramatic Bern Cathedral. It’s so tall I couldn’t even get far enough back to get the whole facade in my picture! Since it was late afternoon we virtually had the whole square to ourselves and spent a few minutes catching our breath. We strolled down one of the many covered walkways channeling Einstein (walking in the rain without getting wet on these paths was something he liked about Bern) and wouldn’t you know it found MY apartment, or at least my Swiss self’s apartment.

Our last stop was at the Bern bear pits, as the bear is the patron…animal of Bern. We saw the concrete pits that they used to live in, and had to agree their new digs right on the river were quite the upgrade. We spent more time than I expected just relaxing and watching Mama Bear and her two cubs run around, and then I took a quick dip (only my hands!) in the Aare River. No swimming yet! Brr!

Finally we caught a train home, did our usual stop at the Co-op, then threw in a load of laundry and packed up to head out the Italy the next morning.

We were so grateful to have had such great hosts, and I really enjoyed spending time with V and Mark whether just hanging out or exploring new sights.

Savvy Moment: Having a French-speaking, internet-access-on-her-cell-phone-to-look-up-train-schedules travel partner.

Lesson Learned: Even if it is the BEST of something in one country, it may not be worth a trip if the country isn’t known for it. Now that I think about it, Roman ruins in Switzerland? Yep, probably should have held out for Italy. 🙂

Chateau “Duh” Chillon

Breakfast came first, and then the long wait at the bus stop (20 minutes, and this is a Swiss bus!). From the bus we rode the Metro to Ouchy and walked over to the Olympic Museum in Lausanne. Plenty of statues lined the road up to the Museum and then we walked under the highest high jump, well over our heads.

Inside, our Swiss Pass gained us free entrance (thanks Swiss Pass), so we felt no need to spend hours-on-end inside to get our money’s worth. To start, we both “really enjoyed” a Disney-like show on how the Olympics restarted. Wife loved it so much, she wanted to go back in but I had to drag her away so we could see the rest of the museum (does sarcasm transfer well on written text?)

We then wandered through and enjoyed the rest of the artifacts throughout the museum and also wondered how they updated everything every two years. The highlight of the museum was the 2002 Winter Olympic torch which I saw and took pictures of as it passed through San Luis Obispo (I have to find those when I get home).

Next up on the our list was a stop off to pick up our picnic supplies from the grocery store and then a boat ride across Lake Geneva to Chateau de Chillon (also covered by Swiss Pass). Right as we sat down on the boat to enjoy our food, the sun came out and while Wife enjoyed the warm feeling, I thanked the gods that I had finally decided to use sunscreen before we left the apartment.

An hour later, the boat pulled up to the dock next to the Chateau. Once again, Ol’ Swissy (my just made up nickname for the Swiss Pass), provided us with free entrance into the Chateau. We did however decided to spend the money on the audio tour.

The good thing about the castle is that it is still in use and well maintained (and can be rented out for birthday parties). As we enjoyed the audio tour (as others without it blew by us), we toured the great halls, enjoyed the Lord’s view over his lands, played soldiers on the ramparts, and climbed to the tallest point inside the castle’s keep.

After a few hours of walking and more stair-climbing, Wife and I walked along the river to a small (and I mean small) train station to wait for the local train home. While we waited, we played with the camera’s gorilla pod to try and take a few pictures of the two of us. I think we did get at least one. After play time, Wife enjoyed the local train home which stopped about every 10 seconds. (sarcasm again?)

Once home, we prepared a stir-fry meal for our gracious hosts and enjoyed the night with food, drink, and vegging out in front of the television.

Savvy Traveler Moment of the Day: It may be an upsell, but sometimes the audio guide is worth it. We enjoyed the Chateau that much more and learned a lot. I would recommend purchasing one at the site or seeing if there are free ones to be used on your iPods (Rick Steves has several you can download for free).

Travel Lesson Learned: Just because you have to take a bus to the major train station doesn’t mean that won’t be faster than going to a close by regional station and taking the train that stops literally every 2-3 minutes.

Lazy Sunday

Sunday I popped out of bed to check the conditions up on Jungfraujoch, and nearly fell over. I knew we had hiked quite a ways the day before, but my tight calves told me just how far as they knotted up and I sucked in my breath at their protest as I got up. Yeouch!

A quick check of the webcams both of Jungfraujoch and the Schilthorn peaks confirmed the visibility up there was “cloudy with chance of seeing your hand in front of you if you were lucky” so that was that. We’ll have to save our journey to the top of Europe for another time. Check out this link if you want to see if the weather has gotten better since we left and perhaps you’ll be rewarded with spectacular views: http://www.jungfrau.ch/

Anxious to spend some quality time with V and Mark, Husband and I packed up and headed down to breakfast. An interesting thing about eggs in Switzerland-don’t be alarmed if they are red, green, or purple. They dye eggs so they can tell which ones are hard-boiled, even in the grocery stores. Pretty clever actually, but a bit alarming if you didn’t know that. After a simple, but hearty breakfast, of croissants, hard-boiled eggs, oranges, bread and jam, and hot tea, we were checked out and strolling down Lauterbrunnen’s main drag as the church bells chiming on Sunday morning sent us off.

Back at the train station, we realized we are now expert train trekkers. We scoff at a connection that gives us six minutes to get from one train and platform to another-no problem; welcome to the land of Swatch. These trains are on time and as efficient and organized as they could be. There are clear screens and giant boards with all the information you need to know up the minute, the platforms have the same clear signage, heck even the trains have little screens on the cars telling you where they are going. And if that isn’t enough for you, just turn to the person next to you who surely speaks English and off you go. Embracing the drizzly day, Husband and I grabbed a couple of hot chocolates and settled in for the ride back to Lausanne.

The rest of the afternoon felt just like home. Off to the grocery store we went (we love the Co-op!) with Mark and V, and then just relaxed with an evening of Formula 1 racing, Wii Sports, pizza, and a bit of webcaming with Michelle. Good times with good friends was a great end to our first weekend abroad.

The Golden Pass

Friday we had an uncomfortably early start as Husband was up at 4:00, and I couldn’t seem to fall back asleep either. We entertained ourselves for a few hours watching TV and checking email, then got ready to go to Lauterbrunnen for the weekend. I was disappointed to find out V had decided to stay home from work because she still wasn’t feeling well, though she certainly was making a valiant effort to be cheery and hide how bad she really felt. The plan was for Mark and V to meet us that evening in Lauterbrunnen after Mark got home from work, so we said goodbye and headed down to catch an earlier train.

As you might imagine, Switzerland is famous for its absolutely breathtaking landscape. To take full advantage of it as we traveled to the Alps, we opted to take a scenic railway called the Golden Pass that offered train cars with panoramic windows from Montreux to Interlaken. For over three hours, we climbed up into the mountains and quietly glided through a pristine landscape that was only occasionally interrupted by a quaint rural community. The rolling green hills were dotted with speckled cows and dark wood chalets with ornate carved railings. It was so perfect…it felt like we had entered a fantasy world a-la-Disney. I half-expected little “It’s a Small World” dolls to appear and start dancing around. Just spectacular; especially as we climbed higher and the snow-capped mountain peaks towered over us higher still.

We arrived in drizzly Lauterbrunnen in the early afternoon, and strolled through the main street of town to reach our home base for the weekend, Hotel Staubbach. As soon as I saw the dramatic Staubbach Waterfall I knew we were getting close. We checked in and then headed out to pick up a picnic lunch from the tiny Co-op in the village, and then returned to our balcony to admire the falls as Husband munched on salami and cheese sandwiches while I ate a salad. Of course, we finished off the meal with some Swiss chocolate. So far, my favorite is Callier chocolate with hazelnut. Stay tuned for updates as I continue my taste tests.

After a hearty lunch, we snoozed for an hour or two and enjoyed our comfy room as the rain fell outside our windows. Later that afternoon, we headed back out to explore the little alpine village a bit more. Having fallen completely in love with the view from our balcony, we opted to return there for another picnic dinner with the addition of a bottle of wine.

Cozy in our mountain chalet, we headed to bed with fingers crossed for good weather the next day as we planned to try and reach the tallest point in Europe, Jungfraujoch, the next morning.

Savvy Traveler Moment of the Day: Paying to make a reservation for the Golden Pass. I went back and forth the day before, but finally opted to make a reservation.  As we sat in an empty train car ten minutes prior to our departure time, I felt dumb and upset I had spent the money on a reservation-right up until two minutes before the train left and a big tour group appeared and filled up the whole car.  When in doubt, reservations are probably worth it. Both for the guaranteed seat, and the piece of mind!

Lesson Learned of the Day: The room with the view and a balcony can be worth it. Our time lounging on the wooden balcony, sipping wine, and admiring the waterfall has been among my favorite moments on the trip so far.

Taking Care of Business

Even after the marathon travel day on Wednesday, Thursday morning I found myself up at 06:30. My eyes opened and my body yelled “time to get up!” and despite my best efforts, I just couldn’t argue. Husband had more success at hitting the snooze on his body clock, and didn’t get up until closer to 09:00.

I spent the early morning hours chatting online with Michelle and then made it a conference chat when Vanessa (V) got up. I laughed when Michelle’s husband, Adam, walked into the room and was confused to see me on V’s side of the camera because, frankly, I was still a little surprised to be on that side of the camera, too! We had talked about this trip for so long, it was hard to believe it was finally happening.

For the better part of the coming week, Husband and I would be staying with Vanessa and Mark in their apartment in Lausanne, Switzerland. Recently built, their place is sleek and modern with windows that wrap all the way around, has all the amenities of home, and provides a through-the-trees view of Lake Geneva. Right around the corner from their place are both the #1 and #3 bus lines which take you right to the train station or into the city.

Once we got dressed and had breakfast, we headed out with our personal French translator, V, to run a few errands and get ready for the week. We took the bus to the train station where we bought our Swiss Passes for the week. These are fantastic! They covered all of the buses, trains, metros, cable cars AND over 400 museums in Switzerland. Once we had our pass, we could walk right onto a train without even having to wait in line to buy a ticket.

Next we took the Metro up to Co-op City (pronounced “coop” as in chicken coop), one of the grocery stores that V and Mark frequent. V showed us how to weigh our fruits and vegetables and print out a sticker with the price, how to put in a coin deposit to get a grocery cart, and next thing we knew, we were all set for a traditional dinner of Swiss fondue that evening.

After the grocery store, we negotiated the terms of a nap with our jet-lag recovery coach, V, and agreed that we could take a nap, but no longer than two hours. Unfortunately, V hadn’t been feeling well when we arrived, so the quiet time was good for all of us. As promised, V knocked on our door to wake us up at a little after 14:00 though we were quite certain at that point we could have easily slept another five hours or so.

Once we were awake enough to effectively move our arms and legs in a somewhat coordinated way, we headed down to Ouchy (pronounced “ooo-she”) which is the lakefront area of Lausanne on Lake Geneva. We had a relaxing afternoon catching up, getting some sun, and looking out over the lake, then headed back home to meet Mark for dinner. Mark and V prepared a fantastic Swiss fondue dinner for us that we thoroughly enjoyed. We had green apples, cauliflower, bread, carrots, and celery which we dipped in a mild white cheese fondue that both Husband and I were surprised at how much we liked it.

The next day we planned to take an early train up to Lauterbrunnen in the Swiss Alps, so we packed up our bags then headed to bed dreaming of snow-capped mountains, cow bells, and of course, cheese.

Savvy Traveler Moment of the Day: Bought a Swiss Pass. You might consider getting one next time you are out and about in Europe. There are so many out there- for one country, two countries, consecutive days, etc., and they can be a fantastic deal.  As mentioned, our Swiss Passes got us into museums, covered virtually every other form of transportation we took, eliminated long lines, and gave us the freedom to joy ride wherever we felt with no reservations.

Lesson Learned of the Day: To get over your jet lag as fast as possible, don’t think about what time it is at home. Adjust all your watches, clocks, phones, etc., and let go of your former time zone. Feel free to nap, but not before the early afternoon, and not for more than two hours. It was a rude awakening when V banged on the door to wake us up from our nap, but I’m glad she did.