Posts tagged ‘travel’
Having learned from the walk from the train station to the hotel, we decided to take a taxi to the train station. I’ll admit, it was a trifle easier than walking with our massive bags.
Our train trip was uneventful except for one thing – we had not bought our tickets in advance, and so we sat in random seats. Apparently the way it works is that there are seat numbers and at a future stop someone might get on the train who has the seat you happen to be sitting on. This caused a bit of worry every time we stopped, because getting our massive bags down to move to another area was no small effort. Thankfully, we were able to stay put.
During the journey I wandered to the food cart and experienced one of my attempts at German. The woman spoke ONLY German, Czech, and probably French (how dare she) so I ordered in German. The problem with ordering in German, for me, is the follow up questions. I asked for two coffees and a water and then she responded with something more elaborate than, “ok.” She quickly understood that I was not one for small talk based on my wide eyes and look of confusion.
We arrived in Prague about 1 or 1:30 and immediately went to buy our tickets to Munich. My wife had the smart idea of buying in advance to avoid the worry of switching seats. There were a couple trains that would be going to Munich on the second and I chose a 1 pm train, I knew we would be going straight to our hotel at the airport and so I wanted as much time in Prague as possible. This turned out to be a noteworthy mistake.
The Prague station had a beautiful area, but overall felt more hectic and busy than the previous main stations. It could be that a lot of tourists were heading into Prague for New Year’s Eve, but the business and the new language, the business, and the less English-only-speakers friendliness made us feel a little more out of place than usual.
We took a cab to our hotel, which worked out not only for the sake of our bags, but also because our hotel would’ve taken an act of God to find. It was a lovely hotel, RIGHT next to Charles Bridge (which was amazing) but it had a big wooden door and a small sign with the hotel name on it. The door was in an alley right off the main drag that comes from Charles Bridge, and it was across from an Asian restaurant where you could dip your feet in an aquarium and have fish eat dead skin off your feet while you ate whatever you wanted (fish, if you’ve got an odd sense of humor).
Our room had a sort of spartan feel to it (decorations – we eastern Europeans laugh at decorations). The sound of the language and the look of people made me think of Russia. The hotel was one part of this large building, with an elevator that seemed to bounce every time you got to a floor, and a short-ceilinged basement where we had breakfast and they served delicious beer and meals for all times of day.
Inspired by the Viennese opera, and the fact that Don Giovanni was playing that night, we asked the guy at the front desk about buying tickets. He looked it up and said they were sold out. We said we understood, but what about paying extra for a third party vendor or an official scalper of sorts? Here we had not a language barrier, but a cultural barrier. After a bit of back and forth he finally understood and seemed almost amused. “Why would you pay more to go see a sold out show? You just go see something else, or wait for when the show will happen again.” According to him, scalping doesn’t happen there. They have enough culture and patience that if you can’t see THAT show, there’s certainly something else good or you just tap your fingers til it comes around again. I was sad to not get to see Don Giovanni, but wow!, how awesome is that to not have to deal with people buying up tickets and selling them for extra?
We did see that there was an opera on the first, the Bartered Bride, so we decided to walk to the opera to buy tickets for that.
First, though, was food. We went to a little restaurant near our hotel and had … something delicious. I can’t recall what. I just remember thinking, sadly, how soon we would be leaving and the trip would be over. In the area of the restaurant where we were seated there was a table of English ladies, a table of Italians, and us. It’s so fun to get to be surrounded by such different people, and the beauty of other languages. Also, our waiter was one mean looking dude. He looked like a super hero who’s only weakness is an inability to smile. I both feared and liked him.
After lunch we walked across the absolutely beautiful, and insanely packed with tourists and sales people. (Folks selling jewelry, paintings, and people doing little things for money. My favorite was a person turning a crank to play music and just sitting beside it … Staring at tourists, waiting for money, because of her musical crank machine. Second place was a woman who was lip synching with the least amount of care possible, it was like she was full of disdain for the tourists and yet here she was pretending to sing for them for money. I could sit and people watch those folks all day.)
Eventually we managed to make it across the bridge, and then we quickly made our way down to the opera house. The tickets were so cheap! Actually, most everything there was very cheap. The dollar goes far in the Czech Republic. One dollar was about equal to 30 Koruna. That was not the easiest math in my head, so I would like at a price, think, “AHH! SO EXPENSIVE! … Wait … Oh! So cheap!”
It was quite dark by this point, so we made our way back to our hotel to find dinner around there and then call it a night. Although the city was beautiful (possibly our favorite), the lady was not in the best possible shape, so we thought a good nights rest would help.
Near our hotel we popped in a little restaurant and had incredibly delicious food. Oh man, so good. I had some sort of kielbasa and a beer, both so cheap and tasty. A lot of places were shocking because they looked as though they’d have standard bar food, but the food that came out instead was magnificent. Places that have a comparable look and feel in the States usually serve delicious but greasy bar food, so I tended to be pleasantly surprised. The lady’s food was a roast beef with garlic creamed spinach and very delicious potato dumplings. After dinner we went to a gelato shop that was DELICIOUS. Oh so good. I should’ve gone back there a second time. Mistakes were made.
This was a sad day.
The lady woke up feeling worse. The cold had started a week ago and we had been scaling back on what we were doing to help fight the cold, but apparently it wasn’t enough. We decided that we’d head to the castle and then she would nap while I would continue to explore. We had already bought tickets for a burlesque show that night, and we were looking forward to ringing in the new year in an odd way.
We headed to the basement and had breakfast, ducking under the short ceiling and guessing at everyone’s country of origin. The breakfast was enjoyable and relaxing, and then we were out the door toward the castle.
The castle sat overlooking Charles Bridge and a lot of the city. The haze that seemed to always sit over the city created a beautiful and mystical feel, especially with those spires watching over everything and everyone. As part of the castle there was a large church, and I think that’s what I tended to see from other areas in the city. Unfortunately, because the castle looked out over the city, that meant it was an uphill walk to get there.
The lady and I started our walk and soon one of her coughing fits began. I don’t know how to describe those brutal coughing fits except to say that I was honestly surprised every time one stopped that she was still alive, they were awful sounding. I looked over and my wife was tearing up a little, overcome by sadness with having the trip robbed from her due to the cold. She knew it was best for her to head back to the room and continue to rest and avoid movement, because whenever she was out the cold air, the smoke from cigarettes, and the effort of walking prompted another nasty round of coughs. I walked her back to the hotel and she urged me to leave and see the castle. I felt bad for her leaving, but I did as she said.
At the castle I stood in a very long line of tourists waiting to get in. There was extra security because of the state of the world these days, and every person was going through a metal detector before they could go to the spot to buy tickets (which was another incredibly confusing swarm of people). In line I ended up chatting with some Aussies who were in front of me. One of them was working in Italy, and so her sister, her sister’s husband, her mom, and a random guy from some other country were on a little trip together (the random guy was maybe the first girl’s boyfriend?). The place where the girl lived and worked in Italy was beautiful and amazing, and we swapped a European travel story or two before the mom asked, “what happened in America? Why … Trump?” I felt like the daughters had heard this tale before because they tried to change the subject a time or two but the mom and I expressed confusion, disbelief, and horror over Trump.
(And that was before he was inaugurated, mind you.)
We got through the lines together with our friendly chatter and soon I was rushing through the castle, trying to see everything as quickly as possible. The sun was rising, creating the stain glass to cast a beautiful glow inside the church. I could’ve stayed and stared at that for a full hour except: 1, the tourists were in the way and 2, I had told the Mrs. I’d be back 2.5 hours after I’d left, and I spent maybe close to an hour of that walking to the castle and standing in line.
After rushing around taking pictures of this, that, and whatever that is, I hurried back down to the hotel. I saw the wife, and went down to the lobby to ask where I might be able to get some soup for take away (as they called it) nearby. The guy at the desk and another man thought for a while, stumped by the idea of take away soup when one of them said, “why don’t you just go to the restaurant downstairs? You could take a tray up to your room.”
Downstairs I ordered soup from the one person working as the waitstaff and then she expressed shock and dismay at my not ordering a beer. I said, “well, my wife is sick and I just wanted to take some soup up to her.” And she said, “and while you wait for the soup you’ll just sit there. Why not sit there and drink beer?” She had a good point.
I felt a little guilty when I went back into our room with soup for my painfully sick wife and a half finished beer, telling her about my Aussie pals and the beauty of the castle. Ok, a lot guilty. But not guilty enough to keep me indoors.
I had a goal before we left for the trip – to buy a chandelier in Prague made of crystal (they are famous for crystal). This was a big ticket item we had saved up for and we were both excited about the idea of having such a beautiful decoration in our home. Unfortunately, a LOT of places sold chandeliers and they also sold postcards and random junk. If you walk into a place looking for something fancy and you also see a milk crate, it makes the fancy stuff a little questionable. I had looked up one store that a person wrote very positive reviews of and … it no longer existed. Shoot.
I headed out and got a quick lunch, then continued across the bridge and around a shopping area. I wanted to find some possible ones for the lady and I to come back and visit to hopefully pick out a fancy souvenir. With a few places scouted out I went back and the lady bundled up and against my, “are you sure? This seems like a bad idea … You’re sure you want to do this?” we headed out to look at STUFF.
We popped in a shop near our hotel then continued to walk, and walk, and walk. It really wasn’t that far, but when one person is sick and there are oodles of tourists it takes a while to get anywhere. A department store, oddly enough, was also highly recommended for a chandelier. The department store had everything. A little restaurant, clothes, toys, cheap trinkets, a section apparently under renovation, dishes, holiday decorations, and chandeliers. The fact that there were a few boxes scattered around and a section under renovation next to the chandeliers made the chandeliers a little less desirable … Neither of us knew enough to say concretely that something is fake or real, but it felt possible that we might end up with something not that great. And, helping the decision, we didn’t happen to like any of the chandeliers.
The walk back was going to be long, so we instead oriented ourselves to a nearby subway stop. Great. We’ll go to … something something, probably a station that ended in y or i (namesti means square – the station map seemed to be a word scramble with namesti the only word that stuck out to me), and then we’ll transfer and have a short walk to the hotel. Very doable!
We headed downstairs into the station and there was no person selling tickets, but they did have machines. Unfortunately, these mentions were not quite the modern wonder of technology like we experienced in others places had visited. They only took coins (this took me a while to figure out), they were all buttons, and one button said, “English” which when you pushed would sometimes translate something to English. Great. A man was standing right next to the machine we were trying to use and he was telling us all kinds of information about the machine, telling us to do this, not do that, we could pay him this and he’d get us a ticket, and no you can’t do this, and it’ll cost that much, and at the same time a line started to form behind us. The lady and I were getting flustered and scatterbrained from all of the confusing inputs. Well, I was. I think the lady was just trying not to have a coughing fit. It was not ideal.
We walked away and I read an English sign for a while before I realized we could get a day pass for some amount, we just need more coins. We headed to Starbucks and I asked to get a water, then asked for the change in all coins for train tickets. The guy looked at me and said, “why don’t you just go buy tickets from there? That’s where everyone buys tickets.” Aha. Of course. The Starbucks guy was more helpful than any sign there! Apparently you can get train tickets at a little shop which was like a gas station convenience store inside the station.
Crisis averted. Phew. We made our way back to the hotel room and my wife probably took her 5th bath of the day (the steam helped her breathe better). It was just approaching dark when we got to the hotel, so I took off to take more photos of the madness. And it really was madness. Random people set off fireworks, anywhere. Holy cow was that terrifying. I was walking along a crowded street, then suddenly I’m in a less crowded area, and BOOM! someone has just launched something twenty feet to my left. What a rush.
I didn’t end up wandering for as long as I wanted because the random fireworks terrified me. I wish they hadn’t, but they did. I was still in a ‘I must be extra alert’ mode because of the terror attack at the Berlin Christmas market, and this night, all the people and the madness, it seemed like an easy opportunity.
I got sandwiches to go for the lady and I, and we ate our sandwiches and prepared for the burlesque show. Ah, the burlesque show. This was one of the highlights of the trip for all the wrong reasons.
My wallet and I were looking forward to breakfast, which was going to be an actual sit down breakfast (instead of a croissant on the go) and free from the hotel. It was a buffet style breakfast, so it was a fairly typical hotel breakfast … but still, it was good to sit, eat, and not pay money. Also it was certainly European style rather than American – random cheese plate with deli meats? Sure, I guess I can eat that? Am I supposed to make a sandwich here? What am I doing?
After breakfast we walked to an art museum that was not far from our hotel – I was excited about this, the first art museum of the trip! There’s not much to say about the art museum … I mean, I could say a lot, but it’d be me doing a poor job of describing beautiful paintings, and I think we can agree that we don’t need that. The museum did have one really interesting, in a dorky way, display about the history of how the museum is decorated. It is something that I don’t give any thought to, but it was interesting to read about periods of the walls being full of paintings (as it was for our visit) versus times when they were sparsely adorned. Something something reflection of the popular culture of the times? I don’t know, I visited that display at the end of our visit so that information was mostly lost.
After the museum we got on the hop on/hop off bus and rode that for a while. The bus was very crowded so the lady and I took different seats on the upper level. The bus had cheap ear buds they gave you, and jacks at each seat, along with a control where you could listen to descriptions of what you were driving by in up to 15 or possibly more different languages. I ended up sitting next to an old Italian man, and my wife had my ear buds. The Italian man was with a big group and he spoke no English, so we exchanged awkward nods and half-hearted smiles with each other. He was plugging his ear buds in and apparently having troubles, I pointed to the volume and he shook his head no, I pointed to the language options and he shook his head no. Somehow (how? really? how? I have no memory of this) he communicated to me that no sound was coming out at all. The bus stopped and my wife ran back, handed me my ear buds, and went back up to the front of the bus to her seat. I plugged my headphones in and sure enough, no sound for my input jack either. We looked at each other and gave a language-independent, ‘eh, whatever’ look. I felt pretty good about my old Italian buddy.
Soon enough the Italians all hopped off and my wife came and joined me. We rode the bus for a while more, seeing the city and making notes of all the places we would love to visit (still bummed I didn’t visit the military museum!) but knew we probably wouldn’t have the time for.
We made our way back to the hotel early because we needed to get ourselves some food and then prettied up for the opera. THE OPERA!
After some room service burgers (pretty tasty – and ironic, considering we were also preparing for the Vienna Opera) we headed out. I had not bought a tie or blazer (we were in a nice part of the city and ties were not cheap, I didn’t even bother looking at blazers). Had there been a cool Viennese tie I would’ve bought that, but it was just overpriced brands I could get at home – and who wants that as a souvenir? Hey check out my Ralph Lauren tie from Vienna! Pft.
The opera was the Magic Flute, written by some nobody … Wolfgang something or other. Who names their kid Wolfgang? You want your kid hanging out with wolves? I mean, come on.
The opera house was BEAUTIFUL inside, and there were some very beautifully dressed ladies there. Fur coats, apparently, are not a faux pas like they are here in the States. Little old ladies wearing their weight in fur, younger women in beautiful gowns, fellas looking nice (we fellas have the nicety of not having to try hard with our standard nice outfits, but we also don’t look quite so glamorous). We pulled out our tickets and were directed to our seats and … THEY WERE BOX SEATS! WHAT?! Who are we? How fancy are we!?
We had arrived nice and early thinking we would have to go do coat check (a fancy thing already) but instead we have our own little entry room to hang our coats? What!?
Our box had six seats – in front of us were two French people (an older man, and a woman), ourselves, and then a couple from Chicago. They had apparently tried to buy their tickets a year in advance, were on a waiting list, and eventually got them. Either our hotel clerk is a magician, or we are very lucky people (because our tickets weren’t that much).
The box had little displays to show the translations of the German opera.
The first act was enjoyable, but the warmth of the place was leading me to be a little sleepy. It’s not that I wasn’t enjoying it, it’s just that it had been a long day of moving around and it was so soothing to be still and warm. I kept doing little tricks to stay awake, and at intermission I walked around. They had someone selling ice cream or gelato. This made me respect the Viennese opera even more – ice cream at intermission? Be still my beating heart.
The second act was better than the first, and as I wrote in a postcard, it featured the most beautiful singing I have ever heard in my life. The aria from the Queen of the Night was incredible – I could feel my body warming from the power and beauty of the woman’s voice. It was incredible.
My wife and I had our first (and so far only) opera experience at the Vienna Opera, which may have been a mistake. I imagine we will have to try hard to reach that level of amazing (the costumes, the voices, the setting, everything was incredible – but most especially the Queen of the Night). Nevertheless, we are now two opera admirers which is not something I ever would have guessed (don’t get me wrong, I love me some Frasier, I just didn’t think I’d take on Frasier’s love of opera).
After the opera we walked back to our hotel feeling elevated and lifted by how beautiful things can be. Not a bad set of thoughts to carry off to dreamland.
(Ok, not to detract from that pretty ending to the day, but … at the opera the other fun thing to observe was the couple in front of us. The woman was maybe 10-20 years younger. At one point during the show she was excited about how good it was and she grabbed the mans hand to hold it and set it on her leg, then a minute later very sternly and annoyed removed his hand and gave him a look. My theory: she was using him for gifts/shows, the lady’s theory: she was his mistress. What fun is the opera if you can’t make up a little theater for those around you?)
Waking up in a foreign country is exciting, everything is new and worth observing and paying attention to, everything is exciting and full of potential, and when your wife has a cold, it’s worse than a cold at home. It takes even more out of you because it’s sapping you of so much potential. The lady woke up feeling worse instead of better, the magic drugs were not so magical after all.
We had breakfast and then headed to the buses to see Schönbrunn Palace, which is where Marie Antionette lived for part of her life (among other names in history). The palace was a big tourist draw, and despite the fact that we arrived right at opening (10 am) it was still a packed house that we walked through.
The tour takes you from room to room, and you can get a little audio device that tells you what you’re looking at. The rooms had wallpaper that was noticeable (normally that’s not something I pay attention to) – the colors were so rich and beautiful you couldn’t help but admire walls. That’s a feat, to have walls worth admiring (Trump joke goes here). The furniture was also impressive, and we saw a royal bed. This made me think of how weird it was back in the day … mistresses and public sex. Public sex because how would you know a future king is from the right pair unless you hang around and watch the magic happen. But with how common side cars were, couldn’t a queen have given birth to an illegitimate kid? (Maybe I’m watching too much Game of Thrones.)
After the palace we walked around the Christmas booths that were set up there and bought a few little ornaments. More exciting than those, in theory at least, was a booth that was all bread stuffs. I bought a pretzel doughnut which did not live up to its name. Pretzel doughnut is a hard notion to really live up to, though. It was basically just a pretzel with sugar on it.
From there we headed to lunch nearby. There was a pizza shop and we thought it’d be good. We walked in and realized, apparently, that right next to this tourist hub is a much more mean looking area. Our waitress was a very Russian looking woman with tattoos – a lot of tattoos. This is worth mentioning because she may have been the only person I saw there with tattoos.
(Europeans vs Americans: Americans are big on beards and tattoos these days but have kicked the cigarettes, Europeans are the opposite.)
The pizza we had was delicious, despite the fact that we were seated next to the smoking room. (A glass door separated us from a small room, I thought it was some sort of cool private lounge area but no – it was the cancer lounge. See?, they’re still big on cigarettes.)
After the food was done we made our way back to the hotel. The lady took a nap (sicker, and sicker) while I putzed around taking pictures of things including: one attempt at a selfie with a statue of a half woman/half lion with her chest exposed … I didn’t try too hard to take this picture because I felt very self-conscious, but I thought it’d make for a funny picture for me to show the lady.
For dinner we went back to the cafe where we had lunch the first day. We had figured the food there was good, it was close by, and the lady was not feeling top notch so it seemed a good idea to get more soup for her. It was fun staring at everyone around us, dressed very nicely, wondering what shows they were going to.
Vienna, I would like to visit you again one day and see more of your shows and more of your city. The shorter days of winter really worked against our ability to cram as much into a day as possible. But hey, it’s good to have a reason to go back.
I had thought our trip would involve trains and the fast-paced sightseeing that comes with a window seat, but when I looked up the travel time from Lucerne to Vienna on a train I realized that may have been a whole lot of just staring out a window. We debated an overnight train with a sleeper car (something I’ve yet to experience and that sounds glamorous but in reality is probably uncomfortable and irritable-inducing).
Thankfully, it’s not too much to fly from one city to another when they’re close by.
The lady and I woke up and left our grand life of Lucerne, heading to Zurich airport to fly to Vienna. Our flight was through Swiss Air but fulfilled by Austrian Air. When we boarded the plane my wife and I were both taken aback by how nice it was. It wasn’t as though it was a fancy plane or a glamorous seating arrangement – it was a regular old flight that was just nice. Like a nod to what flying must have been many years ago. There was classical music playing (probably an Austrian composer), the flight attendants were in beautiful red suits/red jacket and skirt. And they were attractive at that (one of them I think my wife had a crush on, a woman with black hair, pale skin, and strikingly blue eyes).
The flight was short and uneventful except for the wife playing the role of the hero. The woman sitting to my left, at the window, had lost her glasses. She told me this and we both glanced around but did not find them. As soon as the plane landed and the fasten seat belts sign was taken away the hero of the day got off her seat, got to the ground, and spotted the woman’s glasses under her seat. Phew. I’m sure that woman heaved a big sigh of relief. Not a very important event, but it’s always good to be a good American ambassador and do something kind.
From the airport we took a train straight to the central station, and from there it looked to me like a not very far walk (pst: mistake). The lady had started down the path of a little cold and she was being a trooper, but was less full of energy than she had at the start of the trip.
We walked the 3/4 mile or so to the hotel and experienced our first very cold weather of the trip – the wind was strong and laughed at our jackets, scarves, gloves, and hats. It seemed to find every possible crevice and use that to remind us that winter is no joke. (Up til then the lack of cold had been surprising.)
We got to our hotel and checked in, and we asked about the possibility of seeing an opera. The clerk informed us that there was one the next day but it was sold out, and we could pay extra to get tickets from a 3rd party. The Viennese Opera? Sure, we’ll pay a little extra. The amount she stated was fine, and we were well on our way to being classier and more sophisticated people than ever before.
One little hang up was wardrobe – the clerk informed us skeptically that I could get by on slacks and a button up shirt for me, but a tie would be nice, oh and also a jacket. Right, sure.
With the lady of the house rocking her bit of cold, and our frigid walk to the hotel, soup sounded mighty fine. Our kind clerk let us know about two different spots nearby that had good soup and after dropping our bags and relaxing for a minute we made our way there. With the early flight and walk to the hotel we were treating ourselves to a later lunch, it was maybe about 2 pm.
The cafe where we ate was fantastic (we ended up going there twice in our short stay). The waiters wore nice suits, but it was not a fancy restaurant. There were coat racks right by the door and it was a seat yourself deal that once again drew looks of agitation and judgement from the wait staff when you asked about seating. We both ordered a sausage appetizer plate and soup, and both of us couldn’t have been happier with our meals. I decided that a lot of Bavarian and Viennese classic dishes were like a great burger place – there may not be a huge range or a lot of variety, but what they do, they do really well.
There was a pharmacy next to the cafe, so we popped in and got some cough drop type drugs from the pharmacist who spoke English. Come on drugs, work your magic!
From our late lunch we walked to the opera house to look into a hop-on, hop-off bus line. The tickets would be good for forty-eight hours, and there was a bus leaving just then that would take us toward the Sigmund Freud house (a goal destination of the Mrs.). With little delay we were on the bus and on our way to dear Dr. Freud’s house/place where he saw patients. My wife is a psychotherapist which is why this house had much more meaning and relevance and importance to her. The museum itself was small, it was his house after all, but it had a lot of neat items (his couch that patients used, for example). I would recommend the museum, BUT I think it’s worth reading about Freud first because the museum seems almost oriented towards Freud geeks. It explained things well, but it explained them as though you already knew the first half of the story.
After the museum it was dark out, and the weather had gotten colder. We ducked into a coffee shop to get some drinks to warm ourselves up and scheme on what to do next. I thought walking back to the hotel would be just fine (but remember, I’m ok with a couple miles of strolling) … the wife was less keen on the walk (and remember, she had that bit of a cold) and then when the rain began to fall from the sky chilly as you like, we decided maybe walking wasn’t best.
We managed to find our way, moderately accurately, to a subway station. And after a little bit of confusion we were back at the hotel, happy and warm. The day had been long, and we were wiped out, so we decided dinner at the hotel would be ok. The restaurant attached to the hotel seemed a little fancy, but thankfully without the fancy prices, and I would say definitely without the fancy taste. I had a chicken dish which was bland, but hey, you can’t win them all. I think Europeans in general seem to be less keen on spices than I am accustomed to. My wife was very amused because my plate had a ‘little sachet of lemon.’ It was a lemon slice wrapped in something, and I saw the little wrapping and thought, ‘there must be cheese in here!’ so I untied it only to discover a half a lemon. Talk about a crushing blow. The chicken and my taste buds were happy with the lemon, though.
We had been warned by our Swiss pal (see: Munich) that Switzerland was pricey but … oh boy.
I had bought our train tickets before the trip because I was worried about the possibility of fewer trains running during the holidays and tourists filling up the seats. This ended up being a pointless worry because our train was largely empty. We departed at 7:17 am and arrived in Lucerne (after a quick transfer in Zurich) at about 1 pm. We treated ourselves to a delicious breakfast of croissants/random things in bread, coffee, and a juice. Our breakfast was savored on the train (which was always a fun thing to get to do).
I walked our tiny coffees back to where the lady was seated. Everywhere we went the coffees were tiny and powerful. Like Mighty Mouse. They must think Americans are insane with how large our coffees are, perhaps until they taste the coffee and think how insane we are for drinking so much weak coffee.
Once we arrived we got some money (a guessing game for how much to get) and then walked to our hotel. Oh, oh. Our hotel. I have stayed in an actual real life palace and met the (would have been) queen that owned said palace … I’m just establishing my credibility as a wearer of fancy pants. But this place was amazing: The Grand Hotel National. In Lucerne you leave the central train station, walk outside and your eyes immediately travel to Lake Lucerne, then your eyes come to something closer, the ferry boarding area, and then your eyes jump again to the lake and finally across the lake, where you notice The Grand Hotel National. Oh, and if you take a quick glance to the right, an astute observer will notice the Alps dominating the landscape with their magnificent beauty.
It’s not a bad view.
We walked to our hotel, which was a half mile or so (and I bet we were some of the only guests who walk there rather than cab it). We were too early to check in so we left our bags and went looking for food.
A tiny, casual cafe grabbed our attention. This restaurant, and a number of others, had a seating style where you sat yourself. If you asked someone, “do we just sit anywhere?” they look at you like you’re crazy. I think the majority of the places we ate were ‘seat yourselves’ establishments. It’s confusing, as an American, because generally if I see a wait staff that means I don’t seat myself. But there this rule did not apply.
The lady and I ordered a water, a soda, and each a sandwich. A simple meal. The sandwiches were ok. Not bad, not good, ok. And the bill was a bit over 40 dollars. WHAT.
We took stock and realized: perhaps 2 days in Switzerland is sufficient. Honestly, whenever I first saw prices there I would try to translate the Swiss Franc into dollars. “Let’s say 1 US dollar is … oh, right, just about 1 Swiss Franc.” I kept assuming it must be that 1 US dollar equaled 2 Swiss Francs.
Most of the shops were closed because it was Christmas day (which is a fact we had to continuously remind ourselves of). We wandered slowly back to our hotel, hoping to spot shops that were open so that we could find a tourist gift for ourselves but without luck.
At the hotel a guy behind the desk (a slim, fantastic-suit-wearing, must-be-a-part-time-model-ing, blonde, giant-awesome-watch-wearing guy) showed us to our room. Our room, which had a giant window that looked out over the lake, back at the train station, back at the bridge covered in lights for Christmas, and to the left, the lake, and beyond them, the Alps. WE COULD SEE THE ALPS FROM OUR ROOM!
We Facetimed with our families some for Christmas and also to say things like, “IT’S THE ALPS! THIS IS OUR ROOM!” Oh what a room, late December back in Switzerland, I was never gonna be the same … late Decemberrrrr what a room. (Apologies to The Four Seasons.)
After relaxing for a bit and marveling at the fact that we were staying there, we headed to see the stone lion (a famous statue there) and an old wooden bridge which is also famous. We decided to save our wallet a little pain and we ate at a delicious shawarma place.
After dinner we relaxed in the room, taking in the local culture via TV. There was of course delightful darts to be watched, but that night Dirty Dancing in German won out. My wife had seen that movie enough times that she thought she could translate it. It worked out … sorta. There was an occasional question like, “oh … I think right now he’s telling her he got fired? Oh wait, maybe that didn’t happen yet? Uh … I don’t know.”
I’d never seen Dirty Dancing before, but I would highly recommend, if you have never seen that movie, to watch it in German with my wife guessing at translations.
We woke up and knew that day would be spent traveling up into the Alps. We would have to find a ferry (I had a schedule I’d picked up) and then we planned to get off at a certain stop. But first … we had to take advantage of our view and our coffee maker.
It turns out a Nespresso is a little brainier than I expected a coffee maker to be. I put a little pod in, put down a coffee cup, and started the machine … Out came a nice, hot little cup of water. What? I open up the spot where I put the pod and IT’S GONE. WHAT? I put in another pod, start the coffee machine … and out comes another nice little cup of hot water. What, what, what. (At this point I decided maybe reading the directions would be nice, so after a few google searches I find out that a fancy Nespresso machine likes to clean itself and will create three cups of water before it actually makes a cup of coffee.)
I realize this is probably a very dull story, and I don’t know why I feel called to keep it, but I do. So, I’m sorry you just wasted your time reading that.
After sitting, sipping, and gazing at the beauty of the Alps and the town, we headed out to get ourselves a breakfast on the go (croissants and coffee) and then went to the ferry. We paid some obscene amount of money for ferry, train, and air gondola tickets. We would be heading to Vistnau, where we would catch a train that goes up, and up, and up. The ferry ride was beautiful – there was a cloudy haze blocking the mountains, little towns right next to the lake, everything was beautiful. Maybe Swiss people are more attractive because their bodies just absorb some of the natural beauty, I don’t know. I don’t recall seeing a building there that made me think, ‘huh, that architect made some poor decisions.’ No, it’s all pretty.
In Vistnau we disembarked and hustled to the train (everyone was going there). We managed to secure seats across from a couple, and wouldn’t you know it – they’re from the good old U.S. of A. Not only that, but Shreveport! My wife was shocked I couldn’t recognize the particular accent, but I’ve got a lot less Louisiana accent experience than she does.
This couple is living the dream (a dream that requires you to be gutsy). They had both worked most of their careers in the U.S., and then the woman found a job working at a school in Indonesia. Bingo, bang, bongo, they lived and worked in Indonesia for two years. (Where the dollar is strong and they got to buy some amazing souvenirs.) They were mentally prepping for moving back to the U.S. when the woman got contacted by a school in Italy and so … well, what else can you do but move to Italy and work there?
They were taking a little winter break holiday to Switzerland and a few other countries. We ended up spending a chunk of our day with them, talking, hearing about their work in Indonesia and Italy. (If you recall the German buddy from Christmas Eve dinner, who said that Italians get things done somehow but never on time and yet it’s all kind of enjoyable instead of maddening to be perpetually delayed? Well, this couple spoke to the exact same experience – the Italians are consistent.)
At the top we hopped off the train and got to experience breathtaking views, and breathtaking wind. That’s not a joke, the wind was very strong, it was hard to breathe when walking into it. Snap, snap, snap, the camera was practically taking pictures without me doing anything. Now that we’re back home and I’m looking at these pictures, I can’t help but feel frustrated over my inability to capture how beautiful it was … but hey, that’s nothing new, eh?
Next we took the train back down to head to our stop for the air gondola. We stayed with our Shreveport pals and a group of us crowded into an air gondola. Like a little container of toothpicks we gently floated back down to Earth, staring at the Alps, the lakes, the small towns, and the tourists blocking my view.
The Shreveport pals told us about another must see – Mount Titlis. We were going to get there late, but they said it was better than what we’d seen that day. Well, ok then pals, we’ll make it work.
After the ferry back to town we rushed into the train station, grabbed a snack, and then tickets to Engelberg. One train ride later and there we were, the base of Mount Titlis. We asked if we weren’t too late for tickets to the summit and the guy informed us, ‘not technically, but kinda.’ It was a cloudy day, and the sun would soon be setting, we could go to the top but we likely wouldn’t see much of anything. We ended up getting tickets to the first stop along the route to the top and wandering around there for a bit. There were lots of skiers coming down, and a frozen lake (Trübsee) that two American teenagers were playing on (confident, I suppose, in the ice). The wife and I shared our doubts about their intelligence while I took pictures. A classic tourist tradition.
The sun had set, the dark sky had taken its spot and with it colder weather. We caught a train back to Lucerne because the shops in Engelberg were closed.
Our Shreveport pals had recommended a Mexican restaurant in Lucerne, Pacifico. Mexican sounded delicious, and we were curious how a Swiss treatment of Mexican would look. We were fairly excited about the goodness that is Mexican food.
There was a short wait, so I had a beer and enjoyed taking in the people around us. At our table I switched from beer to a Coke, which generated a look of muted shock from our waiter (he literally tilted his head back and lifted his eyebrows). I know it is weird to switch from beer to soda, but I like soda with Mexican food.
We ordered an appetizer, “chips and dips” because chips and salsa are not standard on the table. Our dish arrived and we dove in, trying each different dip. The basket of chips was normal and what you’d expect. The dips …
1. Something they referred to as picante sauce but seemed to be mostly ketchup
2. Something that looked an awful lot like refried beans but actually tasted more like a peanut sauce (I felt betrayed every time I used that dip)
3. Guacamole made with a large quantity of celery (a betrayal to the avocado gods)
4. Sour cream with mystery herbs
5. Cheese dip that tasted just like the cheese you get at a ball park with a pretzel (i.e. confusing)
This was a fancy seeming restaurant, mind you. The liberties they took with Mexican food were astounding. (But, to be fair, Mexicans must go to Mexican restaurants in the States and think the same thing.)
The lady of the house ordered chicken enchiladas which were served with corn on the cob … tasty, but confusing. I ordered a burrito which was served with kidney beans mashed up like refried beans, and there were potatoes in my burrito. Every bite was stealing a slice of all things that I knew to be logical and right in the world.
It was an intense dining experience.
We asked for our check without the usual European dining style of taking a while (which again drew a look of shock from our waiter – we were quick movers that night because we were tired after a long day of running about).
Oh Lucerne, your taste in Mexican food is heartbreaking, your prices are soul crushing … And yet: Would I go back? Yes. Most definitely yes, the beauty is something that deserves a few more long glances.
Recently the old ball and chain and I made our way to Europe for a two week trip (11 sightseeing days). It had its ups and downs, and I’d like to share some of our adventuring about because it’s fun for me to recall the trip.
We flew from Denver to Munich, via Toronto, on Air Canada. Air Canada was nice and I packed in a lot of movies – Suicide Squad (awful), Batman v Superman (not good but not as bad as the anti-hype train painted it), Deadpool (enjoyed it but a little awkward to watch on an airplane), the latest Jason Bourne movie (enjoyable mindless action) and Sarah Prefere Le Course (French Canadian movie … enjoyable but the ending was one of those that just happens). Maybe others? I don’t know. I also have no idea which ones I watched on the way there vs the way back, it all sort of blends together.
Two days before our trip began the incident in Berlin where a man drove a truck into a Christmas market happened. That was an awful event and some families will forever live with grief because of it, and some people’s lives have been brutally cut short. On a selfish note, this led to heightened concerns and worries for my wife and I. I don’t think I tend to be an unaware traveler, but I took screen shots of all the embassy locations before we left, and tried to stay very aware and think of how I would exit any place as quickly as possible. My wife was worried about Christmas markets (something we wanted to see as part of our trip) and I was worried about trains (they are just so easy to get on and off with however many bags you can carry and no checks of baggage contents).
Thankfully, our worries amounted to nothing and we had no death threats that panned out.
We left on December 21 in the morning and arrived on December 22 in the morning (hello confused bodies). We made our way to our hotel (ignoring my fears above, I love how prevalent and easy to use trains can be) and promptly took a much longer than we meant to nap. We woke up hungry, tired, and excited to see a little bit of Munich. But mostly hungry. And tired.
Our coats donned we headed to a coffee shop we had noticed while walking from the train station to the hotel – Coffee Fellows. I was all prepared in my head, “zwei kaffee, bitte, und uh … zwei … brot?” We wanted coffee and bagels but I had no idea how to say bagels, pointing is an international language, but also English is fairly international. My American brain can appreciate that.
I think only twice in the whole trip did I stumble through German (Munich, Lucerne in Switzerland and Vienna in Austria all speak German). I knew that I probably didn’t need to worry about learning German, I assumed I would need my 2 year old vocabulary at least a handful of times, but I didn’t even need it that much.
Our hotel was not far from Marienplatz, where a big Christmas market, Chriskindlmarkt, was located. We left from our quick meal and headed there. It was beautiful. St. Michael’s Church (St. Michael Kirche) with a huge, beautiful tree dominated the view. In front of them were temporary booths – nice looking, wooden temporary booths (a leap above the carny kind of temporary booth). I took picture after picture trying to capture how beautiful it all was – the shining ornaments hanging from booths, the smell of the gluhwein (a spiced, warm wine – sounds gross, tastes warm and occasionally delicious), the beautiful buildings, the upbeat and happy and kind mood that surrounded us.
We wandered from stand to stand, taking in the sights, picking out items to come back and buy later (a more difficult task than we realized, because finding the same booth was not always easy). (For more pictures of the beauty of the stands, go here to a previous post.)
For dinner we popped in a restaurant, Ratskeller, and enjoyed some incredibly delicious traditional German food. Oh yes, my friends, I miss that. And the beer. Oh such tasty beer.
We slept in late, later than we intended, and ended up getting coffee, juice, and a breakfast on the go from the train station. (I had a vanilla croissant … all the little bakeries there are wonderful – I don’t want to stereotype, but I think Europeans have bread at a higher level of deliciousness than most.) We boarded a train and headed to Dachau. From the Dachau main station we hopped on a bus to get to the site of the concentration camp (for future travelers – basic tip, follow the tourists).
I won’t spend much time recapping the visit to the concentration site because I don’t think I could do it justice. I will say two things, though.
One is that it wasn’t as depressing as I thought it would be. We arrived and walked into a building which has large poster after large poster full of facts. By the time you finish walking through that building your brain is inundated with information. To me, the Holocaust Memorial in Boston is more moving and depressing (the glass cubes with the numbers on them and a few quotes) because it is so stark. I think that creating a museum that is both informational and impactful is challenging, but I felt like the amount of data took away from the sadness of the place and what it was once used for. After walking through that building we walked around the grounds and you can easily visualize just how many buildings were there, stuffed with people suffering such incomprehensible cruelty, and that was powerful.
Thought two came before the trip. I began thinking about how Germany has concentration camps that are internationally known places to visit, to wonder at, to be disgusted by, and to learn from. I can’t think of an equivalently known slavery museum in the United States. It seems like that could be a museum that would be powerful, and important in teaching people about history. This could be my own ignorance and there very well may be a museum that serves just such a purpose, I just know that I have toured an old plantation or two and it was not built around showing slavery but the architecture of the plantation itself.
After the Dachau tour we had lunch at a little café in town and then I wanted us to walk to a castle. We got there at 4:05 pm to discover that it had closed at 4 pm. Dagnabit. It was a foggy day that was ripe for mystery laying behind every corner, which made the walk back to the train station seem a little more discombobulating.
Back in Munich, we rested at the hotel for a bit before heading out to once again marvel at the Christmas markets (talk about a switch from Dachau). This time we went along a different route to see different booths, and we stumbled on a beautiful decoration which ended up causing us countless grief (a large wooden scene – trip lesson #1 – when you buy a whole bunch of stuff at the first destination of your trip, MAIL IT HOME! Instead we lugged it around which was less than delightful). Somehow, the wooden decoration appeared to survive the trip, so that is good.
We had dinner at a Pizzeria, which was actually a very upscale looking Italian restaurant. I guess the word pizzeria does not mean chill pizza joint like it does here. The food? Ok. The beer? Oh you know it was delicious.