The intellectual equivalent of a ham sandwich.

Posts tagged ‘travel’

OK Travelers, Vienna – Part 1

December 27

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.


That night I took a walk from our hotel and one of the nearby museums had a different things projected on it.

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.



Same building, different view, different projection. Sorry I’m not a better photographer – it was really neat in person. (But I did spare you from how chilly it was.)

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.


OK Travelers, Lucerne

We had been warned by our Swiss pal (see: Munich) that Switzerland was pricey but … oh boy.

December 25

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.

lucerne-post-1-1It’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.

lucerne-post-1-2Most 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.

December 26

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.

lucerne-post-1-3It 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?

lucerne-post-1-4They 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.

lucerne-post-1-5After 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.

OK Travelers, Munich – Part 1

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.

 December 21/22

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.

munich-3Our 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.

December 23

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.


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