Sunday, July 29, 2007

CH - Luzern / Zürich

This post has not yet been written / updated. It is to span 29 July, 30 July, and 1 August 2007.

Saturday, July 28, 2007

CH - Luzern

Luzern is beautiful: flowers and greenery are always within sight, the city is compact and easily walkable, people seem friendlier than in other cities, I can see a plethora of stars despite being in one of the country’s largest cities, and the nightlife almost seems more energetic than the daylife.

I toured about the city all day. The Verkehrshaus (Transport Museum) was not quite what I hoped: less museumy stuff than I had anticipated. It is very hands on, which would have made this almost as great as Orlando if only I were 15 years younger. This may appeal to railfans… I did my best to snap photos of its rail hardware for my roommate.

The train section had a neat little computer program showing rail access in 1910, 1970, 1997, and a forecast to 2010. Basically you choose a city in Europe (or a few nearby Asian cities) and it shows a color-coded map indicating the distance, in hours, reachable by train. I was confounded when I chose London to find it had apparent access to mainland Europe in pre-Chunnel days, and even more bewildered to find that Ireland has apparently been running trains to the mainland since 1910. I guess the program includes some other transportation modes.

The rest of the museum really felt lacking (good thing it was free with my Swiss Pass). The cars are had a vintage Lamborghini and Ferrari, as well as a lovely NAZI-crafted BMW motorcycle. Seriously, that is one amazing piece of engineering. The planes section had a bunch of engines and some suspended planes, but the helicopters area let me down by its lack of info on the Pedaliante. The sea transport was rather dull, but then again I’m just not as interested in boats unless I’m on one and preferably piloting it. The Swiss Arena was kind of fun: it consists of aerial imagery of the whole country, basically recreating it at a scale of 1:20,000. This may not be too impressive to the Google Earth users of the world, but from the upper catwalk, bend over and peer through the telescopes: it looks 3D.

It occurred to me a week or two ago that the low benches between church pews are not footrests. Of course, I continue to use them as such. I also dab the holy water on my forehead and cheeks to help cool off. My theory is that God wants us to be comfortable and to not put water to waste. …I’ll never fit in as a Catholic. Well, if I’m on the Highway to Hell then, as an engineer, I can at least help it get built.

Friday, July 27, 2007

CH - Meiringen & Trift

My first task for Friday was to travel to Trift, the location of a glacier, a lake, a stream, and – more importantly – a really high pedestrian suspension bridge. Now first, note that transportation to and fro is not the best. Buses from Meiringen to the Triftbahn run infrequently, so check the schedule. Buses departing from Triftbahn are generally hourly, except that my one bus was running 30 minutes late: arriving at the same time as the next bus, running at about 17:00 to pick up the peak hiker traffic. Mind you, it is only a 20 minute trip in total … and the first station of the route is 3 minutes away… how the 16:40 bus was 30 minutes late is beyond me. I’d expect that in Italy, but in the country that practically invented time? Inconceivable!

Then there is the capacity of the cable car itself: 8 people per car, 2 cars, at a 20-minute roundtrip. Fortunately, as I was a solo traveler, I fit in on an ascending car after only waiting about an hour. The descent took a mere 30-minute wait, but that resulted in me just barely missing the 15:40 bus (assuming it arrived) and thus I had to sit around an hour and a half for the next bus. The hike from the base is only about an hour and a half, according to my guidebook, so it may be worth bypassing the lift entirely. Now, all this said, if you take the lift then respect that it is open for use at all: it serves the power station and was not originally intended for tourism.

All the above ranting and I still say that Trift was worth it. So very worth it. The hike itself was lovely: a lot of small bits of rock climbing and on some occasions, the path disappeared entirely. To put it simply: I love sauntering about on rocks. The way between the lift station and the bridge overlook can be done by any able-bodied person, but wear shoes with excellent grip and travel light. From the bridge overlooked down to the bridge and beyond, however, the difficulty changes considerably. To and beyond the bridge, the path is marked with blue and white, indicating intermediate difficulty and some climbing skills required (red/yellow indicates novice trails). The blue/white trail was a blast – I loved it, for as far as I got on it before opting to turn back so-as to ensure I caught the last bus back to Meiringen. If only there were more blue/white trails around.

The bridge itself was very snazzy. Now I should say that I am afraid of heights… not in the sense that I’m paralyzed with fear, but rather that I get this overwhelming urge to jump. It’s pretty much the only part of my own psychology which I just cannot figure out. So basically, just being high up gives me a sweet dose of adrenaline, which is my straight-edge version of cocaine. Now you know why I love climbing trees and why, when on an airplane, my head is pretty much glued to the window. Sometimes I lean over the person in the window seat, if I’m beside them; or I squirm about for a good view if I’m in the aisle seat – setting those in between at unease as I stare intently across their laps with a childish look of excitement blended with ecstasy. So… yeah… the bridge was neat. I ran across it, jumped on it, and tried to swing it back and forth; whereas everyone else just kind of slowly shuffled across one step at a time.

Upon my return, I attempted to get a better view of the Reichenbachfall, which overlooks Meiringen. Alas, I soon discovered that the hiking paths are not very convenient nor do they offer any good views. I thought such anti-hiker setups were unheard of in Switzerland! As best I am aware, the only way to really see the falls is to ride the funicular, which was closed by this point. Just as well: I refuse to pay for something which I can just as easily do myself. This is why I don’t pay to use the bathroom: I can easily pee outside or even on the door to the bathroom, making sure to give the coin-operated lock a good wash of irony. After coming to the harsh realization that the funicular was necessary to see the waterfalls, I decided that I was going to bycott such an arrangement and skip the whole thing. Just as well: I live near enough to Niagara Falls that pretty much the only waterfalls which are going to impress me are Angel and Victoria.

The Aareschlucht (Aare Gorge) was lit tonight and was neat to see. I snapped a couple photos and made my way out. It was quiet cold in there: among my emergence from the gorge it felt that much hotter. Alas, I could only see half the gorge: a gate blocked my way to the Innertkirchen side; why, I do not know. Perhaps that side just doesn’t open for the Wednesday/Friday night openings?

Thursday, July 26, 2007

CH - Meiringen

My next stop was only about 15 minutes away, by rail, so I decided to stick around Brienz a bit longer and ride up to the top of the Rothorn. En route, I juggled about with my camera cards to get an inventory of remaining photo space. Result: not much. It was just enough, though, capturing the beautiful view from the trek to, from, and upon the Rothorn.

In Meiringen, my first thought was of how much the downtown reminded me of the downtown of a classic Pennsylvania town, except more vibrant. Makes sense: where I grew up, there is a lot of influence from Swiss Germans. Cars and pedestrians coinhabit this city, which is forced to be compact by the cliffs towering above only hundreds of meters to the north and south.

My hotel, the Parkhotel du Sauvage, is posh: the classiest place I’ll be at this whole trip. It’s where Sir Arthur Conan Doyle once stayed and also where his Sherlock Holmes stayed shortly before the character’s “death” at the nearby Reichenbachfall – which I hope to see tomorrow. Sherlock Holmes’ legacy is very much alive in this tiny community.

The church located on the northern side of town has a pretty clocktower and garden, not to mention the ruins beneath the church which were eerily empty. An sign helps to identify which ruins belong to which time period, and from that it is pretty easy to visualize what the grounds looked like centuries ago.

As part of my hostel stay, I get free access to a local fitness club. I am not one to pass up a whirlpool tub, if offered, and it was too late for any significant excursions, anyway. Upon my arrival, whilst in the men’s locked room, I inspect the prominent warning signs and come up with one conclusion: this is a nude bath. I head back out to the lobby wearing a towel and confirm this, not wanting to emerge naked only to find I’m supposed to have a swimsuit on.

Sure enough, yep I’m supposed to be in the buff. Alright… I’m comfortable enough with my body. I drop the towel and I’m roaming free. Not just that, but I soon confirmed that these baths were co-ed. For the males that must know: nothing spectacular. It was a quiet night and the clientele was a la the mid-day traffic at the Ephrata Rec Center, though the facility attendant was cute in a sort of Uma Thurman-ish way… she seemed to walk through the men’s lockers a bit often, though, not that I am necessarily complaining. I had the whirlpool all to myself for an hour and it was the perfect cure for legs weary after three weeks of hiking about. My two-block walk back to the hotel was as if I was drunk: my legs were like rubber and my mind was as if overdosed on soma.

In my room, I happened upon Les Triplettes de Belleville on TV, partially dubbed into German for the few speaking parts. I had always wanted to see this and am now glad to have had the chance: it is certainly a different movie, and I respect that. It was not at all a kid’s movie, but wasn’t particularly risqué, either. It was just sort of… uniquely French. The animation style is great and the humor is sometimes subtle, sometimes dark, and sometimes slapstick. Definitely worth seeing if you haven’t already.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

CH - Brienz

After breakfast, I departed for Schynige Platte (pronounced like an Irish “Shih-nih-gih Plat” rather than my initial thought: “shnikey”), which I knew would be full of tourists right from the start: the train up was packed and some actually did nto make it on. Fortunately, the sheer amount of places to go helped scale the crowds down to an acceptable level. The Alpengarten was pretty, but not as spectacular as I was expecting. I did, however, see and touch Edelweiss right at the entrance to the garden. This was one of my must-do activities for this trip.

The allure of this area lay beyond the garden: the views from the nearby hiking paths were magnificent. While up here, I finally espied the fighter jets I had been hearing frequently echoing about the mountain valleys for the past several days (including a distinctive sonic boom whilst transferring trains in Interlaken, on my first day in the area), buzzing the two seas from their base near Meiringen.

I spent more time on Schynigge Platte than I intended, catching the last boat back to Brienz and therefore missing out on Giessbachfälle – though I did feel that I got a good view from the boat. I dined at a pizzeria en route to my hotel from the train station, where I not only received spectacular service, I also had spectacular pizza. Brienz has been quite the island of hospitality.

Whilst riding the boat back to Brienz, it occurred to me: this is the first place I have ever been to that, geographically, seems to have pretty much everything I want. Mighty mountains such as the Eiger, Mönch, and Jungfrau; beaches along the Thunersee, Brienzersee, and numerous other smaller lakes; small towns such as Gimmelwald linked with major cities via efficient transit; warm summers, snowy winters, and a bit of everything in between through each day of the week. Hey I like a little rain: it cools things down and keeps the landscape green, flowering, and beautiful. The tourist presence can be felt, but it can also be avoided. I can hike, ski, swim, and relax in a café – all in the same day. The Jungfrau region may have just made the top of my list of places I would like to live.

With my shower tonight, I successfully managed to flood the room. Seriously, it was like Britain here… First, the shower curtain was this flimsy little thing that didn’t even close in the open shower area. Second, the pressure coming out of the nozzle brought back memories from Madrid from seven years ago. The pressure was so strong that it pushed the shower head up, pushed me back, and stung when it hit the more sensitive skin. Ahh, it was among the best showers ever: like getting a massage. However, I got out and noticed a shimmer on the floor.

Now, I’ve flooded bathrooms before… heck in the days of my youth, a bath with Mr. Bubble virtually guaranteed a mess outside the tub. Or even sans Mr. Bubble, my G.I. Joes and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles also made for a splashtastic evening. Hey, the G.I. Joes had naval missions: itw as life or death and the bathroom floor was part of the collateral damage of this patriotic and heroic task. So anyways, I step out into a pool rather than a puddle. A moment later I realise I flooded the entry, too, which requires about half an inch depth to overcome the lip of the doorway between the bathroom and the entry. Fortunately, the main room (and carpet) were spared, as the entry did not quire fill up. If I showered for just another minute or two, I bet I could have made it to the carpet. I mopped up a bit with towels, but left the rest for the warm night.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

CH - Grindelwald & Brienz

Four nights in the Jungfrau region and so little that I accomplished… I caught a ride up to the First (a mountain gondola station) on this beautiful morning and made my way west to the Bachsee or Bachalpsee or whatever the deuce it’s called (I saw both names on signs and pamphlets). Alas, by the time I got there, the “beautiful morning” had darkened over and I was soon hiking in the clouds and enjoying a refreshing (albeit cold and windy) mountain rain.

Along the way, I identified periodic rumbling sounds as that of recurring avalanches by the Eiger Mountain. It was spectacular to watch: first snow in the glacier at the top would shift and collapse off the main mass. It would then form a “waterfall” of snow down to a large drift about 500 meters below. That, in turn, eventually led into another “snowfall” about 30 seconds later, which dropped about 1000-1500 meters onto various ledges below. The snow finishing another several snowfalls from small ledge to small ledge by ultimately collapsing into a large (read: huge) pile of snow at the bottom, about 2000-2500 meters below – at valley-level and equal altitude to a number of farmhouses. Fortunately the Swiss know not to build too close to mountains! I just hope no one was there to begin with: the past several weeks have experienced avalanche-inducing weather and many lives have recently been lost on the very mountains I have been hiking about.

After getting soaked, I gave Uncle Tom’s Leather Cabin… er, Onkel Tom’s Hütte another try. This is rare, as I usually never again patronize a business after I have been let down previously, but it smelled that good. The Asian server was responsive and pleasant, and the chef – whom I assumed to be Uncle Tom – was quite friendly and funny. Alas, when the second waitress arrived for the lunch rush – whom appeared to be native Swiss and was the same waitress I dealt with last time – things became rather tedious. She moved me from my table – which was right by the oven, next to Uncle Tom, and was quite warm in the now-chilly environment – because the table was “closed.” So my table yesterday was “closed” and now this one is, too? …Even though I have already placed my order and have been chatting with Uncle Tom for ten minutes? Fine… I move to a cold table right by the door and stare at the wall. She gives me three menus… which the more “with it” Asian waitress takes away a few minutes later. It takes an hour for my pizza to arrive, which wouldn’t have been so bad a wait if I weren’t cold and admiring the wood paneling… I missed Uncle Tom, the oven’s warmth, and the sight of pizza being made. At least the pizza was spectacular… if only the service (or server) weren’t the apparently standard fare of Swiss service.

I made way for Brienz but arrived too late to do much. I enjoyed a boat trip there via the Brienzersee, from Interlaken Ost. On this side of the mountains, it was not raining, it was warmer, and there was intermittent sunlight through the cloud-filled sky. After locating my hotel with little problem and checking into my sweet room at the Hotel Lindenhof, I opted for a tour of the small town of Brienz. Not much to it, really: there’s a small commercial center, a lovely lakeside walk, and a number of residential homes likely serving as suburban residences to Interlaken workers. It was neat to watch small scattered showers move about the lake, the haze of rain easily visible against the dark mountain backdrop. I ate dinner at a hotel’s “tea house” just west of the train station, where I had good service and tasty food in addition to a lovely view over the lake.

Monday, July 23, 2007

CH - Grindelwald & Jungfrau

The sun was shining and I immediately made my way for Jungfrau. Alas, on my arrival at the so-called “Top of Europe,” the clouds were localized right on that very area. Wandering about outside, it made it extremely eerie… like standing in a formless void. At a couple moments, there was a fleeting break where I could snap a couple photos, but I was ultimately let down on account of the little pocket of isolated weather.

The plateau offers some neat attractions. At no charge, you can grab a large saucer and slide down the snow, but the hill is very short. For SFr 20, you can ride a lateral zip line for 250m. I would have done it if it were half the price and if the temperature and wind weren’t chilly enough. You can ski for a short distance, but this is quite costly. You can continue hiking along the glacier (a safe path is marked) provided you have something warmer than a light jacket (I didn’t feel like carrying my winter coat whilst hiking at lower altitudes).

The real prize was my hike down from Eiger Gletscher to Wengeralp, where I caught the train to Lauterbrunnen. The scenery, comfort (hot temperatures but a strong cool wind), and the blend of adrenaline-pumping areas and easy downhill strolls – they all made this perhaps the best hike yet (apart from the thrill of seeing my first glacier, back in Fiescheralp).

Upon my arrival in Lauterbrunnen, I learned that the Schilthorn cable car had already closed. I continued back to Grindelwald and contemplated heading up to First to hike back, but it was starting to drizzle and the rapidly thickening clouds were becoming increasingly ominous. I instead grabbed my umbrella from my room and went out in search of dinner.

First stop was Onkel Tom’s Hütte, a pizzeria on the east side of town which continuously smells fabulous. After sitting at a table for 10 minutes and remaining unnoticed by servers, I got up and found out that there was a 135 minute wait for 1 person. Why I couldn’t be served at the table I had been sitting at, I do not know. I also could not take one of the seats outside, which I know full well would go unused the rest of the night. I also could not get takeaway. Well… I tried very hard to give them my business, but they failed to deliver.

I wandered back to town a bit and went to another pizzeria (well actually a full Italian restaurant, but I was just in it for pizza). I was warmly welcomed, quickly seated, and was eating my stupendous Marinara pizza (tomato sauce, garlic, basil, oregano, and a bowl of heavily-spiced olive oil … perfect) in no time. Alas, service went AWOL at about this moment. My nook of seven tables – three total (including me) occupied – being served by three people. However, it took me ten minutes of sitting with my empty plate and glass before I managed to order dessert – a single scoop f ice cream. That arrived 15 minutes later. After finishing my ice cream, it took ten more minute just to ask one of the servers for the bill. Mind you, I was accomplishing all of this in German, whereas the other two tables consisted of Britons and Japanese. Now with 35 minutes of delay already accrued, I awaited my bill. I waited as one of the waiters helped another table. I waited as another waiter leaned on a counter in the other room, visibly bored. I watched as the third waiter hustled and bustled about, serving patrons in other rooms. As time passed, I started tapping my credit card on the table. I started singing softly… then eventually whistling a tune. I tried flicking flies on my table and then the empty one beside me. I contemplated taking off my shirt and wearing my unused saucer like a hat, but it did not quite come to that: after almost thirty minutes, I got my bill and was on my way. Over an hour wasted… if I were outdoors enjoying the scenery, it would have perhaps been OK (assuming the scenery consisted of something better than the less-than-appealing Dorfstrasse). If the town were not an ugly pro-car sprawling tourist trap and instead offered me a pedestrian promenade to enjoy, it may have been OK. Alas, I sat inside and admired the faux-stucco.

The night ended with an early bedtime, with hopes of a sunny morning (though I am not particularly optimistic). Four days in the Jungfrau region and weather disables 3.5 of those days. I will come back here again, someday, as I know it has so much to offer. Next time, however, I will be sure to stay at the Mountain Hostel in rustic Gimmelwald – the mainstream tourists can have Grindelwald to themselves.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

CH - Grindelwald

After dropping off my backpack at the SYHA hostel, I made my for town. It is no wonder Rick Steves clearly prefers the neighboring valley’s Gimmelwald: this current town is a tacky and ugly tourist town – though at least relatively small; but sprawling. The countryside and surrounding mountains, however, are just as beautiful as in the neighboring valley of the past two nights.

The hostel is a grand building with a good view and a lovely interior. However, it costs 50% more than the Mountain Hostel in Gimmelwald, I have to pay for other services which I previously had free, the view is not quite as breathtaking (though it is still pretty), and the atmosphere is not nearly as social. If anything, the social element is ruined by its many rooms for relaxation. At the Mountain Hostel, everyone was either in the tiny tiny hot tub (which we packed like a VW Bug), the compact game room (occupied primarily by a pool table), or in the busy dining area. The sheer proximity forced you to socialize. Here, everyone is too spread out… after dinner (which was tasty and a decent price), I ended up having a large room all to myself. In retrospect, that may have had something to do with my “male hiker” smell.

The reason I smelled so bad was because, after touring town, I had a rather high-speed trek around the Grindelwald area:

1600 – I depart the hostel and walk eastward along Terrassenweg.
1715 – Arrival at the base of Oberer Gletscher. I check the bus schedule, as not one bus passed me on my way there and I was on the bus route the entire walk. I needed to get back for dinner at 1830, so a bus ride had to be in my future. Second to last bus at 1811: next and last bus at 1835 would be too late. I have an hour to scale the mountain and return. I travel the path and approach the base.
1730 – I look over the edge and realize I am climbing up the wrong side. It turns out the sign for the path I wanted was shrouded by trees on the inbound approach. OK, so back down I go…
1740 – I begin a new climb: really steep stairs where each wooden log step is at a different height and angle than the one before and the one after it.
1750 – I was nearly at the top of the stairs when I decided that I had to turn back… good thing I did: going down was harder than I thought, as the crude stairs’ varying depths made going down require considerable thought. At one point, I chucked my water bottle to the path below, then with both hands free I leapt down several dozen stairs at a time by grabbing the rails; but alas, I could only do this once as otherwise I would have very likely lost my life-supporting water bottle (full of cold green tea).
1800 – I’m at the bottom. I bolt along the path…
1810 – …make it to the bus station ten minutes later…
1811 – …and I beat the bus by about a full minute. From a note on the schedule, I thought the bus was supposed to drop me off about 50 meters uphill from my hostel, meaning just a few seconds of downhill strolling. Alas, no: it went downtown and terminated at the Bahnhof.
1820 – I disembark at the Bahnhof.
1825 – I’m at the foot of the steep path up to my hostel.
1830 – Dinnertime, to the minute, I swing open the gate and stare at a large horned bovine blocking my path from the gate to the hostel door. It is rubbing its horns along a wood post, which it uproots and flings to the side. I snap a photo of myself to mark the time, make my way around the cow (which doesn’t even pay heed to me), and triumphantly place myself into queue for dinner… where I stand for 10 minutes.

Saturday, July 21, 2007

CH - Gimmelwald

The day was dreary right from the start. When you cannot see the tree outside the window and even the flowers on the windowsill are hazy, you know you’re going to have a quiet day to spend in a location whose draw is its long-distance scenery.

After lounging around a bit, bidding farewell to some outgoing travelers, and eating a Toblerone for breakfast, I made my way toward Trümmelbachfälle, a series of waterfalls generally inside of a mountain. That latter item makes it particularly handy for dreary weather; and as it was in the valley, it was located beneath the clouds that I awoke within. The waterfall actually was not that fascinating, though the stream exiting the falls was very pretty with its glacier-blue hue.

The travel to the falls was the best part, with the cable car ride down epicly breaking through the clouds (for several seconds prior, we were eerily suspended completely within a uniformly light-gray purgatory) and the pleasant walk along the river, where I belted out Genesis tunes until I realized three girls from my hostel had caught up behind me.

On my exit from the falls, I ran into the same family I had chatted with for an hour or two the day before. I had initially reacted with more surprise than was probably necessary, as I initially forgot where and when I had met them. I thought I ran into them in Austria or something and was astounded that, of all the times and places, we’d reunite here. A moment later it hit me that our first meeting was not even 24 hours prior, was in the town pretty much right on top of the cliff facing us, and we were both visiting the only attraction which was attracting anyone, given the weather. So it wasn’t that surprising.

After the falls I returned to Mürren for lunch. I then lounged about the hostel for the rest of the cloudy day. For dinner, I prepared pasta and made a stab at sauce / gravy with limited ingredients: tomato arrabbiata purée as a base; fresh, diced, red & green peppers, fresh cheery tomatoes sliced in half, dry garlic powder (didn’t have a mash available for fresh garlic nor did I feel like chopping it up), oregano, and crushed red peppers. Thanks to the arrabbiata sauce, crushed red pepper, and my decision to leave in most of the pepper seeds… it was hot. I broke out in a sweat with the first taste, but oh my was it good. I shared the wealth with the other travelers and the food was gone within minutes. My first attempt at a vegetarian dish seems to have been a success!

Friday, July 20, 2007

CH - Gimmelwald

I ride to Interlaken Ost then travel the rails south to Lauterbrunnen – base of some scenic waterfalls. The scenery only improved during my bus ride southward, through the valley, toward Stechelberg; and it climaxed after I exited the cable in Gimmelwald, where my hostel lay immediately across the tiny street. The view from my dorm in the Mountain Hostel is fantastic: the valley below framed by its terminus into the surrounding mountains. This valley is frequented by daytrippers headed for Schilthorn or Jungfrau, but my tiny village seems to miss most tourist itinerates. There isn’t even a grocery store or café in town: one must travel to nearby Mürren to get food (apart from the pizzas cooked up by the Mountain Hostel).

A note on Jungfrau: it is pronounced “young-fruh.” Anyone familiar with the Volkswagon commercial song by Master Cylinder may now understand the song’s name: “Jung at Heart”. Sure enough, “Jung” means “Young”… so it’s really not that much of a stretch.

My only hike for the day had the sole goal of getting food. I originally intended to get lunch at a café, catch the cable car up to Schilthorn, and walk back down. As I ate my lunch, however, ominous clouds began to make their presence known. Just as well: I was having an excellent conversation with a Floridian family at the table beside me. As soon as the rain began, I made my way to the Coop for groceries and hiked back down to the hostel.

This hostel is, hands down, the greatest hostel I have ever been to. It has a spectacularly social atmosphere, owing to being pretty much the sole source of food in town. A game room and a dining room are all there are to store the backpackers, town denizens, and visitors whom are stopping by just for the legendary atmosphere. The endless stream of pizzas and beer from the bar fuel the mayhem and pasta is the main course being cooked up by backpackers in the kitchen. This may be a poor choice if you seek an early bedtime, but is if you don’t mind a generally college-aged crowd with a couple families, parents, and older travelers thrown in. An outdoor hottub is another perk, though I managed to burn myself quite nicely on the pipe (it’s basically just a big wooden barrel on top of a fire, with a blazing hot chimney pipe within leaning range of somebody sitting on the rim of the hottub)

While here, I met a girl whom doesn’t drink – a true rarity – and I also met the legendary Rick Steves, himself. He hung out with us pretty much all night, with plenty of photos taken those two nights which, with any luck, will make it into his next guidebook. Now a note on Rick Steves… my co-worker had mentioned his name before I left, but I completely forgot about it. Earlier in the day, while wandering through Mürren, I saw a shop sign saying something along the lines of “as referenced by the legendary Rick Steves.” Just a few minutes later, while talking to the Floridian family at the café, his name once again came up. I had no idea who he was, but everyone else sure did. Then I meet the guy just hours later… I picked up one of his books at my next hostel and read through it: he has some great travel tips!

Thursday, July 19, 2007

CH - Bern

With one day to spend in the capital, I suspected I’d be strapped for time. Alas, one day ended up being the perfect length of time: the town is incredibly compact.

My trek began by traveling from Thun. The train I boarded was supposed to be an express with only 1 intermediate stop, but alas the timetable was wrong and so were the train line’s descriptive acronym – which indicated a regional route. As my destination hostel closed at 11:30 for several hours, I was unnerved to realise that I was now on a regional train – changing my expected arrival time of just before 11 to… well… I had no idea, but I knew that getting to my hostel was going to be tight. After passing the halfway point, my train suddenly started skipping the remaining stops. “Whoopty do!” I thought.

I recognize the Berner skyline and soon after I feel the train begin to slow. We stop at a seemingly small station… there was no automated announcement “Nächste halt…” to indicate what this stop was, and Switzerland tends to have very few signs at stations displaying the station’s name (unlike in Austria, where every station seems narcissistic). So I – and others – stood about the cars blankly staring out the windows, each face clearly perplexed as to whether or not we were supposed to get off. …Then the train started again and we arrived at Bern proper about 20 seconds later. Sorry for the anticlimactic ending; I was kind of expecting a more exciting story, myself.

But wait, there’s more (and it’s about just as interesting). Many train stations are oriented such that you exit facing the way you want to go, e.g. CBDs or tourist hotspots. If there is more than one major entrance, each one is usually well-signed as to where each one leads you towards. In the German speaking countries, you can pretty much expect a sign to direct you toward the Alstadt – that is, the historical downtown. There was no such sign here… one directed me toward the University and the other just had place names I did not recognize. My Lonely Planet guide – for the first time ever – was no help. Its map showed what I call a terminating train station: tracks only approach from one direction. Unfortunately, that was not the case. The guide also showed a nice network of interconnecting streets, but construction had closed down pretty much all of them. It was 11:25 and I knew exactly where I was, but yet I was still lost. Fortunately, it appeared that my entire train was in the same predicament.

I finally did find my hostel – the Hotel Glocke / Backpackers Bern – arriving at about 11:40. It had been closed since 11, according to the engraving on the closed reception window. On the other hand, signs elsewhere in the building as well as upon the business cards all indicated 11:30. Didn’t matter, anyway… I called the number for reception on a phone by the window and a lady appeared whom let me store my backpack until reception reopened. As she was the same person whom would later give me my key via a process that took about one minute, I am not entirely sure why I couldn’t just check in then, seeing as she was there. Oh well, it all worked out in the end.

I wondered around town and was delighted by the streets: each one like a snapshot of medieval design. The real treat was the Rosengarten on the east side of town, across the river. When I first crossed over, I started hiking up paths and ended up in some residential area. I turned around and made my way to the nearby bear pits (“Bern” is derived from the word for “bear”).

About thirty seconds after I walked up, I saw one bear assume the position… let’s just say he was on three legs. The other bear just kind of meandered about, gobbling up food tossed down and then looking upward with sad puppy-dog eyes toward the now-rapidly growing crowd, as if to say either “Please get the other bear off me” or “Please throw more food.” I guess it could be both.

I was somewhat disgusted at how quickly the crowd was growing to watch this; and they were taking pictures, no less! Were they going to put them in their family photo album? Are the going to include them with their Christmas cards? Just what kind of people would want to stand here and watch this, no less get photos to remember the occasion? I immediately recognized the irony of this, as lo and behold there I was leaning on the railing overlooking the bear pit. I took some pictures so that I could look back someday and think “ahh, here’s where I watched bears mate for 10 minutes.” I left once the bear-in-charge started groaning / moaning / roaring / whatever… that was where I drew the line and just had to go do something better with my day, lest I start having desires to become a furry.

With a ten-minute rest and an ice cream bar in my stomach, I made a second attempt at the Rosengarten; this time with signs leading me in what I hoped was the correct direction. One steep-ish 90-billion degree (Celsius, of course; this is metric territory) hike later, I was glad I made the effort. First, the view of the city must rank among the greatest views I have ever seen. It was a perfect view of the medieval city core, tiled roofs at varying heights. The rose garden itself was lovely and captivated me for quite some time with close-up photos of the flowers.

I have noticed that it is difficult to find good service in these Germanic countries, but Switzerland tops them all when it comes to bad service – or should I say nonexistent service. I can sit at a café for 30 minutes and go unnoticed; unless I am eating an ice cream cone – a big no-no at café tables – then I quickly have people telling me to eat elsewhere. Well to CH’s credit, this specifically occurred in München: I had actually tried using this tactic to get someone so I could order food, but the woman was rude when she first approached, so I decided not to be their customer (this occurred at Marienplatz).

Now as far as Bern goes, I went and sat down at a posh restaurant on the waterfront. It’s pouring rain at that moment, everyone’s wearing a suit or nice dress, and I’m there in flip-flops, torn shorts, and am soaked head to toe because it was not yet raining hard enough for me to give in and use my umbrella. For 20 minutes I didn’t even have anyone ask me to leave. I eventually get up and make my way to a restaurant in what used to be the city granary, just a few meters from my hostel and right beside the fountain with the statue of an ogre eating children. I sit down – mostly dry this time, but still underdressed: this place also seemed to be rather fancy, despite the more affordable prices. I sit in a chair on the upper floor for about 10 minutes until I realise this is probably for the bar – where I’d be expected to go to the bar & order. So I hobble down and take a seat at a table right in the middle of the dining hall. Time passes and I start playing with the salt shaker (most people know that me + condiment shakers = huge mess).

It then occurs to me: I am in a supposed Italian restaurant… with salt and pepper shakers on the table. Any Italian knows that a true Italian restaurant at least has oregano and possibly basil sitting on the table. It now occurs to me why the Turkish shops were so appealing, apart from the extra spice and flavor absent in most Caucasian foods: service. When you walk into a Mediterranean eatery, service is always about 2 seconds away. Granted, in Greek or Turkish restaurants, the servers tend to be quite surly; but they’ll still be there to respond right away. In Italian restaurants, sometimes there’s too much service… the waiter just won’t stop staring at you or asking if everything is OK. Ahh, I miss the Mediterranean.

For dinner, I ultimately settled with a takeaway pizza from a sidewalk cart; and it was amazing. It tasted like it was fresh out of a brick oven, even though I had probably passed that exact slice sitting in the cart, behind the sneeze guard, back when I first walked by en route from the train station. Oh and the cart had oregano, basil, and crushed red pepper sitting on the top of the sneeze guard. That’s how I knew it’d be good.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

CH - Thun

My trek to Thun brought me through what is supposedly the longest land rail tunnel (or something like that), which is named the Lötschberg Tunnel. Actually, it may have been the brand-new (opened on 15 June 2007) Lötschberg Base Tunnel. Regardless, while it may sound neat and fancy to go through such a grand tunnel, the problem is that it’s really just several minutes of nothing but darkness. So basically whenever my train would hit a tunnel, I’d fall asleep within a minute. This was no exception.

The river through Thun is a beautiful sight and the city takes full advantage of its location upon a river’s joining with the lake Thunsee. The buildings are built right up to its edge, bringing back memories of Venezia.

Inside the Schloss Thun, set upon a hill overlooking the town, is not too much to see; but it’s kind of neat and the ongoing renovations in the tower area created yet another Hall In Tirol sort of Myst-like feeling. The view from the towers is worth the cheap admission price.

There are two covered bridges provided flood control along the river, which means there are some nice waves coming out the back of them. Sure enough, a group of young surfers spent nearly the entire day hanging onto a water-ski rope attached to the side of the bridge. It was quite entertaining to watch and I very well might have given it a shot, myself, had my swimsuit not been a mile away.

After wandering about a bit more, I ended up taking a walk along the lakeside – the definite place to see the beautiful people of Thun. Well, more specifically, I suspected that the Schloss Schadau Thun is where the crowds really are, but this was certainly a lovely path to walk along and I’m sure bikers were delighted.

For food, I generally had a full day of Turkish fare since the other places I had been considering ended up seeming a bit too posh (read: costly) for my taste. The döner I had for lunch was pretty good, purchased along Untere Hauptgasse just north of Brück Gasse. The döner I had for dinner, purchased along Obere Hauptgasse, unfortunately, wasn’t as tasty. I think it was because of the corn, which tastes strange in Switzerland.

I stayed at the Hotel Emmental, which stands out quite prominently upon the roundabout just north of the Alstadt. My single room had a nice view toward the town and the castle.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

CH - Zermatt

My years of college education have jaded my ability to do simple arithmetic. I wanted to wake up at 6 am. My cell phone is still set to Eastern Standard Time, a 6-hour difference. …I set my phone’s alarm for 1am. If you don’t get it, you probably studied science or engineering. For once I was glad to have loud roommates, whom were headed for the same 7am lift so that they could go mountaineering. They woke me up at 5:50 and I was surprisingly wide awake (granted, I went to bed at about 21:00).

First two of nine roommates were up… then me… then one more… then three more… and I knew another would wake soon. This was a pretty good indication that the first lift(s) were bound to be quite crowded. Lo and behold: they were! But dagnabit I still made it on.

I emerged into a Winter Wonderland. Not knowing where to go, I followed the crowd. Mothers always tell you that just because somebody jumps off a bridge doesn’t mean you should, too. If a whole bunch of people are jumping off the bridge, however, the male mentality is that you’d better hurry up and jump so you can get to the bottom first. Surely there must be something good down there.

Yeah, so I followed the pack. This became complicated upon our arrival at a fork in the trail. As I watched people approach the decision point, I pondered the universal alignment of a woman in front of her love (assumed) looking back over her shoulder and endearingly kissing the man behind her; and I looked upon a rushed skier slicing his way through the crowd. A fork; a spoon; and a knife! This thought, however, did not assist my predicament; and I was rapidly skiing toward the pole dividing the two paths. I recalled the literature of Robert Frost and chose the road most traveled – following the bigger pack (I’m an engineer; not a poet).

I follow an icy chute, anticipating the glorious Alpine snow that surely lay ahead. It turns out even the mighty Matterhorn can succumb to the power of summer. Of five runs, I fell once right at the end – a glorious sliding finish, spraying the masses with snow and stopping just inches before the people and gear. Oh and let’s not forget the lifts: in my three or four seasons of American skiing, I’ve never had to use a pull bar lift. Well, I have for very short rides: you grab onto it with your hands and ride behind the bar. These American bars, however, were fixed and don’t spin about. Here, the bar was on a bungee cable, which kept it nice and fun. You are in front of the bar, effectively sitting on it. It took me several tries to get this figured out , including my first try where I fell shortly after grabbing on – surely to the delight of the queues beside me.

I didn’t like the course: one straight downhill run with icy conditions and pros all around me. I asked an Italian fellow (as I was, at the time, technically in beloved Italia) how to get back to the lift at the very top (the right fork I took when I first arrived ended up taking me far far away). I began making my way for the exit, which included a long ride on the pull-bar. I was getting better, but hadn’t yet realized I didn’t have to hang on with my hands whilst sitting on the bar.

I glide down a slope toward the station and think “hey… this is fun… and there’s nobody else here.” Of the two runs, this could have definitely been considered the bunny slope. It was completely straight and generally flat, but a hill at the start provided for some good speed. I stuck around here till about 13:00, when clouds began amassing just meters above. They covered the mountaineers immediately east within a shroud. Seeing as the last lift down was at 13:30, anyway, I made my way to the exit.

The real test was in getting my equipment back to the rental place. Zermatt is in a narrow valley: the cable car at the south end and both my rental place and hotel at the north. The ¾ mile / 1.2 km trek slightly uphill was a cinch in the cool morning. However, as the temperature was about 0° C in the mountains, I was equipped with a large winter coat and snowpants upon my return to the 30° C weather of a Zermatter afternoon. I had stripped off the winter clothes (don’t worry, I had clothes underneath), which added to the awkward bulk of equipment to lug about town. It actually wasn’t too bad once I got everything balanced on my shoulder.

By the time I reached the tourist zones, I drew plenty of stares… kind of amusing, really. All these people in shorts and “I’m American” t-shirts and there’s me carrying as much weight in warm clothes as I had in ski equipment. This area was particularly tricky to navigate with skis across my shoulder: there were many people I very nearly whacked in the head (and some others I wanted to). I was amused when I found myself trapped in by an East Asian tourist group (I was a bit too strained to identify from what part of Asia, exactly). With a tiny old lady and her wide hat in front of me, my skis danced about well above her head and extended about a meter in front of her; and she never noticed.

The afternoon was a holiday for my feet and legs: small errands like sending most of my winter clothes, olive oil, and some excess socks back to the USA (3 kg off my back!) and tending to laundry.

Monday, July 16, 2007

CH - Zermatt

I had a lousy night’s sleep. The blanket barricade worked, but it worked too well. I found myself not even using that half of my ~3-foot-wide mattress. I completely shunned the other half. Now add onto that the following:

- Someone in the room definitely had cats, to which I am just allergic enough to make my nose run incessantly.

- I had an orchestra around me: 4 snorers out of 17 other people. Hopefully I did not join the cacophony symphony.

- The youngest of the family of nine was looking out the window and was excited about seeing cows. He later realized they were horses and repeatedly let the whole room know about it. This would have been exceptionally cute if it was not 6 am and if he weren’t shrieking in that excited youthful tone of voice.

- The sky is light about 18 hours per day… in a town of tourists, that means they think it is perhaps 7 pm when it is in fact 11 pm. So the streets were quite noisy with families and their cute, gleeful, and loud little children. Nevermind the heinous screams of American adolescent girls well after the families left for slumber.

The good news, however, was that my bed buddy skedaddled early. I annexed his bed and slept in late (meaning: till 8 am). Because I slept in, however, I missed skiing. I hadn’t realized that it is only open from 07:00 til 13:30. Just as well, because my legs were a tad weary from the day before. I decided to take it easy: ride a cable car to Gornergrat and hike my way down the ~1.5 km altitude difference. The ride up is very scenic, but the area where you disembark tops it all: several glaciers forming off of a whole encirclement of mountains. Home to an astronomical observatory and weather station, it is also the standing-around-gawking point for a plethora of tourists.

I began to climb up as high as I could mostly to get away from the crowds, only to spot a tightly-winding path down the steep slope, toward the glaciers. I had to do it… looking back, however, the change in scenery due to this path was not all that significant; but it was definitely a fun path in itself to traverse; and it also got me away from the tourist crowds. The path zigzagged almost directly downwards, going about two meters in one direction before turning about-face and doing it again; and sometimes I actually had to climb down sets of rocks. This kept me occupied for about an hour, til I reached the bottom of the path – near to the glacier but not quite at it.

The whole way down, I would periodically pick up a rock and casually roll it over the edge of the path, just to see where it’d stop rolling and what kind of path it took along the way. In a couple cases, it’d hit the next part of the path and stop. Other times, it’d disappear right over the edge and be gone. In my head, I’m thinking “if I slip… I’m the rock.”

Along the way I reached Riffleberg, where the buffet-style restaurant had empty metal bins where the entrees should have been. Starved, I grabbed an apfelstrudel and a Magnum ice cream (for SFr 10!) and rested my feet a bit. I continued to Riffelalp, my old nemesis from the day before; and of course the restaurant I wanted to eat a closed at 16:30… I arrived at 16:35, just about twenty minutes earlier than the time I had arrived the day before.

At this point I wussed out and took the train the rest of the way down. Not because I was tired – I actually had lots of energy – but because I had no desire to face the flies again within a forest where I have no interesting view, anyway, other than of flies and trees. Also, I had to pickup my skis for the next day as well as my glasses (I finally lost that darn screw whilst hiking yesterday).

I had Mexican for dinner, which wasn’t half bad. It tasted the same, except a tad less spicy that I’m used to. Well… not really a tad… but it certainly wasn’t bland. I gave in and submitted to an early bedtime in my new bed: one at the foot of my old one but without any bed buddies beside me.

Upon returning to my hotel, I discovered a perfect redneck sunburn: the tops of both arms up to my sleep, my neck, and my face – except for now-distinct lines from my sunglasses and a lighter jaw due to the UV-blocking power of facial hair. I probably should have realized that being several thousand meters upwards in the atmosphere, with snow all around reflecting sunlight toward me, I was going to get a bit more radiation than one probably should in a single day. At least the Vitamin D kept me fed. …Oh and my feet look absolutely disgusting.

Sunday, July 15, 2007

CH - Zermatt

I woke up early and rode the cable car up to the top of the Eggishorn. The view was, of course, nothing short of spectacular, but I only trekked about 30 minutes westward as I knew I’d have to soon checkout from my hotel and also because I was anxious to get to Zermatt so I could get up close and personal with the legendary Matterhorn – already beckoning me from the horizon.

Due to being up late and waking up early, I slept for much of the train ride to Zermatt. Upon my emergence from the train, I found myself in a bustling car-free city. There are small electric cars for municipal use and hotel taxis, though there are a comparatively large number of horse-drawn carriages to taxi people between their hotels and the train station, as well – even though the city is completely walkable.

My hotel was located immediately across from the train station. One of the family’s operators – a young Mexican-Austrian woman – was extremely informative and a pleasure to talk to. My room – a dorm bed – was located at the top, in the attic. The attic was remarkably comfy and cosy, but the beds were arranged immediately consecutive to each other – in effect one really big bed with (in my section) five adjacent mattresses. Fortunately, I am on the end.

My adjacent bed buddy is an aged Frenchman whom was a pleasure to speak to. I just hope my barricade of blankets doesn’t budge… both in the obvious sense which is already running through your mind and also because, after having been hiking nonstop for the past two weeks and with my leg-intensive skiing in my immediate future: I am likely to squirm about a lot and kick in my sleep. I kick in my sleep even during my normal rests back in the USA. For his sake, hopefully that won’t happen!

As time was a bit limited to hit the slopes, I opted for yet more hiking. I had a filling white bratwurst (to make up for not having one in München) and hit the less snowy and much hotter slopes to the east. The scenery was good, but not a particularly huge improvement over what I could already see from town – namely, the Matterhorn.

The pleasure of the hike was offset by the intense nuisance of flies. Now I’ve been hiking before… heck I’ve been doing it everyday for the past two weeks; and nothing compares to this. It was the lesser-known Great Plague that Moses prophesised: “And God will strike down Zermatter hikers with swarms of houseflies.” Sure they don’t bite, but the downside of being male is that you can feel every single one as it breezes by your body’s hairs.

To compound frustration, despite it being an appropriate dinnertime, all of the restaurants on the mountainside apparently close at right about that time. The only thing left was a place with horrid prices for food which did not sound all that appetizing in the first place. I’d sooner starve than eat an otherwise good pasta dish ruined by prawn – and at about Sfr 50, at that! So I continued on hungry. I ultimately returned to town about 5.5 hours later, where I had a tasty döner near the church. Dagnab, do I ever love those things.

Saturday, July 14, 2007

CH - Fiescheralp

I got my passport stamped in Liechtenstein (2 SFr… what a genius tourist trap) and gave in & took the bus from my hostel to Buchs SG. By this point I had already been walking for three hours nonstop, anyway (on top of a night of lousy sleep because I knew I ‘d have to wake up early; and my internal clock had gone haywire due to the latitude and mountains – the sun sets early but the horizon only goes dark at about 10pm!), and had little desire for another hour of walking with 17 kg on my back.

At the station, I got my Swiss Youth Pass – it is the way to travel through CH (acronym for Switzerland – and opted for a ride on the Glacial Express. It is a train which only stops at a few select cities and has bigger windows both on the side and along the roof. I didn’t think it all that spectacular until I later hopped onto a local train to get to Fiesch, then I realized how lovely those windows had been. The Anderalp Pass was amazing to travel through – the scenery was just phenomenal.

In Fiesch, I right-away made my way for the cable car up to my hotel, which is perched on the mountain. …And what a view it has. The family and staff whom operate the Hotel Eggishorn were very friendly and the wife, in particular, was quite informative. The best part really is the location: it just can’t be beat. If you roll out of bed one way, you have about a kilometer to fall. If you roll out the other way, you’re on the lift to head up the remaining 500 meters or so. All around are hiking paths.

Just a week prior, in Zell am See, was the first time I can recall where, from the ground, I espied mountains with snow in the summertime. One milestone completed, I needed to top it with another geographical achievement: see my first glacier. No… not see it… I wanted to touch it. I wanted to sit on it. I wanted to lick it. Seriously. I left for my four-hour hike at 18:00, though at this altitude and latitude it was light the whole way through. There was a long tunnel in route which was kind of freaky (especially the altar halfway through … and that almost all the lights had gone out by the time I hiked back through) but made for a convenient shortcut.

My first view of the glacier – just before entering the tunnel – took my breath away and resulted in me standing in the same place for about ten minutes till my breath came back (and also until I had thoroughly photographed anything and everything) – and that was only a glimpse. When I saw it full-view… wow… just wow. I spotted a sign pointing toward the glacier and bearing its name, so I naturally took this as indicative that I was welcome to continue – despite a path being apparent in only the scantest resemblance of a path.

I arrived at the glacier after a climb down a mass of rocks – most of which moved quite readily (thank you Barnegat Light and Rt. 322 rocks for the training!). By this point it wasn’t’ just this stream of winter off in the distance; it was a huge mass of ice towering before me. The glacier had the cleanest and most pure ice, but was topped with a thick dirt which stuck to you the moment you came near. I was filthy in seconds, mostly a result of when I gave the glacier a hug.

The ice was flaky, almost as if it was pieced together like the carbon which forms graphite (nerdy analogy, I know, but it was the first thing that popped into my head out there). As per my trial climbs on nearby ice blocks about my height, the instability of these flaky sheets of ice made me rethink my hope of actually walking about on its surface (there’s my gift to Mom). However, I still made sure to sit on a stable-ish portion more-or-less above solid rock. “More” to family members so they think I’m sensible; and “less” to friends so they think I’m brave and daring.

It is worth noting that the temperature up here was hot during the day and comfy at night. No wonder the glaciers are melting… As large as this one is, it is expected to be gone by 2050 at the earliest or by the end of the century at the latest. After another thirty minutes of taking a mass of photos and video, I scaled my way out of there.

At the top of the rocks and back at the trail, I spent about twenty minutes chatting with a very friendly Swedish guy about my age whom was studying to be a doctor (after having been a combat medic during his compulsory service). He was setting off to hike over Jungfrau – the mountain in the distance which spawned the glacier – with his buddy and a less-familiar friend from the northern reaches of Sweden, whom was a professional climber and was serving as their guide. The topic came up about avalanches: they’d been a real threat the past few days due to the mix of rain and hot weather. Every time I turned on the news I’d hear another story of climbers getting killed in the Alps: Poles near Mont Blanc and just the day before meeting these Swedes: several Swedes were killed right on Jungfrau. I gave them some directions about the area, wished them good luck, and bid them farewell.

Departing, I crossed the Forbidden Tunnel, said “bye” to the cute cows (which reminded me of the transformation in Childhood’s End: they were almost zombie-like and scattered about on a mountain, except they had clangy bells), and skipped much of the remaining way. Yes, skipped… well, more like galloped – it works extremely well when going downhill.

After dinner at my hotel, I wandered a bit off from base camp and for about an hour (midnight to 1 am), I stared at the Milky Way. You know – that fuzzy band in the sky that most people don’t even known exists. I guess I was facing away from the core, because it wasn’t nearly as colorful and majestic as I remembered it from about two years ago when I last looked at it from just outside of State College, PA; but it was still amazing just as I saw it this night. Just as I was about to turn away, a shooting star lit up a streak across the heavens. A perfect end to a perfect day.

Friday, July 13, 2007

LI - Schaan/Vaduz

I was up early, but it was still a 20 minute walk to the Innsbruck station and then several hours ride to Feldkirch. From there, I caught a bus to Schaan, then walked the rest of the way by the riverside. I’m not sure how, but I found the place on the first try… thank you, low resolution Google Earth printout!

The walk along the east band of the Rhein is beautiful – particularly looking west toward Switzerland. On the other hand, Liechtenstein is a lot like the USA: a lot of car-oriented sprawl, but with unscathed mountains nearby. Unfortunately I ran out of time to hike about the mountains, though I did get a good dose of Vaduz. Basically, the town center is nothing but a series of souvenir shops. I did, however, enjoy the nearby residential Mitteldorfstrasse – which reportedly resembles what the rest of Vaduz used to look like.

The country has the most inconvenient business hours: most cafes only serve food during ~2 hour blocks at lunch and dinner, and my hostel is closed from 10:00 to 17:00. Considering that hikers and extreme sports enthusiast rarely stick to “normal” schedules – and seeing as these types of people are the country’s key attraction – I find it a bit odd that tourist-oriented businesses would act this way. I’d expect those hours in Italy… but in a Germanic country?!

A local concert stage is undergoing sound tests. …Why are they testing with American Country music?

Thursday, July 12, 2007

AT - Innsbruck, Hall in Tirol

I visited Hall In Tirol because my Lonely Planet guide stated it to be “breathtakingly pretty”. Well, I kept my breath, though it was nonetheless a quaint town core. The problem is that sprawl is starting to take its toll and rear its ugly head. One plus, however, was the mint museum. The museum’s exhibits are few, but the information from the audio guides was fascinating. A tower provides an elevated view over the area. The real gem of the tower, however, was its ongoing renovations. Why? Because I have a policy of going through any door or down any path which is open; and the renovation workers – in true low-bid style – left all their areas open and were also nowhere to be seen. So off I went.

It was surreal: no one else around, pristine rooms freshly finished, dark attics stripped to its studs and stone, twin adjacent sets of spiral stairs – one the original, narrow and aged set; the other the original, modern, and beautifully lit. Through it all, a different new age muzak style emanated through each area. Once again, I felt like I was in my own world of Myst.

Branching off the original stair were several small hallways. Tower the top was a hall leading to the top of another spiral stair – at that point making three all right next to each other. This stair was roped off so I did not pursue it, but looking down I could see other stairs branching off of this set – like M.C. Escher had designed it. The top of this stair had soft glowing lights mixing with natural light from the hall, and also signs regarding eagles and falconry. The new age muzak likewise had faint sounds of birds chirping.

The next hall down the original stair led to a black door. I tried it and it opened into what appeared to be a large cafeteria, again with a distinct new age sound. My view was from a door to the rear/side of the small kitchen and I could see a single rectangular table with about six chairs, 3 to a side. The kitchen looked brand new and unused: stainless steel and items in perfect order. The table and chairs were a light wood with black trim. Similarly, the room was partly wood-paneled and generally had a dark blue with a hint of violate as a paint scheme above the wood panels, all lit by soft incandescents.

At the bottom of the original stair, I traveled to the next room and found another spiral stair clearly intended to be closed, but alas the way was clear for my exploration. I soon recognized where I was: the bottom of the M.C. Escher stair. I recognized it by looking up, spotting the stairs branching off of stairs, random walkways crossing over the open center of the stair, and the faint bird-themed new age muzak echoing from the top. I also spotted something new within this modern stair: the remains of the original spiral stair based at the bottom, within the spiral of the newer stair. After leaving this area, the museum was over and I caught the train back to Innsbruck.

Next up was a tram ride out to Schloss Ambras. Alas, by the time I arrived, it was closed. I took some photos of the outside as well as its surrounding gardens and fauna, then I decided to hop back on the tram and ride it up the mountain slope to Igls. My goal was to see if the town’s cable car to the top of the mountain was still open. I never did find the lift in the thirty minutes I had before the last tram out, but the tram ride itself was very scenic and Igls is a cute little town with a clear focus on winter sports.

On the bus ride back from the tram terminus, my ego got a boost when, at two different stops, a girl got on at the back and walked up to the front of the bus where I was. One sat right next to me and the other stood right beside me, despite there being numerous other empty seats available. I add this onto my Hall In Tirol rail trip where a cute girl sat right next to me despite it being an otherwise empty car. I attribute this to my running out of yoinked Ramada Inn body wash and thus switching to European-style Axe body wash. It smells spectacular, whereas the Axe products in America have the same names but not-as-lovely scents. European men should really try this stuff… or at least try something – they all wreak of body odor pretty much anywhere in Europe. Now European women, on the other hand, consistently smell amazing. First off, they don’t’ bathe in perfume like American girls; and secondly, the pheromones in these perfumes WORK. I don’t know how, but these girl’s scents set off some crazy chemical/hormonal processes within me every time, no matter how unflattering or impersonal the woman may be.

On the other hand, it is a good thing I haven’t gotten too close to any fräuleins: German food has been working wonders on my digestive system. …Just thought you’d like to know.

For my last dinner in Innsbruck, I opted to give in to the recommendation of a charming Philly-area high school lad I met the day before, whilst traveling to Innsbruck. I had been avoiding the many Turkish cuisine cafes mostly because I wanted to eat Germanic food, seeing as I am in Germanic countries. These counties have spent hundreds of years fighting to keep the Turks out and now they’re everywhere; I felt like it’d be rude to give in and dabble in the cuisine of the historic foes. Well, I gave in and ordered a döner kebap from a place along Mariahilfstrasse, en route to my pension. …Then I ordered another. If there’s anything to be said about Mediterranean cultures, it’s that we sure know how to eat. Rock on, Turkiye.

All in all, I wish I had more time here: Innsbruck’s surroundings are beautiful and within walking distance (or have great transit for the unmotivated). It is very easy to navigate: the nearby huge mountains are north, the further large mountains are south, and the planes zoom right over your head from the east and west.: where there are no mountains (I bet it’d be near to take off or land at Innsbruck’s airport).

The city core can easily be covered in one day. Heck, half a day is fine if you are not into museums. Hall In Tirol took half a day. I would estimate that Schloss Ambras likewise demands half a day. I also missed out on the Swarovski Kristallwelten in Wattens (Crystal World), which I hear demands about half a day; and I also missed exploring the three nearest mountains (1/2 to a full day each for hikers). The city looks to have extensive winter sports opportunities, including very cheap glacier skiing & snowboarding in the summer, which I likewise missed out on.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

AT - Innsbruck

The train ride was smooth and I was soon walking about the streets of Innsbruck. This is a rather large city in that many of the attractions are outside it entirely, though the city is small enough to walk from one side to the other. The downtown of the city itself really does not have much attraction, though I did enjoy just sauntering about town. Innsbruck, like many of the towns and cities I’d encounter throughout Austria and Switzerland, is a rather dark city at night – great if you’re a fan of looking up at the stars.

The first day was spent touring the city core, which didn’t take long. I am increasingly glad that I packed a light jacket, a winter coat, and two pairs of pants which can be converted into shorts. For the past week, weather could vary significantly in each city or at each altitude, and within each city I often found myself facing two or three weather phases per day. Innsbruck has taken this to a new level: it is cold and rainy for 10 minutes; cold, windy, but sunny for 5 minutes; then hot and sunny for 45 minutes. Then the clouds roll over the mountains to the north and it’d start all over again, like clockwork. This meant that every hour I could watch as the forgetful tourists scampered under roofs as the rain droplets fell. It was really quite enjoyable.

My lodging for the two-night visit was at the Pension Paula, located up a hill along the north/west side of the Inn River. I walked there from the train station whilst carrying my pack and was quite relieved when I arrived about 20 minutes later. Going back was a breeze: downhill and a 15 minute walk. The view from the area around the pension is lovely and the room was quaint. The man that was running the place seemed a little disorganized and stressed, but was pleasant to deal with.

Lunch consisted of a panini and bruschetta from an Italian place (run by a man from Milano), which tasted heavenly – largely due to the use of heavily-spiced olive oil.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

DE - Munich, Dachau

I toured Dachau and must say that this is certainly a highly-touristed destination, with my well-coordinated train and bus comprising of English speakers and the staff at hand trying English first, before German, with each person in queue. This time the rail and bus were a cinch to use and I had minimal layover of just a few minutes at each mode transition. Bravo, München, and yay day pass (München XXL – valid for everything I needed that day: tram, rail, and bus).

My tour guide and several people I spoke to prior all indicated that, sans travel time to and fro, I’d likely spend 2 to 3 hours at KZ Dachau, a former concentration camp (as opposed to a current concentration camp). However, arriving at 12:30, it was 17:15 before I knew it and I was still in the museum (pretty much the first place I went after passing through the gate). Not only that, but I was only halfway through the museum. The museum was absolutely captivating and the audio guide was well worth the three Euro. The tours are too quick for a subject as intense as this. The only catch with the audio guide is that you have to provide an ID for collateral. The facility closes at 17:00… and it was 17:00 when I was ushered out of the museum. Add another fifteen minutes of high-speed touring of the outside (I didn’t realise at the time that the entry building where the audio guide came from closed at 17:00) and you have an amazing bout of fortune that there was still an attendant within the locked building to return my ID.

I missed the crematorium and only had a passing glimpse of the rest of the facility. I will definitely need to return – it was very powerful. Auschwitz shall also be a must-see destination. For most, 2-3 hours should be plenty; but if you’re a WWII guru: show up very very early and perhaps consider spending the night in the town.

One note is that I was disgusted with the rudeness exhibited by the German-speaking school students. The American students may have been rather apathetic and visibly bored; but the Germans were outright disrespectful. I just wanted to grab one (or two since each individual was so thoroughly interconnected with another) and scream: “YOU STARTED THE WAR, SO PAY SOME ATTENTION!” I’d likely have inserted some more colorful words into that phrase, and people know how often I do that… I’m not exactly Mr. Angry, so that means I really mean it.

Therefore it is probably a good thing that I did not know the German translation of that phrase. That was the only thing holding me back, even though they all probably understood English better than native English speakers. I just didn’t want to risk a kid going “Was?”, me thinking (or rightly assuming) that the teen is being a smart-ass, and subsequently smacking him upside the head. Granted, it would have made a good story to have been kicked out of a concentration camp.

So at about 17:20 I arrive at the bus stop with the final mass of exiting tourists. About ten minutes later the bus arrives and we fill it right up – leaving several behind because people refuse to fill in the aisles between the doors. Now because I lost track of time at KZ Dachau, I am now in a rush to get to Olympiastadion for the Genesis concert – the whole reason I opted to tour about central Europe in the first place. They couldn’t mail my ticket to the USA, so I have to pick it up at the ticket office, open from 18:00 to 19:00. Genius me, I thought Dachau would take only 2-3 hours and so I left my ticket reservation info in my hotel room for retrieval later, before the concert. Why I opted not to carry a small piece of paper with me, I do not know… at that moment I was not particularly pleased with my thought process.

It’s 17:55 when I arrive at Dachau Hauptbahnhof. As the bus pulls into the terminal, I spot my train just pulling away. Ahh, good, I find it’s running on 10 minute headways instead of the usual 20. Don’t ask or wonder why; just accept it. I’m starved and consider my options, considering my rush. Suddenly the McDonald’s on the next platform over beckons. I hustle over and gauge the queue (all people from my inbound bus) to be more than the remaining 8 minutes (I was right, too); and also, I really did not want to succumb to McDonald’s whilst in Europe.

I skip chow, board the next train, and arrive into München Hauptbahnhof at about 18:20. Speedy walk south to my room & get my map and ticket info at 18:30. Speedy walk east to Sendlinger Tor to catch the U3 – I arrive at Sendlinger Tor at 18:35. I arrive at Olympiazentrum at 18:50 … ten minutes to get to the stadium and then locate a ticket office. Fortunately, a massive and endless stream of people leads the way, but slow walkers and stationary scalpers slow its movement. As I move, visions of the Capital Beltway floated through my head: the assorted slow vehicles amidst the endless stream of heavy traffic, with the assorted disabled vehicle here and there. I skirt the side and fly on by, approaching the stadium at 19:00 sharp. I find the ticket counter at 19:05 with one older lady still staffing a window. Five minutes later, I have my ticket and am inside – just as it begins to pour. Hooray for being in a roofed section!

Now it’s chow time. A huge bratwurst (very tasty), a huge bretzel (rather dull and dry), and a good-sized Coke in a souvenir cup all for € 5.70 – of which the drink was more than half of it. That’s cheaper than what you’ll regularly find anywhere near the historic sections of the main cities!

My seat was good: not close, but certainly not far; and more importantly – since I left my umbrella in my room (it was sunny at the time and it would have slowed my walking): sheltered and dry. The rain became pretty intense before the show, but ceased about ten minutes prior and lit a brilliant double-rainbow, the primary rainbow forming a complete arc across the sky, framing the tall Olympiaturm. The rainbows disappeared about two minutes before showtime and it was clear and comfy ever after.

And what a show it was! To put it simply: I could die this night and be at peace. The remaining three shows of mine will be a lovely bonus, but I suppose my next goal is now to see the band complete with Peter Gabriel and Steven Hackett also joining in – perhaps even Ray Wilson, for the literal completion of Genesis. I liked the camera style with Collins’ face in “Mama”, harking back to the style employed two decades ago.

My only resentment is to München for not demanding an encore. I had dearly hoped for “Cul-de-Sac” (often picked as the best song never released as a single), maybe “Me and Sarah Jane”, and a finale of “Supper’s Ready” – seeing as they did touch on some Gabriel-era songs and that last song is what jumpstarted the band’s career in the first place. However, of the, I believe, 3 Gabriel-era songs performed, only “Carpet Crawlers” (the last song played) attained considerable fanfare. The other two just seemed to confuse the audience, which was clearly there for the Collins-era pop songs rather than Gabriel’s more experimental designs.

Now I’m a massive fan of Phil Collins: individually, he is my favorite artist; but I can not disregard the Gabriel era. It was “Invisible Touch” which really got the crowd to their feet, jumping and singing along. It is that song, however, which is perhaps my least favorite of all Genesis songs solely because it is so pop-ish. It was as if the crowd didn’t even know there was a Genesis prior to Collins taking on the lead vocals.

I suspect this sentiment will likely be a recurring theme, so I probably shouldn’t get my hopes up for “Supper’s Ready”, though I am going to hold on to hoping for “Cul-de-Sac”. Something about its mention of ruling the world really strikes a chord with me, though I must say that “Supper’s Ready” is great for its spiritually apocalyptic themes. …Ooo or “Can-Utility and the Coastliners”: that’d be sweet. Norse history is pretty nifty (and it oddly syncs up with Atlantean mythology). Or perhaps something more from Trespass, as they snuck in the final chords of “Stagnation”; but I would have loved to hear more. Ahh, if only Gabriel tagged along, even though Collins can do Gabriel’s voice perfectly.

Still, a wonderful show which was packed; and Genesis’ limited edition 2-disc re-release of the Turn It On Again greatest hits album (tour edition) is in the top 10 of the worldwide album charts. It’s nice to know that I’m not the only fan out there, even if everyone else only likes the Collins era. What a great day.

Monday, July 9, 2007

DE - Munich

Let’s start with the train ride from Salzburg. I get on toward the front, in the 1st class area. I know I have a 2nd class ticket. Of course I have 2nd class: upgrading nearly quintuples the price and 2nd class is really quite comfy. Only those with large inheritances get 1st class on a 1.5 hour train ride… so sure enough the cabins were almost completely empty.

I walk past the cabins with signs indicating “Reserved for First Class” and arrive at identical cabins without those signs. I think “hmm” and have a seat, figuring that no signs means no more 1st class. We cross into Germany within minutes of departure and the ticket lady (I will not call her a conductor) comes by. Lo and behold: I’m in the wrong class. I must move “nach speisewagon” which, I quote, was restated in English as “immediately after the dining car”.

OK I get up and bid “Auf Wiedersehen” to my cabinmates, an American father and son as well as a Dutch guy a few years my junior, whom actually thought I was German from the way I introduced myself. Yay Dutchy accent. I pass through one more 1st class car (this one signed) then I make my way through the dining car. In the next car are more cabins identical to 1st class, but again without the signs. I glimpse at the next car, see more cabins, and think “well this is immediately after the dining car…” I have a seat and enjoy the comfort for about five minutes.

There she is again: wrong class. I explain that the next car is the same. “No” is the response. OK so I pack up, head to the next car, and would you know it she was right. These are not 2nd class cabins – seemingly identical to 1st class but with a sign containing a “2” and masses of people and smoke packed into cabins so densely that you’d think 3rd class on the Titanic was worth the cool swim. The 1-meter-wide hallway (that’s about 3 feet for you non-metric folk) is barely wide enough for my backpack, no less it being crowded with people sitting on their luggage.

The first obstacle – a middle-aged woman whom was quite pleasant, yielded enough for me to reach either of the first two cabins. I point to the nearest and ask the ticket lady “ist OK?” “Nein,” she replies, as she points to some unintelligible sign on the window with an image of a briefcase on it. I can only assume they dedicated a perfectly good cabin of 6 seats such that it would hold 4 pieces of luggage. One piece was on the floor and three were on seats. The overhead shelves were empty and all four could have fit on said shelves.

I ponder how much public funding is wasted on this and really wish I knew how to say “no wonder people drive” in German, as this is the first thing to my head whenever I experience one of America’s frequent inefficiencies in public transportation. Instead, I shuffle my way around hall luggage and approach the second cabin. The ticket lady slides the door open and thick smoke pours out. Think Spiccoli, but with normal cigarettes. Now aside from that, I am peering in on one chain-smoking German and four backpackers.

Now let’s take an inventory: six seats and two shelves. There are five people… so now there is one seat and two shelves remaining. Anyone who has ever had any experience with backpacking or backpackers understands full well the bulk of a backpack in transit. So I am peering through the smoke at five seats of people, two full shelves, one seat containing the backpack, and one backpack on the floor amidst eight crowded feet. Short of employing some Russian Tetris master or perhaps Steven Hawking, there was no way I was going to fit. I could see it in their disbelieving faces, as well, as the ticket lady told them to take up less space. I assume that this woman, in her youth, was the kind of child determined to get the square peg through the round hole.

“I will stand,” I say, and turn away. I stand at the end of the hall for a few minutes – my body and pack providing a nice barrier for access to the WC (a.k.a. bathroom) or dining car. Eventually my backpack gets too heavy, so I drop it on the floor and sit down in front of the WC for the rest of the trip. My pack and body were in about the most inconvenient positions imaginable as far as mobility was concerned to said WC or dining car; and as I stared out the window of the carriage’s external door, I espied in the reflection the ticket lady standing behind me for a couple minutes. I assume she wanted me to move, but was likewise at a loss as to where to put me. She eventually crawled over my backpack and disappeared.

I must say, the German dedication to the rule was quite impressive: near-vacant cabins in half the train but dagnabit she’s going to keep out those who don’t belong. When I take over the world, I’m enlisting her in my secret police.

Now as far as the city of München goes, I toured the more significant tourist sites in one day, but unfortunately missed the Englischer Garten, Hofgarten, museums of the Residenz, BMW factory, and destinations at or east of the river. München itself requires 2 to 3 days minimum, though more if you drink. …Much more.

As part of my July 9 travels, I happened upon the first music store (as in: sans instruments) I had seen thus far in the trip. I picked up a St. Germain album for a reasonable price, as far as electronica goes. Generally, most music is cheaper to buy in North America (especially when the Canadian Dollar outvalues the US Dollar); but electronic music is definitely a European item.

Something I’ve noticed is that the Germans are easily annoyed. They don’t really say anything about it, but they tend to do small things to let their annoyance be shown. For example, one guy flicked a nearby umbrella which was not even in his way. Fortunately, I have not been the recipient of any of this petty action, but I’ve observed it quite a bit.

Sunday, July 8, 2007

AT - Salzburg

I returned to Schloss Mirabell to see a lunchtime concert performed by Luca Toncian, a pianist from Romania whom is extremely talented. Like the quartet the night before, I arrived about a minute after the show began; and lo and behold so did another girl. I was amused by this… instead of the usual trend among my generation of picking up girls at bars, classical music concerts sure seemed to be the place to be in Salzburg.

The remainder of the day was spent just meandering about town. Later that evening I attended a highly-touristy Mozart Dinner at the Stiftskeller St. Peter. I knew it was touristy when the concert was introduced to the crowd in English. It was expensive, but the food was quite tasty; albeit in small portions. My seat was front and center and my tablemates consisted of an Israeli couple, a couple from Taiwan, and a mother and college-aged daughter (once again, rock on classical music!) – all of whom were a joy. The instrumentalists have great personality as they play, the male vocalist had a powerful deep voice (though he was bug-eyed, which I found myself constantly staring at bemused), and the female vocal had among the most beautiful voices and stage personalities I have ever seen in an opera singer. Touristy, yes, but sometimes it’s good to be what you are.

As far as food in Salzburg goes, nothing really stood out. The Mozart dinner was certainly appetising, but like I said: it came in dainty portions. Café Demel (originator of Mozart Kugeln) was tasty, but not tasty enough to warrant the price. All-in-all, I found myself returning to the market at Universitätsplatz to fill up on wurst und bretzels. As far as sausages go, they are all good and hot dogs make for a cheap and quick eat (plus they come in a full roll, not a bun – that needs to come to America). I really liked the bosnas available from a permanent shop immediately south of the platz, alongside the church. Wow, they were tasty. As for bretzels (pretzels), the regular soft & salted ones we all know and love are no match for Philadelphia’s legendary rendition (which tracks back to, of course, the Germanic settlers of Germantown); but the apfelbretzel (apple pretzel) became my quick addiction. Actually, pretty much anything apple… mmm… apfelstrudel.

A note those intending to visit Salzburg: there are two Mozart houses. If I understand correctly, the one nearer to the Alstadt is the birthplace and the other near Schloss Mirabell is a later residence. I did not visit either, but the general opinion I have heard from others (including several guidebooks) is that both of them are a waste of time and money. I consistently hear that they are cheesy reconstructs catering to the lowest common denominator of tourists, a.k.a. the Griswald-type which form 90% of tourist crowds.

Let’s start with the train ride from Salzburg. I get on toward the front, in the 1st class area. I know I have a 2nd class ticket. Of course I have 2nd class: upgrading nearly quintuples the price and 2nd class is really quite comfy. Only those with large inheritances get 1st class on a 1.5 hour train ride… so sure enough the cabins were almost completely empty.

Saturday, July 7, 2007

AT - Salzburg, Berchtesgaden

This morning started with an attempt at visiting Berchtesgaden, located just over the border in Germany. For those unaware, this town is basically 100% tourist-oriented because the last thing Germanic people want to do is visit its main attraction: the Kehlsteinhaus, or “Eagle’s Nest.” This was a birthday present for Hitler and is located way at the top of the Kehlstein mountain, overlooking the Berchtesgaden area and the Königssee – an area which is supposed to live up to its name as a very scenic area.

However, upon my arrival via train, I sat around for two hours and then took a train back to Salzburg. A connecting bus is supposed to take you up to the Kehlsteinhaus, but no such bus arrived of the two time slots it was supposed to be there. Of course, the rail station doesn’t know anything of the buses (which are privately contracted) and there was no bus info person I could talk to. Back in Salzburg I spoke to the ŐBB folks and received little aid from them – though that’s not a big surprise considering they’re Austrian and the bus line was in Germany. Ahh, a lovely introduction to the reputed efficiency of Germany.

Upon my return, as the train rolled over the Salzach River, I espied smoke rising from a bridge to the north and what were throngs of people all about. As my train rolled by the roadside adjacent to the station and crossed over a street, it occurred to me: another gay rights parade. This one ended up being much smaller than the earlier one in Wien and it could almost be questionable whether it was really oriented toward sexual orientation or if it was just a parade of advertisements for dance clubs. Regardless, there was certainly no denying that these floats were staffed with some of the hottest people I have ever personally seen, both male and female. Hey I’m willing to admit when a man is handsome or even hot, especially if I can reaffirm my sexuality by drooling upon the pavement at the bastions of seduction gyrating beside the men. What’s scary is that I actually found myself dancing to the music… not just tapping my foot and nodding my head like I did back in Vienna; I was getting into it right there along the roadway. Ahh, I love techno.

I attended a choir performance of Mozart’s Requiem at the Kollegienkirche (University Church) and later that evening I saw a string quartet perform at Schloss Mirabell. I arrived about a minute after the show began solely because I could not figure out how to get to where the concert was – otherwise I would have arrived five minutes early. I wasn’t the only one running a tad late: I met an interesting girl from Montana (that makes all of 1 person that I know from Montana) whom arrived at the same time. She is a math major spending her summer in Salzburg to study dance… I just never really put those two disciplines together.

Friday, July 6, 2007

AT - Salzburg

My pension, Haus Wartenberg, was surprisingly easy to find and was staffed by unbelievably cute female students – particularly a Nepalese student studying hotel & restaurant management. The only catch was: I could never find anybody! I was actually plotting what I would do if I was ready to check out and couldn’t find anybody. Considering I was “checked in” by the bartender (in that he gave me the key and didn’t do any of the paperwork), there was not really any record of me being there other than a locked room 4. Fortunately for them and for my own ethical issues, the owner was there when I was ready to check out a couple days later.

One of my first observations as I traveled through Salzburg was the abundance of Americans. I couldn’t help but wonder where all of the Austrians were at. There are many students studying art here, be it painting and the like, music, or dance. There are plenty of street musicians and also some dancers here and there performing performance art. Of course, I guess that’s what you do with performance art… perform it.

On a map or even in Google Earth, the city looks very large; but it is actually quite compact and very walkable – even though the bus lines were very efficient. Every block has a distinct look and you do not even realise how much you are actually walking.

The interior of the Festung Hohensalzburg is not too spectacular beyond most other palaces and fortresses. It has largely been stripped of its antiquity, luxury, and military implements and is now a museum. Its exterior, however, is spectacular. It is no wonder the fortress was never taken: even today it would still command a strategic location. The remainder of the Festungberg hill upon which the fortress is located makes for a lovely walk with some excellent views of the city; and within the hill is a pair of massive parking structures – a really ingenious location, if you think about it.

Be warned about walking the northern half of the hill at night: I didn’t see anyone else, so I suppose it was safe, but lighting was rare at best. There was one exception when I arrived at an art piece consisting of seemingly randomly-scattered numbers on a metal low-density lattice (I know, that made no sense whatsoever). Basically, if you’re walking around at night and happen upon it, you’ll know what I mean when I say it is a really freaky thing to approach: it’s like walking up to an extraterrestrial spacecraft or something… I was definitely expecting aliens to walk up and probe me.

The gardens of the Schloss Mirabell are more in line with what I anticipated in Wien: plenty of groomed flower gardens amidst greenery and fountains. Still not particular forte, but certainly enjoyable. I do not particularly care for palaces and fortresses which have lost their interior to museums or reconstruction, but fortunately Schloss Mirabell has generally been used for cultural activities ever since it became a public-use facility. That means that it has still retained a generous portion of its luxurious interior, making the two concerts I attended there even better.

Thursday, July 5, 2007

AT - Zell am See

I took the Pinzgaubahn train from Zell am See out to Mittersill, which is an enjoyable train ride in itself. I slept on the connecting bus ride between Mittersill and Krimml, waking up periodically to lovely views but also a bus load of screaming schoolchildren on their way home.

Upon my arrival at the Krimmler Wasserfälle (Krimml Falls), I first got the obligatory photos of the base of the waterfalls. I soon made my way hiking up the trail, stopping at every viewpoint along the way to check out the view. After about an hour of going uphill, I reached a café and felt a sense of relief and accomplishment to have made it to the top. I looked down over the fall and admired the view, though it wasn’t quite what I was expecting. I turned to sniff about the café and restaurant when I noticed something behind them… more waterfalls. I was only halfway.

Another hour later – once my legs couldn’t feel pain anymore – I was up at the actual top, looking down and again admiring the view. It will wasn’t quite what I was expecting. However, I looked back at the stream approaching the falls and was curious where all of this water came from. Here, I felt like the mountains did not continue too much further above me, so it struck me as odd that water could just keep flowing and flowing without it coming from anywhere I could identify. Of course, I later realized that mountains which seemingly end shortly above you in fact hide even bigger mountains just over the tops of those near to you.

Determined to find the river’s source, I continued on; besides, it looked like “just over that next hill” would be a spectacular view of the other side of the mountain. Foolish me, one does not simply hike to the other side of an Alpine mountain – these are not the Appalachians. I followed it for about 2 miles, which equated to about 10 “just over that next hill” thoughts.

I eventually reached a point where the water changed from torrent to stream; wind from gale to whisper; and an open pasture appearing as sweet sanctuary. It wasn’t the other side of the mountain that I had hoped for nor the river’s source that I was seeking, but the sight of that valley made it all worthwhile. Of the whole trip, this view ranks as among my favorites. It took me about 3.5 hours to get there and only 40 minutes to return. I love when gravity is on my side.

After checking out the area on Google Earth, I would have had 7.5 miles and a 3.5 mile-long branch before I reached the end of the river, near the Italian border. The glaciers supplying the river are obvious from space, but are hidden away when viewed from the ground.

For dinner both this night and the night before, I ate at an Italian restaurant in downtown Zell am See, just north of the central plaza. Both the pizza and pasta I had eaten were quite tasty.

Wednesday, July 4, 2007

AT - Zell am See

This morning was cool and drizzly, but the rain complements the landscape at Hallstattersee. The clouds are all beneath the mountaintops, creating a fascinatingly beautiful albeit soaking effect. I saunter over to the rail station and hop on my meandering ride to Zell am See. The train ride went through rain and clouds (literally) and also traveled beneath clear blue skies on a few occasions. At some points in the 5 hour voyage it was almost unbearably hot, and at other points it was freezing cold. ...All without too much significant change in elevation; it's just how the weather patterns work, I suppose.

I am also becoming convinced that the majority of Austria is populated entirely by girls about 12 - 13 yrs old ... without fail, every stop on every train outside of Wien has involved the embarkation or disembarkation of a mass of shrieking lasses. Despite not knowing a word of the language, by the next station I think I could probably piece together every aspect there is to know of whatever boy their current clique's infatuation is.

Zell am See is a lakeside town bigger than those along the Hallstattersee, but still quite small at only a couple blocks wide. The town and lake are pretty, though no where near Hallstattersee.

After first hiking up the wrong road, I found the Hubertus Pension and was warmly greeted by the owners. The family which owns this gasthof is exceptionally nice and offers me more and more cake every time they see me. I even drank a cup of coffee since I would have felt bad to have passed it up (and let it be known that I am still a tea person -- how do people drink that stuff?! I ended up loading it with more cream than coffee.

I walked around about a third of the Zeller Lake before turning to walk back because my umbrella was becoming a hassle to manage once I began walking into the wind. I had managed to soak my feet and thighs, but not my shins. The lake could probably be circumnavigated within about 3 hours, and I’m sure it would be a lovely walk if it weren’t for the wet headwind I was facing on the southeastern portion.

For fans of the Band of Brothers miniseries (or of the real pursuits of Easy Company, of course), this town is where the company was based in Austria. It is where Cpt. Winters is seen diving into a lake – which would be the lake along which the town is situated.