Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Home again, home again

So, yesterday I left my hotel right around sunrise and stayed awake until about 9:30 Boston time. Long day. My flight left Zurich at 10AM, and I was staying in Lucerne, a little more than an hour from the airport, and I didn't know what the lines would be like or anything, so caught a 6:30 train to Zurich airport. Well, that was unnecessary. It took me all of fifteen minutes to get from the airport train station to the gate, including check-in. Even though my passport wouldn't scan. (The blue cover on my passport bled through onto the photo page in several spots because it got a bit damp when I was in England -- I kept it in inside pocket most of the time. For the last two years I have been worried that I am going to get hassled about it, but so far nothing bad has happened. Of course, really I've only been to Canada the once and then this trip to Switzerland, so I haven't exactly put it to the test. I have five years left on that passport so I hope it doesn't get any worse. I don't keep it anywhere damp anymore.)

So I paid nine Swiss francs for a four-ounce cup of coffee and a chocolate croissant to pass the time. I had about 15 CHF when I got to the airport and I figured I might as well spend it, since it seemed unlikely that I would be able to hold on to $15 worth of foreign coins until the next time I go to Switzerland (the smallest-denomination Swiss bill is the 10 CHF note -- they have coins for fives, twos, and ones).

In Paris I was befriended by a slightly-lost Croatian boy who was going to do a senior year at boarding school in Maine. He liked my photos, and took a picture of me before we got on the plane. Good luck, Martin from Croatia! Then in the line for Customs at Boston a guy who appeared to be in his early twenties came up to me and asked if I would do him a favor. "It depends on the favor!" I said -- doing favors for strangers involving U.S. Customs seems like it would generally be a bad idea. He just wanted to use my phone, though, and it didn't work in there anyhow. He had just gotten back from two years with the Peace Corps in Armenia, he said.

My flights were fine, although I was oddly focused on what I would do if the plane crashed, something I don't ordinarily think about much. I wasn't afraid the plane was going to crash, I just felt like I needed to have a plan in case it did. I had decided who I would call if I had access to a phone, who I would email if I had access to email, and I decided that a Facebook status update would be a good part of an assuring-people-I'm-OK plan.

Being home is fine. I have been giving people chocolate, which makes them like me. I had Thai food for dinner last night and an iced coffee on my way home from work today (these, together, cost me less than the coffee and croissant I had had for breakfast yesterday). I was so excited to put on a different pair of shoes this morning! Two weeks alternating between my Dansko sandals, my flip-flops, and my hiking boots made me very ready to try on something else. Only flat shoes for more than two weeks! What will my Achilles think when I put on heels tomorrow?

As I walked to work this morning, number one it felt really nice to be walking on the flat for thirty minutes straight. Wow, I don't think I had two miles of flat walking anywhere in the whole country of Switzerland. And the Trader Joe's parking lot is finished, finally! And a building I walk past every day was completely torn down while I was gone (I knew this was going to happen, but it was really weird to see the big pile of bricks where it used to be).

I've been looking over all my photos -- I've got something around 500, although some of those are repeats, and some are just sort of for reference rather than being nice photos. I'm really happy with them, overall. They make me want to take more photos, and possibly to get a more fidgety camera that I can do things with. Although I do really like my current camera -- it is small and blue and it has a big screen and a 10x zoom. Also, once I discovered how to fiddle with the white balance (um, two days ago), I was able to get a better handle on taking photos in bright sunlight, I think.

Here are some of my favorites (they have probably all appeared in the blog already):

Matterhorn moonrise

The view from my bedroom window at 6:30AM

Wall painting in Chateau de Chillon



Well, I could go on. What a beautiful country. I'm playing my photos on the TiVo right now, and some of them I just look at and think, "that cannot possibly have been real."

I definitely hope to go back there someday. Overall I had a great time. I felt a little bummed and lonely this past weekend in Basel, but it's not like I generally go two weeks at home without ever feeling blue. Sometimes I think there's too much pressure to have fun on vacation. I have to remind myself that just because I'm not ecstatic non-stop doesn't mean the vacation is a failure or a waste!

This morning I woke up at 3:30 and thought, "Oh no! I forgot to go to the glacier cave!" Because, you know, I did forget. I had been planning on going in the glacier cave on Monday, but I got distracted with sledding and catching trains and things. It was right there (somewhere -- I didn't see any signs for it), but I just forgot to go in. So sad! So I'll definitely have to go back.

Monday, August 18, 2008

So, my last day in Switzerland, Monday (not counting Tuesday, which basically consists of a trip to the airport), I decided I would take a trip to one of the mountains that are relatively easily accessible from Lucerne, where I was staying. My candidates were Mt. Pilatus, the mountain which overlooks Lucerne; Mt. Rigi, a lower ridgey kind of mountain that supposedly has great views of other mountains and of basically the whole city, and Mt. Titlis, which is a little further away and more expensive than the other two but which has glaciers. I decided on Titlis, because I had been disappointed that I didn't get the chance to take the train up to the Jungfraujoch and see the glaciers there.


I think I made a good choice! To get to Titlis, you take the train from Lucerne to Engelberg, which is actually fairly fun just for itself, since the train goes at a very steep incline for part of the way. Then you take a six-person ski gondola for about twenty minutes. Then you get on a cable car for another five minutes. Then you get on a REVOLVING cable car for another five minutes.

The revolving cable car also plays music. While I was in the cable car it played "Karma Chameleon", "Just Like Heaven", and "Can't Touch This". So that was a bit odd, but highly entertaining,

Then when you get to the top, it's all cold and snowy! In August!


It was right around freezing up there, I believe. Very pleasant, actually, in the sun. I had packed a lunch, but then I saw some people eating french fries, and I thought those looked like they would really hit the spot, but then I looked at the price board and they were 7.50 CHF, which is about $7. So I decided I could live with my cheese sandwich and my peanut butter sandwich. I have basically lived on cheese sandwiches and peanut butter sandwiches for the last two weeks. Restaurants are so expensive here, and there are plenty of nice places to picnic.

Here are some more pictures from the top of Titlis:




Rock formations!

Also, you can take a ski lift over the glacier:

And then you can go sledding:


I went for three or four sledding runs. There is a "magic carpet" lift to bring you back up to the top of the run, and they provide sleds and helmets (although there are a lot less helmets than there are sleds -- I decided not to wait around for a helmet, since they probably wouldn't have had one that fit me.

Anyway, that was the first and probably last time I ever go sledding wearing capri pants (well, maybe clam diggers is more accurate). I only brought two pairs of trousers on the trip, khakis and my orangey-red nylon pants. I went with shorter nylon pants over the longer khakis, and that was a good choice because they dried out really fast, but still not exactly ideal because in slowing myself down I kicked up a lot of snow, half of which went right up my trouser leg. Next time I will bring long quick-drying pants.

Anyway, I spent an hour or two up on Titlis (by the way, Mt. Titlis is called Mt. Titlis for the same reason the Grand Tetons are called the Grand Tetons, but I never really saw the actual mountain except for a brief glimpse from the train, so I don't know striking the resemblance is).

Then I went back to Lucerne and went to a museum of modern art, the Rosengart Collection. This is one of those very personal museums, where all the art was collected by one family. There are over 100 works by Klee on the lowest floor, all arranged chronicologically. "Little X", which is a really cute little painting, is "Angela Rosengart's first Klee", which she bought when she was 16. This museum also had by far the best English-language exhibit interpretation booklet that I encountered while I was in Switzerland. I liked this place!

Then I went to the Jesuit Church, which is from the Counter-Reformation and very big and grand and Rococo.


In one of my guidebooks it says that this is actually a toned-down version of the way the church originally looked. In which case you can kind of start to get a feeling for where the Reformation people were coming from, jeez, lay off the decorations a little, guys.

Here's another last picture of Lucerne, of the Chapel Bridge, which was partially burned down in the 90s but rebuilt:


Anyway, I will probably do one more entry about my trip once I get home or possibly on the way home today, but this will be my last entry from Switzerland. I've had a great time.


(This is my second post in a fairly short period of time, so scroll down if you don't want to miss anything.)

So, Lucerne. I like Lucerne a lot! I would definitely come back here. Here is the famous lion sculpture of Lucerne:


It's a monument to the Swiss mercenary soldiers who died protecting the French royalty during the French Revolution. It's really big. It's a lion. The end!

Another famous feature of Lucerne are its wooden covered bridges. This is the Mill Bridge, I think. There are paintings in the middle of all the supports for the bridges. I like this one with the dancing skeletons:


There's a lot of stuff in the dancing-skeleton sort of vein. I believe all the paintings have skeletons in them somewhere (I read that somewhere and certainly in the ones I looked at there were skeletons), to remind people of their eventual demise. Cheery! Most of the skeletons are just sort of off to the side, leering and waiting.

The river water flows very fast to one side of the bridge because of a complicated kind of dam, and there was a guy surfing in sort of rapids there:


He seemed likely to meet his eventual demise sooner rather than later. Maybe he needs to take a hard look at those skeleton pictures.

Another cool thing in Lucerne is that many of the buildings in the old town have these murals on them, like this:


And this:



Also, I bought some souvenirs at the oldest giftshop in town:


Whee! Actually, it was not really a very good giftshop. There is a lot of Switzerland-themed crap in the world, my friends. I did end up buying a little of it.

That was all yesterday evening; today I took a really cool trip to the summit of Mt. Titlis, which I will write about in a separate entry which might not get posted until I am home. Which means tomorrow night, just a little over 24 hours from now. Sadness!

Basel and Fortress Furigen

So, I spent a day in Basel, then came to Lucerne. Basel was OK, with lots of classy museums, and I like Lucerne a lot. Here is the view from my hotel room window:


Later, there was a rainbow!

Anyway, Basel. The most impressive thing in Basel I didn't take any pictures of (I was a little burnt out on picture-taking after Lauterbrunnen); it's the Barfüsserkirche, the church where they have their city history museum. The impressive thing about it is that during the Reformation, the church was completely gutted, and all of the decorations and things were destroyed. I guess when you are radically changing your religion you can't just have a sale and hand off all your old saints' statues to someone else who isn't so into Reforming. It wasn't even used as a church for most of the last 400 years (they used it for storage and things, and as recently as 50 or 60 years ago they were going to tear it down to build a school). Anyway, the nave of the church (and it's quite a large church) is now filled with religious art that was mostly rescued from other Swiss churches; there may have been a few pieces that were original to that particular church, but I think basically everything from that church was destroyed.

I mean, obviously I learned about the Reformation in school, but imagining that big huge church being used as a grain store, and seeing examples of the kinds of treasures that were destroyed and can never be recovered was illuminating. And because it's All About Me, I also couldn't help but think about how less than a hundred years after that church was... well, let's say "renovated", people were getting on boats to America bringing practically nothing with them so that they could build a properly austere and God-fearing society in the place where I live now.

There are a lot of museums in Basel. I think I only visited three. I meant to visit a couple more, but then I couldn't find one of them, and I just got museumed-out after a while. The Natural History museum was pretty good, with a dodo and a quagga and a nice little mammoth exhibit with lots of skulls. Also they had a model of the Hobbit skull, Homo floresiensis, in their human evolution exhibit.


I also really like what they did with the little pictures of what the different hominids ate and what kinds of tools and things they had. Also there was a very cool exhibit with a colony of leaf-cutter ants! I think we should get one of those at the Museum of Science.

They had almost no English or French label copy, though, so I didn't really get to learn much that I didn't know already. This is one of the reasons I liked the little pictures of what the hominids ate.

Then I came to Lucerne by way of the Fortress Fürigen military museum. This is one of several fortresses that the Swiss constructed during WWII when Switzerland was surrounded by Nazi-occupied territory. The idea was to be able to defend the North-South route that runs near Lucerne and to be able to cut off the country (or at least the middle of the country) entirely if necessary. It was a dramatic illustration of the concept of "armed neutrality". The fortress is dug right into this cliff (the very unobtrusive entrance is not in this photo, but I don't know that it would show -- I nearly walked right by it):




There are all sorts of machine-gun and other bigger kinds of guns, and ammunition for them. In the 60s they also installed anti-radiation air filters and things. The fortress was only decommissioned in the 80s, I think.



I'm no military buff and I didn't properly appreciate most of the stuff in there (and I didn't really stay all that long, either), but just its existence was eye-opening. Something like 150 soldiers plus officers and things would stay in the fortress. It's very compact and space-efficient, almost like a submarine. It's also cold and wet and filled with dehumidifiers.

I'll do another entry on Lucerne and the exciting place where I am going today tonight.

Friday, August 15, 2008

The Schilthorn and more Bernese Oberland

So, the Jungfrau area continued to be incredibly picturesque and lovely. I had to leave today and I wish I had arranged things so that I could stay longer. I could have stayed a week, easily, and I suspect that even though I have four more days to my trip, the Bernese Oberland is going to stay the highlight.

I mean really:


Yesterday I didn't do any more hiking, partly because (grossness alert) my wool hiking socks had given me some kind of nasty rash on my ankles, and I didn't want to wear socks. Instead I took the cable car up to the top of the Schilthorn. It was cloudy in Gimmelwald, but the cable car went right through the cloud:


At the top of the Schilthorn is an observation terrace, a gift shop, and a revolving restaurant. The view was like nothing I have ever seen. The clouds were still down in the valley below us (we came out of the clouds a bit before Birg, which is at something like 2500 meters above sea level, and the restaurant is at 2900+ meters), so only the tops of the mountains popped out of the clouds. It was unreal. The Eiger, the Mönch, and the Jungfrau, in the top picture, are the real stars, but there are loads of other mountains that you can see right up close from there. It was amazing.


Also, kind of hilariously, there is the aforementioned revolving restaurant, which I did not visit, and the tacky gift shop, called Top-Shop, and tons of James Bond-associated stuff, because several scenes from On Her Majesty's Secret Service were filmed there. And you can watch them, in the Touristorama! Taken out of context, and given that it was not perhaps the best of the Bond films, it all looks pretty cheesy, but Diana Rigg is the main Bond Girl, so it's not all bad.



Oh, but that was not my whole day, folks! I took the cable car all the way back down to the valley and I went to Trümmelbach Falls, which is where all the water from the glaciers on the Eiger, the Mönch, and the Jungfrau goes. There are 10 waterfalls inside these cliffs. It was hard to get a good photo because it's all inside and very wet, but I tried:


This place was amazing -- you can really see how the water is carving out the rock, slowing but surely. All of the water in the rivers and lakes is different milky colors as a result of the rock that's suspended in the water. Amazing.

I'm a huge geek, of course, so I can't help but think about and be amazed by the natural processes that have made and shaped (and continue to shape) these mountains. I'm no geologist, but even with my little bit of eighth-grade Earth Science and assorted facts picked up from working at the science museum, I look at these mountains and think about the plate tectonics that shoved them up in the first place, the glaciers that shoved all of the topsoil off of them, the forces of water and weather that are wearing them down right this very minute (according to Wikipedia, they're still being shoved up, but they're being eroded at about the same rate as they're growing). It's like being able to see time.

Anyway, today I left the mountains. I stopped off in Interlaken for a bit. Interlaken reminds me of Virginia Beach somehow. Lots of souvenir shops and hotels. Also there are places where you can book all kinds of trips and adventure sports things, which would probably be fun, but all I really saw was the souvenir shops. Oh, also a museum about the history of tourism in the Jungfrau region, which was kind of cute and kind of depressing in that small-museum way. Also I banged my shin on one of the sedan-chair kinds of things they had there.

Now I'm in Basel. I'm going to spend tomorrow looking at Art and other things in museums, then head to Central Switzerland and Luzern, then home! I'm equal parts sad to be going and happy that I'll be back in my own bed and not living out of a suitcase and I'm quite looking forward to having TiVo again (this is the first place I've stayed on this trip with a TV in the room, but even here the only English-language channels are CNN and BBC Prime (which I think might be even worse than BBC America, although maybe that's just because I get to use my TiVo on BBC America and filter out the worst of it) and I've been watching a bit of the English-language channels and some of the Olympics on one of the French channels). I'm not quite homesick, but I have listened to the latest episodes of Car Talk and This American Life today, and I checked up on what the Red Sox have been up to.

So that's a good way to feel, I think, as I get to the end of my vacation. Can't say I'm looking forward to going back to work, but perhaps this break will have given me a new perspective on my job and it will all seem exciting and wonderful when I get back. Could happen!

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Bernese Oberland

Dang, I am tired. Today I hiked most of the way from Grindelwald in the next valley over from where I am staying in the Lauterbrunnental up to the Kleine Scheidegg, which is this high mountain pass, then on over to Wengen, which is across the valley from the village where I'm staying.

I took so many pictures today. I was hiking for almost six hours! I needed a lot of rest breaks!



Here's the restaurant where I ate lunch -- that's the North Face of the Eiger in the background.

After lunch, I realized I was starting to get a blister on my heel, so I took the train from Alpiglen (where the restaurant is) to Kleine Scheidegg. One of the nice things about this hike is that it roughly parallels a narrow-gauge cog railway, so there are lots of bailout points. I bailed out at Alpiglen. But then in Kleine Scheidegg, I bought some blister dealies, and I put them on, and I felt good! And I had just skipped a few hundred meters of climbing by taking the train, and it was all downhill from there, so I kept going, down to Wengen, where I bailed out once again. So convenient!

Anyway, the place where I am staying is in a village called Gimmelwald, which is just below Murren. You have to take a cable car to get there. Yesterday it rained most of the day and when we got up into the town we were basically in a cloud. It was very cool, but hard to photograph.

This morning when I woke up this is what I saw out of my bedroom window:


I went back to sleep because it was early, and when I woke up properly the clouds had come back in, so I was glad to have taken it when I did.

OK, now there is more that I would like to post but I am so exhausted I just have to stop. I did put a ton of pictures up on Flickr (too many -- I will edit them down later) -- you can get there from the badge on the right-hand side of the blog.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Bern and Murten

So, tonight I will spend my third night in Bern. Three nights was probably a little too long, especially since one of the days was a Sunday (when all the shops are closed) and another day was a Monday (when all of the museums are closed), and it has been raining a bit this afternoon. Still, Bern is a very beautiful city. Let me show you it:


View from a bridge.


Swiss National Bank -- gold on the inside, but still plenty of geraniums on the outside.


Parliament building -- under renovation. The wet plaza in front is a nice multi-jet fountain that children were playing in.


One of Bern's many lovely, wide, nearly traffic-free streets, I think Kramgasse.

After I checked into my hotel on Saturday evening, I tooled around the city for a bit. There was a festival going on called Buskers Bern, and there were musicians and performers from all over the world doing their thing out in the streets of the old town (which are these big, wide streets with covered arcades at the sides so you can stay out of the sun or rain while you're walking around). I wandered around and watched some of the acts, including these guys, who were I believe a Swiss Klezmer band.


I mean, they were definitely a klezmer band, and I think they were Swiss.

Plus there were all kinds of food vendors, yum. I got churros and tempura shrimp and a beer. I mostly just got the beer because I love the novelty of being able to drink beer in the street! Another cool peripheral point: they served the food and drinks in plastic cups and plates and things, and you paid a 2 SF deposit for them. Then you could bring your plate or cup back and either get a refill or get your deposit back. Cool system.

Oh, another random thing I like about Switzerland: strawberries are currently in season here. YUM. I spend a lot of money on local strawberries during strawberry season at home, and I am splurging on strawberries almost every time I go to a supermarket here.

I also went to the Zentrum Paul Klee in Bern, which is an art museum and cultural center dedicated to the art and teachings of Paul Klee. I ended up spending the whole morning in the special collections and never making it to the permanent collection at all. Excellent place. I got an audioguide that was just music that someone had picked out to go with different pieces in the exhibit.

They offer lots of classes for kids there, too, in these beautiful studios:


On the way back I swung by the bear pits, where there are two bears who are I guess you would say the mascots of Bern. I neglected to take a picture of them, but it was basically a big pit with a bear in it (well, two bears, but I could only see one) and some greenery and things. Apparently the bears are quite old and when they die the pit is going to be redone and made more like a proper zoo kind of thing.

After lunch I went to the Bern fine arts museum, which was OK. Most of the museum was currently devoted to a huge exhibit of the work of Ferdinand Hodler, which I was mostly not crazy about. Apparently he is the most famous Swiss painter of the 19th century. He was a Symbolist. The rest of the museum was stuff from the regular collection kind of arranged in thematic groups. They had several of William Wegman's video pieces on display, which was kind of fun, although the quality of the videos was approximately the same as on YouTube. Also there were no English labels on anything, or even French on most things, and there were boxes that said they had English-language guides in them but actually they were in German. There were some French-language guides sheets though, and I was mostly able to understand them.

Oh, also, I had a bit of a luggage mix-up. I had intended to check my large bag through from Zermatt to Bern, and only bring a small bag to Lausanne. Unfortunately I did it wrong, and my bag just sat around in the left-luggage office in Zermatt for a few days, until I went to try to pick it up. The people at the Bern train station were very helpful and I got my bag the next day. Whew. I was pretty calm about it, though; I figured, absolute worst-case scenario, I have to go back to Zermatt to pick it up. Which would be an annoyance and a waste of time, but I would survive.

So, this morning, since I was once again in possession of all my clothes, I did laundry. Fun! Then I went to Murten, which is an old little town on a lake. Lake Murten, possibly. It has two churches and a library and lots of tea shops (with alcohol and without alcohol, they are labeled on the outside). I visited the churches, which are pretty stark and post-Reformation-y and walked around the ramparts, which give you a great view of the surrounding countryside and of the town inside the walls. Apparently I didn't take any pictures of the countryside, but here are the roofs in the town:


I thought about taking one of the lake boats across to Neuchatel and then taking the train back to Bern, but it started to rain so I ditched that plan.

Anyway, plan for this evening includes more wandering around Bern. Tomorrow I am heading up into the mountains again, to the Lauterbrunnen Valley. Hiking will ensue! Which means lots more photos because photos give you a good excuse to stop and rest while you're hiking.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Lausanne and Gruyeres

So, when last I wrote, I was on the train from Zermatt to Lausanne.

On the way to Lausanne I stopped in Montreux, and walked to the Chateau de Chillon, which my guidebook said was "a one mile hike" from Montreux. It looked significantly more than one mile away (Montreux and the Chateau de Chillon are both on Lake Geneva, and you can see the Chateau from the shore at Montreux), but it didn't look too far to walk, so I figured what the hey. It took me about 45 minutes, which means either that I was seriously off my usual walking pace or it was a little under three miles. This makes me suspect that the guidebook meant to say "a one hour hike". That is a different thing. But regardless of how far it was, I walked all the way there and, for some reason, all the way back, even though I could have taken a tram or bus or a boat or something. Anyway: Chateau de Chillon = well worth the walk.

I had this book when I was in probably late elementary school, Castle by David Macaulay (it was award-winning and very popular, maybe you remember it too, and he wrote others about pyramids and cathedrals and things), all about how Medieval castles were built and stuff. And this castle was just like the castle in the book! Albeit less square and more adjacent to a lake. It was very cool.

The castle was built a long, long time ago, in the 12th century I think, and was used and occupied by various rulers and things, and then in the late 19th century it was excavated and restored. Because the restoration began so long ago, some of the restorations are kind of like little artifacts of what people of the 19th century thought castles should be like, which is interesting in itself I think.

According to my map, there are four courtyards, but I could not tell them apart and kept getting confused. The castle is much bigger on the inside than it looks on the outside! Here's one of the courtyards:


Also a lot of the walls are painted, though most of the painting was, I believe, 19th-century recreations of the original paintings. I don't know if the restorers painted them to look old, or if they just deteriorated really fast, but this is what they look like:


Since this has been a tourist attraction since at least the early part of the 19th century (before it started to get restored), there is a lot of graffiti, most of it quite old. Here is Byron's name carved into a column! (It's covered with glass so that other people won't graffiti over his graffiti.)


If anyone out there is writing a historical novel set in the early 19th century, please have one of your characters carve his or her name into something ancient that a modern person would be horrified at the idea of carving their name into. I have a soft spot for 19th-century graffiti.

Then I went on to Lausanne, where I took no pictures for some reason. Lausanne is very pretty, but very steep. Also, since I didn't get there until lateish, having stopped at Chillon, most everything was closed. I ended up walking around with this Italian guy, Alessandro, and talking his ear off about various things. He recommended that I visit Gruyères, which I did.

I think Gruyères was probably a mistake; it would have been better to spend the day in Lausanne. I did spend the morning in Lausanne and went to the Olympic Museum, which was interesting since they had a lot of stuff on about the Beijing games. When I arrived there was a pickup Tai Chi class going on on the plaza out front:


No photos allowed inside the museum, and some of the coolest stuff was missing because it was on display in Beijing, but it was pretty cool, if a little overly-sunny about how great a place China is. I thought some of the stuff about the 1948 London games was interesting -- since it was right after WWII they didn't build any new stadiums or athletes' villages or anything, they just held it in existing facilities, and the athletes stayed in hotels and dorms and things. Kind of nice, really, given how excessive the preparations for the Olympics can get.

Anyhow, then I went on to Gruyères. Here is what was wrong with Gruyères:


Oh my holy pete was it crowded.

Also it was at the top of a hill, and no lift or funicular or bus or anything.

And there were no luggage lockers at the station, so I carried my backpack all the way up (my medium-sized backpack, not my all-my-stuff-in-it backpack, but still, it was heavy). (I think there may have been a left-luggage office there, but I didn't see it until I came back, so a lot of good that did me.)

There was something going on there while I was there, although I don't know if it was a special day or just Saturday. There were musical demonstrations, and traditional dancing demonstrations, and you could try out alpenhorns and cowbells:


So that was kind of fun, although I did not try them out. Also, in front of all the restaurants were tables full of free cheese samples! Actually, I am not 100% sure that they were free samples, but I had some and no one charged me for them or told me off for cheese-thievery, so I guess it was cool.

There is also a castle in Gruyères, which was pretty boring after Chillon the day before, although it did have a nice view:


Then after I hiked back down from Gruyères (on the one hand, it would be nice if there was some kind of public transport up to the town, but on the other hand, that would surely attract even more people to the town, yikes), I stopped at the cheese factory/shop near the train station. They have a cheese-curing robot!

Cheese-curing robot

The robot goes up and down the aisle and... picks up the cheese? And moves it around? OK, actually I'm not entirely sure what the robot does. I did not take the tour to see more of the cheese-making process, because I was ready to say goodbye to Gruyères, but I bought some, and I ate some of it for dinner. I have to say that whatever that robot is doing, I approve of it heartily, because that cheese was yummy.

From Gruyères I went on to Bern, where I am now, and which I will write a separate entry about. Today is Sunday and most things are closed and there don't seem to be any non-prohibitively-expensive concerts going on or anything, so I have been chilling out in my hotel room and catching up on the internet. For way too long, actually!

Friday, August 8, 2008

Zermatt with Pictures

Today I am taking the train from Zermatt to Lausanne. I'm writing this on the train, and I'll post it when I get to Lausanne. With pictures, at last!

A little bit more about the hike I took yesterday. I took an underground funicular from Zermatt up to a place called Sunegga, where I believe you can ski in the winter. I have no pictures of the underground funicular, which was ugly and cold but only took five or ten minutes. At the top there is a little place where you can get lunch and sit and enjoy the view:

There is a tiny lake called the Leisee right near the Sunegga funicular, and people were picknicking there:


The view is not bad.

Then I went uphill for a while, along very pretty somewhat skinny paths:


After a while, I came to a slightly larger lake called the Grindjisee:


I took a photo of a very nice Japanese couple and they took one of me in return. We had almost the same camera, except theirs was smaller than mine and didn't have as long of a zoom. Note my extremely sexy flip-up sunglasses, which were almost as useless as they were ugly. I forgot to bring on my hideous-but-effective clip-ons from home, so I bought these in Zermatt, because it was incredibly sunny. I am so getting prescription sunglasses next time I get my eyes checked.

A little while after the Grindjisee I ran into two guys and a dog, and they asked whether I was hiking down to Zermatt, and I said no, Riffelalp, but maybe on to Zermatt from Riffelalp, and they said that it was going to rain in a couple of hours. It was starting to look threatening, and it was getting quite a bit colder:

Actually, it didn't wait a couple of hours to start raining; it started raining almost immediately. Fortunately I had been a good hiker and packed rain gear even though it was blindingly sunny when I left. But there aren't many pictures from the second part of the hike because I didn't want to get my camer wet.

I had been planning on taking the cog railway down from Riffelalp back to Zermatt, but I got there just as one was leaving. I knew it would be 20 minutes before the next one came, and there was a signpost for a footpath down to Zermatt that said it would take 55 minutes, and it had stopped raining and I felt good, so I thought, "Why not?" Alas, the reason it theoretically only took 55 minutes to get to Zermatt via that path was because it was really, really steep. My knees and hamstrings were sad by the time I got down (in rather more than 55 minutes). It was pretty, though, zig-zagging down through a larch forest.

Also I failed to take into account that "Zermatt" wasn't going to mean "Kyle's Hotel in Zermatt", so I still had a bit of a walk up from the ski lift end of town once I got down from the mountain. All in all I ascended maybe a couple of hundred meters and then descended over a thousand. If I had thought it through beforehand and realized that 1200 meters is almost 4000 feet, I think I would have taken the cog railway! Still, the whole thing took only about four hours, including the funicular and lunch and lots and lots of photos (there are more over on Flickr).

Once I got back to my hotel it started to rain in earnest. There was thunder and heavy rain from about 3:30 to maybe 5 o'clock, and then at night there was a nice electrical storm with lightning and everything. The thunder sounded incredible, echoing off all the mountains. This morning it was cold -- 10°C when I saw a thermometer, and I that was around 9:30 and it had already warmed up a bit.

Each morning in July and August, a group of kids walks a little herd of goats right down the middle of the street on their way to pasture somewhere. I happened to catch this on my first morning in Zermatt, but I had just run out to buy some bread for lunch and I hadn't brought my camera (moral: always carry your camera). So this morning I was determined to catch them, and when I heard the goat bells while I was at breakfast in my hotel, I finished off my coffee and dashed outside to take a photo.
There was one teenage girl and a few younger kids herding the goats, who are these very dramatic-looking black and white goats which are apparently only found in the Valais. The teenage girl made me think of (my cousin) Margaret lobstering -- teenagers doing picturesque "traditional" work in a place where people are on vacation.

Speaking of touristy, Zermatt is possibly one of the most touristy places I have ever been, but I really liked it anyway. It actually reminded me of Disneyworld in a way, in that it's totally unapologetically tourist-oriented, but that's what you go there for and it's done so well you would feel like kind of a jerk if you got annoyed about it. I am sorry to be leaving, but I didn't want to stay another night and I didn't want to go on another hike without a hotel to shower at afterwards! So, onward to Lausanne, and then to Bern.

This is what I saw almost from the front door of my hotel in Zermatt the first night: