May 27, 2012: Luzern and the Alps

Dominica was up the earliest this morning at around six thirty. She got up and showered and ready for whatever the day might bring. Then she got me up next. I got about five hours of sleep.

When Luciana got up we checked her and her fever had broken. She is acting much more normal. The antibiotics and a good night’s sleep seem to have been just what the doctor ordered (they are, in fact, what the doctor actually ordered.)

So we talked about it and decided that as this would be our one and only chance to go to see Luzern (Lucerne) and because the weather was supposed to be really nice there today that we would go for it. One of our concerns the past several days has been Luciana getting was too warm when we are out and we did not want that to happen again. But Luzern is supposed to be nice and cool today and missing a great weather day out and about would be a shame.

We had to walk back to the Regensdorf train station and managed to catch the S6 returning to the Zurish Haptbahnhof at a little after ten. We got into Zurich, which takes twenty minutes or so on the S6, and managed to get on the SBB heading south to Luzern pretty quickly.

The train heading south was a double decker SBB that was very modern. We were fortunate to find a really cool curved seating area just for us with a little round table. It was perfect for our family. European trains often have some interesting seating options.

Luzern from Zurich is a pretty short train ride. Maybe forty-five minutes. The trip out of Zurich goes south along the western shore of Lake Zurich which is so beautiful. We managed to see a lot of town from the train windows.

Luzern is a much smaller city than Zurich, Bern or Basel but is dramatically more tourist oriented than those other Swiss cities. The main train station is right in the heart of the activity with easy walks to the convention center, the lake front, the river “walk”, the old town and the city’s famous bridges. The Chapel Bridge in Luzern was the big attraction here that Dominica really, really wanted to see.

We headed out on foot and could see the Chapel Bridge immediately so went, more or less, straight for it. The Chapel Bridge is considered to be the oldest wooden bridge in all of Europe. Sadly, much of the bridge burned in a huge fire in 1993. It has been rebuilt but the bridge used to be full of amazing medieval artwork painted up in the rafters. Some of those paintings were saved but a lot of them were lost too. Very sad. There is unlikely anything like this anywhere else in the world.

So we got the “must see” bridge out of the way pretty quickly. From there we walked along one side of the river or another to see the river and the old town that comes down to it. We found another awesome ancient wooden bridge and explored that as well. Then we ventured into old town and found an amazing little bakery where we got egg tarts, coffee and Liesl got a chocolate filled brioche.

Luzern is a completely breathtaking city. So gorgeous. The lake, the river, the old buildings, the churches on the hills and… the hills. Those are the Alps! And not just mountains in the distance or foothills that suggest something larger but the real Alps. Huge mountains, white caps, ringing the city. Amazing.

We looked through the city map and guide while at the bakery and decided that what we really wanted to do was to see Mount Pilatus which is considered one of the big attractions in town and one of the things that we remember from Rick Steves (who also taught us about the bridge.)

So we walked down to the water front and inquired about the tour to Mount Pilatus. We ended up getting the “Golden Ticket” which includes a boat tour of Lake Luzern, a cog railroad ride on the mountain, a funicular ride and a gondola ride down the mountain and bus transportation back to the Luzern train station. Not a cheap tour at ~$200 but it is a really unique experience and “the” thing to do in Luzern. It would be awful to miss it and we are not planning on doing any other Alpine stuff while we are here with the girls this young so it would be great to get to do this one thing.

We bought our tickets for the tour at one o’clock and the boat was scheduled to leave at one forty so we went to pier one and got ice cream cones to eat while we waited.

We sat in the back of the boat so that it would be easier for the girls Far fewer crowds there.

The lake tour by boat took about an hour and a half. It was not so much a tour as it was a passenger boat that made about seven or eight stops at the little towns around the lake. But the views were incredible . The ride was a lot longer than I would have liked but it was quite enjoyable.

The final stop of the boat is at the farthest point of the lake from Luzern itself at a little town known only for its cog railroad – the steepest cog railway in the world. The train departing right after we arrive by boat was already full so we had to wait for the next one which went at around three fifty-five, nearly an hour after we had arrived by boat. We had no idea that this entire process would take so long. We had imagined that this would be a relatively quick process, but this is going very slowly.

While waiting in the queue to get onto the cog railroad we met a woman originally from Houston but now living in Manhattan but working for a month in Zug, which we had come through on the train earlier today. We talked for quite a while and when we embarked on the cog railroad we shared a compartment.

The cog railway ride up Mount Pilatus takes about forty minutes. The ride is pretty interesting. It is amazing climbing the mountain side like that and the views, when you can see them, are great. What really amazed me was the large number of people that we passed the entire way up who were either climbing up or down the mountain! This is a seven thousand foot Alpine peak, not a trivial walk in the park and yet there were people climbing everywhere. And the people climbing did not look like hard core mountain climbers but just serious hikers. That is even more impressive when you see the amount of snow that they are climbing through. Liesl really liked the cog railway ride. Luciana seemed to enjoy herself but only so much.

At the top of the mountain is a train station, which feels very odd. We got off of the train and in the station is a restaurant, a shop, an information booth and even the check in desk for a hotel. All very odd for an Alpine summit.

We went outside to the observation “deck” where it was forty-four degrees but felt decently warm with the unfiltered sun beating down on us. It was blindingly bright and almost impossible to see anything as I didn’t have sunglasses or a hat. Important notes for anyone looking to do this in the future. And bringing a fleece would be wise too. We took a picture of Dominica is her very short sleeve t-shit and flip flops standing in a snow bank to show how ill prepared we were for doing this. We had not thought about this in any way before leaving Zurich.

With the kids we were really unable to do much of anything on the summit since almost everything required being exposed for a long period of time and climbing stairs. Not things that we were going to do. We figure that we will do this again when the girls are much older and they can climb things on their own. We will save the extended Mount Pilatus experience for some time far in the future.

We did try to get some food on top of the mountain so that we would have an excuse to sit and enjoy the view. When I saw the prices, though, I declined to get anything. Dominica got a coffee and a slice of apple something or other. This is actually the first place in all of Europe where the food was actually bad. We ate it because we paid so much for it. But it is definitely something to be avoided. They assume that they are selling to the desperate and that no one will ever return to eat there again so zero incentive to do a good job and it shows. This is one of the truly “pure tourist” spots in Europe.

We spent no more than, I would say, twenty minutes on top of the mountain. While the whole “I’m on top of a huge Alpine mountain!” thing is pretty cool and the views really are something, the experience seems to lack something. Maybe it is the crowds, maybe it is the tacking tourist sales traps, maybe it is the surprise of it taking many hours, I’m not sure. But there is certainly a part of me that wishes we hadn’t spent most of a day doing this particular experience as cool as it is.

We actually had to skip pretty much any attempt to explore at the mountain top because the last funicular trip down from the mountain was at five thirty and as crazy as it sounds, there is only just enough time to buy a ticket at one in the afternoon, take the first boat, take the first train and look around for fifteen or twenty minutes and then get in line for the funicular. The line was incredibly long and we had to wait and wait as funiculars came to and from the mountain only every fifteen minutes.

As it was, we actually were among the last to get in to the five thirty funicular after having waited in line for a very long time. People behind us were beginning to panic about being left behind and there was a constant attempt by one group or another to line jump and I was concerned about being violently pushed away from the rest of the family when I went to go through the still. It was a concerning scene with horrible management and a complete lack of information. I was getting pretty upset with how the whole thing was handled and it was really crappy spending all that money and all that time and doing almost nothing but waiting in lines and not having been warned when they sold us the ticket that they might have sold us a ticket that could not be used because it was too late in the day. One o’clock in the afternoon should not be the final cutoff for an attraction without even a warning.

So it worked out okay and we were put onto a completely and ridiculously packed funicular where I had to carefully brace myself against the wall to ensure that Liesl and Luciana were not crushed since people were just being rude in there and people were panicking. But it worked out okay but it was neither comfortable nor fun. Not impressive at all.

To make matters worse, much worse, in fact, just as we were getting to the front of the line to get onto the funicular Liesl decided that it was an emergency and she needed to use the potty. Well that wasn’t going to happen. A bathroom run would ensure that we were buying a hotel room on top of the mountain for the night and if that was priced like the food it would likely have been between five hundred and a thousand dollars. So Liesl had to hold it which involved a lot of crying.

After the funicular ride there is a stop at a high mountain station where they have a summer luge track which Rick Steves featured in his show on Luzern. Dominica really wanted to do this but obviously we cannot do anything extra here today. Fortunately this halfway station had a restroom that Liesl was able to use while I held out place in line for the gondolas that would take us the rest of the way down the mountain.

While we were at this halfway station, one of the crazy people that I was worried about doing something rash to take my place on the funicular took his ten year old son and the two of them shared a stall in the women’s washroom. Which might have been acceptable had the child been six years younger and if the men’s room had had a single person using it, but it didn’t. So they were just crazy, creepy people. Just validating my concerns about them acting strangely back at the top of the mountain.

The gondola portion of the descent was way, way better than the funicular portion. The gondolas run continuously so it is just a matter of waiting for one and they are small, only holding about four people so we got a private one just for our family which was very nice.

Liesl thought that the gondola ride was great. It was fast and really great views and being able to do it just our family was so nice.

Partway down the mountain on the gondola there was another stop at another mountain station and our family gondola picked up a single passenger who did not speak English.

Once at the bottom of the mountain it is a bit of a walk, but all downhill, to the bus station and then a short wait for the city bus that takes us from there into downtown Luzern at the train station. It is really amazing how you take this boat ride so far to get to the start of the mountain journey and then you end up magically back in the outskirts of Luzern when you are done. That part was pretty neat.

While waiting for the train we met two families who are from Savanna, Georgia but are currently living in Basel, Switzerland. Liesl talked to some of the kids and gave out some of her Kidding Around Europe stickers. She has been getting really good about giving those out recently.

The bus ride into town only takes a few minutes. We decided to do nothing but go directly to the train and get back to Zurich. We had never intended to be away from the hotel for so long today. The Mount Pilatus tour took us roughly six hours from the time that we started (one o’clock) until we got back (seven o’clock) which was just way, way longer than we had wanted to do that. That was completely unexpected. We really had wanted to have been back around five or maybe six at the latest. Now it was seven and we were just starting to look for a train to take us home.

We ended up having about an hour to kill in the train station in Luzern so we took the opportunity to hit the Coop, the other major Swiss grocery store chain that we have not yet been in, to do some grocery shopping. Now that was an experience.

Like most of Europe, Switzerland shuts down at night, on Sundays and on holidays. Tomorrow is Pentecost and a big holiday in Switzerland. So we are guessing that this combination of factors has created a “zombie apocalypse” style food panic in Luzern’s train station where everyone knows that if they don’t get groceries tonight that they will starve tomorrow. Neither of us has ever seen anything like this. It was wall to wall people and getting to food was actually quite hard. The check out line wrapped nearly all the way around the store and you couldn’t get to most of the food because the whole place was just people attempting to check out. Crazy.

We got on the train home without a problem. We were all completely exhausted at this point. We ate our dinner on the train. We got one of the same second story round table family spots that we got this morning. Very nice. Perfect for hanging out and relaxing and having our dinner on the train back to Zurich.

The plan today had originally to hang out with my friend David, who used to work with me for the “office” and was based in Belfast. We’ve been on Facebook together for years and he has been living in Zurich for a while now. So he was going to show us around town today but ended up he was moving house today and was unavailable for the majority of the day. He fell asleep after his move and woke up right about the same time that we got back to the hotel, including the S6 trip and the half mile walk to the Movenpick from the Regensdorf train station.

David called and said that he was up for a couple of beers. Dominica said that I should go so I walked very briskly back to the train station and caught the S6 back into town hoping to get back to Zurich’s main station by ten o’clock. I was amazed by the number of people heading into town, clearly all dressed for a night on the town. Apparently going out in Zurich is the thing to do.

I got to the Zurich station and met David under the big blue angel. I wasn’t sure what to expect when he said to meet him there but once I saw it I realized that it is a huge art installation that Rick Steves has featured before. So I knew it instantly.

We took the Zurich tram a few stops away to Bellevue, the trendy district where everyone goes out for beers in the evening on the river and lakefront. This is my first real chance to see the city of Zurich itself and I must say that this is one gorgeous city. At night, the lake front all lit up is magical.

We found a little bar with outdoor seating and just sat at a table and had a few beers and caught up. It was a nice time and it was nice to get to go out like a normal Zuricher as well. Gave me a legitimate feel for this part of Zurich life. David filled me on as to his experiences in Zurich as well.

I think that my take away from being in Zurich, Bern and Luzern (and passing through Basel several times) and dealing with trains, tourists, trams, shopping, groceries, etc. in Switzerland that while I really like it here and woudn’t turn it down, Switzerland does not appear to be the place where I am really interested in living. Everyone that I’ve spoken to who is an ex-patriot working here says that it is okay but not that great. The cities are great but the working experience is not and the cost of living is insane. Now I have no experience with rural or village life in Switzerland and that is truly what we would be looking at seriously and that is sure to be far better overall, but this gives us a general taste.

The biggest issue is the “English bubble.” Everyone in Switzerland speaks English and so the moment that they realize that you are not a Swiss local they immediately switch to English for you and treat you like a tourist. They are friendly and polite – but you are forever an outsider. Even learning the language is next to impossible because no one will speak it to you. It makes working in Switzerland very easy and convenient for companies moving people in and out regularly and it is nice for people who are stuck working in Switzerland who didn’t really want to or who are not into being in Switzerland. But for someone really interested in becoming immersed and a part of the local culture it makes it a significant challenge. So, for now at least, Switzerland is effectively off of our list of consideration.

The bar that we were at closed at eleven thirty, which I think is really weird. Apparently Switzerland, or at least Zurich, has bizarre bar licensing laws like the UK which make it incredibly difficult as a bar patron to be able to figure out how to go out at night. I have no idea what logic makes this happen but it is horrible. There is no way for an outsider to find out what bar is open till when or how to go out and use the city’s resources. It is bar by bar knowledge so even the locals have no idea where to go or what to do outside of their local bars that they frequent personally. Even going to a different neighbourhood makes you as useless as a foreigner.

I had to get back to the girls and David needed some sleep after moving all day so we took off when the bar closed. He was able to work to his new apartment and I caught the number eleven tram back to the central train station. Once there I came to the horrific realization that there were no trains running back to Regensdorf tonight. None.

Oh no, this isn’t good. It is nearly ten miles back to the hotel. That’s not an easy walk and while I can do it I sure don’t want to do it in a city that I don’t know with an Android phone that never works and that is rapidly running out of battery. I could be completely lost in a matter of minutes and be heaven only knows where by morning. So that was certainly a final resort option.

I called David but he had no idea. He didn’t even know where Regensdorf was and thought that I was staying in a completely different part of the city. So he didn’t know what to do.

There was no one in the train station to help me. It was very late, and rapidly getting later, and all the tourists were gone, all the officials were gone and all of the information people were gone. As were any maps that they have out during the day. This was getting bad quickly.

I posted on Facebook what was happening so if I wasn’t back and Dominica spoke to anyone they could tell her what had happened even if they wouldn’t know where I was at the time.

I spent a bit of time running like a chicken with its head cut off around the train station trying to come up with options. I found a few trains that would take me in the general direction (I think) but that was a scary prospect. Get off of a train at an unknown third location and hope to get good enough directions to make it to the hotel. Eek.

Luckily it occurred to me to, obviously, call the hotel and ask them what to do. The guy who answered the phone had some idea of what to do because he lives local to the hotel and sometimes goes drinking in the general area where I was and had to do this same thing before.

He directed me to leave the train station, cross the river and look for a place called “Central” which is where all of the trams and the busses meet (oh boy, those are not “simple” directions.) Then look for a guy market “Troubleshooter” and ask him for help. Wow. Okay, well I’ve got nothing else to go on so I gave that a try.

It took me a bit to get out of the train station and across the river. This is confusing to an outsider as there is flowing water on both sides of the train station. Apparently only one of them is considered “the” river, though. I picked the right one, got across and after not too long found a mess of roads and tracks with a “central” sign.

There were no officials working so I wondered around for a while trying to make heads or tails of the signage but everything was in German here and very confusing. I finally found some guys in a truck who turned out to be the “troubleshooters”, explained my issue and they helped me out.

The solution turned out to be pretty easy. I had to pay around twelve Swiss Francs and take the N45 night bus and they would go to the Regensdorf Zentrum. Okay, sounds like a plan. Fingers crossed.

Catching the bus actually wasn’t bad once the troubleshooter walked me through all of the steps. The bus was fairly busy, not full, but busy. Fortunately even the Zurich buses have nice computer displays telling where we are currently and what the next several stops were and how long it would be until each one.

It worked out pretty well with the bus dropping me off right at the Movenpick. The Zentrum stop is right at the end of the Movenpick’s driveway. So by one thirty I was back home. About an hour and a half after I should have been, but at least I made it back and have a somewhat interesting story to tell.

Today was a really long day. Dominica was still awake, sort of, when I got home. The girls had given her a hard time while I was out. We are pooped.

Tomorrow we get up and get out the door to head to Munich where we will be for several days. Hopefully that will be a bit more stress free than today has been. We have an early train ride up there but it is only four hours and it is a direct train right from Zurich so it should be nice and easy. We get to relax for four hours and do some SGL catch up. Hopefully once we get to Munich we will be able to post all of the back updates so that everyone can catch up with us to this point.

At this point I am posting well over sixteen thousand words to SGL just on the past week. This has to be my one week writing record ever – and that is in over twelve years of continuous posting!

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