We spent five days in Switzerland around the New Year as a last minute get away to relieve stress. I have been incredibly stressed at work, without breaks and mountains of work to do as others took vacation or were on the road to meet a tight deadline. Regardless, I was past breaking point. Our original plan was to go to Iceland and stay at the spa, hang out in the Blue Lagoon, but airfare is horrendous. That canceled, we were going to stay home; then we decided a getaway was necessary.
30 December 2009
After picking up the Ford Fiesta, we ran the dogs over to the kennel (it was so sad!), then south we went. We stopped just inside the Swiss border at the town of Basel for lunch at the train station, which is when we found out how expensive it was to eat. The Swiss Franc is only a little stronger than the U.S. dollar, which is at least better than the euro.
We took a circuitous route farther into the countryside, tunneling through mountains, crisscrossing up them, and eventually driving up and along a narrow serpentine cliff-like road (with no guard rails!) before reaching our destination: the Emmantal dairy farm. Switzerland is known for its cheese and chocolate (and watches), and Emmantaler is one of the four main cheeses. It also happens to have an open floor plan for visitors to watch the cheese action live. It was worth seeing.
Afterward, we left for Zurich. We were upgraded to business room at the hotel, then went to the hotel restaurant for dinner. I really like pumpkin risotto. 😀 A little after dinner, we had massages at the wellness center on the top floor, where the pool and exercise rooms are also located. All the rooms had a great view of the city, but I highly recommend NOT getting massages. They were okay, but the cost two or three times more than a normal spa. It was ridiculous; just go to Baden Baden.
31 December 2009
We spent most of New Years Eve in Lucerne. The city is gorgeous, with the Alps hemming it and a huge lake. There’s also a great shopping district we wandered through after checking out the infamous water bridge (it burned back in 1993 after standing for 500 years) and water tower. It felt great to be walking along the water front, and the birds were amusing to watch.
We got a quick bite at a pizza place (trying to stay in a budget with food is not easy), then headed around the lake to a small town with an aerial tram that met up with a rack railway train to take us up to the top of Rigi. The views on the way up were spectacular, but definitely not for the faint of heart (or heights). It was getting dark when we finally made it to the top, so we watched the sunset above the clouds and the city spring to lights (ha ha) down below. The moon was also much bigger from a peak in the Alps. 😉
The only problem with our itinerary was the running around we did on the peak made me dizzy and lightheaded, so when we returned to Zurich, I had no energy to go out to the New Year celebrations going on downtown. I wish we could have, from what we heard it was quite a party along the lake with live music and fireworks. As it was, we watched fireworks go off in different cities around the world in the comfort of the hotel room. I know, sad, but lesson learned; do not run around the peaks of the Alps (at least if you want to do something later).
Mont Saint Michel is one of those places you have to go. At night we were able to see the tides wrap around it like a protective blanket. It is the natural tides that kept this stronghold, founded around 708 CE, so safe for so long. When we arrived early in the morning (we made sure to get there just as it opened), the tides were still pulling away. I really wished we could have stayed on the pseudo island, but maybe some other time. 😉 The tides had sunk one of the parking lots, so cleaners were out to remove the salt that would erode the road away. In fact, you are not allowed to leave your car in any of the parking lots after a certain time because it may not be there when you get back, having been washed out with the riptide.
We walked the narrow winding road to the top, where the abbey watches over the French countryside. What a sight! Herr and I fought over the camera, and luckily Ozzy was easygoing enough that it didn’t bother him. After spending a few hours there, we traveled down the now packed narrow street to a restaurant that overlooked the tidal plain. I went all out and ordered grilled lobster and Herr got the standard three course French meal. My lobster came out halved with everything still intact, so I think that will be my last lobster experience for a long time. 😛 It was good, but creepy. We left late after waiting quite a while for Herr’s dessert, which made the trip back into a crazy escapade!
We left around 1:30 p.m. and needed to drop the car off in Versailles before 6 p.m. then catch our ICE train by 7 p.m. We got Ozzy to Bayeaux (about an hour out off the path and back) and back on the road by 3:30 p.m. I was really stressing out at that point because we had nearly three hours left of the trip to take. Google Maps listed it as three hours total, but I knew from the day before it would take twice as long. That in mind, Herr did the only thing he could… went fast. Through rain and construction zones, but luckily no heavy traffic. He was extremely tired and we were both very certain we were not going to get the car back in time.
It was at this point we both decided to stop thinking negatively and turned our energy towards hope and optimism. I just had to stay calm and think it was all going to work out in the end. We hit the outskirts of the cities around 5 p.m. (our car was technically due back in fifteen minutes at that point). The directions I had in hand were incomplete and required an hour trek through the city. Herr decided to take an earlier exit that rendered those instructions useless. Amazingly, we took a road that led directly to the Versailles chateau from the north. Incredible! We knew exactly where we were, and there was even a gas station a few blocks before the rental place. We turned it in, running, ten minutes before closing.
But we were still in Versailles (south west of Paris) and needed to be in north eastern Paris. Fortunately, an SNCF train station was two blocks from the rental place. We ran there, waited as patiently as possible in line to get tickets, found out the metro to Montparnasse was leaving in less than a minute, ran to it, and the train pulled away just as we sat down.
We got to Montparnasse in south Paris at 6:25 p.m. No time to breathe, we ran nearly a kilometer to the other end of the Montparnasse station to the local metro 4 line that arrived ten seconds after we reached it. Crowded and hot (Europeans do not believe in air conditioning), we had to ride it thirteen stops to Gare de L’Est. Thirteen! With twenty minutes before departure, it was all we could do. Again, luckily, the metro arrived directly under Gare de L’Est, unlike Montparnasse. We had little under ten minutes, so we ran like mad up the stairs and to the long distance train platforms. We got on that train with five minutes to spare. I thought I would just cry at that point, but I was too thirsty from the heat and running. What a race against time!
I am ready to settle down for a few weeks and not go anywhere. I have done a ton of traveling, work and leisure (if running and being jet lagged can be called leisure). Mont Saint Michel was so worth it, but oy vei! What a trip!
After returning from a week of training in the States, Herr set up our third trip to France that included joining his old childhood friend to Versailles and Mont Saint Michel. I was not too enthusiastic about him setting it up on Tuesday and Wednesday with my jet lag and incredible piles of work with deadlines, but I really wanted to see Versailles and Mont Saint Michel, so we kept the dates.
Tuesday we got up bright and early to catch our 6:30 a.m. train to Karlsruhe, where we caught the super fast TGV train (it runs up to 350 kph). I found the TGV more comfortable than the ICE trains because of the extra foot rests, tray tables and cup holders, and a reading light. It was like an airplane except much more room and no need to wear a seatbelt. The seats weren’t as stiff as well. Once we arrived in Gare de L’Est station, Herr’s friend was nearly an hour late showing up, and we spent nearly another hour with me speaking and understanding minimal French chasing after tour-package tickets that no longer existed.
We finally just purchased standard metro tickets to Versailles and met a nice well-to-do man who spoke passionately on architecture and engineering and its representation of humanity and what we are capable of achieving. When we arrived at the palace, the lines were unbelievable. It snaked through the courtyard with improbability, and after several minutes Herr decided to go back to the train station to purchase tickets there. It took another twenty minutes (I had made it through a third of the line) when he returned with the tickets. We waited in another line to go through metal detectors and were jostled through the people-crowded furniture-empty rooms with painting reproductions hanging on the walls. As you can tell, I wasn’t terribly impressed by Versailles. I so prefer the off season!
The Hall of Mirrors was worth seeing, but the mirrors are extremely dirty, and again, so many people! I got to use my maneuvering skills quite a few times. Oh, and bring your own water!! None of the shops sell liquid and there is only the bathroom at the beginning of the palace. I was so parched having to stand in the sunny line and pressed in by so many people that by the time we made it to the gardens, I had no more energy. We sat on the stairs overlooking the fountains and man made lakes anticipating the musical watershow. But that never happened. It was absolutely beautiful, though. We began walking towards the larger lake when we noticed some small cafes in the large hedges. Yay!! We ate and I inhaled a full tea and ice cream.
It was getting quite late in the afternoon by the time we got back to the gardens. I felt so much better I started taking photographs of the flowers in bloom, but Herr was determined to pick up the car rental on time and was pulling us out. I was so sad!! If you only have a little time and are there in the spring/summer, go to the gardens, not the palace!
We made it to the car rental only a few minutes late for our appointment, so we struggled a few minutes in what Herr now calls “Franglish” to get the paperwork done. We ended up in a little Citroen C2, and Herr got his first experience driving in France! Luckily, it wasn’t Paris, but we hit Parisian rush hour as we tried to escape the city. It took us nearly six hours to get through Les Mans and Fougeres to Beauvoir, a small town near Mont Saint Michel. It should have only been four hours. Herr’s friend Ozzy decided to spend big bucks and call our hotel to tell them we wouldn’t be there in time. They were kind enough (and spoke English!) to leave our rooms unlocked for us. Oh, and I must add, there are a TON of cows in France! They are everywhere!
We didn’t make it in until 11:30 p.m. The hotel was definitely not classy, but it had a bed, which is all we needed it for. It smelled and felt like a musty cabin. We hopped back in the car to get some night shots of the mont before crashing for the night.
Schwetzingen is approximately thirty minutes away from Heidelberg and is best known for its spargel (asparagus), especially weisse spargel (white asparagas). Our friends were leaving in a week (June), and none of us had made it to the palace at Schwetzingen, so we took the opportunity to go together. It also happened to be during spargel season. 😀
Schwetzingen is an interesting reproduction of Versailles. We did not walk through the building itself – it was a rather humorous hodgepodge of eras stitched into one – but we spent many hours walking the gardens. Ken was quite pregnant, so we took our time. It was perfect weather for the leisurely walk, and there was quite a lot to see. We came across a mosque in the southern gardens with a beautiful pond behind it and a wedding taking place.
We took lunch at a cafe built into a beautiful carriage house (or guest suite wing, we couldn’t figure it out), and I had spargelcremesuppe (asparagas cream suppe), made with the white asparagas. It was delicious! I don’t know if I really like white asparagas any other way though. Great with bread. 😉
It is really worth the visit, especially during spargel season.