September 15, 2004

Leaving Bern

We are leaving for Rome tonight, on an overnight sleeper train. The train doesn't depart until after 11, so we've got a few hours to kill beforehand.

Day 13: The Golden Pass. So far this was one of our best days in Switzerland. There is a train line called the Golden Pass, which goes from Lucerne to Montreux (on Lake Geneva). We reserved seats in a panoramic train car from Zwisimann to Montreux; getting to Zwisimann meant taking a train from Bern to Speitz and catching another train to Zwisimann with a 4 minute connection. Thank goodness Swiss trains are almost always on time!

The panoramic train was terrific. The train cars are almost all windows, and the engineer sits on a second level, so there is an unobstructed view from the front. We did not have seats in the very front, but we still had a wonderful view from the side and part of the front. After several hours of watching the countryside, we arrived in Montreux. The train ride was not quite as spectacular as we had been led to believe (I thought we would be seeing snow-capped mountains) but it was pretty nonetheless.

At Montreux we boarded a paddleboat for the Ch?teau-de-Chillon, a 12th century castle built on an islet on Lake Geneva. I believe the castle was started in the 12th century, but much of the building took place between the 12th and 16th centuries. To us Americans, though, it was Old. Because of the way in which it was built (that is, piecewise over hundreds of years) it seemed easy to get lost. The self-guided tour was very well done, however, and even though I couldn't always locate myself on the map, we knew where we were.

The castle met all my requirements for a Real Castle. It had towers, and multiple courtyards, and a moat, and walls with up-and-down bits (I don't know what they're called, but they're on every child's picture of a castle). There was no drawbridge, but there had been at one time. We had a great time exploring it and deciding which rooms we liked best for ourselves.

After the castle we took a steamer back to Montreux, and then on to Lausanne, where we would take a train to Bern. We had dinner in Lausanne at a delightful Swiss restaurant with an extremely friendly waitress. Lausanne is in the French speaking part of Switzerland, so I could use my French again (which was quite a relief). We had melon and ham for an appetizer and fondue moiti?-moiti? for dinner. No dessert, though, we were too full. And we needed to head back to Bern before the trains stopped running for the night.

The train Gary had picked out for us to go on was a TGV that went from Neuch?tel to Bern, so we had to find a train to get us from Lausanne to Neuch?tel. The first part wasn't a problem, but when we got to Neuch?tel we learned that the TGV only ran on Fridays and Sundays. We did find another, slower, train to get us home, but not before we both worried about being stuck in Neuch?tel for the night. As we were both by now well aware, the trains only run so late in Switzerland, so it's very important to be where you need to be before midnight.

Day 14: Our first trip to the Alps is unsuccessful. The plan for the day was to take an early train to Interlaken and get up to the Jungfraujoch region of the Alps. The goal was to get to the highest rail station in Europe, as well as see a glacier and run around at 11,000 feet. This is not what happened. We got up early and made it to Interlaken in record time. But, the weather was not with us today. In a number of places around Interlaken are television monitors with live coverage of various peaks accessible that day in the Jungfraujoch mountain region. Every single one showed a dark grey foggy screen, with high winds and low temperatures. Not ideal conditions for going to see beautiful mountains. We walked across Interlaken to the main rail station, pausing at these monitors every so often. Not much was changing, and Gary was looking pretty gloomy. We hung around the rail station for about 30 minutes, reading the cable car schedule to see if there was any place in the mountains that would be good to go.

In the end we wound up not going anywhere in the Jungfraujoch. Instead, we went up a small peak north of Interlaken, Harderkulm, from which we could see where we might have gone. It was a pleasant trip after all. We got to take a funicular (a train that is pulled by a cable up a steep incline) to about 4300 feet. And by the time we got to the top, it looked like some of the clouds had cleared. We were hopeful that perhaps we might get to the bottom, rush back to the train station, and spend a few hours in the Alps. But the weather still wasn't really good enough for it, so we had to be content with seeing the mountains from a distance. And even still we got a pretty good view of the glacier.

Day 15: Our second trip to the Alps is unsuccessful. Our original plan for today was to take the train to Brig and then get on the "Glacier Express" to Zermatt to see the Matterhorn (which our friend Cornelia calls "a nice mountain.") We spent quite a bit of time this morning making sure we'd be able to get there and back before our train left for Rome (especially given our experiences with taking the train late at night!) We caught the train to Brig, and easily made the connection to the Zermatt train. It's a special narrow gauge train, and Gary wondered if we would need reservations for it. But the car we were in was practically empty, so we figured we would be fine.

About 5 minutes into the trip the conductor walked through the car asking for tickets. I handed him our EuroRail pass, he looked at it, and told us that it was no good for this train. At first I thought he was joking, because he was smiling as he said it. But it soon became apparent that he wasn't, and it wasn't clear what we could do. Gary showed him our schedule book, which doesn't mention anything about special tickets for this train. The conductor agreed that the book said this, but it was an error. He also said that only his company ran trains on the line we were on, and that we would need a ticket for any of them. We finally got out of him that we could buy our tickets on board, but a first class ticket would be over 100CHF, and that 2nd class tickets would be about 70CHF. Each. He left us alone to make a decision about what we wanted to do. We didn't have that many francs with us, so we got off the train at the next station, Visp.

We weren't sure about what to do next. It wasn't obvious that we could just get off the train at any station without paying something for the train we were just on. Luckily the Visp station had both regular Swiss trains and special "Glacier Express" trains stopping there, so we figured we'd be safe taking a regular Swiss train back to Brig, and then back to Bern. We did have to convince ourselves that we could take a regular Swiss train back to Brig, after having been told that only "special" trains ran in the region. And for the 50 minutes that we waited for that train to Brig, we fully expected the rail police to come find us and demand the money we were sure we owed for taking the first train to Visp. Needless to say, we were pretty relieved to be back in Brig, and even more relieved to be on a train bound for Bern. As two Americans wearing blue jeans and denim shirts, we were pretty certain we stuck out and would be easy to find should anyone want to.

The day turned out not to be so bad. The weather down south was miserable (rainy and very foggy) so I don't think we would have seen much anyway. And we got a nice train trip down to Brig and back. And now we are very unlikely to miss our train to Italy (being worried about catching the last train of the night has become a common theme on this trip.)

Posted by Jen at September 15, 2004 08:33 AM

In 1965, Diana and I spent three weeks at Camp Lake Geneva, up the mountain from Montreux. When we weren't doing activities on the mountain, such as the hike in the rain when I learned that you should break in your hiking boots before the hike (but afterward, we were served tea with rum to warm us up), we went to the beach at Montreux, just down the lake from the Chateau de Chillon. We looked at the castle and ate the most wonderful french fries, which in Switzerland are called frites neutre, or neutral fries. Up the mountain, in the old sanatarium in which the camp was housed, one night there was a costume contest. Stop me if you've heard this one. Diana and I decided to go as Mary, Queen of Scots, and her executioner, respectively. I managed to make a hood out of a coat hanger and a black t-shirt, perhaps the one I later had to give my roommate in compensation for the haircut I gave her. But I digress. At the last minute, without telling me, Diana decided to go as Charlie Chaplin. She won first prize -- a chocolate bar. Meanwhile, I had to go around telling people that I was Charlie Chaplin's executioner, which no one seemed to think was funny.

In 1969, I learned to ski from my distant cousin Myrna Diem when I visited her family where they were spending a sabbatical, in Zinal, a village near Zermatt, where they could and did ski every day. I remember Myrna's husband saying, "When I was first here, I wondered how the Swiss drivers could go around all those hairpin turns at high speed without having accidents. Then I found out that they had crackups all the time."

Posted by: Jessica at September 15, 2004 12:19 PM