Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Day 10, June 8 (Geneva, Munich, San Francisco)

This is it! Time to go home.

We were scheduled to fly out of Geneva to Munich around 1 PM, then from MUC to SFO at 3:50 PM.

We took a short walk around Geneva, settle our hotel bill and were on our way to the drop off location, which happens to be at the Geneva International airport. Again, NAV system had a hard time finding the right address, however, Andy Stauble of Rischard SA emailed me drawing with directions to their office. We got a bit lost, but finally figured the right way out and got to the drop off facility.

As we were looking for the parking (no free parking near that facility), we saw another BMW with zoll plates pulling over from the freeway. Another lucky bimmer owner (335 coupe)!

The drop off process was pretty simple since we faxed all the necessary paperwork to the office of Ritschard SA ahead of time.

We said "good bye" to the car, picked up our bags and walked to the Geneva International (10-minute walk).

Flights to both Munich and SFO were pretty uneventful. Again, we used "No Jet lag" supplement (I think my wife took a couple of Melatonin pills as well), which made the flight from MUC to SFO fairly painless.

Although we enjoyed our European trip very much, we were glad to get home and see our kids. They were excited as well, which might have been related to the amount of chocolates and other presents they received :)

Day 9, June 7 (Geneva, Montreux, Grueyere, Broc)

This was our last full day of the trip, as we were scheduled to fly out of Geneva to Munich in the early afternoon on June 8th.

We were looking to take full advantage of this day, as we had planned to take a ride on the Chocolate Train out of Montreux (http://europeforvisitors.com/switzaustria/vaud/canton/swiss-chocolate-train.htm & http://www.eurorailways.com/products/scenic_trains/choco.htm).

Montreux is about 1 hour drive from Geneva, and the train leaves at 9:36 AM, so we had a quick breakfast at the hotel (very much up to our high :) standards!) and were on our way to the Montreux station. We had some difficulties finding the exact address of the station (only found the street the station was on), so we had to give ourselves a bit of extra time to be able to find the station.

Drive to Montreux was nice, but uneventful, and we arrived to Montreux without much trouble. It took us a few minutes to find the station (took a wrong turn initially), but Montreux is pretty small town, so we found the parking lot next to train station fairly quickly.

We picked up our tickets, which were not cheap, as you have to buy a first class ticket for 60CHF from Montreux to Broc via Greuyere and pay extra 28CHF to reserve a seat on the Chocolate Train.

We have reserved seats in the Pullman Express "Belle Epoque" vintage carriage, which is fun for a while, but if you value comfort, it may not be the best choice. In addition, our carriage had the bar in it, so after a while it became a pit stop for everyone who wanted to get drunk on the train... Anyway, we were pretty determined to have a good time, so we tried to overlook the small things.

The scenery in Montreux is very pretty, as the train climbs the side of the hill for the first 20 - 30 minutes of the ride, so you get plenty of opportunities to take wonderful pics.

Our first stop was Gruyere Cheese factory. The factory is strategically located near the station to provide easy access to tourists, and it's really a showcase factory. However, the bulk of Swiss cheese (the same one used for many wonderful Swiss dishes) produced in the country is made very close at the real cheese factory in one of the small towns near by.

The factory tour was educational, but very much commercialised (you get your own audio guide on the tour). Lots of souvenirs are available in the factory stores along with large variety of Gruyere cheese (the same cheese, different packaging).

After the factory tour, a bus took us to the nearby village for a visit of the local castle. The castle visit was actually pretty interesting, as many generations of local counts have lived at that place.

The local town is pretty much maintained for tourists and full of restaurants, souvenir shops, etc. We had lunch in one of those restaurants, which was OK, but not as good as other places we have visited in Switzerland.

We bought a few souvenirs and walked down to the train station (10-minute walk) instead of waiting for a bus.

The next stop was Cailler/Nestle chocolate factory in Broc. The visit was educational, but nothing out of ordinary (you can find all of the information about the chocolate making process on the Internet and your experience is not going to be less intersting than ours). You do get to taste all the different kinds of chocolates though... :)

We were ready to head back to Montreux at that point... Some people (I believe they were local CH middle age guys; not sure why they were even on the tour) were getting pretty wasted on the overpriced beer at the train bar. It was pretty difficult to share the carriage with those folks... Thankfully, they got off the train only 20 minutes or so after we started our trip back to Montreux. The entire first class car was empty, so we moved to that car. The rest of the trip was pretty nice, as we were able to relax after all the walking in the nice seats. It started to rain pretty heavily, but scenery was still very pleasant.

We arrived to Montreux on time, got quickly to our car planning to drive to Geneva right away. Then we thought about potential traffic we may hit on our way to Geneva at this hour (around 6 PM), and decided to stay in Montreux for dinner. It was our opportunity to do a bit of exploring of the small town on the lake.

We had a pretty nice dinner at one of the places near the water (too bad it was raining, otherwise the view would have been amazing).

We headed back to Geneva, as it was starting to get dark. We were a bit sad, as this was our last evening before going home, but we did miss our two kids and were looking forward to getting back to the normal life.

Day 8, June 6 (Interlaken, Lausanne, Geneva)

After another less than spectacular breakfast at the Hotel Royal St. Georges we left for our final stop of the trip - Geneva. We did not have enough time for another mountain excursion and there is not much to do in Interlaken otherwise...

The weather was pretty good, but not as nice as the day before, we again felt lucky for having such a beautiful day during our trip to the "Top of Europe".

Drive from Interlaken was nice and scenic, and since we left early, we decided to make a quick stop to check out Lausanne. As we approached the city, it was apparent that we were in the French part of Switzerland. Most of the signs were in French (including the most common road sign we've seen in Gemany and in our driving through CH - "Ausfarht", which changed to "Sortie").

We found Lausanne to be pretty busy and modern city (population is 130,000 or so) with pretty apparent French influence. We've explored the city for a couple of hours before moving forward with our travel plans.

Our next stop was Geneva. The city is pretty much at the boarder of CH and France, so again, mostly French speaking population, although most of the people we interacted with understood English (but some responded in French).

We checked into our hotel - Tiffany, which is in the heart of Geneva very close to everything tourists would want to check out. Hotel Tiffany is pretty high class, although most of the options are extra there (secure parking - 28 CHF per day, Internet via Swisscom, but they do have a free Internet station on the main floor, breakfast - 21 CHF per person).

We did some exploring of the Old Town and found it to be a lot "darker" than other Old Towns we've seen in CH. Or maybe we were getting tired of exploring similarly looking blocks, etc.

Had a dinner (my wife finally had a chance to experience Swiss fondue! :) ) on the patio of one of the hotel restaurants right in the middle of the Old Town (don't recall the name). The food was okay, service was not as good as everywhere else we've been so far (I think our French speaking waitress was pretty drunk :)
We've decided to cut the dinner short and get dessert at our hotel. Now, service at Tiffany's restaurant was exceptional. Dessert was nice too :)

Day 7, June 5 (Interlaken, Jungfraujoch, etc.)

Our plans for the day included trip to Jungfraujoch, but we did not know if the weather would permit it. However, we were pleasantly surprised to see very clear sky in the morning with pretty nice prognosis for the day.

We had a breakfast at the hotel, which was not as impressive as the breakfasts we've had in other hotels, but sufficient enough.

We took a short walk to the Interlaken Ost train station. The round trip tickets are not cheap (174 Swiss francs including discount with the hotel provided guest card). If you are looking to take several trips up to the mountains, I would recommend to do some research on getting Swiss card, as the tickets are only 50% with that card in addition to other savings provided to the card holders.

Every hotel and travel agency in Interlaken have plenty of information about excursions including Jungfrau region maps, etc. According to one of those maps, we would have to change several trains in order to get to the "Top of Europe" station. We've decided to take a route via Grindelwald on our way to the mountain and a different route via Wengen with a short stop in Lauterbrunnen before coming back to Interlaken Ost.

If you are planning a trip to Switzerland I would recommend to use http://switzerland.isyours.com/e/index.html site, as it has a lot of information about the country and common attractions, etc. The site also has pretty detailed maps of Jungfrau region including railroad map.

The train ride to the "Top of Europe" station is an amazing adventure, as you are climbing from a little over 500m elevation in Interlaken to almost 3.5km at the "Top of Europe" station in a few hours! Be prepared to feel the effects of changing elevation as the train climbs up the mountain! Make sure to take some warm clothes with you as well. The temperature up on the mountain was just above zero degrees C in the morning of June 5.

Thanks to mostly clear weather, we checked out some amazing views from the "Top of Europe" (and a few stations on the way up). There is a lot to do at the top, especially if you want to participate in some of the mountain adventures such as hiking and possibly skiing, etc. We spent a little over an hour checking out views, taking pictures, walking through the ice tunnels, but got pretty tired soon, so decided to have some lunch in one of the restaurants and head back down.

There are several restaurants in the "Top of Europe" complex, and it's easy to find food to your taste. One somewhat interesting point was that while we visited a fairly expensive restaurant (lunch for two including 2 beers and tips was close to 100 CHF), they were pretty inflexible regarding the dishes they served (no substitutions on the side dishes, no espresso machine, according to the waiter, due to high altitude...). But the food was pretty good, and the view was unbelievable!

Train ride down the mountain was also pretty spectacular, and after about 1.5 - 2 hours and changing several trains we were in Lauterbrunnen. It's a small town stretched along the railroad and squeezed between the Alps. We hiked to the waterfall near the town (pretty amazing experience as well).

We also did some shopping in one of the local grocery stores. Things are a lot less expensive at these stores than anywhere else we shopped in Switzerland! We bought some exceptionally fresh and tasty fruits (or may be we were just hungry from all the walking we did that day :) ).

The train ride from Lauterbrunnen and Interlaken Ost is only about 20 minutes, so we were back in Interlaken pretty soon. Overall, very interesting day in the Alps, and we would recommend this adventure to anyone who wants to explore the area.

We finished our evening with a dinner at the Des Alpes restaurant (again!) and a nice walk around Interlaken. It was probably the most exciting day of our trip (second only to the car pickup day :) )...

Monday, June 11, 2007

Day 6, June 4 (Zurich, Interlaken)

On Monday we were supposed to check out of the Florhof hotel at noon and head down to Swiss Alps area, specifically the town of Interlaken.

We had a very nice breakfast at the hotel (another included option among others such as free Internet, etc.). Classic European breakfast with choice of different cold meats, cereals, very tasty bread and other bakery products.

We went to do some final exploring of Zurich since the stores were starting to open in the morning. We did some light shopping on the main shopping street of Zurich (Bahnhofstrasse). In addition, we paid a visit to the Sprungli store that sells the most amazing chocolate creations (according to my wife). She also now regrets that we did not buy half of the store...:)
We've checked out of hotel Florholf (again, what a place, wow!), set our new destination on the TomTom (NAV) and said "good bye" to Zurich.

The road to Interlaken is full of incredible scenery and leads you through many tunnels, which was a nice surprise, as we were expecting some crazy narrow mountain roads with many switchbacks (just like drive to lake Tahoe on the freeway 50). Instead, it was a very nice trip with lots of amazing views of the Alps, mountain lakes, etc.

We arrived to Interlaken in the early afternoon (everything in Switzerland is close enough) only to find out that TomTom navigation is leading us to the town through Interlaken Ost train station, the road to which was blocked by one of those metal blocks sticking out of the ground. We pulled over, and Regina went to Police station right next to the blocked section to find out how we could get to our hotel. When she rang the bell, someone responded that police station is closed until 2 PM. The person did not understand why we could not just go to our hotel.
We figured that it's okay to just drive on the opposite side of the street (only one part was blocked) and proceed to our hotel.

Hotel "Royal St. Georges" looked nice, but larger that other hotels we have stayed at on our trip. They had free parking in the back of the hotel and room was nice enough, but the view out of the windows was simply amazing. We got a corner room (again), so we were able to enjoy views of the Alps from several angles. I could also see the car parked in the back of the hotel from our room :)

After dropping our bags at the hotel, we went to do some exploring of Interlaken. It's essentially a small town that by the looks of it lives specifically to serve an army of Swiss Alps visitors. Many hotels, restaurants, a casino (maybe more than one). Everything you would need to have a great time after (or for some people instead of) having fun on the mountains.

After a quick stroll down the main street, we had a very nice Swiss lunch (very much Swiss, according to the waitress, who spoke variety of languages including German, some English, Polish and Russian) at the restaurant nearby.

We still had some time that afternoon, so based on suggestion of the hotel receptionist, we went to visit one of the local waterfalls - Giessbach (25 - 30 minutes drive from Interlaken).

We were very surprised to find out that the road leading to the very small town (it's not even a town, as the only thing we found there was a nice hotel right on the side of the hill - "Grandhotel Giessbach") was truly the mountain road. It was incredibly narrow and at times would require one to pull to the side to let the opposite traffic pass.
Since we did not know the exact address of the place, we simply set the NAV system to lead us to the center of the Giessbach town, which happens to be the hotel that I've mentioned here. At the hotel the road basically ends with the hotel's parking lot, which happened to be completely full. There was no chance of making a U-turn, so we had to back out for about 300 or so feet up a pretty steep hill. I was about to give up the entire adventure and go back to Interlaken... :)

Good thing we did not give up, as the Giessbach waterfall turned out to be amazing! The water is falling from incredible height, which makes the whole experience of walking around this waterfall unbelievable. The visual and sound effects are very intense.

The "Grandhotel Giessbach" is strategically located near the lake on the hill, so rooms have incredible views of the lake and the Alps. At the same time, the hotel is very close to the waterfall, so some rooms have unbelievable views of the waterfall as well as the lake and the mountains. I think everyone in the hotel has to hear the water falling! We checked out the price list, and even though it was not a cheap place, it was not crazy expensive either.

It started to rain a bit, so we headed back to the car (we parked a good 5 - 7 minute hike away). BTW They have some very nice mountain hikes close to the waterfall with breathtaking views of the lake and Alps.

We headed back to Interlaken and finished our first day in Interlaken with a nice Swiss Rosti dinner at the restaurant DesAlpes ( http://www.desalpes-interlaken.ch/templates/home/index.cfm)

Day 5, June 3 (Zurich, Luzern)

We've decided to drive to Luzern (based on numerous suggestions). Even though it was Sunday, and most of the retail shops in Luzern were closed, we were looking forward to some site seeing and walking down the streets of Old Town of Luzern.

People that suggested a visit to Luzern were absolutely right! What an amazing Swiss town with lots to see!
Among many interesting things about Luzern we found that the Old Town has dozens of fountains, and all of them are unique in some way.

We walked around the Old Town, took a ton of pictures (including many fountains :) and even did some souvenir shopping (not all the stores were closed).
We had a nice lunch (pretty much all Swiss restaurants we visited were nice) at a small place near the water and very old wood bridges.

In the late afternoon we headed back to Zurich to do more exploring of this amazing city. We also took a boat trip around the lake. It was nice way to see different areas around Zurich in a short period of time. Interesting fact: almost every pier where we stopped at had a park around it.

Day 4, June 2 (Munich, Bregenz & Zurich)

Most of the time change symptoms were gone by now. We woke up nice and early, and decided to experience hotel breakfast (included in the room cost at hotel Torbrau).

Hotel has a very nicely equipped area for breakfast on the second floor separate from the restaurant, which is on the ground floor.
Breakfast included variety of cold meats, cheeses, cereals, etc. In addition, you can request omelet to be made per your specifications :) Overall, very nice breakfast, definitely worth experiencing.

We went to do some final exploring of the city before leaving for Zurich. The checkout time at the hotel is 12 (noon), so we had a few hours to move around the old town, snap some pics and say "good bye" to Munich.

After a nice walk around the city (the showers were on and off all morning), we settle our bill at the hotel, loaded our bags into the car, set our destination to Zurich, CH on the NAV system, and were on our way out of Munich.

We stopped for lunch in Austrian town of Bregenz on our way to Zurich. What a nice little town! We spent a couple of hours in Bregenz, had a nice lunch at the "San Guiseppe" pizza place. Food was great, nice atmosphere and service. We would definitely recommend it to anyone traveling in or around Bregenz.

In Bregenz we also stopped for some gas, as the tank was about half empty. According to Rolf, getting gas in Austria is a good idea, as it's considerably less expensive there than in Germany (1.24E per liter of super plus vs. 1.43E in Munich area).

Very short distance to Swiss boarder was covered in a few minutes (we took some side roads to see more of Austria). At the Swiss boarder we were stopped by an officer, who asked us to pull over and collected all the relevant documents (passports, drivers license, car papers). While we were waiting (took about 15 minutes or so), we noticed that many cars were being stopped for a few minutes while Swiss officers checked their papers, so I guess this was a normal process.

The drive to Zurich from Bregenz was pretty uneventful and relatively painless, so we got to Zurich in the early afternoon.

We drove to the hotel Florhof, which is located one block from the old town of Zurich. What a great place! Hotel Florhof truly lives up to it's name: "Romantik Hotel Florhof" (http://www.florhof.ch/). Every detail including very nice location, hotel setup, service, etc. is very well thought through and executed flawlessly. It was nice to be treated like royalty :)
Our room was exceptionally cosy and inviting. Even though the hotel is located in the center of Zurich, they had parking available right next to the hotel on the parking lot of Zurich Music School. It was a weekend, so we were assured that we will have no problem with parking on that lot (parking is 12 Swiss francs per night). We had to leave a spare car key with the front desk in case they would need to move the car (never needed to happen in our case).

After getting situated in the hotel, we took our first walk in the old town of Zurich.

In the evening we had reserved a table at the restaurant in our hotel (we've read some very nice reviews about the class of service in the restaurant and the quality of food as well).
The dinner indeed was very nice, but the place is not on the cheap side!