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Trip Report 18 days through Europe - A Live Trip Report

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Tuesday, May 10 D-Day minus 2: All my bags are packed I'm ready to go... as the song goes. This report is an attempt to provide a live blow by blow account of our impending trip to Europe and hopefully a small measure of giving back to Fodorites. This also gives us a chance to document this trip for our own benefit. I have been a recent entrant to this site, but it has given me a wealth of information with regards to routing, destinations, not to miss sights, the avoidables, restaurants, what to pack, etc. I am truly grateful. So here we go, a quick introduction to who we are and where we're off to.

DW and I are in our mid-30s from Chennai, India, moderately active (moderately is a stretch!) and will be accompanied by our daughters (DD1 3yo, DD2 8mo) and my parents (DF / DM - both > 60 yo). The initial trip was supposed to be just the two of us without the kids spending 2 odd weeks in Italy to celebrate our 5 year anniversary... but like they all do, plans changed and here we are.

May 12 - Chennai to Zurich via Dubai on Emirates. Connect to the train to Lucerne. 3 nights at the Bellevue Luzern.
May 12-14 Luzern - We're doing Pilatus, not Titlis
May 15 - Luzern to Interlaken. 3 nights at Hotel Roessli in Unterseen
May 15-17 - BO incl JF, Lauterbrunnen, Grindelwald
May 18 - DF & DM head back to Zurich for 1 night. They then fly into Hannover and onto Salzgitter, Germany to meet with an old colleague of DF. May 19-21 in Salzgitter.

DW, me and the kids take a train to Florence. Potentially long day. Interlaken - Spiez - Brig - Milan - Florence. We reach Florence by 2pm. Tried looking for lesser transfers but couldn't find it. Made reservations already so we'll have to see how this day goes.
Renting a car from Maggiore. Found a useful link on the Trenitalia site that gave discounts on daily rentals if you use the train. At the time of receiving the car, you need to provide your Trenitalia ticket receipt. Lancia Delta with GPS and infant seat for E360.
http://trenitalia.maggiore.it/wm_step1_nol_fac.mnuid?PORTAL_LA=en
May 18-21 in Antico Borgo iL Cardino in San G - Covering Florence, Siena, Chianti, Pisa, and hopefully Cinque Terre if we have time (See my earlier post on getting to La Spezia - awaiting responses:-((()
May 22 - Either drive to Rome Fiumicino or take the train after dropping off the car. Not very keen on driving into Florence - figure Rome airport's a better option. No time in Rome sadly. Fly to Malaga. DF / DM fly to Malaga from Hannover
May 22-29 in Club La Costa Marina del Sol near Mijas.
We have a car for a week to hopefully cover Malaga, Ronda, Granada, Marbella, Benaojan, Casares, Nerja in these 7 days. No more long days... All mostly half day trips, so kids will have time to recuperate. Ford Galaxy for 7 days with GPS, infant seat for E420 from Tony's rent a car. They do a meet and greet at Malaga arrivals, take you to the car and you're off.. or so they say. So far, my calls and email exchanges with them have been more than satisfactory. http://www.tonysrentacar.com/
Essentials: We've taken our swiss passes, 3 day italian passes, vouchers for Pilatus, JF, our flight tickets, hotel confirmations, tickets to pisa tower, car booking slips, alhambra tickets booked, warm clothing for BO / JF, good walking shoes, books, puzzles and a portable dvd player for DD1, some packaged food, cereals and rattles for DD2, passport scans and other important documents, emailed them to myself and to my brother, international driving permit, visas came through a little late.. got us worried a bit.Taking the laptop, camera, DF's got a videocam so between us we're set.

Luggage: So between DW, me and the kids, we have 1 medium sized suitcase and 1 large one. We're taking 2 prams, 1 baby bjorn carrier, and I have a day pack on my shoulders with essentials. We should be able to manage between the tight transfers in Switzerland and Italy.

May 29 - Fly back from Madrid to Chennai via Dubai on Emirates.

Tried very hard to score some tickets for the Champs League finals at Wembley to watch Man U, but prices were insanely expensive. If anyone knows a good English friendly bar in the Fuengirola / Malaga area, please let me know. I'll be wearing my Man U jersey in Spain (they play Barca!!!!!) Sounds like a recipe for disaster.

Will post further updates and last minute details tomorrow.

Sunshank

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    Wednesday, May 11 D-Day minus 1: I knew I had forgotten something. Over the course of my travel planning, a lot of Fodorites have given me very crucial information that has helped shape our itinerary so I have to thank them.

    First off indiancouple - Thanks for the tips - Our itinerary is in fact an exact mirror of two separate trips you had made and your trip reports made great reading.
    For the switzerland sector, thanks nytraveller, mokka4, Kayf, ozziegal, dreamon, and J62.
    For the italian sector, thanks zoecat, annhig, progol, mamcalice, kybourbon among others.
    For the andalucia sector, kimhe and josele were a constant source of information.

    I'd be lying if I said I was not a little nervous about driving on the right side of the road. It's been 10 years since I drove in the US in grad school. I'm not too worried about the traffic in Italy I keep hearing about; driving in India, you can survive anywhere else in the world. It's more about driving in these restricted zones and the photo traps and finding parking in places like La Spezia and Pisa. Any tips on these? Trying to restrict driving in the bigger cities which definitely seems the way to go.

    Everything else is in place. We need to get the kids' sleep times in order before we fly out tonight. Do kids get over jetlag quicker than adults?

    So that's it for this edition. Jetlag providing, will get in another TR in tomorrow.

    Sunshank

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    Day 1: Thursday, May 12 - Our flight to Dubai was at 4am and the kids were kept up as late as possible hoping they'd fall asleep on the flight. Overall things went to plan. We left home by 12:30am for a 40 minute drive to the airport. The early mornings tend to be quite chaotic at Chennai airport with most international flights leaving during this time. Between the 6 of us, we had 4 check-in suitcases, 1 bag with 2 prams that we also checked in, my backpack and DD's small bag. Here I have to compliment the Chennai airport authorities. We had hardly gotten out of the car with the kids and unloaded the luggage amongst all the traffic and the horns honking - we now had to find trolleys to load this all in. Not a very appealing prospect at 1am. Two baggage handlers with the airports authority noticing we had a lot of luggage and kids, immediately told us to wait, brought 2 trolleys, loaded everything themselves, cleared traffic even(!!!!) and took us straight to the Emirates check in counter. I was truly amazed as this had never happened to me before. It's nice to know that even at home, where standing in line has become a running joke for the country, having kids with you does get you some benefits like jumping queues, priority boarding at aircrafts, etc. Small things but does go a long way.
    The rest of the airport experience was pretty standard save for 2 unidentified baggage near immigration that caused quite a flutter. There was a couple of guys from the bomb disposal squad with full gear (just like Hurt Locker) trying to disarm the 'bomb' which turned out in the end to be inconsequential stuff.
    When we booked our tickets, we had also carefully selected our seats that had the bassinet facilities so we could put DD2 to sleep if required. Our first screw up - we were given seats that were 4 rows behind the bassinets; in the center section. It was cramped. I was ready to pick a fight and argue. The service and response I expected based on prior experience was curt at best, but here was where Emirates exceeded my expectations – more so in the Dubai – Zurich sector – they tried to move passengers around so we would get access to a bassinet. But in the end it turned out to be a blessing in disguise as the entire row near the bassinets were filled with crying kids - and I mean non-stop. We were better off where we were and DD2 actually took a 2 hour power nap.
    The Dubai sector was a breeze and the cultural and ethnic hotpot that is Dubai never ceased to amaze me. With a less than 2 hour layover, we had just about enough time to get our transfers in, go through security and board. Here again, the order, the efficiency of Emirates must be lauded – brand new(ish) Maclaren prams for travelers with kids (there were lots on our flight) – made it moving through the voluminous airport a breeze.
    Both kids slept for about 4 hours of the 6 hour flight – this time we had a bassinet and the flight was only half full. The crew was American, English, German, Australian, Nigerian, and the customary Arabic. They were all extremely friendly and they took to DD2 extremely well. With all their duties, all of them came up on each of their runs to find out if we were ok and played with DD2 for a while. She of course loved the attention. That’s what I call going beyond the call of duty.
    We landed at Zurich airport and customs clearance was a breeze. I was complimented on my excellent German (if one can call it that; restricted to Guten morgen, wie geht es heute? Gut, danke)
    We collected our bags and walked down to the exit, cross the street for arrivals into the travel center. We needed to get our passes activated and also to figure out how to get to Lucerne. I had expected this portion of the travel to be an absolute breeze – a kind of train travel through Switzerland for dummies – not so. One must understand the basics especially if one is visiting Switzerland for the first time. Once you activate your passes, you need to find the main departure gate and see which platform (‘Gleis’) your train is departing from. The first thing I did was adjust my watch to Swiss transport time. It almost seems like the entire country runs on the exact same watch and their watches all collectively tick as one. From trains, buses, boats, even cabs came at the correct time. No seriously, we asked 2 cabs to pick us up from the Bellevue to take us to Lucerne Bahnhof and they called us at 9am to confirm and said they’d be at the hotel by 9:45am. Smack on the dot!
    So onto the Swiss travel system... if you are traveling with a lot of luggage, like we were, the trolleys need to be taken down the escalator – we were a little nervous on how to do this juggling act thinking all the luggage and ourselves would end up in an ugly heap at the bottom. Seemed like an accident waiting to happen. Not so. The trolleys are evidently designed for this purpose and it was easy once we figured this out.
    So now we were in the platform at the lower level and now needed to figure out where to board and which compartment. Every announcement that is made and also every platform has a visual that tells you which sector 2nd class and 1st class compartments stop. They are clearly marked so you know where to position yourselves. So for example, look out for the sectors marked A, B, C, etc. Then look at where your coach is (first class, second class, etc). You then have to physically haul your things onto the train. No way around this part. We had a scary moment when some of us were stranded inside and some on the platform when the doors closed. Momentary panic finally gave way to some common sense and once you press the button right outside the door, they open (very similar to the buttons on the Swiss post buses). The other good thing is that the train engineer always stays on the platform, waits till all passengers have boarded and only then does he activate the controls. The trains are very comfortable and in 50 minutes we were in Lucerne station, wheeled our luggage outside (in Lucerne, the platforms are at ground level), caught a cab and reached the hotel in less than 10 minutes. Another point here for first timers. At Lucerne, we couldn’t figure out how to get trolleys. We finally found some a little further away. You need 2 CHF to insert into the trolley and then yank the red metal chain. You then free your trolley, use it and when you go outside, load the luggage onto the cars / cabs, etc, you can return the trolleys to the designated position. The moment you re-insert the red metal chain back into the slot, your CHF2 coin pops out. Just like that. It was fun – the small pleasures in life that one lives for.
    By the time we reached the hotel, it had started raining and it only got worse. We had planned on going into town and walking around but couldn’t do that. DW and DD2 were beat so we left them behind and DD, DM, DD1 and I took the bus into town and walked around Loewenstrasse, Seeburgstrasse, Bahnhofstrasse, finally ending up in La Fenice where we had a wonderful meal of tomato soup, some pizza and pasta. I tried the local dark brew which I enjoyed immensely. The bill was around CHF50 for the 3 of us. We were in the area right behind Schweizerhof that is free of traffic. We wound up dinner around 9 and jetlag was starting to catch up and we were quite beat. The rain had kicked up again. We quickly walked back to the bus stop and back to the hotel to end a long but enjoyable day 1 of our holiday.
    A note on the hotel Bellevue Luzern. It is a small 3 star hotel opposite the larger and more classy sister property – the Hermitage. The rooms were adequate, though our bathroom was an exercise in the best usage of small spaces. At times I felt I would hurt my elbows in the shower, but no. It’s warm, friendly, family run and has no frills or pretences. Considering how one’s choice of hotels almost always makes or breaks a holiday, this was a good start for us.

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    Day 2: Friday, May 13 – On good advice from Jackie, the receptionist at the Bellevue, we decided to change our plans of visiting Pilatus to today and what a good call it was. The sun was out and the weather was absolutely gorgeous. All hotels in Switzerland seem to have their fair share of brochures, leaflets and info packs that at times you feel like a complete idiot having spent all that time doing research millions of miles away when the hotel staff just help you sort this out in a matter of minutes.
    We took the 9am bus to Lucerne Bahnhof – a 14 minute ride from the hotel and walked over to the pier meant for the Pilatus departures. It is all clearly marked. I think this is pier 2. At 9:45 sharp, the boat gave a short toot and was on its way. It had sections clearly marked for first and second class and it felt good having first class passes all the way in Switzerland. Lucerne looked stunning as the boat was leaving the pier and the vistas that unfolded before our eyes that morning could only be described by a poet, so I won’t even try. I will say that after a point, cameras are useless and one is better off just relaxing on the boat, order a coffee and feast one’s eyes. After multiple stops in smaller towns, the boat reached Alpnachstad, the jump off point where one catches the cog railway, the one that has been advertised repeatedly as being the steepest in the world? Or the country? I don’t recall. Before you board the railway, you are given a pass – like a swipe card that you need to keep with you as you will need to insert it at various points during the trip. A 30-minute train ride later, you reach the top – which is the bottom of Hotel Bellevue. From here, there are multiple treks that one can take lasting 10 minutes to an hour. We spent a good hour at the restaurant ordering fries, cheese rosti and the local beer while DM and DF took the first shot at the Mt Esel hike. They came back about 45 minutes later and took care of the kids while we set off on a full stomach. Bad idea. The ’10 minutes’ is misleading. I’d like to say that we climbed up and down about 300 steps – but we didn’t count them. It is a series of steps that takes you to the top of Mt Esel. Sadly, there was so much cloud cover and fog, we couldn’t see much. We sat around and waited to see if it would clear but after about 20 minutes, we gave up and started our descent. This trek is not pram friendly at all. It is child friendly. It is steep in places, but we saw lots of 3-5 year olds climbing with parents. We were almost back to the hotel when we met a bunch of American youngsters taking pictures and at one point, the clouds suddenly cleared and this girl screamed I thought she slipped and fell off. It turned out to be a spectacular view of the surrounding peaks and the prettiest clouds between them. The sun suddenly broke through the colours that bounced off the various clouds made a truly wonderful scene. Sadly it didn’t last very long and we reached the restaurant.
    We packed up and took the exit down via the cable car to Frakmuntegg. This is a fun point that has aerial ropeways on treetops that you can travel across, an obstacle course, and a fun toboggan slide called ‘Frakigaudi’. With all the efficiency and the tourist friendly operations that the country has going, this was a sore point. We had to wheel 2 prams up a steep gravel path that was sheer rocks and mud. It took us about 30 minutes and the prams took a pounding. I was quite surprised that they hadn’t taken the effort to pave this considering how popular this was. Maybe there are plans. But if you are traveling with kids, be prepared. That being said, was it worth it? Totally. We had an absolute blast. Kids can ride along with an adult on the toboggans. They do a quick 5 minute safety briefing and then you’re off. Sadly DD1 and me who were sharing a ride was stuck behind DW who decided to take the slow and steady approach down the winding course, so we couldn’t really let loose. At some point I heard ‘Go go go’ behind me and I noticed DW was holding up traffic and others were bunched up behind us. No amount of coaxing from behind could get her to go any faster. I had to pay the CHF8 and do another run! What a blast.
    From Frakmuntegg, you then take the cable cars to Kriens which is back on level ground. A nice ride with the last section actually passing near to people’s houses and balconies. Unnerving I would think if cable cars and tourists flew by my windows taking pictures. Kriens station has the customary tourist and souvenir shops. Not a fan. Damages – CHF65! Yeah don’t ask.
    One has to walk about 10 minutes along clearly demarcated routes to reach the bus stop for Bus Nr 1 that takes one to Lucerne. We reached the hotel by 7pm and decided to finish dinner at the Hermitage before turning in. Some pasta, gazpacho, herb soup and pan friend lamb later, the kids were ready to hit the sack. DF and DM volunteered to put them to bed; while we still had some energy to do something. We decided to head back toward Luzern Bahnhof and walk around by the lake. We crossed the bridge and walked along Theatrestrasse; there was a show just winding up and the arty crowd was pouring into the streets. We were very keen on catching a show or a performance and were looking at catching a show at KKL. The 21st century symphony playing the best of English film music. We then walked across Rothausbrucke which we both thought had way more character than its more illustrious and famous neighbour – the Kappelbrucke. The latter had a lot of tourists clicking pictures, there was street art scribbled onto the wooden beams and as we were peering at one of them we noticed the planter boxes by the side of the bridge which we thought was quite nice. We then doubled back and crossed Rothausbrucke again and then made our way down the other bank right by Hotel Schiff, Pickwick when my eye caught something. "Saturday 1:45pm kick off Man U vs Blackburn". The penultimate game of the season and a chance to be crowned champs for a record 19th year. What better place to watch it from than an English pub. Our lunch plans for the next day was fixed! We then walked over to the Schwanenplatz bus stop and checked the timing of bus 24 and decided to walk some more when we realized we had about 12 minutes. We sat down by one of the benches where the William Tell express departs and just people watched. We noticed that there are no rules or restrictions. People can smoke and drink publicly – in streets, in buses, and because of this, there seem to be a lesser tendency to create trouble. If there are no rules, there’s none to break. Is that the case or was my observation way off?
    We walked back to the stop and reached the hotel by 11pm, took the kids and hit the bed by 11:20pm. It had been a long but a fabulous day aided by wonderful weather.

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    Loving the detailed trip - please keep it coming. Headed for Switzerland ourselves in about 4 weeks - Zermatt, Saas Fee, Murren and Lugano. We've been to Lucerne a couple of times and love it and the many side trips you can take from there. The trip to Mt. Pilatus is one that our kids remember very fondly. Keep up the great writing!
    Regards, Bob in Cincinnati

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    Long time since I logged in. Tough to do so while travelling with kids. Thanks Hazel. Point taken. I've been typing these out in Word and copying it in here. I agree, will break it up.
    Scatcat - Pickwick's was a blast. I can't imaging actually going to sleep there if I were staying there. Especially during game nights. Thanks.
    Thanks drexelius & travlsolo. We absolutely loved Pilatus.
    Currently I'm almost a week behind this 'Live' trip report so working furiously to catch up. Just enjoying Tuscany too much to actually log in.

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    Day 3: Saturday, May 14 – A late morning and a lazy breakfast by 9am as it had been raining from 5am. No point getting up early to go anywhere. As we were finishing breakfast, it started clearing up and was looking to be a lovely day. Another good tip from the Bellevue staff absolutely made our morning. All the old paddle steamers had been refurbished and today was their maiden voyage. It was a tremendous coincidence that this once a year event was happening today from the Lucerne Bahnhof quays. It was scheduled to depart at 11am.
    We wanted to give ourselves adequate time, so we left the hotel by ten past 10am. By the time we reached the quays, the crowd had built up but in a very orderly fashion. It almost seems like the Swiss practice these things regularly, like fire drills I suppose! It was a happy occasion and a band was out playing popular numbers including a couple I recognized (Robbie Williams!) Don’t know what that was about. Special tickets had been issued to people as we saw them queuing up in front of each of the steamers. It was an absolutely wonderful sight watching them steam into the quay in the morning. The metal was all polished, the paint was fresh, the flowers bright and the staff were in the smartest uniforms and very friendly, walking around talking to people and mingling. Wonderful atmosphere. I had a chance to talk to one of the girls and she told me that most of the people who had gotten tickets were locals who were associated in some way to these steamers and it was a special occasion to experience the maiden voyage.
    By ten past 11am, the boats were all in place. Four loud booms later, the steamers tooted their horns one by one and they all departed in unison. There was cheering and waving and the band continued to play as the paddles worked furiously to pick up the pace. Soon they all went their way and we went ours to the farmer’s market.
    It was Saturday and all the fresh fruit, vegetables, meat and other products were out on display. We walked over from the quays to the street by the river just behind Schwanenplatz – There were fruits, vegetables, nuts, handbags, clothes, the works. We just loved the atmosphere and walked around people watching. It started drizzling lightly by about 1:30pm and it was anyways time for lunch. We made our way over to the Hotel Schiff and sat just under the building façade and by the time we had ordered our food, it was coming down quite heavily. I ordered the pizza with shredded ham and cheese. Across our various destinations, we ordered the vegetarian soups and without exception, they were all excellent. Vegetable soups, spinach soups, carrot soups; DM always checked whether they used non veg stock and they all confirmed that they did not much to DM’s relief.
    After lunch, we dropped DF off at Pickwick’s and I went to drop DW, DM and the kids off at the hotel. Pickwick’s was already in full swing and the football fans were out in force – especially the United ones. DF was more than pleased. I was a little worried thinking I had dropped off DF in the midst of football hooligans. Both the kids were asleep on the bus ride back but DD1 woke up just when we reached and she was game for an adventure. The rain was now intermittent with spells of sunshine followed by drizzle and back and forth. By the time DD1 and I made it back to Pickwick’s the game was 20 minutes in. In the middle of a sea of red, I spotted DF’s white hair, his face all animated and looking anxious.
    The reds were down 1 and things were not looking good. Despite being a pub, Pickwick’s had an almost family type atmosphere with lots of kids running about and babies in arms. DD1 discovered a toy chest that the bar had put together – knick knack things like dominoes, cards, little toys, puzzles. She just sat down on the floor and kept herself occupied. At first I was uncomfortable with her sitting on the floor at a bar, but it seemed pretty clean, and she was anyways going to shower after we got back. So I let her be. Well, long things short – game finished a 1-1 draw and the reds sealed the championship. It was about 4pm and the rain was coming down really hard. We waited it out for about ten minutes but with no sign of letting up, we decided to make a run for the Schwanenplatz bus stop. With the rain, the temperature also dropped and it was getting bitterly cold and we had not dressed for cold weather. The bus was 18 minutes away and we made it back to the hotel in another 20 minutes.
    We had decided to do the Verkershaus – transport museum for DD1 as she is quite keen on cars, trains, planes and other transport themes. As we went in we realized that it catered to a slightly older age group and she didn’t really appreciate the museum as much as we would have liked. There were still a couple of activities like lying down on your stomach and looking down at the multi LCD screens depicting a para glider. The platform also swayed according to ones movements. DW had fun trying to replicate different knots. In hindsight, we probably would have spent this hour a little differently maybe at the Lion monument – but with the rain still pouring down, it was probably better off that we were indoors than out with the kids.

    We came back to the hotel by 6:45pm, showered and changed. The kids were left in DF / DM’s room for the night and we went back out again by 7pm. We decided to catch the show at KKL – the 21st Century Symphony Orchestra playing the best of English film music. We decided to dress nice and the Luzern crowd was out in their evening best at the KKL despite the inclement weather. The show started exactly at 7:30pm. KKL is a wonderful venue and is used for music primarily. Prior to our departure I had checked the music calendar for any events and most of the summer events happen in June but the latter half of May gets quite busy as well. We bought the cheapest tickets at E40 a piece.

    The performance was magnificent – it started off with Frankenstein, went on to James Bond. Some of the parts with the backing tenors were quite moving. We then had dinner at the KKL café – a wonderful place to eat – you choose your meal from the display, choose your drinks and then pay up front. With the different places that we ate at, and one is a little lost on how to proceed, we realized that when the food is on display, the rule is to fill your trays and pay up front. It always worked.
    We returned back to the hotel by 11pm, collected the kids from parents’ room and were in bed a half hour later. Lucerne had been fantastic and a wonderful start to a European holiday. We were looking forward to see what Interlaken would offer.

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    Hi, Sunshank -

    Thanks for your trip report!

    I'm considering going to a concert at the KKL. Can you tell me anything about the seats you had? I'd prefer to spend less (rather than more), but am not sure what the different prices mean in terms of the quality of the experience. Any comments you can offer will be much appreciated.

    And BTW, thanks for the comments on the KKL cafe, too - good to know!

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