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Trip Report Swiss Rail trip report und ein bisschen mehr - Pt I

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The following are notes of a ten day trip we just concluded at the end of May. Our prior Europe travel was a Paris/Bruges trip and a Greek Isle cruise with extra time in N. Italy trip, so for planning this trip, the family and I all had a vague desire to visit the Alps, without any real idea of any specifics, until DW had a client who raved about Luzern. So we planned a visit to Luzern as the anchor for our plans, along with the below mentioned bike trip around Lake Constance (hereafter referred to by the German name; Bodensee) We were also able to take advantage of a 2-for-1 Swiss rail Flexipass deal which was valid for the entire month of May. This deal allowed for free travel for 4 days with half price fares on the other days.

The two main grocery chains in Switzerland are Coop and Migros. Both chains sometimes have bistros right in the store, and also market pre-prepared foods appropriate for picnic lunches and light dinners, along with a full complement of beer and wine. They even market a generic beer and wine under their own label. I don’t think “Wal-mart Beer” will fly in the US, but I enjoyed “Coop Beer” a lot.

Day One – T-showers in DC area delay flight by two hours. Somehow, this disruption gives UAL people enough time to send our luggage to an undisclosed location, as we get to Zurich 2 hours late with disappeared luggage. This causes approx. 45 min more delay to file missing luggage report. The ZRH people are very professional and courteous. Thus, our planned first ½ day in Chur becomes a ¼ day in Chur. Train connection from ZRH to Chur is very nice with wonderful views of Zurichsee (Lake Zurich) and the very picturesque Walensee. Chur itself is a delightfully quaint medieval town with a charming small cathedral just off the downtown area on a prominence which gives a nice view of the surrounding region along the climb to the cathedral. The interior is beautiful, with an odd juxtaposition of a modern upgraded organ cabinet within its centuries old interior, but tastefully done. We elected to buy a picnic lunch at a local Migros and snack on the famous Albula line of the Rhaetan railway, which lived up to its billing as a must see for rail travel enthusiasts. The ride was delightful. We arrived in St Moritz and checked into a two night stay at the local youth hostel. One minor detail I failed to appreciate until we had booked everything was that May is the off season for St Moritz. I mean the town SHUTS DOWN in May. Luckily, this Youth Hostel just resumed its summer season as we arrived, so we had a whole wing to ourselves.

The evening meal in the hostel had a very nice tortellini with mushroom sauce. Later, we strolled a bit around the small but beautiful lake at St Moritz. This footpath is a popular dogwalk for the locals, as evidenced by the frequent receptacle cans for bagged dog droppings discreetly placed along the way. Indeed, I noticed that the life expectancy of any canine dropping seemed to be less than ten seconds before it was promptly scooped, bagged, and canned by the human walker, the speed of this action being a point of particular local civic pride.

Day2 – since so much of the region was shut down for the off-season; this was a great opportunity to engineer a hiking adventure. We elected to ride the little train north to Scuol and then take the PostBus up to the Castle at Tarasp, all in the unbelievably beautiful lower Engadine valley. (The river flows south to north here) In a land where gorgeous scenery becomes commonplace, I found this scenery to be the most beautiful of all we saw. So, while the rail engineering isn’t as interesting as it is in the Albula or Bernina valleys, the scenery here was, to me, most beautiful. Tarasp castle, being reputed as only second to the Chillon castle near Montreax for “Swiss castles to visit, “ was indeed most intriguing. Built by a family of Austrian noblemen nearly 1000 years ago, it was owned in turn by the powerful dioceses of Chur and by the Hapsbergs of Austria, then it fell into disrepair, then restored by a wealthy German industrialist who was the first to invent “Odol” a form of mouthwash, who then ironically died of Oral cavity cancer (from cigar use) just as the castle finished its restoration. This restored castle actually now is a sort of collection of fine antiques acquired or rebuilt from other European castles, and was just wonderful to go on tour. Following this visit, we hiked for 2.5 hours back in the direction of St Moritz to arrive at the small rail stop of Ardez. This hike took us past tiny farming hamlets of 2 to 6 houses each, with its own Artesian well fountain in the middle of the hamlet. Whereas normal town fountains flow with a rate of about one to two liters a minute, these fountains flowed easily over 20 liters/min of wonderfully pure tasting cold mountain spring water. Wow! The hike took us past such hamlets, pretty little meadows, pastures, and deep Alpine forests, finally descending into the small Inn river gorge and across a small wood and cable footbridge. It seemed to be a scene for a disaster movie as we inched our way across this small footbridge with the spring melt-swollen raging waters of the river rushing ten feet under the bridge, but the classic Swiss sturdiness became evident as we crossed.

Upon reaching Ardez, we got to the train station just seconds after the arrival of the returning southbound train, so we had to run about 50 yards to make the train. To ensure the train didn’t leave without us, the first one on the platform half stepped on the train while the others caught up, much to the consternation of the ever punctual train crew. Once on the train, as we caught our breath, I realized we had caught the wrong train! So we hopped off an intermediate stop before the train tracks forked off in the wrong direction, only to find the next train in the correct direction would be 50 min later. This was most ironic, as this stop we were at had no facilities. Had we arrived in Ardez earlier OR later than we did, we would have known not to jump on the train we had jumped on and would have simply relaxed at the Ardez train station for 50 or so minutes, with its café and restrooms, instead of this intermediate stain station without any facilities. At least the view from the station was still gorgeous, so we made the best of it. Eventually we got back to St Moritz, only to have missed that evening’s meal at the hostel! So we walked into the neighboring town of St Moritz Bad (this is a separate town from St Moritz) and found the very wonderful Ristorante Roberto (Via Tegiatscha 7) where we had one of the best Italian meals I think I have had in a long time. I can highly recommend this restaurant.

Day 3 – Palm Express Bus to Lugano – We first returned to the Roberto in the morning for coffee as we had almost an hour to do nothing before boarding the bus. While there, some local residents stopped to ask why a group of Americans were visiting them during their off season. In a land where legendary punctuality becomes mundane, the story of a group of crazy Americans successfully delaying a train’s schedule by a minute was actually entertaining to our hosts! The bus ride started by going south to the uppermost extent to the Inn Valley, then through the Maloja pass, whereupon the road drops into what seems to be a deep abyss of the Bregaglia and Chiavenna valleys of northern Italy. The road has to negotiate no fewer than 12 hairpin turns in just a few hundred linear meters, then plunge into ancient villages where buildings seemed to have been piled on top of each other by a demented giant, with a paved road through the town seeming to have been a mere after thought. Sometimes, the bus had to slow to a slow walking speed to negotiate some of these passages. Eventually, we came upon Lake Como, which was as beautiful as billed. However, the enjoyment of the bus ride here was compromised by the nature of the roadway, which went through tunnels and the middle of the many lakeside towns, so that the best views of the Lake were often obscured by buildings. So the ride basically was a cycle of tunnel-view-building-view-pizzeria-billboard-tunnel-view, etc., with each of the “view” segments lasting only for seconds. Eventually we turned away from the lake at Menaggio and began the journey to and alongside the Italian extent of Lake Lugano. Here, the road was only wide enough for the width of two small Fiat sedans, and thus passage of a Fiat and a Swiss Post Bus was a challenge to negotiate. Usually the encounter would start with the sedan stopping along his side of the road. Our driver would then find a slight widening where he then stopped the bus on our side with the right hand side of the bus scraping the roadside vegetation. Eye contact was then made between bus and sedan driver, which somehow, possibly telepathically, transmitted the message that the sedan had to proceed if the impasse was to reach a conclusion, the sedan then slowly inched along the left side of the bus. Upon judging sufficient progress of the sedan, PostBus driver would gun the throttle, and the trip would continue, we trailing a queue of sedans in our wake. This insanity recurred kilometer after kilometer until we met, grille to grille, with an Italian charter bus. Gestures were exchanged enthusiastically between the two bus drivers, in which was communicated the bottom line that our PostBus took priority, and that the charter bus, along with its trailing queue of sedans, would have to retreat 30 meters or so. A knowledgeable passenger was recruited to gesticulate the retreating message to the following sedan queue, and the retreat slowly began. Once the charter bus and its sedans had retreated sufficiently, the process of busses inching side to side began. Here in the US, this interchange would surely cause much tension and short tempers. Not so in this encounter. Once the drivers were abeam to each other, the side windows were opened, and pleasantries were exchanged simultaneously in German and Italian between the drivers and the front row passengers. At last, sufficient clearance was achieved, the drivers yelling “Ciao! Ciao” to each other, accelerator pedals were floored, and diesel fumes were bleched onto the respective longsuffering queues of sedans. Eventually, the Swiss border was achieved, and the road width widened to a more reasonable measure, and our bus adventure concluded at the Lugano train station.

A previous plan to eat dinner in Lugano was shelved as we wanted to proceed north as quickly as possible, however, the train schedules indicated a greater than 30 min wait for the next northbound train. Suddenly, a Trenitalia train, that I thought we had missed, arrived, along with the message that its departure from Milan had delayed it 15 min. (If you have been kind enough to suffer through reading this account to this point, is there any question why the economic recovery of the peripheral Eurozone may take a while?) So, off we ran for a train again! The train was uncomfortably crowded, so after 2 hours we were ready for a break when we achieved the transfer point of the small city of Goldau. Just downhill from Goldau station, we found a beer garden with an extensive pizza menu and a pleasant waitress from Kosovo. This provided a most pleasant end to some of the stresses of the day. After this, a short S-bahn ride to the “verkerhaus” (transport museum”) station of Luzern brought us to our Hotel: The Penzion Villa Maria.

Many thanks to Fodor bloggers who cautioned about some prior difficulties with reservations at this facility. We subsequently learned that their internet bookings are still hand transferred to a master stubby pencil spreadsheet, and occasional errors have occurred. Several pre-emptive emails prior to our trip helped to prevent such an error. This also helped to ensure the luggage, once found, was sent onto Luzern so that it was awaiting our arrival. This is a delightful small cozy hotel on the East side of downtown Luzern, where breakfasts can be taken in the backyard lawn, weather permitting. It is a long but doable walk to anywhere in the city, and the hotel is adjacent to this S-bahn stop, as well as city bus stops, so it is a good location.
Part II to follow