Tag Archives: train

Notes on Switzerland

  • Switzerland has more graffiti than I’ve seen outside of the US. It completely contradicts my image of Switzerland as clean and orderly. In Zurich there’s a long wall where graffiti seems to be allowed, probably in an attempt to redirect some of that tagging impulse.

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But I guess it’s not enough for some people.

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  • My German sucks*. I can read most of the signs and order things in stores, but my vocabulary far exceeds my grammar knowledge. I know words like Fußbodenschleifmaschine, but I fall all over myself trying to say that I’d like to check out of my hotel room.
  • And Swiss German is another creature entirely. I’m not sure how much I’d understand even if my Hochdeutsch were fluent. I think it would be like learning English and then taking a trip to northern Scotland. Some of the words would be familiar, but… Swiss German has a lilt that makes it sound Scandinavian. And they’ll start words with ch, which I don’t think standard German ever does. (I saw one sign that spelled Kinder as Chinder.) The standard greeting is Grüezi, which is sometimes pronounced as one would expect, but is often pronounced Grüße. And they roll their R’s like Spaniards, especially in rural areas. I wish I had a recording of the way the train conductor in Lauterbrunnen pronounced Mürren. They also frequently use merci for thank you and ciao for goodbye.
  • I like currywurst better than döner kebabs.
  • Almost everyone in Switzerland speaks English. Most of them humored** me in my attempts to speak German, but English is always available when needed.
  • Zürich’s Hauptbahnhof is one of the most trainstationy stations I’ve seen. It’s big and cavernous and the trains come right into the middle of it. I’d say it’s second only to Gare du Nord in its trainstationiness.

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  • Tessalon*** does not seem to be OTC in Switzerland. In fact, you have to ask for ibuprofen, which is $11.00 for 20 tablets.

* No, autocorrect, I don’t mean “dicks.”
** No, not “humped.”
*** Not “Thessaloniki”! Just stop!

Google Fi

I don’t know what to make of Google Fi. It works great at home, seamlessly transitioning between LTE and Wi-Fi when necessary. The signal is clear. I’ve never had any dropped calls. In fact, it’s worked fine along the coastal northwest from Vancouver to Portland, as well as in the SF Bay Area.

But when I went to Singapore and Taiwan, it didn’t work at all, even though both places are supported.

On this trip, it found a signal right away when I landed in Amsterdam. In Nice, it picked up a signal and kept it the whole week, in both France and Italy. No problem except in Monaco, but Google Fi isn’t supported there anyway.

When I drove to Switzerland, it connected me in Geneva and mostly kept the connection until I got to about Gstaad, then lost it for good. When I crossed into Germany, it welcomed me to Germany, then immediately welcomed me to France (!). When I passed back into Switzerland, it welcomed me to Switzerland and connected me, and I stayed connected all the way back to the train station, even standing in the same spot where I had been unable to get a connection 30 minutes earlier. Then I walked down to the platform and lost the connection. I haven’t had it since.

I’ve tried rebooting the phone. I’ve tried turning airplane mode on and then off. I’ve tried turning cell data and roaming off and then on. I’ve tried selecting each of the three Swiss carriers individually. Nothing works.

Ah, but then the train passed into Liechtenstein. I immediately got a text message that had been queued up when I was back in Zurich. Google Fi welcomed me to Liechtenstein and told me I was offline.

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“Service outside the US” and “Calls to non-US numbers” are deselected. But the SMS worked, if only briefly.

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But then I got to Austria and everything worked again. Two hours in Austria with no problems, then back into Liechtenstein with a spotty connection, then into Switzerland and it all goes away again.

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I would like to have speaks with the Google people. I certainly hope they’ll be improving the service over time.

Excursion to Austria

Rolling along on the southwest side of Lake Zurich on my way through Liechtenstein to Feldkirch, Austria.

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Why Feldkirch? Well, it looked like a nice little town just over the border, and if I’m doing a run to Liechtenstein, I might as well go a little further to Austria. And it looked more interesting than Vaduz itself.

Although I was hoping we’d go through Vaduz. We seem to have bypassed it. Bummer. Rural Liechtenstein looks exactly like rural Switzerland.

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I arrived in Feldkirch at a quarter after ten and spent most of my time touring a 13th-century castle. There wasn’t much to the rest of the town, so I took the 11:48 train back rather than wait two more hours for the next train.

I think the people sitting next to me on the platform were gypsies. The daughter was speaking German, but I think the parents were speaking Romansch. But I’m mostly guessing. I’ve never heard Romansch spoken before.

The Huhn Tikka Masala in the restaurant car was quite good, and they were nice enough to give me a ten-cent discount on a double espresso so I could use up the last of my euros.

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Got back to the hotel about 1:30. Time for a short nap before I go chocolate shopping.

Zu Zürich

I didn’t go to Luzern. I hung around Bern until 11:00 to watch the clock. It didn’t really do all that much, but it is pretty interesting to see a working mechanism from 1530.

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Luzern would take several hours, and I didn’t want to get to Zürich that late, so I took the train directly to Zürich and got there by 1:00.

I arrived at the Hauptbahnhof and set off confidently in the wrong direction. I knew I needed to cross the river, but I didn’t know that there are two rivers. Fortunately, there was a Starbucks just on the other side of the Sihl, so I could map the hotel and see that I needed to cross the Limmat.

Of course, I should have been able to map it anywhere, not just at a Starbucks, but the flakiness of Google Fi will be the subject of another post.

The Hotel Arlette is small but nice, as advertised. After I checked in, I went back across the river and walked the length of Bahnhofstrasse, which for some reason makes me think of New York City in the 1920s.

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Then I walked randomly through nearby alleys and back across the Limmat to Niederdorf, which seems like Zürich’s equivalent of Paris’ Latin Quarter.

I spent most of the afternoon wandering around on both sides of the river.

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For dinner I got some currywurst at this place that has barrels for tables. I didn’t notice it at the time, but it seems to be part of the strip club next door.

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A little later I went up to Lindenhof and sat on the fourth-century Roman wall and took pictures of the city and river under the full moon. I couldn’t quite hold the camera still enough…

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Feel the Bern

I spent the entire day walking around Bern. Roughly ten miles. The sky was overcast and murpy, with occasional light rain, but nothing that someone from western Washington can’t handle. Some people were carrying umbrellas, but that’s just a sign of weakness.

Bern — at least the central area where I was — is one of the most attractive cities I’ve seen. The city dates to 1191, but most of it was rebuilt in 1405 after it…wait for it…Berned down.

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I went on the walking tour described in the Rick Steves guide book, with detours for anything that looked interesting, then wandered around on my own after that.

I was going to take a tour of the parliament building, but they were all booked for the day, so I picked up a free booklet about the Swiss government. They had it in all four official Swiss languages, plus a few others for visitors, so I got one in English and one in Romansch.

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I visited the Bern Cathedral and paid five francs to go up the 210-foot-high tower.

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Then I walked down Gerechtigkeitgasse to the river and across to the bear pit, where the bears don’t live anymore. Several years ago, it occurred to someone that it was really sort of cruel to keep bears in a pit, so they moved them to a larger park setting next to the river. You can ride a funicular to go down to them.

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In fact, these are not the same bears, since the earlier pit bears died. These are newer, younger bears. They have names, but I don’t remember what they are, so let’s just call them Todd and Thelma. Here’s Todd looking appropriately ursine:

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And Todd and Thelma together:

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So the Bärengraben is now a Bärenpark, but the Bären should not be confused with Beeren, even though Bären have been known to eat Beeren.

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Anyway, the bears were cool, but ten minutes or so is probably your maximum bear-viewing time, so I went back across the river and up to Albert Einstein’s house. It’s not his house now, of course, and it wasn’t really then, because he just rented, but he lived there from 1903-1905 while he was working in the patent office and formulating the special theory of relativity. You can walk through it. Afterwards I had lunch downstairs at the Einstein Cafe (“relatively the best”).

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Just down the street from the Einstein Cafe I found this place.

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You can’t not go into a place like that, so I did.

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It’s the storefront for Voodoo Rhythm Records, a local independent record label for both current bands and obscure bands from the past. It kind of reminded me of Rhino Records, though somewhat weirder.

And of course there’s the famous Zytglogge-Turm, the clock tower, which was built in 1530. I walked by it numerous times over the course of the day, but never while it was doing its elaborate chime presentation at four minutes before every hour.

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I need to check out and get over there so I can see it before I get on the train to Luzern.

Farewell to Jungfrau

I left Mürren at around 10:00, taking the BLM train to Grütschalp, the cable car to Lauterbrunnen, and another train to Interlaken Ost. I had planned to take a Golden Pass train to Luzern, have lunch on the river, then take a train to Bern, but that seemed like a lot of extra time just for lunch, and it was already noon by the time I got to Interlaken, so I took the train straight to Bern.

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But then halfway to Bern I thought, why not go to Basel? The train goes all the way to Hamburg, so I could ride into Germany, but my Swiss Rail Pass only takes me to the border. Still, I can get off, walk across the border and look around, then take the train back to Bern. I can’t check in until 3:00 anyway.

As it happens, the train station is several miles from the border, but there’s a central tram stop in front of the station with trams that go all over the city. Two of the stops had “Grenze” in the name, so I picked the one that didn’t sound French and got on that tram. I didn’t have a ticket, and I don’t think local trams are covered by Swiss Rail, but I thought I’d see what happened.

The tram actually went across the Grenze and into Germany.

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I got off, then realized that it was just going to turn around and go back, so I got back on again and rode back to the train station.

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No one ever asked to see my ticket, nor did I see any machine that accepted tickets. But there were machines that sold tickets next to the trams. Weird.

Then I took the train to Bern, where I have the tiniest hotel room I have ever seen. Even the Japanese business hotels were bigger than this.

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The hotel itself is all faded elegance, with an ancient cage elevator.

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Now I’m drinking a complimentary Schneider Weisse in the hotel restaurant and planning the next day.

Into Deepest Switzerland

Driving to Switzerland took a little over an hour. They didn’t even stop me at the border. Leaving the rental car return, I had to walk along the street for about a quarter mile and through a parking lot to get to the airport, then through the airport to get to the train station.

I was planning to get lunch in downtown Geneva, but the train I got on happened to be going to Montreux, which is the end of the Golden Pass line, so I went all the way to Montreux. I had time before the next train to Interlaken, so I walked along the lake. I didn’t see the Freddie Mercury statue, though.

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The Golden Pass Classic is a set of refurbished older trains from 1914 and 1964. I mistakenly got on one of the first class cars, a fact the conductor discovered after I’d already settled in and there was no more room in second class. But I could pay to upgrade to first class. This required him to work through some elaborate calculation that involved talking to himself in both French and German, then concluding that I owed 12 francs. Thus for about $12.25 I have entered the ranks of the elite. Who knew that status could come so cheaply?

The train went through Gstaad, which, based entirely on The Return of the Pink Panther, I had always thought of as a ski town high up in the mountains. That’s sort of true. It is a ski town, and it’s generally in the Alps, but it’s surrounded by farmland. As a town, it didn’t look especially noteworthy, although I didn’t actually get off the train to look at it.

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Interlaken is a nice-looking town in a beautiful setting, but my hotel reservation was waiting for me halfway up the mountain. From Interlaken Ost station, I took another train to Lauterbrunnen, a cable car to Grütschalp, and a narrow-gauge train along the edge of nothingness to Mürren.

There are goats in Mürren.

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I’m staying at the creaky and atmospheric Hotel Blumental. Manuel from Fawlty Towers carried my bag to my room. Really, I swear it’s him.

I had dinner at Stägerstübli, where the owner generously accommodated my attempts at German. Horse steaks are on the menu, but I went with the chicken mit pfeffersauce.

Ascent to Aiguille du Midi

I awoke to clouds. Not a good sign. I took a shower and got dressed. Still cloudy. I checked the weather report. Supposedly it was sunny and would be all morning. Hmm.

I got a croissant and some “expresso” (as the menu said) and walked over to the tourist information office, but it was Sunday and they were closed.

Well, okay. My original plan was to go to the top of Aiguille du Midi, then descend to Plan de l’Aiguille and hike to the Mer de Glace glacier, spend some time there and take the train down. Then I decided I didn’t want to do a 2.5-hour hike in my Nike Frees, so I would do the mountain and the glacier separately with a multipass. If the mountain was clouded over, I would just do the glacier.

I walked to the cable car station to find out if it was going to clear up and decide which ticket to buy. I asked the lady at the ticket counter if it was going to clear up. This was obviously a very stupid question as it was clearly sunny right now, as anyone could see by looking at the webcam. Oh. So I asked for a multipass so I could take the train to the glacier. But the glacier is closed, she said. It’s closed? Stupid question #2. It’s closed for the season, as everyone knows. Thus my options all converged on a single point, and I bought a ticket to the summit of Aiguille du Midi.

Which was spectacular. I didn’t see anyone doing ballet on the side of the mountain, but the view was amazing. 12,600 feet is the highest I’ve been on the ground. The best part of Aiguille du Midi is that you actually take an elevator to the summit. I think that mountains like Everest and Kilimanjaro would be much improved by such an approach.

There were views.

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And more views.

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And a clear platform that was smaller than I thought it would be.

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The view from the restroom was just as good, and I could stand in front of the heater.

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I met a Filipino couple and we exchanged picture-taking services. (That’s Mont Blanc behind me.)

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The last platform I visited was up a long flight of stairs. I took the stairs two at a time, like I usually do. This was a bad idea at 12,000 feet. I had to stop about two-thirds of the way up and gasp for a while. When I got to the top, there was…a display on hypoxia. Clearly someone’s idea of a joke.

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While I was recovering, I read about what happens to your body at high altitudes. There was a little gizmo that you could stick your finger in to determine your heart rate and blood oxygen level. I had a little smiley face next to mine, so all was well.

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On the way down in the cable car, the people next to me pointed out a donkey on the side of the mountain below. I wasn’t fast enough to get a photo, but I’m sure it was Al.

For the rest of the day I just walked around Chamonix talking pictures, buying shirts (nice ones), eating, etc. Dinner was tapas and Irish coffee at a British restaurant and bar overlooking the river Arve.

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Tomorrow: Geneva and beyond.

See also: Chamonix and Mont Blanc.

Butterflies and Condiment Confiscation

Singapore airport has a butterfly garden. No apparent reason; it’s just there. It’s a nice one, though. I would even go so far as to say that it’s the nicest airport-based butterfly garden that I have ever seen.

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But things took a dark turn when I went through security and they spotted the kaya spread that I had bought as a gift. It was larger than the allowable size, and thus had to be confiscated, presumably to eliminate the threat of explosives made from spreadable condiments.

I’m now in the Taipei airport with five hours to kill. I was going to take the train into the city and go to the night market, but that would require filling out an entry form and going through customs and passport control in both directions and then security again, and all of that sounds like much more trouble than it’s worth. I’d rather just sit here in the food court.

Clarke Quay

After dinner I went wandering along the River Walk toward Clarke Quay.

Clarke Quay is a more upscale and touristy area than Boat Quay, which is where I had dinner.

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There’s some bungy ride, but after four beers, I figured that was contraindicated.

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I got some coconut ice cream and wandered around for a while, then went back to the hotel.