The Day We Stood Atop Mount Pilatus

If you have love for mountains, Switzerland is a must see(most obvious statement of the century). My first trip to the country was a single night spent in the city of Bern with a group of my then and still best friends. I’ll save the stories from that trip and just say that our current 3-night adventure has been completely different.

Rachel and Bob know of Brianna and I’s affinity for mountains and planned a trip for us all to visit Mount Pilatus via Alpnachstad. The Elemental mountain range is similar to the Rockies, I say from very limited  knowledge and experience with each. The mountains vault dramatically upwards from the lower valleys like daggers pointing up toward the sky. We’ve hiked a good amount of mountains in our lives, with many more to come, but the views from Pilatus are the best I’ve ever seen.  The Pilatus top opens into a landscape view of all the cities and lakes below, with white-capped mountain ranges in the backdrop.  

The easiest way to reach the top of the mount Pilatus was via the cogwheel train, advertised as the steepest cogwheel railway in the world. I thought our previous experience with the Colorado Springs to Pikes Peak Cog railway would have prepared us for the experience a lot more than it did. What really happened was that we got on this new-to-us cog railway and it blew our minds. The view from Pikes Peak is beautiful, no question, it’s just that the view from Pilatus Switzerland is better.  Meteorologically, air quality, geographically – all better.  Look at our Instagram pictures, it’s not even a fair fight between the two.

Today’s trip was special in that it was a journey Brianna and I were really excited to make but were making it in an unfamiliar way. Instead of a two person trip, we were joining the six Bob and Rachel clan members. 

Let me tell you that the definition of whether or not a trip was successful changes dramatically when there are four children involved.  When it’s just Brianna and I on a trip, we worry about seeing all of the views and pushing ourselves hard on the trails. When it’s the a full group of us eight, we consider it a successful trip if none of the boys fall off the mountain, or just as long as the baby doesn’t bust through another diaper and wreck the last outfit we have packed. At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter whether or not Brianna and I hiked the trail up or down Pilatus.  Life has many trails and only a few of them are made strictly of dirt and rock.

Pilatus is a tourist destination that I would not label as a trap. Once atop the mountain, we had a fine outdoor lunch and were able to look across the alps as we ate.  Getting off the mountain involved a series of cable rides down the opposite side of which we had come up.  Brianna and I were able to skip the second cable ride and hike the couple miles down to Fräkmüntegg on our own, reuniting with the family at a strategically placed and epic children’s playground that can be found at that stop.  I’m not anti child-safety, but the Europeans know how to do a proper playground, something not possible in the US because of reasons I’m not going to delve into here.

Much like Iceland, we are discovering all of Switzerland’s redeeming qualities.  You make a traveling list in your head of all the countries you’d like to visit in your life and think to yourself, “I’ll cross each country off as we go.” We’re finding it difficult to cross countries off as we go. If anything, we’re finding more reasons to come back to each place. Our annual visits to Gatlinburg, Tennessee are a perfect example of finding a place you love and continuously going back to it. We do a lot of the same activities each year but the experiences are always different. 

It’s important for us to make a lists of places we want to see and things we want to do.  We just have to accept that the list won’t ever get much shorter.  These are countries we are talking about after all.  How can you mark an entire country off the list when you’ve only visited a couple of cities and you loved them!? Silliness.

All-in-all, today’s adventure was a success. We didn’t get lost on any of the trains or buses and made it home with the same 8 people we left with.

The Day of Beinwil Am See Adventures

It’s adventure day in Switzerland!  That’s what we kept telling the kids, anyway. Bob and Griffin went into Lucern to pick up a Swiss train station clock souvenir while the other six of us had decided to take a break from the trains and stay near our AirBnB.  

The remaining six adventurers left the house with only the slightest idea where we might want to go and absolutely no idea how we might get there.  Brianna read that Lake Halwilersee, the huge lake that our AirBnB looks out on, has a walking/biking path that wraps all the way around it.  She also read that there was a moted sort of castle at the other end of the lake.  The only way we could have been further away from that castle would have been if six of us walked backwards out the front door and up the driveway.  So yeah, we wanted to get to the castle, I just didn’t think it would be possible.  No harm in trying, right?

Riddle number one of our journey was the basic logistical question of, “how do we get from the house down to the lake path?” It was a bit frustrating to see the walking path just a couple hundred yards out our back window yet be so far away from actually walking on it.  The AirBnB owner told us point blank that the Swiss do not take kindly to other people walking on their land and that walking through the field behind the house was not an option.  When asked how we should get down to the path, the answer we received was less than clear, “walk up the driveway and make a turn.  Head down the path to the lake.” Not helpful.  The only paths we saw were driveways and roads.

When all you have to go on is a set of completely useless directions, the only thing left to do is wing the shit out of it.  By our calculations, if we started walking down a road that pointed in the general direction of the lake, we might eventually get there?  What we were going to do once we arrived, other than walk, we had no idea.

30 minutes of wandering a right turn down some roads with no sidewalks, left down a cement trail through someone’s yard (it seemed more legit than walking through grass), and a few other turns, we eventually arrived at the lake.  It wasn’t the walking/biking trail that we were expecting, but there was a fancy restaurant, which felt like a win.  The baby wanted to eat, we wanted to eat, and our non-existent schedule to nowhere wasn’t pressing us into any kind of a hurry.

We sat at the fancy restaurant with our big family and made a fun mess of their beautiful table clothes.  I’m not even talking about the kids, I was probably the messiest of the bunch.  My brain doesn’t understand the functional need for both a butter knife and a steak knife.  I’m skilled enough to butter bread with the same knife I use to cut into meat.  Why not give us a third knife for cutting through the rolls? A butter knife isn’t sharp enough and a steak knife shreds it like a piece of meat, crumbs exploding everywhere.

My messy eating aside, the restaurant stop did allow us time to discover a ferry boat that appeared to be stopping at a nearby dock every 15 minutes or so.  A quick look at the boat map and we found ourselves believing that this moted castle idea might actually happen… and then it did!  Hallwyl Castle was pretty cool, just not cool enough for us to pay for admission.  In this case, as with so many others, it was about the adventure.

Tomorrow, we say, “see you in Germany” to Bob and Rachel.  Here we come, Brugge!  First train leaves at 0540 😮

The Morning We Left Switzerland

A few people have asked how it is that I’ve been able to do a post for every day of our trip so far and why I’ve been making the time to do so when there is so much to see and do.  I’m going to answer both of those questions with the same answers: planes, trains, and automobiles!  But mostly trains. If you’re not on a train in Europe, it’s probably easy to fantasize about how you would be looking out the window and taking in the beautiful visages from where ever.  This is not always the case, and if it was, 3-4 hours of starring outside a train window is actually pretty tiring.

To expand a bit more on the why I do the posts, I’ll say that it’s logically and creatively satisfying for me.  Logically in that these posts are really nothing more than a generalized email to everyone who cares about us and is curious. If it makes sense for me to write an email to one person a day, then each post is worth it’s weight in effort so long as a single person reads it.  Writing while on this trip is creatively satisfying in that it makes me comb through the memories of our day and decide what’s worth sharing and how I feel like sharing it.  I think that Brianna’s Intragram posts scratch a similar itch for her as well.

Today’s train schedule has been grueling.  We started at a Lenzburg train station @ 0515, where Rachel generously gave us a lift to so early in the morning. Lenzburg to Olten, Olten to Basel, then three hours on the same train from Basel to Köln. Köln to Brussels was delayed because of vandalism(we weren’t given any specifics), putting us 40 minutes behind and in search of a different last leg train, Brussels to Brugge. 

Finding a new train to Brugge wasn’t difficult but it played out in a way that really imbibes the traveling spirit.  We missed the 1:40pm train, noticed there was a 2:40pm train with exactly the same stops, and so we got on.  As we were boarding, I received a response from Bob, I had texted him what we should do if we miss our scheduled train.  Bob’s response advised us to go to the ticketing office and get a replacement.  It made me anxious to do so, but we got on the train anyway, and maybe I didn’t tell Brianna about Bob’s advice until much later, no sense in us both worrying.

Not long after taking our seats on the train, Brianna noticed we were in first class and asked if we should move.  Needless to say, this observation and question made me even more anxious.  We were at an impasse.  Should we move from the first class to the second class on a train I wasn’t even sure we had tickets for?  No.  Fuck it.  If we are going to get in trouble, we may as well get in trouble while riding in first class.  I relaxed and let fate take the wheel.

The first 45 minutes went by, no one had come to check our tickets.  On my way back from the bathroom, I noticed the attendant checking tickets in 2nd class and just minutes away from our train car.  Here we go.  I pulled up the ticket from my email, the overly confusing ticket that included all of our 10 hours worth of traveling stops, maybe it will overwhelm her.  She scanned the ticket, told us to have a nice day, and walked on.  The very next lady she scanned was kicked out of first class, so her scanner was working.  Not sure why it worked out for us, but such is the traveling way!

Switzerland final thoughts:

1.) Switzerland is expensive but still cheaper than Iceland.

2.) The mix of languages makes communicating a bit more difficult than in Germany.  Usually, Germans will speak to you in German first, then switch to another language.  One of the conversations I had in Switzerland started in French, bounced over to German, and finished in English – they were fluent all along.  Not sure if they were testing me but I’m sure it was amusing to witness my incorrect use of all the words.

3.) Great people & great mountains, would love to come back.

The Evening We Arrived in Belgium

Arriving into Belgium made a few things pretty clear to us. German trains have had more information and seemed to be a better maintained; true for international & intercity trains.  The Belgian train station we landed in, Brux-Noord, has a lot of platform construction going on and made us feel like we had landed in WWII. Brugge station saved our opinion of Belgium transport a bit, we’ll see what happens when we leave and give a final opinion then.

The AirBnB we booked for Bruges was only a 25 minute walk from the train station, that’s why we hired a taxi.  10 hours on a train and we were done messing around with hauling around luggage.  My backpack isn’t so bad in hauling things around, I packed 3 days worth of clothes, electronic charging gear and a bathroom bag. If you’ve seen our pictures, you’ve seen me in the same clothes over and over again. They’ve been laundered a time or two, don’t feel so bad for Brianna.  Brianna’s bag is a smaller roller style, handy, just less so on cobblestone.  A 7 Euro taxi fair and we arrived exactly where we needed to be, a stone’s throw away from the Bruges markets and city square. 

The AirBnB room was a cultural experience all it’s own.  First thing we noticed was all of the windows in the bathroom.  Any one taking a shower could look out into the bedroom, and yes, anyone in the bedroom could look into the shower room.  Same kind of window existed next to the toilet as well, but only for those of us who stand while we pee.  Aside from the bed being a little on the really fucking hard side, everything else in the room was perfect.  Coffee, tv, and a refrigerator were provided.  A DVD for watching the movie In Bruges was also provided, which would be how we’d start and end every day while in Bruges ourselves.

Have you ever had mussels and chips at a restaurant?  We hadn’t. If you haven’t, you should.  They bring you large pots overflowing with cooked mussels still in the shells. Unsure of what etiquette rules we may be breaking, we went wrist deep into the pots, forking out the mussels and shoveling them into our mouths.  I was eating so much so fast that I’m sad there wasn’t some mussels eating contest that I could have competed in; might not have gotten first, definitely wouldn’t have gotten last.

Leaving the restaurant was a bit of a struggle, not because we were full, it was because we ordered a flight of local beer that was larger and stronger than expected.  Brianna has been trying to document all of the beers we’ve tried as we travel.  Seems easy enough when you’re sober, I’ve no clue how she does it when we’re completely pissed (British for drunk).

A couple pubs later, we retired back to the AirBnB and tried to drink a couple more beers before passing out.  Points for effort though, right?

Our Day In Bruges

Success.  Today has been the best day since yesterday; something I’ve said pretty much every day of this trip.  It’s not possible to see all the Bruges sights in a day, but we did see everything on our short list. 

We started the day out with Belgian waffles in a Häagen-Dazs cafe, mine was topped with freshly amazing strawberries. After breakfast, we rented a couple of bikes and set off on an adventure around and out of town.  

Bruges is a bit hectic of a town.  There are people walking, bikes, cars, horse drawn carriages, and all on classically narrow European roads.  Riding bikes through old town is harrowing enough with the traffic, the cobblestone bumpiness makes it even more unpleasant on the butt.  Belgium does a really great job of providing bike paths outside and around the city, especially in new(er) town areas.  

Our bike ride on the path along the canal and into the city of Damme was bliss. Other than a few close encounters with motorcycles on the cycling path, there wasn’t much other traffic to speak of.  The bike path paralleled a branch off from the canal so that we were next to water and ducks on the left, and well kept farmland and cows on the right. Our majestic calm lasted the entire 8 kilometer ride. Damme was much more quiet and slower paced than Bruges, just what the doctor ordered.

Adrenalin made up for the fact that our legs weren’t in bike riding shape, a price we would pay in full after the rides were finished.  The rental bikes came with a wheel lock & key below the seats, making it very easy for us to find a parking spot for the bike and wander as we wished.  Damme had much for us to see: old wind mills, a classic church w/modern cemetery, and a nice little pub where we each had a beer and split some fish and chips.

Here’s a fun fact!  Some European countries frown upon two people ordering a single dish and splitting it.  Our waitress in Damme, for example, she did not approve.  All of the food was placed in front of Brianna as if I wasn’t going to eat any of it.  She practically barricaded it away from me with the salt and pepper shakers.  Funny thing is, I’m the one who ordered the food, not Brianna!  Much to their dismay, we did split the food.  We left a sorrow filled 5 euro tip to mend the fence.

366 steps to the Belfry top.  It’s a lot of steps to walk up if you’re not used to walking like we are.  Also, it’s a lot of fucking steps, even if you’re used to walking as much as we are. Our fortitude in navigating the narrow staircase and the overcrowded nature of said narrow staircase was rewarded with a stunning view of the city.  Worth it.  Hundreds of years worth of history speak to you through to walls as if they were recently born.  Appreciate how many people died

creating that magnificent structure.  Appreciate how many people lived to ensure the creation of that magnificent structure. Appreciate how many people died in the power struggles in and around all of these structures.  This is the power that properly old European cities intoxicate us with, history.  History has a lot to teach us.

Have you ever heard of the Basilica of the Holy Blood?  As a former Catholic, it was top of my list to see and Brianna was supportive.  The trick to seeing the Holy Blood is making sure you arrive at the right times, 10:30am-11am or 2pm-4pm.  

Brianna and I didn’t have to pay for entrance to the Basilica, as it’s a Catholic Church.  I did take the opportunity to pay 2 euro for a .50 cent donation candle to light and say a prayer on in front of the throne of the holy blood. As a non-religious person, I still find value to prayer and reflection. The difference is probably that I’m not praying to a God. If God does exist, it either doesn’t care what I might pray for, already knows what I’m going to pray for, or some combination of the two. 

Perhaps even more surprisingly than my own pseudo-religious experience was the one Brianna had. She made the comment that even though she knew nothing about any religions, the experience and atmosphere of the Church almost brought her to tears. She and I are often on or close to the same page, the emotional atmosphere was real.

The Holy Blood rests inside a display case on an alter. Just a few steps up the alter and you’re standing face-to-face with what appears to be a vial of blood and the priest praying behind it.  Such a powerful moment.  It’s not because the vial is the blood of Jesus Christ – I live in the age of the internet and have been trained to question EVERYTHING.  The moment is powerful because of the energy surrounding the sacred object.  A symbol only has the power which we grant it, be it a cross, a flag, or anything else. We visited the altar with the Holy Blood and stayed a while longer to admire the Basilica’s many pieces of stained glass, painted, and sculpted art.

A guided canal boat tour and some chocolate shopping capped the end of what was nothing short of a great day in Bruges. We even found a quick minute to try a flight of beers at the Flanders brewery. Tonight we watch the In Bruges movie until we pass out on the abnormally hard bed with disturbingly small pillows. 

To Amsterdam!

Amsterdam & Thank You

Traveling from Belgium to Amsterdam was a real treat. We rode first class from Brussels to Amsterdam on a high speed train. People from home were texting us to remark on how amazingly fast our dots were moving in the Find My Friends app.  The intention wasn’t to buy first class tickets, sometimes they just work out to be cheaper than the second class tickets.  In retrospect, this may be the reason we didn’t get yelled at in the story from my earlier post.

Also, I semi-takeback what I wrote about the Belgian train system.  They are our least favorite train system, but they are not as bad as the first impression in Brux-Noord led us to believe. 

It’s worth noting that every country handles train station security in their own way.  Most of the train stations we encountered didn’t seem to care who got on trains or if they had tickets.  Amsterdam was the first train station that forced Brianna and I to scan our tickets before exiting or entering the building.  Amsterdam also has a large number of police to help ensure drugs are not trafficked in or out of the city. Much has stayed the same but parts of the city have changed a lot since my last visit in 2005.  It’s still a largely dirty city, trash and pornography wise.  It’s just a bit cleaner, perhaps even more transparent.  They wear their seedy underbelly on their upperbelly and ask zero forgiveness for it.

Brianna and I’s Amsterdam shortlist of things to do was really short.  We arrived just after 3pm on Wednesday and had to catch a 0802 train back to Germany Thursday morning. Just enough time for food, the Anne Frank house tour, and some wandering.

Visiting the Anne Frank house was unquestionably worth our quick trip into Amsterdam.  Listening to everything that Anne and her family went through to try and stay alive is a twisted tale of human ingenuity & love meet fanatical devotion & hate.  

Being in the Anne Frank house brought me  back to my 2006 trip to Auschwitz, memories I had not thought much on in some time. Bringing together the macro scale of Auschwitz and the micro scale of Anne Frank’s story is deeply impactful. I hadn’t realized that Anne Frank & family were first sent to Auschwitz upon capture.

I’ve heard the stories before.  You’ve heard the stories before.  Having been there doesn’t help me understand or make sense of what happened any better than you can.  It does remind me how important it is to remember the past.  Appreciate what has happened, is happening, and how it will happen again. I think about what my family’s roles in the wars were back then and I think about what roles I’ve played and am playing now.

Thank you to everyone who has been reading our trip stories.  It’s been fun writing them and even more fun getting the random feedback and thoughts from those who have sent comments, love, and other messages our way.  We are safely back in Germany with our BFFs for the night and will start the long journey back to the US tomorrow morning.  Flight to Iceland, 7 hour layover, flight to Detroit.

We love you all <3 and will be seeing you real soon!!!