2009 Do-Re-Mi Tour : Gallivanting thru Europe (Part 1/4: Switzerland)

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August 20th 2009
Published: August 4th 2018
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Prologue (Trip date July 2009 during peak US financial recession!)

4000 kilometers and 1000 pictures later, a little writing here and there during the long flight home and here we are …

The last eight months or so had been rough on me. The lay-off from my company UP that I so cherished after eleven long years with them was tough on my psyche. I had come to define myself as my work and the work that afforded me to be the mother I wanted to be … (some are born with great natural mothering instincts and some of us must work at it and I unfortunately belong to the latter half)

The subsequent dalliances as a consultant flitting from position to position and the ups and downs of it were some tough times. Plum in the middle of this turmoil our sky-miles had reached a point where we were eligible to avail them and so I planned a summer trip for the girls. While I did the research, plan an itinerary, make most reservations, my heart was kind of heavy. My job search was getting tricky as I did not want to travel for work ‘cos that was not me (I do deeply admire women who pull it off with such aplomb!). I did not want to have to drive too far to work either and with all these self-imposed restrictions and with the economy things were looking rather grim. I almost took up a job elsewhere with an hour and half drive each way! My Mum often quoted, “More things are wrought by prayer than the world dreams of” and I did pray every night for the right, perm offer to open. When a perm position with DTCC came along I certainly thanked the good Lord for being most kind and merciful. I really like my new job and long may that joy continue …

Before we knew it, the vacation was upon us. I had spent weekends shopping for the girls and tried to pack as optimally as possible. I am truly a lucky gal with a very hip and cool mother-in-law who always keeps my wardrobe fresh and hip with nice costume jewelry to go with my clothes. She even bought me darling belly-button stick-on tattoo’s and how cool is that? We had a hectic schedule of 5 countries in 2 weeks. I did end up dropping our visit to Holland as tulip season was over and was terribly afraid if I took hubby to Edam and Gouda cheese towns he would eat the people out of hearth and home (Moi is just trying to use him as an excuse, moi has a girth that is larger than any person’s hearth!). We had Switzerland, France, Germany and Austria in our plan. I had taken the girls when they were but toddlers to London once and later to Spain and they have but faint memories of their trip. Sheldon and I had visited Germany, France and Italy before the girls were born and had a great time, but I was looking forward to seeing it again through the eyes of my children …

To stick with the shift or to shift from the stick – that was the question ….

Our neighbors Ken and Carol had just gotten back from visiting their son in Germany. They had also visited Switzerland and brought back tons of brochures for us. Hubby(Sheldon) decided we’ll use Zurich as base and drive around and that would grant us flexibility. Got a great deal on Hotwire.com at Holiday Inn in Zurich for 2 rooms with a connecting door. While booking, I realized in Europe it was much harder to fit 2 adults and 2 kids in one room for a reasonable price.

We did get off to a shaky start with the rental car, a stick shift Skoda Octavia. I’ve never driven a stick shift before and did want to be able to take over should Sheldon need a break during the long drives. Men are men and he insisted a stick shift on the Auto-bans would be a thrill! Having driven years and years in India on a stick shift, he said he missed that. I wisely said give me an automatic any day! We set-off from the airport after we plugged in our hotel’s address into the GPS. The GPS was loaded with Europe maps but we were having great difficulty locating satellites so we decided to pull away from the airport and into an open field nearby waiting for the GPS to kick-in. After about 20 anxious minutes the GPS kicked in but the car refused to go into reverse gear. We pulled out the manual but they were in German and hubby's German did not extend that far! We called Europe Car rentals and to their credit they sent a man out in a jiffy just as I was in the middle of getting extremely huffy about listening to wifey-dear who knows best. Apparently in a Skoda you push down first before a reverse gear shift and that’s a lesson we won’t forget anytime soon … Also the Skoda was a bit rough initially with the gear shifts and made me motion sick and when I get nauseous, I am as pleasant as an irritated mongoose (to quote Sheldon’s exact words).

However that straightened itself out shortly thereafter and we were on our merry way.

Zurich - Did we ever hit the road running …

The hotel told us our rooms would not be ready until 3 P.M. We had a very rigorous schedule planned so we took off directly to see the Fraumunster church in downtown Zurich, jet-lag or not. Fraumunster was supposed to be characterized by an elegant blue spire and the famed Marc Chagall stained glass windows. We did spot several elegant blue spires along the way! The church had a certain harmony with its simplicity. However, the Chagall windows depicting the Ascension of the Prophet Elijah, the Zion window depicting the establishment of the new Jerusalem here on earth (after the apocalypse) were not as I imagined them to be. It took several moments to figure out which window represented which scene even with an elaborate guide book in front of us. Methinks the 80-year-old Chagall had lost his touch! Sheldon carried all of Rick Steve’s Europe books and referred to them throughout our journey faithfully. Over the summer holidays I had the girls read one chapter from the old testament and one from the new testament and I tried to point out the depictions from the Bible but after a few minutes they took off running up and down the aisles. In my prior visits to several European churches I found them to be awe-inspiring – sort of man’s vain yet valiant attempt to capture God’s magnificence.

Ken and Carol had prepared us for sticker shock over restaurant prices and after spending twice as much as we would for dinner in Tampa on a takeaway lunch in Zurich we decided we’d go with the most popular recommendation for most budget travelers - shop and eat from Migros/Co-op whenever possible. This is equivalent to our Publix/Krogers.

We checked into our hotel and then took off to see Rhein Falls. Rhein Falls was supposed to be Europe’s largest waterfall not in terms of its breadth but by the sheer volume of water. There was a long walk along a scaffolding down to the base and from there we boarded a boat. The boat took us for a closer look at the falls and the pretty rainbow that formed across the fall. The falls were set against a backdrop of the alpine mountains and was quite pretty, not as spectacular as the Niagara but pretty in a quaint kind of way.

We went to bed that night supremely content that we hit the road running on the day we landed. Zurich was quite warm and in general Europe hotel A/C’s seemed to be pre-programmed to go down only to a certain temp and so the rooms felt rather warm. We did leave the window a crack open and that helped a little. It was nice to have 2 rooms with connecting doors, so we did not feel cramped.

Lucerne (Mt. Titlis) : The great Swiss Alps and sparkling snow …

The next two days we spent on day trips to Lucerne.

First trip was to Mt Titlis – the mountain of eternal snow.

We took gondola rides and the 360 Titlis RotaAir to reach the spectacular mountain top. It was simply awesome indulging ourselves in winter sport during peak summer. We played in the snow and built little snow men. There was the Glacier grotto – sort of caves carved out of glaciers and lit with multitude of colorful lights. Quite the experience despite the chattering cold.

The girls decided to go winter tobogganing. Had to trek up a short slope to collect the toboggan and the girls took off at high speeds to get theirs. The instructor spun the girls round and round and sent them down the slopes. Once they reached the bottom , they were supposed to drag their toboggan’s, trek a little uphill and then get on a snow escalator back to the top. Lauren took off at high speeds but my poor Cassie lost her shoe once she reached the bottom and I could see her struggle to drag the toboggan up the incline. I saw her standing at the base for what seemed like an eternity crying and I felt helpless watching her from uphill. Sheldon had gone to collect more toboggan tubes in the meanwhile. Switzerland seems like a mecca for vacationers from India and we saw so many tour groups from India. A very kind Indian gentleman who had reached the bottom of the slope picked her up, tied their two toboggans together and started his arduous ascent back up. When they came back up on the snow escalator I thanked the kind gentleman most profusely and he said “I told her, ‘Uncle got you beti’ and I gave her a lemon drop as she was feeling a tad bit dizzy”. Cassandra asked me how come “Uncle” had never visited us before! I left Sheldon and Lauren on the slopes and took Cassie in to the gift shop to wrap her frozen feet in my warm wool shawl and to find some hot cocoa. Once warm she cheered up and wanted to venture back out again.

Lauren is my more adventurous one and even a tad bit reckless I’d say. She decided to go mini bob sledding and despite several spills kept at it until she could got down the incline . They enforced helmets so I was OK with it. Cassandra is my more cautious one and tried it once and when she fell off decided she’s had enough.

We then took an open chair lift ride to very top of Mt Titlis for very spectacular views of the glaciers and crevices up close and personal. Our prior vist to Mt. Whistler seemed tame compared to these views. I will rank this icy chair lift ride as one of the high points of my entire vacation, literally and figuratively speaking that is!

Lucerne (Mt. Pilatus): No sign of Pontius Pilate ….

Our day trip to Mt Pilatus Kulm was just as spectacular.

We took a very scenic boat ride to Alpnastaad along lake Luzerne.

From Alpnastaad we took the world’s steepest cog wheel railway ride to the peak of Mt Pilatus. This was a very interesting experience going uphill at such a sharp incline. The railway engineer who designed this Eduard Locher apparently faced ridicule when he first sketched out his grand design but it was quite the ride. Once on top we did a 20 minute trail on the side of the mountain. I kept looking over my shoulder for Pontius Pilate’s ghost to surface but he probably decided to wash his hands off in the cold Alpine stream and probably got lost along the way…

The children and Sheldon decided to try a slightly more challenging uphill trail and I decided to sit that one out. The thin alpine air made the out of shape me get a tad bit breathless … or just maybe I was filled with breathless wonder at the scenic splendour? I knew going into this trip I was quite out of shape but this underlined and brought it home significantly. Sheldon did have me biking with them the week leading up to the trip , telling me he anticipated my not being able to keep up with them.

Note : Year later I would find out I had become severely anemic with a blood hemoglobin level of 4.3! It took a whole year for my incompetent doctors to figure out my root chakra had been harboring a melon sized fibroid! In retrospect, I am so proud I pulled off this crazy adventure as a walking anemic-zombie.

I sat comfortably at the base station looking out at the interesting rock faces and lovely alpine splendor stretching out in endless beauty as my three nimble goats took on the more challenging trail to the very top.

When they got back we had a lovely lunch in the mountain restaurant and later caught the gondola ride to Fräkmüntegg.

The Gondola rides thru the Alps are a feast for the eyes and all other senses. The crisp mountain air, delicate Alpine flowers, bubbly brooks, sweet tinkle of the cow bells dotting the grassy meadows far below transport you to absolute tranquility.

Struts, JSF’s , singleton java design patterns seemed like a very distant memory.

Once at Fräkmüntegg, there awaited us Europe’s longest summer toboggan run. The adventurous run snaked down the mountain through dragon dens (tunnels), grassy meadows dotted with Swiss cows and their delightful bells and took you from 2000m to 200m. I huffed and puffed my way to the top of the run while the girls took off at high speeds to get in line for their toboggan run. We did not want Cassie to have a repeat of her winter toboggan run so Sheldon decided to take her on his. They loved it so much that they repeated their toboggan run twice. As they sped past the Alpine meadows, cows lined up curiously along the run and the girls waved to them cheerfully. Cassie was so fascinated with the cow bell she would have me buy one for her at Zermatt later in our trip. Both girls declared the summer and winter toboggan run would rank as one of the top high-lights of the trip for them.

As on prior days we stopped by the local co-op to pick up delightful Swiss cheese and Jambon sandwiches and fresh baked croissant for breakfast the next day. I did try Muesli for breakfast – it was alright! The Gruyere cheese was far more delightful and kept adding to my rapidly expanding girth.

Zermatt: Through the Gorgeous Furka Pass

Next morning we checked out and set-off toward Zermatt to climb the famed and treacherous MatterHorn. Who am I kidding? I find it difficult to go up a flight of stairs without getting breathless!

(Hindsight Note : I found out my hemoglobin levels were down at dangerously low levels of 4.3 and hence the sense of fatigue. The doctor called me a ‘miraculously functioning anemic’ . After much needed surgery a year later, I am now well and truly over it – thanks be to God).

Sheldon was thrilled negotiating the hairpin bends leading into the Furkha pass. We were glad it was offen (open). This drive remains to-date the most memorable of all our drives. We went from luscious Swiss country sides of very scenic sunflower (never got around to taking my walkin thru fields of gold picture – sigh!) and endless wheat fields, to dewy meadows dotted with pretty cows to snow clad mountain peaks. The Furkha pass does not remain offen very often (no pun intended!) as any fog or slick weather conditions can make it very treacherous. We stopped by several Alpine streams and collected little posies.

Zermatt: The Eco-Conscious City

Zermatt is a very environmentally conscious city, so they do not let you take cars into the city. Local mode of transport is electric cars or electric buses.

We parked at Tasch village and took an electric train to Zermatt station. From the station we hopped on to a quaint electric taxi to our hotel.

Zermatt is a touristy, vibrant Alpine city – very charming. The entire city was lined with quaint Swiss Chalet’s catering to the bustling tourist community and I felt blessed to get swept away in all that charm! Must warn though that some may find it a tad bit touristy and Disneyfied!

Hotel Bijou where we stayed was convenient situated right next to the Gondola station.

After freshening up, we took off on the local electric bus to explore the main town square. The town square whilst extremely touristy and commercial had a happening vibe to it. The girls decided to shop around for a St Bernhard dog (stuffed that is!) and Cassie insisted we look for a cow bell with the right tinkle to it! Sheldon pointed out that St. Bernhard dogs carry a flask of rum around their neck and thereafter the girls hastily proceeded to find a St Bernhard that carried warm water on its rescue mission instead!

Personally, I do have a burgeoning collection of shot glasses from around the world. Each time I visit a new place I get one to add to my collection to remind me of my visit. I started my collection about fifteen years ago and they hold a very special place in my kitchen. During my last home renovation project when my cabinet maker put in banquette seating, he put in a special lattice work shelf with spot lights in my kitchen for me to house my collection. It does bring me joy to serve dinner liqueurs in these shot glasses during Xmas parties at home. At times, friends make a wish, raising their shot glass that they would visit that place the following summer. Some places far more exotic than others but all hold special memories!

On this trip Cassie told me she wants to start her own collection of feathers and leaves from her visits. We did pick up quite a few goose, swan, duck, dove, raven and sparrow feathers on this trip! We are going to make a shadow box to house them. Lauren has started a joint pebble collection with her sister as well.

I digress – where was I? Ah, Zermatt.

After the shopping, Sheldon lectured me on my “sambharini ways” and when in Zermatt I should eat as the Zermattians do. I am easily prone to nausea and the one thing that seems to keep it in check is spice and rice!

Zermatt: Raclette and Rostii!

We headed off to Dupont restaurant which came highly recommended by Rick Steve for it’s ambience. We ordered up a storm of Swiss specialties – Raclette (gooey, melty cheese scraped off large mounds, akin to how an Gyro is scraped off), Rostii (potato shreds held together by melty cheese – tasted somewhat like our hash browns) and of course the fondue. I told Sheldon my poor liver cannot handle so much cheese in one sitting and if I were going to enjoy it, it had to be “kein Fleish” (without meat). For the fondue dips we had delectable morsels of all kinds of Swiss breads, baby potatoes etc.

Surprisingly the Swiss speak either German or French depending on whether the area borders Germany or France! My man eyed the children’s Bratwurst to dip in the fondue but I told him he’d clog up his arteries in just one sitting! The meal cost us an arm and a leg but at least that was the only meat we were dealing with! The girls who are usually major cheese lovers seemed more captivated by the spices added to the fondue pot and took turns stirring the pot.

On our way out we got swept up in the Swiss National day celebration and joined the parade waving our very own Swiss Chinese lanterns. We chose not to stay back for the complimentary food and wine – after all we were stuffed and also we wanted to be up bright and early for the ascent to the MatterHorn albeit we just had to park our behinds on a gondola to reach the summit of the Klein (little) horn J

The next morning the girls had literally 2 teaspoons of cereal and half a glass of milk and the hotel charged us $40 for their breakfast – just a reminder that one has to always be wary of tourist traps.

Zermatt: Klein Horn

We bought 2 sets of round trip tickets, one for Klein Horn and one for Swarzee paradise.

The trip to Klein Horn guaranteed the closest view of the actual Matterhorn, had a glacial palace and gentle snow covered slopes.

Swarzee paradise was supposed to have beautiful hiking trails and also give us spectacular views of the MatterHorn.

I was suitably impressed on hearing our President Teddy Roosevelt successfully climbed the Matterhorn. It seemed treacherous and many people have lost their lives attempting the climb.

We were just going to go up in the ski-lift to Klein Horn and feast our eyes on the spectacular views.

Zermatt: Docked at Trockner Stegg!

We set off in a Gondola to Furi station and thereafter boarded a fully covered glass and steel contraption for our ascent to Trockner Stegg. People were beginning to talk about it being extremely windy and deathly cold.

Trockner Stegg was a base station stop before the next steep ascent to Klein Horn where the glacial palace, ski slopes were along with the vantage point for the closest view of the Matterhorn. As we started our ascent we were surrounded in very thick fog, driving sleet and rain. At Trockner Stegg they told us we could not go any further, the conditions were too treacherous and we had to wait out the snow storm.

They shepherded us into a warm restaurant at the base station and told us there was a power failure at Klein Horn and that the blizzard had to pass. Collective sighs and groans went up from fellow passengers who had come lugging heavy ski equipment, fully prepared for a fun day of skiing. I got the girls some soup to keep their insides warm. We stepped out now and then to get a feel for what is would be like to be in the Arctic or Antarctic. The best way to describe it would be “icy, desolate and barren land”. The ski lift would not operate for the next 3 hours and we waited the snow storm out.

Zermatt: Tamil family at Trockner Stegg!

I noticed a Tamil family sitting close to our table and decided to chat them up.

Turns out the young chap worked in Chur, Switzerland and wanted to show his visiting parents a good time. He said he was getting increasingly concerned as his parents were feeling cold and miserable. He said they disliked the food. As we were chatting, he was coaxing them to try some of the minestrone soup calling it “rasam-like with veggies in it”, but they were not buying it L

Looking at the distressed look on the young man’s face, I told them that I totally understood how they felt and I longed for spicy Indian food myself to combat the bone chilling cold, but they were going to have to eat something to keep warm. They then proceeded to eat some soup and the young chap was immensely relieved. I missed my own parents and spoke to them in Tamil.

I told them how I had contracted Malaria the last time I’d gone to India and it turned out to be quite the ordeal to break recurring relapses. Ever since, my parents and in-laws had started visiting us in the US due to the fact I’d become such a basket case and had become extremely fearful of contracting it again. I told them my parents had originally planned on visiting us that summer but had to unfortunately cancel their plans. Appa had fallen and dislocated his shoulder. I told them Appa had a slightly tougher time adjusting to the US and Amma for most part felt right at home. Amma even managed on her own and drove the girls around when Sheldon and I had to fly back to India to get my Malaria treated! Amma can certainly live in any surroundings and views the world thru rose-tinted glasses, wish I had inherited that genetic strand!

The girls and I made a tic-tac-toe board with tissues and played to while away the time…

Zermatt: What is the Matter with the Horn?

I deviated down a different path – didn’t I? Anyways 3 hours later power was restored and amidst extremely windy and foggy conditions we began our ascent to Klein Matterhorn.

Once on the Klein Horn, we were greeted with the chilling news that the glacial palace was closed and due to blizzard condition the slopes were closed and we could not step out to the vantage point either. Fog had descended on the slopes and was thick as pea-soup.

What is the matter with the horn indeed?

Having paid $300 for the tickets we thought we should request a refund once we got back.

We went back to Furi and took a Gondola to Schwarzee paradise hoping that would live up to its name. We started down a trail amidst driving rain, extremely cold and windy conditions and ¼ mile later we saw no hikers, got frightened and decided to turn back.

Just as we reached Zermatt the weather miraculously cleared – too late for us – but we got to see spectacular views of the Matterhorn from down below and take plenty of pictures. They did refund us part of our ticket expense to Klein Horn, which was nice and fair.

Geneva: No chilling reception at Chateau De Chillon this time!

We had decided to stay in Annemasse, France and day trip it to Geneva and Montreaux and Luzanne (Lau-Zahn not to be confused with Lucerne!).

Early morning, we set off towards Jet D’Eau. It’s a large spout of water in the heart of Geneva, resulting from a hole which was dug to relieve water pressure in the city’s municipal water system. Later this was converted into a touristy platz with surrounding flea-markets and pretty gardens. The water jetted to almost 3 times the height of Statue of Liberty. The girls played with the swans on the quay/kwai and collected more feathers.

Next, we headed out to see Chateau De Chillon. We had to circle the limited parking lot for about 20 minutes before someone finally pulled out. We took audio guides and listened to very interesting commentary about the Geneve monk who was imprisoned for many years. Lord Byron even wrote his “Prisoner of Chillon” after his inspired visit to the Chateau. It was about 1000 years old and looked very dated. The girls said they liked our humble Chateau so much better … I loved the tour as this was going to be in perfect juxta-position to the cloying display of grandeur and splendour of the Versailles Palace.

I got the girls audio guides, but they gave it right back saying it wasn’t engaging! What was I thinking? The next few legs were probably going to be quite tedious for the girls. I quickly came up with a game plan, if they answered historical questions after each visit correctly they could buy a stuffed toy! Worked out well! As I am busily scribbling this on a napkin on our long flight back, Lauren looks over my notes and reminds me to make a special mention of one of their favourite legs - Sensapolis theme-park leg!

On day 1 the girls put up a fight regarding the picture taking, grimaced over every shot and muttered “no more pictures” instead of the cheesy “cheese” and had pained expressions in most shots. As a result, sadly you will see a lot more pictures of Moi and Moi’s jello arms, tummy and legs!

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