Saturday, August 1, 2009

A Letter I Wish I Could Send

Dear Heathrow:

Hi! I don't think you'll remember me, but I'm one of the many thousands of people who passed through on July 1 and again on July 31. I have brown hair, blue eyes, and was with my husband and two children. I was flying to and from Basel, Switzerland, if that helps. Well, I suppose it really doesn't matter.

I don't really know how to say this is a nice way, so I'm just going to come out with it. As an airport, you suck. I have been in a lot of different domestic and international airports during my 40+ years and you are the worst of them. Oh, I know you're clean and shiny, with lots of nice shops and restaurants, but dressing up in pretty clothes just doesn't hide your true nature. You suck. I'm sorry to be blunt, but there's just no denying it.

Here's the problem. Normal airports work this way: you pick up your boarding pass, either on line or at the counter, and it tells you the flight number, time the flight leaves and the gate where you will board the plane. It's a really simply process -- flight number, departure time, gate.

Ever since the World Trade Center bombing, I know you airports have had a lot of security. I'm not complaining about that, I think it's great and it makes me feel safe. But it has meant that instead of me arriving 30 minutes before a flight, it's become necessary for me to sometimes arrive as early as 2 hours before the flight. There's the line to check baggage, and then the security check, and then you usually want a little time to sit down and relax before the plan boards. Me, I like to relax in one of the chairs handily provided right in the gate where my flight will depart. Sometimes I even buy a cold drink and a magazine to read while I'm waiting.

Sadly, I can't really do that while waiting for my flight from you, Heathrow. Now don't give me that innocent look, you know the reason. Both times when I arrived at Heathrow, my boarding pass gave me the time of departure and the flight number, but no gate. Now, that wouldn't be a problem if your terminals were small with a central hub and a few gates around it, but you know quite well that in some terminals it can take 20 minutes to walk from the hub to the actual gate. And YET you don't actually let us know the gate number until about 20 minutes before boarding.

Do you do it for your own personal entertainment? Do you think it's funny to watch all the little travelers milling about the shopping mall in the center of the terminal like little confused ants until they suddenly have to make a made dash for their appointed departure gate? Are you just sitting back and laughing in your sleeve at us? It sure feels that way.

Other airports just don't do that, Heathrow. LAX is just as pretty as you are and probably just as busy, and definitely has gates just as far away, but it tells me my gate RIGHT AWAY. Even if I happen to get there 4 or 5 hours early for some reason, LAX tells me my gate. That means I can wander around looking at LAX's nice rotating art display, check out its stores and restaurants, and then head through security and stroll to my gate, all well before the plane is ready to board.

You should really change your ways, Heathrow. I've already decided to avoid you in the future if at all possible. I can only compare my time with you as time in some kind of nightmarish hell. I won't even go into your disappointing lack of air conditioning in some areas right now, although you know I could.

Check your attitude, Heathrow.

No longer a customer,


Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Thoughts About Switzerland

I took the kids to their favorite park today -- Kannenfeldpark. While they were playing, I worked on my sweater and thought about our trip. Here are the random things was thinking:

Things I'll Miss:

1. The beautiful scenery, especially the mountains and the gorgeous old buildings.

2. The excellent public transportation system.

3. Chocolate made with real milk.

4. Coop Hazelnut yogurt.

5. Fresh croissants every morning.

6. Opportunities to practice my German.

7. The huge selection of playgrounds and family-friendly destinations.

8. Kinder Eggs.

9. Maid service.

10. The way the air smells in the mountains.

Things I Will Not Miss:

1. The outrageously high cost of living.

2. The lack of air conditioning.

3. The dearth of ice, especially when one orders ICED tea. Seriously, who serves that without ice? The Swiss, that's who.

4. The $18 per load laundry.

5. Living in one room with 2 small children.

6. Altitude sickness.

7. Being without access to a car.

8. Lack of access to American television, or even English speaking television.

9. $50 meals at Mcdonalds.

10. Hard water.

Things That Remain Inexplicable to Me:

1. What the heck IS air freshening?

2. Why don't the Swiss use screens in their windows?

3. Why don't they serve ice in their drinks, especially "iced" drinks?

4. Why is Basel so extremely clean and well maintained, and yet tons of graffiti can be seen everywhere?

5. Why don't they have a better yarn selection here? Hell, it's the world's most popular ski destination and they have places with snow 365 days a year. Don't they need sweaters, hats and mittens?

6. Do they have a much greater water supply here than most countries? Because they always have sprinklers going, but are otherwise very earth friendly and conservationist here.

7. How do they get their children to be so quiet and well behaved in public?

8. What is in the strange green plastic bales we saw in the fields near Zermatt?

9. Why do so many people stop for a glass of beer at 10 am?

10. What was the red and black haired woman screaming at me on the tram that day?

Seriously, we did have a lot of fun here, mixed in with the bad and uncomfortable. Jack's favorite thing about Switzerland is: "Having ice cream when we get back." Lily's favorite thing about Switzerland is: "I don't know, maybe everything but walking." You can tell this trip and all of the gorgeous places we traveled have REALLY left an impression.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Zermatt and the Gorngergrat

As many of you know, this weekend was our big finale -- a two day trip to Zermatt and the Matterhorn. I've been looking forward to this trip the most, especially since we went to Mt. Pilatus and saw the gorgeous view. Also, we decided to book a hotel and stay overnight, so I was looking forward to that as well.

The weather on Saturday was sunny, cool and just all around gorgeous. We started out the trip as usual by taking the train to Visp, passing through Bern, Thun and Spieze, just as we did when we traveled to Interlaken and Grindewald. This time, we went through a long tunnel in the Alps and came out on the other side in Visp, and then headed from Visp up to Zermatt on the local train. Here are a couple of pictures of our first glimpses of the high alps.

We arrived in Zermatt at about 2pm, in time to have pizza for lunch ($52.00) and look around a bit. We stayed at the Hotel Schwiezerhof, which I can highly recommend to anyone traveling to Zermat. We were able to get a junior suite at about 1/3 of the cost through one of those discount travel sites (sorry, can't remember which one). It featured a double bed with down pillows and comforters and an adjoining sitting area with a couch, two chairs and a coffee table -- the couch turned into a double bed for the kid. The hotel has 5 (no, I'm not kidding) different restaurants, ranging from a casual cafe to fine dining. It also has an indoor pool, a tanning room, hot tubs and private saunas, as well as lots of spa treatments for guests who enjoy that kind of pampering. Our favorite part was the blacony, which gave us a gorgeous view of the garden and the mountains in the distance.

Our small sitting area:
Our bedroom:
Jim sitting out on the balcony:

A picture of the view rom my chair:

The town of Zermatt is very Swiss Mountain, with twisty side streets and lots of traditional buildings. There are no gas cars in Zermatt -- transportation in the downtown is available in horse drawn carriages or these funny, square electric taxis. The next series of pictures give you an idea of what the town is like:

The church:
One of the horses:
A view down the main drag:

We had a lot of fun checking out the area, and then we all went for a swim in the pool. Everyone enjoyed that a lot! We picked up some food from the grocery for dinner, and that's when the gastro-intestinal gurgling I'd been having all day turned bad. I ended up spending the evening, all night and part of the morning dealing with that. Fortunately, the apotheke opened around 9:30 am on Sunday, so Jim was able to pick me up a familiar medication (Immodium) and a strange Swiss medication prescribed by the pharmacist to straighten out the level of "flora" in my intestines. The combo worked -- by noon, I felt well enough to head out for our trip to the Gornergrat, a viewing summit across from the Matterhorn.

Lily wanted to wear ponytails that day, and Jack begged for one in his hair with a green rubber band. Jim told him his hair was too short and he was really upset, so I managed a small ponytail for him:
He totally thought he was the bomb! The Gornergrat Bahn was right next door to our hotel, and we were able to hop right on to the noon train. It was a twisty ride right up the side of the mountain with tons of switchbacks. At times, it was a sheer drop right from the side of the train tracks to the valley below. The views were incredible, though.

Here are the kids with their Gornergrat maps at the beginning of the ride. Because we had our Swiss Pass, we got to travel for half price -- the round trip was $76, and the kids rode free. It was well worth the extra cost.

This is a view from the side of the train down into one of the valleys:

The kids were impressed:

Eventually, we made it up to Gornergrat.
The elevation at the train station is 10,132 ft. I think I mentioned before that I've been having problems with altitude on this trip. Ever since my heart failure, I've noticed that really high plane flights cause my feet to swell and my chest to feel tight. I also noticed it here at Grindelwald and Pfingstegg, but attributed the chest issue to asthma. It was even worse at Mt. Pilatus. By that point, I had done a little internet research and learned that it was probably Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS). I know, never diagnose from the internet, but I was kind of worried that I was slipping back into heart failure, so I did a little researchbefore panicking.

Where was I? Oh yeah, I was a little worried about going to Gornergrat because of how bad I felt at Mt. Pilatus. I felt a little less concerned when we decided to make it an overnight trip because I knew I would have that time to acclimatize before going up to 10,000 feet, the highest altitude by a HUGE amount that we've done here. To give you an idea of what I'm talking about, here is a brief chart:

Melrose: 133 ft
Basel: 843 ft
Grindelwald: 3392 ft
Pfingstegg: 4567 ft
Zermatt: 5,276 ft
Mt. Pilatus Kulm: 6995 ft
Gornergrat: 10,269 ft (at its highest point)

My feet were a little swollen when we got to Zermatt, but I got adjusted fairly quickly and the swelling was gone by the time I went to bed. They blew up like balloons on the train to Gornergrat, but weirdly, I didn't have that tightness in my chest this time. It was harder to breathe if you were walking up the steep paths, but I felt no need to use my inhaler like the last two times. I did feel kind of light headed and spacey, but that might have been the aftereffects of being so sick the night before. Who know? I really do think that staying overnight before doing the high altitude (which was recommended for people who had signs of AMS) really made it better for me, though. The kids noticed nothing, but Jim admitted he was breathing pretty hard walking up even a small incline.

There is a huge stone viewing point, restaurant, hotel and observatory at Gornergrat:

As an aside, consistent with his usual difficulties pronouncing foreign (especially German) words, Jim continually referred to Gornergrat as either "Gorgomott" or "Gorgonaut" during most of our trip! I told him Gorgonaut sounded like the name of a Transformer toy or something. The name is actually pronounced exactly as it is spelled "Gor-ner-grat."

At the viewing point, they had these gorgeous St. Bernards with casks of whiskey on their necks available for photographs -- at 15 francs a shot. I tried to get a good picture of the dogs and thought I succeeded, but realized after I downloaded them that this is the best one I took. I'm telling you, the thin air made my thinking really wonky up least, that's my story and I'm sticking to it.

Because it was almost 1, we headed up to the self-serve buffet restaurant and ate at a table overlooking the Matterhorn. This is the view from our table:

It was windy and a little cool, but you warmed up quickly in the sun. We bought a plate of pommes frites and two hot dogs, some apple struedel and hot cocoa for the kids. Jack said "I love hot chocolate!"

Lily gave it a thumbs up review:

Here are a few shots of the Matterhorn with my zoom feature:

These are some snow covered peaks to the left of the Matterhorn. The view at the top was amazing because we were surrounded by snow capped Alps. I took almost 100 pictures that day!

The obligatory shot of the kids and me in front of the Matterhorn:

They have a small church next to the observatory:

It has a beautifully painted wooden ceiling, wooden pews and a lovely carved grouping behind the candles, which you can buy and light for a franc each. The kids were really impressed -- Jack especially. He pointed at all of the candles and said "Oh, look Mama, fire!"

Here is a view of another peak visible from Gornergrat:

And a view of Jm in front of the Matterhorn on a walkway over the train station.

A fourth view from the observatory:

We spent about 2 hours at the peak and then took the Gornergrat Bahn back to Zermatt. Here is a picture of the train pulling into the station with the Alps in the background:

I snapped some shots on the way down because we were on the "good" side of the train (we sat on the "bad" side on the way up). Here are some hikers. There are about 100 different hikes you can take from the Gornergrat, of all different experience levels. It seems like everyone in Switzerland hikes and carries special poles for hiking.

Another view from the train:

A closer view of the Matterhorn:

A parasail. Cute story: on the ride back down, Jack kept telling Jim he saw a "flying lamp." Jim finally figured out he was talking about the parasailers! They have several different places in the Alps where you can parasail.

Another view of the Matterhorn from a different angle.

A couple of views of the mountain towns we passed through on the way to Zermatt. Again, the Matterhorn in the background.

We left for Basel about an hour after we returned to Zermatt. We made sure to get a seat on the good side of the train so I could get some more pictures on the way home. Here's an unusual church we saw:

And a gorgeous bridge spanning a huge gorge:

The lake at Thun -- the water is an amazingly bright blue, even on gray days.

And, as a final shot, the kids playing Uno on the train. Jim bought them Uno Jr., and even Jack has been enjoying the game! He gets a little confused, but is generally able to pick the right cards to play and actually won a few times. Lily has a bandage on her hand because Jim let her try out the orange peeler on his Swiss Army Knife and she immediately cut herself on it.

We got home around 8:00 pm. I really loved this trip, and only wish I'd been able to walk around the town and explore with Jim and the kids instead of staying close to the bathroom in the hotel!

We will be returning to Massachusetts soon. I think both the kids and I are ready to be in our own house with our own beds and all of our dear friends around us. Switzerland is so beautiful, and I've loved seeing everything, but home is best!

Monday, July 20, 2009

Lucerne and Mt. Pilatus

We decided that for our second travel day this weekend, we would do a trip with fewer train transfers and something more kid-oriented. After researching our trusty embassy brochure, we decided to go to Lucerne and take a tour of Mt. Pilatus.

Because Lucerne is a direct, relatively short train ride from Basel, we were able to take the 10am train rather than an early train as we've done for our other trips. Although I hoped we'd have time to look around Lucerne a bit, the schedule required us to take a local train directly from the Lucerne station to Alpanstad, where we would then get on the "steepest cog rail" in the world to go to the top of Mt. Pilatus.

The weather here has been trying, and our last two train trips were a bit rainy and cold. We checked the weather for our Lucerne trip and saw that it promised to be sunny and cool, so we were really excited. As we left Basel, however, the weather was still gray and rainy.

By the time we reached Mt. Pilatus station, the sun was just starting to peek out of the clouds. Our Swiss Flexi Pass got us to the cog wheel train station for free, but to do the actual mountain tour, we had to pay 50% of the ticket cost -- about $60 US (the kids were free, as they are for most things in Switzerland). Since there were quite a few people in line ahead of us and the train runs regularly, we decided to grab lunch first and then go up the mountain.
We ate at the Cafe Chalet Restaurant across the street from the Pilatus station. Since it was still a bit cool outside, we ate inside the restaurant, which had plain pine walls and rustic tables. Jim ordered weinerschnitzel, I ordered macaroni and cheese with applesauce and the kids split a weiner and pommes frites platter -- it came with two weiners and plenty of fries, so they were thrilled.

I often joke with my friends that if I was limited to eating food of one color, I would pick white -- cheese, bread, pasta, cream, apples (the inside), potatoes -- anything that was white/off white in color suits me fine. The macaroni and cheese I ordered was the ultimate in all white meals! It was Emmentaler cheese over pasta and potato chunks, with applesauce in a side dish. I told Jim the next time he makes mac and cheese at home, I want him to do it the same way. Delicious!

After the meal, I took the antsy kids outside. They both picked seats on some stones in the garden next to the restaurant.

Then we headed over to the cog wheel train. It's built like a stair case -- each car of 8 people is a "step" up from the next car, so that even though the train is practically heading straight up the mountain, you are able to sit upright.

Once we started going, Jack was thrilled. From his seat, he could look straight up the train at the track ahead!
As we first left the station, this was our view:

After a few minutes, the sun really started to shine.

The ride up the mountain was something I'll never forget. The scenery was beautiful and there were places where the mountain just dropped away right next to the train. A couple of times, there were cows grazing so close to the tracks that I could have reached out the window and touched one. And...we had to travel through several tunnels in the mountain where the rock sides of the tunnel were close enough to touch. It was really unforgettable. Unfortunately, this is where I realized my camer battery was getting low, so I didn't take a lot of pictures.

At the top of Mt. Pilatus, there are two hotels. This is a view of the Pilatus Kulm Hotel. We stopped into their panoramic cafeteria for some hot drinks and dessert shortly after we arrived at the top.
Here are Jim and the kids at the top. We were up in the clouds and it was pretty cool with the wind up there. Below is a view from near the Hotel:

There are a number of hikes and walks that you can take from the hotel area. We chose to explore the "Gallery" which was a tunnel through the side of the mountain with various "windows" that opened up to see views of the opposite side of the mountain. This is the door to the Gallery.
Unfortunately, most of the cloud cover was on that side of the mountain -- here is a picture where you can see some lines from the mountain disappearing into the clouds. As we explored the cave, the clouds started to move over the mountain top and into the little cave with us.

Here is a picture of Jim and Jack inside the cave by one of the window views, with the clouds rolling in.

After spending some time at the top, and shopping at the little souvenir store, we took a large (30 person) cable car down to the next mountain level, where they had a ropes course set up and a Rodelbahn, or summer toboggan. Jim seems to be making the tour of Switzerland's Rodelbahns, because our sole purpose for stopping there was so he could take the kids on a couple of rides. As we headed down the other side of the mountain, the weather finally started to clear on that side.

This is Lake Lucerne from the first cable car stop.

This is a view of part of the city:

And this is an overhead view of a part of the Rodelbahn, which is apparently the longest in Switzerland.
Jim and kids bought tickets to the ride and I settled down at some tables near the start of the Rodelbahn. The sun finally came out to stay. Here is Jack in his Swiss Military cap (his souvenir choice).

I snapped another picture of the lake when the sky brightened up:

The kids (including Jim) really enjoyed the Rodelbahn. After they took their rides, we got into the smaller gondolas and headed to the next level, which featured a children's playground.

Here's Lily checking out the view:

The playground was absolutely amazing. It had a castle playhouse with all sorts of nets and ladders to climb, an underground "cave" complete with gnomes, a small brook to splash in, and a ton of other play equipment. Needless to say, the kids had a blast.

After they played for about and hour, we got on the small gondola again and descended to the bottom of the mountain. Here is the last shot I got on the camera before it died.

Jim got a number of great shots on his iPhone, too, so we'll have quite a collection for the family album. Once we arrived at the foot of the mountain, we took a quick 5 minute walk to a local bus station and went back to the train. We were home by 7:30. What a great trip!