Sunday, January 16, 2011

Part one winter break: Switzerland!

To begin, let me just say that this winter break takes the cake. It was by far the best one yet. Very appropriate considering it will probably be my last, unless I decide to go into teaching, which after four months here isn’t very probable. Liza came to Sevilla to kick things off. It was really wonderful having her here. She got to see my apartment and we spent a fair amount of time with my host family, which I also really enjoyed. So here’s part one of three of my winter break.

Day 1: Our adventure began on Tuesday, December 21, 2010. We were off to Geneva, Switzerland! Not without a few kinks beforehand, though. To avoid the ridiculously steep cab fare to the airport I often take the bus. The bus leaves from Santa Justa, the train station, which is conveniently about 10 minutes from my house. Usually, this walk isn’t a problem. Unfortunately, when Liza and I needed to leave it was pouring like I’ve never seen it before. My tiny little umbrella did nothing. My jeans were soaked up to my mid thigh, and my winter coat and every other layer I had on were sopping. Everything on my person looked like it was just removed from the washing machine—without having gone through the spin cycle. Luckily, the Sevilla airport has hand dryers. That being said, I spent the entire time we were there practically naked in front of the hand dryers trying to dry all of my clothes. Certainly a memory I will not forget…nor will the people walking into and by the open bathroom door. Woops! After one smooth flight, one delayed flight and a $16 5-minute rip off cab ride we made it to the hostel. Nothing like going to bed in wet PJs (thank you, rain.)

Day 2: We thought it was necessary to hit up the sights that made Switzerland famous, so we headed out to Gruyeres to see the cheese being made and to Broc to the chocolate factory. We got a little mixed up on the way there and got on the wrong train at our transfer stop and it put us back in the direction we’d come in. That put us an hour back so we missed the cheese demonstration we had planned on seeing and had to wait for the next one. Luckily, our extra time allowed us to explore the small town of Gruyeres. It was exactly what I had pictured a small Swiss town to look like—beautiful, snow covered and absolutely adorable. After our tour around the town, it was time to head back to the cheese factory. We dined in the adjacent restaurant and had our first sampling of fondue…yum! We also got three cheese samples, each one aged to a different amount. It’s amazing how much a couple of months can alter the taste. The cheese demonstration itself was rather boring. I’d like to think we just missed the highlights, but I’m not sure. There was an observation deck looking down on the big vats that were stirring the milk/cheese around. Nonetheless, it was interesting to learn more about the process.

I was so incredibly excited about our next stop. If you know me at all, you know that chocolate=life. Everyone raves about Swiss chocolate so I only assumed this place would be the place for me. It was the Cailler chocolate factory. It involved a strange, but semi interesting historical explanation on the history of chocolate, a description of how it’s made, a conveyer belt showing part of the production process and what I was most excited for…samples! Liza and I decided that we needed to try every sample they had. Bad idea. Horrible idea. First of all, the chocolate was disgusting. Why we continued to sample it, I truly have no idea. I suppose we hoped it would get better the more we ate. I started to take a bite and throw the rest away. I even spit out a few samples. That’s saying a lot for someone who lives for chocolate. Basically, this place was underwhelming and extremely disappointing. We didn’t even buy anything at the gift shop when we left! That bad. Also to leave a bad taste in my mouth was how sick I got. Needless to say, I won’t be sampling any more Cailler chocolate anytime soon.

Day 3: This was our only full day in Geneva. We walked around by the lake, headed to the cathedral and tried to find some famous clock (and failed.) We also trekked up to the International Red Cross museum, which I really enjoyed. One of their exhibits started with ancient texts projected onto several screens from various civilizations, all in different languages. Each text demonstrated the various civilizations’ interest in peace. I thought it was very moving. The rest of the museum was about the history of the Red Cross, interesting, but a little dry. Across the street is the United Nations headquarters. Sadly, they were closed for tours due to the holidays, but we still got to see all of the flags outside. I guess that just means I’ll have to go back one day for the tour. Later that night, we were off to Grindelwald for city number two. The train ride there was a bit of an adventure in itself. Towards the end of the first train to Bern it got really crowded. We were worried about having enough room to get our bags down and run off the train. Luckily, a very nice Swiss gentleman in the army helped us with our bags. With only a few minutes to spare, we had to run through the crowded station at rush hour to make our next train. Finding the hotel in Grindelwald wasn’t too much of a problem considering the town is one long block long.

Day 4: We woke up to snow, which was exciting, but it also made planning our day more challenging. We had planned on going up to the Jungfraujoch, the highest train station in Europe, but it was only recommended to go if there’s good weather because the bad weather hampers the amazing views. Not knowing what to do, we ventured into a ski shop to inquire about some lessons and gear. The gentleman that worked there could not have been nicer. He convinced us to go up to the Jungfraujoch despite the weather and we even put in an order for skis and a lesson for the next day.

The Jungfraujoch was still pretty amazing not being able to see the views. It’s on/part of a glacier, which they’ve turned into ice caves and sculptures. It was great getting lost in there and wandering around aimlessly. We climbed to the plateau and briefly went outside. It was absolutely freezing and the wind was unbearable. We didn’t last too long. It was Christmas Eve so we decided to go for a traditional Swiss dinner. I sampled alper macaroni. It’s macaroni and cheese with some ham mixed in and served with applesauce. Sounds like a bizarre combo, but it was delish! We went to bed early so we’d be well rested for our day of skiing!

Day 5: We woke up very early so we could catch a quick breakfast, put on all our layers for skiing, check out of the hotel and still catch the 8:47am train up the mountain. The train was actually delayed a few minutes, which is a rarity in Switzerland. We met our ski instructor on the train ride up. Ross was relatively new to Grindelwald and hailed from Manchester. Despite being a young guy, he’s taught ski lessons all around the world, most recently at an artificial indoor mountain in Dubai.

The last time I skied was in Steamboat, Colorado 12 years ago. Perhaps going straight to the Swiss Alps was a bit of a mistake. The skiing in Switzerland was much different than what I remember from home. The slopes aren’t tree lined, but rather lined with poles. One side has paint going farther down than the other so you’re supposed to remember which to stay to the left of and which to the right of. I couldn’t remember it for the life of me. The slopes were also noticeably narrower than the slopes at home, too. The level of runs is also different. It goes blue, red and then black in level of difficultly. Another difference is the sheer difficulty level. It’s prohibited by law to alter or bulldoze the runs, unlike the U.S. where they are tailored to the skiers needs.

We started on the bunny hill. After going down that once Ross thought I was ready for the real deal. Our first run was a relatively easy blue and then Ross took us up to a red run. Thank god all mighty it was snowing and visibility was terrible. If I had been able to see what we were going down I’m not sure I would have made it. Ross coached me through it and also lied about the difficulty level, only telling me afterward that that would be the hardest run we’d go on all day. Either way, it was a lot of fun. Since it was Christmas day the mountain was pretty empty. It was just us and a bunch of Asians. I sat out the last run so Liza and Ross could do a more difficult one. I met them in the tepee, which is a bar where the train stops. After saying goodbye to Ross, Liza and I each skied one run separately. I decided to take it easy with some more blues now that my coach was gone, but Liza was ready to take on the hard stuff. After lunch I did one more run and hung around for a little while Liza explored some more runs on her own. At that point in time I was ready to throw in the towel, but Liza convinced me to ski down the mountain. I am so glad she did. It was my favorite part of the day. It was small, empty, tree lined slopes and it was absolutely beautiful. Liza had her camera with her, so we stopped along the way to take plenty of photos. It was truly breathtaking.

After skiing we had to return our gear, grab our belongings from the hotel and book it to the train. We were off to Luzern!

Day 6: We ate breakfast in the hotel and were delighted to see Luzern by day upon stepping outside. It’s a beautiful little town. We walked to the transportation museum, which looked much closer on the map, and in the 20 degree weather seemed much farther to begin with. The museum was interesting, but not necessarily my cup of tea. They broke it up into sections: trains, planes, automobiles and boats. It was any engineers dream. They also had a section, which they called the Planetarium. We were expecting it to be similar to a planetarium at home, but it actually was just one of those large screens on the ceiling with the chairs in circles leaning back to look up at the screen. It was a movie about the history of the earth. The topic combined with the dark room and reclining chairs quickly put me to sleep.

After the transportation museum we “needed” to sample some more chocolate. I think I ate a year’s worth in the one week I was there. From our chocolate stop we walked across the famous wooden bridges. After resting at the hotel it was time for dinner. For our last dinner in Switzerland we wanted a traditional Swiss meal. The woman at the front desk recommended a restaurant called the Fondue House. It was delicious, but so expensive. We knew Switzerland was going to be expensive, but I wasn’t expecting it to be as bad as it was. The Swiss franc and the dollar are one and one, but everything is twice as expensive. For instance, if a coffee in the US costs $3, it would cost 6 Swiss francs, or $6, in Switzerland. It was out-of-this-world expensive.

Day 7: We quickly ate breakfast in the hotel and we were off to the train station to catch our train to Zurich where we spent the day and flew out of later that night. We checked our bags for the day at the train station so we wouldn’t need to lug them around. We walked around Zurich and saw the Marc Chagall stained glass windows. Across the street from that church is the main cathedral. We climbed up to the top to see the gorgeous views of the city.

Finding a place for lunch was beyond challenging. We turned to our guidebooks to try and find a tasty meal. The first place didn’t open until 6pm on Mondays. The second place was disgusting. The third place was closed for the holidays. The fourth place was a 40-minute walk, but we were determined to find a good place to eat. Ready to fall down dead, we discovered this place was also closed. I was ready to shoot both Let’s Go and Lonely Planet at this point. We ended up at this really strange Italian cafeteria/restaurant.

After our disgusting lunch we wanted to end the Switzerland part of our trip on a good note, so we ventured to another chocolate store. Above the store there was a bustling café. We couldn’t find a table, but two very nice Swiss German women offered to share theirs with us. This ended up being one of the highlights of the trip. We learned so much about Switzerland by talking to these women. They told us about some of the differences between French Switzerland and German Switzerland, most of which we were able to discern ourselves. We also talked about the education system and average salaries. No wonder everything is so expensive, average starting salary is over double what it is in the States. The women commented that their schools are struggling and looking for English teachers. Maybe I’ll just relocate there. ☺

After our delicious, but insanely expensive hot chocolates, we headed to the grocery store to pick up some last minute chocolate (surprise!) and then back to the train station to pick up our bags and hop on the train towards the airport. By this point in time our bags were bulging at the seams. A nice guy working at the luggage storage gave us a cart so we could run to the train. We only had about five minutes so we were literally running like mad women through the station, pushing this cart with an insane amount of luggage for two people to catch the train. With about a minute to spare, we jumped on. We got to the airport only to find out our flight to Dublin was delayed, but luckily it wasn’t cancelled. This was in the height of all of the weather problems.

Some side notes about Switzerland: Absolutely everyone speak English and at least one other language aside from their native tongue. It was incredible and very impressive after living in Spain where English isn’t widely spoken. Everyone was fluent in English, too. It’s not like they just knew a few words to get by. I could not believe it. The women we met in the café told us that most movies are in English and have subtitles. I thought this was very interesting, because in Spain all movies are dubbed instead of having subtitles. Also, The standard of living there is extremely high. I would say that 90% of cars were luxury cars. Lastly, the Swiss sure love their dogs. There were dogs everywhere. Even in stores and restaurants! All in all, Switzerland was absolutely amazing. I really enjoyed visiting there.

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