Wednesday, July 1, 2009

zermatt, switzerland

the fact that i have not seen nor heard any yodeling despitw nearly a week in switzerland is not that bothersome, actually, since the place is so beautiful that i can not fathom complaining about it.

complaining about me, well, that is another story. i so wish i was in good enough shape to take advantage of this place. everybody who isn't a senior citizen has calves of steel and hiking poker things of steel to match. hiking and mountain climbing are apparently the top reasons to come to the alps, so your gimpy-kneed correspondent cannot help but feel that i am missing out on alot. i shall return in a few years when my body is able to take part in the outdoor activities i see everyone enjoying so much here...

but as for zermatt, the matterhorn towers behind it, and it is, in a word, magnificent. like disneyland only three times taller. there's no trouble picking it out - even though it is surrounded by two dozen other 4000 meter peaks, the matterhorn stands alone because of its iconic shape. i took dozens of photos from dozens of angles as i made my way around town and up into the mountains during my three days in zermatt. hopefully one of them will be worthy of blowing up to poster size upon my return to riverside next week.

oh yeah - i will be home monday night, exactly one month earlier than planned. my kick butt mom was able to negotiate a refund for me on the london to india to thailand to los angeles tickets i had. considering they had been nonrefundable tickets, i am pretty impressed with her. so i will be flying into LAX from heathrow on monday night at 7:30. whoo hoo. then back to the gym after that in the month before i start teaching again...

back in zermatt...the town is compact, but rather inclined, at least for me. there are no cars allowed in town - drivers must park their vehicles in a huge lot a dozen miles back down the trainline and then take a train into zermatt. little electric taxi van dealies are omnipresent, though, and are constantly filled with people and their luggage either going to or coming from their hotels, or, people who don't feel like walking (like me).

i ate at a cool swiss restaurant - more sausages - after arriving at the hotel and then set out the next morning on a railroad that went from zermatt way up into the peaks of the alps. the gornergratbahn, or matterhorn railway, took about an hour to rise from the valley floor in which zermatt lay up to the top of the mountain, where there was snow everywhere, and it was hard <(for me) to breathe (at first) since it was 11,000 feet high. there were great panoramic views of glaciers and many of the dozens of 12,000+ foot peaks. i could see down into italy, and the matterhorn looked rightfully majestic.

i stayed up there for a few hours, walking around a little bit, but not nearly as much as the hikers who were either finishing or starting their climbs. a sign indicated that zermatt was four hours down the trail. wow. props to those people, and to the ones who were coming up. i could barely walk around at all and these people were hiking for hours on end across slippery, uneven terrain.

i took the train down, ate dinner, and read mark twain in my room until it was time for bed. the next day was basically a kick back day. i had scheduled it that way, with multiple days in zermatt, in case the weather had prevented me from seeing the matterhorn during a one-day stay.

yesterday was a full day of train traveling, with four trains and three transfers, as i went from zermatt to lauterbrunnen, which i will tell you about later as i am about out of time.


Tuesday, June 30, 2009

glacier express

i was psyched for the glacier exprss from the moment i saw it online, and the wikipedia entry did nothing to douse my desire for this epic railway journey. it was expensive, true, but worth every franc.

we left davos on a drizzly morning. i was in the sixth and final car of the panoramic view train. this meant the windows went up over our heads to allow all passengers views of the mountains that rose majestically on all sides not long after we left davos. the alps got bigger and bigger the farther west we headed. we traversed narrow valleys, nearly always running alongside a stream or raging river of some sort. tunnels galore, plenty of switchbacks, where the train would head up at an angle, then switch onto another track, and go backwards up that track, then another switch, and foreward again as we zippered our way up the mountain.

we did this over and over again. in some places, though, we just went through tunnels. these tunnels seemed like the beginnings of wooden roller coasters, though. you know when you roll out from the station and you are going through the dark and you can feel the coaster train swerving left and right, dropping up and down, etc.? that is what some of the tunnels were like. i have never been in railway tunnels that were more inclined than a degree or two, but we were doing some serious climbing and dropping there on the glacier express.

such climbing and dropping necessitated cogwheels some of the time. this is where there is a special cogged grooved thingy in between the rails for the train to grab onto when friction alone is not enough to propel the train up or down an incline. we were going up and down crazy inclines as we went through and over the swiss alps. it looked and sounded like casey jr.s wild ride from disneyland...i could hear the train saying "i think i can i think i can i think i can" (in german, though) as we negotiated the challenges.

it was foggy and raining, as usual, through most of the nine hours aboard the glacier express, but that fog and rain actually lent a surreal quality to the best part of the trip: our journez over the oberalpenpass, the highest point on the journey. the train has climbed to over a mile high at this juncture, and we found ourselves in the clouds, with cows and goats in the pastures alongside, and then, out of the fog, appeared a large lake. we were well above the treeline and high enough where about twothirds of the ground was covered with patches of snow. the snow and the lake reflected off each other as far as the eye could see as we made our way along the lakeshore. they matched so perfectly that i could not tell where one ended and the other began.

far away the lake appeared to spread out and drop off the edge of the world. i figured it was because of a dam, and i was right. we made it to the dam eventually and then started our downward descent towards zermatt, hometown of the matterhorn.

zermatt is only 1500 feet high, so getting down that low again necessitated another bunch of tight turns, crazy cutbacks, and cogwheel assistance. the craziest part came when we were on a cliff, a hundred meters above a town below, and i could see where there was a train track coming straight out of hte mountain on a long bridge. i had a feeling that we would soon be on that track, even though we were circling way above it, and i was right. we turned into the mountain and into a tunnel that took us 270 degrees, always turning right, and downward, and to the right, and downward, for five minutes until we came out into the daylight on the bridge i had seen minutes before from so high above.

by the way, the most famous scene of the glacier express, wherein the tracks come straight out of a mountain - in the middle of a cliff - and head across a mighty viaduct with legs stretching hundreds of feet down into the forest far below, was anticlimactic because the bridge was under repair so we had to go across it reallz slowly, and the entire contraption was draped in red tarps and surrounded by tons of scaffolding. oh well.

eventually we made it to zermatt, one of the places i had wanted to see more than anywhere else on my trip. i caught a quick glimpse of the matterhorn in the late afternoon sunlight - the stormy clouds were not present in zermatt, thankfully - on my way to my hotel.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

innsbruck to davos, switzerland

i was quite serious when i said that some of the best vacationing bits for me involve taking trains from place to place. in retrospect, i think trains (and unfortunate injuries) are two of the major themes of my travels.

this time around, i have pre-injured myself, somewhat, as many of you know, just be quite honestly being so out of shape. i have been hitting it pretty hard at the gym the past six months and feel less winded walking around the last ten days or so, but the grinding knee joints and swollen feet are minimizing any happiness i can feel about my increased cardiovascular endurance. as my mom and i have discussed, it is always something when one is overweight, and that is why i am counting down the time until i get the surgery next year - and also looking forward to getting back home so i can resume swimming alot at the gym, as that seemed to be doing me some good.

but enough of this negativity...i am going to tell you about the kick-ass, tri-country, four-transfer train trip i took yesterday. i got up early enough at the hotel in innsbruck to eat a hearty breakfast, which honestly does me quite well as far as keeping going on the rest of the day. if i do not eat breakfast, i feel lethargic, so it was good to load up on eggs and bacon and strudel and more strudel. and fruit, too.

the first train headed west from innsbruck at 9:30 a.m. we entered a tunnel near the bottom of the olympic ski-jumping hill, and i could see that some wise guy had put a cemetery right by there. i wondered if the ski jumpers could see that during their aerial flights, and, if so, what thez thought of it.

the flatness of eastern austria gave way gradually to rolling hills, a kind of alps-lite if you will. as i discussed michael jackson`s life and times with people on the train, the mountains grew larger and the background got greener. we sped through lush valleys, carpeted up to the treeline, with nice little houses out in the pastures, with animals grazing, and sheds up on the hills, which reminded me of the cheese-carrying obstacle on the most recent season of "the amazing race."

over vidaucts and through tunnels we went, and i saw numerous waterfalls cascading down from the mountain heights, which were obscured by clouds since, as usual, it was either raining or on the verge of raining all day.

the first train switch came in feldkirk (sp.), a town that bordered liechtenstein, one of the world`s smallest nations. i hauled my stuff from train platform to train platform, down a flight of stairs, up the stairs for the other platform, and made it just as the train was leaving.

liechtenstein has not been in a war since 1860, when 80 soldiers went off and 81 came back, because they made friends with an italian guy who defected. liechtenstein produces a good share of the world`s denture supplies. liechtenstein is ten miles tall by three miles wide. this pretty much concludes the knowledge about liechtenstein that i was able to glean from the lonely planet central european guide. i opted against getting out to eat lunch in the capital, vaduz, as it didn`t seem that exciting, and i did not know how long it would take me to get to davos.

after exiting liechtenstein, we entered switzerland, where i switched trains again in a town called buchs. made a perfect connect this time - only had to run across the platform to the waiting other train. thirty minutes later, in sarlans, i had to change trains again, and this time i had to wait like an hour and a half. i was able to exchange euros for swiss franks in the station and had a quick bite to eat in the hauptbohofbuffet, or restaurant attached to the station.

there was one other stop in some other little swiss town, and then finally, at 6 p.m., i was in davos. i got off the train at davos platz, the city`s main train station. unfortunately, the hotel i had arranged was back by davos dorf, the station before, on the outskirts of the town, so i had to take a long taxi ride. the taxi meters seem to start off at 8 chf (about 8 bucks) in switzerland, and it cost me 20 chf to get out to the hotel, where they had no record of my reservation. i, stupidly, did not have a printout. i booked a room online (for 84 chf) on the computer in the lobby, which saved me a bit compared to the 99 chf they wanted to charge me.

let me tell you about the solaria frederichsnaussem davos (sp.). do not ever go there. it was a resort, but really it was like a bunch of apartment buildings. mine was on the fourth floor, no elevator, which really pissed me off, but not as much as having to walk about 15 minutes, dragging all my crap with me, to get to the building i would be staying in. it was misting the whole time, too, and my legs were killing me.

i had asked the girl at the front of there was any food available anywhere, but she said the restaurants nearby were closed. she handed me a pizza coupon (this is before i had trudged out to where i was staying, obviously) and told me i could order a pizza for delivery. the thought of that pizza was what was keeping me going while i walked to my building, so you can imagine my despair when i realized i would not be able to get a pizza as i had no phone, and neither did the room (i had asked earlier for an 8 a.m. wake up call and she had told me there were no phones). so i was pissed.

stomach grumbling, i lugged my stuff up to my room, where at least there was a bag of gummy bears on the pillow. that was my dinner last night. maybe it was the hunger that kept me from sleeping well, or maybe it was the crappy ass beds...i had a double in the room, but it was really just two singles pushed together, and they were on rollers, so every time i moved or tried to turn over during the night, i almost fell off the gaping hole that had sprung up between the two beds.

i used my inner alarm clock to wake up at 5 a.m., 6 a.m., 645 a.m., and finally up for good at 7. i could not afford to be late as my train, the glacier express, the only one of the day, would be leaving at 930, and if i missed it i would be screwed.

i was out of the room at straight up 8 a.m., and to my surprise there was a bag of breakfast goodies in front of my door: bread, jellies, juice, milk, coffee...all in a nice paper bag that got all mushy as i dragged all my stuff back down to the front office to check out. oh well, at least it was slightly downhill headed back to the office...i called a cab, paid another 20 bucks to get back to the station, and devoured my little breakfast goodies as i waited for the train to arrive.

across the street from me, i could see all sorts of hotels that i had seen online, advertising rooms for around 120 to 140 bucks. i wished i had taken one of those rooms off the bat. i would have saved on taxi fare, inconveniences, and i could have been enjoying the included-in-the-price buffet breakfast, like all the people i could see inside the hotel`s big front windows. when you add in the taxi fares, it would have been cheaper for me to take one of those more expensive hotels across the street from the station. but que sera sera. i survived.

and what i saw today on the glacier express train, 190 kilometers from davos to zermatt, across 200 bridges and through 91 tunnels, was worth all the trouble. but i am running out of time on the ol internet here, so i will have to write about that part of the trip probably tomorrow. but rest assured - the glacier express was spectacular like nothing i have ever seen before...

Thursday, June 25, 2009

innsbruck, austria

first thing, it has not stopped raining pretty much since i landed in europe last week. from talking to volks, as they call folks here in german speaking lands, it has been an unusual summer thusfar. unusual or not, i have found myself wishing i had brought more heavy clothing.

tuesday, after the depeche mode concert, i travelled by train all day (which honestly is about my favorite part of vacationing) to get to innsbruck. i skipped walking around vienna because of the rain and arrived in innsbruck a day early. my hotel had a shower that was literally two by two, enclosed in glass, as if oompa loompas showered there alot. i changed hotels after the first night and even sweet talked the nice lady at the first hotel into refunding my prepaid money for the second night. now i am at a hotel that is a bit swanker, with a three by three shower that suited me fine.

traveling will be so much easier when i am thinner. this is the last trip, bythe way, that i will take until i lose some serious poundage. honestly, it is getting to be too much, and the way my knees and ankles are barking is taking a lot of the fun out of this. i am kind of grateful to have the near constant rain as an excuse for taking it easy.

related = i am trying to cancel my tickets for india. if possible, i will fly from england to thailand in early july, and then back to los angeles in the middle of the month. just the walking around, the stairs, the cobblestones, etc., etc., has been, as i said, taking the fun out of it somewhat for me, and i can honestly say, upon reflection, that this is not the time, physicallĂ˝, for me to go to india for three weeks.

if i cannot get those tickets, i will just come home from london on july 6th and use the credit from the cancelled tickets to go to bangkok or tokyo over christmas break, after six more months of working out hard at the gym back in scenic riverside.

not that i am hating it here...far from it...i walked around innsbruck some last night and ate dinner at an austrian weinerhaus that had great sausages. this morning there was this odd yellow ball in the sky and i could see shadows when i looked outside, so i took my sunglasses from their case for the first time on this trip and set out to see something in innsbruck.

the olympic ski jumping thing, that long tall thing people go down before launching themselves hundreds of yards through the air, is near my hotel, and the lonelz planet book said they often have practice at it yearround, so i took a taxi over there, but there was nothing going on.

i contemplated taking a few trains out of the city to an idyllic bavarian alpine town a few hours from here, but that seemed like too much potential walking (lame, eh?) so i nixed that idea and instead went to the aerial tramway.

nordpark has three stages to get up the tall mountains on the north side of the valley in which innsbruck lays. the first part was a furnicular on a track. what was cool was that the cars were swinging from supports on the vehicle, so as we made our way up the mountain, at various degrees, we always stayed upright. it was the sam principle employed at the st. louis arch if you have ever been there.

the second stage took us from 800 meters to 2000 meters, over craggy rocks and hiking trails filled with healthy, rosy cheeked alpine hikers. there appear to be lots of those. everyone seems to have strong calves and pointed hiking sticks. someday, a few hundred pounds down the road, perhaps i shall return and join them on the trails. for now, i cruised overhead en route to the second station.

at 2000 meters, the clouds obscured the view about half the time. i could look down upon the dizzying trek we had just taken up the mountain, sometimes. other times my view was obscured by clouds, some filled with rain, others cotton candy white.

the third stage, another 500 meters up, was almost completely obscured by clouds. i walked out to the observation deck, glad i had a sweater, wishing i had another, and heard the bleating of goats and the ringing of collar bells. when the clouds cleared a bit, i saw a herd of goats clinging to the side of the mountain, making their way, single file, along a narrow trail. i waited and waited for the chance for a good picture, but never got one before they disappeared out of range.

there was snow all over the ground and i was getting cold, so i did not stay long atop the mountain. i took the two cable cars down the third and second stages and then stopped for lunch at the second stage in a town called hungerbarger or something, where i ate the best meal i have had thusfar in europe. it was potatoes and vegetables and strips of stake all mashed together in a frying pan with two eggs sunny side up atop it. it was flavorful, filling, and best of all, warm. almost as warm was the smile and personality of the blonde waitress, who talked with me for quite awhile. she will be in my video, saying "welcome to innsbruck, austria," even though she took great pride in being from germany.

my meal done, my flirting going nowhere, and my legs ready to be stretched out on the bed, i took the furnicular back to innsbruck, caught a taxi back to the hotel, and spent the late afternoon and early evening reading john irvings "the fourth hand," which i started on the train over here from bratislava a few days ago and will probably finish tomorrow when i travel to davos, switzerland, from where i will catch the Glacier Express in a few days...

peace...thanks for reading...

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

bratislava, slovakia

slept until 3 p.m. the first day in slovakia...the end of the jetlag that i had not been able to give in to the previous day as i had traveled across germany, austria, and slovakia...the sleep was great, but then i got up and took a taxi to bratislava`s old town center, where there were no cars allowed and people wandered the streets, checking out the baroque architecture.

sitting in restaurants and cafes, watching the people go by, is a favorite hobby of mine, and i enjoyed myself quite a bit that afternoon. also, ate some delicious slovak style dumplings. the perfect afternoon gave way to a lovely evening as i sat on a fountain in the old town square and watched and listened to an orchestra performing classical music.

the next day, monday, i was going to go walk around more, but it was pouring when i woke up at noon, so i just kicked it indoors until it was time to leave for Slovakia Inter Stadia to see depeche mode! it was raining on the way over, drizzling as i stood in line outside the stadium, and finally stopped during one of the two opening bands. i hoped it would be dry for the rest of the evening, but it was not to be.

depeche mode came on at about 2030. the sun may have been down for all i know, but i could not tell owing to the serious cloud cover. the show itself was great: songs from the new album played well, with some taking on life that had been missing on the album versions. the chestnuts whipped the crowd into a tizzy: i had always heard that eastern europeans were goo goo for depeche mode, and i found it to be true, thanks to the volume and conviction with which everyone sang along.

everyone was reallz into it. of course, they could be, as they could afford to be. you see, the rains had returned with a vengeance and i found myself, covered in a sweat shirt and a baseball cap, feeling more and more miserable as each song went on. enjoy the silence and never let me down again brought me no joy as i sat there, head down, rain pelting me. i started getting really cold during the first encore, so i heard, but did not see, the band plazing strangelove and master and servant. i was out in the parking lot, hailing a cab, as the grand finale of personal jesus and waiting for the night capped the evening for 20,000 ecstatic slovakians.

i waded through the flooded parking lot to the taxi lineup, shoes and socks filled with water, and hurried back to the hotel. i could not remember the last time i had been so cold. the concert was great, as is alwazs the case with depeche mode, but the elements, to me, were brutal...

dusseldorf to bratislava

okay, catching up...uneventful flight from LAX to dusseldorf. i had forgotten from my previous flights on berlin air that germans applaud politely once the plane touches down on the tarmac. i have never noticed this anywhere else...anybody got any other nationalities that do this?

landed in dusseldorf, where i spent a day a few years ago at the start of the round the world with annette and amanda trip in 2007. this time i concentrated on getting out of dusseldorf. after eating a delicious sausage in the airport, i set out on a train towards Koln. Or, i thought i was headed towards Koln. turns out i got on a train going the wrong direction and did not figure it out for a few stops. then i got to witness the thrill and splendor of a sleepzy german suburb somewhere northwest of dusseldorf. i fought jetlag as i waited for a train back to the airport to try it all over again. made it back, got on the right train, and made my way an hour to Koln.

my hotel that i had prebooked there in Koln just was not going to work. i saw the proprieteress sizing me up as i walked through the lobby, and i realized the awful truth after looking into the itsy bitsy teeny weeny bathroom...we mutually cancelled my reservation and i went to a more modern place that i had passed while dragging mz luggage from the train station half an hour earlier, through the biting cold wind.

uneventful night at the new hotel, but a delicious breakfast that morning (ham, sausage, strudel, yogurt, fruit, all sorts of good stuff) before i set off for the station for some serious train riding. i validated my eurail pass at the Koln habtauphonof (station) and hurried through the terminal to track 7, where a train that would take me directly to vienna would be leaving in five minutes at 0945.

note some of the keys are in different places on these austrian keyboards, particularly y and z, so bear with me...

rode all day on the train, out of the industrial rhineland area of germany, where the manufacturing facilies of bonn, frankfurt, dusseldorf, and koln dominated the landscape. the industries gave wazy to a scenic two hour stretch of railroading wherein we were clinging to the edge of the rhine river below us, through rolling hills and semi tall mountains. that gave way to more rolling hill country as we entered bavaria, and then we hitched ourselves alongside the danube river as the train made its way to vienna.

it would have been nice to see some of vienna, but it was 7 p.m. by the time i got there, and bratislava, slovakia, where i had reseved a hotel room for the next three nights, was still an hour and a half away. as was the case in st. petersburg and moscow two summers ago, it got dark really late, so it was still daylight as i took a crosstown cab from vienna west station, where i had arrived, to vienna south station, from where the train to bratislava would depart.

i got ripped off by the taxi driver who took me from the bratislava petrovosky station to the hotel, according to the cute girl at reception, but i did not sweat it that much, as it had been a long day and i was ready to hit the sack.

Monday, June 22, 2009

&bratislava, slovakia

alive and well kicking it in the former soviet satellite state of bratislava...can§t find any internet places so i§m borrowing from the hotel manager for a minute...hopefullz i§ll find more stuff in a few dazs when i get to innsbruck, austria tomorrow or wednesdaz...peace...on mz way to see the depeche mode concert...