Tuesday, 4 May 2010

Mom's trip to Europe--Exploring Edinburgh and Touring the Swiss Alps!!

March 24th: Mom's first day in Edinburgh
My mom arrived in Edinburgh on Wednesday morning and I gave her about 20 minutes to adjust to her long flight and the massive time difference before we started touring the city. Because I only had 2 day to show her around, we crammed as much as we could into the short time, and definitely accomplished tons. For our first activity, we walked up the 286 steps of the Walter Scott Monument. Luckily, the weather was pretty nice (for Edinburgh standards), so we were able to see a pretty good view of the city and old town from up there. My mom was too excited about the narrow stairs or the height, but we made it up and down without any major issues. Next on our list was shopping--we walked down Princes Street and up to Rose Street, which is an amazingly narrow street of boutiques and restaurants crammed in between the two major streets in New Town (Princes and George). If you weren't looking for it, you may miss Rose Street altogether, but we found it successfully, and proceeded to spend a large portion of the afternoon wandering around, window shopping and eating Mexican food down there before heading back towards Old Town and my flat. Before calling it a day, we walked up Calton Hill--a site for WWI memorials, but also just another good opportunity for a pretty view of the water and the city, so lots of pictures were taken before the rain (finally) caused us to turn in for the day. After relaxing for a little bit, we headed back out for a nice dinner and a night-walk to see the castle lit up. I dubbed it a very successful day of tour-guiding by the end.

The view of the city and castle from the top of the Walter Scott Memorial
Day 2: FOG
We woke up to fog the next day, and when I say fog, I mean can't-see-2-feet-infront-of you, signal-the-lighthouses type of fog. It was insane...I've never seen the city covered like that in dense clouds to the point where you couldn't make out buildings that were across the street. Unfortunately, this meant a large amount of my tour-guiding plans had to be adjusted, because all of the amazing views of the castle and the city that I had planned to show my mom were ruined by this horrible fog disaster. However, we made the best of it and strolled through Old Town, down my favorite street in Edinburgh, and around the Grassmarket until finally ending up on my campus for a class I had to take before being done for the semester. Lunch at the Elephant House was a must (unfortunately without the amazing view), but at least my mom got to see the place I spend so much of my time during the days here. With the weather being so crappy, we spent lots of time in various coffee shops around the city just catching up and talking about our upcoming trip to Switzerland! That night, we had dinner with all of my friends at a cool wine bistro, and it was also the last night my friends and I would see each other before our breaks, so we were excited to hang out for the evening. By the end of the night though, I realized I had not packed AT ALL (of course) for the upcoming weeks, so some serious speed-packing occurred into the wee hours of the morning. Despite it's short length, it was so much fun having my mom in the city I have fallen in love with.

March 26th: SWITZERLAND and a Day in Geneva's Old Town
Friday morning was the beginning of my 4 week trip throughout Europe, and I was SO excited. It was an early morning, so I wasn't that excited when we first set off for the airport, but once we arrived in Switzerland, I couldn't believe I had started quite possibly the craziest 4 week-trip of my life. Our arrival in Switzerland also reminded me (very quickly) that not everyone in the world speaks English, and in fact, people in Switzerland speak at least 4 different languages, none of which I came close to being able to understand. Immediately, everything was harder to do there. Figuring out how to get into the city, buying train tickets, and locating our hotel once getting to the city turned into a string of crazy adventures aided by a few nice Swiss people and a few not-so-nice Swiss people helping or not helping us along the way. Without a map initially, we finally made it to our hotel from the central train station in Geneva (having already obtained lots of swiss chocolate-duh), and proceeded to fumble our way through the city for the rest of the afternoon with our lack of ability to speak French, German, Dutch, or Italian. Needless to say, we were completely lost. Once obtaining an illusive map however and getting some advice on which sites to see from our hotel, we set off to get a quick lunch before exploring Geneva's old town. Lunch proved to be our first big cultural adventure. The place we went to came recommended from our hotel, so we figured it would be a quick and easy stop before exploring for the rest of the day. However, after entering the restaurant and sitting down, we realized that the Cafe Paris only served one thing for lunch--steak. You could get french fries or a salad, but that was the only choice you had...the steak part was decided for you. We decided to stay and try it out, but it was definitely not what we expected. However, in the end, I was extremely happy with the lunch because steak is the least common thing for me to eat in Edinburgh, so I was in heaven.

After lunch, we set off to find the old town. It was exciting to be in a foreign city and not have any clue where you were going. We had our map, but we didn't really have any clue what to do with it, so we just wandered around and headed in what we thought was the right direction across the city. It was a really nice sense of adventure that I had, and it was nice to not have too much of an agenda for the first day, so we had plenty of time to just wander. Our first site we saw was the Swiss fountain--the largest fountain in Europe in fact. Right as we were crossing the street to get a better look at the water, the sun came out in full force and the day turned into an incredibly beautiful afternoon. The fountain was insane, and with the Swiss Alps setting a nice backdrop, it was the perfect introduction to the country. We continued on towards the old town, and before we knew it, we were in the middle of steep cobble stoned streets that were lined with old romantic style-buildings. We both assumed we had made it to the area we had been looking for, so we put the map away, and began aimlessly strolling through the beautiful area. Highlights included following an old, steep stairway up to god-knows-where, but it turned out it lead us straight to the Cathedral de St. Pierre--a stunning building that overlooked the entire city of Geneva. There were also old water fountains scattered around every corner that actually had running water still, gorgeous colorful shutters on old white-washed buildings, and lots of old crepperies and cheese shops. I loved seeing how different Edinburgh's old town was from Geneva's. While both were constructed on narrow cobble stoned streets, the buildings were completely different and both have completely different feels to them. We chased the sun around the old town and found the building where the Geneva Convention was signed, Rousseu's old house, and the oldest house in Geneva along our way. By late afternoon, we were ready to duck in for a snack, so we found an amazing looking crepperie right outside the Cathedral de St. Pierre....there chocolate crepes were to DIE for, and made us realize how much more swiss chocolate we had to consume before leaving the area. So, with that in mind, we headed for what our guide book said was the best chocolatier in Switzerland, and along the way, saw dozens of street performers with accordions. In Scotland, it's bagpipes--in Switzerland, it's accordions. After having picked out our box of chocolates though, we realized how tired we actually were from traveling and exploring Geneva, so we headed for the hotel and began preparing for our tour through the Swiss Alps the next day!!

Highest fountain in Europe!
Cathedral de St. Pierre--reminds me of Pillars of the Earth!
Me outside building where Geneva Convention was signed
Very pretty buildings in Geneva's Old Town

Day 2 of Switzerland: Train(s) through the Alps to GIMMELWALD!
The morning had another early start, but this time, we were headed into the Alps! Final destination for our 2 day adventure: Gimmelwald, a small town of 120 people that is set on a cliff in the heart of the Swiss Alps. But first, we had to make it there. We arrived at the train station and continued to realize the difficulties that come with a language barrier--we had no idea where or how to buy tickets for all of the trains we needed to catch throughout the day. After cutting massive lines somehow and pleading with key train-station officials, we obtained all our tickets and a walk-through of our itinerary just in time to catch our first train. Almost immediately, the train took us clear out of the city and along Lake Geneva and its' stunning surroundings. Um, wow. The Swiss Alps are stunning. And the mountains along the lake proved to be probably the least stunning mountains we saw, so that's saying something! Anyway, we made it to Montreaux (our first change-over stop) and loved the town so much that we made a pact to try and come back on our last day in the country. From there, we switched to the Panoramic Train that would take us up and through the Alps to our final destination. Immediately, we began climbing up away from the lake on the Panoramic train. I felt a little like I was on the Polar Express train at times because once we had left Montreaux and the lake, we were surrounded by high peaks and snow, and the train just kept going further up. The next two hours of the train ride were stunning. It's hard to find words to describe the Alps. The rugged peaks that were every where you turned your head shot up from the ground and were covered in snow--as if it wasn't pretty enough on it's own, we got lucky enough to have a beautiful sunny day, so the jagged edges of the mountains contrasted against the blue sky for one of the prettier sights I've ever seen. The towns and small random houses we passed by that were scattered at the base of these mountains also stunned me. Each house looked identical--they were all typical Swiss chateux's mixed in with white churches with tall steeples and old cemeteries. I couldn't imagine people actually living so secluded, but this turned out to be nothing compared to what we would find in Gimmelwald. We went through Chateux de Onx (the town famous for their hot air balloon festivals), and Gstad, and many more small towns along our way. After two hours of breathtaking views, we ended our train travels in Lauterburnen and proceeded to take a bus to the cable car that would take us up to Gimmelwald. Yes, that is correct--the only way to access this suspended village was by cable car or by walking up the cliff's side. At the bottom of the cable car, we were in a valley of cliffs that rose straight up from the valley floor, and by the time we had ridden the car up to Gimmelwald, we were staring down some of the Alps' tallest peaks.

The Swiss Alps from our train ride--this doesn't come close to how pretty it actually was!
After gawking at Gimmelwald for a while, we rode the next cable car up to the next suspended town, Muren. A slightly larger ski resort town, Muren sits further up the cliff side then Gimmelwald but is more of a tourist area. We went up there in hopes of finding food because no one told us that a meal would be unobtainable on our train journey. After walking through the streets for a little bit, we finally found a place that was open and right as we sat down for hot chocolate and dinner, it began to snow in Muren! Can you say perfect timing? Sun all day and then snow flurries for our hot chocolate in the Alps! After eating even more delicious swiss cheese and chocolate, we decided it was time to head back to Gimmelwald and check into Esther's Guest House. We realized we didn't know where in Gimmelwald the house actually was, but this proved to be a non-issue seeing as there are only a handful of buildings in the entire town. Once locating the guest house and meeting Esther, we settled into our room and checked out the AMAZING view of the Jung Frau (the tallest summit in the Alps) and other mind-bogglingly tall mountains. I decided to curl up next to the window for the rest of the evening and read--and of course, think about the incredible and surreal day I had just had traveling through the Alps. It was definitely a strange feeling knowing I was falling asleep on the cliffs of the Swiss Alps. CRAZY!!

GIMMELWALD! Our view from our room.

Day 3 in Switzerland: Gimmelwald and Murren
After so much sunshine the day before, SNOW was the last thing I expected to see when I woke up in Gimmelwald. However, it kinda just added to the entire experience, and realizing we were basically IN the snow clouds made it that much cooler. However, the snow and clouds meant that our plan to go all the way up the mountain to Schilthorn (the world's first and highest revolving restaurant and the location for one of the Bond films) to check out the views and have breakfast had to be rethought. However, our plan B wasn't too bad--we had a homemade breakfast at Esther's and then proceeded to explore the incredible small town that is Gimmelwald. The thing that struck me the most about walking around was the absolute silence we found. It was SO quiet and SO peaceful because of that. It literally felt like we were the only ones standing in the midst of Europe's tallest peaks. On our way around the town, we saw one woman come out of her house and start combing the hay, which I thought was incredible, because again I wondered what in the world her life is like living in Gimmelwald.

Me in Gimmelwald...Jung Frau looms in the back (Europe's tallest peak)
Typical day in Gimmelwald (note woman combing hay on left)
It only took us about 20 minutes to explore all of the town, so we headed back up to Murren to look around some more and take pictures. Once in Murren, the clouds cleared and the sun came out for just enough time for us to take millions of pics of every mountain and cool house we saw. However, the top of the mountain remained socked in, so we did get done out of Schilthorn, but having to 'settle' for Murren and Gimmelwald was not too much of a sacrifice. We spent the rest of the morning wandering around, soaking up the surroundings, and buying (of course) lots of Swiss food for the long train ride home. After we had gotten our fill of the Alps, we decided it was time to leave the cliff, and we headed back down the cable car system and onto our trains back to Geneva. Of course, riding back through the Berner Oberland valley was just as cool the 2nd time as it was the day before, and I just tried to take a million mental snapshots of the surroundings so I could remember it forever. Back in Geneva, we went out for our first swiss fondue (finally!) for dinner and just kept talking about how proud of ourselves we were that we had made it to Gimmelwald and back on some of the most confusing trains I've ever experienced. However, after spending two very long days on trains, we decided to change our plans slightly for our last day and head back to Montreaux instead of the previously planned trip to Zermat. So, having settled that, we headed back to the hotel (after getting some mandatory ice cream) and got ready for our last day in the country!

View of Murren in the sun!
Day 4 in Switzerland: Montreaux, Castles, and Picnics
Having decided to skip Zermat and head to Montreaux, we set out to have a fun last day in this amazingly beautiful place. Amazingly, we lucked out with weather AGAIN and we were blessed with sun all day in Montreaux. After a short train ride from Geneva, we arrived in the lake side town that is home to the beautiful Chateau de Chillon castle, and decided to walk along the lake for a while. The castle was about a mile from the train station, so we just strolled in the sun and stopped along the way for a little picnic snack before finally arriving at the Chateau de Chillon. The castle was built in the 13th century and was never damaged by invaders, so it was spectacular to tour and learn about. The entire place was like a fairytale...all of the courtyards, rooms, and views were so romantic looking, and of course the entire time we were touring around, I was imagining being a princess and living there. Once we were done at the castle though, we headed back into the heart of Montreaux for lunch and some quality tourist shopping. Once these both were accomplished (I bought a cool mug and we got crepes for lunch), we spent the last few hours of sun just relaxing by Lake Geneva before heading back into Geneva for the night. Needless to say, we had become pros at the Swiss trains, which leave on the second they are scheduled to, EVERY TIME. However, we didn't do much on our last night in Geneva because we both had a 4am wake up call coming the next morning. I was off to Amsterdam, so I had to get ready to be traveling on my own again. However, getting to look back on the past week was pretty exciting--I got to show my mom around my city and then we got to explore and conquer a new city together, all while eating our way through Switzerland and touring the Swiss Alps! After lots and lots of cheese, chocolate, coffee (of course), and language barriers, it was definitely a trip I'll never forget, and an amazing start to my whirlwind tour of Europe!

Walking along Lake Geneva
Lake Geneva and Chateau de Chillon

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