A Travellerspoint blog

July 2022

From the Rhône to the Rhine: Lucerne


View Benelux 2022 on zzlangerhans's travel map.

On Sunday morning there was no mercy for jetlag. We needed to get an early jump on the road to Lucerne if we wanted to complete the Mount Pilatus circuit and see the old town before proceeding onward to Bern. Cleo and Ian did OK after being rousted from their beds and didn't even go back to sleep on the half hour ride to Lucerne. Beginning the road trip itself provided a whole new sense of exhilaration beyond the thrill of being back in Europe. We were really on our way now and those dozens of cities unknown to us were soon to be experienced in reality.

We parked in a garage close to the lake and the old town on the north bank of the Reuss. There were several garages closer to the ferry but we were planning to end the day in the old town anyway so we chose to take the scenic walk across the Seebrücke in the morning. Although not the largest lake within Switzerland, Lake Lucerne is the most well-known due to its often-photographed setting among the foothills of the Alps. Lucerne is the star attraction of the settlements that surround the lake but there are also numerous charming villages and historic castles along the shore. From the bridge we could see a line of classic Germanic apartment buildings along the shoreline interrupted by the twin belltowers of the Church of St. Leodegar. On the inland side of the bridge was the famous covered Chapel Bridge. The limited view of the lake gave little hint of its numerous large interconnected basins.
large_IMG_6067.JPEGlarge_IMG_9334b.jpglarge_IMG_9287.JPG

We were beginning the Golden Tour with the ferry ride to Alpnachstad so we bought the combined tickets at the pier. We didn't have Swiss Travel Passes so we had a lay out an impressive amount of money for the five of us. The views of the lake and the shoreline went a long way to justifying the high ticket price. The rolling landscape was dotted with chalets and beautiful churches with Pilatus dominating the horizon to the west. The ride was longer than I expected and at one point we began to head east along the main basin, in the opposite direction from Alpnachstad. I flagged down a steward anxiously and he informed me that we were indeed on the right ferry, that we it was a small detour to make a scheduled stop. Surely enough we soon docked and the ferry reversed course afterward. At Alpnachstad we grabbed a quick lunch at the station before joining the line for the rack railway to the top of Pilatus.
large_IMG_9291.JPGlarge_IMG_9295.JPGlarge_IMG_9293.JPGlarge_IMG_6144.JPGlarge_IMG_9300.JPG

The vehicle that carried us up the side of Pilatus can be called either a cog railway or a rack railway, depending on whether one focuses on the cogwheels on the car or the rack on the ground that the cogs mesh with. This mechanism allows the car to ascend the track at a much steeper grade than would be possible for a typical railroad with smooth wheels and track. The Pilatus Railway is in fact the steepest rack railway in the world and at first glance it's hard to understand why it doesn't simply fall down the side of the mountain. The line has been in continuous operation for over a century so I didn't worry too much about the mechanism suddenly failing for the first time during our ascent. The best view was of the side of the mountain where we could see intrepid hikers making their way up the slope via switchbacks. Once at the top we followed a short path to the winding, vertiginous staircase to the viewpoint at Esel which is the second highest point on Pilatus. Some choose to take the longer and more adventurous hike to Tomlishorn, the highest peak, where one has a chance of seeing wild ibexes but we were on a tight schedule and weren't really in the mood to challenge ourselves. From Esel we could see most of Lake Lucerne which allowed us to appreciate its unusual, irregular topography. On the west side of the lake the city of Lucerne and its suburbs looked like a vast metropolis although I knew there couldn't be more than a hundred thousand people living there. The rest of the shoreline was largely mountainous although humans had carved out settlements along the shoreline and in small valleys between the peaks. To the south we could see a jagged line of snowcapped Alpine peaks. A legend on the platform purported to identify them by name but I was unable to match the peaks to the diagram. Recognizable names such as Matterhorn and Mont Blanc were not listed as they were far to the southwest and invisible from our location. There were paragliders here as well and from the whoops of excitement emanating from them it was clear that these were tandem operations for hire. Ian expressed some interest but I'm not sure I'm ready to see him suspended in the sky dependent on a sheet of synthetic fabric to keep him alive.
large_IMG_6165.jpeglarge_IMG_9301.JPGlarge_IMG_9315.JPGlarge_IMG_9312.JPG

The next stage of the Golden Tour was the cable car ride down from Pilatus to the town of Kriens. I hadn't realized it in advance but there are actually two cable cars with a connection at a spot called Fräkmüntegg halfway down. When we disembarked I saw that there was a toboggan track that I hadn't been aware of and figured we would probably still have enough time for the old town if we spent an hour at this mid-station. We had a stiff uphill walk to the departure point and then almost a half hour wait before we finally arrived at the front of the line. Cleo and Ian were able to go by themselves but Spenser had to go in tandem with me due to his age, much to his disgust. The long ride down was suitably thrilling for the kids but my favorite part was the view of the hillside and the lake as we were towed backwards up to the starting point. The only thing that would have made it better would have been a toboggan track that went all the way down to Kriens, although I'm not sure how Mei Ling would have felt about that.
large_IMG_9318.JPGlarge_IMG_9320.JPG

From the cable car station in Kriens it was a surprisingly long and poorly-signed walk to the bus stop where we eventually caught the bus back to the modern part of Lucerne south of the Reuss. The iconic sight of the city is the Chapel Bridge which is actually a reconstruction of a medieval covered bridge that was destroyed by fire in 1993. It's probably inaccurate to look at the current bridge as inauthentic, considering that the wooden bridge had to be restored and repaired so many times over the centuries that it was unlikely that much of the original wood used in the construction of the bridge remained even before the fire. Sadly most of the painted triangular panels that decorated the trusses of the bridge were destroyed, although a few were restored and returned to the rebuilt bridge. The adjacent stone water tower predates the bridge by a hundred years and survived the fire, although it was damaged and underwent extensive renovation.
large_IMG_6206.JPEGlarge_IMG_9335.JPGlarge_IMG_9336.JPG

From the bridge Lucerne's Altstadt looks very promising with the busy promenade along the Reuss lined with cafes and a row of distinguished hotels behind them. After passing that first street we were somewhat disappointed to find a much smaller old town than the one in Zürich with substantially less atmosphere. Perhaps the near-deserted streets on a Sunday evening had something to do with it but the rows of generic clothing and jewelry boutiques gave me the sense that no one really lived in that part of the city. There were a couple of attractive squares and colorfully-painted buildings but overall there wasn't much to capture our interest as we made our way to the medieval city walls atop Musegg hill. This proved to be a fairly interesting place to wander for an hour between the towers spaced along the wall. At the kids behest we ascended all the way to the top of the Zytturm clock tower for views of the city and of course Pilatus in the background. The mechanism of the enormous clock was on full display as well.
large_IMG_6210.JPEGlarge_IMG_9342a.jpglarge_IMG_9339.JPG

By the time we had returned to Altstadt we were in danger of missing dinner completely if we didn't eat before driving onward to Bern. Since most restaurants were closed on Sunday I had no choice but to accede to Mei Ling's request that we eat at a Thai restaurant she had spotted on the way to the wall. It was a cramped and stuffy little place with mediocre and inauthentic food, despite the usual positive online reviews. Mei Ling had to repeat our order four or five times to our waitress, who also seemed to be the owner, before she repeated it back correctly and then it still came out wrong. I hoped the lousy meal would mean fewer Asian restaurants on the road trip but I was already tired of sausages and tiny forty franc steaks myself. At least we could anticipate better food in France before returning to the Germanic offerings in the Netherlands and Rheinland.

In the end I was happy I had chosen not to spend a night in Lucerne. It had only taken us a couple of hours to see everything we wanted in the town and I wasn't particularly taken with the place. In fact it was much more what I expected Zürich to be like than Zürich actually was. I'm sure an outdoorsy person could find a different mountain in the area to hike up every day but when we're in Europe our focus is more on the cities, the food, and the culture. We embarked on our one hour drive to Bern looking forward to an early start on a brand new city.

Posted by zzlangerhans 13:18 Archived in Switzerland Tagged pilatus road_trip family_travel chapel_bridge tony_friedman family_travel_blog Comments (1)

From the Rhône to the Rhine: Zürich


View Benelux 2022 on zzlangerhans's travel map.

As I expected Cleo and Ian were completely unarousable in the early morning. After I showered and dressed I nudged them a few times without any response and then gave up until about nine when I couldn't stand sitting in the house any longer. This time I flipped on the TV and badgered them a little more aggressively until they grudgingly got up from bed and had a snack. I felt a little guilty but I knew they'd have time to nap a little later on the train.
large_IMG_9286.JPG

Our first objective was getting ourselves breakfast at the twice-weekly market at Helvetiaplatz, close to the city center. Parking was a bit of a project as the area was busy and I wasn't accustomed to the signage, meaning that a couple of times I thought I had found a place only to discover it wasn't legal. Switzerland utilizes a system in which white lines indicate paid parking, blue lines indicate residential parking, and yellow lines indicate private parking. Parking in blue spaces is permitted for non-residents for an hour using a cardboard clock left on the dashboard, but since one is allowed to use a start time of the upcoming half hour it can be stretched to as much as ninety minutes. The hours where payment in white spaces is required varies widely between locations and cities so it is necessary to examine the fine print on the meters closely or use a parking app where the requirements are clearly explained. We had a lot of difficulty using parking apps because we chose to use an eSIM for mobile service which was convenient but also meant we didn't have a number for calling and texting. As soon as I realized parking wouldn't be simple I let Mei Ling and the kids off at the market and eventually found a spot a few blocks away. Our SUV was very long for a European vehicle but this disadvantage was countermanded by the cameras and sensors that facilitated parking in spots that were just a few inches longer than the car.

Helvetiaplatz had a medium-sized market with a focus on locally-farmed produce as well as vendors of cheese, breads, sausages, and other staples. One thing there wasn't very much of was ready-to-eat food so I had to purchase ingredients like bread, cheese, and fruit individually and construct meals for myself and the kids that we ate seated around a wooden crate. I noticed that fruit seemed to be a particularly prevalent item, from cherries to plums to currants. It was a good reintroduction to European markets even if it didn't have the size and flair of a French or Italian morning extravaganza.
large_IMG_9167a.JPG

We drove back to the center and parked in the Jelmoli garage for the day's main event, the hike from Uetliberg to Felsenegg. Zürich is rather far from the Alps but it does have its own small range of low mountains called the Albis, of which the closest peak to the city is Uetliberg. We would be skipping the renowned Alpine section of Switzerland almost entirely on this itinerary and I didn't want to completely forgo the legendary mountain hikes and views that the country is best known for. The plan was to take the train from the Hauptbahnhof to Uetliberg and walk along the Planetenweg hiking trail to Felsenegg before descending to the suburb of Adliswil by cable car. From Adliswil we would be able to take a train back to the center. Driving the car wouldn't be practical since there was no public road to Uetliberg and the hike would take us to a different point from where we had started.
large_8bf5d460-0d4d-11ed-960f-7b5db15b1c1a.jpg

I'd read a couple of descriptions that suggested buying a special train ticket called the Albis Netzkarte which would cover all legs of the trip. The Hauptbahnhof was a short walk from Jelmoli but first I wanted to visit the nearby Platzspitz, a small park where one can view the confluence of the Limmat and the Sihl rivers. The Limmat originates in the Zürichsee and courses through the medieval center, separating the Altstadt from Niederdorf. It continues northwest from Zürich until it converges with the Aare which in turn drains into the Rhine. The Sihl originates in the Alps and passes through the heart of Zürich to the west of the Altstadt before draining into the Limmat. A long moat called Schanzengraben was dug in medieval times as part of the fortifications of the walled city and connects the Sihl with Zürichsee, rendering the Altstadt an island.
large_82235b60-0dcf-11ed-bc7d-4de882705fc0.jpg

From the pedestrian bridge we could see the muddy waters of the Sihl traveling alongside the clear Limmat before they eventually merged. Platzspitz was a pleasant little park although the confluence of the two small rivers was somewhat underwhelming. A few large fish swam underneath the balcony at the tip of the park, perhaps hoping for a handout. On the way into the train station we passed by the enormous chateau-style Swiss National Museum.
large_78d76a30-0dd2-11ed-a02c-7fb56789b984.JPGlarge_IMG_9174.JPGlarge_IMG_9177.JPG

Inside the train station we were able to buy the Albis tickets, although they were more expensive than I had read. Perhaps I hadn't navigated the selections correctly and bought a more costly ticket. Afterwards we couldn't figure out what line the train to Uetliberg departed from and couldn't find any information desk so we started asking random people and were eventually directed to a track where a red train labeled Uetliberg was waiting. We leapt aboard and settled in, only to be called off by an agent on the platform who examined our tickets and declared that we were not eligible for that train. He sent us to the surface where we had to board a tram to Triemli and subsequently a bus to the summit of Uetliberg. This didn't match up with my research at all and I suppose I'll never know if we were unfairly ordered off the correct train or if there was some alteration in the route from when the information I had read was published. The kids catnapped a little on the tram and occupied the rest of their time with word games and meditation.
large_82c685f0-0ddf-11ed-a465-cd397e084468.JPG

At the summit there was an open area with a hotel at one end and a viewpoint over Zürich and Zürichsee on the other. There was also a lookout tower with seemingly endless flights of stairs leading to an observation tower. We decided that the views we already had were good enough and gave the tower a pass. I saw a brightly-colored curved object in the sky and realized it was a parachute with a rider suspended underneath. I pointed it out to the kids who spotted another and then another. We couldn't see where the paragliders were launching from but clearly it wasn't far as the sky was filled with them. The kids got their first of what would be a great many ice creams at a stand close to the viewpoint and then we located the rather poorly-marked staircase that connected the viewpoint with the Planetenweg hiking trail.
large_IMG_9184.JPGlarge_IMG_9191.JPG

The idea of the trail is that there is a model and a plaque representing the sun at the beginning of the trail and then the nine planets (including Pluto) are spaced along the six kilometer trail from Uetliberg to Buchenegg proportionately to their true distances from the sun. We actually missed the sun and the first four planets because they are clustered close to the Uetliberg train station that we bypassed due to arriving by bus. It was no great loss since I didn't understand the point of the planet theme anyway. The trail was mostly paved and quite easy with occasional views over the lake and some pleasant fields and farmhouses on the other side.
large_IMG_9189.JPGlarge_IMG_9187.JPGlarge_IMG_9202.JPG

As we drew nearer to Felsenegg we came across the launching point for the paragliders and we stopped for a while to watch them spread out their chutes and launch themselves from a precipice into the sky. It was quite nervewracking to see them all expose themselves to the mercy of the winds even though they seemed experienced and confident. I've done tandem hang-gliding before which was a great experience but I'd hate to have to overcome a learning curve where the slightest mistake could mean a gruesome death. Hopefully the kids will find less hazardous hobbies once they get a little older.
large_28d33bb0-0de4-11ed-bee2-dddb9b0d66b6.JPG

After about an hour and a half we arrived at Felsenegg where there was a small restaurant and more views over the lake below. We had a light lunch and the kids spent some time in a small playground behind the restaurant. We had been fortunate to have perfect cool and sunny weather for our long walk in the Albis.
large_IMG_9203.JPGlarge_f6812e60-0dbb-11ed-bebf-5bd27fc15223.JPG

We took the cable car down to Adliswil where with some difficulty we located the train station. As I followed the progress of our train back towards the center on Google Maps I noticed an odd little island in the Limmat just after it took off from the lake. I zoomed in and realized it was a beer garden that I'd missed in my research. The reviews weren't that great but heck, it was a beer garden and I'd thought there wasn't a single one in all of Zürich. We piled out of the train at the closest stop to the Limmat and walked over to Bürkliplatz, a busy square at the base of the old town adjacent to Zürichsee. There were several piers for sightseeing boats and ferries and a cobblestone boat ramp that was a gathering place for ducks and swans.
large_IMG_9212.JPGlarge_IMG_9213.JPG

The beer garden could not have had a more atmospheric location. The pentagonal artificial island of Bauschänzli is a remnant of the fortifications that once protected Zürich from naval attack and retains an imposing military character even though the only occupant has been a restaurant for more than a hundred years. As the online reviews had warned the food was mediocre but it was an interesting and scenic spot to enjoy some refreshments.
large_IMG_9216a.JPGlarge_IMG_9217.JPG

We had only passed through the Altstadt the previous night on our way to Niederdorf so we made sure to explore the old town well before returning to the car. This was a warmer evening and the outdoor tables of the numerous restaurants were packed with diners. To whatever extent I had pictured Zürich before this trip, I had imagined a rather sterile modern city with a lot of watch stores. I was pleasantly surprised by the center's medieval character and high energy.
large_IMG_9220a.JPGlarge_IMG_9222c.jpglarge_IMG_9230b.jpglarge_IMG_9224.JPG

At one of Altstadt's numerous fountains we took advantage of the fact that in Switzerland the water emitted from fountains is mandated to meet the same standards as that coming from a tap. After our first visit to a supermarket we never bought bottled water as long as we were in Switzerland. Back at Jemoli I was surprised by an eye-watering parking bill. I looked up the rates later and saw that after three hours the hourly rate ballooned dramatically and there was apparently no daily maximum. I realized that in Switzerland it would be necessary to research parking more carefully so that I knew exactly what I would be paying in advance. I also learned that many parking garages allow reservations through apps and their own websites at rates far below those that are posted. It probably wouldn't be worth the trouble for short stays but I resolved to investigate those deals in cities like Amsterdam that were renowned for high parking rates.
large_IMG_9234.JPG

The older kids' jetlag hadn't improved at all so we let them sleep in until nine the next morning. Once again we started the day with a market breakfast, this time in the busy residential quarter of Oerlikon. Oerlikon was once a city in its own right before being absorbed by Zürich a century ago. The morning market takes place on Wednesdays and Saturdays in a large central square close to the train station. Although it was similar in size and composition to the Helvetiaplatz market there was a little more variety and we were able to put together a more interesting breakfast than we had the previous day.
large_IMG_9241.JPGlarge_IMG_9243.JPG

On the other side of the train station is an unusual site called MFO Park. A disused factory called Maschinenfabrik Oerlikon has been replaced by a lattice of steel girders containing several staircases and platforms and the entire apparatus is covered by a variety of vines that form transparent living walls. The stairs ascend all the way to the roof of the structure where a large wooden deck provides views over the rooftops of Oerlikon. It's a beautiful and interesting edifice but aside from being an event space it doesn't seem to provide much for the local residents. A number of empty beer bottles lying around on the upper platforms suggested it might be a common gathering place for late-night partiers.
large_IMG_9248.JPGlarge_IMG_9254.JPGlarge_IMG_9251a.JPG

Since we'd begun our sightseeing right off the plane we had already worked through my list of unmissable sights in Zürich. Since the clouds had almost completely lifted and the temperature had risen substantially since our arrival it was a perfect time to engage in another famous local activity, swimming in Zürichsee. The only location I was aware of was a lido on the western edge of the lake called Strandbad Mythenquai that was mentioned in my guidebook, but I misread the road signs and ended up in a parking lot further south. When we emerged we found ourselves in a beautiful public park at the edge of the lake with lots of locals sunbathing and picnicking. Many of them were cooking sausages on small portable grills. A short bridge led to a tiny island in the lake which was also filled with sunbathers and swimmers. I didn't realize it at the time but I was actually at a public park called Landiwiese and not at Mythenquai, which had an entry fee and was fenced off from the park. The island is Saffa-Insel, which was built from excavated material as part of an exposition about women's labor in 1958. The kids played on the swings for a while and then I took them over to the island where we jumped into the chilly, clear water of the lake. This was probably the activity they'd enjoyed the most since our arrival and it reminded me that I needed to be sure to schedule fun things for the kids among all the markets and city walks that Mei Ling and I loved.
large_IMG_9263.JPGlarge_IMG_9261.JPG

We moved the car to the Jelmoli garage one final time secure in the knowledge that we'd be back within four hours. Our goal was to complete our exploration of Niederdorf in clear, sunny weather but first we stopped at the flagship store of Confiserie Sprüngli, a luxury confectioner that open its doors in 1859 and now has over a dozen outlets around Switzerland. Sprüngli's main specialty is the macaron and there were thousands of the high-priced cookies arranged in rows and stacks when we visited. Fortunately none of the kids are huge macaron fans these days and we were able to escape the crowds of tourists inside having only bought a few small containers of ice cream.
large_IMG_9265.JPGlarge_IMG_9267.JPG

Niederdorf was much more lively and colorful on a warm and sunny Saturday evening that it had been on our first visit. This time we made sure to investigate all those narrow cobblestone alleys that ascended the hill until we reached the wide thoroughfare that signaled the end of the historic district. The small neighborhood was home to countless hidden courtyards and romantic fountains, one of which was being used as a setting for engagement photos as we passed. As we walked we kept our eye out for a good setting for a surprise birthday dinner for Cleo, who had turned ten that day. She had already had her party a week before we left but since all the kids have birthdays over the summer we have a little tradition of celebrating in the native language of whatever country we happen to be in. We've had Happy Birthday sung in Czech and Icelandic to Ian, and in Chinese to Spenser. This would be the first time we had been out of the United States on Cleo's birthday. It was difficult to find a restaurant at prime time on Saturday evening that could take us but eventually we found what appeared to be the perfect place. It was a Swiss restaurant at the base of a triangular courtyard with a large fountain and lots of outdoor tables and it seemed to have great reviews. The only problem was that that the food turned out to be absolutely terrible with no redeeming features whatsoever. We didn't let that dampen our spirits excessively and I was able to corral our waiter privately to request Cleo's birthday song, which was ultimately executed in German to the accompaniment of a sparkling dessert. The awful food and the jaw-dropping bill that followed were made more than worthwhile by Cleo's delight. It was a great way to celebrate Cleo's milestone and also our triumphant return to continental Europe after four long years. Zürich had proven to be an auspicious beginning for our lengthy road trip.
large_IMG_9271.JPGlarge_IMG_9277.JPG

Posted by zzlangerhans 14:55 Archived in Switzerland Tagged road_trip family family_travel travel_blog tony_friedman family_travel_blog Comments (0)

From the Rhône to the Rhine: Zürich arrival


View Benelux 2022 on zzlangerhans's travel map.

From 2014 to 2018 our family made substantial progress towards exploring every part of Europe that we would ever want to visit. We had completed six major road trips covering more than two dozen countries as well as shorter explorations of Sicily and France's Loire Valley. In Western Europe our travel map showed respectable distributions of pins in Spain, Italy and southern France but there were some notable bare areas that offered up tempting itineraries. It seemed like we might accomplish our goal of covering the entire continent before Cleo finishes high school in 2030. In 2019 we took our summer trip to China and Japan and then COVID happened. A meticulously crafted planned trip to the Balkan Peninsula had to be postponed and in 2020 we didn't travel at all. We got back on the horse in 2021 but the logistics of European travel amid the fluctuating epidemic were foreboding and we chose to conquer the American Southwest instead. Our sole foray to Europe was a two week peregrination along the Ring Road of Iceland which was a fabulous experience in terms of adventure and natural phenomena but did little to slake our appetite for medieval villages and delicious breakfasts crafted from morning markets. By the summer of 2022 between the apparent weakening of the virus and our accumulated vaccinations we had lost most of our fear of COVID. At the same time restrictions in Europe were being rapidly lifted and even vaccination was being dropped as a requirement to enter most countries. It was the perfect time to resume our attack on the continent. I quickly ruled out the Balkan trip given the heavy toll the epidemic had taken on those countries and the excessive potential for disruption of our plans by another wave of COVID. The two highest priority itineraries I had created in Western Europe were a loop around northern Italy, Corsica, and Sardinia and a round trip between Amsterdam and Lyon. I was favoring the Italy trip as it had been five years since Sicily and just four since Bordeaux but I decided to leave it up to Mei Ling and she chose Amsterdam.

My original itinerary had us beginning in Amsterdam and then bearing south through Belgium, Luxembourg, and Burgundy to Lyon and then dipping into Switzerland for Geneva before heading back north through Alsace and then the German Rheinland, which would have taken about 30 to 32 days. Two factors resulted in some substantial changes. The first was that the success of our 34 day Iberian road trip in 2018 made me comfortable extending the length of the journey to 40 days. The second was that when I opened up Skyscanner I found that there were no direct flights between Miami and Amsterdam. If I wanted to avoid a connection we would have to fly into Frankfurt or Zürich. We've had enough issues with flight delays and near misses over the last few years to know that if there's any way to use direct flights we go for it. Frankfurt was close to the existing itinerary but for various reasons the timing didn't work with some events I wanted to synchronize with. Zürich hadn't been on the original itinerary but ultimately I decided to bulk up the Switzerland leg to eight days from two and threw in Lake Constance and Liechtenstein for good measure. It proved to be a very rewarding decision.

With at least Cleo and Ian being old enough to carry small backpacks we were able to cut back to one large suitcase, two small rollers, and three carry-on backpacks. By the time we'd figured that out I'd already paid online for two checked bags but I was hopeful we'd be able to get a credit for the baggage fee we didn't use. We had carefully weighed the large suitcase to be sure that it didn't exceed the 23 kg limit but somehow on their scale it was a couple pounds over and the desk agent made us remove items if we wanted to avoid an excess weight charge. He also cheerfully advised us that they had a new 8 kg limit for carry-on bags that we would be held to even though it hadn't existed when I bought the ticket. More frenzied redistribution ensued, and fortunately he wasn't watching closely enough to realize that we were removing items from carry-ons before they were weighed and then replacing them after the bags had been tagged. An hour-long delay on the tarmac due to weather validated our decision to only consider direct routes and we all slept for the majority of the red-eye without anxiety about making a connection upon arrival. The five hours I spent asleep was quite a shock to me as I'm normally completely unable to sleep on planes. Perhaps it was the neck pillow that Mei Ling brought for me although they haven't seemed to help in the past. When I awoke we were already over land and an hour later the flight path showed us over Switzerland. From the window I could see a gorgeous landscape with bright grassy clearings divided by dense, winding groves of trees and dotted with small towns. The contrast between the shades of green and the white roads connecting the towns was so vivid that I almost felt that I was looking at an animation. We landed uneventfully and we allowed all the poor souls late for their connections to deplane before we gathered our belongings and made our own departure.
large_IMG_9127.JPGlarge_IMG_9129.JPG

Our rental was a Volvo XC60 SUV which had a decent amount of interior room but less trunk space than we've had on prior European road trips. If we had the usual two large suitcases we wouldn't have been able to fit them but somehow I was able to wedge the large suitcase, the two rollers, and two backpacks into the trunk. Cleo kept her own backpack in the back seat with her and we were good to go. I was too preoccupied to Google the XC60 which would have informed me that it was a mid-size rather than the full-size SUV I had reserved. On the bright side the XC60 had the advantage of a spectacular system of cameras which provided a simulation of an overhead view of the vehicle and surrounding objects as well as automatic braking when there was an imminent danger of collision. This likely prevented several minor dents considering the number of times I had to maneuver and park in extremely tight spaces over the course of the trip, and may also have saved us from much worse outcomes.

Even after the late arrival and the rental car pick-up it was too early to check in at our first Airbnb so we drove to Im Viadukt, a collection of retail businesses located within the arches of a soaring railway viaduct a little north of the city center. By far the largest of these was Markthalle Im Viadukt, an assortment of small gourmet food stores and restaurants selling everything from cheese to pasta to produce. We had a rather conventional meal at the restaurant at the back of the market hall which gave us our first introduction to the exorbitant cost of Swiss dining. Even with the dollar at multi-year highs vs the Swiss franc, entree prices at an average restaurant rivaled those at an upscale New York City eatery.
large_IMG_9134.JPGlarge_IMG_9132.JPGlarge_IMG_5511.JPG

There were no affordable choices for accommodation in the center of Zürich with a parking space so we had chosen an Airbnb in the small suburb of Birmensdorf about a fifteen minute drive from the old town. We found it on a winding street of beautifully-landscaped houses with a rural vibe. Our two bedroom apartment occupied the lower floor of an oddly-shaped two-story house with a street level garage. We had three nights here to recover from jet lag and adapt to the European environment and we gratefully unloaded our bags and washed up before heading to the old town for the afternoon and evening.
large_IMG_9138.JPGlarge_IMG_9162.JPG

Most tourists don't drive in Zürich, or anywhere in Switzerland for that matter, but having our own wheels was a prerequisite for our extensive itinerary in Europe. A couple of adjustments I had to make quickly to my driving were to hit the brake instead of the accelerator if a traffic light turned yellow as I approached, and to keep a close eye on lane markings to be sure I wasn't locking myself into a wrong turn. It was generally a difficult proposition to switch out of a turn lane to go straight ahead, or vice versa, at the last moment. Street parking near the old town, or Altstadt, is generally nonexistent and the parking garages are quite expensive so I did a little research which indicated our best option was a garage called Parking Jelmoli.
large_ef516110-0dab-11ed-a0ca-537ede130b61.jpg

Zürich began its existence as a Roman settlement but there are few remnants of that early ancestor of the city we found ourselves in on a rather cloudy and chilly Thursday evening. When we emerged from the garage we found ourselves in an immaculate clean and rather modern area of the old town with wide cobblestoned streets lined with cafes and boutiques. At the end of Rennweg the famous clock of the Church of St. Peter reminded us that we were in a place that had been largely preserved from medieval and Renaissance times.
large_IMG_9140.JPG

I didn't really have a planned route but I had a list of spots to check out and we decided to start with the closest first. We walked a block east to reach the foot of Lindenhof, a steep hill that was once the site of a Roman fort and is now topped by a gravel-filled public park with oversized chess boards, swings, and the numerous linden trees that gave the hill its name. Of course the main attraction is the spectacular view over the Limmat River, the twin belltowers of Zürich's landmark Grossmünster, and the stately historic buildings lining the Limmatquai on the east bank of the river.
large_IMG_9144.JPGlarge_IMG_9145.JPGlarge_IMG_9146.JPG

We crossed the Limmat on the Rudolf Brun bridge, one of several spans that connect the old town with the Niederdorf area on the east bank. We found the Limmatquai itself to be a rather bland array of boutiques along a wide and busy avenue but pedestrian Niederdorfstrasse one block inland was a delight. Here there were countless restaurants of Swiss and other ethnicities offering copious outdoor seating under wide canopies as well as an assortment of bars and galleries. This had more of a classic European old town feel than the more heavily touristed Altstadt on the west bank. Niederdorf occupies a hill of its own and narrow cobblestoned streets snaked upward inviting exploration. We decided to leave that for another night and instead returned to Limmatquai to take the Polybahn, a short funicular that carries passengers up the hill to a wide terrace with views over the Altstadt that rival the panorama of Niederdorf seen from Lindenhof.
large_IMG_9149.JPGlarge_IMG_5640.JPEGlarge_8a59b760-0cdb-11ed-b91b-593975bb6697.JPGlarge_IMG_5654.JPEG

Having by now worked up an appetite we wandered back downhill to Niederdorfstrasse. There were some tempting ethnic restaurants but I felt that we should have Swiss food on our first night in the country. We stumbled across a crowded place called Swiss Chuchi which seemed touristy but had good reviews and decided to go for it. All the tables were full so they stuffed us into a little waiting room inside the restaurant and appeared to forget about us for a while until I ventured out and gently reminded them of our existence. We were then shown to a rather cramped booth where I had to suck in my stomach to squeeze through the gap between the tables. Chuchi had all the requisite Swiss standards including cheese fondue, raclette, and even fondue Bourguignonne, which my mother used to make for us at home when I was a kid. The raclette was a particularly fun dish for the kids who loved melting the cheese in the little pans and mixing it with the meat and vegetables they had grilled on the surface. For Mei Ling and myself the calorie-heavy meal wasn't an experience we planned on repeating so it was good to have experienced all the classic Swiss mountain village dishes in one go.
large_IMG_9155.JPGlarge_IMG_5660.jpeg

After dinner we braved an intermittent drizzle to explore Niederdorf a little further. One landmark I wanted to visit was Cabaret Voltaire, the nightclub that became the birthplace of the Dada artistic movement just over a century ago. The entry room was atmospherically decorated but empty when we visited. Upstairs there were a fair number of people mostly dressed in black sipping drinks and engaging in animated discussion. There wasn't much that evoked the riotous scenes of creativity depicted in paintings and narratives from the period.
large_IMG_9157.JPG

Our internal clocks still read mid-afternoon so we probably could have kept going but between the rain and our tired feet we decided to call it a night. On our return to the garage I was pleased to discover that our four hour stay hadn't been as expensive as I feared. Once we arrived back at the Airbnb it was impossible to get Cleo and Ian to go to sleep although somehow Spenser nodded off right away. I allowed the older kids to watch TV knowing that it would be a difficult job getting them out of bed in the morning and eventually drifted off myself knowing that we still had a great deal to accomplish in two full days in Zürich.

Posted by zzlangerhans 19:43 Archived in Switzerland Tagged road_trip tony family_travel tony_friedman family_travel_blog Comments (0)

(Entries 1 - 3 of 3) Page [1]