A Travellerspoint blog

From the Rhône to the Rhine: Lake Thun road trip

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I had adopted the same strategy in Bern that I had in Zürich. Airbnb's within walking distance of the old town were horrifically expensive and I would have had to pay for overnight garage parking as well. Instead we stayed in a rather bland building in a fairly empty area close to the northern suburb of Zollikofen. Our apartment was quite dated but the rear balcony looked out over a beautiful patchwork of vegetable fields. The owners had taken advantage of this by setting up a dining table in their back garden which seemed like it would be a very atmospheric place to have a home-cooked dinner. This probably made it easier to ignore the busy road and the bus stop which were directly adjacent to the front door.

My plan for the day was to take some quick rides on the toboggan at the top of Gurten hill and then speed off to our day trip to Lake Thun. With an early enough jump we could make it to Grindelwald for a true close-up Alpine experience. We had a light snack at the Airbnb instead of a full breakfast and drove to Gurten. Just before we reached the parking garage we saw a colorful oversized skull suspended in a courtyard close to the road. After parking we walked back and found a concrete lot filled with large, quirky sculptures but no sign of activity. There seemed to be some kind of restaurant behind the courtyard but it was closed so we just spent a few minutes checking out all the weird items that were on the premises.

At the Gurten funicular the ticket agent told me that the toboggan didn't open until eleven. This was quite a painful development because it meant we would lose another precious hour of our day if we decided to wait. In the end we decided there were probably other things to do at the top of the hill to fill up the time. There was in fact a track with some cute little motorized bumper cars but the kids were really too big for them and only rode a couple of times. They spent more time playing with an intricate ball track that propelled plastic balls through a series of mechanisms that could be controlled by wheels and levers on the outside. I'd seen things like it before in Children's Museums but never anything of quite this size and complexity. Later I learned the inspiration for the sculpture was the creations of Swiss artist Jean Tinguely.

Eleven o'clock finally rolled around and we headed over to the toboggan but when we arrived there seemed to be some kind of staff training going on. I watched for about ten minutes and then used my phrasebook German to ask if they were open. The answer was that they didn't open until one o'clock. Ouch. Waiting another two hours was out of the question so we gathered our disappointed kids and took the funicular back down to the base. Now we would be getting started on our day trip three hours late for nothing and Grindelwald was likely out of the question. It was no great tragedy since I had already mentally assigned the Alpine region of Switzerland to a future trip when the kids were older and better able to appreciate the scenery. I also had high hopes for Thun and wanted to be able to explore the town at leisure instead of having to rush onward to another destination.

It only took us a half hour to reach Thun and I immediately took a liking to the place. The main road led us directly to the old town which was lined with classic Swiss buildings whose ground floors were occupied by countless restaurants and boutiques. A beautiful castle with four turrets loomed above us on its hilltop perch in the center of the old town.

Since we had basically skipped breakfast finding a solid meal was the first order of business. Fortunately we'd parked just outside an Italian restaurant named Beau Rivage with great ratings and we had an excellent lunch on their back patio overlooking the River Aare. We felt an immediate connection with this unheralded river town that I had only investigated after discovering it on the map and we were excited to explore it thoroughly.

The old town is just a kilometer inland from where the Aare reemerges from Lake Thun. Thun is an ancient city of strategic importance that was an administrative center for the Romans and later the Burgundians, and the beauty of the old town reflects centuries of investment and expansion by its occupiers. After lunch we walked to the narrow river island via the Untere Schleuse covered wooden bridge, which was at least the equal in beauty to the much more famous Chapel Bridge in Lucerne. Underneath the bridge there was a low dam with a central gap that directed the water very forcefully into the center of the channel. Here some enterprising surfers had tied ropes to the bridge which they held onto in order to surf the turbulent flow that emerged from the dam. It seemed quite difficult and the surfers were thrown downstream very forcefully when they eventually lost their footing.

The river island was somewhat of a disappointment. The one street that traversed the eel-shaped island was lined with greyish, modern buildings that housed boring stores and generic restaurants. We quickly returned to the east bank of the Aare to be reassured by the atmospheric old street of Obere Hauptgasse and the spacious, colorful Rathausplatz. The picturesque castle was now immediately above us, an irresistible temptation.

We ascended the hill via a steep staircase that led to a flat summit with walled cobblestone alleys. Up close the castle was even more like a page out of a story book. Thun Castle was built in stages from the 12th to the 15th century by a succession of Swiss noble families. We were able to enter the courtyard and enjoy its medieval character without having to waste time and money on a tour of the interior.

From the alleys and green spaces around the castle we were able to enjoy beautiful views of the old town and the Aare. Everything we had expected but hadn’t found in Lucerne was here in Thun, a truly magical city that is almost unknown to most travelers. The best part was that we had it almost all to ourselves on this sunny Monday morning while the tourists were congregating in more celebrated locales.

Twenty more minutes of driving along the southern side of the lake brought us to Spiez, a rustic and hilly town where everything of interest to travelers is concentrated on a small promontory that shelters the harbor. Between the greenish-blue water of the lake and the densely vegetated hillside across the harbor I felt almost as though we had been transported to the Caribbean. The dense clouds obscuring a mountain peak in the distance gave me strong recollections of Martinique and Nicaragua. Of course all we had to do was turn around for the unmistakable architecture of old Europe to return us to reality.

We ascended a series of stairs and sloping paths to reach Spiez Castle, parts of which date back to the 10th century, and the neighboring castle church. The castle had been kept in immaculate condition and the grounds were carefully manicured. Gardens and balconies at the top of the hill provided stunning views over the lake.

On the opposite side of the castle from where we had entered Mei Ling discovered a grove of cherry trees and we guiltily harvested some samples from the branches we could reach. I still had Oberhofen Castle on my itinerary but it was closed on Mondays and I wasn't sure how much we would be able to see of the exterior under those circumstances. In the end we decided we had seen enough castles and we would return to Bern in time to ride the toboggan before it closed.

Back at Gurten we went through the whole process once again with buying tickets for the funicular and riding to the top. This time there were no unpleasant surprises and we found the toboggan open for business with just a few other customers. I bought a package of three rides for each of us and even Mei Ling agreed to give it a try. It was rather similar to the toboggan we had ridden the previous day at Pilatus, not as fast or thrilling as the typical American mountain coaster but also without the concern that one might flip out of the track entirely. With the toboggan mission now complete we proceeded onward to the old town of Bern.

Posted by zzlangerhans 18:41 Archived in Switzerland Tagged road_trip family family_travel travel_blog thun tony_friedman family_travel_blog zollikofen gurten gurtenbahn spiez Comments (0)

From the Rhône to the Rhine: Lucerne

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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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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

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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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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

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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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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)

This is the Place: Ogden and Snowbasin

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Choosing a ski resort near Salt Lake City was a real headache. There were several to choose from and they varied substantially in terms of cost, altitude, and suitability for beginning skiers. The most well known resort was Park City, which boasted the largest ski area in the United States and a reputation for catering to the rich and famous. Once I saw that the price for a child's full day ski lesson was four hundred dollars I quickly eliminated Park City from consideration. I had considered $150 to be quite high at Steamboat two years earlier and the only people I could imagine spending $400 were those who were so wealthy that they didn't even think about line items that were under four figures. Those people probably only skied at resorts with worldwide recognition like Park City or Aspen, but bragging rights weren't part of my calculations. I just wanted a good experience for the kids at a price that wouldn't leave me feeling like a sucker.

There was a cluster of smaller ski resorts in the Wasatch Range between Salt Lake City and Park City, and each had some advantages and disadvantages. Brighton had a great deal for families with free lift tickets for kids under ten, but the base altitude was 8700 feet and the summit was at 10500. This wasn't as bad as some of the Colorado resorts but I'm extremely risk averse when it comes to the kids and I didn't want to take any chance of them feeling sick and not being able to enjoy their time on the slopes. I'd chosen Steamboat for our first trip specifically because of the base elevation of 6900 but all of the kids had felt ill at one point or another as we traversed higher altitudes on the road to the resort. I was the only one who had gone to the summit of at 10000 feet and while I hadn't felt sick, I got winded very quickly trying to make my way down the more difficult slopes. Deer Valley was lower altitude and had the added bonus of prohibiting snowboarders, but it was also extremely expensive unless we took a limited option which only provided access to beginner slopes. It might have worked perfectly but it could also have significantly limited the kids progress. I was still weighing the options when I came across a mention of ski resorts near Salt Lake City's northern neighbor, Ogden. There were actually three choices in the mountains east of Ogden and the most promising seemed to be Snowbasin, the closest one to Salt Lake City. The lessons were particularly reasonably priced compared to the SLC reports. My only concern was that there seemed to be a relative paucity of beginner slopes at Snowbasin which might mean that Mei Ling and the kids would be skiing the same terrain over and over again. Ultimately I decided that it was more important to focus on technique than variety on the green slopes and we committed to Snowbasin.

It was an hour's drive from Park City to the small, isolated subdivision outside of Ogden where our Airbnb was located. There's no accommodation at the ski resort so this was the closest option and I think we were lucky to find it. The basement of a good-sized brick house had been converted into an Alpine-style lodge with wood beams, shaggy carpeting, and a gas-powered fireplace. It was the kind of place you might have seen a family base themselves for a ski vacation on a TV sitcom, totally classic. In the morning we admired the view of the snow-covered Northern Wasatch Mountains behind the houses on the opposite side of the cul-de-sac.

For our first day on the slopes everyone but me was enrolled in lessons. It was a much easier process to get things going that it had been at the Steamboat and Killington mega resorts on our previous ski trips. For the first time we had rented our equipment from the resort and everything fit perfectly based on the information I'd provided online. Hardly anyone else was competing for the attention of the staff and we got everyone connected to their ski instructors and on the slopes quickly. I could probably have benefited from lessons myself but at this point I'm more focused on staying in one piece than skiing faster or on more challenging terrain. I expect within a couple of years the kids will pass me by and I'm perfectly happy with that. Instead I used that first day to familiarize myself with the trails so that hopefully I'd be able to guide my family to the safest routes on the last two days. Snowbasin has a fairly simple layout with a gondola that leads from the base lodge straight up to the top of the mountain. There were no lines at all and I had a relaxing ten minute ride up to the Needles Cirque, a couple hundred feet short of the Needles Peak. From the top of the gondola there were impressive views of the stony cliffs leading up to the peak as well as the snowy panorama of the valley below.

I didn't have much difficulty getting accustomed to skiing again. It had only been three months since our last trip and the slopes were in good shape considering how late it was in the season. Over the next few hours I explored pretty much all of the intermediate trails on Snowbasin, taking one short break to stop at the base lodge and check on the kids while they were having lunch. Mei Ling was so focused on her lesson that she didn't want to take a lunch break. The best views on the mountain were from Strawberry Peak at the southernmost edge of the resort. From here I could look west past the town of Ogden and across the Great Salt Lake all the way to the Newfoundland Mountains projecting out of the salt flats. The wind was so strong here I felt that it was trying to knock me off the ridge as I skied down a narrow path to the intermediate slope. I made a mental note that it probably wouldn't be wise to bring the family to this side even if they were ready for the blue trails.

By early afternoon the temperature had climbed well into the seventies and I was just trying to kill time until the lessons were over. As I've mentioned before I'm rather indifferent about skiing and only got back into it so that the kids would learn at a young age. My main goal is to help them get better and avoid getting injured, a task I failed at miserably at Killington a few months previously when I detached my right biceps tendon trying to hold a chairlift that was about to carry Cleo back down the mountain. Fortunately I didn't need to have surgery and pretty much retained full use of my arm but I took it as a warning that skiing is a relatively dangerous sport that can change someone's life in a matter of seconds. I got another reminder of this on my very last day when the snow at the bottom of the mountain had become wet and heavy under the sun's relentless glare. A simple turn on a nearly flat stretch of the trail turned into a cartwheeling wipeout when my rear ski caught in the snow instead of following its partner. The detached skis came to rest several yards away as I slowly inventoried my body parts and found them to be intact. I resolved to be much more judicious with my speed at the bottom of the trails over the next two days.

Once the family was reunited it seemed that everyone was very happy with their lessons and their progress and we decided to proceed with our plan to ski independently for the final two days. We treated the kids to dinner at a Japanese hibachi restaurant called Kobe Teppanyaki which was in the outskirts of Ogden not far from our Airbnb. It was a bit of a drop in cuisine from the previous two nights but it was worth it to see the kids. astounded expressions as the chef executed his repertoire of tricks at the grill.

On our second day at Snowbasin all of us except Spenser took the Needles gondola to the top with some trepidation. I was pretty comfortable with the route I had chosen which involved taking the narrow traverses that connected the easier intermediate slopes. Cleo was the strongest of the three so I let her forge ahead while I hung back with Mei Ling and Ian to steer them away from the outer edge of the traverse. If they had gone over the edge it wouldn't have been like going over a cliff but it was still a fairly steep incline of ungroomed snow. When I looked back down the traverse Cleo was nowhere in sight so I took off after her fairly quickly. I reached the intersection of the traverse and the advanced intermediate slope without having spotted her and tried to figure out which way she had gone. The traverse continued on the other side of the trail but it seemed unlikely she had seen it and gone all the way across without me. Finally I heard her calling and realized she had diverted onto the intermediate slope and was about a hundred yards downhill, way to far for her to clamber back up to where I was. There really was nothing else to do at this point but for the three of us to join her. The problem was that the place where she was now stopped was the beginning of Sweet Revenge, the steepest intermediate trail I had encountered on the previous day's exploration and the slope I was specifically trying to avoid by taking the traverses. We grouped together at the top and peeked over the lip at an incline which looked even steeper than I remembered. Mei Ling and the kids were terrified but there wasn't really any choice except to go down. I kept everyone together and coached them to make the widest possible serpentine descent with sharp turns to avoid gaining too much downhill speed. For the most part it worked although Ian had some trouble completing his turns and had to wipe himself out to avoid losing control of his descent. It was rather painful the first time but the trial by fire was effective and for the rest of the day there wasn't any terrain that could inspire fear in the kids. We even went down Sweet Revenge three or four more times and each time it seemed less steep than the last.

Ogden doesn't attract many tourists for anything except the great outdoors, but it did have one area that I was interested in exploring. Historic 25th Street is a restored main street at the center of downtown Ogden that captures some of the style that characterized the city when it was an important junction on the Transcontinental Railroad in the mid 19th century. We did feel as though we'd entered a time warp, perhaps not so much traveling back to the 19th century but possibly the mid 20th. The street was lined with quirky bars, small restaurants, and a surprising diversity of craft stores and galleries. As we've become accustomed to in Utah, an imposing stretch of mountains loomed majestically at the far end of the street. I realized I was probably looking at the very peaks from which I had gazed down upon the city the previous day.

After walking up and down the entire length of the street we stopped in one particularly intriguing gallery where an artist was sketching in charcoal. She kindly stopped her work to explain the process to the kids while Mei Ling and I browsed the characteristic Western paintings of landscapes and wildlife. Afterwards we stopped by an interesting restaurant we had noticed earlier with a sidewalk patio. It had filled up considerably since we had first passed by and at first the hostess couldn't seat us. As we stood outside calling the the restaurants on my Ogden list trying to find an open table on Friday evening she took mercy on us and found us a great table with bench seats right up against the bar. It was very fortunate we hadn't walked away because Table 25 was an awesome find both for the quality and diversity of the food as well as the atmosphere. The restaurant was less than a year old, another sign of the revitalization of this fascinating street.

On our final day of skiing Mei Ling and the kids were more confident and familiar with the terrain so I worked with them on their technique, particularly on keeping their skis parallel and controlling their speed with turning rather than by snowplowing. Ian seemed to have become temporarily fearless and a couple of times he had spectacular wipeouts blasting downhill after failing to complete his turns. I found this so terrifying that I had to threaten to ground him at the base if he couldn't keep his skiing under control. He managed to straighten things out and for the rest of the day we explored the remaining territory of the resort. We even made it over to Strawberry Peak although the snow wasn't as good quality there as it had been when I went there alone on the first day. We had lunch at the Needles Lodge near the top of the mountain for a change. The view was good but the food choices weren't as good as at the base lodge. By afternoon the temperature was close to 80 degrees and we had had to deposit our ski parkas at the base. We saw some people even skiing bare chested. The snow was pretty heavy at the bottom of the mountain and the kids didn't argue when I suggested we call it a day with an hour to go before the lifts closed. We picked up Spenser who had really enjoyed his three days of ski school and made a lot of progress towards joining us on the intermediate slopes. Over the three days my family had really impressed me, especially Mei Ling who had to overcome a fear of heights as well as the usual fear of falling that everyone has when skiing. I was really glad that I had chosen to introduce the kids to this exciting sport, even if I personally would rather be spending winter vacations in warm climates.

Even though we were more experienced three days was still the perfect amount of time to be on the slopes. I think we were all relieved not to have to go back for a fourth day. Instead we piled back into the car and drove back to Salt Lake City where we checked into our next Airbnb, a dated apartment with a walk-through bedroom and cracked porcelain bathroom fixtures. From there we hopped back on the interstate and drove to the eastern edge of the city where small roads snaked off into the canyons among the Wasatch Mountains. Above us in the hills were rows of low-profile homes that were hardly distinguishable from the surrounding landscape in the dusk. We took the turn onto Mill Creek Canyon Road which soon felt as isolated as any mountain road hundreds of miles from the nearest city. As the darkness deepened I started to wonder if the restaurant we were seeking could possibly be located in this forsaken wilderness. Google Maps showed it a few miles ahead but was it possible that I had accidentally entered the wrong information? Perhaps we were actually headed to the Log Haven hiking trail instead of the Log Haven restaurant. We had no cell phone signal and therefore had no choice but to proceed to our destination. Soon enough we were relieved to come across a well-lighted wooden mansion that was clearly the restaurant we were seeking.

Log Haven is a former private estate built at enormous expense by a local businessman using logs that were shipped in from Oregon and hauled up the canyon by horse-drawn wagons. The property went through several cycles of ownership and underwent its most recent restoration in 1994. It is widely regarded as one of the best restaurants in Utah both for the setting and the cuisine. Once I discovered it during my pre-travel research I was sure to reserve a table well in advance. Our final dinner of the trip proved to be a worthy complement to the other extravagant dinners we had had on this short vacation. Large portions of game and local fish were served with creative vegetable sides in the western style we had grown accustomed to over the past few days. Log Haven had an exceptionally beautiful interior with a wood motif that was maintained down to the construction of the dining chairs. Few think of Utah as a marquee dining destination but I was hard pressed to think of any journey where we had eaten so well so consistently.

Our flight back to Miami didn't depart until mid afternoon which gave us ample time to have a leisurely breakfast and do one last bit of exploration. We headed back to the Wasatch Range and this time we drove up Emigration Canyon to Ruth's Diner, a historic and beloved breakfast spot set amid the snowy foothills. Despite the remote location the large parking lot was rapidly filling with cars, making me thankful we had pushed ourselves into an early departure from the Airbnb. We had a hearty and filling traditional American breakfast to prepare us for the arduous trek back to Miami. As we left we saw that a substantial line of prospective customers had already formed outside.

I had spotted a viewpoint on Google Maps so we drove along the canyon road a few miles further until it ascended a hill with a couple of hairpin loops. We parked in the lookout and gazed over the reservoir and the furrowed hills beyond. On the opposite side of the road was a dirt path that ascended to the top of the hill. From here we had even better views of the mountains and some small clusters of mansions that nearly blended into the countryside. We gazed around and bid farewell to Salt Lake City for the second time in a year.

Our flight home also required a connection but we didn't have the nerve-wracking deviation from the scheduled route that had complicated our outward itinerary. As we flew from the area I craned my neck painfully for one last look behind the wing at the densely populated valley and the vast, surreal lake that gives Salt Lake City its name. I had a strong feeling that this visit wouldn't be our last.

Posted by zzlangerhans 01:11 Archived in USA Tagged road_trip skiing utah family_travel salt_lake_city friedman tony_friedman family_travel_blog Comments (0)

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