Saturday, June 17, 2017

Day 16 - Home

I am writing this at 5am (or is it 11am?) from my bed. My own bed. My familiar, comfy, welcome bed. Our last day in Europe began at 5:45am on Friday morning as we rose after a very sleepless night in Zurich. I don't know if the Swiss always love the nightlife as they did on that particular Thursday night, or if they were unusually rowdy because it has been a holiday (Corpus Christi day), but the party at the bar and spilling onto the street below our apartment went on until 3am at least.

The boys, however, rose without (much) complaint and were reDy to leave for the airport by 6:30. Our Uber driver was there in a flash and quickly delivered us to Zurich's airport. Security began at the ticket counter as agents asked us a series of probing questions (Where have you been? Where did you stay? What did you see while you were in England? Paris? Etc.). This quickly turned surreal as Reed has difficulty understanding the agent's questions because of her accent, and he would turn to us before answering or ask, "What?" Tim and I thought, "Well, here we go...we are going to be detained for sure!" Luckily we were not and now have a story to give Reed a hard time about for years to come.

Our flight from Zurich to JFK was 8 hours 30 minutes, and after we went through Customs and retrieved our luggage, we had to change airports to LaGuardia. Our second Uber ride of the day was less positive, with a driver who didn't want to honor the agreed upon price and threatened to turn around and take us back to JFK. Finally he and Tim agreed on the price, and he delivered us to LaGuardia after some pretty white-knuckle driving. Frustrating for sure, but we were just thankful to be safely one step closer to come.

Unfortunately now we had a long layover and then a flight delay! We boarded our flight to Knoxville after 22 hours of wake time, and landed after a full 24 hours with very little sleep. My parents were a welcome sight, as they met us at the airport with our car to take us home! We were all in such a stupor as we stumbled across the threshold of home, we hurriedly said our good nights.

I look out my bedroom window at the familiar backyard scene that I love so much, and I cannot believe our epic trip is over. I am so grateful--for the prayers of so many who covered our trip each and every day, for the safety we experienced, for the accommodations that were ideal (even over a noisy bar), for the kindness of the strangers we met, for the good weather, for excellent public transportation, for good health, for the beauty and history we saw, for the adventure we experienced, for the food we enjoyed, for so much more...

Most of all, I am beyond thankful for these three people I shared the last 16 days with!!! Traveling together can challenge you, stretch you, push you, and wear on you, but it also grows you and binds you together in such a beautiful way. I am so proud of the boys--for their attitudes, their eagerness, and their engagement. And for Tim--our navigator who, with his able assistant Reed, steered us safely and successfully every step of the way. This was, indeed, the trip of a lifetime, but not our last. Maybe after a few more hours sleep, I can start dreaming of the next! 😉

Thursday, June 15, 2017

Day 15 - Hot

I wish I could think of a better title for this entry, but I am just too dang hot. I'm lying on top of the bed in our apartment in Zurich, freshly showered, with all of the windows open and listening to the blessed rain that began falling 20 minutes ago. Hopefully it will cool us off so we can sleep well tonight. We have a long day of travel ahead tomorrow.

This morning we woke to cool mountain air wafting in our open windows at Chalet Fontana in Murren. After our final breakfast and last-minute packing, we said goodbye to our host Denise and made our way to the station for our final gondola ride of the trip (yahoo!). We then caught a train to Interlaken Ost, where we would switch to another train to take us to Lucerne. Interlaken is absolutely stunning with the emerald waters of Lake Thun and Lake Brienz. If our travels ever bring us back to Switzerland, we might have to split our time between Murren and Interlaken.

We didn't have time to explore, but we switched trains quickly and made our way to Lucerne. Here we ate lunch beside the famous Chapel Bridge and then walked to see the Lion of Lucerne monument. The first rain of the day caught us then, so we quickly made our way back to the river, where we took a moment to get a gelato – our first of the trip! Then we caught the 4:10 train to Zürich. From the train station it was a 15 minute walk to our apartment for the night.

None of our lodgings for the trip have had air-conditioning; however, the heat of Zurich got to us after being in the high, cool mountain air since Monday. Then, add to that our dinner tonight at Zenghauskeller, a restaurant housed in a former 15th-century armory (crowded and certainly un-air conditioned), and we were dripping with sweat by the end of our meal. Even Reed was on the verge of collapse. We stopped by a grocery for drinks on the 20-minute walk home, and I hung out by the frozen foods!

We have a very nice apartment for our last night in Europe, but it sits two floors up from a bar. Zurich clearly has an avid nightlife (we passed restaurants and bars spilling over with people on our walk home tonight), so we will be listening to the chatter from the street below late into the night I would guess. That's similar to our time in Paris. It's fun to listen though because of the language difference...there's no forgetting that we are in a different land.

We leave at 6:30am for the airport, and after flying home through New York City (both JFK and LaGuardia), we will finally be home tomorrow night! I know two boys who are eager for their own beds, wi-fi, air conditioning, and most of all, their dog. Their mom and dad are too!

(Our street in Zurich, taken from the little balcony off our bedroom.) 

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Day 14 - Wanderweg

This morning we woke to rain, but by the time we finished breakfast and took showers, the rain had lifted. This was perfect because we planned to hike down to Gimmelwald to catch the gondola to Stechelberg. From there we would walk to Trummelbach Falls. Before setting off, the boys popped over to the knife store next door for some "necessary" purchases.

When I say "hike" I should confess it was a one-lane paved road that meandered down to the valley. The 45-minute walk took us past farms and pastures and had amazing views (as everywhere here does).  We caught the gondola, which saved us some steps, and from there set off on foot for the falls. It was another 45-minute walk, but who really cares when it is so beautiful.

When we arrived at Trummelbach Falls, we got onto a lift with other tourists that took us into the mountain. The Falls are a series of 10 glacier waterfalls inside the mountain. One can only see them by walking through a series of tunnels, up stairs (lots of them), and across platforms. It's incredible. The temperature plummets inside the mountain and the roar of the Falls thunders. The water for the Falls comes from meltwater from either snow or glaciers around the Jungfrau, Eiger, and Monch peaks, and there's is a lot of it!

After leaving the Falls, we walked an hour through the Lauterbrunnen Valley, known as the "valley of 72 waterfalls" and also the region that Tolkien hiked in 1911 and which inspired him as he wrote The Hobbit and LOTR. If you know this, you can spot Rivendale, the Misty Mountains, and even imagine the Shire. Of course you know we love that Tolkien himself walked similar paths to the ones we walked today.

We stopped for an early dinner in Lauterbrunnen, and we chose two traditional Swiss dishes: cheese fondue and rosti. From Lauterbrunnen we caught the gondola back to Murren (enough "wanderweg"! Translation: hiking trail....), and as we walked home from the station, the rain started to fall. Perfect timing!

Tonight will be spent packing, eating Swiss chocolate, and turning in early. Tomorrow we leave for Zurich and our Friday flight home, with a stopover for some sightseeing in Lucerne. Reed is giving an indication that it might not be so easy to get him out of here tomorrow. Come to think of it, Tim and Seth might be a problem too!

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Day 13 - Jungfrau

We woke to a beautiful clear sky, which meant Operation Jungfrau was a-go. Denise prepares breakfast for the chalet guests, served family style, so after a nice meal and enjoyable conversation with the other guests, we were off! Trains leave Murren at :18 and :58 past the hour, so we boarded a train at 8:58 that took us down where we caught the dreaded gondola to descend some more. Then we boarded a different train to begin our ascent to the Jungfrau. At 11,333 feet, it's quite a climb that  required two more different trains and two+ hours travel time.

It's quite a shock to emerge to the blinding brightness and crisp cold air. The visitors center is arranged very neatly with clear directions leading the many tourists to the observation platform, a small history exhibit, the ice castle, an outdoor viewing area of the glacier, the gift shop (of course!), and the restaurant. 

The Ice Palace was something else, with floors, walls, ceiling, and sculptures completely of ice. We scooted our feet through this area carefully. We don't want any injuries this close to the end of our trip! 


After all of this, we made our way to the area marked "Snow Fun," where visitors can ski, snowboard, tube, and sled. Tim and the boys enjoyed both the tubing and sledding, and they quickly worked up a sweat. It was surprisingly warm out there!

After leaving the Jungfrau we had to make the two hour trek back to Murren. This return trip seemed to  take a lot longer as we were all very tired. On the way back to the chalet we stopped by an Asian restaurant to get carry out ( yes, even in this Swiss village we can get take out!) We ate in our pajamas and played a game of Harry Potter trivia pursuit. Now we are all tucked in and looking forward to a relaxing day tomorrow.

Monday, June 12, 2017

Day 12 - Getting to the top of Europe

We have reached the final destination for our trip: Switzerland! Specifically Murren, Switzerland. Both of the boys have been here and greatly desired to bring us. Seth was here in 2013, and Reed was here last summer. From here one can travel to the Jungfrau, the "Top of Europe."

To get here, it requires travel on three separate trains and a cable car. (I could have done without the cable car!🤑) Our trains were on a tight schedule, so thankfully they were precisely on time and we made our connections.

We are staying at the same chalet where the boys stayed, and the manager, Denise, greeted us and gave us our keys. There's another American family staying here as well as a woman from South Africa. The chalet has very low thresholds, so Seth looks a bit like Gandalf visiting a Hobbit hole.

For dinner we hopped across the street to the Stager Stubli, where the boys enjoyed horse steak when they were here before. The chef was kind enough to make it for them (and Tim) tonight even though it wasn't on the menu. I had the chicken, which was delicious, and I didn't feel like I was missing out on anything.

We hope to go to the Jungfrau on one of our two mornings here, but it depends on the weather. Luckily Denise said tomorrow looks good, so we will try to catch a train in the morning and head to the "top of Europe."

The French countryside, as seen by train.

The cable car...I'm only smiling because we haven't started moving yet!

Almost there! From the Murren 
 train station to the chalet on foot. 

Day 11 - Versailles

Another sunny day in France, and we made our way to the Palace of Versailles. Built by King Louis XIV, its grandeur boggles the mind. We had purchased our tickets in advance, but apparently so did hundreds of others. We joined a serpentine line that wove across the courtyard, and we waited for nearly an hour to enter the palace. 

Immediately you enter the royal rooms of the King. Even though we have visited castles on this trip,nothing compares to the opulence of Versailles.   Marble walls, paintings, murals, statues...just so much beauty. And beyond the rooms, one catches glimpses of the immense gardens through the windows. 

The most breathtaking room is the Hall of Mirrors. The room features 17 mirrored arches and a total of 357 mirrors. Each mirror is hung across from one of the arched windows, and hanging from the ceiling are crystal chandeliers. It is indescribable.

The tour of the palace takes about an hour, and then we entered the gardens. On the weekends the 50 fountains are turned on as music plays, so we were lucky to visit on a Sunday. First, however, we ate lunch at a restaurant near the Grand Canal. Luckily we could sit at a shaded table outside. Next, we rented bicycles and rode around the entire Grand Canal, an impressive 5.57km. Rowboats filled the canal, and picnickers dotted the surrounding lawn. 

(If you look closely you might see some nappers under those trees!)

(From the far end of the Grand Canal looking back toward the Palace.)

When we finished our bike ride it was 3:45pm, and the fountain show had begun. We spent the next two  hours walking gravel paths through manicured  hedges to visit each fountain. The statues forming the fountains were spectacular, but to see them spraying water in their unique designs was truly great. 

The fountain show stopped at 5pm, so we lingered in the gardens for another hour to let the crowds disperse. Versailles--both the Palace and gardens--are on the UNESCO World Heritage List, one of thirty-one such designations in France, and it is clear why. We are glad we devoted the entire day to seeing them. 

Saturday, June 10, 2017

Day 10 - So much to see

We woke this morning in a different land! Warm temperatures, blue skies, and very little English overheard on the streets. In London it seemed as if everyone was a tourist like us. Here it seems like everyone is Parisan except us. The women are chic, the men ride mopeds, and no one seems in a hurry. I'm writing this at nearly 10pm, and the sky is as bright as midday and people are just sitting down for dinner at the cafes on our street.

We had 9am admittance to the Louvre this morning, so we woke early and rode the Metro to the museum. Entry was smooth and quick, and the crowd was sparse so we made our way immediately to the Mona Lisa. 

There was a small gathering around the rope    boundary, and we gathered in it. To be honest, it wa s  anticlimactic, especially since in the neighboring gallery is a wall featuring works by DaVinci that are equally if not more beautiful, including the Madonna of the Rocks. Of course, I am no art critic, so feel free to ignore my opinion. 

The Louvre is…Overwhelming! Of course it was originally a palace for the kings of France, and the building is vast and stunning on its own. Then consider all of the art that seems to go on and on, and it is hard to know where to begin and where to end. We spent a few hours looking at European and Italian paintings, and then we took a break in Tuileries Garden for lunch at an outdoor café.

After lunch we returned to the Louvre to see the Venus de Milo, and the sculptures which were spread throughout several floors of the museum. We reached our five-hour mark, and reluctantly left the Louvre to rest and enjoy some ice cream in the Gardens. I think Tim even got a little nap!

Next, we took the Metro to Notre Dame and spent an hour or so in this magnificent Cathedral. Reed loves the audio guides as much as his dad and me, so he and Tim took their time listening to each and every audio track. It is delightful to watch how he soaks it all up. Seth does too, but today seems to be his hump day for the trip. He didn't sleep well last night in our  new apartment, and I think he was ready to call it a day. He was a good trooper though and patiently waited in the nave while we finished our audio tour.

After it was unanimous consent to return to the apartment for some R&R. Tim and I both took a nap while the boys chilled out. Then they requested to stay home for dinner so Tim and I could "have a date." Luckily our apartment is within walking distance of numerous cafés. We walked to a grocery across the street and got microwave meals for them, and then Tim and I went to an Italian restaurant within sight of the apartment. It was delicious! We were able to sit at a sidewalk table and watch the Parisans return home from their day. Tonight we will be asleep before the sun goes down, and tomorrow we will travel to Versailles for another day in a Parisan palace and gardens. Bonne nuit!

Day 9 - Bon Jour!

Our time in London has come to an end, and today we took the Eurostar to Paris. We left our flat at 10am to discover that both buses near our flat were not running for some reason. We left the way we arrived--wheeling our suitcases on the flagstone sidewalks to the Tube.

We made it to the Kings Cross/St. Pancreas train station in plenty of time for our 1:30 train, which was a good thing. We still had to visit Platform 9-3/4! (If you're not a Harry Potter fan, another reference missed on you...sorry!) There was a huge crowd of muggles gathered to pose for a picture pushing the trolley through the magical barrier, but since we did that already at the Warner Bros. Studio tour, we skipped on to one final HP gift shop. 

We ate lunch, went through security and customs, and boarded our comfortable train car without a problem. Now we are on French soil, traveling through the countryside. First impressions are of small villages       gathered around a church--the steeple rises above the red roofs of the homes--and windmills. The sky is beautifully blue and dotted with white clouds. We've all seized the opportunity for naps. 

Upon arrival in Paris we braved the Metro to the stop nearest the apartment that we rented on Airbnb. The boys maneuvered our suitcases down more flagstone sidewalks, bustling with people. We found the tall, red double doors leading to our apartment and climbed a spiral staircase to meet Lillian, the apartment's owner. It is a quaint two-bedroom apartment, perfect for our short stay in the City of Lights.

We arrived at our apartment around 5:30pm, which was perfect timing to get settled before making our way to a restaurant for dinner. Apparently most restaurants do not even open until 7:30pm in Paris. In London we always found ourselves eating in nearly empty dining rooms, and when we asked why we realized that we are the "early bird" diners. That worked to our advantage in England, but it seems as though we will have to adjust to Parisian eating hours. Seth's calculus teacher, who also teaches French, gave us several restaurant recommendations, so we made our way to one of his favorites. It lived up to his recommendation! The boys both ate duck for dinner, and we shared two decadent desserts: crème brûlée and strawberries with pistachio cream. 

After dinner we took a short stroll to the Eiffel Tower. A crowd was already gathering on the lawn and on the steps beyond for sundown. We maneuvered past the many street vendors selling replicas, along with fidget spinners and selfie sticks. We also ate chocolate-filled crepes (one of Reed's fondest memories from his visit to Paris last summer) and took photos with the Eiffel Tower in the background, thankfully finding some students from Utah who were willing to take one for us. There was a very strong police presence, which increased as it grew darker, so as soon as the twinkling lights came on the tower, we began our journey home.

We definitely feel like we are in a new country. There is a lively spirit on the streets, as people sit and eat at outdoor cafes even at 11pm. Last night a huge group of teenagers gathered in a park down from our apartment, and they talked and sang well after midnight. Poor Tim wrestled with his need for a breeze from an open window and the need for quiet. I'm not sure how much sleep he got! But I rather enjoyed it, as I felt like I had fallen into a French musical and I am playing the part of the American tourist.