On the morning of Wednesday April 3, we awoke in Rome for another yummy breakfast in our hotel, featuring fresh-baked cakes, breads, Nutella, cheeses, eggs, cereals, coffee, juice . . . plenty of options for a free hotel breakfast in a country where it is very common to just have some bread and coffee. The sun was making an appearance, brightening the room and our spirits.
I grabbed a few pieces of fruit for the journey, and we headed to the room for the final check out. Farewell Sacre Coure golden statue, the beautiful view from our 6th floor room.
Luckily, our hotel was just meters from the Roma Termini Train station, so it was easy to walk and board our train to Milan. It was a super high speed train that would whisk us to Milan in less than 3 hours, a journey that could take a very long time with regular trains. We paid dearly for the ticket, but with limited time and an ambitious itinerary, this was the way to go.
A bit of reading, a bit of napping, passing through gorgeous Tuscan rolling hills . . .Brendan tapped my knee to point out when we were in Florence. “You love this city, right?” I do like Florence, and was especially fond of my recent visit with Kat. Then before long, we were pulling into Milan’s Central Station where were transferred to a packed Swiss train for the Alps. It was so crowded, that even though I booked weeks in advance, we didn’t have seats next to each other — just across the aisle. No problem. Brendan was reading a good book, Umberto Eco’s Baudolino. I had a book for book club, Erik Larson’s Devil in the White City, but I just couldn’t get into that dark world of mystery and terror. I was craving more of light and fun travel writing. Anyway, I was sitting at a table with two Italian grandparents and their charming little granddaughter, coloring and chatting away. Grandpa was kind, and we spoke to each other with my limited Italian and his limited English. Very friendly. And Grandma made sure I was well fed throughout the journey with pizza, foccacia, and other snacks. It made me miss my own grandparents and my own family in general. They were from Recco, a local town nearby on the Ligurian Coast, bringing their granddaughter back to their son and daughter-in-law, who live in Frankfurt, Germany. Maybe she was visiting for Easter? The son was going to pick them up from Basel to lessen the amount of time the girl would have to spend on the train. But she was loving it at this point.
This train ride is one of the most scenic, starting just minutes after Milan. On a clear day, you can see the snow-capped peaks surrounding Milan. We glided right towards them, first stopping in a charming town called Stressa. Stressa is nestled along a lake, and seems like a charming and inviting escape near Milan, and ultimately not too far from Genova. I should go sometime during swimming season.
After Stressa, the mountains grew more dramatic, the lakes bluer, and soon we passed through some tunnels and popped out along Lake Thun, stopping in Spiez. I traveled this same route with my seniors in February for a snowy writer’s workshop perched in a hotel in Wengen, up in the Alpine Peaks of the Berner Oberland. When Brendan said he wanted to see alps, I knew we had to head to that region, and I could think of no better place than my favorite spot, Interlaken, nestled at the base of those peaks between two turquoise glacial lakes, Thun and Brienz.
The air was fresh, the vibe instantly awe-inspiring. We climbed into our last train for a short ride to Interlaken and exited in bright, relaxed spirits. It was sunny and slightly foggy, probably because of the snow-melt. We had arrived in the off-season, where skiers were squeezing in their last runs on the slopes while snow melted in the lower elevations. I clapped my hands with exhiliration and pure joy on my 10th visit to my favorite place in the world. Brendan’s hay fever and jet lag were both minimized and he instantly appreciated the stunning peace and beauty of the region. Even in the off season it was stunning, with both green grass and snow-capped peaks. “Are you happy?” he asked.
We took the short stroll to our hotel, which I had found along the River Aare, a blue green river connecting alpine, glacial Lake Brienz with the slightly warmer castle-strewn Lake Thun. I spent many days swimming in these lakes during summer visits. In my winter visit they were a steel gray, so I was glad to see them back to their vibrant blue.
Our hotel was actually a few guest rooms above a restaurant. We had a view of the river and the high peaks beyond, including Jungfrau, the highest peak in the region, snow-capped even in August. We were extra lucky with our room because they upgraded us to a spacious suite, and the hotel staff couldn’t have been more friendly. Brendan was impressed with the Swiss Hospitality, and while I had grown to love it from all my other visits, I too was impressed and appreciative.
We wandered through the city, touristy but in the good kind of way: friendly shops, adorable knick-knacks, snacks and chocolate, and paragliders floating through the sky in peaceful descent to the big green field in the center of town. Elderly couples strolled hand-in-hand, groups of tourists gazed up in awe, friends and families in good spirits. Switzerland is Peace, Love, and Happiness. Brendan later told me, “Your soul lives here.”
After some shopping, we went for a walk to Lake Brienz. In this shoulder season, we had the whole trail almost to ourselves as we wandered through the woods, gazed at the majestic water, and passed my swans in Bonigen.
We continued along to Iseltwald, nearing the waterfall when, suddenly, the souls of my 1998 hiking boots literally split and fell apart. The rubber was that old. The boots were not worn away, but I guess that stuff doesn’t last forever.
In such a charming location, it didn’t affect me much at all as I hobbled along, but we decided to turn back, and boarded a bus for Interlaken back in Bonigen, continuing good, animated conversation and philosophy. Then we booked PARAGLIDING for tomorrow. My third time and Brendan’s first. We were going to fly.
That night, we went for dinner in the Happy Inn Lodge, a very special place for me because I stayed in this hostel my first time in Interlaken with my friend Anna the summer of 2001. We had always wanted to visit Switzerland, and spontaneously boarded a night train from Amsterdam when we were unable to get accommodation. We didn’t have sleeper cabins, so we sat in the seats all night and made friends, groggily rolling into town in complete silent awe along with our fellow passengers as the mountains revealed themselves to us. It was the most beautiful sight I had ever seen.
At the train station, we went to the hotel board, saw hotels with availability, picked up the phone, and the Happy Inn Lodge welcomed us. We stayed there, shared some drinks, and enjoyed a splendid stay, my first of many. While Brendan and I opted to stay in better accomodation, Happy Inn Lodge has good beer and food, and was perfect for a peaceful dinner, followed by a walk through town to the outskirts, where I checked on the dance club at the hostel Funny Farm. Closed tonight, but it would be open tomorrow (Thursday). Good Plan.
Back to the hostel where we watched some tv on NBC.com on the iPhone before drifting into mountain-air dreams.
On Thursday morning, we awoke for an absolutely delicious Swiss breakfast in the hotel, including homemade jam, fresh breads, farm fresh eggs, cappuccino, hot chocolate, whatever we wanted. Everything was fresh and flavorful, and again, the staff were super warm and friendly.
We prepared to fly, and a van came to pick us up, toting us to the top of a nearby mountain. I went paragliding that first time with Anna in 2001, and it was the most exhilirating experieince of my life to that date. It was summer. And it was summer when I went again with my friend Krista in 2006. Now in 2013, I went for my third flight in early spring. They suited us up in helmets and our seat, attached us to our instructors, and I snapped some photos of snowy mountains and the grass making her spring appearance.
Before long, Brendan was running down the hill then AIRBORNE. I was so exited for him because I can never forget that first time you are flying, feet dangling in the sky among the birds and trees.
Then I ran down the hill, and shortly after we were in the air, my instructor had me take the controls and allowed me to steer and fly a bit. “You’re ready now. It’s your third flight.” He explained that I could take flying lessons in Interlaken, spread out throughout the year, or in an intense two week course with several flights a day after some ground training. Once you are done, you can buy the equipment (used) for about 1200 CHF. “At that point, it’s a pretty free hobby.” Something to really think about. There is no feeling like it.
The flights always feel too short because before long, I was spinning to the ground in dramatic dips and curves before a soft landing. Brendan gave me the thumbs up, clearly high from the adrenaline.
We packed our bags for the mountains. According to my iPhone, it was in the teens and 20s up in Murren and Wengen (two sides of the valley). I took him up to Wengen, where I was just visiting with my high school students in February. We hoped the roads would still be snow-covered for some tobogganing. We also packed our swimsuits, eager to use the spa at the Hotel Lauberhorn, where my dad and I stayed in the summer of 2011.
then boarded the cog railway up the mountain to Wengen as Brendan gazed in awe. The alps are impressive from the valley and even flying. But we were going way up into them now, and the views were dramatic and ever-changing. When we exited the train, it was clear that the iPhone was wrong and the snow was melting, so we put our bags in the locker, stopped in the Coop where we found some Duff beer, yeah Duff, and went on a snowy/muddy hike up the mountain. We stopped at a bench on the edge of the woods to just be. It was the most peaceful, wonderful moment of the trip.
Then back down to Wengen where we enjoyed traditional Swiss food. We ordered fondue with herbs and rosti with eggs and cheese. A hearty mountain meal where I ate with both my father that summer and my students in the winter.
We were saddened to learn that the Victoria Lauberhorn was closed for the season (we missed it by a couple of days) so we couldn’t use the spa, to our dismay. We enjoyed a bit more of Wengen.
Then we took a train back down to the Lauterbrunnen Valley and had enough time to walk to the famous waterfall before our train to Interlaken. I thought with all the snow melt, it would be more impressive, but it was just a well-lit trickle.
In the summer, it’s a raging, rushing waterfall. However, it was still beautiful and impressive. Then back to town where we prepared to dance.
We walked to the disco club, which was quite empty when we entered. Brendan felt slightly uncomfortable and asked what I wanted to do. I said, “We are gonna dance.” We tore up that dance floor, and soon others joined us. It was a lovely, fun night followed by a nice starlit walk back to our hotel for another sweet mountain air sleep.
The next morning, we did not want to stress ourselves unnecessarily with an early train. We were woken up in the most swiss way possible. I heard a cacophony of metallic sound in the street. What was this? A bunch of metal wheels? A truck? I went to the window and saw the road filled with a parade of cows donning giant bells. They were heading somewhere. I had to wake Brendan up to see this special site. It truly made my day.
Back downstairs for another delicious breakfast, sad that we couldn’t stay another day or two. But we were lucky that we had a few hours to enjoy Interlaken before our train. I went to get my Jowissa watch fixed, and we rented a tandem bike, heading through town and back to Bonigen and my swans.
What a new, fun experience! The guy at the bike shop was super talkative, friendly and informative, and he gave me tips for my future visits, knowing I like to come so often. Apparently, there is a special camping hut in the back of the Lauterbrunnen Valley (below Wengen), where you can have a nice, peaceful time.
Time was unfortunately running short, so we had to return the bike and grab our bags from the hotel, where we passed the Cow Parade going back from whence they came this morning, perfect bookends to our final day in Switzerland. We grabbed sandwiches from the supermarket, then boarded our train back to Genoa. It was a wonderful stay and always sad to leave, but we had a fantastic time. Brendan said, “I don’t want to steal this as your favorite place . . . but I love it.” Yay Switzerland!
-written 27 June but posted in April for timeline purposes
-continued in Part 4