Friday, April 30, 2010

Switzerland Trip Report: Weekend of Joys and Horrors

I'll never forget our weekend in Switzerland (Labor Day wknd 2009). It was the weekend I learned how an online community can rally around one of their own in need, how the best laid plans can be yanked off course in an instant, and that it's best to avoid traveling alone. Oddly enough, I also discovered that my decidedly golden brown eyes can turn hazel after enough tears.
The trip was the first one we'd taken using the Delta mistake fares that were published earlier in summer 2009. I had been told of the fare through friends on flyertalk.com (the mileage running community I belong to online) and I in turn shared the opportunity with my fellow NoVA Travelers. Several members took advantage of the fares (as low as $299 round trip to Europe TOTAL), some heading to Switzerland the same weekend that Jonathan and I did and even on the same flight.
We arrived into Zurich after an uneventful overnight plane ride and after processing through immigration we were on our way. We parted ways with the rest of the meetup members as they had their own itineraries and headed for the Hertz counter to pick up our rental car. We couldn't wait to explore Switzerland with its mix of French and German cuisine, language and culture.
That morning we made our way to Lucerne for an afternoon of sightseeing in the historic city. We checked into a cheap hostel (Although it was clean and safe, I don't prefer to stay in a hostel again- it's like being back in a dorm room in college).
Lucerne is a beautiful city; a mix of old (castles! ancient walls! covered bridges with historic art!) and new (shiny steel buildings and modern streets). We spent our time the rest of that day walking  through the city admiring its charms.
One of the covered bridges we walked across- Chapel Bridge built in the 14th century
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Jenni adorns one of the city fountains
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Café where we ate dinner, enjoying fondue…mmmmm...
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Lucerne at night with shimmering tower (part of the city's fortification). This is a series of nine towers that are part of the rampart walls that surround the city. They span approximately 800m around the city. Built in 1386, the wall stands almost entirely intact due to the fact that Lucerne was never really under any harm, thanks to its strategic location amongst the Alps.
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The Lion Monument of Lucerne - commemorates the massacre of 700 mercenaries from Switzerland. The Swiss mercenaries were working for the French Royal Family during the time of the French Revolution when they were overpowered and put to death by the French revolutionary forces.
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The next morning, after breakfast (a large assortment of Alpine cheese and meats along with granola and fresh fruit was presented) at the hostel we drove to Stechelberg, a beautiful village in the Swiss Alps. On the way, as we approached Lauterbrunnen (another village) we stumbled across the most beautiful lakeside view I've ever seen.
View of the mountain lake
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That was the moment I fell in love with Switzerland.
We were scheduled to arrive in Lauterbrunnen by noon, but were hijacked in our efforts by the road closure at the entrance to the village. It seems there was a marathon event that morning and the road was shut down until the last of the runners were able to cross it. Many others destined for the village simply abandoned their cars on the highway and walked into town. We didn't feel safe doing so with a rental car so we simply waited….and waited….and waited. After an hour the road reopened but of course at that point we were held back by all the cars parked on the highway. No matter - we were surrounded by the beauty of the Alps and did not mind waiting. Finally drivers began to wander back to their cars and clear the road.
We drove on through Lauterbrunnen to Stechelberg and continued to the spot where the famous cable car that takes you to the top of Schilthorn loads its passengers. The cable car ride is spectacular. It begins in the valley and using a series of four cable cars (with stations at Gimmelwald and Murren where you must get off and switch to another cable car each time) takes you to the top. 
The last one cable car punches through the fog as it climbs up a mountainside that James Bond fans worldwide )recognize instantly (featured in "On her Majesty's Secret Service". The total elevation gain from valley floor to Schilthorn is approximately 6000 feet; quite an impressive climb.
View of the valley floor from our cable car as we climbed the Alps
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Our cable car
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We journeyed on the cable cars all the way to the top and then tumbled out of the cable car with the other passengers into the freezing cold. After climbing a series of steps we found ourselves on the observation deck and again blessed with phenomenal view of the surrounding mountains.  Walking around the deck (It’s a 360° panorama of Swiss Alps including Jungfrau - the tallest point in all of Europe) my love for Switzerland deepened and I began to plot how I could negotiate with Jonathan to retire to the beauty of its magical valleys and mountains in our old age.
At the top of Schilthorn
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We took hundreds of pictures on this day of the trip (all in my facebook albums here:
http://www.facebook.com/album.php?aid=177035&id=603259739&l=c5bd2882b6 and here:
http://www.facebook.com/album.php?aid=177142&id=603259739&l=ac1cdcb8e0 if you'd like to browse them) as each view seemed more impressive than the last and in those situations you are compelled to try and hold on to the experience with photos that you hope can take you back to the scene. Of course we always find in retrospect that the camera can never truly capture the full scale of the view, the clean crisp winter air, or the feeling of what it was like in that moment to stand there and gaze upon the glory of God's creation.
Panoramic view of the Swiss Alps from the top of Schilthorn
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After our time on the top of Schilthorn, we took the cable car down to the closest village - Murren - where we disembarked to walk our way down to Gimmelwald. This was following a recommendation of others who advised the gentle walk afforded can't miss views of the valley. They weren't mistaken. Not only were  views above (looking up toward Schilthorn) and the views below (over the dramatic cliffs to the valley floor) beautiful but the villages of Murren and Gimmelwald were quite lovely and worth the walk.
Village signs in Murren directing walkers/bikers
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A relaxed cow, living the happy mountain life
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Village Inn
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Once we made it to Gimmelwald we hopped on the cable car again to get down to the valley floor. Then, it was off to
Truemmelbach falls, just down the road heading into Lauterbrunnen . These waterfalls are designated as a UNESCO-World-heritage site so we wanted to see what the fuss was about. We took the provided elevator up the *inside*  of the mountain.  That was unique and right then we knew this was going to be a different kind of waterfall experience. We saw at least ten glacier-waterfalls INSIDE the mountain as there was a long winding walking path leading us back down around the waterfalls. The falls are draining the Eiger, Moench & Jungfrau-glaciers  - 20 litres of water per second flows through the cascades. The sound of nature roars at you while the icy water spits at you as it rushes past tumbling over the falls.
After viewing the falls during our walk back down the mountain we got back in the car and drove to our hotel - Hotel Restaurant Steinbock. Comfy alpine digs, but the dinner was lackluster. That evening we walked around the village, stepped into the marathon afterparty (Jon was decidely unimpressed with the runner times until he discovered the marathon consisted of running to the top of Schilthorn and back!) and admired the view of
Staubbach Falls which is lit up at night with powerful floodlights.
Breakfast the next morning consisted of the now familiar Alpine cheese, fresh fruit and granola which I found delightful. Months later, a bowl of granola with hot or cold milk (depending on the season), diced apples, raisins and pecans is *still* a routine breakfast combo I've woven into my weekly menus.
Our sightseeing destination for Sunday was Bern, the capital of Switzerland. We walked the old city streets, stopping to view the cathedral at Munsterplatz , the Bern Cathedral, the bear pits (Bern means bear in German and the town was so named because settlers originally grouped themselves near an established bear habitat which they then walled off into pits for safety; the bears have now been relocated and the pits are empty) and arguably the most famous landmark of Bern - the animated clock tower (Zytglogge Zeitglockentrum).
Clock Tower of Bern. On the hour, the clock face becomes quite animated, with dancing men, animals and the boy who gongs the bell at the very tip top (not pictured)

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After a quick lunch we said goodbye to Bern and drove back to the Zurich Intl Airport. We counted ourselves lucky with all the beauty we'd seen and the amazing time we had up till then. After returning the car we planned to take the tram into Zurich to check into our hotel and enjoy a late afternoon and evening of sightseeing in Zurich before flying home Monday morning.
Right about then is when everything was flipped upside down. My bag was stolen that I had set down next to the tram ticket machine outside the airport. Stolen. My bag with my brand new ebook reader, my brand new noise cancelling headphones, my cell phone. My bag with my passport, all other identification and my credit cards and Euros. Mybag holding my essential medications. Everything of value gone gone gone! Panic edged in as we frantically filed reports with the airport police and lost and found. Apparently this is a common occurance at the ZRH airport and the police had little hope of recovering my items. We were due to fly home the next day - what was going to happen now?
Following the advice of the police we proceeded to our hotel, anxious and scared of the unknown (Would Delta let me on the plane to go home? Was someone going to use my passport for nefarious purposes?) As we checked into the hotel (Marriott Renaissance) we had one blessing conferred upon us. When the desk clerk asked for my identification I collapsed into a puddle of sobs on her desk and as she listened to our story she was so moved she comp'd us an upgrade to the executive club floor into a suite with daily meals provided. The beauty of the room and the free food did little to calm my worried heart. We spent the entire afternoon and evening on the phone calling banks to cancel my credit cards and then trying to contact the US embassy (which was not answering, even on their emergency line) and chatting online with friends on flyertalk trying to figure out whether Swiss immigration would let us leave and if so whether Delta would let us on the plane home. The definitive answer was no - perhaps if I had a driver's license then that plus the police report would do, but without any form of i.d. there was no chance. I cried off and on all evening. And that's when I discovered something neat- my brown eyes turn hazel with  light green flecks after approx 4 hours of tears.
My brown eyes transformed into a pretty light hazel
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Late into the evening we finally got a hold of the staff at the US embassy who directed us to drive BACK to Bern on Tuesday to the embassy where the new passport could be issued. We couldn't take care of it on Monday because the embassy would be closed for Labor Day (pretty sweet for employees- they get all the Swiss AND all the USA holidays off). Also, Jon had to present himself alongside me to sign an affidavit to my identity. This meant we were in trouble with Delta since our flight was scheduled for Monday and missing the flight meant they would likely charge us a walk up fare upward of two thousand dollars or more. More tears!
Throughout the whole ordeal our friends on flyertalk.com were there for us- offering advice, publicizing the incident, offering us dinner (the local members of flyertalk who lived nearby). It was a fantastic joy to find such steadfast support in the midst of our crisis.
Since there was nothing, absolutely nothing, we could do toward the effort of replacing my passport on Monday we prayed for the best and the set off for downtown Zurich. First stop was the pharmacy to ask for a referral to an English speaking doctor who could prescribe a temp dose of my medications (high blood pressure) to sustain me until we returned home. Imagine my surprise to be told no prescription was needed- the pharmacist had the power to provide me the medication. And, it was dirt cheap at retail pricing- lower than I pay back in the states even with insurance partial coverage. Second stop was securing passport photos. This is where we learned that many different countries have different passport photo rules with regard to size, color, direction you must be facing, etc. It took awhile to find a place that did USA passports. Once that was squared away it was onto operation "make the best of it". We ate fine chocolates on the Bahnhofstrasse (the 5th avenue of Zurich so to speak), visited beautiful cathedrals - Grossmünster and Fraumünster, took a boat tour on Lake Zurich and ate our fill of wienerschnitzel and Geschnetzeltes mit Rösti (traditional Zürich dish consisting of tiny veal strips in a spicy cream, wine, and mushroom gravy and served with a golden-brown cake of shredded potatoes fried in butter) at a German restaurant that for some unknown reason carried unexploded ammunition in their entranceway. It was a magical day punctuated by panic moments when the thoughts of our predicament floated to the forefront of our minds.
Colorful art installation on Bahnhofstrasse
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French macaroons in a gourmet storefront
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Warning sign inside our dinner locale
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Tuesday we made the tram trip back to the Zurich airport and then onto the rental car counter to rent another car for the drive to Bern. I found entering the airport led to a flood of tears all over again. With Jon behind the wheel we reached Bern in just a short while and proceeded to the address of the US Embassy as listed on their website. Big mistake! Apparently they had relocated some two years before and never bothered to update their website. Argh! It took several pedestrians strolling by before we found one that spoke English or French who could call information for us and locate the correct address for the embassy. Back on the road, we scurried across town to the new embassy. The compound was secured as you'd imagine Fort Knox to be and strangely enough, tighter than Capitol Hill in DC or the White House. Guess we hold our diplomats to be very important. After passing through two separate security areas and then waiting in line for a long period of time we were prompted to fill out several forms and then return after a few hours to pick up my new temp passport. Normally they set them to expire after 90 days but I had so many upcoming trips they set mine to expire a year later as a courtesy. Very cool (I have to send it in for replacement after Madrid trip in Feb).
We had an uneventful drive back to Zurich and then I spent an hour on the phone with Delta which proved itself to be the MOST AWESOME company in the universe when its reps agreed to reticket both of us on flights home the next morning at no extra charge. No walk up fare; not even a change fee. I'm pretty sure that obligates me to lifetime loyalty.
Next morning we checked out of our beautiful hotel and transferred to the airport (now a familiar place that we knew like the back of our hand) and other than the waves of anxiety that washed over me upon stepping foot on the airport grounds, we made it home safely and comfortably.
  I took away several lessons:
1. Always take a copy of your passport with you and keep it in a separate bag. Sadly I always followed this practice when visiting 3rd world countries but let my guard down in the "wealthy and civilized" Switzerland.
2. Always travel with at least one other person when traveling internationally. If I had been alone without Jonathan to vouch for my identity or pay for expenses I would have been s-c-r-e-w-e-d after the theft and at the mercy of strangers.
3. Never set valuables down, even for a minute, even in places you deem safe.
4. Purchase your travel items - airfare, hotel, etc- on your American Express and they will automatically insure you against theft. American Express rocks and reimbursed us for all the stolen items.
5. Have friends at home who have access to your essential information such as prescription doses, passport number, etc in case you need to reference them internationally. Some suggest emailing yourself this info to an online email account so you can always access it online from anywhere. If you don't want to risk the security threat of having such data online I recommend you leave it with a trusted friend. If it hadn't been for Dani helping me out back home to feed me data I needed the situation would have been even worse.
In this way I can summarize our Switzerland trip as one of joys and horrors, with the joys edging in for the lead. Not even the personal violation of the theft and being left defenseless in a foreign country could strike out the beautiful experience of standing amidst one of God's most beautiful creations in his lovely Swiss Alps and dreaming of visiting again in years forward.