Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Gornergrat to Zermatt: an epic quest (part 1)

Despite my romp with the captain the night before, I woke bright eyed and bushy tailed for the day ahead. I was psyched to get up to the mountain and see what I could see. First things first..I brought my curling iron to an electrical store on the main drag to find the correct size wall adapter. They didn’t have one that fit, so naturally the guy offered to shave down the trouble part of the plug for me for free. And voila, it worked.

It was early yet, but I was literally walking through town in the clouds. It was so neat but I hoped they would lift before my trek up to Gornergrat so the Matterhorn could be seen!  My hotel offered a free breakfast at the adjacent building to mine, and due to my dwindling funds, I was planning to pack it in. I walked in and approached the desk in case I had to check in for breakfast. The woman was the same one who experienced the hairdryer debacle with me. She laughed and said, “Oh, I know you, you don’t have to check in.” I chuckled and told her that if I asked for another hairdryer she had permission to kick me out.

Breakfast was pretty top notch and I took one of everything. That should hold me til dinner. On my way out I stopped to inquire to my new bestie about the hike I intended to do. She said it would be a long one, but it was definitely doable.  I was in. Since I didn’t know if I’d even make it to Switzerland, and underestimated the chilly summer temps they sported here, I had done a horrid job packing. I’d be hiking in my running sneakers, and would probably be cold doing it. New bestie went in the back and produced a sweatshirt fit for a small giant, but I was grateful. At least if the sun didn’t come out today I could be toasty in this!

I met the two j’s and their bikes at the train to Gornergrat. We sold another organ to afford the trip up to the top, but we knew it would totally be worth it. The clouds had lifted out of town, and the sun was out. We were like three little kids boarding the train, trying to find seats on the right side because one of us read that it had the best views. We rode up in this ridiculously cool cog train that stopped at the few train stops along the way.

 We traveled higher and higher into the Swiss mountains and once again were dumbfounded by the scenery. I practically cartwheeled off the cog train and the two j’s were speechless. 

rock sculptures at the top 

the matterhorn in all it's glory 

We took pictures with the ginormous gornergrat sheep, and shameless mountain selfies at the top. I even nailed my classic jumping pic. We were on top of the world!
Me, the two j's, and a giant sheep

Then it was time to part ways. The two j’s were going to try their best to navigate the steep, rocky trail on bikes. At least they were wearing helmets. 

We bid farewell, a look of terror on blonde j’s face. ”Just keep your hands on the brakes” was my best advice. We agreed to meet up that night to swap survival stories…hopefully. 

Friday, August 22, 2014

The two j's, me, and Einstein take Switzerland

I realize I left you high and dry in Lake Como. In all fairness I was there for a mere 36 hours, and needed a breather. Albeit, a boring one. I’ll make up for it in Switzerland, I hope.

Bertha and I set off for the Swiss in the morning, as I knew it was to be a long journey to my first stop, Zermatt. I had dreamed of going there, and seeing the dramatic mountain landscape.. the stark contrast of snow covered mountaintops in the summer, frolicking in meadows of alpine flowers, and hopefully seeing loads of goats. I was so excited I could almost skip.

I waited for my ride from the B&B to the train station and minutes upon minutes went by. Bertha waited impatiently at my side. Just as I was about to try to make a run for it, knowing full well I’d never make the train with or without Bertha..the crappy silver car I’d ridden in 36 hours before pulled up like an apology. “So sorry for the delay!” she said, as I jumped in. We rode speedily to the train, when she pulled over. I was confused, weren’t we supposed to be hurrying along to the train I might miss? My only chance to make all the connecting trains to Switzerland today? These were the thoughts that clouded my mind when she informed me I had to buy a train ticket at this random location before going to the station. Oh.

I ran in and threw 6 Euros 60 cents at the lady who shoved the golden ticket in my hand and off we were to the train. JUST made it. I had to change in Milan, and since I’d transferred through there twice before I figured I had this. I asked at the information desk which track the train would leave from and was all set. So I thought. 

Just as I was about to hurl Bertha onto the train, I double-checked where it was going. “No, no!” the man said. “This train goes to Genova.” Ahh. I now had all of three minutes before my actual train was scheduled to leave. I ran through the station and picked a random stranger. “Can you help me?!” He spoke English and within 15 seconds pointed me to the correct track, which was far more impressive than the people that worked there trying to put me on the wrong train. I boarded the Swiss bound train and breathed a sigh of relief. That’s when I heard the crunching.

I turned around to see a guy eating a large carrot in the seat behind me. SO LOUDLY. Honestly, who brings carrots as a snack on the train? These weren’t mini snack size carrots either. They were like full-fledged-just-picked-from-the-garden-carrots fit for a rabbit. It was like bringing a tuna fish sandwich on the train, and for all I knew, he probably had that packed as his next course. Good thing for headphones.

One more train transfer and I’d be headed to Zermatt. I could barely contain my excitement. First I’d have to find the elusive (or so I thought) train to Zermatt. When I’d looked up tickets it said I had to exit the station I arrived in, and walk to another station to catch the small railway train to Zermatt. I walked outside to locate said train station, and marveled at the ginormous mountains surrounding me.

Two other guys were doing the exact same thing. We all had our heads tipped to the sky, small smiles playing on our faces as we took in the scenery. I approached them and said “Excuse me?” The one answered, “Yes?” I breathed a huge sigh of relief that they spoke English and they laughed. 

“Are you guys by any chance going to Zermatt?” I inquired. Why yes, yes they were in fact, and they too were looking for this elusive train. We looked around. The train was across the street. Between three of us genius’ we were able to figure it out. Yahtzee!

We boarded the train for what was to be my favorite train ride of all time. And I’ve ridden a lot of trains. I sat together with the guys, who introduced themselves as “the two j’s.” I was so happy to be conversing in English with young, funny Americans. The train departed and me and the two j’s eyeballs nearly popped out of their sockets we were so giddy with excitement. The scenery was, in fact, breathtaking.  

I could write a million different words to describe it, but it wouldn’t even touch what it was like to look at it all.  The trains were so expensive here, and now I knew why.  It was totally worth the kidney I had to sell to afford it.

We chatted about our trips, the two j’s had just graduated from college and had given themselves a trip to Europe as congratulations. We stared out the window and marveled at the “casual” waterfalls every 2 feet.

One of the two j’s had a full beard and I donned him the lumberjack of the group, suggesting we find him a flannel shirt and an ax immediately upon arrival to Zermatt. He agreed. We discussed what we liked to drink, and I said perhaps a little too loudly, “LIQUOR, especially VODKA” when the old couple across the way turned and looked at us. You always know who speaks English on the train when you say something slightly inappropriate a little too loudly and they stop to look at you. Agnes and Bert were adorable. I wanted to curl up next to them and listen to tales of their younger days. Bearded J snapped a picture of their cuteness. I named them Agnes and Bert, and here they are:

Agnes and Bert
Photo cred: Bearded J
We arrived in Zermatt and made plans to meet up for dinner and drinks to celebrate the mountains of course! I practically skipped to my hotel. I was here. In Switzerland. I had made it to my goal place and it was amazing.

I was staying in a tiny little hotel room with a shared bathroom and shower. Who cared. I was in one of the most beautiful places I had ever seen, I’d pee outside if I had to.

I showered and just as I went to plug in my hairdryer, realized I didn’t have the outlet adapter for Switzerland, only for Italy. I cursed myself for having washed my hair. Dirty hair is better than frizzy/out of control hair, obviously. 

I went downstairs to reception and asked for an adapter. Back upstairs to try it out, except the plug didn’t fit in it. Back downstairs where they gave me a hairdryer to use. After about five seconds I smelled smoke and almost lit my hair on fire before it died. Oops. After two more trips downstairs, the receptionist went next door to the other hotel and produced the mother of all hair dryers. Then there was the problem of the curling iron. After my six visits to the receptionist, I think I’d have to let this one go, my hair as well.

My frizzy hair loaded with hairspray and I met the two j’s and we strolled the main drag of Zermatt on the hunt for food. Specifically burgers. If I had to eat one more piece of pizza I was pretty sure my pants would bust. The two j's found this hilarious. We settled on The Brown Cow, and despite bearded j’s insistence that the information book he possessed said it was a “vegetarian restaurant,” we went inside to find a menu full of meat. 

I was ready for a stiff drink. Then I saw the prices and their odd way of ordering mixed drinks. I had to order the liquor separate for the price of an actual drink, and then a bottle of soda to mix with as well. Whatever, I just wanted a date with the captain.

The captain in hand, we ordered our burgers. Only 2 francs for each extra topping. I stuck with a traditional cheeseburger and warned the boys..”Don’t be surprised if I eat this entire thing.” They claimed they would only be impressed. “Well be ready to be impressed then.” And they were.

After stuffing ourselves silly, we paraded to another local pub. There was a whole cast of characters inside, highly entertaining. My favorite though, had to be Einstein. He was a dead ringer for the famous physicist, crazy hair an all. He even had a nonchalant sweater tied around his shoulders. Fancy Einstein...even better. 

“I need to take a selfie with Einstein” I declared. The two j’s agreed as if it were an obvious decision. We figured our best plan of action would be to pretend as though I needed to take pictures with all different groups of people in the bar first, and then approach Einstein as the finale so he didn’t suspect anything. I know, I know, what a stupid plan.

First up was the group of enthusiastic Asian guys from Thailand, all perched at the bar with cameras strung around their necks. They’d be the easiest target. Not only did they take a picture with me, but they took pictures with all of their cameras too. 

Next up, the two j’s picked another look alike in the bar, who we deemed “woody”, for Woody Harrelson. It must have been celebrity look alike night. I approached their group with a smile and my camera, but they were a little trickier to convince. I motioned to take a photo with them, and they wanted to know why. “She needs a picture with everyone in the bar” the two j’s explained convincingly. They posed.

Woody's on the right, closing his eyes
I don’t know why but I was nervous to ask Einstein, maybe because he was so famous, maybe because he had a killer moustache. My hesitation cost me the prize. Just as we were about to go up to him, Einstein and his lady escaped. “Damnit! They’re leaving!” Ah, we waited too long. Einstein fail. Now I’d be on the hunt for Einstein for the rest of my stay in Zermatt.

All in all it was a glorious first day in Zermatt, my new favorite place. The two j’s were a welcome English speaking addition to my trip and I couldn’t wait to see what other adventures were in store.

A two j's sandwich
We agreed to meet the next morning, ready to take on the mountains. Our plan was to take the cog train to the top of Gornergrat. I would attempt the all day hike down, and the boys would bike. It was sure to be an epic quest...

Monday, August 18, 2014

lake como

I was pretty excited for a change in scenery, and to be headed to the mountains! As I started my journey, it seemed unreal that in three train transfers I would finally arrive to see Lake Como and the Italian Alps up close and personal. I know I’ve said what a pain in the ass Bertha has been, but she really caused an issue on this leg of the trip. On my second train, the one from Genoa to Milan, I had to have a reserved seat. Fine, sure, no problem. What I didn’t know was that on this type of train the seats are basically in compartments, six seats in each. You have to find your “carriage” number, so I was train car (carraige) number 4. I boarded on one end and I was barely able to lift Bertha in all her glory up the steep three stepper onto the train. 

As I looked around, I was utterly perplexed. There were not only people standing there, but luggage EVERYWHERE. I looked down the skinny aisle and asked someone random, “where are the seats?” They pointed at the compartments on the other side of the doors. Ohh.

In compartment number one there was a lovely American family. Thank god. I think they saw my confusion, and Bertha, and asked what seat I was. I showed them my ticket and the dad delivered the bad news. “You have to go all the way down to the other end.” Crap.

It was a little like a double dare obstacle course except not fun at all. And I wasn’t wearing a helmet.

I had to get from one end of this train car to the other down a skinny ass aisle littered with other people’s luggage..with Bertha in tow. Oh and I had about 6 Japanese people behind me waiting to get through too. I made it about halfway when I encountered a compartment of sleeping people, who had haphazardly left all of their very heavy, wide luggage in the way. 

I couldn’t go through it. I couldn’t go under it. I had to go over it. Me and the Japanese guy behind me lifted Bertha with all our might. It wasn’t pretty but we managed and I only had half a train car left to go! Several more instances like this and I finally found my seat. My seat was smack in the middle of a family, including a five year old boy. The woman on the end sucked in so I could get by with Bertha and I actually said out loud in frustration, “Really? Can you just move over one?” Thankfully she did. I sat on the end, holding onto Bertha the whole time because she was too big to go up top.

The train ride from Milan to Varenna, the little fishing village I had chosen to stay in on Lake Como, was pretty amazing. I picked it because it was a little more off the beaten path than the major towns like Bellagio and Menaggio, but it was still easily accessible by train and ferry. Once the lake came into view and the towering Alps surrounding it, I forgot all about the horrid train ride with compartments and Bertha. I was here!

I had originally booked a hotel through a couple weeks earlier, only to have them say a few days later that they overbooked for those dates and I was out of luck for a room. Rat bastards. Luckily I had found a small bed and breakfast through airbnb, (no thanks to and the owner actually picked me up from the train station in Varenna to haul me and Bertha to our humble abode for the next 36 hours or so.

Two more flights of stairs later, Bertha and I were alone in our room, and the windows were wide open to reveal a fantastic view of Lake Como. 

It was the cheapest place I’d booked on this trip so far, and the best view. I was exhausted. And starving. I had traveled most of the day again lacking snacks. After a quick stroll to the lake to check it out, I picked up a pizza and a beer and headed up to the terrace on the roof of the B&B. I watched the sunset and ate the whole pizza. It was magical, on both accounts.

I had planned to wake up right before sunrise since I had such a great view right out my window. The alarm went off and I stumbled over to the window. It was of course beautiful, but there were some nasty clouds hovering. Either way, see a sunrise,(kind of?) CHECK!

As if on cue, it started lightning. A minute later it was raining…in my room. do I shut these kind of windows? I did my best, closed the latch circa 1705, and it was still raining in the room. I couldn’t get them to stay shut and the puddles on the floor were getting bigger, oh, and it was 6am. I rigged one window shut with some teabags and a spoon I found on the desk in the room. I wasn't MacGyver, but it was my best effort. It held, for all of 2 seconds. I used every towel in the place. Housekeeping was going to have a ball with this one later.

It rained most of the morning and I was disappointed that my one full day in Lake Como was going to be rained out. My budget was starting to get really tight, and I had to complete my mission to make it to Switzerland. I tried to find some cheap things to do. First thing on my list was a short hike up to Castello di Vezio (Castle of Vezio), above Varenna. I started just as the rain was letting up. It was a pretty easy, uphill hike but pretty wet from the earlier downpour. 

fallen flower

This is where I discovered the world’s largest slug. By discovered I mean almost stepped on. Maybe he wasn’t the biggest in the world, but it was the biggest slug I’d ever encountered.

Anyways, enough about slugs. I reached the castle to find they charged to go in and see the views. Of course they did, what was I thinking?! At least it was only 4 Euro.

I walked in, and the views were just spectacular. 

You could see for miles and it really was just so beautiful. 

"Passion" statue

I walked up to the top of the castle via rickety bridge and spiral staircase. The views were even better up there.

After my wet hike, the weather started to clear up even more, and I was famished. The one restaurant I knew I had to try while in Varenna, was Il Cavatappi. It was the restaurant suggested to me by the Australian couple I’d met in Lucca whilst eating my salami pizza! Since I was avoiding eating dinner out at restaurants alone, I figured I’d stop in for lunch. And boy what a lunch it was! I had read about the caprese salad with burrata. It was delicious. I also had homemade ravioli with eggplant and smoked cheese and it was one of the best meals I think I have ever had. Thanks Australian couple! 

I knew I wanted to see Lake Como from the water as well, so I decided to take a quick jaunt over to Bellagio on the ferry.  It was the cheapest way to get on the water, and I could see one of the other major towns on the lake. Everyone else in the area had the same idea, and we were packed like sardines on the ferry. I couldn’t even snap a picture. On the way off, I was accosted by a stroller and some guy accidentally grabbed my boob. Most action I’d gotten in weeks.

Bellagio was fancy. Damnit, I thought, I should’ve brought a sweater to tie casually around my neck.  I spent all of 20 minutes wandering the streets, past ridiculously expensive shops and restaurants. Then I was ready to go back. I waited again for the ferry, and was so glad I had picked Varenna with it’s small village charm to stay in, over one of the bigger Lake Como towns. On the way back I was first in line to get on the ferry so I snagged one of the end seats and was able to enjoy the view as I had originally planned.

Bellagio from the lake

Varenna from the lake

Afterwards I knew I had to get what was to be my last gelato in Italy...

Because tomorrow I was headed to... SWITZERLAND!