Wednesday, May 28, 2014

The Alps: From Garmish to Switzerland (Lucerne and Lake Constance)

I'm feeling a lump in my throat as I write this next sentence...we are down to our last month here in Germany, which also means we are wrapping up our European travels.  Although Switzerland has been on our list since the beginning, we just never seemed to get our plans right to make that trip work. To be honest, we were constantly shying away from the price tag, especially as we fell into our last year here and needed to look for bargains. And I'm almost embarrassed to admit that we thought all the hoopla about Switzerland was overrated.  Let me just say, NOT overrated.  Wow, is Switzerland an incredible gem.  We had the most wonderful weekend there with weather that was so perfect we seriously could not have bought it any better.  So, I'll have to apologize upfront if there are a million pictures in this post, and I'll work hard to contain myself because the beauty was absolutely insane.

Our trip started off in Garmisch where I picked Big R up from a week long training (I know, he has the toughest life, doesn't he?).  Instead of staying in Garmisch, I found a pension just 20 km south right on the border with Austria in a town called, Mittenwald.  We had absolutely no idea what to expect, and we were pleasantly surprised by its charm.  We opted to get dinner at one of the local biergartens instead of making the trek back up to Garmisch for dinner.  We stayed at Pension Karner, which was located right at the foot of several trailheads leading to hikes up into the foothills of the Alps, and a walk into town was only about 10 minutes.  The owners are Scottish, of all things, and they have been living in Germany for the past 30 years.  They were incredible hosts, and their hotel was really comfortable.  The boys had us up crazy early, of course, so we packed up and took a hike before breakfast. Such an amazing way to start off the day.  

a view down the street from our pension

downtown Mittenwald

there is always time for ice cream!

another view of the church in Mittenwald

our morning hike followed a stream and was one waterfall after another

breathtaking morning views of the Alps

another view of the Alps from the trail

I wasn't exactly dressed for a hike - haha

it was truly serene, and we had the trail all to ourselves

more beauty captured on camera

my little hobbit

After breakfast in Mittenwald, we hit the road for our drive into Switzerland.  Our destination was Lucerne (or Luzern in German), which sits in central Switzerland just south of Zurich.  The route we took dropped us into Austria and over to Liechtenstein before we crossed the border into Switzerland. So we got to add a couple more countries to our list.  The drive was amazing!

a driveby shot of the palace in Liechtenstein - no offense but it wasn't really worth the stop this time around

covered bridge in Liechtenstein

Hello Switzerland!!!

The drive was out of this world!

The view from our rest stop - yes, this is a rest stop!!!

We arrived in Lucerne just after lunch, and we decided to head straight to Mt. Pilatus because the weather was stunning and we didn't want to risk going back the next day and losing the potential views.  To experience Mount Pilatus near Lucerne, you can go about it in various ways: cable car, cog train, boat, local train... Or, you can do what we opted for and splurge (only slightly more) for what they call the "golden tour."  We parked in Kriens, so our golden tour started on a small gondola, and then switched us to a large cable car that took us to the top. Then we took a cog train down the mountain to Alpnachstad where you can catch a ferry boat over to Lucerne (and eventually a bus back to the parking area in Kriens).  Kind of a cool experience, and with the awesome weather we had, each leg of the tour was incredible.

When we switched to the larger cable car to head up to Mt. Pilatus, we timed it just right that a construction crew (I say "crew," but it was really just two men), was heading up as well.  Not only did we get the entire car to ourselves, but we got to watch in awe as the man climbed out of the cable car in mid air to one of the supporting towers.  It was NUTS!  I knew that he was going to do work on the cable line because of the equipment he was wearing, but Big R was kind of shocked when the door opened and the guy climbed out.  Before he leapt out, though, we got to talk to him a bit about Lucerne and Mt. Pilatus.  He told us that it was a perfect day and that people rarely get to experience a day like we had - he said it was special.  Nothing like a conversation from a local to put a smile on your face.  Considering the run of bad luck we've had with weather and travel, we ate up every minute of our perfect weather.

At the top, we watched all the clouds clear out and give us a grand view of Lake Lucerne.  We climbed to the top of an outcropping, which was an adventure in itself.  I'm not sure what I thought we would do that day, but somehow I decided that wearing flip flops and a long skirt was the appropriate attire for our day in Lucerne.  HA!  Between holding baby c, holding the end of my skirt, and navigating through huge piles of snow and puddles of freezing water (in flip flops!) on a steep and narrow stairway to the top was not my most shining moment.  I got compliments at the top and I couldn't figure out why anyone would think I was anything but ridiculous.  The views were spectacular, but I couldn't wait to get back down.  We took the cog train to the bottom of the mountain and had a conversation in German with an older Swiss couple that lived there.  My sweet baby c was especially fond of the old man.  It was super cute.  Our next connection was a ferry boat that made its way from Alpnachstad via a few stops onto Lucerne.  It's was a gorgeous perspective to see the coastlines of Lake Lucerne from the water.

the gondola up the first leg of Mt. Pilatus

baby c loved the ride!

some of the views we captured on our climb up

This view was even before we made it to the top!

I told you, he literally just climbed right out - crazy!
the fog cleared to reveal the endless beauty of Lake Lucerne
Taking in the view after our ridiculous climb in the wet snow to the top

little r's favorite was the cog train

a view of the other trains as we made our way down

the old cog train was really cool
relaxing on the ferry as we made our way to Lucerne

views from the ferry as we floated along the lake

just incredible, isn't it?
the sailboat added just a little to this already gorgeous shot

We arrived into Lucerne on a Friday evening just before 6 p.m.  The city was alive with locals, business men and women, and tourists.  Everyone was enjoying the perfect day, and the energy was contagious.  We did a quick walk through the old part of Lucerne to see the Old Church Bridge and to take in the city that benefited from over 200 years of no wars to damage it's beautiful buildings.  It truly felt magical.  Then we hopped on our bus back to Kriens to our car and drove to our hotel in Seelisberg.  Our hotel sat right on a point in Seelisberg with seriously amazing views of the lake.  It had a snazzy Swiss restaurant, which is where we headed after checking into our huge hotel apartment. Somehow the boys held it together and let us enjoy a nice dinner Swiss-style meal while we admired the sunset views across the lake.

After we got the boys tucked into bed, Big R disappeared to go take some more pictures of the lake at night.  When I went out to meet him, he told me that some "ladies" had come to talk to him and they wanted to say "hi."  He cracked up when my response was, "are they picking up on you or something?"  Of course, he was referring to the Swiss cows that found him very intriguing.  Yeah, I totally fell for that one!

views of Lucerne as we headed into the dock

beautiful Lucerne
there were so many swans in Switzerland

like something out of a fairy tale

the rathaus in downtown Lucerne

our view during dinner at the hotel restaurant

the cows across the street from our hotel

another view of the lake from our hotel room

this "lady" was making the moves on my man!

Lucerne has so much to offer, but we had more of Switzerland to see and a short amount of time to fit it all in.  After breakfast on an overcast and rainy morning, we packed up the car and headed to Zurich for a quick visit on our way up to Lake Constance.  It was a busy Saturday in Zurich, but we lucked out with parking at the train station.  It took Big R a little bit to warm up to this global powerhouse of a city, but I loved it right away. I guess you could say I could easily understand how it has been at the top of the list of "best quality of life"places to live.

We strolled down Hauptbahnhofstrasse to do some window shopping (and visit one of the coolest toy stores I've even seen), walked along the Lake Promenade, and visited the Grossm√ľnster church. We climbed to the top of the bell tower (of course), and just as we crested the top, the clouds broke and the sun was greeting us. It was spectacular, and suddenly Big R was drawn in.  We grabbed some sushi for lunch (of all things), and then stopped into the famous Sprugli chocolate store to bring home some goodies (really just so we could eat them in the car!).

neatest toy store EVER

we loved how the roofs were cut away to make porches

view along the promenade

Zurich had such beautiful architecture

the view from the top of the bell tower - just spectacular!

another amazing bell tower view

little r had fun with the rope anchors along the river

stunning view of Zurich

the weather could not have been any better

The next destination was Lake Constance.  It was an easy drive of barely over an hour to get to Berligen, where we stayed for the night (it was a cute town, but Steckborn, its neighboring town, would have been a MUCH more charming choice).  We picked this place primarily for its location and its price (Switzerland is super expensive, so our money didn't go quite as far in the accommodations department).  We checked in and got back in the car to visit Konstanz, which was only another 20 minutes or so away.  Konstanz is a maritime city on Lake Constance, and what is peculiar about this city is that it's actually located in Germany.  A tiny enclave of Germany nestled into Switzerland.  I actually found it rather bizarre.  In hindsight, we never should have driven into the city.  The train would have been much faster and easier.  There is only one way in and out of Konstanz to cross the border between the two countries, and even though they aren't checking passports, a slow, single file line drives through a random customs check.  We spent a lot more time sitting in the car than we ever anticipated.  Of course, it probably didn't help that we later found out it was BMW Yacht week in Konstanz, AND it was a beautiful Saturday.  Guess you could say that a lot of other people had similar plans to visit that area the same time we were there.

The town is really old and has a completely different character to it than the towns around Lake Lucerne.  It reminded me of the port cities around Lake Michigan.  Sailboats and yachts were parked along the boardwalks, and people were enjoying the weather near the lake, shopping in the stores, and socializing at outdoor cafes and restaurants.  After we finally found a place to park the car (and Big R brilliantly fit our mini-SUV into the tightest parking space - seriously, rockstar), we strolled the streets and found a great place to eat some fantastic German food.  While we were there a wedding party crashed the seen, and it felt like we were in the middle of a fairy tale.  The rest of our visit we walked along the port, took in the atmosphere, and enjoyed the weather.  Once we got through the border check back into Switzerland, the drive was easy.  We parked the car and walked the boys to the edge of the lake and let them play while Big R got some amazing sunset shots.  After we finally got the boys into bed, we snuck downstairs to the tavern and enjoyed each others company and a glass of wine.  It was a perfect ending to a wonderful day.

little r grew attached to the bronze horse statue

many of the buildings were covered in artwork

the scene at the pier

sailboats were parked along the docks

baby c had too much fun swinging at the park on the pier

another beautiful view of the docks in Konstanz

little r taking it all in at sunset in Berlingen

one of the many amazing sunset photos Big R captured that evening

the swan thought he'd add to the picture...

It was finally time for us to make the drive home, but we had one more stop before saying "Tschus" to Switzerland.  We drove down along the lake and then up into the hills to the terminus of the Rhine River. At this location is the Rhinefall, which is seriously breathtaking.  We had never heard of this waterfall before, but apparently it's well known in this part of Europe.  Our tour book mentioned it, and we figured it was worth a look before driving home.  What an absolutely amazing discovery.  When we drove around the bend and the falls came into our view, we were seriously blown away.  So incredible!  Of course, the weather was out of this world, too, and that never hurts.

You can park really close to the falls, and we managed to get there right when it opened, so we beat the crowds.  There are several different boat tours you can take (it's cash only, but they take both swiss franks and euros).  We opted to take the 20 minute boat ride that dropped us off on a rock island quite literally in the middle of the falls.  It was super intense!  You could hear the roar of the water as we closed in on the island.  The weather was clear and the water was super calm, but on a "normal" day, the boys would not have been allowed on that particular boat tour because it would have been too dangerous.  It was a crazy ride.

After the boat dropped us off, we climbed the metal staircase up to the top of the rock island.  I know I keep saying this, but we were blown away.  It was such an incredible experience to be standing in that location, listening to the water, and feeling the mist of the powerful falls hit our faces.  As we walked down, little r actually said, "whoa, that's a little scary, mommy!"  Yep, intense.  Such an awesome ending to our trip.

Rhinefall in Switzerland

the falls were so powerful

our boat slid right up to a rock island in the middle of the falls

seriously intense!

the roar of the falls was surrounding us

A view from on top of the rock island

look at this goofy bunch - haha

little r with daddy on our climb back down to the boat

it was so steep, Big R went down backwards 

another incredible view of the Rhinefall

you can see the people at the top - that's where we were standing!!!

Our view of the Rhinefall as we drove away

We headed back into Germany on a very uneventful car trip.  The boys were so good in the car on the entire trip.  Somehow we managed to space things out to never spend more than 4 hours in the car, and I'm sure that definitely helped.  It was fun to have one of our last trips allow us to drive through Germany, Austria and Switzerland.  The Alps are definitely one of our true loves, and we are really going to miss traveling in this area of Europe.

Our last European adventure is in a couple weeks when we head up to Sweden one last time.  It's so hard to know that this chapter in our lives is coming to a close.  We have been able to see some of the most incredible parts of Europe these past three years, and this latest trip to Switzerland was a great way to close the book.

Thanks for always going on these adventures with us!

p.s. I'll put all the details of this trip into my travel archives!