The older I get, the harder it is to put together a trip to Europe when there is no big-deal (to me) event which self-selects a range of dates as a starting point. A couple of years ago, I was able to put together an amazing variety of fixed-date events and put them into the right order so I got them all squeezed together into about a three week period.
This time was harder. No bucket-list-type happenings, so I kept going back and forth, adding and dropping and changing destinations for dates and length of stay and which places to go and when. Had it not been the case that the trip got postponed twice, mostly due to aging cats and their problems, this trip might not have happened even now.
Finally, I made a plan I could flesh out. If I am very ambitious and motivated, there may be some actual blog posts with photos forthcoming. Alternatively, here is a run-down of the trip so far…
— the usual couple of days in London to start things off. This time, I was able to get to a local rugby match on Friday, 6 October. Tickets started at 30 pounds but as I queued up at the ticket window, a fellow was quietly flogging a single ticket which I got for 10. Brilliant seat high above the end zone and an exciting match to boot (so to speak). Earlier that same day, I’d gone to the British Museum to see a special exhibition of Scythian artifacts – an ancient nomadic culture from Siberia. Warlike, horse-mad and fond of making things from gold, at least for their one-percenters; many of the finds have only appeared recently with the thawing of permafrost. Additionally, I paid a visit to the Lewis chessmen, part of the museum’s permanent collection (meaning that I could take photos). Last year, I read a book presenting a theory that these 12th century walrus-ivory chess pieces, so named after their discovery buried in the sand on the northwestern island of Lewis in Scotland, were carved by an Icelandic woman named Margret the Adroit. The BM labels the chessmen as ‘probably Norwegian’. Oh yes?? A great historical and cultural mystery, to be sure, even if, like me, you are not even a chess player.
— From London, next stop was Basel, Switzerland. This was mostly a stopover on my way to the Alps. With two days to fill, I took the easy way – an introduction to the city by bus followed by a walk back to the river for a crossing on a rope-guided ferry holding no more than a dozen passengers. Since the power for the boat comes from a well-positioned rudder and the force of the current, the (100-yard or so) crossing, which takes all of about 10 or 12 minutes, is serenely quiet. The only sound might come from a passenger on the far shore ringing a bell to alert the boatman. (I did ring the bell. One clang. He was on his way over anyway). Perhaps I’d have managed to see more in my younger days but that was it for Basel. My room had no TV, so staying in was an even bigger surprise than usual.
One side note on Basel… this was the first time I’ve ever stayed in a hostel and it bore no resemblance to any hostel accommodation I’d ever seen advertised. I got a private room and ensuite bathroom, electric kettle and hot drink fixings. The breakfast buffet was simple but complete. The theme for breakfasts on this trip has been cold meats and cheeses, cereal and yogurt (I tend to skip the cereal), soft-boiled eggs, toast and bread with a choice of jams, tea or coffee and juice.
— From Basel, a couple of hours on Swiss Rail brought me to Zermatt. This little town is heaven for anyone who craves outdoor, especially winter, activities. Even in October, there were downhill ski runs in use and a bit of snow-making kept a Bobcat busy grooming the slopes. This is where the perfect weather I’ve had this trip was at its most spectacular. I took the multi-stage gondola to the top of Gornergrat. This is one of, if not the best place to view the Matterhorn and the surrounding Alps. Gornergrat’s summit sits at almost 3100 meters, or more than 10,000 feet. An absolutely cloudless sky, bright sun, no wind and a temp just at freezing. It paid off to be wearing my base layer long-johns under my jeans and my puffer jacket and hat meant I was perfectly comfy for the 80 minutes I spent up there taking photos of the entire snow-covered panorama. I took the last gondolas down at sunset and the thoughtful Swiss turned off the lights in the cars so we could see the Matterhorn’s silhouette. I’m still taking too many photos to be called normal but there are probably some really good ones to fix up for a post or this blog’s Facebook page.
On the second day in Zermatt, I went to the top of an even higher mountain to visit an ice tunnel in the glacier named ‘matterhorn glacier paradise’. It’s filled with ice sculptures in grottos and outside there is another stupendous Alpine view. This day, the Matterhorn was slightly less photogenic wearing as it was a crown of cloud obscuring only that one peak. I was told this cloud hides the top of the mountain about 70% of the time so I was even more thrilled to have gone up the day before when everything was clear. This Klein Matterhorn’s summit, at almost 3900 meters (more than 12,700 feet) was noticeably harder on the breathing than Gornergrat. Move slowly, the sign said, you are in the alpine zone. Got it. A careful hike to the top of the viewing platform, more photos and views to Italy and France’s Mont Blanc made this experience visually AND literally breathtaking.
Since I travel alone most of the time, I tend to eat dinner from supermarkets back in my room and only eat in restaus for the occasional lunch. In Zermatt, I treated myself to an actual dinner out. There were a couple dozen folks wandering the narrow main street checking out posted menus. In the area closer to the train station/s, there were one or two places doing a good business but a lot of other places much less busy. I overheard one fellow mutter ‘too expensive’ after reading one menu. I felt like turning and reminding him that this was Switzerland and EVERYthing is expensive here. I decided this would be my once-per-trip dinner splurge – the name of the hotel / restau is Walliserkanne and the interior is fairy-tale Swiss. Plaster walls, wood beams, chunky wooden tables, candles. Also a very attentive waiter and – the real reason I chose the place – raclette. This is that wonderfully gooey puddle of melted cheese that you mop up with chunks of potato, cornichon and tiny pearl onions. I started with a bowl of fresh pea soup and a nice piece of crusty bread, butter from obviously deliriously happy Swiss cows and the first of two glasses of white wine. At the end of the meal, I ordered a double espresso, one of my guilty pleasures when on the road. The waiter repeated ‘double espresso’ and added ‘double quick’. It took me a second to register his joke. My meal ended with a complementary / complimentary snifter of Poire William, a light, fragrant and fruity pear brandy as a digestif. Lovely!
And now I need to post this and get out and about while there is still enough of the day for some more sightseeing. Stay tuned for Part Two and the ride on the Glacier Express, my one night in stupid-pricey St Moritz and a two day revisit to Zurich. If I’m motivated, there may even be a Part Three.
Besides, my new tablet has an apparently factory-set feature of ignoring the space bar so the constant parsing of two or three words from one is getting REALLY annoying!