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Switzerland and Italy
June 10 - July 2, 2018
June 10th - 11tt (Sunday - Monday): Off to Switzerland

Why Switzerland? Well, my parents went to the Swiss Alps several years back to do some hiking and really enjoyed it. On top of that, both they and my brother's family were already going to be in the UK for a conference, so they decided to try and get everyone together for a big family trip and show us the part of Switzerland they visited back then. So that's why Connie, Zack, and I are doing a Europe trip this summer. There's more to it than Switzerland, but we'll talk about that when we get to it.
On a side note, this is actually my second trip to Switzerland, but the first was part of a long Europe trip my mom, brother, and I took back when I was a kid, long before I started writing travelogues or even doing Pebble Version. Plus, the Switzerland portion of the trip was a quick one, so my memories of it aren't very strong.
Anyway, flying from the east coast US to Switzerland is actually really easy. We were able to get a direct flight to Zurich that both left and got us in at convenient times. So we departed Sunday evening and arrived in Zurich Monday morning. Since the flight was mostly during Zack's bed time, we got him to sleep for much of it, which was great.
Everything went really quickly and smoothly and before long we were on the first of several trains heading towards our destination. The scenery leaving Zurich wasn't all that great, but started to improve as we neared the town of Bern, where we stopped to eat lunch and change trains. Speaking of lunch, the train station had a pretty nice food court and, like much of Europe, Switzerland has awesome bread. After Bern the scenery started to get really nice. I would have liked to take a few pictures out the windows, but I spent most of the train ride trying to keep Zack happy. Anyway, he finally took a nap and we made it to Interlaken (so named because it sits right inbetween two large lakes), where we switched trains one more time for a relatively short ride to the mountain town of Grindelwald. Unfortunately, the weather was not on our side and it was raining pretty hard.
Since the rest of my family was running late, Connie and I trekked through the rain to the rental office to get the keys for our... Chateau? Rental condo? Well, it's more a rental than a hotel anyway. We got a ride there then settled down to wait for the others. Annoyingly enough, the rain stopped around 15 minutes after we reached the office, so we could have waited it out and stayed dry. Anyway though, the rental was really nice and had a spectacular view, which featured a large number of waterfalls (some due entirely to the rain).
By the time the others arrived and settled in, the weather had improved considerably, so we walked back into down town Grindelwald. Grindelwald is a small mountain town with a strong tourism focus. It features skiing in the winter and lots of hiking and other activities in the summer. Honestly, if you change the architecture around, it reminds me a lot of some of the ski towns I've visited back in Colorado. We looked around a bit and did some grocery shopping and then headed back to our rental so everyone could relax and Zack and his cousin could get reacquainted.

Random Switzerland Comment: Graffiti
One of my earliest impressions of Switzerland on this trip is of just how much graffiti there was everywhere. Way more than I've seen anywhere else. The amount dropped significantly as we got further away from Zurich (though every city I've visited seems to have issues), but it still was a bit of a surprise.

June 12th (Tuesday): Trummelbach Falls

The weather forecast for the next couple of days was iffy, so my parents (who did most of the planning for this part of the trip) decided to do something where rain wouldn't be too much of a problem. Fortunately, the weather started out great and we walked to a cable car on the outskirts of town. The cable car was a long one, taking us up over forests and grassy slopes to the top of a nearby mountain. The top of the mountain was covered in a thick cloud, so we didn't stay long, but there was a really cool playground there complete with a giant wooden cow (you could climb up and enter via its butt and slide out on its tongue), outdoor bowling, and a lot of other fun stuff.
From there, it was a short walk to a second, fancier, cable car (complete with a roof you could stand on, for an extra fee) going down the other side of the mountain to the town of Wengen. But we didn't stay there long before hopping on a short train to Lauterbrunnen, the town a bit further down the mountain (close enough that it wouldn't have been too bad of a walk, actually). From there, we got on a bus to our main destination, Trummelbach Falls. Now, that might seem like a rather complicated route, and it is. We essentially took the scenic way.
But anyway, Trummelbach is set in the side of a mountain. What makes it so special is that a glacier river carved its way through the rock, creating a twisting tunnel of water falls going from the top to the bottom.  It's a little hard to do it justice with photos. Starting from the bottom, you climb a whole lot of stairs up and into the mountain, following the path of the river. It's a bit like going through a slot canyon, albeit with a whole lot of cool water falls along the way, which makes it rather unique and certainly worth a visit. It's fairly physically taxing (lots of steep wet steps), though there is an elevator that goes part way up (though you'll miss a lot if you take it). On a side note, kids under 4 aren't allowed, so we ended up having to split our group up so some people could stay behind and watch them.
On our way back to Lauterbrunnen, we got off the bus early and walked over to Staubbach Falls, which is a pretty impressive waterfall dropping of the edge of a rather sheet mountain cliff. The water doesn't even making it all the way to the ground before misting and condensing along the mountainside, where it resumes its descent. The walk to the base was pleasant, and there's a path you can take up and under the falls. Unfortunately, the path doesn't really give you any views of the falls themselves, but you do get a nice view of the town.
Once we'd finished there, we walked back to the train station and caught a train to Grindelwald to wrap up the day. It was a lot of fun and a good way to kick off the trip. Even better, the rain managed to hold off until we were nearly back to the train station, so that all worked out pretty well.

Random Switzerland Comment: Trains
Like most of Europe, Switzerland has an extensive train system. It's not quite on the level of Japan's, but the trains are clean, timely, and a convenient way to get from town to town. The layout and style is a little different from Japanese trains as well, but not really in a bad way.
While they have ticket offices and ticket machines, I really can't say anything about the process of buying tickets since we all had Swiss Passes which, much like the Japan Rail Pass, gives you unlimited train travel for their duration (as a bonus, you also get free bus and boat travel, free rides on a lot of cable cars, and discounts on many other attractions). You can actually print the passes at home (it's got a IR code, so do a high quality print) and then just walk onto the train you want (there's no assigned seats). Sooner or later a conductor will probably come to ask for your tickets and you can show him or her the pass. Not that I say probably. There are some trains where my ticket was never checked and others where they just glanced at it instead of scanning it properly.
It's all very nice and convenient, though I find the trains and the process of navigating the stations and finding the proper route a step below what I experienced in Japan. On that note, some trains split partway, so make sure you're in the right half./ Regardless, it's a great way to travel and the Swiss Pass is worth looking into if you don't plan on spending your entire Switzerland stay in a single location.

June 13th (Wednesday): Lake Thun
The city of Interlaken (the biggest city in this part of Switzerland) is so named because it sits right in the middle of two lakes, Lake Thun and Lake Brienz. Since the weather was still iffy, we headed to Interlaken then hopped on a bus heading along the coast of Lake Thun. Our destination, the St. Beatus Caves. As a note, the caves are reachable by bus and ferry, but the bus is a lot faster. The train does go around Lake Thun too, but only on the other side, so it can't get you to the caves.
Anyway, the caves are actually a decent climb above the road, but it's a pretty scenic trail in its own right. The cave is pretty high in the mountain side and has a river running through the middle of it. And it's really the river that gives the cave much of its charm. The formations, while decent, are nothing spectacular (at least if you've been to lots of other caves, like I have). But I haven't seen many with such large and active water ways. It's a pretty large cave too, with the trail going back quite a ways into the mountain.
After finishing our tour of the cave, we got back on the bus and headed to the town of Thun on the far end of the lake. It's a nice place with a strong European flair, at least in parts. We started out by walking around, browsing, and snacking a bit. Not sure if it was a special day or something normal, but there were a lot of food stalls set up kind of like a farmers market. We got some really good olives and cannolis on our way and eventually meandered over to Thun Castle. The castle dates back to the 1200's and was originally built as a fortress then later became the residence for the town's mayors. Now, the inside has been turned into a museum (free if you have a Swiss Pass) with some historical information and relics and some great views from the top.
After touring the castle, we walked around Thun a little longer then decided to take the boat back to Interlaken. As we'd heard, the boat was a lot slower. Mainly because it makes a lot of stops and has to zigzag back and forth across the lake to reach them all. However, it's also very scenic and a pleasant way to spend a few hours, with lots of great sights both across the lake and along the coast. The boat even had a kids' play area, which was pretty convenient.
We eventually make it back to Interlaken, where we walked across the city to the other train station (there's one on each side), stopping for dinner along the way. It seems like a nice enough place (rather small for a city), though not quite as "charming" as some of the Swiss towns I've seen. After that, it was back to Grindelwald to wrap up the day.

Random Switzerland Comment: Language
Switzerland is a bit odd in that it has four official languages (in order of popularity): German, French, Italian and Romansh. Which one is used seems to come down primarily to what part of the country you're in, though German is by far the most common, with French a rather distance second. They have their own dialects though and Swiss German definitely sounds different (better, in my opinion) than traditional German. We're in a German area, though I've heard a tiny bit of French here and there.
Fortunately, they all use English letters (with the occasional accent mark), so reading signs and stuff isn't a problem. Though understanding them can be, since there isn't always an English translation, even in the tourist areas (there's a decent chance, but it's not a sure thing). Conveniently, however, just about everyone seems to speak decent English, which makes it pretty easy to get around and communicate.

June 14th (Thursday): Grindelwald First and Lake Bachalpsee

After a few days of cloudy and sometimes rainy weather, the skies were finally clear so it was time for some hiking. We started by walking to the far end of Grindelwald and taking a ride on the Grindelwald First cable car (a different cable car than the one we rode a couple days back; First is the name of the mountain, BTW). It's a pretty long cable car, with a couple of stops along the way, and a number of activities as well. Our goal was the hike to Lake Bachalpsee, but we got sidetracked at the top by the First Cliff Walk. I've seen walks like this before on the internet and on TV, but this was my first time seeing one in-person and it was really cool and offered spectacular views. I even spotted some mountain goats off in the distance.
After finishing the walk and admiring the views for a bit, we finally started on the hike itself. There was a decent ascent at first, though the trail leveled out a lot after that. We decided to let Zack walk a bit to burn up some energy, and he really enjoyed that. After some ups and downs and a lot of snow spotted mountain meadows, we reach the lake. The really interesting part was that the lake was divided in half and while one half looked normal, the other was frozen over, creating an odd contrast.
Once we'd finished taking in the lake, we backtracked to the cable car and started heading down the mountain. On the way up, we'd noticed that the first stop (ascending; second stop descending) had a really nice playground, so we got out there to give Zack and his cousin Isaac a chance to play. It was a cool playground and the views really couldn't be beat either.
We spent quite a while there before we started to think about going back down into Grindelwald. The question was, how to go. Sure there was the cable car, but the area also featured zip lines, tricycle type things, and scooter bikes (well, more scooter than bike). The scooter bikes were the only one that went all the way down to Grindelwald and a few of us split off from the rest of the group to give them a try. It ended up being a lot of fun. We basically coasted down the mountain, following a curvy road through grassy meadows and fields. We had to watch out for the occasional car and hiker, but it was a fairly quiet road and there was no need to actually push the scooter until the very end when we got into Grindelwald itself (we were riding the break the whole way). If you ever happen to be in the area, I really recommend it.
We met up with the others and took a break after that before heading out to dinner. Being in Switzerland, I figured that we had to try fondue at least once. Now, you may or may not know that there's a few different types. The best known in the US is probably chocolate fondue, where you dip fruit and other sweets into melted chocolate. Then there's cheese fondue, where you dip bread and vegetables into melted cheese. And finally, the one I'd never heard of, meat fondue, where you dip meat into boiling oil. We ended up sharing a couple orders of cheese and meat fondue. It was...ok. Not bad, by any means, but it didn't quite live up to my expectations either. Maybe it was the restaurant (there's at least half a dozen fondue places here, and we didn't put much effort into researching them), but I really don't have enough fondue experience to say how their fondue ranks (I've only had fondue one other time and that was years ago). In the end, the general consensus among all of us was that it was a fun experience, but just an ok meal. Also, they really don't give you enough vegetables to dip.

Random Switzerland Comment: Playground
If you're traveling with kids, one really cool thing about Switzerland is all the public playgrounds scattered around. It seems like every town has at least one nice one, and even many of the mountainside cable car stops feature excellent playgrounds. Expect a lot of wood, ropes, and climbing features, making them a bit different than what you typically see in the US. While I'll admit that I pay a lot more attention to these kind of things now than I used to, as far as I can remember, no other place I've been has the number of quality playgrounds I've seen in this part of Switzerland.

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