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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, fairly 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.
On a side note though, with all the mountain routes and such, the trains aren't very fast. Heck, I saw an ad trumpting the "world's slowest express train", which isn't something you'd normally be proud of, but whatever.

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: Playgrounds
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.

June 15th (Friday): Murren and Piz Gloria

This was another perfect weather day, which meant more hiking. To start, we took the train to the nearby town of Lauterbrunnen. You might remember we also passed through there on our way to Trummelbach Falls a few days back. It's just over the mountain from Grindelwald, but there's no tunnel so unless you take the cable car over, like we did that first time, you have to take a train part way to Interlaken then switch to another going the other direction.
Anyway, from Lauterbrunnen we immediately hopped on a crowded cable car going up the mountain on the other side of the town (opposite the the one that Wengen and Grindelwald are on). Well, most of us. Connie was feeling a bit off so she opted to hang around the town for a while. The rest of us had a short but steep ride up. From there, we could have taken a quick train ride to our destination, but opted to walk instead.
We set off on a pretty path that more or less followed the railroad tracks through flowery meadows, small forests, and groups of happy cows. It was a pretty easy hike with some great views. About half way, we came across a little roadside shop where one of the local farmers was selling milk, yogurt, and cheese (on the honor system) from the cows on that very mountain. The yogurt was awesome, and you don't often get the chance to get it so fresh. Just after that was a restaurant with a nice playground and indoor play room, which the kids really enjoyed. Eventually though, we needed to keep moving to reach our destination, the town of Murren.
Murren is a small town high up on the mountain that doesn't allow any cars (other than a few services vehicles and such) so the only way to get there is via cable car and then train or hiking. Despite the remote location, it's popular with tourists and actually has a number of rentals and hotels. It's a pleasant place and the views are spectacular. We had been making good time, and stopped at a nice cafe for a drink and a snack before walking around the town a bit.
While we were walking, we spotted a cable car which led up the Schlithorn (a mountain). Hannah (my sister-in-law) realized it was the one we'd seen advertised as going to Piz Gloria, which is where they filmed part of a James Bond movie. It was supposed to be a pretty expensive ride (some of the more tourist centered trains and cable cars in Switzerland are ridiculously expensive), but looked like a pretty awesome view and the others decided to head up. I was interested, but also felt kind of guilty for leaving Connie alone for so long, so I took the train out of Murren, went down on the cable car, and met back up with her. Actually, she was doing better so we then took the cable car right back up, got back on the train to Murren, and then headed for the cable car to Piz Gloria. So I still ended up going, just with a detour first.
Luckily, the cable car ended up being free with our Swiss Passes (we saved a ton of money with those things over the course of the trip). Though, according it my parents, it wasn't on their visit. They think that some of the attractions covered by the pass change every so often, so keep that in mind if you plan on going.
Anyway, the first cable car goes up to a stop named Brig. You could just hop right on the next one to Piz Gloria, but that'd be a mistake. In addition to awesome views, Brig has the thrill walk, which is a cliff walk kind of like the one on Grindelwald First, but better. Now there isn't much that scares me, especially heights, but the thrill walk was so high it made even me a little nervous. It also had some fun additions like a glass floor section, an optional cable walk, and a chain link tube you could crawl through. I walked on the glass floor and across the cable but, unfortunately, I was carrying a sleeping Zack at the time, so I had to skip the tube. Still, the whole thing was utterly breathtaking and so worth it.
Connie was feeling really motion sick after the ridge up (the cable car swayed a lot, so I couldn't blame her) and decided to wait at Brig while I took the next cable car up even higher to Piz Gloria. It's one of the highest peaks in the area, and a good distance above Brig. As previously mentioned, it's the place where they filmed part of the 007 James Bond film On Her Majesty's Secret Service. As such, they really play up the Bond theme with Bond music on the cable car, Bond souvenirs and info boards, and even a Bond museum. I'm not really a big Bond fan though, and Connie was waiting, so I didn't pay too much attention to that and focused more on the awesome views. Now I've gone up a lot of mountains, but usually it seems like there's always a higher peak nearby. It was pretty spectacular to actually be atop the highest peak for a change and I'm really glad I want.
After that, it was down, down, down... A number of cable cars and trains later, it was back to Grindelwald to wrap up another great day.

Random Switzerland Comment: Money
The currency in Switzerland is the Swiss Franc which, at the moment, is almost exactly equal to $1 US. Coins are used for smaller dominations, including 1, 2, and 5, with bills for 10, 20, 50, 100, 200, and 1,000. I've never seen a 200 or 1,000 Franc bill, but they do exist, which is kind of cool. There's also the centime, which is like the US Cent, and there are coins for 5, 10, 20, and 50.
As far as getting money and paying for things goes, I had no trouble using my American ATM card at the ATM in the airport, but the Francs I got there have lasted me the entire trip so far, so I haven't had to pay any attention to how common international ATMs are elsewhere. Given the large amount of tourism and Switzerland's reputation as a banking country, I would assume they're not too hard to find. Visa and Mastercards are pretty widely accepted as well, and I've had no problems with mine. Though I'll note that a decent number of smaller shops and restaurants are cash only, so you can't rely solely on a card.

June 16th (Saturday): Lake Brienz

We'd had a couple of good hiking days in a row and my dad and I had come down with a cold (unrelated to the hiking, of course). It was relatively mild, at least in my case (it didn't slow me down at all the previous day), but between those two things, we decided to go with a more relaxing plan for the day.
Now, I mentioned before that Interlaken is situated inbetween two lakes. We explored a bit on and around Lake Thun a few days back, so today we decided to go and take a boat across Lake Brienz. The landing was right outside of the train station and soon we were off. It ended up being a smaller and older ferry than the one we had the other day. Not that there was anything wrong with it, just a bit more crowded and without as many amenities. Lake Brienz seems to be a bit smaller than Lake Thun, and has fewer stops, so it's a quicker ride, but there are still plenty of great views and it was a nice relaxing trip. The ride ended in the town of Brienz. It seemed like a pleasant little place, especially how they had stations with free to borrow canvas chairs all along the coast for people to use. But when we were there it was in the midst of the STIHL Timbersports competition so they had a bunch of tents up selling stuff related to logging and some related events like seeing how fast contestants could saw through a log. The problem with a chainsaw competition, by the way, is that it takes around five minutes of setup for each match, which then lasts around 12 seconds. We walked along the coast a bit, watched the sawing a little, then decided to get the next boat back. It ended up being one of the big boats just like the one we road on Lake Thun, which was nice since we were able to let Zack and Isaac play in the kids' area the whole way. Got some different views too, including this very old and famous hotel, which is reached by an old and famous ropeway.
Instead of going all the way to Interlaken, we decided to get off one stop early in Bonigen and walk the rest of the way along the water. It was a very nice path and kept with the relaxing nature of the day. Even on a sightseeing trip, it's important to work some easy days in there.

Random Switzerland Comment: Famous Products
Switzerland is known, as least in the US, for several product types and brands. But are they really as big here as we think?
Swiss chocolate? Well, chocolate is everywhere with every grocery store and souvenir store having a massive selection, much of which is from Switzerland. So yeah, the Swiss love their chocolate.
Swiss watches? I haven't been paying attention to how many people actually wear them, but there are Swatch (and other Swiss watch brands) stores everywhere.
Swiss army knives? Yep. Every souvenir store seems to have pretty much the entire (extensive) official lineup. They also all seem to charge exactly the same price, so bargain hunting isn't too useful (though you might be able to find free engraving). One special thing about buying a knife here in Switzerland is that the normal color for the outer case is red, which they don't sell in other countries. So you can prove that you went all the way to Switzerland (or ebay) to get your knife.
Ricola? Them too! You can't get away from the world's most popular cough drops. I've seen lots of ads, lots of bags for sale, and a bunch of related stuff. They're just as popular here in their home country as they are in the rest of the world, if not more so.

June 17th (Sunday): Back to Murren
We were originally thinking of doing a particular hike that requires first riding a special train from a nearby town up a mountain. Thing is, said train was rather expensive and not covered by the Swiss Pass and it was looking pretty cloudy there so we decided against it. My parents and brother decided to go back to Murren via a longer and more difficult hike. Meanwhile, since Connie hadn't done the regular Murren hike the other day, she and I did that again. So we followed the same trail I already wrote about, got some more great yogurt, and saw some nice wild flowers. We took it slow and let Zack walk for a while so we only made it to Murren a short time before the others. Though we soon split up again for lunch, with Connie and I eating at Murren's lone, and surprisingly decent, Chinese restaurant.
Afterwards, we all took the train and cable car back down then took a train up to Wengen, which we'd only passed through before, and walked around a bit. It's a nice town, and even has a sort of adult park with things like ping-pong and a slack line (I was the only one of the group to make it all the way across). It was a nice relatively low key day.
June 18th (Monday): Bern
The weather in the Grindelwald area wasn't all that great, so we decided to take a day trip to Bern, a city out past Lake Thun and the "de facto" capital of Switzerland (Connie, unfortunately, was still rather sick and opted to stay home). It was a bit of a ride, but we ended up on a large double decker train which, coolly enough, often have a family car with a kids' play area. Got to hand it to Switzerland and their love of playgrounds. On a side note, those big trains also tend to have dining cars, though I never took a close look at one.
Connie and I had changed trains and gotten lunch in Bern on our way to Grindelwald, but we were only on a corner of the upper platforms and didn't realize how large the station was. It's a pretty big and fancy one, with lots of shops and restaurants. I especially have to call out this place (a chain) for their awesome pretzels.
Leaving the station, we emerged into Bern proper. Noah wanted to check out a couple of stores so we did that before making our way to a nearby, and really fancy looking, Indian restaurant for lunch. My impression of Bern at this point was that it's a fairly nice city, though nothing spectacular. Then we finally got to its old town... Now that is what I always imagined a medieval European city to be like. Maybe not with all the fancy modern shops, but just walking down the street and taking in the buildings, statues, and paintings was really cool. If you didn't notice, the "knight" in that photo is actually a bear in armor. Bears are the symbol of Bern, so you'll see them around here and there. There's a park with some live ones as well, though we didn't make it there. The main street of old town stretched on for quite a while before giving way to a still rather old fashioned looking housing area by a river.
By the time we'd walked down and back through old town, it was about time to head back to Grindelwald (we needed to pack up and prepare for the following day). I did glimpse what looked like a pretty cool cathedral, but didn't have time to check it out. Oh well, I'm sure I'll be seeing plenty of those in Italy.
While a bit different, it was a fun way to wrap out of town in the Jungfrau region of Switzerland. It was an awesome week or so and I would certainly come back again if given the chance.

Random Switzerland Comment: Smoking
I didn't notice many people smoking in the mountain areas, but in the cities like Bern, there were a lot of smokers around. I can't say how it compares to the US, percentage-wise, but there were a lot and that included young people. While I never had any problems with smokers at restaurants, I did see some places with ash trays, so I guess it's not under a blanket ban like in the US. Smoking also seems to be allowed on public streets so if you're in a city, you might not be able to do much to avoid it. Compared to other countries I've visited, I'd say the level of smoking in Switzerland is worse than the US and Japan (at least as far as second hand smoke goes), but better than China.

June 19th (Tuesday): Zermatt and the Matterhorn

Sadly, it was time to say goodby to Grindelwald and the entire Jungfrau region and move onto the second (and last) stop on our family Switzerland trip. We weren't sure if the weather was going to hold out past the morning at our destination so we left early, though not as early as originally planned since Connie and my dad were still dealing with that annoying cold.
The route required several trains, one of which we nearly missed due to a delay (fortunately, it was delayed too). Once we left the Jungfrau area behind, we stayed in the mountains (or maybe went back up into the mountains is the better way to put it), though there was a very different feel. The flora changed a lot, indicating that we were in a much dryer area, and even the architecture changed. The houses mostly lost that picture perfect Swiss mountain feel, though they did gain some cool stone tile roofs. Sorry to say though, but the Zermatt area just isn't as scenic as the Jungfrau region.
Anyway, if that last line didn't clue you in, our destination was the mountain town of Zermatt. While there isn't much of anything near it (just some little towns that didn't appear of any particular interest when passing through), Zermatt itself somewhat makes up for that with a ton of shopping and things to do. It's very touristy (for better or worse), and reminds me a lot of some of the big Colorado ski towns.
Anyway, Zermatt is known for skiing, tennis, hiking, and, most of all, Switzerkand's iconic Matterhorn mountain. Since my dad and Connie weren't feeling great, they opted to wait for check-in to start at the hotel. The rest of us hopped on a special train to go up closer to the Matterhorn. And by special, I mean expensive. The Swiss Pass gave us a 50% discount and it was still over $40 a piece. For a maybe 30 minute train ride.  Seriously. There's no way you can justify charging around the same price as a ticket to Disney World for that.
Complaints about the price aside, we rode the train all the way up to the top where they have an observatory, which also serves as a hotel for people who want to spend a whole lot of money to be in an extremely inconvenient location. I really hope the guests at least get unlimited tickets for the train. Anyway, the area did offer amazing views of the Matterhorn and the surrounding mountains. It also has the world's largest chocolate Matterhorn (in four different varities) as well as some smaller versions you could purchase and take home.
We had originally been planning to hike but, while the temperature was ok, it was just dirt and snow as far as the eye could see and we didn't really want to hike over the snow so, after looking around for a bit, we took the train down to a lower station for some different views. Then, finally, it was back down to Zermatt to check our cool but quirky hotel rooms.  You don't quite get the full effect from a photo, but it's the best I could do with a single shot. Unfortunately, as cool as the rooms where, they were very very not childproof so keeping Zack from breaking anything or hurting himself was kind of tough. But hey, they did have a nice hot tub.
Later that evening, we went out to find a place to eat and ended up at a bar and restaurant that had just (that day) switched over to an Asian fusion menu. Not really authentic, but pretty good.

Random Switzerland Comment: Prices
Switzerland is a bit on the expensive side compared to the US. Prices for everyday things aren't much different (a little more, a little less, depending on the item), but restaurants (other than fast food) all seem to charge about one tier above what they would in the US and the ticket prices for some of the special trains and cable cars are crazy (get a Swiss Pass, it helps a lot). Traveling in Switerland is still managable on a budget, but don't expect an especially cheap trip.

June 20th (Wednesday): Around Zermatt
That morning, after a nice breakfast at our hotel, we set out to do a bit of hiking. While we didn't really have a sepcific trail in mind, there were a few that started from the far end of Zermatt so we made our way there. Of course, you couldn't miss the Matterhorn, no matter where you went. We passed a pretty cool looking ropes course (which I would have loved to do if I had more time) and ended up following the signs to a gorge.
The gorge walk was fun and offered several possible paths at the end, we opted for the shorter one which looped us through a forest and around to a tiny little village above Zermatt (seems some people make the trek there for the restaurant). Rather randomly, there was also an official Ricola garden, which featued all the different herbs contained in Ricola (dang it, I want to do the call like in the commercials every time I see the word). There was even a contest you could enter, which involved matching up the different herbs with their proper names. From there, it was a fairly straightforward walk back to Zermatt.
Back in town, Connie and I walked around the town a bit (I finally decided to pick up a new Swiss Army Knife) then took turns watching Zack so the other could play around in the hotel's spa. It had seven different rooms, all loosely themed after the seven days of creation. A little gimmicky maybe, but kind of fun.
Finally, we all went out for one last meal together and got some pretty good pizza to finish up the day and our last night in Switzerland. While I do have to say that I like the Jungfrau region a lot better overall, Zermatt is still a fun town and I wouldn't mind going back again sometime.

June 21st (Thursday) On to Italy

As I previously mentioned, it felt like a waste to fly all the way to Europe for only a week and a half, so Connie and I ended up planning a week and a half in Italy on our own once the family vacation wrapped up. Why Italy? Well, you have to admit that it has a cetern allure to it. I was also there many years ago and have been wanting to go back for a better look. Finally, with all the stuff going on in Europe right now, Italy seems to be one of the safer countries to visit.
There were a few options for getting from Zermatt to Milan, our first stop in Italy. But two of the train routes were a lot better than the others...except for the times. One was really early, one was really late. I wasn't expecting much but Zack woke up early so, with a little help from my family (who were also catching an early train), we managed to rush through breakest and get the early departure.
Even then, we had a tight connection and ducked onto the train going to Italy without taking a close look. Apparently, it was more of an Italian train than a Swiss train in terms of style and operation. It looks like we should have reserved seats ahead of time, but we nanaged to find some empty seats and between our Swiss Passes and Eurail Passes, the conductor let it slide.
The view from the train was... Actually there wasn't much of a view for a while since we were going in and out of a constant series of tunnels. It got nicer eventually, but Connie and I didn't have especially good seats to enjoy it. So we just toughed it out and tried to keep Zack happy until we arrived in Milan.
Milan Central Station isn't as large or maze like as some of the major Tokyo stations, but it could probably give them a run for their money in sheer amount of traffic. My goals after disembarking were to activate our Eurail Passes and find an ATM so I could get some Euros. Neither was quite as straight forward as I hoped. Activating the pass wasn't bad, but it required finding the proper ticket office (which took some doing) and waiting in a long line. Finding an ATM wasn't very straight forward either. First off, the station has a ton of automated ticket machines which look a lot like ATMs, so there was some initial confusion there. Then there's the fact that the name of Milan's subway system is officially abbreviated as ATM, so most signs for ATM are referring to that. Finally, there just aren't many actual ATMs around for some reason. But I did finally track one down with some help from the lady at the ticket counter. Then it was time to get to our hotel.
There are a lot of options when it comes to getting around Milan. Walking is generally doable, at least among the more important locations. There's a also subway, street cars, and busses. We, somewhat randomly, settled on the subway. Seems like subways work pretty much the same no matter what country you're in.
We arrived at a pretty nice business type hotel and spent a while settling in and recovering from the move (dragging a bunch of luggage plus a baby around is hard work) before deciding to head out and do a little bit of sightseeing.
First impressions of Milan weren't great. I'd heard it wasn't one of the prettier Italian cities but it really just looked like a very generic city. Things did start to improve as we got into the old city, though it still had absolutely nothing on Bern. It does have its attractions though, such as our first stop, the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II, Italy's oldest active shopping mall. It was built in the 1860's and named after the first king of the united kingdom of Italy. More of a shopping arcade than a mall, it's really fancy, as you can tell, though not especially large so it didn't take us all that long to explore it.
Exiting the Galleria, we found ourselves face to face with the extremely impressive Duomo di Milano. I've always loved high gothic architecture and the Duomo is a masterpiece, and the first major example I've been able to see in person. But I'll talk about it more in tomorrow's entry. Today all we did was walk around the outter walls and buy admission tickets for the next day. Why? Well, it was getting a little late and I didn't want to rush our visit. Plus, there was a decent length line waiting to get in, and I figured we could dodge that by hitting it first thing in the morning. But the main reason is that Zack was getting antsy after being carried around most of the day and really wanted to move around so we spent quite a while letting him chase pigeons in the piazza (plaza) outside the Duomo, which is dedicated to the Lord of the Pigeons, er, Vittorio Emanuele II. Though, honestly, he may have well been considering how many of the things were covering his statue and the surrounding piazza.
Anyway, Zack had a lot of fun and we ended up staying there for quite a while. Since it was getting a bit late, we ended up eating at a restaurant in the Galleria on our way back. The food was ok (nothing amazing, but ok), but definitely a bit overpriced. Oh well, I'm sure we'll hit better Italian restaurants in the coming days.

Random Italy Comment: Seating Charge
It's pretty normal for restaurants in Italy to add a seating charge to your check. It's a flat per-person fee (babies don't seem to be counted) that I've seen run anywhere from 2 - 6 Eurors each. Kind of annoying, but you don't tip here so I suppose it events out a bit. Just watch out since some restaurants seem to jack it up pretty high. I've even heard of cafes and coffee shops adding a seating fee if you opt to enjoy your drink there instead of taking it out (though I haven't experienced that myself).

June 22nd (Friday): Milan

Zack slept late so Connie and I decided to let him and after that and a nice breakfast at our hotel, we set off a bit later than I had hoped. By the time we made it back to the Duomo, there was already a long line waiting for admission. Since I had purchased the combo tickets that granted us access to several areas, the guy checking tickets at the back of the line suggested we go around to the line for the roof, since it was shorter, see it first, and then enter the cathedral from there. Well, the roof line was a lot shorter, but it also moved really slowly so I'm not sure if that was the best call. If Connie had been up to climbing the stairs, we could have skipped some of the line, but she was still recovering and besides, I'd already paid for the elevator anyway (it costs more than the stairs). It took quite a while, but we eventually rode up the roof and it was worth the wait. Rather surprisingly, the roof was designed for easy access and you can walk all over it and get close up looks at the carvings and terraces and great views of the Piazza down below. Exploring up there was amazing and I'm really glad we did it, wait and all. Eventually, we made our way to the top level, which had more great views, then down around the other side and to the entry into the cathedral. Once again, there was a line for the elevator, though people taking the stairs could skip ahead.
The roof was incredible but the inside of the Duomo was equally impressive. Though that picture doesn't begin to show just how huge the building is. This one is a bit better, but it's still only showing a portion. And with good reason. The Milano Duomo is the largest church in Italy and the third largest in the entire world. As such, there was a ton of things to see inside such as the main pulpit and organ, paintings, sculptures, elaborate stained glass depicting dozens of Bible stories, and a crypt. There was even an underground area showcasing the findings of an archeological dig researching the churches that sat on the same spot before the Duomo was built. On that note, construction on the Duomo began in 1386. However, due to technical difficulties, changing politics, costs, and the sheer size and scale of the design, work stalled and started numerous times throughout the centuries, with the last few items finally being completed in 1965.
We finally left the Duomo and after a pigeon chasing break for Zack, decided to get a quick lunch and move on to our next destination. Our tickets would have also gotten us into a nearby museum about the Duomo, but time was limited so we made our way to the Pinacoteca di Brera. The Pinacoteca was a former noble's mansion before it was turned into an art gallery, with his private collection acting as the foundation. It also hosts an art school and library. As a note, the signs suck and Connie and I spent a while wandering around the art school before we finally found our way to the gallery (straight though to the back and up the stairs). It's a nice gallery, though with a bit too much Gothic art for my taste. It also doesn't match up to the National Gallery in DC, but that would be a tough one to beat. It's a nice collection over all, especially if you like the specific artists it specializes in. They even had the Last Supper...albeit a totally different painting by a different artist. Same subject matter though, so that's something.
After we made our way through the gallery, it was time to let Zack chase more pigeons and then he and Connie returned to the hotel while I went to do a little grocery shopping and get train tickets for the coming days.
We finished with a meal at out hotel's restaurant, which was pretty good (featuring a number of traditional Milanese dishes), even if the service was a little slow, and a whole lot cheaper than the places in the Galleria.

Random Italy Comment: Smoking
In Switzerland, some people smoked. In Italy, lots of people smoke and there's clearly no restrictions against smoking on the streets, train platforms, and the like. Though I haven't had any issues in restaurants. It's impossible to avoid and what must be a rather lax litter law also means that there are cigarette butts everywhere. While that doesn't look great in general, it's especially annoying when you've got a toddler running around who wants to grab everything that looks interesting.

June 23rd (Saturday): Lake Como

While we could have found some more things to see in Milan, we already hit the biggest attractions so we used our last day in that area for a day trip to nearby Lake Como. It's a large lake surrounded by picturesque towns and a very popular summer resort area. Our starting point was the town of Como, which is the most common entry to the lake area.
Como is a pleasant town and felt a whole lot more European than Milan did. Especially when we reached the lake and the old town with its large cathedral. It's often referred to as a Duomo, though it's technically not one, but regardless it's a nice cathedral with a large collection of tapestries on display. After touring the inside, we continued walking around the old town for a while, enjoyed the street musicians, and even stumbled across a playground where we let Zack run around for a bit.
Once he'd had enough, we went back to the lake and walked along the shore to the edge of town where there's a ropeway that takes you up to the small town of Brunate. Actually, it seems like most of the "town" is a series of very fancy private villas. We ended up following signs towards a fountain. The fountain turned out to be really lame, but there was a nice viewpoint just past it. Back near the ropeway station, there was another viewpoint, which offered a good view of the town of Como itself.
After exploring for a bit, we headed back down. We had been thinking of taking a boat to one of the other towns on the lake (boats and busses seem to be the most common way to go between them), but the times didn't match our schedule very well so we walked along the lake for a while in the other direction. It was a pleasant walk, though a bit crowded with lots of tourists hanging out, making use of a couple tiny beaches, and the like.
After letting Zack play for a while at another playground (there's at least a couple along the shore), we made our way back to the station and returned to Milan. While it's too bad we didn't fit in a boat ride, we did have two days of lake cruises in Switzerland, so it wasn't a huge loss. Como was a really nice place though and I certainly wouldn't mind returning in the future to further explore the lake and surrounding towns.

Random Italy Comment: Trains
There doesn't seem to be a lot of consistency in Italy in regards to train models or ticket checking. Sometimes you need to show a ticket to get on the platform, sometimes you don't (depends on the station). Sometimes your ticket will get checked, sometimes it won't. I'm not really sure about the pricing since Connie and I have Eurail Passes, but they introduce another complication. A large number of trains in Italy require reservations. Not all, but quite a lot (for many routes, it's the only option), and it's not especially easy to tell which is which if you're just going by the listing in the train station, or using Google Maps to plan your route. Eurail has an app, however, that makes it clear which is which. So what if you need a ticket? You can get it in the ticket office or use one of the machines in the station or even do it online (so long as you can show a printed or digital copy on the train). But if you don't want to pay full price, you need to show that you have a Eurail Pass, which is a pain in the neck on the website and the machines. First, you need to dig around and find the other discounts option list. Then you choose Global Card...which isn't Eurail, but they didn't feel like adding an actual Eurail option to the menu, so instead you choose Global Card and enter your pass number there. Something I never would have figured out without some internet searching. Oh, and even with the pass, you still have to pay to reserve a ticket (it's a flat per-person fee, though it varies depending on the length of your journey, but expect at least 10 Euros), so the Eurail Pass isn't quite as good a deal in Italy as it should be.
Once you're actually on the train, they move pretty fast and are fairly comfortable. Though the announcements for stations and such are played at such a low volume that it's often near impossible to hear them. You might also encounter some beggars who go down the aisle handing out cards (sometimes rather professional looking ones) with a sob story then come back down and collect the cards and any money that's given to them. It's probably not allowed, but they seem to time their visits to avoid the ticket checks (presumably hopping off at the next station).
One more thing to keep in mind is that Italian trains often run late. The fact that all of the info boards at the stations and on the train monitors have a dedicated column for showing how late the train is running should clue you in. From my casual observation, I'd say somewhere around a third or more of all trains in Italy run at least 5 minutes late, sometimes considerably more so (I've seen more than a few that are over an hour late). So try not to schedule a trip that relies on a lot of connections.

June 24th (Sunday): Venice

After a last good breakfast at our hotel, it was off to the train station to catch a train to our next destination. Venice, as you likely know, is a city set on the water. When traveling there, it's important to keep in mind that there's Venice proper, and also the sort of new Venice, which is an ugly industrial city on the coast. Staying there is cheaper, but you have to take a boat, train, or bus from there to get to the real Venice, so it's better to just stay in Venice itself if possible. You also need to make sure you don't get the train stations mixed up.
The view of Venice when leaving the train station is pretty great and instantly brought to mind my mental vision of the city. But there wasn't much time to admire the view since we had to get our suitcases to the hotel. I booked a hotel pretty close to the train station, but it still required crossing two bridges, which was a chore since most of the bridges in Venice are steep and covered in stairs. You can hire porters to take your bags, or take a water bus or taxi depending on location, but since we weren't far, I wanted to save money.
Anyway, our hotel was on a quiet side street on the edge of the city and was pretty decent and affordable for Venice. After getting checked in, we were finally able to enjoy the sights. We got lunch at a nearby restaurant and were pleasantly surprised to see that prices for food actually aren't bad at all, at least assuming you avoid the tourist trap places. It was the cheapest meal we'd had so far in Italy and the best as well.
Since it was a weekend, I decided to steer clear of the city's more popular areas and explore some that were less likely to be overrun with tourists. That worked out quite well. A nice thing about Venice is that, as popular as it is, there's really just a couple of areas that most of the tourists hit. Avoid them, and the city is much more peaceful, even on a busy day. The souvenir stores tend to be cheaper as well once you get away from the beaten track, so keep that in mind if you're looking to shop.
We wound our way to the Scuola Grande di San Rocco. A scuola was a group founded by influential private citizens of Venice sort of like an exclusive club. There were multiple scuolas and many of them later evolved into charitable groups, some of which are still operating today. This one had quite the fancy building, with detailed paintings all along the walls and even on the ceiling.
Next, we made our way to the Basilica di Santa Maria Gloriosa, an impressive church filled with sculptures, many of which seemed to be to decorate the tombs of various notable figures.
Back outside, we continued our walking tour. While I'm trying not to overload these travelogues with pictures, I'll note that in Venice it seems like there's a post card ready view around every corner, whether on land or water.
One thing you'll see a lot of in Venice is pizza restaurants, offering slices on the go for a reasonable price. Most of them are actually quite good, but I saw a few offering this monstrosity. Can't believe anyone outside of Japan would ever think french fries on a pizza is a good idea... Another street food you see everywhere is gelato, which is often really good as well. Try to go to the places that make their own, rather than the ones that just sell generic gelato for the best experience.
We eventually ended up back near the train station and were able to enjoy the views of the Grand Canal. From there, we spent a bit of time walking along one of the more touristy streets, before crossing over to Ghetto Nuovo. The Ghetto is a small part of Venice where all the city's Jews were forced to live for several hundred years to limit both their power and their interactions with the rest of the city's inhabitants. While such ghettos eventually became prevalent throughout Europe, the Venice Ghetto was the first. Though, on the bright side, Venice was also one of the earlier European cities to abolish the Ghetto system later on. Now, it's still a predominantly Jewish area and features some shops, restaurants, and a museum. It was getting kind of late in the day though, so we just looked around a bit before starting to head back to our hotel.
Zack slept early, and Connie was kind of worn out as well, but I headed out for a bit to get water bus tickets for the following day, eat some pizza, and just enjoy the city before calling it a night.

Random Italy Comment: Graffiti
Parts of Switzerland (and the US, for that matter) have a graffiti problem. Italy in general has a major graffiti problem. They seem to be able to keep it away from the main tourist spots but beyond that it seems like every city has serious amounts of graffiti anyplace that seems a little bit run down or abandoned. Whether you're riding the trains or walking through a city, you'll likely see lots of graffiti. Do the police not care? Or maybe they lack the resources to prevent it and/or clean it up? Either way, it's kind of a shame and I hope that it doesn't get any worse.

June 25th (Monday): Further Explorations in Venice

This was the day I planned to hit Venice's most popular sights since, being a weekday, they should be less crowded. I had also followed the advice from my tour book and purchased some tickets in advance online a while back so we got an early start and hopped on a vaporetto (Venice's boat equivalent of a bus) on the Grand Canal. Unfortunately, the weather that morning was cool and rainy and the vaporetto was packed so we didn't really get to enjoy the views. But things were starting to clear up by the time we disembarked at the Piazza San Marco.
The Piazza is home to Venice's most popular tourist attractions and it's normally packed solid but we were early enough to beat the crowds so it was empty enough to let Zack chase some pigeons while we waited for our timed entry into St. Mark's Basilica (or Basilica di San Marco, if you prefer, I'm a bit inconsistent when it comes to using Italian vs. English names). We had to stow our bags first (there's a free back check) then head to the entrance for people with prepurchased tickets. Even at a relatively early hour, the line for people without tickets was already really long and it just kept getting more ridiculous as time went on. Prepurchased tickets are for specific 15 minute time slots, but we ended up at the front of the line about 10 minutes early and they let us in, so there's a little leeway there. Unfortunately, St. Mark's is the one place we visited on this entire vacation that didn't allow photos of any kind inside. The interior was very impressive though, especially in regards to the frescos that covered the walls and ceilings. That photo of the outside should give you a basic idea. Near the exit, for an extra fee, you could access the upper level which contained a small museum and gave a closer look at the frescos. It also let you go out by the horse statues on the front, which offered a great view of the piazza. I managed to hit that at a good time as well, since the line to go up had grown considerably by the time I headed down.
Once outside, we retrieved our bag then headed to the Doge's Palace. I had prepurchased tickets for it also, which let us skip a very long line. Though, unlike the Basilica, there was no time slot. Anyway, the Doge was the ruler of Venice (think a duke, or some such). Aside from the courtyard, the lower level had some rooms with statues and the like, but the vast majority of the things to see were on the upper levels (which required a bag check to access). The route started out with a series of elaborately decorated rooms which were used for various official functions, led through a cool collection of weapons and armor, and then over the poetically named Bridge of Sighs into the nearby prison before eventually circling back into the palace and through some private quarters. The variety was impressive and it was a fun and interesting mix of sights. As a side note, you can also book a special guided tour that focuses on secret passages, hidden rooms, and the like. Unfortunately, children under six aren't allowed, so I had to skip that one.
By the time we left the palace, the piazza was packed with tourists. I would have liked to climb the bell tower, but didn't want to wait in line for who knows how long, so we headed out. At first, we followed the main series of roads that goes between the train station and the piazza which, unsurprisingly, was jam packed. Though after taking a quick look at the Rialto Bridge (the one bridge in Venice with shops built on it), we broke away from the main drag and things quieted down considerably. Even more so when we stumbled in a fully residential area which lacked the restaurants and stores that fill much of the city.
After lunch, we took a quick look at the paintings in the Basilica di Santi Giovanni e Paolo then ended up at the extreme north end of the city, which gave us a nice view of some of the nearby islands. We wound our way to the Scuola San Giorgio degli Schiavoni for some more paintings (there's no end to old buildings with fancy paintings in Venice) then let Zack play for a bit. At that point, we'd done a lot of walking and wanted to get to the other side of the city, so we decided to get back on the vaporetto and ride there (our passes let us ride for 24 hours). This time, the weather was perfect and we were able to get decent seats, so it was a much more enjoyable ride than in the morning. While it's not the same as riding one of Venice's iconic gondolas, it's a much, much cheaper was to enjoy the views along the Grand Canal.
Our final stop was back in the ghetto to see the Jewish museum, which featured information about and artifacts from Jewish life in the ghetto. For an extra free, you could also tour an old synagogue. We skipped that, though we did peek inside.
By the time we finished, the various tourist attractions were starting to close, so we began to make our way back in the direction of our hotel. Connie really wanted to try a Chinese restaurant she'd seen and, while it wasn't my first choice, I figured that we didn't really need to eat Italian food for every meal and it ended up being pretty decent.
Zack fell asleep early, so I did step out for a bit later in the evening to walk around and grab a slice of pizza. In the end, I found myself hanging around outside the train station waiting for the moon to move into position for a perfect shot...
Over the course of a couple of days, Connie and I saw quite a lot of Venice. I really liked it there. Water cities are rare and interesting, there's a nearly endless number of things to see, and it's just so picturesque. Good food too. I could probably spend another day or two wandering around the city, and one more on top of that visiting the nearby islands such as Murano (the glass blowing island). For now though, it was time to move on...

Random Italy Comment: English
How hard is it to get around Italy without speaking any Italian? It's not too bad, but it can be a little rough at times. Important signs, information panels at museums and attractions, and the like are often in Italian and English, as are announcements on trains (if you can hear then), though not always. Of course, pretty much every restaurant in a tourist area has English menus as well. While a decent amount of people speak at least passable English, there are a lot of others who don't (including some who you'd think really should). Overall, I'd put the general English level of Italy a good bit below that of Switzerland, but above Japan (though not quite as far above and you might expect). That said, Italian does use the same letters as English, so if you can figure out the pronunciation, reading is easy enough.

June 26th (Tuesday): Off to Florence

TWC is working, but I'm posting this week's bonus comic here too just to help me catch up on things a bit. This actually isn't the first time I've come back from an international vacation only to throw myself immediately into a move, but it's even more hectic with a wife and a toddler, especially one who needs a few days to adjust to the time change.

June 26th (Tuesday): Off to Florence
We got an early start and made our way back to the train station (once more lugging the suitcases over the bridges) so we could head off to our final destination in Italy. Got to say, train rides feel a lot longer when I have to try and keep Zack entertained the entire time.
Anyway, we arrived in Florence and headed to our hotel. Going by the map, it should have been a fairly quick and easy walk. However, the map didn't account for a whole bunch of construction or all the beat up cobblestone roads we had to get the suitcases over. So it ended up taking a lot longer than I expected. But we eventually made it. Since Florence was our longest stop on the trip, I'd tried to book a fairly nice hotel. I did get a good location close to the train station and right in Florence's old city. And it was a rather fancy hotel. Though, being in the old city, it was also inside an old building. That made for kind of a neat room but, being an old building, it was built before elevators, and the hotel didn't really see the need to update that particular aspect. So getting to our room required climbing a rather ridiculous seven flights of stairs. It was also one of those hotels that was fancy enough that they try to nickle and dime you for everything. Actually, nickle and dime isn't the right phrase considering the prices... One thing they advertised was upgrades to premium rooms. Connie joked that meant rooms on the lower floors. Considering our room was the highest one, she might have been right...
After settling in, we headed out to get a start on the sightseeing. Florence's old city is huge (the largest I've seen) and many of the streets are lined with shops and restaurants. We were on the north end, which was a little less fancy and, for some reason, had quite a lot of Chinese restaurants (we got lunch at one). But it was also a very short walk to the Duomo. As a side note, Duomo is the Italian name for a church built to serve as a cathedral, so there are a number of cities with Duomos, though Milan and Florence's are some of the larger and more famous ones. Anyway, Florence's Duomo doesn't match the amazing high Gothic architecture of Milan's, but it's extremely impressive in its own right, especially in the use of different colors of marble in the facade.
If you're curious, it was begun in 1296 and completed 140 years later. Quite a long time, though nothing on Milan's Duomo in that regard. It's also a lot smaller than Milan's Duomo, but still one of the biggest churches in Italy and features the largest brick dome ever built.
Despite it being mid afternoon, I was able to get tickets for everything except a climb up the dome (that was sold out for the next three days) and the line, while it looked moderately long, moved pretty quickly so we didn't have to wait too long to get inside. Once again, the interior wasn't as large and elaborate as in Milan, but it was still impressive. The highlight was probably the painted dome, though I also enjoyed the archaeological area below the foundation with its remnants of former churches that once occupied the spot.
After finishing up inside, I decided that, since I couldn't go up the dome, I should at least climb the bell tower, At 414 steps, it's pretty tall (though slightly lower than the dome) and offers some great views of Florence's old city. I'm glad I went up, but climbing a steep tower while carrying Zack in the Ergobaby wasn't easy. After I got down, we let him chase the pigeons for a bit (though there weren't nearly as many as in Milan) then went to see the nearby baptistry (a separate church building, usually large and round, where baptisms were held). It was mostly notable for the detailed fresco decorating the inside of its dome.
Moving on from the Duomo and its outer buildings, we had some time to kill so we walked around Florence a bit. Our first stop was actually a nearby gelato place that my tour book recommended. I usually don't pay too much attention to restaurants in my books, but when it mentioned organic gelato, I figured it was worth a try and yeah, it was good. Gelato aside, we wandered around for a while and ended up at the Palazzo Vecchio. In addition to the fortress, the attached piazza holds a lot of famous statues, including Micheangelo's David... Or at least it used to. At least most of the statues there now are copies, with the originals relocated to better preserve them. It's still a cool spot, but the imitations lack some of the detail and splendor of their originals. There's a famous fountain in the area as well but, unfortunately, it was undergoing restoration so we weren't able to see it.
Continuing on, we walked for a little along side the river and took a peak on the Ponte Vecchio bridge, which is entirely covered with jewelry stores, before starting to make our way back towards our hotel. There was no lack of restaurants around, so we resorted to Yelp for dinner plans and found Trattoria Za-Za which was both nearby and had excellent reviews. Well deserved too. Other than the bread they put on the table (which was almost tasteless), the food was excellent and affordable.
And with that, our first day in Florence came to a close.

Random Italy Comment: Prices
How much do things cost in Italy? Well, hotels were about what I expected (so not too different than the US) and admission tickets were in that range as well (maybe a little cheaper on average). What about food? Well, I've heard stories of restaurants in very tourist heavy parts of Venice and Rome that don't show you the prices on the menu and than hit tourists with insane prices when they go to pay. I also heard from my brother that restaurants along the coast are pretty expensive. From my own experience though, restaurants in Italy tend to be cheaper than the US. I previously said that restaurants in Switzerland cost about one tier higher than they would in the US. Well, Italy is a tier lower. Outside of one tourist triply type restaurant we ate at in Milan, excellent pasta, pizza, and other Italian dishes in fairly nice restaurants could be found for around $8 - $12 (or Euros). Of course, if you like to pair your meal with wine (which is pretty typical in Italy) or follow it up with coffee and deserts, both typical Italian things to do, the costs can add up.

Hmm... I really wanted to get another entry done today. On the other hand, it's getting late and I haven't gotten as much sleep as I should have lately due to Zack adjusting to the time difference. So I think I'm going to stop here. I hate having the travelogue run this far behind, but there's just too much going on right now. Sigh... Hopefully another two or three updates will do it...


June 27th (Wednesday): The Galleries of Florence

Note: The photos accompanying this entry include some statues and paintings of nude figures. They're all famous works of art, but I feel I should mention that for ratings purposes.
Following the advice in my travel guide, I'd booked some tickets for today in advance. They were time stamped, which was a bit inconvenient, but very much worth it considering the lines. So, after breakfast, Connie, Zack, and I headed to Galleria dell'Accademia. Ignoring the long lines, we swung by the nearby ticket office to trade my voucher for our actual tickets and then headed inside. The Galleria is, as the name implies, an art gallery. There's some statues and paintings, but pretty much everyone goes there to see one thing, Michelangelo's David. Got to say, the real thing is pretty impressive, and the replacement we saw the previous say in the piazza just doesn't compare. Other than David, Connie and I found the plaster cast collection pretty impressive. There's also a smaller upper level, that almost no one visits, which has a nice collection of Gothic painting (though I'm still not a fan of the style). In the end, while the Galleria was worth visiting, it really didn't take that long to see.
Moving on, we had some time to kill so we swung by Mercato Centrale, an indoor market comprised of a lot of different stalls selling, produce, meat, olive oil, and the like, along with some small restaurants and cafes. Nothing too exotic, but it was fun to walk through and we picked up a couple things on the way.
After dropping our purchases off at the hotel, we started making our way towards the river and our next destination, the Uffizi Gallery. We had a timed ticket (once again, to dodge long lines), and got to the area a bit early, so we began looking for a place for lunch. We ended up at a pizza place right by the gallery which seemed like it probably should have been a tourist trap but had good prices, reviews, and, of course, food. Got to say, I do enjoy eating out in Italy.
After lunch, it was about time to enter the Uffizi, which is the city's most popular art gallery. It's comprised of a large number of rooms, connected by long statue lines hallways. While I'm not a major art buff, I've visited a decent number of galleries and museums over the years and I'd say the Uffizi is easily in the top three. It's also pretty large, and took Connie and I over two hours to get through, even going at a pretty decent pace. Other than one special exhibit, the entire collection is comprised of classic works of art, mostly Gothic and Renaissance. To avoid a picture overload, I'll just post a few highlights like this statue of Hercules and Nessus, the original Birth of Venus, and the Adoration of the Magi (started by Da Vinci, but completed by Lippi when the client got tired of waiting). And, for a break from the art, there were also some nice view points where we could see the Ponte Vecchio and Palazzo Vecchio.
It wasn't especially late when we finished, so Connie and I walked around Florence a bit. We ended up near the Basilica of Santa Croce, though didn't really feel like waiting in the line, so we just looked out the outside. Other than that, we snacked a bit and spent quite a lot of time letting Zack run around and chase pigeons, since he'd been stuck in the Ergo for most of the day.
And that wrapped up our second day in Florence, and our last one focusing on the city itself. Florence's old city is certainly a lot of fun. While we hit the top attractions, there's easily at least two more day's worth of stuff to see and tons of interesting stores and restaurants. Both Connie and I wouldn't mind a return visit sometime.

Random Italy Comment: Food
I already mentioned how eating out in Italy is pretty cheap. So what do you actually eat? Well, it might sound cliche but most of the restaurants really do primarily serve pasta and pizza (along with wine and coffee, if you're looking for drinks). As for street food, there's a lot of stands selling pizza slices. Though it's not like that's all Italians eat. Depending on the part of the country you're in, you may also find rice dishes, soups, and other slightly less common Italian foods. So what if you don't want to eat Italian? Well, I did see a moderate number of Asian places (mostly either sushi or Chinese) and doner kebabs.
And for dessert, or a sweet snack? Gelato (and sometimes sorbet) is the main choice (it's everywhere, especially in tourist areas), but you might find some cannolis as well.

June 28th (Thursday): Pisa

Florence makes a really good base city from which to visit a number of interesting smaller towns and cities. I planned several potential day trips for our stay, and decided to start with the most famous, and the easiest to get to.
Pisa's most famous attraction is a 20 minute or so walk from the station. But it's a pretty nice walk, running through a scenic stretch of the old city. On the way, I noticed that Pisa actually used to be a walled city. Some of the wall remains and there are places where you can climb up and walk on it, though we didn't have the time for that. I did get some good gelato though.
Of course, the main reason we came to Pisa, well, the main reason everyone goes to Pisa, is to see the Leaning Tower. It was a bit smaller than I expected... But Zack was getting pretty restless so, before we could explore, we needed to let him run around a bit. Fortunately, while the area immediately surrounding the tower was packed and people were limited to the sidewalks, the area off to the side of the Duomo just past the tower was fully open and much less crowded.
We had combo tickets for the entire complex (minus a couple museums which were undergoing renovations) and decided to start with the Composanto. Actually, we had no idea of composanto meant when we went in. Turns out, it's a really fancy cemetery. Presumably for Pisa's rich, powerful, and very religious. The older tombs dated back hundreds of years, while some more recent ones were from only a few decades ago. It was a very peaceful place, with some nice paintings and carvings, and even Connie, who normally doesn't like cemeteries of any kind, really enjoyed walking through it.
Our next stop was the Battistero. As far as baptistries go, this one was pretty straight forward, though you were able to walk up to the second level and get a nice overview.
The last stop on our ticket was Pisa's Duomo. While considerably smaller than the Duomos in Milan and Florence, it was very nicely put together and decorated, with lots of large paintings. They even had an organ player (though he wasn't playing the main organ). So, while it wasn't as overwhelmingly impressive as the others, it was still really nice, to the point where Connie actually considers it her favorite church from the entire trip.
By the time we finished in the Duomo, Zack wanted to run around again, and it was getting close to the time slot on my last ticket, which was for climbing the Leaning Tower itself. As a note, I had purchased all the tickets in advance online. That wasn't really necessary for the combo ticket. Actually, it wasn't necessary to climb the tower either, but from the look of things, purchasing a ticket on the same day would have required waiting a few hours for an available time.
Unlike the other towers I'd climbed, the Leaning Tower had a really strict no bag policy, to the point where they wouldn't even let me wear the empty Ergobaby. Fortunately, they did have a free bag check, though you had to go there no more than ten minutes before your time slot, which means some running back and forth. Why was the Ergo empty? Because children under six years old aren't allowed. A little annoying, but it was nice not to have to carry so much extra weight on the way up. Climbing the tower was relatively easy, certainly less strenuous than any of the others, though a little disorienting due to the tilt. It wasn't super obvious once you were inside, but it did cause the stairs to ascend at odd angles. It didn't help that they were very worn and slick. The views from the top were nice, though I had trouble deciding if I should hold my camera flat (like I was standing), or turn it to match the tilt of the tower.
After snapping some pictures, I headed back down to meet up with Connie and Zack and we walked around in Pisa a bit longer before returning to Florence and getting another great meal at Za-Za.

Random Italy Comment: Pickpockets
Italy has a reputation as a haven for pickpockets, especially in the more touristy areas. Is it true? Well, all I can say is that Connie and I didn't have anything stolen over the course of our trip, nor did I notice any attempts. That said, I consider myself pretty difficult to pickpocket since I keep everything in my front pockets (without anything sticking out) and wear a backpack (or in this case a baby carrier) with two thick strips. Connie took some extra precautions on the trip as well, forgoing her back pockets and getting a belt holster for her phone. So maybe the pickpockets aren't as bad as they say, or maybe they passed us up for easier targets. Or maybe we just got lucky.

June 29th (Friday): Lucca

The next day trip on my list was Lucca. It's claim to fame is its old city, which is pretty much fully intact and surrounded by a wall. The wall encircles the entire old city, though it only really looks like a wall from the outside. From the inside, it's more of a hill that you can walk or bike on. There's a number of parks and the like up there as well, making it a pleasant place to kill some time. The entire loop is around 2 1/2 miles, but Connie and I only did half of it (going from the south end of the city to the north) before descending into the city. Compared to other old Italian cities, Lucca felt a bit more compact, probably because it all had to fit inside the wall. We headed towards the Anfiteatro Romano, the remains of a former Roman amphitheater. While it doesn't exactly look like the one in Rome anymore, seeing a big round piazza of sorts in the middle of the city was kind of cool.
From there, we swung by the nearby Torre Guinigi. Lucca has a surprisingly large number of towers, especially given its size, but Guinigi stands out due to the trees (olive, I think) on top. Naturally, I had to climb it. Annoyingly, Zack was napping again, so I had to carry him all the way up with me. The view was worth the effort though.
Back on the ground, I spotted a bubble tea place (they exist in Italy, but they're pretty uncommon) which had some alcoholic flavors. Didn't try one, but I guess that's Italy for you.
Our next stop was San Michele in Foro, though we stopped outside for a bit first to let Zack run around. Like many big Catholic churches in Italy, San Michele contained a number of graves and tombs, though they seemed to be almost the main focus here. This mummy of sorts was the centerpiece and, while the others we'd seen were kind of ambiguous, this one really looked like a mummy. Kinda creepy to see in a church.
Right behind San Michele was a bakery selling Buccelatto, a traditional Luccan sweet bread. It was essentially a raisin bread, but also had a strong taste of either licorice or fennel (they have a pretty similar flavor), which made it rather unique. We also grabbed some pizza and headed down towards the south end of town to visit the local Duomo. As far as Duomos go, it wasn't one of the more impressive ones that we'd seen, but it did have some very nice stained glass windows.
After that, we headed to a playground we'd spotted earlier to let Zack have some fun before making our way back to Florence to wrap up the day.

Random Italy Comment: Demographics
One thing I noticed when in Italy was that the average person couldn't seem to tell whether or not I was Italian, at least not without hearing me talk. That was a kind of interesting experience, since I'm used to be the obvious foreigner in Asia. Even in Switzerland, I think most natives could easily tell I was a tourist. Anyway, aside from the native Italians, Connie and I spotted a number of people who appeared to be of middle eastern descent. I actually remember reading an article a couple years back about how many young Italians didn't want to work in industries that require a lot of time and effort (like restaurants) so those areas were becoming increasingly dominated by immigrants. From my very casual observation, that seems plausible.

June 30th (Saturday): Siena
We had a couple options for our last day trip, but we settled on Siena. The train station is actually a little outside the main town. You can walk for around half an hour (all up hill though) or take a short bus ride to get into Siena proper. We took the bus, though finding the right one was a little tricky (there's three bus stops near the station).
Siena isn't especially large, but it is a neat old town. What really sets it apart is that it's on a hill (or rather several hills, I think). So expect to do a lot of climbing. There also seemed to be a strong Roman influence, so it appears that Siena and Rome had close ties, though I haven't had a chance to look into its history.
We walked through the town for a bit as we made our way to the Piazza del Campo. It was very different from other piazzas we've visited. As you can see in the picture, it's sloped and surrounded by a dirt road. There's also bleachers all around the the sides (old fashioned wooden ones hanging over the shops and restaurants). Apparently, there's a big horse race, or some such, that's held there. And I can't forget about the birds. There's a ton of them living in the nooks in the buildings flying all over above the piazza. It's a pretty unique area, and cool to see.
The big building with the clock tower on one end of the piazza is the Palazzo Pubbilico, which is where the ruler of the city lived. It's pretty fancy inside, though only a relatively small part of it was open to the public. But there was some nice art and the upper level had a good view. I wanted to climb the clock tower, but entry was on a time system and the time slots didn't really sync up with our schedule. A little disappointing, but it's not like I hadn't already climbed plenty of towers on this trip.
Our next stop was Santa Maria della Scala, an old hospital that had been converted into a museum containing some art and a collection of Catholic relics. There's also a chapel inside. I feel like we probably missed a lot of it though, since we paused for a while to rest while Zack napped.
Right across the street from Santa Maria is Siena's Duomo. I grabbed combo tickets for everything without paying too much attention to the details. Turns out one thing on the ticket had a timed entry but we had some time to kill before that, so we headed inside. While smaller than many of the Duomos we'd visited, Siena's was very unique in a number of ways. The zebra striping on the walls and pillars immediately jumped out. But another interesting element was that, aside from the impressive paintings and architecture, the floor was covered with a large number of designs. Some seemed purely artistic, but the majority were of different scenes from the Bible. The choice of subject matter was pretty unusual though. I suppose Moses with the ten commandments is pretty iconic, if slightly odd for a Catholic church. But Sampson using the donkey's jawbone? Or Absalom getting caught in a tree? Now that's a story that rarely gets any sort of artistic depiction... The library (in a side room) was also worth a visit due to the art and collection of illuminated books.
Once we finished exploring, we headed to the meeting place for our timed thing. Turns out, it was a tour of the Duomo's roof. While nowhere near impressive as the Milan Duomo's roof, it did give some nice views of the interior and Siena itself. I enjoyed it but, considering how much extra it cost compared to the regular combo ticket (which gets you in everything else), I'm not sure it was really worth the price.
The combo ticket also got us into a museum which contained a bunch of relics from the Duomo and another viewpoint (though I skipped that since only a few people were allowed up at once and we had limited time), a large crypt, and probably the nicest baptistry we'd seen anywhere in Italy.
Connie didn't want to get back to Florence too late so, after finishing up everything on the ticket, we made our way to a bus stop and then back to the train station. I walked around a little in Florence that evening, just for fun (and a last gelato), but that wrapped up our time touring in Italy. Connie and I both really enjoyed it. Neither of us were especially fond of Milan, other than the Duomo, but the other towns and cities we visited were really nice and many of them would be worth revisiting in the future. If you like history, old buildings, and/or art, Italy is certainly worth a visit. Heck, Connie said she'd go back just for the food. While a return visit to Italy isn't on top of my international travel list, it would be a lot of fun and I can already think of plenty of other things to see and do there.

July 1st (Sunday): Back to Zurich
For better or worse, we decided to get a round trip ticket from Zurich for the trip, rather than trying to fly in there and fly back from Florence. That meant taking the trains all the way back to Zurich. Unfortunately, it wasn't an especially smooth trip.
The first complication was buying the tickets. I actually did that in the evening a few days back (I wanted to make sure we got seats), but decided to write about it now just to stay on theme. Anyway, when you need to buy train tickets in Italy you can use the machines in the train station or a web site, but only so long as you're staying in the country. If you want to travel to another country, you need to go to the ticket office. So I waited in line and then told the agent that I wanted tickets to Zurich on Sunday morning. Strangely, the request left him really confused and he spent several minutes trying to figure out what I wanted and telling me it wasn't possible while I (who had naturally looked up the train routes ahead of time), insisted that it was. The fact that he spoke very little English and I spoke no Italian didn't really help. At first, I thought he was confused by my rail pass but finally, after getting increasingly frustrated with his refusals, I took out my phone and and showed him the trains I wanted on the Eurail app. That finally worked. See, there are no direct trains from Florence to Zurich and, apparently, it never crossed the agent's mind that I could change trains along the way. It that so uncommon in Italy, or was that guy just rather slow? Anyway, I finally got the tickets.
Fast forward to Sunday morning and Connie and I took Zack and our luggage and made our way to the train station. Our first train was from Florence to Milan. It ended up being about ten minutes late. I didn't mind that too much, since we had 45 minutes to change trains. But the fact that they didn't actually announce the delay and just let the train's number sit on the board without a listed platform after the scheduled departure time passed stressed me out a bit while we waited.
But we boarded the train and everything was good...until we got to Milan. We arrived to find that our train to Zurich was running 45 minutes late. That was annoying. Then 45 minutes turned into 1 1/2 hours. It actually ended up being even later than that but at the end they decided not keep updating it on the board (either they were lazy or didn't want to show how late it was). Eventually though, we got on the train and were on our way to Zurich. Though I have to say, I really missed the big Swiss trains with their kids' play areas.
It seemed that the train between Milan and Zurich runs back and forth all day so the delay was affecting not just our trip, but all the rest for that day as well. Now, normally when a train is running late there are things the company might due to help catch back up a bit. One option is to increase the speed and make the trip faster, though that can only do so much. Another option is to send out another train to cover its later routes, so at least they aren't impacted by the delay. Trenitalia (Italy's train company), on the other hand, decided it would make more sense to have the train force everyone off in a small town an hour away from Zurich and go back to Milan early. That sucked for us, and everyone else on the train. And I'm sure it sucked even more for all the people in Zurich who were waiting for the train to Milan. Even worse, they didn't offer anything in the way of an apology or compensation and, since we were in Switzerland, we couldn't really complain to Trenitalia staff. Long story short, Trenitalia sucks.
Fortunately, we were able to get a local train to Zurich (they didn't check tickets, so I'm not sure if we would have needed to pay or not). So we did make it, albeit considerably later than planned. It's a nice looking city, but due to the delays we didn't have a lot of time explore. We did walk around a bit in an nice old area by the river to find a restaurant. The food was good, but cost about three times as much as it would have in Italy. After that, we let Zack spend some time at a nearby playground and then called it a night.

July 2nd (Monday): Returning to the US
Our hotel was right near Zurich's main train station and from there it was a quick ten minute ride to the airport. Unlike the previous day, everything went pretty smoothly. The plane left on time, and Zack was fairly well behaved on the flight. Honestly, there's not too much to say, it was a straight forward trip. We had to wait in a really long line to get through customs back in the US, but that was it. It sure was nice having a direct flight for a change.
And that was the end of our big Europe trip. I'd say that I'm now pretty comfortable traveling in Switzerland and Italy and wouldn't have any real problems going back to either one. It was a great trip and I really enjoyed my time in both countries, though for different reasons. Hard to say when, but I suspect Connie and I will revisit both Switzerland and Italy eventually...

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