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June 10 - 25, 2024
June 10th - 11th (Monday - Tuesday): Back to Switzerland

Connie and I last visited Switzerland in the summer of 2018 when Zack was a year and a half old. Well, now Zack is seven and a half, Matt is 14 months (a bit younger than Zack was back then), and we're going back. And once again, it's for a family trip. My parents and brother had to go to Europe for work and decided to stay afterwards and turn it into a big family trip. So why Switzerland in particular? Mainly since everyone liked it before and there were still places we wanted to see.

Connie and I (and the kids, of course) set off Monday evening. We got to the airport three hours early, a bit more than I usually aim for, but it turned out to be a good thing. Swiss Airlines, at least at Dulles Airport, doesn't use kiosks to check people in and, despite being three hours early, there was already a long line. I think it was partly due to only one person working the counter and someone having a problem with check-in. For quite a while the line barely budged and just continued to get longer. Fortunately, they eventually opened more counters and things started to move at a decent pace. But then, 40 minutes later when were nearly at the front of the line, everything ground to a halt. Looked like a network outtage or the like. So that was another 20 minutes. Fortunately, once we were actually checked in, everything else went fine. We'd hoped that having an overnight flight would mean that the kids would sleep most of the way. Worked fine for Zack (and he behaves pretty well on planes these days anyway). Matt, unfortunately, didn't really cooperate. Didn't help that they kept the interior lights on way longer than they should have. That aside, it was a decent flight.

We got into Zurich late Tuesday morning (interesting to think that I've visited three separate continents in just a few weeks). Immigration was fairly quick and easy, but there was a mix-up with one of our suitcases. Fortunately, we just had to wait around another 30 minutes or so for it. Annoying? Yes. But way better than having to wait a day or two, which has happened to me before. But anyway, once we had our bags, we caught the train to Zurich proper and then on to Lucerne to meet my family. On a side note, the train ride from Zurich started out much as I remembered it, dreary and with lots of graffiti, but soon improved once we left the city behind.

Lucerne is a large Swiss city set on a lake. This was our first time there and I'd heard a lot of good things, so I was eager to check it out. By the time we'd checked into our hotel and all that, it was mid-afternoon. Joining up with my family, we headed across the river and into Lucerne's picturesque old town. After walking around for a bit we got dinner at a restaurant specializing traditional Swiss food which, oddly enough, we didn't really do last time we were here. Turns out, there's more to Swiss cuisine than fondue, though meat, bread, and cheese still seem to feature heavily in most dishes.

That was about it for the day. The kids needed to get to bed and, between jetlag and lack of sleep on the flight, Connie and I didn't want to stay up too late either. Looking forward to seeing more of the area over the coming days.

Random Switzerland Comment: Money
From our last visit, I remember Switzerland being a bit on the expensive side, especially in regards to restaurants. Unfortunately, that hasn't really changed. Doesn't help that the Swiss Franc is worth slightly more than the dollar. Certainly a big reversal from Japan, where the weak Yen made everything feel rather cheap.

June 12th (Wednesday): Mt. Pilatus
We kicked off our first full day in Switzerland with a classic Swiss activity, and one we did quite a lot on our last visit, heading up a nearby mountain to explore. Lucerne's major mountain is Mt. Pilatus. There's two different ways up, or you can go up one way and down the other to make it a loop, which is what we did. That meant starting with a train ride to Alpnach and then getting on what they call a cogwheel railway (kind of a steep train, like a ropeway but without the rope) and heading up. By the time we reached the top, we were in the middle of a bank of clouds. While that did make for some cool scenes at times, it also meant we didn't really have a view. The most it did was eventually clear up enough that we could see the cogwheel track. Like a lot of Swiss mountain tops, Pilatus had a landing with a restaurant, shop, viewing deck, and even a hotel. There was also some dragon themed stuff for the kids. We looked around for a bit, and spotted a mountain goat, but the cloud cover kept us from lingering for too long.

Next up, it was time to take the cable car down the other side of the mountain. Once we passed low enough to get through the clouds, we finally started to get some of those famous Swiss views. There were a couple of stops on the way down. The first featured a ropes course (which the kids were, unfortunately, not old enough for) and a toboggan run (which they were). The toboggans were fun, and Zack absolutely loved it. The next stop had a small (but pretty good) restaurant and a very nice playground, which kept the kids busy for quite a while. Then it was time for one last ride on the cable car. That took us back down to Lucerne, though an outer edge, so it took some walking and a bus ride to get back to area where we were staying.

That evening, we got food in the underground shopping area beneath the train station (not as elaborate as some of the underground malls in Japan, but there are some good dining options) then went back into old town to grab some ice cream and wrap up the day. All in all, it was a day that strongly reminded me of our last trip to Switzerland, and certainly got me in the appropriate mood for the trip.

Random Switzerland Comment: Swiss Pass
I mentioned this last time I came to Switzerland but, if you're visiting and plan to do anything more than hang out in a single city, you really want to get a Swiss Pass. For the duration, you can ride the trains and many of the busses, boats, and gondolas for free (and the ones that aren't free often offer a discount). It will also get you into a lot of museums for free as well. Considering how much the trains and gondolas can cost here, it'll pay for itself very quickly.

June 13th (Thursday): The Glacier Garden
The original plan for the trip was to stay in Lucerne through the weekend. Unfortunately, some big summit about the Russia and Ukraine war got scheduled there and the hotel had to cancel the reservations for the second half of our stay. We might have been able to find another hotel in Lucerne, but decided it wasn't worth dealing with the added crowds and security that summit would bring. As such, the new plan was to leave Lucerne in the afternoon. My brother's family wanted to go up a different mountain, but the rest of us stayed in Lucerne to visit the Glacier Garden / Museum, which my parents recommended.

The garden is right next to another famous Lucerne landmark, the Lion of Lucerne, which was carved to as a memorial to the Swiss soldiers who were hired by, and later killed defending, King Louie during the French revolution. The Glacier Garden itself is built around a patch of rock that was worn away by ancient glaciers. There's even a number of large holes that the glaciers created. That was originally all there was to see but they've added a lot more over the years. First off, the labyrinth, which has absolutely nothing to do with glaciers or Lucerne, but is the best mirror maze I've ever seen. Next was a lengthy passage through the rock of the cliff side, featuring a mix of natural rock tunnel, cement, and projection mapping to teach about the history of the area. It was surprisingly cool, though it ended with a somewhat ridiculous amount of stairs. The top, however, did offer a nice little garden and some good views of Lucerne. Back down at the bottom, there was also a movie about glaciers, a sort of sensory experience room (relax to the sound of melting glaciers), and neat if rather eclectic museum, featuring a collection of rocks and fossils, along with various exhibits about the history of the area and the people who founded the Garden. As a whole, the place turned out to be much more interesting than I expected and I recommend it if you're ever in Lucerne.

After we finished exploring the garden, we headed back to the train station, got lunch, picked up our bags from the hotel, and got on a train for our next base, the town of Meiringen. It's a small town known mostly for Reichenbach Falls, where Sherlock Holmes fought Professor Moriarty in The Final Problem (one of the Doyle's original Holmes stories). And sure enough, the view from Meiringen is dominated by...an entirely different waterfall. Kind of confusing, but that's how it is. We didn't end up doing much besides getting settled into the new hotel and grabbing dinner but hopefully we'll get a closer look at both falls in the future.

June 14th (Friday): Thun
There was a lot of debate over what exactly we were going to do today after we decided that the original plan to visit a very popular (and also very remote) late would require way too much travel time. The weather was also a factor, with Meiringen have a fairly rainy day. In the end, we decided to repeat some stuff from last trip and go to Thun. It's the large town on the west end of Lake Thun. And, in addition to its old town area, the main attraction is Thun Castle. While I've seen better castles, Thun Castle is a pretty old one (dating back to the 1200's) and a lot of fun to walk through. Since last time, they added a bunch of pieces of modern art (meh) in addition to the relics. But the best part is still the views from the turrets.

Some of the kids had been wanting a boat ride so, after finishing at the castle, we took the ferry across Lake Thun. The views were nice and we ended up going all the way to Interlaken. We didn't spend much time in Interlaken last time and the bit we did see really didn't stick out to me. This time though, we had to walk between train stations and I saw some parts of the city I didn't see before. While, once again, nothing really jumped out, but it was also much nicer than I remembered so that's a plus.

After that it was back to Meiringen to get dinner and let the kids play around a bit (our hotel has both a nice play room and a game room). Though it's also not entirely a proper hotel (more of a short term apartment rental type of thing). There's some annoyances there, but the location is great, the play and game rooms are a big plus, and all the buildings are connected by a series of underground tunnels, which is kind of neat (and probably really handy in the winter).

June 15th (Saturday): Bridges and Playgrounds
It was raining again in the morning, so we decided to delay our main plans a bit and took a bus around half an hour through the mountains to Handeckfallbrucke, a long suspension bridge that my brother thought looked cool. The bridge itself is a fairly short walk from the road. It's certainly safe enough (the sides are even fully fenced in), and has some nice views both to the sides and below, but it's also rather high up so people with a fear of heights might have problems. Didn't bother me or the kids though and everyone made it across. The bridge ends at the station for the Gelmerbahn Funicular, the steepest funicular in Europe, which goes up to the top of the mountain where there's a lake and some hiking. Unfortunately, we didn't go up and just continued along the path a short distance back to the road (it's a loop, so you can reach the funicular without crossing the bridge if desired) and let the kids hang out at a nearby playground for a bit until the next bus came.

Once we'd returned to Meiringen and gotten lunch, the weather had cleared up enough for us to resume our original plans for the day. So we walked through the north end of town to Alpback Waterfall (the big one you can see from just about anywhere in Meiringen) and took a gondola up to what looked like a little ski area type town then switched to a cable car going further up the mountain. After a while we ended up in a pretty thick cloud and, by the time we got to the top, visibility was extremely limited. But, while we missed out on the views, it didn't stop the kids from enjoying the playgrounds (both outdoors and indoors), which was the main reason we went. After letting them play around for a while, we took the cable car down one stop to another really nice outdoor playground. As I mentioned in my previous travelogue, Switzerland really is impressive in regards to the number of high quality playgrounds and other kid-friendly activities all over the place. Nowhere else I've been comes close. After even more play time we caught the last cable car down then took the kids back to the hotel to play a little more (other than the bridge, this really was a day for them) and wrap things up.

June 16th (Sunday): Ballenberg and Sherlock Holmes
For the first two thirds of this trip, which we're doing with my parents and my brother's family, I didn't get involved much with the planning. Between work, planning for my recent Japan trip, and family stuff, I just didn't have time. My own contribution was to insist we add Ballenberg to the itinerary. I had come across it originally when planning the last part of the Switzerland trip (when it'll just be myself, Connie, and the kids) but it would have been a bit inconvenient to reach from our location so I gave up on it. However, since we ended up needing to leave Lucerne early and stay in Meiringen, I saw the perfect chance to go.

With that background out of the way... Ballenberg is an open air museum on the outskirts of Brienz (on the far east end of Interlaken's two lakes). You can get there via a short bus ride from Brienz Station. Like the other open air museums I've been to in Japan and the US, they took a lot of historic buildings from all over the country and carefully moved and reconstructed them to form a village of sorts that pays tribute to the history of Switzerland and the ways people lived throughout the centuries. As far as outdoor museums go, Ballenberg is especially large, with dozens and dozens of buildings spread over a massive, and very scenic, area. Not sure if it's bigger than Meiji Mura (the massive outdoor museum in Inuyama, Japan), but it could certainly give it a run for its money.

We entered on the west side and quickly encountered the Industrialist's Villa, a fancy Swiss house from the late 1800's. While some of the rooms were furnished in period appropriate style, others were used to house various exhibits on Swiss history and culture. As we continued on, some buildings were simple glimpses into life at the time, others were small museums in their own right, and some housed various culture demonstrations, such as traditional bread making. There were also a number of hands on activities and crafts, which were an especially big hit with the kids. I will note that quite a lot of the buildings were farm houses, albeit from different time periods and parts of Switzerland. Though there were a number of other types of buildings as well. The cheese diary and apothecary, with its large herb garden, really stuck out to me. And that wasn't the only garden. Many of the houses had gardens or even small plots of farm land growing a variety of different plants. There's a number of farm animals as well. The restaurant (one of several) where we got lunch was really cool too, set in an old farmstead complex. One thing that sets Ballenberg apart from other open air museums I've visited was just how much stuff there was for the kids. Including multiple playgrounds, games, and the like. The the mountain scenery is a standout element as well.

In the end, we were there for a bit over five hours and saw maybe two thirds of the museum. Though in that two thirds, there were a number of buildings we walked past without taking a very close look. We could have stayed for another couple of hours before closing, but by the time we reached the east end, some of the kids (and some of the adults) were getting tired and didn't want to leave too late since we've got another big day tomorrow. If I was on my own, and started when the museum opened, I think I could probably look through every building in a day, though barely, that's just how big the place is. And I would love to go back and do so if I ever get the opportunity. I've always liked open air museums and Ballenberg is one of the biggest and best I've ever visited. I highly recommend it.

Since we did leave a little early, I took advantage of the time back in Meiringen before dinner to pay a visit to the Sherlock Holmes Museum. It's fairly small, being set inside an old church, and only really of interest to fans of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's original Sherlock Holmes stories. But I first read those stories when I was ten or so (learning a lot of British English in the process) and have re-read them many times over the years so I certainly fit the bill. The first floor has a bit about Holmes and Moriarty since the nearby Reichenbach Falls was the site of their final confrontation. But the majority of the exhibits are in the basement where a helpful audio guide walks you though the various artifacts related to Holmes and Doyle. The real star of the museum is a meticulous recreation of the sitting room from 221B Baker Street where Holmes and Watson spend so much of their time in the stories. It's pretty much as perfect a recreation as you can possibly make (created by spending considerable time pouring over both the text and the original illustrations) and, honestly, I really enjoyed examining it for a while. But, once again, I'm a fairly serious Holmes fan. For me, the museum was very much worth the 40 minutes or so I spent there. People who haven't read the original Holmes stories (you should), or don't like them for some reason, won't find much to hold their attention for more than 5 or 10 minutes at best.

After that I rejoined the rest of the group for dinner and then to start preparing for tomorrow's departure.

June 17th (Monday): More Meiringen
We checked out of our hotel in the morning but weren't in a big rush to reach our next destination so we decided to do a little more sightseeing before we left and visit one of Meiringen's most famous spots, the Aare Gorge. You can start the gorge trail from either end, both of which are near trains stations (though you can also walk to the west end from downtown Meiringen. A lot of people like to double back when they reach the end, finishing at the same side they started, but due to time, we decided to start on the east end and finish at the west. One neat thing about the east side train station is that it's actually inside a tunnel. Unfortunately, it's also much lower than the gorge entrance so you need to climb a bit (if you hate stairs, start on the west side and double back when you're almost to the end). The gorge trail itself is mostly comprised of a walkway set on the south side of the gorge. If you're wondering what a gorge is, it's basically a small canyon. The Aare Gorge is very picturesque. It's often fairly wide and open, but there are points where it narrows considerably, and you even have to go through tunnels at some points. Over all, it was both a fun and scenic walk. I can see why it's so popular.

Once we made it out, the kids wanted to stop at a playground near the west exit. Since they were going to be there for a while, my dad and I broke from the group to visit the last place on my Meiringen list, Reichenbach Falls (if you're wondering, the place Sherlock Holmes and Professor Moriarty would have fought is a ways up on the left side). Reaching the falls requires a trip up a the mountain on a a cog wheel train. Though that only gets you to the bottom (where I took that picture). From there you can take a short but fairly steep hike to get some nice views of Meiringen and, eventually, reach the top of the falls. There's even a bridge over the very top if you want to look down.

With that off my checklist, we headed down with plans to rejoin the rest of the group and head to Zurich. Unfortunately, due to some issues with the trains, everyone else ended up leaving before us so my dad and I had to follow them to Zurich an hour later. Fortunately, it all worked out fairly smoothly in the end. After arriving at the hotel in Zurich, we walked around its large old town for a bit and then got dinner. Last time I stayed in Zurich, I felt that compared to the other Swiss towns and cities I'd visited, it felt a bit dirtier and seedier. Unfortunately, I'm getting that same vibe this time around, though maybe that'll change as I see more of the city.

June 18th (Tuesday): Flums
Although we just got to Zurich yesterday, after breakfast we hopped on a train out of the city for another mountain day. Fortunately, we not only had very clear weather, but the warmest day so far on the trip (by a good 10+ degrees). This time, our destination was the Flums area, though we actually stopped in a town called Quarten and took the cable car from there. Our first destination was the FLOOMZER, the longest toboggan / luge ride I've ever been on. That was fun, but then we had to figure out how to get to our next stop. The other big attraction in the Flums area is CLiiMBER, but there's not a particularly straight forward way to get between the two. In the end, we decided to take the cable car to the top of the mountain (on a side note, that has got to be one of the longest cable cars I've ever been on). From there we followed a trail around and down the mountain. One steep bit aside (which we could have gone around), it was a fairly easy hike and very scenic. After around an hour we reached another chair lift which took us down to CLiiMBER. If the name didn't clue you in, it's a big ropes course (alongside a playground). Like the one I went on back in Virginia last year, there's no set route to follow. Rather there's a several levels comprised of a number of landings connected by different obstacles. For example, you might choose between walking on a swaying balance beam, climbing over tires, or swinging from ropes. A lot of the obstacles were things I'd done before, but there were some new ones as well. There were also several zip lines, which were a nice addition. Zack was with me for a bit and, having gained some height, he fared better than he did in VA last year. However, he got tired before we ran out of time so I spent a while longer on my own while he played around on the equipment down below. It was fun, and I only fell once when I let me guard down near the very end of a tricky obstacle. Maybe I should try and go more back home for exercise. Between a climbing park and a trampoline park I could probably get a pretty fun and comprehensive workout...

Anyway, getting back to Zurich was a little more complicated than it needed to be, and we had to make a mad dash to get one train, but we eventually made it back. Now that we were off the mountain, it was actually pretty hot and we spotted a large number of young people enjoying a Zurich tradition, swimming in the rivers that run through the city. While we were in a bit of a rush so I wasn't able to get a photo, a number of people were taking turns jumping off the bridge into the water as well. Makes you wonder a bit about the water quality, since Zurich is a big city and all... That said, if I'd had the time (too busy dealing with the kids), I would have been tempted to give it a try to help beat the heat. Unfortunately, the kids had a tough time getting to sleep, which made for a rough night. But that's just something that happens from time to time, especially when traveling.

June 19th (Wednesday): Zurich
For once we had a rather leisurely morning, since our first destination was here in the city and didn't open until 10. Unfortunately, despite how late he got to sleep the night before, Matt woke up early, we means we all had to get up. He was rather fussy after breakfast, so while Zack played with his cousins, I took Matt on a walk though the underground mall beneath Zurich Station and eventually on to our destination. On a side note, I was rather disappointed to note that, unlike in Japan, Swiss Starbucks doesn't seem to have a lot of obvious differences compared to the US. Plus a venti drink here is both more expensive and smaller compared to back home (looks equivalent to a US grande). I did spot an interesting sign though. Kind of funny since I don't think I've ever see a bakery in the US advertise itself as an American Bakery. European, French, Japanese, Korean, Chinese? Sure. But common knowledge in the US is that the best bakeries are European (French probably). I guess people in Switzerland think differently?

After walking and playing with Matt for a while, I met up with everyone else at the WOW Museum. It's a museum of optical illusions. Some are fairly typical, some are really cool, and a lot of them are all about getting a good photo. Fun, though it's relatively small so unless you're obsessed with getting perfect shots, you can easily go through the entire thing in an hour or less.

After that, we walked through old town, eventually ending up along the bank of Lake Zurich. It also had a lot of swimmers, at least in spots. There are actually a number of swimming pools (fed by the river water) along the bank, some of which also have marked off areas of the lake to swim in. We didn't go to a pool, but we did rent a couple of paddle boats for an hour and a few people ended up jumping into the lake from the boats and swimming around a little (which is totally allowed). I didn't. Partly because I wasn't dressed for it, and partly because Zack didn't want to go in the water (he said he'd swim in a pool, but not the middle of a giant lake). Still, it was a pleasant way to pass some time and enjoy the nice weather.

Once the boats had been returned, we got a light lunch at a proper Swiss bakery, followed by some very good local ice cream. Then back to the hotel to rest and let the kids play for a while. Eventually, we got dinner at a fancy Vietnamese restaurant nearby. My normal reaction to Vietnamese food is that it's fine. I like it well enough, but never leave feeling like I want to eat it more often. This place, however, was different. Easily the best Vietnamese food I've ever had (though probably the most expensive as well). We also said goodbye to my parents (who are leaving very early tomorrow morning) and called it a night.

Random Switzerland Comment: Final Thoughts on Zurich
We're leaving Zurich tomorrow and, now that I've looked around the city a bit more, has my opinion improved? Somewhat I guess. It's still a bit dirtier than other Swiss cities I've visited and a bit seedier (especially in regards to the marijuana I keep smelling and the occasional prominently placed and extremely blatant adult shops (there are a lot of those in Japan as well, but they're more subtle, at least on the outside). But there's a lot of good restaurants and the old town is pretty large and nice to walk around. Walking along the lake is pleasant as well. However, there just isn't anywhere near as much to see and do here as in many other parts of Switzerland (or at least not not the types of things that interest me or my family). So, while I'd say my opinion of Zurich has risen a bit, at the same time it's still my least favorite part of Switzerland and I can't say I have any real desire to spend more time here if/when I return to Switzerland in the future.

June 20th (Thursday): Bern
We ate, packed, and said goodbye to my brother's family then headed for the train station to begin the final leg of our trip. Basically, if we were going to fly all the way to Europe, I wanted to spend at least a couple of weeks there. But since my family had already been in Europe for a while before we met up, they needed to get home. So I added a final few days with just Connie and the kids. For a change of pace, I decided we'd stay in Bern, Switzerland's capital and a pretty convenient city to use as a base. I visited Bern on our last Switzerland trip and was rather impressed by it and wanted to see more. Plus, Connie had been sick and missed that day so this would be her chance to see it.

After arriving and dropping off our luggage, we headed into Bern's old town. It's the largest and grandest of the old times I've seen in Switzerland (makes sense, being the capital and all). Aside from lots and lots of stores and restaurants, there's various other attractions scattered about, such as the Zytlogge Clock. There's also quite a lot of fountains with all sorts of different subjects. The bear knight makes some sense since bears are the symbol of Bern. But who would want a fountain with a statue of a child eating monster? Now having revisited it, I can safely say that I like Bern's old town quite a lot. It lacks a bit of the charm of some smaller ones (such as Lucerne or Thun), but it impresses in other ways instead.

We walked the length of old town then crossed a bridge to reach Bern's Bear Pit. Turns out, Bern has live bears, not just statues and paintings. In the past, they were kept in a literal pit, but more recently the bear pit was expanded into a large and elaborate habitat. From there, climbing the hill to the north led to some excellent views of the city, even Einstein agrees. If you're wondering why he suddenly got name dropped, Einstein lived in Bern for a couple of years. You can even visit his old apartment, which has been turned into a museum, though we skipped that one since we figured the kids would get bored. Anyway, that Einstein bench is part of the Rose Garden which, in addition to the garden, has a large playground. We spent quite a while there letting the kids play around after all the walking though, as a result, I didn't see much of the rose garden itself. Connie said it was nice though, if not especially large.

After Zack and Matt were done playing, we walked back down to old town and took a different street back towards the station and our hotel. On the way, we passed Bern Cathedral. Didn't have time to go in, unfortunately, but I may squeeze it in on another day if we have time. There are some nice views and play equipment behind it though. We also came across the Swiss Parliament building. They have tours there too, though I can't say it interests me very much.

Once we finished exploring and eating, we finally made it back to our hotel. When I booked, I was looking at location, room, type, and amenities, not age. So I didn't realize that it's actually been around for a very long time. The single elevator, for example, is around 120 years old and still works fine. And the building as a whole is likely far older. On the plus side, it gives the building and the rooms character. And our room is a good size. On the down side, the room layout isn't really what I had hoped for or expected (what's the point of two bedrooms when there's no door or even curtain between them?) and there's no central air conditioning. It's still a pretty good hotel over all, but not quite what I expected for the money. I guess the location factored very heavily into the price since it is really convenient in that regard.

Random Switzerland Comment: Fountains
Switzerland has tons of fountains. Every city has them throughout the old town (and often the new), but they're also commonly found in small towns, at the top of cable car routes, and the like. Many are large and elaborate with fanciful statues and carvings, others are simple log designs. So why all the fountains? Well, in addition to looks, they also serve as a convenient water source. With a few rare (and clearly marked) exceptions, the water in Swiss fountains is drinkable and very good, making them perfect for refilling your water bottle when you're out and about (especially since actual water fountains aren't very easy to find).

June 21st (Friday): Basel
Since we spent most of yesterday in Bern, today was a day trip to the city of Basel, which is right by the borders with both France and Germany. I had a few destinations in mind for the day, and we started by heading towards Basel's old city, passing at an interesting fountain on the way (which also served as a bit of a preview of a later destination). As I was tracking our progress on Google Maps, I noticed that we were close to something called the Toy Worlds Museum. Given the kids, I figured we might as well take a look. It features a large collection of old toys (primarily teddy bears and dolls), neatly arranged in a variety of scenes. One nice touch is that they give you a tablet when you enter which you can use to scan various QR codes scattered throughout the museum to activate different AR scenes, some informational, some simply amusing animations. Zack really enjoyed tracking down all the codes. All in the all, the museum ended up being quite enjoyable. And, as with most museums in the country, free with the Swiss Pass, so no complaints there.

Soon after, we made it to the old town proper. Our main destination there was Basel Cathedral, but we arrived just as they were temporarily closing for noon prayers, so we decided to grab lunch first instead. We kept it simple at a Coop (Swiss grocery store chain) restaurant, a cafeteria style restaurant which included a kids play area, and that worked out very well. Back at the cathedral, after a quick look inside, Zack and I headed up the towers. It's a nice cathedral (with a neat roof), though it can't really compete with the ones I've seen in Italy. Totally worth a visit for the views though. I should note that much of the stairs and walkways to the towers are incredibly narrow (I had Matt in our carrier and could barely fit at times). Unfortunately, as we headed back down, we get hit with a very sudden and extremely hard rain shower. It happened at a bad time when we were on an outside walkway. No danger, because the walls were so tall, but not much cover either. We found a decent niche and hung out there as I figured it would likely die out soon. However, as the rain got harder, we were getting splashed more and more so I decided it might be best to wait for a lull and make a run for the interior. Couple of problems though. First, the lull I chose didn't end up being much of a lull. Second, Zack was in the lead and he missed the door back into the church and instead ran all the way across to the opposite tower. I couldn't just let him go alone so I had to follow, and that route involved getting tons of water dumped on us (both on the way there and then again on the way back). So by the time we did get inside the main building we were completely drenched. On the bright side, the rain did stop before long...though that also means we could have just toughed it out and dealt with the splashing for another 5 - 10 minutes and been in the clear. Anyway, when the rain stopped we made an emergency trip back to Coop (this location was more of a full on department store than just a grocery) to get some dry clothes for the kids.

With that misadventure out of the way, and the weather clear once more, we left old town and headed through the regular city for a while until we reached the Tinguely Museum which, according to everything I read, is one of Bern's must see sites, especially for kids. I had never heard of Jean Tinguely before, but he was an artist, most of whose work involved strange mishmashes of scrap metal and old machinery, and some of which are really large. The interesting part is that all his works are motorized and it's about the motion and sound as much as it's about the visual component. Some of the machines are on a timer, and others can be started manually (though there's a cool-down), which Zack really enjoyed. Normally, I'm not much for modern art, but I found the museum pretty interesting and I can see why it's a hit with kids.

By the time we finished, it was around four o'clock, which didn't really leave us with enough time for another museum or the zoo, so we decided to head back to Bern and get dinner there. Basel is a neat city and I'd love to go back some time, look around the old town a bit more, and check out more museums (there are a number of highly rated ones, though some probably would have failed to catch Zack's attention).

Random Switzerland Comment: Shopping Late
Back in the US, I'd say that, on average, most stores in shopping areas and such tend to close around 8 PM, with some smaller ones closing around 6 or so. In Switzerland, however, 6 seems to be the average for most non-restaurants with 8 being less common. And many stores close even earlier on weekends. This includes grocery stores. In the US or Japan, there's always a few stores I can count on to stay open until at least 10 PM (if they even close at all), where I can get pretty much anything important that I may need. Switzerland, however, doesn't seem to have any stores like that. At least not that I can find (though it's possibly I'm just missing something), which makes it important to leave time for shopping earlier in the day. On a related note, it feels a bit weird walking through something like Bern's old city to find everything except the restaurants closed when it's still bright out (current sunset time is around 9:30).

June 22nd (Saturday): Bern in the Rain
This was going to be a mountain day, but it looked like anywhere we went, heavy rain was unavoidable in the early to mid-afternoon. Light rain is one thing, but heavy rain would derail all my potential outdoor plans. My final fall back was to spend the day visiting various museums in Bern. Conveniently, pretty much all the major ones are located right by each other, though we had to kill some time in the morning between breakfast and when they all opened.

Our first stop was the Bern History Museum. (Actually we were aiming for Natural History and got the wrong building.) As the name implies, it's primarily focused on the history of Bern. There are religious artifacts, sections on the various wars fought in the region, elaborate recreated rooms, and a lot about life in various time periods as well. Connie and I both found it very interesting, and I wish I'd had time to read more of the signs (a bit hard while managing two young kids). Also, one of the upper floors is dedicated entirely to Einstein (presumably a lot bigger and better than the museum in his old apartment). It walks you though his life from his early days until his death. Once again, I wasn't able to read much, but it was well put together, even if, at times, it seemed a bit more focused on explaining the times he lived in more than talking about the man himself.

Next up was the actual Natural History Museum. It was a old style one, with lots of lots of stuffed animals. That was probably half the museum, though there were a few other exhibits, with the rock and crystal collection being especially notable. There was also a play area, which kept the kids happy for quite a while.

It was still a bit early to call it a day, so we decided to hit the Communication Museum as well. It's focused on all the ways people communicate. The first floor is a somewhat chaotic collection of little exhibits and activities about communication itself (conflict resolution, facial features, languages, etc.), a lot of which are good for kids as well. The lower levels, meanwhile, are more about how communication technology has changed over time. The museum is very modern in design and has both interesting info an a lot of fun activities. Some highlights included making our own (usable) postage stamps and playing a recreated version of Tennis for Two.

We finished a bit after four and, with museums closing at five, decided to just call it a day and head back to the hotel. A little early but, for a rainy shabbat, I think we did pretty well. All in all, not my ideal day, but not a bad one either, especially considering that all the museums were free with the Swiss Pass.

June 23rd (Sunday): Gruyeres
With the weather improved somewhat (still a bit cool and windy, but no more rain), it was time for a day trip to the little town of Gruyeres. If the name sounds familiar, that's because it's the home of Gruyere cheese. So naturally, the first place we stopped was La Maison du Gruyere, a dairy, to take a cheese tour. The tour is self-paced, with an audio guide, and only takes 20 minutes or so, but it was well done, with a lot about how the cows are raised and fed. And, of course, you get to see the cheese being made. Each ticket also comes with a sampler pack of Gruyere cheese, with slices aged 6, 9, and 12 months so you can see how the flavor changes over time. I'm the only real cheese connoisseur in the family and I thought they were all quite good (as did Matt). Connie didn't grow up with cheese and isn't a big fan of eating it on its own, while Zack really only cares about cheese if it's in a pizza. They did enjoy the tour though. We also grabbed an early lunch at the attached restaurant which, naturally, specializes in dishes made with Gruyere. We went the classic Swiss route with fondue (the best I've had so far).

After that, it was up to the town of Gruyeres itself, which sits on top of a nearby hill and requires a little bit of walking to reach. It's an old medieval town complete with walls and a castle. More than any other old town I've visited on this trip, it really felt like stepping back in time and I loved it. Perhaps it helped a bit that, unlike the old towns in Lucerne, Zurich, or Bern it wasn't filled with major brand stores (mostly restaurants, with a few souvenir stores), so it had more of that old town charm.
That said, it's not very large so there's a limited amount of things to do besides eating and shopping. There are a couple of museums, both of which feel a bit out place. First is the H. R. Giger Museum. If the name isn't familiar, he was a Swiss artist most famous for his work on the Alien movies (for which he designed, among other things, the xenomorph alien itself). He work is generally dark horrific sci-fi, often with a biomechanical tilt. The statues outside certainly make the museum stick out from its surroundings. Personally, Giger's work isn't really my style. Had I been alone, I may have taken a look anyway, but everything I read about the museum made it very clear that it's not suitable for kids so we moved on to the Tibet Museum right next door. Why is there a museum of Tibetan and Buddhist art in a medieval Swiss town? Honestly, I have no idea (even their web site doesn't really explain that). Thanks to my travels in Asia, I've already seen a ton of Buddhist art (if not specifically Tibetan), but there were some nice pieces on display. What stuck out the most to me though was that the museum was set in an old church and they left the original art intact, leading to a weird clash of religious iconography.

Just past the museums, at the end of the town, is Chateau de Gruyeres, a 13th century castle and the former home of the Count of Gruyeres. The architecture is a really cool mixture of what I think of as classic European castle and Swiss stylings (and yes, I know "classic European castle" isn't a real style of architecture). The interior is pretty interesting. Some rooms really have the medieval castle feel to them, while others have been updated over the centuries into something I'd more expect to see in a newer (relatively speaking) palace. There's also a picturesque garden in the back and some great views from the walls. I've always loved places like this since I first got into fantasy novels in my teens and I would say that Gruyeres is one of the best European castles I've visited. They were also holding a small medieval faire that weekend, so having various tents and costumed figures walking around further improved the atmosphere.

Once we'd finished exploring the castle, we walked back through the town (stopping for some good local ice cream on the way), then headed down the hill and back to Bern to wrap up our dairy heavy day with some very good pizza.

All in all, I really liked Gruyeres and even though we saw pretty much all there was to see, I could easily spend another day there just for atmosphere and photos.

June 24th (Monday): Gurten
For our final day of sightseeing, I decided to go with something simple that the kids would enjoy. Unlike Lucerne, Bern doesn't border any mountains, but it does have some hills, one of which provides a sort of mini-Alpine experience. Gurten is a short tram ride from central Bern, followed by a funicular ride up the hill (at least I think it's a funicular, it's kind of hard to keep all the various types of mountain train things straight). While some people visit Gurten for the views, hiking, and biking trails (I think there's also some skiing in the winter), outside of the annual music festival, it's mostly for families. There's playgrounds, a splash pad, an electric car driving course (which Zack probably could have spent all day on), and an extremely clever ball obstacle course (which also kept Zack busy for quite a while). After all that, it was time for lunch. Gurten has a couple of fancy restaurants, but there's also a pretty decent cafeteria (they call it a buffet, but in US English it's a cafeteria) with a kids play area, which is always really great to have when eating with young children.
After lunch, I took Zack up the viewing tower to get some even better views of Bern. By the time we were done there, more attractions had opened up for the afternoon, including a mini train ride and a toboggan / luge track. The toboggan was a bit on the short side compared to a lot of the others I've done, though it also the cheapest, so that balanced things out. Zack and I got three rides for less than I'd normally pay for one. Actually, the train and car rides were surprisingly cheap too (everything else was free). Even the restaurant was priced decently (by Swiss standards). It was a bit of a low key day after all the other sightseeing we've done, but it was a pleasant and rather relaxing way to wrap up the trip.

One other thing worth mentioning is dinner. We tried out a burger place I'd seen the other day called called hans im gluck. I mainly want to give it a shout out for the really cool decor, though the food and drinks were quite good as well (soft cheese and cranberries actually go surprisingly well on a burger).

Random Switzerland Comment: Background Music
I'm not referring to Swiss music specifically, but to the music that they play here in all the stores, restaurants, etc. The vast majority is English and very recognizable. But rather than the latest hits from Beyonce or Taylor Swift (which, to be honest, I probably wouldn't recognize), the standard playlist here seems to be the greatest hits of the 90's and 2000's. Not my favorite music eras, but ones I'm certainly familiar with given my age. So I've been hearing a lot of songs that I haven't heard in ages. A little nostalgic I suppose, though I do have to wonder why that's the music everyone plays here...

June 25th (Tuesday): Back to the US
After finishing the packing and getting breakfast, it was time to start heading home. We caught a train that would get us to the airport three hours early, which was good. Downside was that it was extremely full (apparently, it was a train that travels all the way across the country and Bern was a middle stop. I (with Matt) got separated from the others while looking for seats and I ended up having to stand the entire way regardless. But in the end we made it to the airport with what seemed like plenty of time.

Now, you know how people talk about "Swiss efficiency?" Unfortunately, that doesn't even vaguely apply to their airport check-in process. In the Zurich airport, Swiss Air has a lot of check-in counters, but they're all for different things and they're spread across different sections (and even different floors) of the airport. They also lack full check-in kiosks anywhere. Add in minimal and confusing signage, and the whole process becomes a big pain in the ass. Fortunately, we managed to avoid waiting in a massive line like at the start of the trip since they have a dedicated family check-in counter (which is a nice touch), but it was off in a corner without any signs pointing the way so we never would have found it if one employee hadn't made a point of telling us. Even there, check-in seemed slower than it should but eventually we were able to head to security. It, however, had a decent length line and in Switzerland everyone apparently has to remove all electronics from their bags (at least they let you keep you shoes on). At that point, it's been about an hour since we arrived (making me really glad we got the train that we did) and I was very happy to be done with all the checks and ready to find our gate. However, it turns out that we weren't done yet. Going from the main part of the airport to the international terminal throws you into a line for passport control. A very long and rather slow moving line at that, which we hadn't been expecting. On a side note, a couple of guys who started out behind us were either idiots with no clue what they were doing, or putting on an act to give them an excuse to repeatedly cut way ahead in the line. While they didn't cut us directly (they moved over into a different line), I really wish someone had called them out on it. Anyway, after a lot more waiting we finally got through, found our gate, and were able to relax, get some drinks, and the like. Only to be told that, despite going through passport control, everyone on the flight had to go get in a different line and show our passports and boarding passes again. Why?  No idea. And we all had to go up in-person which meant gathering up all the kids and luggage again.

Even the flight itself had some issues. Not with the plane or crew (actually flying Swiss Air is fine after you deal with the check-in process), but first we ended up sitting on the runway for about an hour due to some air traffic control issue. Then, as we neared the US, someone on board had a seizure, with the end result being that we had to land in Boston so he could get medical attention. Fortunately, it looked like the guy would be ok. And, after he was unloaded, they refueled the plane and then flew on to our original destination. It meant another delay, but it could have been much worse (no changing planes, getting stuck overnight, or anything like that). Really good we had a direct flight though. So in the end we made it home, albeit a few hours later than intended. Certainly not one of my better travel experiences, though I have had worse.

But anyway, how about Switzerland? All in all, it was a very good trip. We got to see a lot more of the country (especially cities) than last time. While the costs are a bit high, Switzerland is beautiful, has a lot to do, and really does a lot to support families with children. That said, while the cities are nice, I feel like they can't really compete with those in some other European countries (Italy, for example), in terms of beauty, history, architecture, cost, things to do, or the like. It's really the natural beauty and the mountains (with all the fun things to see and do on them), that set it apart and, as such, should be a key part of any Swiss vacation. And, while I don't feel like I'm in any massive hurry to return to Switzerland, I would certainly be happy to visit again in the future (though I'd be tempted to try a different airport and possibly airline).

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