2023 – Italy-Switzerland wrapup

2023 – Zermatt, Switzerland – the Matterhorn – Scott and Jackie

We arrived back “home” in Manchester a bit weary but more than satisfied with our trip to Italy and Switzerland.  Here are some random thoughts as we wrap up our trip.

It was an all-public transportation trip.  Over the last 10 days we traveled by bus, plane, subway, trolley, boat, Uber, and, of course, train.  It is quite an experience for Americans who are fully immersed in the car culture to travel totally as passengers on public transport.  It certainly is nice to look out the window or read a book while someone else handles the trip!

This journey was, of course, all about the trains.  Jackie and I enjoyed the Italian high-speed trains.  They are big and roomy; smooth and quiet.  Our Swiss trains, of course were all about the view.

The trains we traveled on in Switzerland were all narrow gauge.  That means the tracks and, therefore, the cars are narrower.   Most of the time it didn’t make much difference but, on the Bernina Express it did.  We were in second class where the seats face one another in groups of four.  Jackie and I decided it would be better to spend the four-hour trip looking at one another (and with both of us having window seats).  That meant two other passengers on the full train sat beside of us.  They were nice people, but they didn’t speak much English, so we spent those hours listening to them speaking French to one another and to several other family members on the other side of the train car.  While traveling in second class worked great on all the other journeys we took, I think we’d opt spend the extra money and go for first class if we were ever to take that excursion again.  The first-class cars have two seats on one side and one seat on the other.  Much more room.

I confess that photography on the train was a challenge.  The train keeps moving and there are reflections in the windows.  I just took lots of photos and then deleted most of them, leaving only the ones I thought looked best.

If you ever plan on traveling by train in Europe, check out this web site – I got tons of great information there: https://www.seat61.com/ is a great resource.

Jackie and I were really blessed with the weather.  Not only was it unseasonably warm, but it also didn’t rain or snow on us the entire trip.  We couldn’t have ordered better weather for a January in the Alps!

My biggest budget miss was the cost of food.  Switzerland, in particular, was very expensive.  Just a hamburger and fries were over $20 a person.  When traveling, we generally try to eat one nicer meal each day, and then, in the evening, eat a sandwich, etc.   Even that approach was a challenge.  We often went to a grocery store and bought ready-made sandwiches with chips to take back to the hotel for supper.  Those sandwiches usually ran $7-8 each.  Two of the “best” deals were German Doner Kebab restaurants (lots of meat!) and many pizzerias.  I do like pizza, but not as a daily staple!

I researched hotels on Google, trying to find highly rated ones, for reasonable prices, that were close to train stations.  We were satisfied with all of them.  All but one offered breakfast with the stay.  The breakfasts were pretty good.

I’ll close out my writing with this.  Thanks to all who have read along.  Comments are always welcome and encourage me to keep writing.  All of the posts in this series can be easily found in our travel blog: http://localhost/pastorscott/travel/tag/italy-switzerland/

2023 – On the Bernina Express, Switzerland to Colico, Italy

Our ride on the Bernina Express took us high up into the Swiss Alps and then down to Torino, Italy.  The views from the train are exceptional and the route includes features like the 213 feet high Landwasser Viaduct and the Brusio spiral viaduct.  Gaining and losing as much altitude as the train does means there are lots of switchbacks, loops, and tunnels.  I took many photos and then, once the trip was over, I tried to pick only the best to save.  Admittedly, it was a challenge.

The ticketing situation for both Bernina and Glacier Express is a bit confusing.  There are two separate transactions.  First, you need to reserve a seat on the train.  The price for that is about $20.  You can reserve fairly early and you really need to because the train sells out well in advance.  Then, when you get closer to your reserved time, you have to buy the actual train ticket.  You can get a point to point ticket, a “super saver” if you book early, or a Saver Day pass which is good anywhere in Switzerland on trains and buses.  There are a limited number of these, so, again, committing early saves money.

I used the Trainline app for most of my train tickets.  It works in most of Europe, including the UK.  However, I used the Swiss rail app, SSB to get my Saver Day passes – that is the only place to get them.  I like using the apps because they let me work in English and not have to guess the meaning of German, Italian, etc. phrases.  Also, Trainline lets you pick your currency.  By picking US dollars I have a better idea of what, exactly, I am spending.  Having said all that, let me add that train travel on this trip has been among the least of our expenditures.  I’ve been constantly surprised at how low train prices are across Europe.

The train crosses into Italy at Torino.  We switched to an Italian train to take us to a beautiful lakeside town, Colico.  The town is on the shore of Lake Como, a 40 mile long, very deep glacial lake which is surrounded by snowcapped mountains.  This has been a popular vacation destination for hundreds of years.  Right now, of course, is off season but there was still a lot of activity in the town.

Tomorrow, we will continue our train journey along the shore of Lake Como back to Milan and to the airport for our flight back to Manchester.

2023 – Chur, Switzerland

Our Switzerland train journey continued with a ride through the high country between Brig and Chur.  Once again we climbed up above the snow line.  Rather than traveling on an express train we journeyed on local trains, needing to transfer to other trains a couple of times as we continued our trip.  Our train was full of skiers out for a day on the slopes.  A few stops were high in the mountains right at ski resorts with no town close by.  We lost count of all the cable lifts we saw.  We passed miles of cross-country skiers following a route through a valley and along the train tracks.  As we looked out at the mountains we could see people off in the distance skiing down.  Some train riders had snow sleds for their kids.  Honestly, if I headed out to the slopes, that would be about my speed!

We took lots of photos and I confess that, after a while, they start to look alike.  After all, when you’ve seen one amazing, beautiful, snowy mountain you’ve seen them all, right?

We arrived in Chur (pronounced “Coor”) and found our hotel a short distance from the big train station.  Chur has a very long history, dating back 3500 years before Christ.  This makes it one of the oldest settlements in all of Switzerland.

Our hotel is in a vehicle-free portion of the city, adjacent to the old town section of the city which is filled with narrow cobblestone walkways lined with shops and housing.  We explored the area and took photos but took full advantage of our planned off day in which we had no major sightseeing planned.

One nice thing we have found about the hotels in this part of the world is that most have electric plug adapters available if you ask for them.  Apparently, Switzerland uses a plug that is a bit different than other European countries.  The voltage is the same, just the plug is different.  Because of that, hotels keep adapters available.

In case you don’t know it, our US electric is different than that in most of the world.  Because of that, you can’t use any device with a motor in it, like a hair dryer.  However, almost any electronic device like a cell phone or laptop will charge up just fine if you have the right plug adapter.  To be sure, just look at the charger that plugs into the wall.  On the small print it will have something like: “input 100-240v.”  That means the charger will work fine on US voltage of 110 and European voltage of 220.  All you need is a plug adapter.  Also, our phones and IPad can be charged from the USB ports built into many electric plugins here.

By early afternoon we settled into our hotel room to relax and prepare for tomorrow’s train trip on a major excursion train higher up into the Alps than we have gone yet.

2022 – Lucerne, Switzerland

On Thursday, we left Milan, Italy on a high-speed train bound for Lucerne, Switzerland.  The train was very fast, very quiet, and quite comfortable.  Our route took us *under* the Swiss Alps.  The Gotthard Base tunnel is the longest and deepest tunnel of its type in the world – over 35 miles long!  When not in the tunnel the scenery was very nice.  We enjoyed the journey and it set the table for the world class rail journeys yet to come on this trip.

We’ve heard a lot about Lucerne, and it measures up to the reviews.  We walked through the old town area which is filled with shops and restaurants and beautiful old buildings.  The city is divided by the Reuss River which has two historic covered wooden bridges.  The oldest is the Chapel Bridge which was built in the 1300’s.  There are photo opportunities galore in the old city.

The most famous sculpture in Lucerne is the Lion Monument.  It’s a sad but beautiful work of art dedicated to 1792 Tuileries war heroes.  After seeing it we took a short bus ride back to the train station, bus station, and ferry dock for our cruise on Lake Lucerne.

Here are some things for people considering a trip to Switzerland.  First, everything here is expensive.  Even a hamburger will cost $15-20.  Food is always good, but never cheap.  We did a load of laundry at a self-serve place, and it costs over $15 for that single load washed and dried.  Second, for $20 you can get a sim card from Sunrise Mobile that will give you unlimited data most anywhere in Switzerland for a week.  Unless your phone accepts multiple sims or e-sims your regular number won’t work while the Swiss sim is inserted, so keep that in mind.  Still, it’s a really good deal that lets you get email, use your maps program, etc. while in the country.  Third, we stayed at a neat old hotel named “Drei Könige.”  The name means “Three Kings” and the logo of the wise men is everywhere.  I thought that was pretty neat, especially on the week after Christmas.  It isn’t unusual for hotels here to include breakfast.  And they really mean it – we had a hearty breakfast each morning.  That’s a real plus when you consider how expensive the eating places are.  Fourth, when you book a hotel in Lucerne you are given free bus access.  That’s a big savings and sets you free to explore the city.  Finally, most everyone speaks a little English (German is the most common language).  It never hurts to know a few common phrases.  Even saying “Thank you” in German will bring a smile as a response.

The highlight of our stay in Lucerne was the Lake Lucerne cruise.  The passenger ferry boats run regular routes around the lake.  We paid the winter day rate to give us unlimited time on the ferries.  Honestly, that discount rate is about the same price as most round-trip tickets.  By having a day ticket, we were able to decide just how much time we wanted to give to the cruise even while we were already underway.  To our delight the scenery was amazing, and we opted to go for the longer route, not returning to Lucerne until after dark.  Words can’t describe the beauty!  We were reminded of our Alaskan cruise but also of time we spent in Colorado at Rocky Mountain National Park.  We took tons of photos and hope you will enjoy them.

2022 – Milan, Italy

The day after Christmas we boarded an EasyJet flight from Manchester to Milan, Italy for our first visit to Italy and then Switzerland.  Air fares are quite good around Europe, and we didn’t want to miss the chance to do some exploring.  As we approached Milan we could see the Alps (Italian or Swiss?) down below us.  That marked the beginning of our Adventure.

Milan is a big city, filled with activity everywhere.  We got around using public transportation, mostly the subway.  I specifically picked our hotel based on its easy subway and train access – right across from the Milan Central Train Station.

Since we don’t speak Italian we were concerned about the language barrier.  We learned just a few phrases, but before long we realized that everyone seems to speak English.  Some people just looked at us and switched to English (apparently, we “look” like tourists).  I tried my few Italian words out, but, apparently, even my Italian sounds like American English because they would usually answer me in English anyway.

We bought 3 day transit tickets, so we could hop on and off of the subway or trolley where ever we wanted.  That set us free to explore the main sights of the city.  The subway, by the way, is very popular and more often than not it offered standing room only.  Most of our trips were 3-5 stops, so that wasn’t a real big deal except for the afternoons when we were getting leg weary.  We never rode the subway during rush hour.  I can’t imagine the cars being more crowded than they were.

One of the highlights of the city is Leonardo da Vinci’s famous mural, The Last Supper, which was painted in the late 15th century.  We had to buy tickets early to see it, but we felt it was well worth the effort.  The painting is on the wall of the church.  Amazingly, it survived Allied bombs that hit the church during WWII.  It was humbling to see the famous art in person.

In route to see the painting we walked around the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II.  This is a very upscale shopping area, filled with luxury stores.  The entire area was crowed to the point that it was hard to walk around. I think everyone was touring like us, although a few people had shopping bags, so some people were there to actually shop!

The heart of Milan is the huge Duomo Cathedral. The church dates back to the 1300’s and construction continued on the building over 600 years!  One feature not to be missed is the rooftop tour!  By going up on top you get a more close up view of the amazing architecture of the building.  There are statues, latticework, and spires everywhere.  It is amazing to me that statues would be placed in areas that could never be seen from the ground.  We took the elevator up but ended up climbing up and down many stairs as we followed the route up higher and higher.  Of course, the views of the city are magnificent.  Then, even from the roof top there are still more spires towering high above.  The inside of the building is amazing too.  This ancient church seats 40,000 worshippers!  It seems that every square inch of the interior is carved, decorated, etc.  There are stained glass windows everywhere, including some huge windows made up of smaller windows that tell the story of the Bible.

After finishing up our tour of the church we hopped on the subway to visit the Piazza Gae Aulenti.  Visiting this ultra-modern shopping area after exploring the Cathedral nearly gave us “architectural whiplash!”  From an ancient building we found ourselves surrounded by the latest, most modern buildings you can imagine.  The Christmas market was still in operation, and there was a giant “tree” constructed of snow sleds.  It was very interesting.   In the near distance there are two “forest” sky scrapers.  These big apartment buildings are covered with trees!

For meals we had mostly pasta.  One night I had a pizza that was quite good.  The next night I had lasagna that was even better.  Jackie loved the Alfredo with mushrooms she had one meal.  I enjoyed a coffee they have called a macchiato.  It is similar to a latte but somehow better.  It seems that there are coffee shops and pizzerias on every corner.

I think we could have continued sightseeing Milan a few more days.  It is an interesting and fun place to visit.  If you come, don’t miss the Cathedral rooftop or the “Last Supper.”