Our tour from Inverness continued from Eilean Donan Castle across the bridge to the Isle of Skye. Skye is the largest of Scotland’s Inner Hebrides islands, around 50 miles north to south. It is known for its rugged landscapes and steep cliffs. Hikers and bikers love Skye and the bed and breakfasts are always booked well ahead of time. We just happened to tour on a day with perfect weather – something that, we’re told, is no way promised. We saw the Old Man of Storr, a famous rock formation. Supposedly, it looks like a man lying on his back looking to the stars. Neither one of us could quite spot that, but it is an impressive formation. Our lunch stop was in the largest town on the island, Portree. There were tourists everywhere and the restaurants were all full. We ended up with soup and bread at a local bakery, sharing an outside picnic table with some friendly Australians on holiday. Honesty, there is no way our photos can capture the vast landscapes of Skye.
We made Inverness, known as the “capital of the Highlands,” our hub for exploring Loch Ness, Eilean Donan Castle, and the Isle of Skye. This region is known for its breathtaking scenery with majestic mountains encircling the deep lakes. Loch Ness, a remarkably deep lake, has a dark blue hue and boasts the largest reserve of freshwater in the entire UK. The highway winds its way along the lake and one stunning view after another comes into sight. Sorry to say, the elusive Nessie, the legendary monster, was nowhere to be found, yet the amazing landscapes compensated for its absence.
Continuing westward from Loch Ness, we ascended through a mountain pass, pausing frequently to capture photos and take in the magnificent panoramas. Eilean Donan Castle, originally erected in the 1200s, served as a formidable defense against Viking invasions and later became a stronghold for the Mackenzie clan. Although the fortress was destroyed in the 1700s, it was painstakingly reconstructed after nearly two centuries, eventually becoming a national trust property. We toured the castle, getting a firsthand view of what life there would have been like.
Our tour continued to the Isle of Skye and I’ll write about it in my next post.
From certain places around Manchester you can look to the southeast and see big hills off in the distance. Our day in the Peak District took us out into that area, known as the Peak District – home to deep valleys, flowing streams, steep green hills, and pretty towns and villages. We used Rabbie’s Tours for this trip and we do recommend them.
The drive out of Manchester into the heart of this beautiful area is just over an hour but the change from big city to rural beauty is dramatic. We stopped in two towns where we had plenty of time to look around.
The first was Castleton. The ruins of a medieval fortress, Pervil Castle, overlooks the village. Some climb up the hill to enjoy the panoramic views. We opted to wander around town and take photos.
We went to the town of Bakewell for a longer break where we had a nice lunch. The River Wye flows through the village (interestingly, “Wye” means “River” so it is actually “River-River”). The railings of one footbridge is jam packed with “love locks.” Couples get padlocks and put their names on them. They attach them to the bridge rail and then toss the keys away. Bakewell is also known for a particular jam and almond pudding called, appropriately enough, “Bakewell Pudding.” There is a sort of copyright on it, and only in this village can it be called “Bakewell Pudding.” Of course, we had to try some with our lunch and it was quite good!
The scenery was wonderful. One interesting stop was the overlook above the Monsal Head Viaduct. This was built as a railroad bridge but when the rail line was taken out of service the line was turned into a hiking trail that is very popular. Our stop there was just for photos so we didn’t get to walk any of the trail, but we did enjoy seeing the viaduct far below.
Our other major attraction of the day was Poole Cavern. We’ve been in bigger caves but this one has a lot to offer. Our cave tour guide was knowledgeable and interesting and we learned about the caverns and the infamous Mr. Poole who used the cave as a hideout in the 15th century.
We’re glad we took this tour as it gave us an opportunity to see an area near Manchester that we haven’t had opportunity to explore.
The primary purpose of our visit to Amsterdam, Netherlands was to see Keukenhof gardens, but, of course, we wanted to see a bit of the city too. We took the train into the city center where we hopped onto one of the many canal cruises that are available. It was a good choice for us as we got to see many of the historic sights of the city while riding on a canal, something Amsterdam is famous for. It was a relaxing trip and we recommend it. Afterwards, we just looked around – visiting the “flower market” where all kinds of touristy things are sold. Jackie did a bit of shopping. Afterward, we headed for the Palace and Dam Square. This huge town square was full of people. It is surrounded by government buildings and shops. For lunch we boarded a tram and worked our way to the Foodhallen – a unique food court in a big mall. We wandered the city, enjoying the sights.
Obviously, our short trip didn’t give us time to visit some of the famous museums. We opted for getting a general overview instead.
A few observations. We felt that public transportation, which was quite good, was rather expensive there. It may be that we’ve just been spoiled by the prices in Manchester which are less than half what they are in Amsterdam. Our hotel, the Airport Intercity Hotel, was very nice. We especially appreciated the full, complimentary breakfast that came with our senior adult rates. I will mention that the 10 minute walk from the bus/train station was complicated by several steps up and over a dike – something we weren’t prepared for.
It was, all things considered, a fun, but short, get-away. We’re constantly amazed at how close things are in this part of the world. Our flight from Manchester to Amsterdam was just over one hour. The negative was that we were supposed to arrive at the airport around two hours early. It seems strange to sit in the airport for twice as long as we sat on the plane!
The primary purpose of our trip to Amsterdam was to visit the world-famous Keukenhof Gardens. This destination boasts 79 acres of floral beauty – over 7 million tulips (I confess that I didn’t count them!) plus many other beautiful plants. Keukenhof is only open to the public about 50 days each Spring when the Tulips are in bloom. We stayed in a hotel near the airport to take advantage of the express bus that is available from there. Honestly, the “airport” pickup point is a bit of a hike from all the other bus/train/air hubs. Starting the day off with a hike isn’t the best approach when you are going to stroll the wonderful garden paths for a few hours! We took multiple breaks, including having lunch at one of the cafes. The Gardens were very crowded, but we still found spots where we could stop and enjoy the amazing beauty. There are wonderful fields of tulips all around the Gardens with ample overlooks for great photos. We very much enjoyed our “tiptoe through the tulips” at Keukenhof and highly recommend it to you.
Part two of our quick trip to Ireland began with a Sunday afternoon high speed train trip from Dublin to Galway. We really enjoy train travel (evidenced by our big train trip to Italy and the Swiss Alps). The trains are fast and reasonably quiet. They are also reasonably priced. We enjoyed the two-hour trip across the country as the train reached speeds of up to 100 mph at times.
I picked our hotel in Galway specifically because of it being practically next door to the train/bus station and being only a five-minute walk to the Spanish Quarter, a lively area featuring many shops and restaurants. Our hotel was actually part of the 13 on the Green Pub. As it turned out, our small, but serviceable, room was directly above the pub! As far as I could tell, we never heard anything from down below. However, out our window we looked down on the pedestrian crossing of a narrow city street. Every time the crossing went to green we heard the “beep, beep, beep” pedestrian signal. After 11:00 or so at night traffic calmed down and people stopped pushing the “wait to cross” button. Still, it was a rather noisy place to stay and we didn’t sleep well either night that we were there.
After arriving in Galway we headed across Eyre Square and into the Latin Quarter. We window shopped and people watched, stretching our legs after the train ride. There were buskers playing and singing to the crowds. Nearby we found the Spanish Arch and Wall, which are hundreds of years old. Later on we went into a shopping mall and saw that part of that wall has been preserved inside the mall!
The next morning we walked just a few minutes to the pickup point for our bus tour. This is an all day tour that features the Cliffs of Moher and other destinations to the south of Galway along the coast. There are other tours and I wish we had had the time to take them, but I think this one is considered the major one and I’m glad we took it. Highlights included a look at Dunguarie Castle, Aillwee Cave (with a nice underground waterfall), a rocky area called the Burren, and the Cliffs of Moher. The route follows part of the Wild Atlantic Way – a scenic drive along the ocean. This area is very popular with both locals and tourists. Many festivals take place in the small towns along the way and during the summer the area is packed with visitors.
The main draw for us was the Cliffs of Moher. There are wide, paved trails up onto the cliffs. However, you can also ask for a lift on a golf cart (called the “Lifts of Moher”). We opted for that and a driver cheerfully took us up to two different overlooks. I have to say that we stayed a shorter time than we would have liked because of the cold, strong wind! As I understand it, it is quite common so if you make the trip, check the weather conditions on the Cliffs.
We hopped a national bus the next morning for a two hour trip to Shannon Airport. That airport was the exact opposite of Manchester Airport. Shannon was quiet and laid back. Our trip through security was just a formality and our plane left pretty much on time.
I’d say our visit to Ireland give us just a taste of the island. It is interesting to consider that if we were coming to Ireland from the states the airfare would be hundreds of dollars more than what we spent for the short hop across the Irish Sea. When you spend more you want to stay long enough to feel you have received value for the cost. In our case, we just did a long weekend. We saw less, but then again we spent considerably less. I guess everything in life has its tradeoffs. Long stay or short, we do recommend Ireland as an interesting and beautiful destination.
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.
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.
The primary theme of our Italy-Switzerland Adventure is train trips. We rode the train *under* the Alps from Milan to Lucerne, and now, we are traveling the amazing train routes up into the Alps. Our trip from Lucerne to Brig, Switzerland included time in a famous tunnel that has a double spiral (like a figure-eight.) The funny thing is, aside from being in the dark for more than 20 miles, there was no sensation of going round and round. The spirals allow the train to gain altitude in a short distance and as far as I could tell the train never slowed down through the entire trip.
We arrived in Brig and, after finding our hotel, we looked around the pretty city, surrounded by snow caped mountains. The weather has been unseasonably warm here (mostly in the 40s). Because of that the snow level is confined to the mountains around us. We think that is just right! The hotel is adjacent to Stockalper Castle. It is impressive to look at, but doesn’t offer tours in the winter time. The other thing Brig is famous for is that the train station here serves as a major interchange for some important rail lines.
There are two famous rail excursions in this part of Switzerland. The Glacier Express travels between two major ski areas. However, it travels on the regular tracks and the regular trains that offer service to the same places have nice big windows. I say that to explain that over the next two days we are traveling trains on the Glacier Express route, but not on that particular excursion. The nice thing for us is that we can hop on and off the trains wherever we like rather than needing to stay with a tour.
This morning we left Brig and headed up deeper into the mountains to a world class winter playground: Zermatt, Switzerland. The train climbed up above the snow line. The scenery is amazing. For many people Zermatt is all about skiing. There are thousands of hotel rooms and chalet rentals. Only electric powered, small taxis and a couple of small, free, electric busses are allowed on the streets. There are several ski lifts and a cog railway offering access on up to the ski areas high above the town.
And, from most anywhere the Matterhorn, which towers over 14,000 feet can be seen. It is beautiful beyond words. We looked around, took photos, checked out an area where buildings dating back over 400 years have been preserved. After having lunch we returned to Brig. Due to the time difference, we got back to our room just in time to catch Sunday School and church in Texas!
Here are a couple of travel tips that might be helpful to some. First, there’s a free app called “Google Lens.” It has other uses, but it’s translate function is great for people traveling. Using Lens you turn on translate. Your phone camera comes on and you can aim it at any text. The app translates the text to English and on the screen the words actually morph from whatever language you are looking at into English! Tonight we were buying sandwiches to bring back to our room. The labels were in German, but when I looked at them through Lens I could see that they were turkey. We don’t speak hardly any German, but we were able to navigate our way through the store and get what we wanted. Really cool!
Another thing: on the train and many other places, announcements in Switzerland are repeated in German, then French, and then English. That makes it easy to get around. Aside from that, since we are in a major tourist area, we hear English spoken most everywhere.
Tomorrow, we continue the Glacier Express route. What a way to start a New Year!
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.