Originally published 2 January 2016
At the Matterhorn, looking out over Switzerland
We rode the high speed train into Frankfurt and checked into the nicest place we've stayed the entire trip. It was the Hilton actually IN the airport, and I got the room for a ridiculous $75. We left on the early train as it was so cheap. Tickets for two on that train usually run about $150-200 each. It being 9:00 a.m. on New Years morning, they were $50 for BOTH. It was a bargain hunting day!
We get into the airport, leave our stuff, and go into Frankfurt for dinner. Turns out this is another one of those "local custom" holidays....and nothing is open. We find a restaurant with mediocre food, have an unremarkable dinner, and come back to the airport hotel.
We had bought tickets for the local trains, buying a "all Frankfurt" ticket for our travels back and forth. The fare police came through the car, checked my ticket, and handed it back. They checked Laurie's ticket and suddenly had issues. I asked what the problem was. Apparently, as we passed the stop they checked my ticket at, it became invalid. As it turns out, the Frankfurt airport is NOT in Frankfurt. I haven't quite figured that one out.
They could have fined us 60 euros each, quite a bit of money. They realized that we were not from there, and weren't technically trying to get away with anything....we just didn't understand. They took pity on us, charged us for the extra stop (2.80 each) and sent us on our way. They realized that we weren't trying to get away with something and just didn't understand the zones....which in all honesty were a bit confusing. I appreciate them being reasonable and would hope that if they visit our country, they are treated as well as they treated us.
The Frankfurt airport is HUGE. It has grocery stores, real restaurants, and the largest airport train station in Europe. It is larger and has more in it than most of the towns where we are from. We have a final Cuban cigar at a cigar lounge in the airport, then go to our room and pack for our travels on Saturday morning.
We get up before 7 a.m. Saturday morning, which is around midnight in the states. We go through another incredibly complex security screening (things have tightened up quite a bit since our last visit) and board the plane for a 10 hour trip back. The plane is a newer Airbus that has internet and seatback entertainment centers. They have enough music, tv shows, movies, and games to keep you busy during the trip. We finally land in Atlanta.
We clear U.S. Customs and re-enter the U.S. We finally get to the truck and head back home. We stop for Varsity hotdogs in Kennesaw and I fight off sleep until we get home. We sleep in our own bed for the first time in quite a while.
As with all my blogs, I put my observations about the trip as my last entry. They are as follow:
Work- I am now a full time employee with Tennessee Tech. This allows for a generous vacation policy and a long Christmas break. I am lucky to work there and lucky to work for a boss who gives me the flexibility to add a few days and take a long break at Christmas. He reads my blog and I personally want to thank him for this.
Switzerland- We fully realized that Switzerland was not going to be cheap. It was, in reality, the most expensive place we've ever traveled to. We could have stayed 3 weeks in Germany for what we spent to stay one in Switzerland. We did realize this....knowing that Switzerland would be a one shot/bucket list type visit. While quite expensive, it was spectacular.
The country has different influences, depending on the places it borders. Near Geneva, it is heavily influenced by France, and French is the local language. As you travel towards the center of the country, German becomes more prevalent.
The language is a different type of German called Swiss German, with different greetings and some different words. It is somewhat akin to a different dialects that you would find in New England vs. the south. It isn't unworkable, but some of the words and such are different. Italian is common near Italy on the south and Romansh (a tribal based language from hundreds of years ago) in the east....although few speak it anymore.
While quite expensive and I can't see us going back, I wouldn't trade the Switzerland part of the trip for anything. It was a very different, taking in Christmas markets, staying in mountain villages, a wonderful mountainside hotel with wonderful hosts, and enjoying amazing mountain views. It was fantastic.
Trains- While not cheap (like most things in Switzerland) the Swiss travel pass we bought allowed substantial discounts on the lifts to the tops of mountains, the ability to just jump on any train we desired and go exploring a different route. You just get on, the conductor will check your ticket when they come through, and that's it. It gives a great deal of freedom and covers almost all the railroads in the country, and gives substantial discounts on the handful of mountaintop railroads it does not cover. It was cheaper than point to point tickets for sure....and allowed us flexibility.
We liked traveling by sleeper train. It was about $100 more than staying in a hotel and taking a day train, but we traveled while we slept. That $100 bought us one more day in a place, instead of traveling. Our cabin had a sink for washing and brushing your teeth, and a perfectly functional toilet and shower with plenty of hot water was at the end of the car. We had an economy cabin and they do have them with your own shower for a bit more.
ICE trains are the high speed trains in Germany, and they are a great way to travel. They are quick, easy, comfortable, and if you buy in advance they are reasonable. They have internet and afford a great view of the countryside.
All of the trains are preferable to flying whenever and wherever possible. Often times flying is substantially cheaper and that has to be taken into consideration. Trains are very comfortable, roomy, and don't require you getting to the train station hours in advance. If you are there one minute before the train leaves, good enough. Get on, find a seat, and they'll be by to get your ticket. They arrive in the center of the city and don't require the extra time, complexity, and cost of getting to town from the airport. Oh yeah...you don't' have to check bags either. Cost is the only factor that sometimes rules against train travel.
Berlin- Berlin is a town chock full of history, culture, food, and fun. Compared to Switzerland, it was cheap. To be honest, Berlin is a cheaper town to eat, sleep, and live in than Nashville. Four nights in an apartment cost what two nights in our mountainside Swiss hotel cost. Food was a mere fraction of what it costs in Switzerland. Dinner with drinks in a very nice restaurant with appetizers and/or desert was seldom more than 30 euros (about 33 bucks).
We saw many dark history things, some not so dark history things, museums, and experienced New Years from a Berlin perspective. Those of us that think we are wild New Years party folks in the U.S. need to go to Berlin for perspective. They are insane.............and lots of fun. Just keep on your toes and be able to sidestep a sky rocket on an errant path.
While we were traveling not so cheaply, Berlin is a city that could be fully experienced without a big travel budget. The costs to visit Berlin are very reasonable, and I hope they remain that way. I wouldn't mind visiting Berlin again.
Language- We struggled with French for the day or so we were in Western Switzerland and the layover in Paris...we know a little but not a lot. We had studied German (Bill mostly by software and Laurie mostly by German language tapes) before each trip to the country and having just a little bit of the language helps. As on all our other trips, we found that if you approached them in their language, most spoke English and work with you. There were very few times we ran into someone who spoke no English.
Travel companions- Hemingway said "Travel only with those you love". I have to admit, it does make things easier. Traveling can sometimes be stressful and doing it with someone you love makes it easier. I like traveling with Laurie because I love sharing these amazing places with her. I adore her company and can't wait for our next trip.
We both have areas of strength, mine being navigation and map reading, with Laurie's being languages. She understands spoken language better than I and is much better at communicating with the locals than I am capable of. I spot and decipher signage and directions much better than she does and can translate it to our navigation. I think we are like that as she hears better than I do and I see better than she does. We compliment each other well.
In closing- I love having the chance to travel with Laurie and see the world. She will put her comments below. I hope she enjoyed her trip as much as I enjoyed mine. We did much and saw much.....and our experiences made us more than we are.
No matter how badly I chop it up, I have learned bits of other languages. I have experienced other cultures and lifestyles. I have seen places that as a kid from up in the mountains and coal fields, I never dreamed of actually going. Traveling to these places and seeing them in person, especially with someone you love, is a magical thing. I am blessed to be able to do it. Thanks for following along......next time, join us!
"Oh the places you'll go." -Dr. Seuss
I will add a few comments to Bill's closing ones. It was a great trip with some adventures unplanned but no real hardships. It actually all went remarkably smoothly.
Just before we left Verizon changed their international phone plans. I must say, it was really nice having access to our smart phones while traveling. The apps for both the Swiss and German trains were incredibly useful, and so were the ones for the public transportation systems in any of the cities we were in. As Bill was fond of saying, it's all about the apps.
Switzerland was incredibly beautiful and almost surreal in the mountain vistas and quaint villages. We didn't really get a chance to see much of how people really lived there because we were mostly in tourist areas. It seemed that people there worked in the tourist industry, or farmed.
It really wasn't any more expensive in the resort areas than in other places we were, but the whole country was expensive. So travelers we met were more consistently of the higher economic strata than other places we have been. Actual lift tickets and rentals for skiing were not exorbitant but everything else was. It made for a different experience. Everyone was very friendly and cheerful, and staying in a small inn instead of a big hotel was great. Our hostess spoke excellent English and was more than willing to share information about her country and local customs.
Going from the pristine mountains to the bustling chaos of the city was a little discomfiting as first. Berlin is a vital, bustling metropolis but never felt overwhelming or intimidating. The east city architecture is fabulous, with peculiarly angled buildings and glass facades. Very modern and well thought out.
It is amazing to me that the east Germans have lived through so much oppression and have bounded through it with an enthusiasm and resilience that is amazing. They do seem to have embraced capitalism whole heartedly and there are malls with international shops all over the city. And within it all, the have preserved their history with museums, memorials and subtle icons that require some attention to find.
They take full responsibility in their museums and memorials for the atrocities of WWII. The Soviet era is remembered pretty objectively but focus was often on attempts to flee and the ultimate demise of the Berlin Wall. I can't imagine what it would have been like to survive the Hitler era only to land in the the hands of the Soviets. Sometimes, given the German populace's participation in the murdering of millions of people under Nazism, it did feel a little like payback.
For many people here in the USA, it seems that it is difficult to fully grasp the concept of how bad things can get. The forces of reason and humanity do not always prevail. To be somewhere that has suffered the consequences of the total loss of a moral compass, is eye opening and serves as a warning to us all that while we want to believe that 'things' won't go too far, sometimes they do.
I would very much like to go back to Berlin and take in more of the art and culture that the city has to offer. As Bill said, it is not expensive and that makes it much more accessible to a larger traveling, and inhabiting, populace. It seemed much more 'real' than Switzerland. So hopefully it will remain affordable because I highly recommend it as a city. It is a late to bed, late to rise town with lots of night life and excellent food.
So farewell from me for this trip. And where to next.....to be determined.
I'm Bill. My wife Laurie and I love to travel and share our stories. We especially love it when we have been able to motivate our readers to start traveling on their own, and making their own stories.
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