Prague

Well we’re safely back home now, and I’ll write one final wrap-up post soon, but this post is about Prague, the final city on our European adventure.

After EuropaPark we took a night train to Prague, arriving at the very civilized time of 10:30am. Our hostel was right at the end of the famous Charles Bridge, in the heart of the tourist area. I say hostel, in fact our room here is more like a flat, with our own small kitchen, bathroom, and little sofa area. The location is popular with street buskers, which has been great for hearing little jazz quartets, violinists, and classical guitar, although on our final morning one resident had had enough and pointed his hi-fi speakers out the window to play ACDC for about an hour.

Unlike many cities in Western Europe, Prague escaped WWII more or less unscathed, so lots of old buildings remain standing. We did a walking tour of the old town and covered all the major sights, including the elaborate and weird astronomical clock.

The old town square, with the elaborate and weird astronomical clock

The old town square, with the wonderful and strangely complicated astronomical clock

Charles Bridge, with many statues and many tourists

Charles Bridge, with many statues and many tourists

On our second day we did a tour of the Jewish district, where they have set up a series of museums in former synagogues. Later in the day Rachel and I walked up to the top of the hill near our hostel and then walked up to the top of a mini Eiffel Tower for some lovely views of the city.

Touring around Josefov, the Jewish quarter in Prague

Touring around Josefov, the Jewish quarter in Prague

Prague at sunset, from Petřín hill

Prague at sunset, from Petřín hill

On our final day we toured the enormous castle (evidently the largest ancient castle in the world!) including St. Vitus cathedral which, while founded in 1344, was only completed in the 1920’s.

The front façade of the grand St. Vitus Cathedral

The front façade of the grand St. Vitus Cathedral

Walking through the Prague senate and senate gardens

Walking through the Prague senate and senate gardens

At the end of the day we made our way to Prague airport to catch an evening flight back to London, and we flew to Vancouver the following morning.

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EuropaPark

We took a theme park detour on our European holiday, spending a single day at EuropaPark, which is located in southern Germany on the border with France.

The EuropaPark entrance area

The EuropaPark entrance area

The comparisons with Disneyland are many — different lands (in this case, countries of Europe) each with unique design and attractions that fit, more or less, into the theme. The mascot is a mouse (Euromouse), and there are roller coasters, shows, kiddie rides, etc.

The teacup ride in Holland, with dutch china

The teacup ride in Holland, with dutch china

It was another hot day and we had a great time. Heidi and I braved the biggest two roller coasters, and we all enjoyed the rest of the park, fitting in as much as we could from opening at 9am to closing at 8pm.

Riding on the Spanish chariot swingers

Riding on the Spanish chariot swingers

Rachel noted how EuropaPark has a different vibe to Disneyland, in that this place is espousing the values of the European community. It’s still show business, but it comes across a little more genuine and authentic, in comparison with Disney which exports American commercialism and excess. It helped, for example, that you didn’t feel gouged with the price of food at EuropaPark.

Riding the back of the Monorail

Riding the back of the Monorail

So it was a fun day out; a significant departure from the class of Venice or the sights of Switzerland. Now we’re off to Prague on the night train for three days there before heading home.

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Lucerne

Our final stop in Switzerland was the city of Lucerne, in the heart of the country. This was quite a difference experience compared to the rest of Switzerland that we’ve enjoyed, in that Lucerne is a relatively large city in a country where most of the attraction is nature, open spaces, and landscapes. I suppose it compares to touring downtown Vancouver versus spending time camping in rural BC.

Chapel Bridge, with Mount Pilatus in the distance

Chapel Bridge, with Mount Pilatus in the distance

But that’s not to say that we didn’t enjoy Lucerne — it’s an interesting and friendly city with more nature nearby. We spent a day at Mount Pilatus, which included some time at a high ropes course (we paid for it with sore arms the next few days), and an awesome summer luge track that you can go down on a custom sled (note that helmets were neither provided nor required).

The high ropes course on Mount Pilatus; great fun for three hours, but we paid for it the next day

The high ropes course on Mount Pilatus; great fun for three hours, but we paid for it the next day

A view of the summer luge run from the cable car. The straight track on the right is the rope tow that brings you back up when you've reached the bottom

A view of the summer luge run from the cable car. The straight track on the right is the rope tow that brings you back up when you’ve reached the bottom

The top of Mount Pilatus has excellent views, of course, and it’s unique in that you can ascend it two ways (well, three if you include hiking, which I don’t): cable car or train. The train is particularly impressive — it’s a 48% incline, making it the steepest railway in the world.

The view of Lake Lucerne from the top of Mount Pilatus

The view of Lake Lucerne from the top of Mount Pilatus

A cogwheel train making its way up the mountain

A cogwheel train making its way up the mountain

Great view of the Swiss Alps looking Southwest from Mount Pilatus

Great view of the Swiss Alps looking Southwest from Mount Pilatus

photo façade for the Mount Pilatus cogwheel railway, the steepest in the world

photo façade for the Mount Pilatus cogwheel railway, the steepest in the world

On our second day we visited the Swiss Transport Museum, which was impressively big and interesting if a bit nerdy. The girls liked that you could go from one building to the next using freely available scooters. With some hotter weather here again (32°C) we tried to keep in the shade and air-conditioned indoors.

Scootering at the Swiss Museum of transport

Scootering at the Swiss Museum of transport

We also spent some time walking through the city and touring a ‘glacier garden’ which chronicled the history of the region going back to the last ice age and how the glaciers developed the current landscape. With Rachel having done a geology course last year, this was right up her alley.

Three weary travelers at the Glacier Gardens museum

Three weary travelers at the Glacier Gardens museum

A very old, and very impressive hall of mirrors exhibit near the Glacier Gardens museum

A very old, and very impressive hall of mirrors exhibit near the Glacier Gardens museum

Connie and Heidi driving the paddleboat (they managed about 10 minutes and then swapped with Mum & Dad)

Connie and Heidi driving the paddleboat (they managed about 10 minutes and then swapped with Mum & Dad)

And so that ends the major portion of our trip in Switzerland — we have all really enjoyed this country and would certainly come back. Next up is a single day at the EuropaPark theme park in Germany before heading to our final city of Prague.

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Lauterbrunnen

Of all the places we have stayed so far the family consensus is that Lauterbrunnen, in the valley of the alpine Bernese Oberland region, has been the best. It’s a far cry from the busy squares of Venice, and although the mountains give quite a strong reminder of home, this area is very much quintessentially Swiss.

We took another scenic train from Montreux to Interlaken, where the weather cleared up enough for us to take a funicular train up to Harder Kulm, where you can look out over the Interlaken area. We then took the 20-minute train ride to Lauterbrunnen, which is nestled in a tiny valley bordered by shear mountain cliffs on either side.

The view from Harder Kulm, overlooking Interlaken

The view from Harder Kulm, overlooking Interlaken

The Valley Hostel and Lauterbrunnen; both highly recommended

The Valley Hostel and Lauterbrunnen; both highly recommended

This area is apparently famous for BASE jumping (ie. free-falling from cliffs, often with a wing-suit, and then pulling your parachute in time to land safely — YouTube it). On our first day we saw four Australian BASE jumpers descend from the cliffs and land right near us as we were walking past the town towards the very impressive Trümmelbach Falls.

Trümmelbach Falls, where the rush of water is cutting away at the rocks

Trümmelbach Falls, where the rush of water is cutting away at the rocks

The next day we took a cable car and did a fairly easy hike along the top of one of the cliffs (not right along the edge; don’t worry Mom). The weather was decent but there were still some low-hanging clouds which obscured some of the tallest mountains. By the evening though these clouds had moved off and the views were amazing.

A great view of the Jungfrau mountain. If you look very closely in between these two peaks you can spot the Jungfraujoch train station, the highest train station in Europe (and quite possibly the most expensive to reach)

A great view of the Jungfrau mountain. If you look very closely in between these two peaks you can spot the Jungfraujoch train station, the highest in Europe (and quite possibly the most expensive to reach)

We stayed at the Valley Hostel, which has been our favourite place to stay. Our room had a loft area where our girls slept, and we also had our own balcony with amazing views of the mountains.

The view from our balcony at the Valley Hostel in Lauterbrunnen

The view from our balcony at the Valley Hostel in Lauterbrunnen

On our final day here we took a series of cable cars up to the Schilthorn peak, one of two ultra-high viewpoints in the region. It was at this site that they shot a good portion of the James Bond film On Her Majesty’s Secret Service — something not lost on the proprietors, who have set up an extensive James Bond exhibit. In fact, the whole thing is Bond-themed, including the revolving restaurant.

A bright and sunny morning at the Birg viewpoint on the way to the Schilthorn. The mountains in the background are three famous peaks in this region of Switzerland: the Eiger, the Mönch, and the Jungfrau.

A bright and sunny morning at the Birg viewpoint on the way to the Schilthorn. The mountains in the background are three famous peaks in this region of Switzerland: the Eiger, the Mönch, and the Jungfrau.

The view from the top of the Schilthorn, where it was about 10°C. We were very fortunate with the weather

The view from the top of the Schilthorn, where it was about 10°C. We were very fortunate with the weather

A splurge: lunch at the revolving restaurant at the top of the Schilthorn

A splurge: lunch at the revolving restaurant at the top of the Schilthorn

Everything is 007 up here, even the coffee

Everything is 007 up here, even the coffee

We stayed four nights here — the longest that we are staying anywhere on this trip, and it was well worth it. Next up: Lucerne in central Switzerland.

Panoramic view of the alps on a spectacular day

Panoramic view of the alps on a spectacular day

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Montreux

I’m going to try a new format today, with larger pictures and without the pain of trying to get the text wrapping just right….

We enjoyed our scenic train journeys across Switzerland, and now we had a few days in the city of Montreux, on Lake Geneva near Lausanne. Montreux is in the French part of Switzerland, and it feels like the French riviera — warm, laid back, and cafes galore.

Apparently lots of famous people have settled here, including Freddie Mercury, whose statue is prominently displayed in the main square on the lakefront. And you can understand why those with money to burn would end up here — there’s an elegance and sophistication about the place, and the views of the mountains overlooking the lake are magnificent.

Out for an evening walk along Lake Geneva after arriving in Montreux

Out for an evening walk along Lake Geneva after arriving in Montreux

We didn’t spend a long time here; just a couple of days. We toured the Château de Chillon, a notable and beautiful fortress right on the water, and a short walk from the youth hostel we’re staying at.

The Château de Chillon on a lovely, calm morning in Montreux

The Château de Chillon on a lovely, calm morning in Montreux

We also spent a day in Lausanne and toured the Olympic museum, which was good in its own right and without a hint of controversy.

Visiting the Olympic Museum in Lausanne

Visiting the Olympic Museum in Lausanne

There was a battle for first place...

There was a battle for first place…

Next we are on our way to the Bernese Oberland, the mountainous region of Switzerland with lots of cable cars and funicular railways.

The Territet to Glion funicular is the oldest in the world, built in 1883. We rode up and had dinner with a view of the lake from above

The Territet to Glion funicular is the oldest in the world, built in 1883. We rode up and had dinner with a view of the lake from above

The popular statue of Freddie Mercury on the shores of Lake Geneva in Montreux

The popular statue of Freddie Mercury on the shores of Lake Geneva in Montreux

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Swiss Train Journey #2

We spent a quick night in Pontresina before heading back on our next train journey: the Glacier Express that effectively traverses Switzerland from East to West.

The Glacier Express panoramic windows

The Glacier Express panoramic windows

Now the Glacier Express is a bit of a misnomer, for you don’t see many glaciers, and it certainly isn’t an express. In fact, they dub it the “slowest fast train in the world.” But we didn’t let that dichotomy ruin our day, for it was a fantastic eight hour epic through the Swiss Alps.

One of the tallest bridges on this excellent train journey; picture spoiled somewhat by the Mickey mouse silhouette...

One of the tallest bridges on this excellent train journey; picture spoiled somewhat by the Mickey mouse silhouette…

Now the main feature of this train was panoramic windows, which allow you to have a wider view and makes the surroundings seem more grand. The downside of these large panoramic windows is that (unlike our train on the Bernina pass), they do not open, so picture-taking is problematic because of the glare. I did take a few pictures here and there, but in the end I gave up mainly because so many of the pictures contained the reflective glare of Heidi’s minion shirt and/or Mickey Mouse hat. The nice thing is that you can just sit back and enjoy the day without feeling like you need to pull out your camera every two minutes.

The highest point on our journey, the Oberall Pass. The train going the opposite direction is in the distance

The highest point on our journey, the Oberall Pass. The train going the opposite direction is in the distance

Another big bonus for our day was the lovely sunny weather. When you book these trips you are really at the mercy of the weather, and thankfully we had lots of sunshine to enjoy the scenic views.

The Glacier Express goes all the way to the town of Zermatt, home of the Matterhorn. But we opted to get off early and head to Montreux on Lake Geneva, where we’re staying for the next couple of days. Skipping the Matterhorn felt like a bit of a mistake, especially with the weather being as nice as it was. I suspect we might have changed our plans, had we not already paid for our hostel in Montreux. Still, we’ve seen the Matterhorn at Disneyland already, so this one can’t be that much better, can it?

Beautiful Swiss countryside

Beautiful Swiss countryside

Selfie fun

Coming into the valley town of Andermatt

Coming into the valley town of Andermatt

You could purchase a meal on the train for some $60 per person, or you could do like us and pay a fraction of that for a picnic feast at your table

You could purchase a meal on the train for some $60 per person, or you could do like us and pay a fraction of that for a picnic feast at your table

Leaving the train at Visp, before boarding our onward train to Montreux

Leaving the train at Visp, before boarding our onward train to Montreux

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Swiss Train Journey #1

Lovely views of Lake Como on the way from Milan to Tirano

Lovely views of Lake Como on the way from Milan to Tirano

After several days of sightseeing in historic European cities, our trip is now entering a new phase: scenic rail journeys and the mountain vistas of Switzerland.

Our first such journey was from Venice to the small mountain village of Pontresina, near St. Moritz. We left Venice in the morning on a train to Milan — after several days of glorious weather in Venice, it rained as we left the city (curiously, this also happened in Salzburg).

Brusio Circular Viaduct

Early in the journey, the train makes a full 360º loop as it ascends through the pass. The kind of thing I would have built with my Lego train

Our train went from Venice to Milan, where we changed for another Italian train heading to the tiny town of Tirano (not to be confused with Turino, which I did many times). Although this part of the journey was not an official scenic route, the train wound its way alongside Lake Como with some very nice views.

Tirano is right at the southeastern tip of Switzerland, and the starting point for the Bernina Express.

Passing over a small Swiss town in the valley

Passing over a small Swiss town in the valley

This route takes you up and over the Bernina pass in eastern Switzerland — it’s unusual in that it has very few tunnels, so you climb along the mountain up to the pass at around 2250m above sea level.

The journey was great, but unfortunately the weather wasn’t fully co-operative. It was raining for the first part of the trip, but then it cleared up a bit once we got to the top of the mountain pass. One thing that was a nice touch on this train was that you could pull down the windows to allow for excellent photo opportunities without the window glare.

On several portions of the route the train makes tight curves like this over bridges or through tunnels

On several portions of the route the train makes tight curves like this over bridges or through tunnels

The Bernina express carries on to St. Moritz and Chur, but we got off at Pontresina and stayed at the youth hostel there (literally right across the street from the train station; lovely). We had been on three different trains and were ready for a rest. Rachel also experienced a bit of dizzyness, no doubt from the altitude change, considering that we literally started the day at sea level and ended in the mountains.

Tomorrow: Scenic Train Trip #2.

The glacier and silty-blue lake at the top of the Bernina pass.

The glacier and silty-blue lake at the top of the Bernina pass.

The view of the mountains from Pontresina

The view of the mountains from Pontresina

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