THE DALMATIAN COAST, PARIS AND ZERMATT

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August 28-29, 2013:  Destination Dubrovnik

I'd pondered for several days how best to get to Croatia.  As far as I could determine, there are no direct flights from California - so getting to Europe is the first step, then finding a direct flight to Dubrovnik without robbing the bank is the second step.

Looking at the map, I thought at first that Rome would be the logical gateway to Croatia.  But the cost of the short flight from Rome to Dubrovnik via Croatia Airlines, added to the cost of the flight from California to Rome, turned out to be a deal-breaker.  It made more sense economically to simply fly to London, stay overnight, then grab a direct low-cost EasyJet flight to Dubrovnik.

So it was nearly noon on August 29th when we arrived at Heathrow - still early in the day - but only 4 AM back in California.  But we shrugged off our sleepiness and made our way to Baker Street on the London Underground where our transfer bus to Stansted Airport would be waiting for us later in the day. 

We emerged to find ourselves surrounded by crowds of tourists lining up for Madame Tussauds Wax Museum.  Disoriented, we walked past a statue of Sherlock Holmes, twice, once in each direction, until we finally found our pick-up stop.  We were early so we stepped inside the adjacent Alsop Arms, a typical British pub.  The lunch special - a sandwich with salad and "chips" (fries) plus a pint of cold beer - was a bargain at £8.

Our transfer to Stansted on EasyBus got us to the airport in about an hour and by 6 PM we had checked in to the Radisson Blu hotel, a ten minute walk from the EasyJet check-in counter.

We were feeling pretty grungy and it felt good to get a hot shower after spending the night on an airplane and then traipsing around London.  Just after 9 PM we crashed, out cold until 4:15 AM when our wake-up call blasted us back into consciousness.

We hustled on over to the terminal and got checked in easily - no long lines, very efficient - a far cry from our previous experience enroute to Morocco on Ryanair three years ago - that had been an inefficient frenzy of long lines - truly a cattle car experience.  What a difference!

By 10 AM we had gathered our bags, flashed our passports and hopped a shuttle bus to Dubrovnik.  Our eyes widened as we drove along the coastal highway overlooking the azure Adriatic Sea and the red tile roofs of the Old Town swept into sight.  Aaah... we'd made it!  Now for some serious down time!

 

August 30-31, 2013: Dubrovnik

 

 Breakfast was still being served, and as soon as we'd checked in we were told to help ourselves.  Katie Meyer, who maintains a solid business relationship with the international Hilton chain, had arranged for us to get the executive treatment.  Katie, you are sooo good!

We chatted with Katie while our room was readied, and she introduced us to Judy and John, her expatriate friends from Stuttgart who would be joining us for the cruise.

After settling into our room, Teresa and I, accompanied by Fred Meyer, headed to the Pile (pronounced pee lay) Gate, the entrance to the old walled city.  We admired the pristine, pedestrian-only main street before scaling several flights of stone steps to the walkway that runs along the top of the steep walls and affords spectacular views of both the city and surrounding seascape.  Over the course of about two hours we circumnavigated the city atop this massive stone fortification built in the thirteenth century.

Fred astutely identified those parts of the old city that had been rebuilt subsequent to the civil war, after shelling by Serb forces in 1992 burned many of the buildings to the ground.  Color variations in the red tile roofs were the giveaway - dark red tile was new - light red tile was the original.  There were also many walls where the mortar had been pockmarked with bullet holes and repaired with white plaster, leaving clearly visible patches.

The view toward the ocean was magnificent where the wall overlooked the rocky shore - no beach, but avid sunbathers were strewn across rock outcroppings like sardines drying in the sun.  From atop the inner wall along the land side, a deadly gap in this massive fortification was readily apparent in the form of a high ridge overlooking the city, a perfect location from which the Serb forces were mercilessly able to shell the city in 1992.   So much for high walls!

Later in the day, we met up with the others in the executive lounge for hors d'oeuvres - nothing truly tantalizing although there was a large steel tub stocked with icy beer and soda - complementary - and it was well-maintained throughout the evening!

The cumulative impact of two days of travel with precious little sleep finally took its toll and we zonked out early in the evening, waking up nearly twelve hours later only because I'd set the alarm for 9:30 as a precaution.  After all, I didn't want to miss the (free) grand buffet breakfast!  I have no doubt that catching some extra sleep was a good thing - you can only push yourself so far before you simply run out of steam!

We had a half day to fill - Katie had arranged to have us picked up and transported to the port of Gruz in the afternoon.  We reviewed our itinerary and realized that we'd be getting a guided tour of the old city tomorrow, so we chose to visit the War Photo Gallery with its iconic photographic images of the Yugoslavian civil war.  The collection proved to be a graphic depiction of the break-up of the country including the widely reported "ethnic cleansing" that ensued.  It was a vivid and shocking reminder of the atrocities committed by both sides.  After leaving, we were genuinely grateful that this cataclysmic event was now history.

We arrived at the dock around 5 PM, escorted to our boat and shown to our cabin on the oddly named MS Aloha.  (Odd because this is Croatia, not Hawaii!)  The boat is new, having been placed in service only last year.  It has four levels with eighteen cabins on the lower two decks; a sundeck with a covered lounge area on the upper deck; and a bar, indoor dining room, and outdoor dining area just below.

After an orientation during which we met the ship's crew of eight and were introduced to the other twenty-eight passengers we enjoyed a casual dinner.

Some sort of street celebration seemed to be getting under way, so we hopped off the boat to have a look around.  It was clearly a local event - no tourists - there was a vast array of food and beverage stands.   We spotted rows of whole lambs rotating on spits over hot coals, as well as calamari, mackerel and sausages also grilling. There was loud music which, unfortunately for us, continued until well past 1 AM and could not be avoided even when we returned to the boat.

 

September 1-2, 2013: Mljet Island to Pucisca

 

It was a whirlwind of activity today starting with an early breakfast at 7 AM.  By 8:15 we had boarded a bus for the short trip back to the old city, but first we were driven up the winding coastal highway to the bluff for a bird's eye view and photo op.

Back in the town we joined a local guide who provided an abbreviated history of the region as she led us through the Franciscan monastery and the Rector's Palace, now a museum.  Within the monastery was pharmacy, ostensibly in business since 1391 - Fred wondered if they could refill his Vicodin prescription - probably not I said, they likely only carry Laudanum.

Around 1 PM we set sail for Mljet Island, stopping for a swim break mid-afternoon, and docking just after 4 PM at the town of Pomena.  We walked along a short path that brought us to a lake in the island's interior where we boarded a small ferry boat for the ten minute trip across the lake to a tiny island on which was located a former Benedictine monastery founded in the twelfth century.  There really wasn't much to see - the monastery was abandoned long ago although the surrounding area was heavily forested and exceptionally scenic.  Returning to our own boat we were served an excellent five course feast featuring a variety of Croatian dishes, and afterwards we had the evening to ourselves. 

Following breakfast the next morning, we headed north toward the town of Pucisca on Brac Island.  It was a fairly long jaunt, about six hours, but the journey was broken up by two swimming breaks plus an elaborate multi-course lunch.  The weather was near perfect, about 80 degrees with a light breeze, and it was a great opportunity to soak up some sun and grab some on-line time.  (Question:  Why does an eighteen cabin cruise vessel provide free wireless Internet but the giant cruise lines find it necessary to charge nearly a dollar a minute for the same thing?  Just wondering...)

The inlet on which the town of Pucisca is situated is storybook perfect, with a single lane road running along the shoreline from the dock and leading to a cluster of buildings on the water's edge.

We wandered around this quaint town of fewer than 1000 inhabitants for about an hour, then made our way along a narrow stone passageway to a quaint restaurant, Konoba Lado, that overlooks the town.  (We were told that Konoba roughly translates tobistro.)  As the sun was setting Teresa and I enjoyed a spread that included fire-roasted lamb and fresh calamari.

Back at the boat we were treated to a performance by a local Acapella group.  For some reason I expected them to sing in English - I'm not sure why - it was very melodic, but of course I couldn't understand a single word!

 

September 3-4, 2013: Split & Hvar

 

In the morning our boat sailed across the Bracka Channel to the slightly larger town of Omis where Martin, our cruise manager, provided a brief overview of the town.  A handful of our group, including Katie and Fred, chartered a small boat for an inland cruise up the Cetina River.  This proved to be reminiscent of the Mekong Delta with a lush (but not so tropical) forest lining the shore, and as the inlet tapered we entered a narrow passage that meandered into the interior.  After nearly an hour we got to a point where the river was too constricted for even our undersized boat.  I could see that this could be a great rafting opportunity as fast moving rapids became visible up ahead and a primitive encampment by the shore apparently had rafts for rent.

Back in the town we wandered some - there was a main road lined with shops, and running parallel, a second pedestrian walkway lined with even more shops filled with touristy stuff.

After lunch on board, we followed the shoreline north for about thirty minutes until we arrived in the city of Split, second largest in Croatia and the main population center along the Dalmatian coast.  This city has a long history dating back to Roman times, explained Martin, as he led us through the Stone Palace built by the emperor Diocletian in the third century AD.  But it's not really a palace - more like a miniature walled town with a labyrinth of narrow streets, alleys and courtyards within its confines.  He also explained that the main reason why the lower levels are so well preserved is that the aristocrats, who lived within the upper levels, tossed their garbage down below where the masses lived, creating an archeological gold mine when it was eventually excavated.

Later on, Teresa and I strolled along the seawall which gradually led us to an excellent vantage point overlooking the harbor, then after dark we spent a quiet evening on our boat which remained moored on the waterfront.

We left Split early the next morning and traversed the channel to the town of Bol on the far side of Brac Island.  It was another pleasant little town but there really was not much to do or see, so once again we strolled along the waterfront until we found our way to a secluded hillside tavern where, together with Charles and Anita (a British couple), we shared a round of Karlovacko, the local brew - surely it must be after 5 PM somewhere! 

En route to the island of Hvar we crossed the Hvarski Channel, and after stopping for a swim in the clear blue waters of the Aegean, we found ourselves waiting for space in the harbor just beyond the town of Hvar.  Apparently the port is too small to accommodate the influx of tourists which has grown exponentially the past few years.  We were astonished at the number of high-end yachts moored in the Hvar harbor - there was a sleek multi-million dollar private cabin cruiser right next to us namedMySpace and I wondered about the owner - a Silicon Valley billionaire perhaps?

Once again, Martin gave us a tour of the town, focusing on Saint Stephen's Square and cathedral, as well as the medieval fortress overlooking the city.  We also traversed another Franciscan monastery - considering how many monasteries we've seen the past few days, it seems like there must have been a lot of unemployed monks sponging off the church!

In the evening, accompanied by Fred and Katie, and Charles and Anita, we made our way through narrow alleys and eventually settled on a quaint restaurant fronted by a row of linen covered tables.  Fred and I both ordered the house specialty, the Merry Dalmatian, a breaded veal cutlet stuffed with ham and cheese - delicious!

It was nearly midnight when we returned to our boat.  To our dismay, we discovered that we were moored a mere twenty feet directly opposite a busy nightclub.  Our cabin was straight across from an outdoor dance floor and the disco music blasted us with a decibel volume that was ear splitting.  Even the glass in our portholes was vibrating!

Katie quickly tracked down Martin and insisted he move us.  He offered to let us use a vacant cabin on the lower deck - we were hesitant at first - but after spending another half hour having our eardrums shattered, we headed down below.  What a relief!  My ears were still ringing when I finally dozed off well past 1 AM!

 

September 5-6, 2013: Korcula to Dubrovnik


After spending a short night deep in the bowels of the ship, Teresa and I dragged ourselves up to the dining room for a caffeine fix.  By the time we pulled away from the port of Hvar our cobwebs had cleared and we were eagerly anticipating the four hour cruise to the island of Korcula.  There was a steady breeze under a cloudless sky as we headed south.

Around 11 or so, the boat slid into a sheltered cove and came to a stop, and nearly every passenger on board jumped into the clear waters of the Aegean, frolicking and floating in the buoyant salty water for almost an hour.  There was plenty of time afterward to read and relax in the sun on the upper deck as we sailed along.

The quiet afternoon was broken up only by lunch, another five course culinary event featuring pasta and seafood and highlighted with mussels.  At 4 PM we disembarked at the west harbor of Korcula and Martin guided us through this ancient peninsula town built in the fifteenth century.  The layout of the old town was unusual in that it is organized in a herring bone pattern, with a central thoroughfare and streets branching out toward the sea in either direction.   Along the western side the streets are straight so that the summer ocean breeze can cool the town, but along the eastern side the streets are curved so that the cold northeast winter wind is minimized.  Martin explained that the town of Korcula claims to be the birthplace of Marco Polo - this didn't make sense at first because he was obviously not Croatian, but Martin pointed out that back then, Korcula was a part of Italy. 

(By the way, Teresa whispered to me during the tour that every time someone mentioned the name Marco, she wanted to shout "Polo".)

Afterward we meandered through the narrow side streets, just looking, before finally spotting Katie and Fred plunked down at a table overlooking the water's edge, where we joined them in admiring the incredible ocean view that got enhanced by several icy beers, and a little later on, by a couple of pizzas.

Martin had told us of a special performance at 9 PM this evening of the Moreska sword dance - apparently this has been performed by the townspeople of Korcula for hundreds of years - it tells the story of the red king and the black king and their two armies, fighting for the love of a princess.  We headed to the venue to take in the performance - an unusual outdoor theater that was enclosed on all sides by towering limestone walls.

There was a lot of marching and dancing accompanied by fancy swordplay as the two armies battled it out, until the black king finally surrendered and the red king claimed the damsel.  It was quite authentic and fun to watch!

We returned to our boat which was now docked in the east harbor - Teresa and I ended up getting on the wrong vessel and couldn't find our cabin - we were wondering who all these strange people were when we finally realized our mistake!  After we found our boat we spent a mercifully quiet evening on the upper deck, and when we returned to our cabin we found two tipping envelopes discreetly left on our beds, a reminder that the end of the cruise was near!

It was a short sail after breakfast to the fishing town of Trstenik, which is known primarily as the home of the Grgich Winery.  There, we were given a short tour and the opportunity to taste several wines-a bit early for wine tasting (in my opinion) - but what was most fascinating was the owner's personal history.  His name is "Mike" Grgich - he is now ninety years old - but he was a young refugee from communist Yugoslavia in 1956 when he arrived in California.  He spent the better part of the 1960's and 70's trying to create world-class wines for several Napa Valley wineries until, in 1976, one of his wines took first place in the renowned Paris international competition.  The movie Bottle Shock (with Chris Pine) is based on his story.

After leaving the winery we headed back out to sea - but first a swim break behind the stern of the boat - I noticed that the water had become much warmer as we headed south.  Lunch on board, then a final swim stop mid-afternoon as we approached Dubrovnik.  We were lounging on the top deck in our swimsuits with most of the other passengers as the boat sailed into the harbor, then we docked at the port of Gruz where we'd started one week ago.

Later in the evening we were joined on the rear lower deck by the entire crew for a farewell gathering - Martin gave a short speech thanking everyone for being such "fun" passengers - it must seem odd to the crew - saying farewell every Friday evening then welcoming a new group every Saturday evening.  Jelena, our hostess and table server, told us that ours was the thirteenth cruise for them this season.

As the sun went down, the twinkling of lights from ships in the harbor and from the shore cast reflections on the water - it looked like a postcard photo!  After dark there was some serious dancing and partying, then just before heading down to our cabin to pack we bade our farewells to our fellow passengers.

 

September 7, 2013: The Montenegro Tour - MIA

 

As I'd arranged a week ago, we were picked up at 7:45 AM by Gabriel who introduced himself as our driver and guide for our day tour to Montenegro.  We were soon joined by half a dozen other travelers, all women. 

Gabriel explained that we'd be driving about two hours to Kotor with a stop at the Montenegro border as well as a stop for photos.  At the border we were greeted by a dour customs agent who wordlessly flipped through our passports then waved us through.  While driving, Gabriel chatted about the region and its history although I noticed that nearly everyone was dozing - I tried to listen but pretty soon my eyes fluttered shut as well.  I figured I'd pay closer attention during the tour.

It was nearly eleven when we got to Kotor, a small city built against a hillside and overlooked by a walled fortification with several watch towers.  We followed Gabriel on foot to the main gate stopping at a tourist kiosk where he obtained maps and passed them around.  Then, much to my surprise he told us to have a look around and to meet him back at the car at one o'clock.  As he walked away Teresa leaned over and commented "I thought this was a tour."  "So did I" I replied, puzzled.  "I wonder if I mis-read the brochure."  But I didn't have it with me to check so we made the best of it, starting with a walk along the front wall facing the main road - there was a farmer's market with stands offering fresh fruit and vegetables as well as fish and cheese, so we bought a few items to snack on.

We entered the walled city but weren't really sure where to go.  We followed several narrow alleys and emerged in front of a cathedral where apparently a wedding was in progress.  I didn't have a copy of Lonely Planet or Frommers and the map had no information, so I had no clue as to the significance of this church.  Further along we found an entrance to the walls and fortress up top - Gabriel had mentioned in the car that there was a hike to the top that took about 45 minutes and cost 3€ - I wasn't sure if we had enough time, and the temperature was heating up, so we didn't attempt it but I'm sure that we would have planned to do so had we known there would be no tour.

It was shortly after noon and we were not sure what to do or where to go.  There were various touristy shops but we really had no interest in shopping and nothing else caught our attention, so we headed back to the main road to wait - I was still perplexed over the lack of a tour.

Gabriel showed up just before one, but before he led us back to the car he asked if we had liked Kotor - I didn't know what to say - he was pleasant and didn't strike me as dishonest or stupid.  Maybe there's just not much to see here, I thought to myself - perhaps Budva will be better.

It was another hour's drive to Budva.  Gabriel parked the car and we followed him through a central plaza, emerging near a beach and what appeared to be a walled fortress.  Gabriel pointed to it and told us that the enclosed area was the old town, but that it was destroyed in an earthquake in 1971 and everything inside had been reconstructed.  He told us that a walk along the top of the wall would take about fifteen minutes and that there was a small museum within the fortress that cost 3€, but there really wasn't much to see, he added.

We followed him to a restaurant by the beach and he said he was going to have lunch there and we were welcome to join him.  If not, we could meet him back at the car at 4:30 - we could go to the beach and swim if we wanted, he said. 

No tour - again!  Had I misunderstood what I signed up for?  A guided tour of Kotor and Budva?  It seemed unlikely - I would have to find the brochure - now I was irritated.  Why would I want to sit on the beach and swim here?  I had just gotten off a boat after sailing and swimming for a week in the clear blue waters along the coast of Croatia! 

For lack of anything to do and no other information to rely upon, Teresa and I sat down at a table by the beach and had two beers.  The beach was cruddy and unappealing and we were getting hot and sticky.  We finished our drinks and walked to the old town where we climbed to the top of the wall.  We stopped at the fortress - there was a fee of 3€ to get in but we weren't sure if there was anything worth seeing so we passed on it. 

As before, there were a number of tourist shops but nothing we were interested in.  We walked toward the beach on the far side of the fortress.  Again, not much to see.

Were we missing something, I asked myself.  Had we wasted most of our day driving here?  I just didn't know.  We stopped at a self-serve restaurant and had a couple of gyros, then returned to the car where Gabriel enthusiastically asked if we'd enjoyed the day!  I shrugged - I didn't know what to make of this.

It was nearly seven when we were dropped off at our hotel.  On the drive back I had finally fished the brochure from my backpack and reviewed the description of this tour.  It definitely described two guided tours of Kotor, then Budva, which we had clearly not gotten.  As we departed, Gabriel waited expectantly for a tip.  He didn't get it and looked disappointed.  I sure as hell wasn't going to throw good money after bad.

When we got settled into our room I went down to reception and a very helpful young woman provided details on how to get back to the airport tomorrow.

After giving the events of the day some more thought, I fired off an e-mail to Amico Tours and demanded a refund.  We'll see what they say, although I'm not holding my breath.  I also posted a review on TripAdvisor which you can read here.

 

September 8, 2013: Dubrovnik to Paris

 

We are off to Paris today!  Our long awaited encounter with croissants, chocolate éclairs and red wine is at hand!

The airport shuttle bus picked us up promptly at 12:10 and whisked us to the airport.  It was an easy transition and before long we were winging it to Paris on Croatia Airlines.  Who knew they even had an airline?

We arrived at Charles DeGaulle Airport just before 5 PM.  Can you believe this was our first time at this airport?  I've lost count of how many people have told me that this place is a nightmare to navigate!  But we made our way to the RER station and quickly found our train to Paris.  Easy!  The train was empty - thank goodness it was a Sunday night!

Then suddenly, at the third stop, a horde of Parisians crowded onto the train until it was standing room only!  A drug-addled woman carrying a little girl, demanded that Teresa move her bags, and after settling next to her, both of them proceeded to cough and sneeze incessantly in her face.  Then, to make matters worse, she smacked her child who started wailing, so she smacked her again!  We sat there trapped with this abusive woman for thirty minutes, and when we finally got to our top we had to push and shove to get to the exit doors.

When we checked in just after 7 PM, our room was ready and we flopped exhausted onto our bed.

The Hotel Argenson is the same hotel where we stayed with our children during our Grand Tour of Europe in 1994.  Back then, pre-Internet, I had made the reservation by snail mail, waiting more than two weeks for a reply!  Times sure have changed.  We even have an 8 by 10" photo of our family taken in front of the hotel in 1994!

We had our first authentic Parisian meal in more than a decade at a busy bistro a short walk from our hotel on Rue Haussman.   I had a toasted goat cheese and ham sandwich with salad and fries and Teresa enjoyed the most massive omelet I've ever seen, and we washed it all down with a bottle of Bordeaux!

 

September 9, 10 & 11, 2013: Paris in 3 days

 

Monday  

A knock at the door signaled that breakfast was served, as a tray of coffee, croissants and a baguette was delivered to our room.  When Teresa and I first arrived in Paris in 1982, breakfast was always included with your stay - it was one of the unique features about traveling in France.  Unfortunately it's now the exception rather than the rule.

Teresa flung open our French doors and the sounds of the city invaded our room.  The sky was overcast but there was no rain so we made a plan to spend the day walking around Paris - first, the Champs Elyseé and the Tuilleries, then the Left Bank and the Ile de la Cité, and perhaps a museum later in the day.  Tomorrow we'd take the train to Giverny to see Claude Monet's home and the following day we'd check out the Museé Rodin.  Taking an umbrella and our jackets was an afterthought as we optimistically expected the clouds to clear.

As we passed the Elyseé Palace we were lucky enough to catch the changing of the guard but found it a bit puzzling that there seemed to be such a substantial police presence.  Moments later we passed a building with a US flag flying overhead - the U.S. Embassy perhaps?  That might explain why so many police.

Just as we got to the Champs Elyseé by the Place de la Concorde I felt a few drops of rain and noticed that the sky had grown dark.  Teresa popped open the umbrella and as we huddled underneath, the rain began to come down, light at first, then more intense.  We ducked under the canopy of trees lining the garden of the Tuilleries but by the time we got to the Louvre pyramid it was clear that our walking plan was a non-starter.

I quickly scanned my fresh copy of Rick Steves' Paris to see which museums were a possibility. I noticed right away that the Orangerie Museum featured panoramic canvasses by Monet and it was only a short walk from where we'd come - since we were planning to go to Giverny tomorrow this would be a perfect prelude.  

The Monet exhibit that occupied the entire first floor was phenomenal - it is hard to describe the enormous canvasses that engulfed the two huge rooms.  In addition, the lower level had a substantial collection of mostly Impressionist paintings done by a variety of early twentieth century artists.  But when we emerged two hours later the rain had not abated so we huddled under our umbrella once again and scurried back to our hotel.

We shed our wet clothing which took several hours to dry out.  We used the time to catch up on our reading, blogging and posting.  In the early evening, patches of blue sky appeared and we decided to venture out again.  The air was crisp but the rain had stopped so we started walking in the direction of the Eiffel Tower.  As we crossed the Seine we were stunned by the view of the Eiffel Tower against a backdrop of fluffy white clouds and blue sky.  I snapped a slew of photos hoping to capture the remarkable panorama of colors.

We hadn't planned on climbing the Eiffel tower but after circling the four pillars I couldn't restrain myself.  We bought our tickets and began to scale this remarkable structure.  It's hard to believe it was constructed as a temporary exhibit for the Paris world exposition when it was completed in 1889.  It really is an amazing feat of engineering - from the interior it looks like a huge erector set!

Although there was a chilly wind as we ascended to the second level, I was sweating profusely.  It was getting dark and the city below began to be illuminated by the twinkling of lights extending to the horizon.  We took in the spectacular views of Paris from various observation points while I tried to capture what we saw with my well-worn Canon.

Later, back on the ground, it was getting late, and with only a few restaurants still open we made our way to the same bistro where we'd had dinner the night before and had a quick bite before heading back to our hotel.

Tuesday

I'd checked on-line late last night for train departures to Vernon, the nearest stop to Giverny, Claude Monet's home and gardens.  As far as I could tell, there was some kind of work slowdown, i.e., strike, at SNCF - what else is new?  Striking is the national pastime (after eating).  It looked like a few trains were still running - there was a departure at 12:20 PM that would work.  I wanted to get to the station (St. Lazare) early though - we'd have to buy our tickets at the counter since the automatic ticket machines only accepted chip and PIN charge cards.  Teresa's friend from work, Terry D., had warned us about this problem and to expect a long line at the ticket counter.  Just before we left Teresa called Citi and was told they now had chip and PIN cards available for Europe travel - we'll make sure we have one next time.

As expected, the line was very long, but after waiting half an hour an agent asked all passengers for the 12:20 train to Vernon to come forward, which we did.  We got our ticket with plenty of time to spare, fifteen minutes!

It was a short ride to Vernon, forty minutes - we waited longer than that in line to get our tickets!  A bus was waiting in front of the Vernon station and whisked us to Monet's estate in fifteen minutes.

For various reasons we'd never made it here on previous visits to Paris.  There's just so much to see in Paris proper - museums, monuments, etc., so this was a high priority and we were not disappointed.  As you enter there is a gift shop that occupies the whole space that served as Monet's studio.  The entire ceiling is a skylight that allowed Monet to paint by natural light. 

We exited to the gardens - even in September the flowers and foliage was spectacular.  I took pictures of flowers I'd never before seen.  We traversed a walkway under a road and emerged at Monet's famous water lily pond - suffice to say it was stunning.  Having seen so many of Monet's renditions of this place, seeing it in real life was a genuinely moving experience.

We took as many photos as we could in the hope that perhaps a few would capture some of the pond's vibrant colors.  Even as we watched, dark clouds moved in overhead, and we could see the changes in their reflections on the pond that Monet had captured so well.

After feasting our eyes, we entered his home which has been restored and maintained exactly as it was when he died nearly 90 years ago.  Again, it was remarkable.  Just outside the house there was a chicken enclosure - apparently he got his eggs fresh for breakfast every morning.  The study was lined with works of art not just by Monet but many of his contemporaries.  The dining room was light yellow with a table that seated twelve.  The kitchen had a massive wood stove and rows of copper pots and other cooking implements hanging from the walls.  Each room had a fireplace - clearly this was how the home was heated in winter.

When we returned to the Vernon train station we found that several trains to Paris had been cancelled, so we took a short walk through the town and stumbled upon the Rose Patisserie - it was a sign - we encountered chocolate éclairs one only dreams of!  Across from the station we sidled up to a bar for a glass of Stella (for me) and a glass of Bordeaux (for Teresa).

By the time the train arrived there was a huge crowd and we pushed and shoved for our seats - it was standing room only as the train departed - not many rail options today!

It was nearly 7 PM when we emerged from the Gare St. Lazare.  Heading toward our hotel we found a bistro on Rue Haussman where, accompanied by a half liter of Bordeaux, we ordered dinner.  Unfortunately, the free range chicken Teresa ordered was tough and stringy and barely edible (although I fared better with my plat de veau), so we stopped at Monoprix on the way back to get some fruit and snacks.

Wednesday

We laid in bed and enjoyed our coffee and croissants once again.  The sky was overcast and there was a stiff north wind but we were resolved to walk and see as much of  Paris as possible today.

Exiting our hotel, almost immediately we encountered a heavily armed police presence, and as we again passed the palace and (what I thought was) the U.S. Consulate, we suddenly realized the reason.  Today is the anniversary of 9/11.

Our first stop was the Museé Rodin, the museum of Auguste Rodin, another Paris landmark that we'd never made it to during previous trips.  I really wanted to see Rodin's famous masterpiece Le Penseur - The Thinker.  This bronze monument, one of several copies that the artist had cast, was located in front of the mansion, formerly the Hotel Biron, where notable artists of his time rented work space and which he eventually purchased and occupied as his home in his later years.  Teresa was kind enough to indulge me as I sat at the base of the monument,  "thinking", although this really felt like something that Christopher should be doing.

The mansion consisted of a dozen small rooms on two levels filled mostly with Rodin's sculptures, some very elaborate and some only partly completed.  Some sculptures had dark themes and Teresa thought they evoked an eerie feeling.

We entered the gardens at the rear - there were more statues, nearly all were bronze casts - some were duplicates of those we'd seen inside.  Apparently Rodin often cast multiple copies of his works, then numbered and signed each of them.  The garden was well appointed but simple - certainly no comparison to that of Monet.

We made our way along the left bank of the Seine toward the Ile de France, and browsed at the canopy-covered stalls of used booksellers - apparently they have been selling used books and other memorabilia here for more than a century. 

We admired Notre Dame Cathedral - it was the first time we'd seen it without it being covered in scaffolding - it must have taken more than twenty years to fully restore the exterior - there had been scaffolding when we first saw it in 1982, then again the last time we were here in 2000!  But we decided climbing to the tower was no longer obligatory - we figured we'd climbed it enough times for one lifetime!

We crossed the river then walked along the Rue de Rivoli that follows opposite the Louvre on the right bank.  We steered clear of a demonstration in progress having no idea what it was about.  The sidewalks were packed with tourists as well as locals heading home from work.  We pressed through the crowds, glancing in the windows of both designer outlets and tourist shops.

We found an interesting looking café along a side street and decided to have a late lunch (or perhaps an early dinner) as it was nearly 5 PM.  We shared a goat cheese salad and a grilled meat platter accompanied by a half bottle of Cote du Rhone rouge.  Afterward, we followed the Rue de l'Opera to the Galleries Lafayette, the huge Parisian Grand Magasin (department store).

After viewing the massive and impressive inner domed atrium we spent some time in the children's department and toy section, then took the escalator to the top floor where we scaled a flight of stairs and emerged on an outdoor terrace.  It provided another great view of the city and the adjacent Opera House, though we didn't last long because of the icy north wind.

Returning to the hotel we asked for our coffee to be brought to us at 7AM, then packed as much as we could.  With the airport shuttle pick-up scheduled for 7:30 I set the alarm for 6:45 as a precaution.    

 

                  September 12-14, 2013: Montreux, Zermatt & the Matterhorn

 

Thursday

We awoke with a start at the knock on our door.  I glanced at my watch on the night table - 7:03 AM.  Shit, we'd slept right through the alarm!  Teresa jumped out of bed to take the tray from the maid.

It was a mad scramble - finish packing, take a shower, drink coffee, settle bill.  I don't think I ever mentioned that our room was on the fifth floor and serviced by one phone booth sized elevator that could carry only one person and two pieces of luggage at a time.

I was in the lobby at 7:30 AM while Teresa waited for the elevator to return to the fifth floor.  Fortunately the shuttle was several minutes late so we didn't keep anyone waiting.

En route to the airport, the driver asked us what flight we were on.  A moment after I told him he replied "But zat flight ees cancel!"  What!  Teresa and I exchanged nervous glances.  What would we do?

As soon as we were dropped off we anxiously scanned the terminal for the Air France counter.  We spotted it but there was a long line.  An Air France representative seemed to be monitoring the progress of the line so we approached her and asked about our cancelled flight.  "But of course, we weel poot you on ze earlier flight!"  She escorted us to the front of the line and spoke to an agent, and a few minutes later we had our boarding passes for the 10:35 flight - good thing we were early!

Arriving in Geneva at noon, we made a beeline to the train station next to the terminal.  Teresa spotted a Swiss Rail travel office and after a brief wait, an agent sat us down to review our itinerary and determine what rail pass we needed.  We settled on a three day Swiss Saver Flexipass plus two tickets on the next train to Montreux.  I'd been expecting sticker shock but was still surprised when the bill came to 510 Swiss francs, about US $530.  The Swiss are consummate pros when it comes to separating you from your money!

The ride from Geneva to Montreux was little more than an hour and our hotel was a relatively short walk from the station.  After checking in, my plan was to hit Chillon Castle, located about two miles down from the hotel along the shoreline.  It was nearly 4 PM when we strolled up to the castle entrance, plenty of time to see it before its 7 PM closing time.  It didn't look all that big from the street so I figured about an hour to have a look.

But I hadn't appreciated what a massive structure it was, jutting out from the shoreline, and how much there was to see.  The castle was built in the 13thcentury and gradually enlarged over several hundred years.  A self-guided tour presented a fascinating historical perspective regarding the different ethnic groups that controlled the region up until the creation of the Swiss Republic in the 19th century.  We exited just before it closed.

The town was very quiet as we searched for a restaurant for dinner - although it was only 8 PM, the shops were shuttered tight and we encountered only a handful of open restaurants.  One was extremely busy, every seat taken - it was basically just a pizzeria - not really our preference, but with few options we headed inside. 

An elderly gentleman with a limp was directing the other workers so we assumed he was the owner.  But the place was so busy he waited on us personally - and we ordered what proved to be an excellent vegetarian pizza with a salad to share, along with wine and beer. 

After eating there wasn't much to do so we headed back to our hotel.

Friday

No breakfast in bed this morning but the in-room kettle served us well for making coffee.  We walked down to the CGN dock in anticipation of traversing Lake Geneva by boat.  During the hour before the boat arrived we browsed the Friday flea market where we haggled with a stubborn Swiss woman who was holding hostage a used beer mug and several used wine tasting glasses that we wanted.  Teresa finally got her down to 14 francs (from 16) but she refused to budge on the beer mug so I finally capitulated and gave her the 8 francs she was demanding!

We boarded the boat which circumnavigated the east end of Lake Geneva and eventually docked at the town of Saint Gingolf on the French side, then crossed back over to the town of Vevey on the Swiss side.  The air was crisp and the scenery spectacular.

We docked at Vevey about 90 minutes later, then immediately boarded another boat heading for Lausanne along the northwest shoreline, stopping at several villages along the way.  We passed the LaVaux vineyards that started down by the water and stretched upward into the surrounding hills.  At Lausanne we hopped the Metro, traversed 4 stops, then caught the train back to Montreux. 

We had a little over an hour to get back to our hotel, pick up our luggage, then head back to the station.  We made a quick stop at a grocery store and loaded up on bread, cheese and meat, then boarded the 5:38 train for Brig, where we switched to another train heading south to Zermatt.  We arrived just past nine and made our way down the main street - it was still crowded and almost everyone was walking - no cars are allowed in Zermatt although there are small electric taxis for hire.  Our hotel wasn't far from the station and we were impressed - it was well-appointed with hardwood floors and a huge bed with down pillows.   Then we had a late picnic dinner in our room with the groceries we'd bought earlier.

Saturday

The day had finally arrived - the big hike!  This is why we are in Zermatt.  There are really only two reasons why anybody comes here:  skiing and hiking.  Our hotel, the Beau Rivage, actually closes during the off-season, May and June, and October and November.  There are over 100 hotels in this resort town with a permanent population of 5,600.  The hike I'd chosen several months ago after reading online reviews of the available options is called the Hohenweg Hohbalmen and is an eleven mile loop that ostensibly can be done in about seven hours.  It is reputed to be one of the ten best hikes in all of Switzerland.

Teresa had been fretting about the distance and wanted to get an early start just in case the hike took us longer, so we hit the breakfast room as soon as it opened at 7:30 AM.  I would characterize the hotel décor as rustic elegance - definitely one of the nicest hotels we've ever stayed in.  Breakfast was traditional alpine - eggs, cheese, sliced meats, yogurt, muesli and fruit. 

We packed a lunch of cheese, fruit and bread and quickly found the trailhead located just off the main road.  It started out quite steep and within half an hour we were looking way down at the town.  The descriptions I'd read had suggested (to me) a gradual ascent - this was anything but!  We slogged upward, ever higher, for the next hour, then stopped to rest at a tiny pension next to the trail. 

The trail had been filled with hikers when we started and we were not surprised when more than a few turned back.  We expected the trail to level off but instead we encountered a series of steep switchbacks that took us another hour to navigate before finally reaching a plateau.  As it was nearly 1 PM we decided to rest and have lunch - we were surrounded by snow-capped peaks and the sky was mostly clear with a few wispy clouds.  I'd been perspiring while hiking but quickly cooled off-the weather was perfect!

We discussed how much more difficult this hike was proving to be - not the "moderate" level of exertion that so many reviewers had referenced.  This was a strenuous hike and we were thankful we had done some dedicated preparation last month. 

We hiked for another hour - the trail was mostly level - I couldn't imagine that we could get much higher as the surrounding peaks were at eye level.  There was a sharp turn and a slight rise in the trail, and then it magically materialized - the Matterhorn!  It was awesome and I was mesmerized.  Oddly, my first thought was how closely it resembled the Matterhorn at Disneyland!  Almost simultaneously Teresa exclaimed "OMG... Walt Disney brought all the best of Europe to Disneyland!"

We continued to marvel at the sight of this incredible mountain, and as we hiked past the North Face, our viewing angle changed and the rock face became so steep it was almost menacing.  For two more hours the mountain was right there hovering over us, until we finally began our descent into the valley and eventually found ourselves at the outskirts of Zermatt.  Our backs were aching and our feet were sore - it had taken us seven hours and fifteen minutes to complete the loop.

We stopped at a store and bought some more groceries, then at the train station where I purchased a reservation for the Glacier Express for tomorrow.

Back at the hotel we collapsed onto our bed, exhausted.  It took a major effort to eventually get cleaned up but a hot shower never felt so good!

At 8 PM we took the elevator just outside our room on the second level above the street, to the hotel restaurant on the second level below the street.  When the elevator doors slid open we were confronted with a totally packed dining room - every table was occupied by well-dressed diners, apparently all locals!

As we entered the room via the elevator (rather than the main entrance opposite us), the hostess approached us and brusquely asked "Do you have a reservation?"  Clearly she was ready to show us to the exit.  "No, but we are guests of the hotel" I replied, playing my trump card.  "Oh!"  She hesitated then told us to follow her and she seated us at the only unoccupied table in the place, right next to the wood-burning grill.

Our waitress was running around serving at least half a dozen other tables and seemed perturbed at our intrusion into her space, especially when she was so busy.  She brought us menus then disappeared.

Clearly this was the place to be on a Saturday night in Zermatt:  Chez Max Julen - the hotel's owner and restaurateur -- former 1984 Olympic gold medallist for skiing.  It was only because of our status as his guests that we were being accommodated, which was fine with us.  The atmosphere, as at breakfast, was rustic elegance.  Teresa ordered a bottle of wine and we decided to try the daily special, beef brochettes in gravy with risotto and mixed vegetables (carrots, peas, broccoli and cauliflower).  It was delicious and we felt decadent, especially when we finished our meal and took the hotel elevator straight up to our room!

 

 

September 15-17: Zermatt to London and home!

 

Sunday

The sky was overcast today and threatening rain - what a difference from yesterday!  We were so lucky to have had a perfect day for our hike.

I'd been reading about the special Swiss panorama trains and thought today would be a good day for a train ride.  The Glacier Express runs from Zermatt and traverses the mountains toward St. Moritz, taking about eight hours travel time. 

I'll admit there seemed to be a lot of hype, with such fanciful sounding names as the Bernini Express, the Golden Pass Line and the Chocolate Train, and descriptions of coach cars with expansive windows for viewing as well as gourmet food service.

So I reserved seats on the Glacier Express from Zermatt to Disentis, the mid-point of the journey, expecting to return to Zermatt later in the day on a regular train.  In retrospect, it's not clear what I was expecting... spectacular views of the mountains and countryside I imagine. 

This turned out to be a bad decision.  Not only did the train proceed at a glacial pace, much slower than any other train we'd been on, but there just wasn't much to see.  For the first two hours I honestly expected it to get better.  Unfortunately it never did, and by the time I realized that this was a complete bust, we'd been riding for four hours ... and when we finally made it back to Zermatt it was after 8 PM.

The wind was icy as we searched the town for an open restaurant - not many options late on a Sunday night.  We were getting quite chilled when we spotted the warm glow of a busy restaurant in which to take refuge, and the pork chops, schnitzel and cold beer proved to be the day's saving grace.

Monday

After having breakfast we had several hours to explore the shops along the main street and do some last-minute shopping before catching our late morning train to Geneva.  There was an outdoor market with some interesting items that we hadn't seen anywhere else, but most of the shops were stocked with standard hiking and skiing gear.  One shop sold traditional cuckoo clocks that captured our attention, and we discussed whether or not we could get one home intact and if so, where we would put it - eventually we ended up taking a pass on it. 

We arrived back at the Geneva airport just after 4 PM and although our flight was delayed we made it to our Heathrow hotel on Bath Road just after 8 PM.  It had a cozy restaurant where I enjoyed a generous portion of fish and chips while Teresa had a chicken curry, all washed down with cold British ale.

Tuesday

The Hopper bus arrived at 7 AM to take us back to the airport where we checked in to our flight without any problem.  We boarded a new Boeing 777 with an elaborate video-on-demand system that kept us completely absorbed for the next 10 hours.  

Nothing beats sleeping in your own bed after a long trip, and this one sure went by quickly!