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Seventeen Days, Six Countries, and a Principality June 5, 2007

Posted by Brian L. Belen in Up and Away.
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Switzerland

Switzerland certainly comes across as a nice, albeit stiff, place to visit. On the minus side, the people are a tad uptight. On the plus side, the country does have an exceedingly majestic ambience, being surrounded by the Alps and all.

Our visit to Switzerland involved a stay in Zurich, a night at St. Moritz (hey, it’s off season!), and a couple of days at Lucerne. If there’s anything that made its impression on me, it’s how amazingly clean their waters are. The rivers, lakes and streams throughout the nation hold glacial water that is unbelievably clear and has a mint-green hue to it. After seeing that, I now appreciate Evian that much more (and yes, I realize that Evian isn’t a Swiss product, but the point is the same).

Another interesting observation is the Euro’s place in the Swiss economy, at least at the “grassroots” level. Switzerland isn’t an European Union nation, so it retains the Swiss Franc (CHF) as its currency. However, stores and restaurants can convert one’s bill to the equivalent amount in Euros. There are limits, though: usually patrons can only pay in Euro bills and not coins, and almost always the change will be in CHF. All the same, it’s very convenient to the weary traveler.

On our penultimate day in Switzerland we had a morning trip to Mt. Pilatus via the world’s steepest cogwheel railway. It so happened that the weather wasn’t cooperating that day, and it was snowing at the very top (so, really, there was no view to behold). While this had the unintended consequence of coating the peaks in a beautiful sheet of white, it was very, very cold. The irony was not lost on me: after spending the semester hating the extended New York winter, there I was running headfirst into the snow.

Oh, on the culinary side, it turns out that Switzerland has the best rosti — basically hashed brown potatos — that I have ever tasted.

Lichtenstein

This would be the principality in question. It turns out that Lichtenstein is quite literally its own little kingdom right between Austria (with which it has a border) and Switzerland (with which it doesn’t).

In an attempt to emphasize how small Lichtenstein is, our tour director began giving routine facts and figures about the principality. For instance, it turns out that the country is represented overseas by Switzerland and has also adopted the CHF as its currency. She also mentioned that Lichtenstein is a tax haven, with a very low income tax (around 1% or so) and purportedly no inflation (which must be one of those tidbits that governments conjure up to sound interesting, because this cannot be the case). When she mentioned that the unemployment rate was only 2%, I jokingly commented that must mean that all but three people have no jobs.

The amusing highlight of our one-hour stop at Lichstenstein was getting our passports stamped. Because we entered through Switzerland, there was no immigration officer to deal with in order to get this done. Rather, this involved queueing up a tourist office kiosk and paying CHF 2 per passport. It’s a very touristy thing to do, but it’s only after the fact that I considered how funny this was: the stamp in question is clearly labeled “Lichtenstein Tourist Office”, which in the grand scheme of things doesn’t mean a single thing!

Germany

Along the way we visited all of two places in Germany: we spent a night in Munich and another at a town called Oberammergau. We didn’t spend much time in either location as we were basically in transit; the German leg of our trip was mostly to view a couple of the castles that King Ludwig II of Bavaria had built. One of these was Neuschwanstein Castle, regarded as the inspiration for Disney’s Cinderella castle.

As an aside, it turns out that Oberammergau is renown for staging a famous passion [of the Christ] play every ten years. I can’t help but wonder how this compares with the holy week activities that take place in the Philippines.

Austria

Highlights from the Austrian part of the tour included stops in Innsbruck, Salzburg, and of course Vienna.

I’ve heard that there’s a growing section of the tourist industry that involves visiting locations used in famous movies. “Famous” usually connotes some Hollywood blockbuster (and I can just imagine the tourism that New Zealand must be getting from Lord of the Rings alone). I never thought I’d end up on such a tour, but being in Salzburg we couldn’t help but sign up for an excursion to see some of the sights used from The Sound of Music. Something tells me I should feel slightly pathetic for actually enjoying that, but hey, I grew up watching that film and still quite like it.

But no, we didn’t break out into song.

An interesting thing happened for our two-night stay in Vienna. Our tour group was billetted in the Vienna Hilton, which was fully booked with some major business conference or another. As such, when our tour director began handing our our keys, she informed us that we would be spending the night in a suite. Being a family of four, we didn’t think much of this: by “suite”, we had assumed what she was referring to was a “larger than average” room.

Instead, we lucked out and ended up with the hotel’s presidential suite. At no extra cost.

“Big” doesn’t do justice to the suite: it was huge. It had two separate rooms, two and a half bathrooms, a large foyer, a conference room and kitchen. Easily, the floor area was approximately the six- to eight-times the size of my New York apartment. Suffice it to say that were were very shocked at our good fortune, so much so that we spent our first fifteen minutes there just taking pictures of ourselves in the suite (I won’t bother posting these; suffice it to say that even my family has its moments of weakness).

Naturally, while in Austria we couldn’t help but take in a few cultural shows, and it turns out that yodeling and accordions aren’t as bad as they’re made out to be. I still wonder, however, what it is about being stuck in and around mountains that possessed these people to ever begin yodeling…

Finally, a culinary anecdote: while having dinner at the hotel, I ordered a dish described as “Austrian beef stew with creamed spinach”. I have a thing for creamed spinach (of the variety one gets at a New York steakhouse) and seldom object to beef, so the entreé was the logical choice. When it arrived, with the creamed spinach on the side, it tasted just like nilagang baka, and would have been exactly that if the broth were heated to near boiling hot. Funny how I’d go all the way to Austria to have the first nilaga I’ve eaten in months.

Slovenia

Since we were already in Austria, we had an opportunity to take a day tour to Slovenia. There was one problem: while Slovenia is a European Union nation, it’s not covered by the Schengen accord and thus our visas wouldn’t allow us entry to the country even if we tried.

As such, we made the effort to get a Slovenian visa while we were in Austria, an endeavor that took up the better part of a day. We managed to make it to the embassy with literally minutes to spare before it closed for visa processing in the morning. I presume we must have looked like the strangest group of people asking for a visa: we hadn’t filled out any forms, had no ID pictures for the visa, and actually weren’t sure when the Slovenian trip would be taking place (we just knew it was either the next day or the day after that). Fortunately, the consular officer, though gruff, was able to overlook these shortcomings and overcome his misgivings and issued our visas later that afternoon.

Ironically, the visas cost more than the excursion. Then again, when will we ever have the chance to go to Slovenia?

When all was said and done, we enjoyed a pleasant afternoon around scenic Lake Bled.

Italy

Our tour featured a drive through the Dolomites. On the whole, this mountain range is not nearly as awe-inspiring as the Alps (glacial peaks beat limestone anyday), but does evoke an altogether different sense of majesty. That is, if one can get over staring at yet more rocks.

Because of this part of the trip, we found ourselves in Bolzano, Italy. Apparently, Bolzano is one place with its own little identity crisis: if I understood correctly, Bolzano was originally German then was annexed by Italy, all the while retaining a reasonably heavy Austrian influence.

At this point in our journey, tired with continental European fare, we ditched dinner with our tour group in favor of a meal at a local Chinese restaurant…that also happened to be a pizzeria.

Amsterdam

Following the tour, we spent three nights on our own in Amsterdam.

Upon arrival, my mom and I walked over to our hotel’s concierge to ask what we might be able to do later in the evening so as to maximize our limited time in the city. After giving our query some thought, he pulled out a tour brochure, leafed through it and said “Well, you can catch a tour of the red light district!”. My mom, nonplussed, replied to this “No. We have two young boys with us.”

This taught me three things:

First, one can’t help but admire how Amsterdam has taken prostitution and turned it into, shall we say, a cultural experience.

Second, no matter how old children get — I’m 27, my brother’s practically 18 — their parents will always think of them as too young for certain things. (When I heard my mom’s response to the concierge, I wanted to retort “What do you mean ‘two young boys’? There’s just one and a half!”).

Third, Amsterdam is not the place to visit with one’s parents. No, siree.

Anyway, while we were there we took an afternoon to visit two museums. Both were undergoing renovations, but the main attractions were still on display. The Rijksmuseum featured mostly Rembrandts, particularly the Nightwatch, which is every bit as incredible as it looks in art books. A stone’s throw away was the Van Gogh museum, which has a very well thought-out exhibit of Van Gogh’s works arranged in chronological order and organized to tell the story of his life. This latter one was particularly enjoyable, as I’ve seen Starry Night here at New York’s Museum of Modern Art (where it’s on permanent display).

All things considered, the musem visits were probably the cheapest things we had to pay for. But I liked these the best. This tells me I have an affinity for museums or historical locations more than sightseeing for sightseeing’s sake.

* * *

Having done all that, it’s hard to believe I’ve only been away for seventeen days!

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Comments»

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