As past readers know, I’ve been documenting our recent travel experiences through a series of blog posts. (The most recent of these was Pat and Dave’s Eclectic Electric Road Trip, describing our travels in April and May of 2022, from Minneapolis to St. George, UT, and back again with our Tesla Model Y.) Now, just a scant four months later, here I go again, this time regaling readers with a totally different type of travel adventure.
First, a bit of explanation regarding the title: “Pat and Dave’s Post-Covid Continental Caper.” I think the “Pat and Dave” part is pretty self-explanatory, but new readers may not know that “Pat” is my lovely wife of 43 years and “Dave” is a world-famous writer of mystery novels, otherwise known as “me.” The “Post-Covid” part refers to the fact that we originally intended to go on this trip in 2020 but had to cancel due to the Covid 19 pandemic. We booked it again for 2021, but again had to cancel. This time we decided to go ahead with it, armed (literally) with five vaccinations each during the intervening years and a box of N95 masks. The “Continental” part refers to the European Continent, in that jaunty way that urbane world travelers such as Pat and I toss around travel terms. The “Caper” part was obviously selected to form a catchy, alliterative title, but after three years of banishment by Covid it did indeed feel like a real caper.
OK, so let’s get on with it, shall we? The trip was sponsored by Viking River Cruises, the number one rated river cruise company in the world according to their marketing materials – a claim no doubt intended to justify the rather steep prices they charge. We had taken a Viking cruise on the Danube back in 2014 (before I started travel blogging) so we knew that Viking is a quality travel company. I won’t quote the price in the article since you can go look at the Viking web site if interested, but I will say that both Pat and I feel we got excellent value for the money we spent. I will also add that Viking was very good about all the cancelling and rebooking; each time we cancelled we received a voucher for 125% of what we had paid for the original booking, so we ended up with a little more to spend on the trip as compensation for the two-year delay. (We elected to use the extra amount to upgrade our room from the lower-deck “steerage” class to a fancier one on the main deck with a little balcony, which we really enjoyed.)
The trip began with a Lyft ride to MSP International Airport at 9 AM on Monday, September 12. I won’t bore you with details of the plane ride except for a few quick observations. First, air travel sucks, in my humble opinion. After shuffling sheep-like through the TSA security line, followed by two hours of thumb twiddling at MSP, we boarded a United plane for a one-hour flight to Chicago O’Hare. Then we had another two-hour wait at a Lufthansa gate for a flight to Frankfurt, immediately adjacent to another Lufthansa gate for a flight to another German city scheduled to depart 30 minutes prior to ours. People continued to cram into the space between the two gates trying to hear the sporadic announcements from Lufthansa, which were mostly drowned out by general O’Hare announcements about parking, baggage vigilance, and other sundry issues that were mundane and irrelevant to our specific boarding instructions. Also, our tickets did not have a “Zone” indicated, so we were not sure what line to get in.
Thankfully, after all this pandemonium, we found ourselves safely on board the plane, watching movies and eating snacks, dinner, and breakfast as we crossed the Atlantic. Thankfully, the transfer in Frankfurt to our flight to Geneva on Swiss Air was much calmer. Interestingly, both Lufthansa and Swiss Air required masks on the planes, while the United flight to Chicago did not. When we arrived in Geneva, the legendary Viking customer service began, as we were greeted by a Viking representative who escorted us and our luggage (along with about ten other Viking guests arriving from various locations) to a bus that took us to the Mandarin Oriental Hotel in Geneva, where the “Continental Caper” officially began. So, with all this introductory stuff finally out of the way, the narrative begins!
Sep 13 (Tuesday): The first part of the trip involved travel by land through Switzerland, and the first two days were spent in Geneva. The Mandarin Oriental Hotel is located directly across the street (Quai Turrettini) from the Rhone River. The first thing we did upon arrival was to stroll along the river to get a feel for the city and find a place to eat lunch. We saw many interesting buildings along the way, as well as a large fountain called the Jet d’Eau that spouts 360 gallons per second of water some 460 feet in the air, a sight that can be seen from almost any point in the city. Perhaps the most interesting spot was the Brunswick Monument, a tomb built in 1879 to commemorate the Duke of Brunswick in exchange for bequeathing his fortune to the city. Nice way to cement one’s legacy, I’d say. We ate at a Lebanese restaurant before returning to the hotel via the narrow streets away from the riverfront boulevard, also discovering a local food market along the way. Our total walk covered 1.6 miles according to Google, and we were very impressed by the cleanliness and old-world charm of the area. Following a Tuesday evening briefing from our Viking hosts, we went to the hotel reception desk to obtain a free pass for riding the city trams and buses before retiring early.
Sep 14 (Wednesday): In the morning, we joined the Viking group for a bus tour of Geneva, during which we saw sights such as the United Nations European headquarters, the International Red Cross/Red Crescent, and the famous “broken chair” peace sculpture. We debarked in a large park near the old town of Geneva for a 1.6 mile walking tour. Along the way, we saw a large wall dedicated to key figures of the Reformation era before stumbling into a ceremony celebrating new police academy graduates, then strolled through charming, narrow lanes before returning to the wide boulevard by the Rhone to see a lovely flower clock. After the tour, we walked back to a nice café near the Brunswick Monument for lunch, then to the English Garden along the Rhone before rejoining the Viking group for a boat cruise on Lake Geneva (officially known as Lac Leman). With a total area of 224 square miles and a maximum depth of 1020 ft, the lake is quite large, its semicircular shape straddling the border between Switzerland to the north and a thumblike projection of France to the south. Our boat tour only covered a small portion within the city of Geneva itself, but we were treated to panoramic views of the city and a close encounter with the Jet d’Eau.
After the official Viking tours were done, we used our free tram pass to travel some four miles west from Geneva to Meyrin, where we visited the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN). CERN operates the world’s largest supercollider, though we were not able to visit that. We did spend an hour or so in a free museum building with several interactive displays about particle physics. These were fascinating, informative, and more than a bit over our heads, but we really did enjoy the place.
Sep 15 (Thursday): After breakfast on Thursday morning, we boarded a bus and drove east along the northern edge of Lake Geneva to Lausanne, where we stopped to visit the International Olympic Museum. I thought this was going to be a bit silly, but I was wrong. The museum is built into a hill overlooking Lake Geneva, including about five levels with all sorts of displays documenting the history of the Olympics. There are extensive details about each and every one of the modern Games from 1896 in Athens to 2022 (the 2020 games) in Tokyo. We were able to see such things as: the torches, with film clips of the torch carriers (even one carrying the torch over the ski jump in Oslo and one with an exchange of the torch between hang gliders in Australia); film clips of the opening ceremonies; Jesse Owens dominating the 1936 Olympics in Berlin; Paavo Nurmi, the Flying Finn, leaving the pack far behind in Paris in 1924 with five gold medals and carrying the torch in 1954 in Helsinki; equipment donated by various Olympians, including Rafael Nadal’s shoes (a particular thrill for Pat); and much more than I could ever list. The grounds are also well-kept and quite beautiful, with stunning views of Lake Geneva, immaculate topiary, and inspirational sculptures. I left the place with a newfound respect for the ideals embodied by the Olympics, the inspiration they have provided to countless athletes and fans, and the impact the games have had on human history (though I’m still a bit skeptical about the huge amounts of money spent).
After the museum, we set off eastward again along Lake Geneva to a village called Lutry, where we visited the Domaine du Daley winery. This is the oldest commercial establishment in Switzerland, founded in 1392 (a mere 630 years ago!) located in the heart of the terraced vineyards of Lavaux, which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It was a bit of a challenge getting the bus in there since the winery is located on the side of a very steep hill – the grapes need to be hand-picked because mechanized equipment is not feasible with the steeply inclined vineyards. We got a brief tour of the processing facilities and then were treated to lunch and a tasting of three wines from different grape varieties: Chasselas (white), Vieilles Vignes (rose), and Plant Robert (red). All were excellent, and we left the winery with full tummies, a bottle each of the Chasselas and the Plant Robert, and smiles on our faces.
The bus made its way generally eastward, following a winding route through the beautiful Alps as we continued toward Zermatt. Zermatt is a “green city,” with no internal combustion engines allowed, so the bus trip ended in Täsch, where we boarded a shuttle train for the final few miles. As we walked from the train station to the Hotel Schweizerhof, a number of small electric maintenance vehicles went zipping by on the cobblestone street lined with modern businesses of all types. After checking in at the hotel, we joined our Viking host for a walking tour of Zermatt with its narrow lanes, beautiful churches, hotels, homes, and shops, and a lovely park. Of particular interest to me were the houses in the old town, constructed with heavy slate roofs with logs at the eaves to prevent ice or the heavy slate tiles themselves from falling off and damaging a neighbor’s property (which would require payment for damages under Swiss law). Although the town lies at the foot of the famed Matterhorn mountain, we were not able to see it due to low cloud cover. Following the walk, we enjoyed a meal of Fondue and Raclette, the famous local Swiss cheese dishes, before retiring to our hotel room.
Sep 16 (Friday): After breakfast on Friday morning, we walked to the train station and boarded the cog railroad which runs from Zermatt (altitude 5,314 ft) to Gornergrat (altitude 10,132 ft), an observation area with spectacular views of the surrounding mountains. The climb is so steep that an ordinary type train could not possibly traverse it – leave it to those ingenious Swiss engineers to come up with the cog idea. The morning was foggy, and we were resigned to a cloud-obscured trip with only our imaginations to conjure up the vaunted scenery. After all, we were told, clear views of the Matterhorn happen on average only 95 days of the year. But then, about halfway up the track, the train burst out of the clouds and there we saw the Matterhorn in all its splendor! By the time we reached the top shortly before 10 AM, the sky had cleared almost completely, and we walked around with mouths agape at the spectacular views in every direction. In a small museum up there, we learned the story of the first climbers to reach the Matterhorn summit in 1865. Tragically, the least experienced climber fell on the way down, pulling three others to their deaths before the rope tying them all together either broke or was cut, saving the remaining three. (That mystery still has not been answered after all these years.) After nearly two hours of touristing, we shared an apple tart at the Gornergrat café, took a virtual hang glider trip called the ZOOOM (which was really fun), and headed down on the cog railway again at noon.
We stopped at several points on the way down for more sightseeing and for lunch. At the stop called the Riffelsee Photo Point, we got out and walked down a treacherous path to a small lake (the Riffelsee) in which the mighty Matterhorn was reflected for our viewing pleasure. We then clambered up to the train again and rode down to the Riffelhaus Hotel, founded in 1853. After greeting the local mascot at the train stop, we walked to the hotel and had a nice lunch on the veranda with yet another great view of the Matterhorn. One especially neat thing in the hotel is an old, hand-written ledger that lists all the people who have successfully climbed the Matterhorn, kept under glass for protection, of course.
After lunch, we rode the cog railway to Zermatt again, rested up in the hotel for a bit while sipping our Plant Robert wine from the Domaine du Daly, and then headed off to a local church (St. Nikolas) for a concert by the Zermatt City Orchestra, one event of the annual Zermatt Music Festival. The program included a featured trumpet player from Spain for Haydn’s Concerto for Trumpet and Orchestra in E-flat major, a string serenade by Suk, and Mendelssohn’s Symphony No. 1 in C minor featuring the lead cellist. The trumpet player was excellent, and the orchestra was enthusiastic and competent (though no match for the SPCO), and we enjoyed it very much.
Sep 17 (Saturday): After breakfast on Saturday, we again walked to the train station, this time boarding the Glacier Express for our next destination of Chur (pronounced “Koor”). The train ride took approximately six hours, during which we were served a nice lunch and had a couple of opportunities to get off and stretch our legs during brief stopovers. Though there wasn’t much to actually do during the trip, it felt as though we were travelling through a fairy tale land, with mountains all around and picturesque villages nestled in the valleys. The grass was so green and the sky so blue, it almost felt fake – too beautiful to be real – making the journey pleasant and relaxing. At Chur we left the train and boarded another bus for a two-hour drive to Zurich. Again, not much happening, but the scenery was beautiful, the mountains gradually falling away as we began to follow alongside the Rhine River. We arrived at the Renaissance Zurich Tower Hotel shortly after 5:30 and, after settling into our room, walked to a nearby restaurant for dinner. It was an odd choice – The Brisket Southern BBQ – but at least I had a Swiss beer.
Sep 18 (Sunday): After breakfast, we had a brief bus ride to Lake Zurich and then boarded a boat for a cruise on the lake. During the cruise, we saw the Opera House, a popular public park, and then – as we drew further away from the city proper – some of Zurich’s tonier neighborhoods, including the house rented by Tina Turner. We learned that something like 90% of Zurich residents rent rather than buy homes. We saw a huge Lindt chocolate factory, which stimulated my sweet glands. The lake is very scenic, and the cruise was pleasant, although it was a bit chilly due to the wind. After the boat trip, we went on a walking tour of the city, mostly on narrow, cobblestone streets. We saw some beautiful churches (naturally), several interesting squares and fountains, including one where wine is pumped through the fountain during the annual festival, and a large park overlooking the Limmat River where dozens of people were playing bocce ball. Our local guide showed us how to buy tickets for the trams, busses, and water taxis at a machine, so we got one to use after the tour. She also pointed out a nice restaurant (Adler’s Swiss Chuchi) where we could try the local specialty, Zurich-style veal fricassee, as well as fabulous fondue and raclette dishes. After the official tour, we used our transport tickets to ride the water taxi down the river into Lake Zurich and back upriver again. I especially enjoyed how the water taxi had to zig and zag from one side of the river to the other so as to fit beneath the highest open sections of the various bridges. After the taxi ride, we had a LARGE late lunch at the Swiss Chuchi before riding the tram back to the hotel, with no need for dinner.
Sep 19 (Monday): After breakfast, we boarded a bus for about a one-hour trip to Basel. Once we reached Basel, a local guide boarded the bus and provided some commentary as we drove through the city for a while; my pictures during the bus journey were quite lousy as I tried to shoot through the windows, but then we got off and had a walking tour of Basel, starting at an interesting fountain outside the Opera House designed by Jean Tinguely using pieces taken from the original Opera house before it was “modernized.” We viewed the former cathedral, now a Reformed Protestant church. I found it interesting that the Reformers modified the original statue of St. Martin cutting his soldier’s coat and handing half to a beggar – in the new worldview the church should not be “encouraging” beggars, so the man was re-sculpted into a tree stump. We had some nice overlooks of the Rhine before returning to the Tinguely Fountain and reboarding our bus, enroute to our Viking boat.
So, dear readers, I will end Part 1 of the narrative at this point. Here’s a map of our travels through Switzerland.
In Part 2, we will board the boat and begin our journey down the Rhine River, so stay tuned …
2 thoughts on “Pat and Dave’s Post-Covid Continental Caper – PART 1: Switzerland”
Wow! You packed a lot into just the first act of your main event. Can’t wait to read more. So glad you’re finally getting back to Europe.