Fab times in Switzerland, Austria, Slovakia...

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Where I stayed
At Mathias' Apartment, and in Trev

Flag of Switzerland  , Zürich,
Tuesday, October 19, 2010

19 October 2010

Hi All,

Well we have again had a fantastic couple of weeks, although now the sun is a distant memory. We have had low cloud, mist and rain since the last update, which is a real bummer – but I suppose that is what you get for travelling in autumn. We have made the most of it though, dodging rain drops and at times getting above the mist to find the sun!

We met Mathias and his parents (Walter and Rita) in Benglen at Mathias' childhood home. After a couple of pints with them all, we locked up Trev and Rita dropped us at Mathias’ apartment in Zurich. Well what an understatement that is. Mathias lives right on the banks of the river, overlooking the old town on one side and a touristy/trendy bar area. Talk about location, location, location! We got the flat tour, and admired the amazing view from the roof balcony – very impressive! Also, Mathias’ pride and joy – the monster shower, haha!

From here we caught up with the Swiss team, Alex, Pascal, Thomas and Mathias’ girlfriend Fabianne. We had a great catch up over a few pints, and Mathias’ yum bolognaise! We metro’d into the bar area, and had a bit of a look around a few spots.

On Saturday, we got the guided tour of some great Zurich spots with all, including the Freitag (make bags from old truck tarps) head office, which is a stack of trucking containers hollowed out with a view from the top. From here Manni took over, and gave us the guided tour of the Zurich old town, which was awesome! Saturday night was similar to Friday, with dinner at Mathias’ although this time Thomas wowed us with his culinary skill, thai style.

Sunday was chilled out, with a trip by train up a mountain but alas, that damned mist had moved in and the views were less than ideal. After pizza and movies on Sunday night, we bid farewell, and headed back to the van Monday morning.  A MASSIVE thank you to the swiss gang for looking after us so well – housing us, feeding us, transporting us, and organising us. Choice!

From Zurich, our plans changed a bit, as our other friends in Lausanne (Gill and Christine, who live in the south western French speaking part of Switzerland) managed to wing a week off but it was a week later than originally planned. So that gave us two weeks to fill in. Whilst I’m sure we could have quite happily moved into Mathias’, we decided to head back into Eastern Europe then return to Lausanne. A few more miles, but it allowed us to see some awesome stuff as well as catch up with them.

Our first stop was Lichtenstein, we couldn’t just drive past so we stayed a night in the wonderful stadium carpark! We explored Vaduz, the capital, and scored glimpses of the castle where the royal family lived. The king is pretty awesome, he invites all the Lichtenstenians up to his pad on his birthday and gives them a beer! Good man.

Other than the pretty landscapes, Lichtenstein had nothing else particularly appealing, so we continued on our way through Austria. The landscape here is simply breathtaking. We were on main roads for most of it, which wound through a valley with towering mountains either side, most of which we couldn’t see the tops of as they were in the clouds. Rivers rush past, and locals are all out tending the paddocks, making hay. Very idyllic. As we had seen Innsbruck on our way to Munich, we continued past, and decided to head for a ski area called Kitzbuhl. It sounds ridiculous, but the scenery just got more amazing. We strolled through the town, then the sun came out! Woo!

From Kitzbuhl, we made a bee line for Salzburg, via a small German village called Berchtesgaden. This town is nestled in the very south east corner of Germany, in the mountains, overlooking Austria. One mountain in particular was the drawcard – which was the home of Hitler’s Eagles Nest. Band of Brothers fans will know what I am talking about! This was a present to Hitler from the local mountaineering club, for his 50th. He was a pansy though and didn’t go up there much, for his fear of heights and claustrophobia! The bus ride up most of the way is the original route carved out of solid rock, with near vertical sides this is an engineering marvel in itself. From the bustop at the top, you walk 124m straight into the middle of the mountain, then catch a lift 124m to the Eagles Nest on top. When you arrive at the top, and walk outside the views are simply spectacular. All that mist is now below you, and the sun is beaming down. Visibility continues for upward of 200km, and you can see all the peaks of the mountains near and far. We were truly blown away. It doesn’t seem quite right to say that Hitler was a very lucky man...bring on my 50th I say!!

From Berchtesgaden we hit Salzburg. This is a really beautiful city, and really took us by surprise. It has a lot of classical buildings, domes and a castle overlooking the city on the hill. The Danube River roars through the middle of it. Mozart lived here when he was a young fulla, but couldn’t wait to leave for some reason. Parents ay. We wandered through the town all afternoon, exploring nooks and crannies, following our noses. Keryn found a fountain that seemed oddly familiar, and also a garden which was spectacularly set out and in bloom, despite the gloomy weather. We climbed up to a church overlooking the town and soaked in the view, even if we were sweating after going up all those steps, despite the chilly temps.

We left Salzburg very satisfied. While we were there, we got some info on the Sound of Music tours that operate around the area, with much a frolick and 'the hills are alive...’ you get the gist. They were a bit out of our price range, so we did our own. The lakes and villages surrounding Salzburg are where the movie was filmed, so there is a hint of authenticity – although when you go into Mondsee cathedral, and they have more books on the film, locations, actors, where are they now, badges, patches, postcards....than jesus stuff, it does make you wonder. The church was spectacular, and Keryn instantly recognised it as the location of the wedding between Frauline Maria and Mr Von Trap. Awesome. She also remembered some of the locations in Salzburg, that garden and fountain we stumbled upon the day before. Keryn found a great meadow for a frolick, being unable to control herself, and uttered the infamous words. The grass was so inviting, that she lay down and rolled down the hill. Pure class!

After a couple more laps of the lakes, we called it quits on the sound of music tour. A really spectacular part of the world. From here we called in at the Dachstein Giant Ice Cave, a naturally formed cave system that heads into the hills for 30km or so. The top of the system is up real high, and has water in it, so naturally it is covered in ice. 25 meters of it! We wandered through about 3km of it which was really interesting, although we were a little concerned when the flagship stalagmite was revealed, being particularly phallic. A very immature giggle later, we also saw wave formations, crumbly bits (technical term) and other wowing stuff. The view from the top was awesome too, as was the gondola ride up.

From here, we drove through the Danube Valley, following the river to Vienna. The drive was nice, but again we dodged raindrops. As we parked up in a Vienna camping ground, we gathered our motivation, and bus/railed into town. We popped up at Karlsplatz, the centre of Vienna. It looked absolutely spectacular even in the rain. We decided to use our 24hr public transport tickets, by taking a tram around the city. Lonely Planet suggested a tram, which ended up taking us out into the suburbs. On further inspection, we realised that things had changed since 2008 when our lonely planet was published, and there is now a new tram that does the loop circuit – bugger. We didn’t want to cough up for the extra 6 euro, so replanned and hopped aboard another that would achieve the same thing. We first whizzed passed a huge amount of classical styled buildings, with awesome gardens and loads of people around. Included in the bundle, were the city hall, city dome/cathedral, peoples park and university. With a couple of changes we completed half of the loop, and got off to explore the Hubertwasser museum. I am pretty sure that this is the same bloke that designed those crazy Northland toilets, was it in Kawakawa? Anyway, he was born in Vienna, although went abroad during the soviet occupation of the country. He has done loads of art, of the psychedelic hippy variety, no straight lines, bright colours and the like. He designed a church, kindy and rubbish incinerator, and the Vienna people love him so much they have built them. We drove passed the rubbish incinerator on our way into town, it is of the usual square box building, with big chimney, except this one has pink and purple stripes, yellow roof etc, and a massive gold orb fixed into the middle of the chimney. Yes, very authentic. Quite cool, although we wondered what the hell the Vienna council had been smoking to allow this to be built when we saw it from the van, pre-exhibition. We grabbed a beer at a microbrewery pub, and then wandered around Vienna at night now that the rain had stopped. The buildings were almost more beautiful at night than in the day. We snapped up the view, then headed back to the van in the suburbs.

The following day was equally rubbish weather, so we had a sleep in, and set off at about midday. Next stop was Bratislava, the capital of Slovakia, back in the heart of Eastern Europe. After a couple of hours drive, we found the city, and a lovely park. After driving through the Alps, it was a little disappointing to now be on an absolutely flat plane – I swear we didn’t go over a single hill from Vienna! Any how, this was prime agricultural land, and there were loads of animals enjoying the rainy mist. After a quick toasted Sammy in the van, just metres from the presidential palace (no he didn’t drop in for a bite to eat) we ventured out into the drizzle for a look at the place. We first checked out the castle. Stalin burned this sucker down in the 50’s, so what we saw was the recently renovated version, still smelling of fresh paint. The view was quite good though, and we soaked it up. On the left we had the old town, lovely spires, cathedrals, classical buildings from the Habsburgs occupation of the place. On the right, we had the ridiculous bridge from the 80’s, complete with massively high viewing platform, restaurant and bar, looking like a martian type thing, and then across the river, blocks and blocks and blocks of apartments, in trusty soviet style, all identical without colour or anything exciting. Such a contrast...

To escape the rain, we decided to try and be cultured and check out the clock museum. This museum claims to be in the smallest house in Slovakia, three stories with about 10 square metres per level. It was hilarious. There was an old woman on each level that was guarding the precious clocks. About 30 clocks in total, they were all horrible! Haha, we had to stifle our laughter. When we left the lights were turned out, to save power. The poor biddy guards were obviously made to sit in the dark when there weren’t any punters! Very funny.  We wandered through the town, checking out various buildings and squares. One thing that caught our eye were a range of statues in different poses about the place – one a man at work crawling out of a manhole, another on a park bench in a square, and the third a paparazzi with massive camera poking out behind a building. Quite random, but fun to explore. We found the nationalist Slovakian monument, which looked very like a Soviet monument, just renamed – ie the bloke had tiny head, huge hands, and tommy gun, and the woman were covered in shawls. Who knows.  After a beer and snack (tiny pasta looking dumplings in crème sauce with bacon fat and sheeps cheese – sounds gross but delicious) in the first Slovakian pub, we left, happy with our effort.

Our next stop was Budapest in Hungary. We drove in over the incredibly flat land, full of pasture, animals and ex soviet towns, complete with typical Soviet architecture. We rolled into Budapest, and found a park on Castle Hill, right in the tourist area. After dashing to the cash machine to get some currency , we wandered up to Castle Hill. This is a massive castle complex that overlooks the whole of Budapest. We checked out Mathias Church, Fishermans Gate, the Palace and old stronghold castle. The buildings were pretty cool, the church especially took our eye as it had a bright red and yellow roof, rather than the boring copper or brick jobbies that we have been inundated with. The view was the best aspect though, looking over the whole of Buda, and then Pest on the opposite side of the roaring river. From here, we wandered through the park and down to the bridge over to Pest. The buildings on this side were also amazing, built in classical style, with loads of character. Even the apartments looked lovely. We checked out the Parliament building, which must have been full of important people, as it had armed guards outside, with massive guns. We also stumbled upon an awesome fountain, which was at ground level with about 60 water jets in a square shape. As you approached the jets, as if by magic, they stopped to allow you to enter into the middle of the fountain. As you passed through, they started back up again, meaning you were completely surrounded by water fountains. It was pretty cool! After some photos with famous politician statues, we wandered back to the van walking alongside the river. We also found a monument to the people of Budapest, who were shot by the Hungarian Nazi Party into the river. It consisted of about 50 pairs of shoes, all copper, lining the edge of the river. They were asked to remove them before being executed. Rather grim.

We re-parked the van, then headed into the main shopping area, destined for the Terror Museum, which had exhibits relating to the secret police from the cold war. The secret police had a similar role to the Stazi in East Germany. Unfortunately though, as it was Monday, it was shut. Bugger. Ah well, we settled into a nice smoky bar, and sampled some Hungarian beer and champagne. Yum! We eventually wandered back to the van, and headed out of town for the night. Budapest was really cool, and I recommend this to all.

From Budapest, we had parked in a small parking area outside some houses, as we couldn’t find any better parks. We woke in the morning, and got organised to head off. One of the residents came out and tried to talk to us, and after pointing to the front of the van, and then the back, eventually made a noise of a police car, and motioned with his hand a siren type gesture. Crikey, best we head off. We pulled the ‘no comprende seniour’ and headed off. No police followed us, so all good! We checked out the biggest lake in Europe (Lake Balaton), and one of the biggest vacation areas in Hungary, but it was windy as hell, and there was about a 1 foot swell on the lake – not particularly inviting. We decided a swim was in order though, so headed to Heviz to check out some famous natural hot pools. The pools are set in a national park, and have a natural peat bottom. The water is cloudy, and among its health benefits is radioactive! The maximum stay is 2 hours and no pregnant woman or those with heart conditions are allowed. This warm water (36 deg) is dangerous! We bathed without incident, and felt rather invigorated afterward. Neither of us grew any extra appendages either which was a relief.

From here, we continued back into Austria, this time to check out the south of the country. On our way to Lienz, we drove through our first snow flurry as the altitude increased. It was quite cool – we entered a tunnel in sunshine, and about 5 km later we popped out into the snow. Once we passed the snow, visibility increased and we saw the snow dusted country side and mountains. It was awesome! From Lienz we attempted to drive the Grossglockner Pass, but unfortunately due to snow, it was chains only. We got what glimpses we could of the mighty Grossglockner mountain, and then headed back down, and around the mountain. We were still treated with amazing views, snow capped mountains and beautiful countryside. This was very picturesque. We pulled in for the night into a small campground about 200m from the snow line, and settled in for a rather chilly night – thermals and two sleeping bags! We were warm before we knew it though, and I am sure glad I insulated the van! We woke, and after several cups of tea to warm up the inside of the van, and chiselling the ice off the outside and inside of the windscreen, we continued on our journey to Lausanne in the French speaking western part of Switzerland.

At one point, we were on a fairly narrow road, which had ice patches in parts meaning the van was sliding around. We got half way up the side of a mountain and met the ‘Furka Pass closed’ sign. We were a bit worried, as the last turn off was some 30km back over several other mountain passes. We got back into the town at the bottom, and finally deciphered a sign which said we could take the train with the van. We paid our 30 franks, drove the van onto a railway wagon, and the train took us through the mountain. We pulled up at Tasch, which is in the Valais region of the Swiss Alps. It was quite a windy drive up there but, trusty Trev handled it with ease. We grabbed a train to Zermatt, so that we could check out the Matterhorn. As luck would have it, the weather cleared, and we got spectacular views of the mountain. Zermatt was a cute little village, but quite posh. We carried on driving, over mountains, through valleys past loads of snow and finally into Lausanne, to meet our friends Gill and Christine.

All for now, more to come soon!

Keryn and Chris
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