Liechtenstein Lucerne & Mt Pilatus

21 May

We spend the night in the tiny alpine Austrian town of Igls. The hotel is a family hotel that has been added onto and added onto over the years. Like all the buildings in town, it is quaint alpine style, painted white with brown timber trimmings. Opposite is a little yellow church surrounded by a small very well-kept graveyard with flowers on most of the graves. Forests surround the town, and above them, all around, rise steep rocky snow-capped mountains. When I go for a wander the air has begun to cool after what has been a hot day, and there’s a light breeze. I come across a tram station, which must have been the end of the line, as it loops around past the platform. I’m told it links Igls and Innsbruck, which is 15 minutes away.

In the morning, leaving Igls we drive through more alpine scenery and many tunnels through mountains, including the Arleburg tunnel, which is 14km long.

We cross into Liechtenstein, a very small country, but larger than the Vatican or Monaco. Liechtenstein is one of those countries that make money out of being a tax haven and apparently the people there are paid very well. This also means that prices are exorbitant.

We stop in the town of Vaduz for a lunch break. Several people take their passport to a little office to have it stamped with Liechtenstein, but it costs them 2 euros. I don’t bother and am glad I didn’t  when I find the stamp says “Liechtenstein Tourist Office”.

There’s a quaint old castle perched above the town, and another castle-looking building on another nearby mountain. It’s a pretty town, once again with impressive buildings. The beggars here seem to be young and not very pathetic or aggressive. In fact, I suspect some of them are actually fellow tourists, trying out their luck sitting on the ground holding a cup.

I have a brief look in a souvenir shop but am feeling hungry. The girls keep browsing the shops but I’m bored with that and wander off checking out cafes. The typical price for a main course is around 35 Swiss francs. I’m thinking of going to the supermarket, for a simple sandwich, but Steve catches up with me and says the girls have sat down at a restaurant. When I mumble about the expense, he says he’s accepted that’s just part of the experience. I go back to join them and find they’ve ordered entrees. That seems like a reasonable compromise, as I have some nuts in the bus that I can munch on later if I’m still hungry, and I need to use a loo anyway.

After lunch, Steve & I dash off to catch a few sights before we leave. It’s hot and I’m wearing jeans, but we scoot around in a hurry looking at buildings and squares. At one stage, when I walk ahead Steve urgently calls me back. A group of young people start rolling balls out from around the fountain and running, with a dog, towards a castle-looking building. I think “what the….?” then realise they are filming and I was about to walk through their set. Wonder what the story was…

There’s yet another church and it’s open, so we decide to go in. When I open the huge timber door and step inside, it’s suddenly cool and quiet. Looking around, I practically lose my breath.The entire inside of the church is painted white, except for just a few ornamental decorations and paintings. It’s clean and uncluttered, unlike the overly ornate churches we’d seen to date, and just magnificent. As I walk down the centre aisle, a woman comes in behind me, and I hear her sigh with awe as well, as the door closes behind her with a gentle thud.

Back on the bus, we leave Liechtenstein and continue into Switzerland. One of the interesting things  Ashley tells us about Switzerland is that, although they managed to stay neutral during the world wars, they are renowned fighters and have a reputation as mercenaries. They have 2 years compulsory military service (I’m assuming for boys only?) and approximately 10% of the population belong to the army. However, they like to be discreet and not show off the military presence. Their military runways tend to look like a strip of asphalt in the middle of a farm, with their fighter jets hidden underground. We drive past one of these runways and Ashley points out a barn-looking building that leads to underground hangars. The Swiss have reportedly also booby-trapped tunnels and bridges for activation should they be invaded.

We pull into Lucerne and the first place we go is the Lion Monument. This monument makes me want to weep whenever I think about it. It was created as a memorial to Swiss fighters who were slaughtered when they were protecting the king somewhere or other. The lion is depicted as dying and the pain on its face is incredibly evocative. To make it even more so, a young busker plays sad music on a violin. I have to throw him a few coins.

The bus transports us just down the road near a river and a jewellery shop, where we all go in to use the loos. Then, with our vox machines on, we follow Ashley as he walks through the shopping district pointing out the best places to buy Swiss watches, Swiss Army knives and chocolate.

We come to a rushing river, the mountains rising behind, with an ancient wooden covered bridge crossing it. We follow Ashley over the bridge and back along the other side, heading upriver. Another covered bridge, called the Chapel Bridge, crosses the river. It dates back 400 years, except that about 20 years ago a drunk threw a cigarette butt over the edge into a boat, it landed in rags, set fire to them and the boat, the boat drifted under the bridge, set fire to the bridge and destroyed 2/3rds of it. It was reconstructed to be original, except that I notice the new part has concrete pylons, not timber ones.

Near the railway, the river flows from a huge lake surrounded by snow-capped mountains.

We continue on to the village of Giswil, where we are staying the night. The hotel is made up of 3 buildings and is like a ski lodge. We are given keys attached to heavy lugs. I’m in the main building and, because the lift is not obvious, I walk up 2 flights of stairs to find my room. It’s like the tiny bathroom was built into the room later. I throw open the windows and a breeze rushes in. I have a lovely view overlooking chalets and mountains.

I’d elected not to go to the optional experience that night. It was a yodelling and oom-papa experience by the sound of it, and I’m not fond of that type of music. Besides, I need to cut out something to manage the budget.

Steve isn’t going either, so we decide to find a local pub for dinner. After the others leave for the excursion, we wander downstairs. Aurora is there and we invite her to come with us, but she declines. When we dawdle in the foyer she changes her mind and asks if we’ll wait a minute.

It’s become overcast and is beginning to sprinkle with rain as we start out. On the way into town we’d spotted a nice-looking pub but it was a fair walk away. There’s a closer one, however, and it has a sheltered veranda on the side that looks attractive. Inside, we’re directed towards a dining room.

“Can we eat out on the veranda?” I ask.

“You can iv you vish,’ the waitress tells us. “It ees a leetle bit more expensive, but of course you can iv you vish.”

I look at my companions. “We don’t need expensive food, do we?” I ask them.

“No, no, I just want a beer,” Aurora says, so we go into the dining room, which is a little too warm.

Aurora gets her beer all right – a towering 500ml glass. Steve has the same while I have a glass of house white, which is way better than Spanish wine.

Aurora initially wasn’t going to eat. The menu offers half portions, but the full portions aren’t double the price, and Aurora agrees to go halves with me. The waitress is perfectly happy to bring us one serving and an extra plate. She asks where we are from and when Steve and I say we’re from Australia, her eyes light up. Six months ago she’d been to Australia and had toured around extensively.

As I may have mentioned in earlier emails, Aurora is on the trip with her sister and her brother-in-law, Rafael. She tells us they have all lived in California all of their lives but her sister and brother-in-law don’t speak English.

Aurora and her husband run a trucking business, carting materials for making concrete. Her husband didn’t come on the trip because they can’t leave the business that long, and her husband is training their son to take it over. At one stage their business was running 100 trucks, but with the GFC, they cut back to around 60. She gets involved in the admin of the business, plus manages their investment properties. They are secure money-wise for the rest of their lives and she wants to stop chasing money and start enjoying their lives more. She plans to come back to Europe next year with her husband and daughter.

Aurora is 50, but you wouldn’t know it. She is a gorgeous black-haired, sexy latino woman with a positive outlook and bubbly personality. She loosens up as she finishes her beer and orders another one.

Outside, the sky clears as we enjoy our meal. When we decide to leave, the waitress obligingly makes up separate bills, then recalculates to convert them from Swiss francs to euros, since that’s all we had. She is grateful too when we leave her reasonable tips. The rain returns as we leave and we rush back to the hotel in the rain.

22 May

It’s again overcast and drizzling the next morning, and surprisingly cool. I had been used to getting around in singlets, but I definitely need long-sleeves this morning. When we are all settled on the bus, Ashley, looking very pleased with himself, tells us our itinerary for the day has been swapped around. The forecast is for rain in the morning, clearing in the afternoon, so he has rearranged for the trip to Mt Pilatus to be on in the afternoon, and instead we’ll spend time in Lucerne in the morning.

They drop us off by the jewellery shop again. In Liechtenstein I’d seen some Swiss watches that I liked that were not as outrageously-priced as others, and I’d noted the brand (Jowisson or something) to check if they’d be better prices in Switzerland.  I’d seen a shop selling them when we went to the Lion monument, so Steve and I head up there first up to check them out. Steve is contemplating buying a new watch and is checking out Swiss Army knives to buy as presents for friends. The prices of the watches are no better than in Liechtenstein, so I decide I don’t need one. Steve buys a sharpening stone for his knife for 2 euros.

We have a map of the town and decide to check out the old city wall. I make use of Steve’s sense of direction and we go uphill until we find it. The rain has stopped and the day is clearing and it’s hot climbing, so I stop next to a wheelie bin and take off my jacket. When we reach the wall, the street opens into a square and a fountain and I reach for my camera, but it’s not there. Ooops! Steve gallantly runs back down to where I’d removed my jacket and finds my camera, sitting atop the wheelie bin.

I ask Steve to stand up on the ledge of the fountain and take a piss, so he obligingly climbs up and takes a pose, with the water streaming out from the appropriate spot while I take a photo.

We walk over to the wall and find a little wooden door that leads into the wall. Inside we are able to climb up to the ledge that runs around the outside at the top of the wall and provides a stunning vista of the city. Following that along, we come to a tower where we can climb the steps inside to the top. Inside, closed off by clear panels, are the workings of a huge old clock. At the top, the rough hewn stone steps are steep, and I have to haul myself up them. The view is worth it.

By now I’ve had enough walking and am hanging for a coffee. Steve navigates us back down to the  river and we sit and have a quick coffee. We then go to the shopping district and Steve buys a fancy watch, before we rush back to meet at the required time.

We follow Ashley across to the lake and onto a boat, where we are advised that we’ll get the best view from the top deck. The weather has cleared but it is cool enough to button jackets and then we are snug. We motor out across the large lake, surrounded by rugged snow-capped mountains. Swiss music is pumped out of speakers, but people become quiet, awed by the scenery.

The captain announces that we can come down to the cabin for photos of us driving the boat and a few people go down. I’m not too interested, but Steve, sitting on the opposite side of the boat signals to me to go for a photo so we go down and take snaps of each other, wearing a Captain’s hat.

Up the end of the lake, we pass under a bridge and go upriver a short distance before we dock and walk over to the railway station. On the steepest cogwheel railway in the world we see a red carriage that’s tilted at an angle. We pass through turnstiles and board. Some people, afraid of heights, keep their eyes inside as the train rises up the mountain. Sometimes we pass through tunnels, the walls just wide enough to fit the train carriage. The scenery becomes ever more spectacular. I can see a goat track that zigzags up the mountainside. We’ve risen maybe 2/3rds up the mountain, when I hear some cheering. Outside the window are a young couple walking the goat track, cheered on by people on the train.

At the top we emerge into a large tourist building, complete with souvenir shop (of course) cafeteria, and, up the stairs, a viewing deck. From the viewing deck, steps lead up to the 3 separate peaks. Steve tries to round up the 2 Jennys, Linda & Deb for a walk up to one of the peaks, but they have their heads in the souvenir shop and so I say I’ll see them up there.

It’s not too much of a climb and I’m only slightly out of breath when I arrive at the top. The path diverges halfway up, so I select the one that looks the highest. At the top there are bench seats and Japanese tourists. Black birds with yellow beaks swoop around the peaks. I marvel at the view for a while, then sit down to eat the bread roll that I’d made up at breakfast time and wrapped in a napkin.

A few minutes later, Steve arrives, out of breath. The others had all copped out, and he’d run up to the other peak first before coming up this one. He eats his bread roll and we enjoy the view then take photos of each other with stunning backdrops. A bird lands on a rail nearby and strikes poses for photographs.

We meet the group back down near the entrance to the gondola which is to take us down the mountain. There are too many people for the first gondola, so we wait with Marlin, the Filipino Mum & her 3 sons and the 2 sisters and go in the next one. We pass down the mountain, high above tall pine trees, heading towards Lucerne.

Ashley had said something about not getting off at the first stop, so when it docks halfway, we tell them we have to stay on, but the gondola man tells us to get off.

We do as we are told and board a smaller 4 person gondola with the sisters.  It stops halfway and some people get off but we realise that was where we had been instructed to stay on. We meet the group and go back to the hotel. There is another optional excursion planned, leaving in an hour’s time, a horse and cart ride, but thankfully, I hadn’t signed up for that one.

In my room I write a bit of this journal then set my alarm and sleep until dinnertime at 8pm.

After the included dinner, (salad, soup, chicken and mushrooms with fried potatoes, then creme caramel) I leave my friends in the foyer drinking Tia Maria and engrossed in the internet, and go up to my room for shower, writing and bed.