Monday, September 27, 2010

Interlaken, Switzerland

This weekend I traveled to Switzerland. It was such a great experience and I'm really glad I went.

We started off the trip in Florence at the Santa Maria Novella train station. Our train was delayed, and so the projected arrival time into Pisa was scheduled for one minute before our next connecting train was scheduled to leave. So naturally, our hearts were pounding and our breath was bated the entire train ride. We arrived in Pisa at the time promised, and we stood at the door of the train, waiting for it to open so we could dash off and find our next train. And we waited. And waited. Finally, an impatient Italian man behind us pushed to the front and pressed a button on the side of the door, opening the way for us. We thanked him quickly, slightly embarrassed that we couldn't figure out a door, and ran off, looking around to find the train that was leaving for Milan. We ran up to the platform and, with hearts falling, realized that there was no train waiting there for us, and not many people waiting on the platform. Panting heavily, we asked an old lady if the train from Milan had left yet and she responded with wonderful news: this train, too, was delayed and would be arriving in 10 minutes. We dropped our bags and let out giant sighs of relief.

The train arrived and we climbed aboard. We picked a deserted car and sat down and started playing cards. Then some creepy Italian guys came and sat in the seats next to us and started obviously talking about us in Italian and trying to photograph us with their phones. It was awkward and we were very relieved when they got off the train. We arrived in Milan just before 1 AM and our next connecting train didn't leave until 7:35, so we prepared ourselves for a night in the train station.

The Milan station is a rather sketchy place, especially at night. There were guards around the perimeter of the station, so we didn't want to risk leaving, in case we couldn't get back in. Also, we felt like dragging luggage around the streets of Milan at 2 in the morning was a bad idea. So we found a row of chairs and sat down and waited for the hours to pass. We discussed sleeping in shifts, but shortly after our conversation, a bloodied, bruised man in handcuffs was escorted by two policemen past us and all thoughts of sleep instantly left our minds. But finally, the station started to come alive around 6, and we found it easier to wait out the last hour because there was activity around us (and we were able to buy cappuccinos and muffins). So we gladly left Milan behind us and departed for Spiez, Switzerland.

On that train, we struggled to stay awake, but there were patrolling policemen and dogs in every car, and they kept checking our passports. One time, they flipped through my passport, discussed with each other how long I was staying in Italy, and started laughing. Then they returned the passport to me and moved on. It was a bizarre experience. However, the sun rose and illuminated the landscape, and everything around us was absolutely beautiful. There were mountains and incredibly blue lakes and attractive, quaint Swiss houses.

Our last connection was finally to Interlaken, and we were so relieved to have finally arrived. It was significantly colder than Italy, but that was because we were actually nestled in the Alps and it was the beginning of autumn.

We changed money (they use Swiss francs, or CHF) and went into a nearby supermarket to buy some chocolate, since we knew that the Swiss are famous for their chocolate. We tried many different kinds, such as milk chocolate with cream, caramel filled, chocolate mousse filled, dark chocolate with crushed cocoa beans - even chili chocolate. But the most memorable chocolate experience was our Kirsch chocolate.

Kirsch is a brandy made from distilled cherries, but it is not sweet like other fruit brandies. At the time, we only knew that Kirsch was an alcoholic beverage, and wanted to try an alcohol chocolate, but we had no idea what we were getting into. The chocolate is a hollow shell filled with the brandy. Unknowingly, I took the first taste. My facial expression was apparently horrendous, and my words described the essence of what I was experiencing. However, once I bit into the chocolate and realized how terrible it was, my instinct was to shove the rest of it into my mouth (mostly because it was dripping all over the place and causing a mess). So I swallowed the chocolate before my brain was able to process my actions and tell me to spit it out. Because I ate the whole thing, my companions thought I was exaggerating, because they know I don't like the taste of alcohol, and all agreed to try it and find out how it actually was. As expected, their reactions were similar, although they had enough sense to either dump out the alcohol and finish the chocolate or just throw it out completely. We were appalled at the defiled chocolate and vowed never to eat Kirsch chocolate again.

Shortly afterwards, we went on our canyoning adventure. It was one of the greatest experiences of my life. We donned wetsuits and helmets and hiked up a cliff to get to the top of the canyon. Our guide was Sebastian, and he told crude jokes and dunked us under the water and generally made the adventure more lively. He also taught me the two most essential German phrases (according to him): ein Bier bitte (a beer please) and Ich brauche ein Kondom (I need a condom). We did flips off one of the jumps, and slid backwards down some of the rock slides, and even walked under a waterfall. The water was cold, but not unbearable, and it was exhilarating to jump and swim and slide down a canyon.

They gave us drinks after we returned to Interlaken, and we were offered Rugen Bräs, a local beer. I ordered a tea instead, and the bartender had to ask for clarification, since he was shocked I was turning down a free beer.

After finishing our drinks and changing into dry clothes, we told Sebastian about our Kirsch mishap and he laughed and told us that we were to avoid supermarket chocolate in general, since the actual good chocolate comes from the chocolatiers around town. He told us that good Kirsch chocolate is actually in stick form, and is filled with a mousse that is mixed with Kirsch. He then suggested a good restaurant for dinner and also a bar that we should try out on Saturday night. We thanked him and went to dinner, even though it was only 4:30.

We sat down at the restaurant, looking to order cheese fondue, since cheese is another famous Swiss food, but the prices were outrageous. So we tried the Rösti instead, which was grated potatoes topped with diced vegetables and meat and egg and was quite delicious.

It started raining during dinner, so we had to walk back to our hostel in the rain. We were exhausted from our day of adventure, and we hadn't slept since Wednesday night, so we got ready for bed and passed out around 6:30 PM.

We didn't wake up until 10:00 the next morning, but we were rested and refreshed and ready to go. Unfortunately, it was still raining, so we bundled up and put on our rain gear and headed out into the chilly weather. We decided to walk around town and discover what we could do in the rain. We stopped in a few chocolatiers and purchased some delicious chocolate. We bought these little dark chocolate shells filled with marshmallow fluff, and they were some of the best chocolate I've ever had. I don't even particularly care for marshmallows, but this tasted like a marshmallow mousse and was paired perfectly with the dark chocolate and was finished with a delicate, crispy wafer on the bottom to clear the palette.

We also tried some chocolate truffles and they were rich and smooth and delicious. We tried orange, caramel, dark chocolate, milk chocolate, coconut, and Bailey's.
We found Kirsch sticks there too, and decided to try it and see what Kirsch chocolate was actually supposed to taste like, even though we were wary. But one bite into it, and we were greeted by a mouthful of liquid Kirsch again. We were done with Kirsch. No more experimenting.

After buying chocolate, we decided to go out to St. Beatus Höhlen, which was a neighboring town that had a beautiful cave where apparently St. Beatus slayed a dragon and then set up a pilgrim's sanctuary. We hopped on a bus and just as we left, the bus stopped and had to let a few cow herders escort a long line of cows through the town. We were very excited about it and started taking pictures through the bus window and exclaiming about the odds of seeing cows walk through town. The rest of the bus travelers watched us with the most curiosity and seemed bemused at our excitement over a daily occurrence. The busses also had hydraulics so at each stop, the bus would tilt toward the curb so the distance between the bus and the ground was minimal. It was a cool feature!

We finally made it to St. Beatus, but discovered that the caves were flooded from the rain. We hiked up to the cave anyway and took some beautiful pictures of the surrounding buildings and mountains and waterfalls.

When we returned to Interlaken, Emily purchased cow suspenders in honor of our cow sighting. We also bought hot chocolate mix, because at lunch, where we had spinach quiche and hot drinks, I had the most delicious Swiss hot chocolate.

For dinner, we still wanted to experience Swiss cheese fondue, and were recommended to a little restaurant called Bären. We ordered two pots of fondue, both cheese. One had mushrooms and the other had green peppers and capers. They were served with a soft, delicious wheat bread and the whole meal was quite delicious. They served Rugen Bräs with the meal. After demolishing the cheese fondue, we decided to ask about a chocolate fondue for dessert. Our waiter was appalled that we would ask about it, because apparently chocolate fondue is actually a French food. Also, chocolate fondue is apparently incredibly difficult to clean, and their kitchen couldn't handle the cleanup, even if they wanted to defile their Swiss kitchen with a French dessert. So we ordered Swiss ice cream instead, which I thought tasted like Breyer's ice cream, which is by no means a bad thing. I ordered an apple pie with vanilla ice cream and the others got tiramisu with amaretto poured over it.

After dinner, we went to Balmers, which was the bar Sebastian mentioned, but we were rejected from entering. We were sort of surprised that a group of girls would be denied entry into one of the few bars in Interlaken, but we walked home instead of trying harder to get in. The other girls still really wanted to get drinks, so we stopped at another bar, but it was full of middle-aged people and looked really awkward and dull. Then we decided to check out the casino, but it seemed like mostly slot machines, and since we didn't want to spend any more money (the franc is essentially equivalent to the dollar, but everything is much more expensive in Switzerland), we went back to the hostel. We discovered how to turn on the heater and our room heated up very nicely, which was wonderful, considering we'd been out in the cold rain all day.

The final day, we woke up once again around 10, and found out that checkout was at 10 as well. Our housekeeper, Oswaldo, was very nice, however, and let us check out an hour later without having to pay for another day. We tried to walk around the town before our train left, but nothing was open (it was a Sunday, after all). So we stopped at a cafe and ate some delicious pastries and then took our trains, with little mishap, back to Florence.

As we stepped off the train in Italy, we were immediately greeted by oppressive cigarette smoke. We had been breathing in such clean, fresh air in Switzerland that the difference was palpable. And as we were walking back to our apartment, a man tried to pickpocket us. What a great welcome back to our wonderful city.

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