Some Days Are Like That, Even In Switzerland

Our view of Lugano, Switzerland, from the hills of Campione.

“This is one of those days,” I said on our first full day in Switzerland as rain fell in sheets outside the window, obscuring the Alps.

We were sitting cross-legged on a hotel room floor and eating lentils out of a can for lunch while making innumerable Skype calls to apartment managers, hotels and the One World airlines ticket desk. While the kids gloomily plugged away at their math lessons, Morgan and I busied ourselves with research to redo our itinerary to avert freak Swiss snowstorms and British Airways strikes. When I needed a break, I washed clothes in the sink (“No laundromats in Switzerland,” the hotel clerk informed us, “everyone have their own washer”) and blew them dry since it was so cold they wouldn’t dry on their own.

I'm drying a sock, not intending to air my dirty laundry :-)

But my spirits didn’t sink too low, because I know full well that unpredictable swings from great days to frustrating ones are inherent in long-term travel. Just two days earlier, on our last full day in Italy, I had declared, “This is the best day.” I ran across mountains in Tuscany for a 40K (24 mile) trail event, from the small town of Prato to the tiny village of Montepiano.

Italy and neighboring countries have a vast network of trails connecting remote regions, with this symbol to guide the way. This trail was part of the Prato to Montepiano run in Tuscany.

Along the trail, I paused to snack on incredible buffets laid out by the friendliest volunteers. I had never seen anything like it: Out in the middle of nowhere, near 4000-foot summits overlooking rolling green hills, teams of sweet gray-haired Italians handed out bruschetta, roast meats, pasta, cakes and cookies, cheese and red wine to runners and hikers. They all fussed over me when they learned that I’m American and that it happened to be my birthday. I can’t imagine a better taste of Tuscany, or a better birthday present.

At this aid station halfway through the trail marathon, these volunteers poured me red wine and dished up penne pomodoro.

An adage that I repeat while racing marathons also applies to travel: “There will be good times and there will be bad times, and neither will last very long.” That means it’s wise to savor any mid-race rush of positive emotions but exercise restraint and not pick up the pace too much, because fatigue and pain surely lurk around the corner; and on the flipside, don’t despair and give up when feeling lousy, because a second wind surely will come soon. So it goes with this journey, as shown by the contrast between our magical days in Cinque Terre and nightmarish arrival in Florence: Savor the good days and don’t sweat the disappointing ones. The four of us often cope with the down days by repeating the last line from the classic children’s storybook Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day: “Some days are like that, even in Australia” — changing “Australia” to whatever country we’re in.

Our travel day from Italy to Switzerland also alternated between funny and frustrating. We loaded up Mario (the nickname for our rental car) and found our way onto the autostrada, which anyone who’s driven in Italy knows is a white-knuckle experience. First you have to find the on-ramps (which are few and far between), each of which has a stressful electronic toll booth to figure out, and then you have to merge with cars going 80 mph in the slow lane. I used the GPS on our iPhone to navigate, but the little blue dot showing our position often was delayed, so more than once I missed telling Morgan to exit and we got stuck going on miles-long detours. We must have circled the outskirts of Milan four times and spent an extra 10 euros on tolls due to these inadvertent “longcuts.”

Hungry from the longer-than-expected drive, we decided it was time to experience Autogrill, which is the Italians’ answer to fast food and rest stops.

Autogrill: Way better than Taco Bell or Subway.

This is a special chain of restaurants and minimarts literally straddling the autostrada — like a bridge with the cars zooming underneath, with parking right next to the highway — so travelers can get off and on the freeway without having to go through a toll exit. The kids had been asking to go to one the whole time we’ve been in Italy, but we always said no because we wanted to avoid fast food and sample local establishments. Well, we should have listened to the kids, because the Autogrill rocks! Leave it to the Italians to serve affordable fresh dishes for “fast food” such as risotto, grilled meats, gourmet fresh panini, and a salad and antipasti bar with delicious grilled vegetables and tabouli.

We crossed over into Switzerland and immediately noticed that people drive slower. The snow-capped mountains became progressively higher and more picturesque, and we were dazzled by the views in spite of the overcast sky. We arrived at a nice but not particularly memorable hotel in the small lakeside town of Campione, about five miles from the popular city of Lugano. (By staying on the outskirts rather than in the center of major destinations, we’re cutting our lodging costs significantly.)

A chapel in Campione.

The rain cleared enough on one afternoon for us to explore a lovely tulip-filled park in Lugano and window shop at stylish stores with prices as steep as the Alps.

Cheap thrills: The kids love these rocking horses found in Lugano and elsewhere in Switzerland ...

... and so does my rockin' husband!

Yesterday we climbed back into Mario and drove two hours north to Lucerne, a place as perfect and precious as the carved cuckoo clocks for sale in the souvenir shops. The route took us through the 10.5-mile-long Gotthard Road Tunnel, the third-longest road tunnel in the world (the first being in Norway). It’s so long that I drifted asleep shortly after Morgan entered it, and when I woke up, we were still driving through the dark! If not for my nap, I surely would have freaked from claustrophobia.

Our plan was to get lunch as soon as we got to Lucerne, so I searched TripAdvisor on the iPhone and found an out-of-the-way pseudo Mexican diner called Crazy Cactus, which supposedly was good and relatively cheap. We got there and ordered one small chicken fajita plate to share, one half-portion of nachos for Colly, one appetizer-size quesadilla for Kyle, two drinks for the four of us to split (a Fanta and a large sparkling water) … and the bill came to $55 Swiss francs, or almost US$50! Oh how we missed Baja Taqueria on Oakland’s Piedmont Avenue at that moment.

Lucerne is lovely in spite of (or because of?) its cost of living. We checked into a fun and fairly affordable hotel called Cascada and set off to walk across the 14th-century Chapel Bridge, rebuilt in 1993 after some bozo dropped a cigarette and set the span on fire.

A view of Lucerne's Chapel Bridge showing its tower ...

... and the view of Chapel Bridge with the waterfront where we ate at Pickwick Pub.

The bridge leads to the Old Town square, full of Alpine architecture with flag-topped turrets and gold-rimmed clock faces that must have inspired the designers of Disneyland’s Fantasyland. We discovered well-priced pub grub along the waterfont there at Pickwick’s, and for the second time that day (the first being at Crazy Cactus) I heard wait staff speaking both Spanish and German — such a cool combination! This polyglot culture inspires me to study language more.

Lucerne looks lovely even in the rain.

Today, with rain still pouring down, we headed to the Verkehrshaus, aka Lucerne’s Museum of Transport, where we enjoyed seeing a model of the interminable Gotthard Road Tunnel mountain we drove through and a National Geographic documentary in their IMAX theater.

My Swiss miss and her little bruder at the transportation museum, in front of the model of the mountain with the looooonnnnngggg tunnel.

The road trip resumes tomorrow; next stop: Interlaken. Our itinerary changed quite a bit because we’re sticking to lower elevations to avoid the snow. We also extended our stay in one place (Montreux, on Lake Geneva) long enough to rent an apartment, since it’s becoming unbearably expensive to stay in hotels and dine out. But the biggest change to report, which I’m sad but relieved about, is we canceled our short trip to Athens. Going there this month ultimately seemed too risky and stressful, especially since we’re flying British Airways and they plan strikes on both days we were scheduled to go in and out of Athens. Greece now joins Turkey, Kenya, Costa Rica, Peru and too many other places to name on our “someday” list.

Meanwhile, we’re truly looking forward to seeing more of Switzerland and England, and if another May snowstorm sneaks up or an Icelandic volcano gets cranky or locusts fall from the sky, we’ll take pictures and try to laugh about it.

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