Zermorgan’s Zermatt

Sunrise on the Matterhorn

I’m sitting on my balcony of the Hotel Perren in Zermatt, Switzerland, listening to the church bells ringing out the day as the sun sets over the sheer 5000-foot cliffs to my right, which look like a crashing wave of rock and green pastureland clinging to roiling waters. Sarah and the kids are relaxing in the room after a great day of hiking, running and sightseeing.  In front of me, the sun surrounds the jutting peak of the Matterhorn in a soft yellow glow. The lucid sky, without a cloud in sight, provides the perfect blue background for the rough, snow-covered and angular structure of the Matterhorn itself. The sunlight falls down over the valley mountaintops to my left, as the sun secrets itself from view behind the peaks but still illuminates the town of Zermatt below.

As I sit here, Kyle comes up behind me and puts an iPod earbud in my ear and starts to play one of my favorite songs ever: Beautiful Day by U2.  I ask him what made him come and play this song for me, and he says, “It reminds me of today.”  I almost get teary.

Words cannot describe — at least mine can’t — how much I have enjoyed being in this part of Switzerland. We almost did not get to experience this sublime place for a couple of different reasons that show how travel can create some of the best experiences out of the most unpredictable ones.

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The Swiss Cascade and Castle That Inspired Poets (and Us)

Lauterbrunnen

Over the past few days, we’ve glimpsed Switzerland at its prettiest and most poetic (which is such a relief after the stormy sky and mercurial moods detailed in the previous post).

Standing under Staubbach Falls.

The drive from Lucerne to Interlaken revealed alpine beauty that rivals even the Colorado Rockies and New Zealand’s Southern Alps. We checked into a cozy family room in a friendly little hotel, aptly named Hotel Splendid, and immediately headed out to explore before rain returned.

I’ve never seen as many waterfalls as we saw on the drive to Lauterbrunnen, a small town seven miles up the valley from the better-known Interlaken. “Lauter brunnen” means “many fountains” or “loud wells,” and there are 72 of them in and around town.  The waterfalls stream over sharp cliffs colored with alternating shades of dark and light gray, and then they’re swallowed by swaths of forests where the lighter green of new growth contrasts with the darker evergreens.

We stood in a meadow under Lauterbrunnen’s beloved Staubbach Falls, all of us feeling warmed by the sun and awed by the stream of mist floating down in the wind. I thought the moment couldn’t get any better, but then it did, because we saw a little plaque that indicated we once again were following in Goethe’s footsteps. He visited this spot in 1779 and was inspired to write the poem Spirit Song Over the Waters, which we read and discussed right there at the base of the falls until Kyle ran off to chase some sheep. (The next day Kyle wrote in his journal about the beauty of the waterfalls and concluded, “But most of all I love the mountains. They give me ideas for my mind.” I agree!)

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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.

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A Tale of Two Hotels in Florence

A pano of Florence (click to enlarge) seen from the hill of Piazza Michelangelo.

I have one piece of advice I like to tell pregnant women about how to handle labor and delivery: “Expect the unexpected.” The same goes with travel. The saying went through my head as we marched in stony silence in the rain, loaded down with all our bags, about a half mile from one hotel to another on our first full day in Florence.

We had arrived at the train station the previous afternoon after another figure-it-out-as-we-go, hurry-up-and-wait, run-to-make-the-transfer day of train travel. (Reading the Italy train schedule and decoding the ticketing process is about as easy as figuring out which IRS form to use.) Hooray, we made it! But then we entered our hotel, and the next 12 hours went down as one of those low points that pushed me to the last resort of parental optimism, whereby I tell the kids, “Someday we’ll laugh about this.”

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Eat, Run, Love

A view from the Cinque Terre coastal trail, with the town of Vernazza coming into view.

Last night I read Goethe and ate divine pesto, and this morning I ran across a mountain and climbed back into bed with Morgan.

It’s all about life, Italy and the pursuit of happiness.

(Bear with me while I explain what Goethe has to do with it …)

I didn’t expect to pick up 18th-century German Romanticism more than twenty years after my last college lit class. I’ve been eating up delectable novels and memoirs like Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love and told myself I should ingest some historical fiction or classics (similar to how I reach for bran flakes and skim milk to balance out the pasta and wine).

Then, around the same day, we serendipitously stumbled upon Goethe. His name was everywhere. We were in the town of Malcesine on Lake Garda, a giant drop of blue in Northern Italy hanging like a bead off the skirt of the Alps, and were spending five nights there for no better reason than because three months earlier, in New Zealand or somewhere, Morgan had looked at Italy on Google Earth, saw the splotch of blue and the steep topography around it, and said, “I wanna go there!”

Kyle on a snowy ridge in the Alps above Lake Garda during a hike he took with Morgan.

As we drove the freeway up from Verona and the steep mountain pass down through Turbole, we started noticing inns and restaurants named after the German literary great.

Once we settled into our lodge, Morgan logged on to research why Goethe was such a big deal in this neck of the woods. “You gotta read this,” I soon heard him say.

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A Typical Atypical Travel Day

I’ve written a lot about our days spent exploring destinations, but less about the transition days — those days that in some ways are the most interesting because we find ourselves scrambling and improvising like a team on The Amazing Race.

Getting to Venice from Rome was one of those days, at times completely nutty but oddly fitting with our new sense of normal.

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Snapshots of Venezia and Treviso

We spent three nights in Venice and four in Treviso, an enchanting town about a half-hour outside of Venice that leads to gorgeous countryside. This region looks like an exaggerated version of the Napa Valley, with green hills, yellow mustard and centuries-old farmhouses. The town is famous for being the headquarters of the Benetton clothing retailer, and the surrounding valleys and mountains are famous for Prosecco wine and Asiago cheese.

Whereas Venice’s charm began to wear off after two days — due to inflated prices, hordes of tourists, and the sense that most everything there is preserved for show rather than for real — I would gladly spend many more weeks here in the Treviso area.

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In Rome, the Best Outshines the Rest

Yesterday in the late afternoon, while I was running laps around the Circus Maximus, I reflected on how the four of us started the day by getting to the Vatican at sunrise and scurrying behind nuns to be among the first in St. Peter’s and gaze uninterrupted at Michaelangelo’s Pieta. I realized that we’ve experienced much of the best — and some of the worst — that Rome has to offer in just three full days.

If you arrive at St. Peter's Square at sunrise, you're rewarded with a view of this ...

... and this.

I know, it’s incredible to be able to say not only that we started the day with the Pieta, but also, “I was running laps around the Circus Maximus.” The circus is a half-mile oval track in a dirt and grassy area where Julius Caesar and subsequent emperors through the 4th century used to come down from their palaces on the adjacent Palatine Hill and join tens of thousands of spectators to watch chariot races. Only a few remnants of the starting gates remain, but it’s easy to imagine the thundering hooves and wheels picking up speed on the straight-aways and the brutish drivers who struggled to keep their balance in the bumpy carts, sometimes crashing and dying on the curves.

That’s one of the best things about being here in Rome: I really can picture the ancient people who no longer seem so ancient and better understand how they went about their lives.

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The Costa Brava Retreat

At times during this journey, we find ourselves in a gem of a small town that seems disconnected from the rest of the world and even from the current time period. Last week was one of those weeks. The four of us, plus our friend Cheryl, checked out of our Barcelona apartment and traveled several decades back to a cove in the Mediterranean called Begur.

A slice of Costa Brava countryside near Begur.

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Drinking Up Barcelona

In the Plaza Real near our apartment, next to one of Gaudi's lampposts.

My elementary-level Spanish, packed away for four months since we left Argentina, re-emerged when we landed in Barcelona and I asked the cab driver, “Puede usted llevarnos a esta direccion?” (Can you take us to this address?) I caught enough in his rapid reply to understand that he could take us close, but then we’d have to walk part of the way because our street is so narrow that it’s closed to cars. Once again we found ourselves grateful to be traveling light enough to carry everything on our backs, with just one heavy rolling suitcase that functions as a mobile office.

About 15 minutes later the cab pulled over to the curb along Las Ramblas — the pedestrian boulevard bordering the Gothic Quarter (in Catalan, Barri Gòtic), famous for street vendors and sidewalk performers — and the driver gestured past Plaza Real (or Plaça Reial). As we walked to find our new home for the next ten days, we paused to gaze at the vibrant 19th-century public square that would serve as our extended front porch. The square is formed by apartment buildings with arcades on the ground floor that house a string of open-air cafes, where multitudes stroll by or sit and drink red wine at midday while musicians perform, artists sketch and philatelists swap stamps. I hear snippets of every Romantic language and know just enough Castilian Spanish and French to decipher the hybrid that is Catalan, which the signs are written in. At least a dozen palm trees fill the plaza and surround an elaborate black fountain flanked by Gaudí’s outlandish lampposts — my first glimpse at Gaudí’s intoxicating, Seussical style. Balconies above are fronted by intricate wrought-iron railings and greenery, and wooden shutters frame the windows. We’re living here?! I thought, and I couldn’t stop exclaiming to Morgan, “I love it, I love it!”

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