Changing Ships Midstream

April 18, 2010

Well yesterday was a day of change. We both woke up bright and bushytailed at 4:00 am courtesy of maladjusted body clocks.  After watching the changing situation on CNN, we decided that we could sit around in Zurich until Tuesday and have probably a  40% chance that our plane would actually leave or we could look at alternative transport. We did some research over the web looking at train and ferry options and found that we could get a ferry to Ireland from Cherbourg so it would just be a matter of getting to Cherbourg.

Checking the French rail website, we found that there were trains available from Paris to Cherbourg.  So then I checked the Swiss rail network and found that there appeared to be trains available from Zurich to Paris via Geneva or Basel or Strasbourg.  But I could not book any of these online due to the date being too close.  We had also heard at the airport yesterday that it was possible to change airline flights for train journeys to the Swiss border, so we decided to check that option out.  So we went down to an early breakfast and caught the hotel shuttle to the airport early to see what we could do.

At the airport we saw that there was already a long queue at the Swiss Air desk, so we went to the information desk and asked re changing flights to trains and were told that that option was no longer available and that we would need to book trains ourselves.  We went downstairs and joined the queue at the train ticket window.  Halfway down that queue we realised it was for domestic tickets only and that the international tickets were around the corner, so we moved around to the next office and found ourselves in another queue.  When we finally reached the front of the queue we sat down and told the lady where we wanted to go and she said, “Yes I have tickets all the way through to Cherbourg. The train leaves the airport at 10:05”

I looked at my watch and realised that it was 9:40, and there was no way to get a taxi back to the hotel, get our bags, check out and get back to the airport in 25 mins.  So then we asked her for options for today.  She found a train from Paris to Cherbourg quite easily.  Then she found us a train from Zurich to Basel.  The Basel to Paris leg was the hardest and we eventually said that we would go first class if necessary and she then was able to  find us a train and booked that.  Then when she went back to book the Paris-Cherbourg train, the second class seats had all gone, so we had to go first class for that as well.  The Zurich-Basel train we got as 2nd class.

So we had our Zurich to Cherbourg train organised, booked and paid for.  It was then a case of trying to book the ferry.  We grabbed a seat in the airport coffee shop [which btw made the best coffee we had had since leaving Canberra] and started trying to book a ferry.  The Irish Ferries web site was sufferring from meltdown and was taking forever to change between pages.  I finally managed to make a booking, but then had major trouble trying to pay for it. I kept being told that my userid and password didn’t match.  I was able to reset my password numerous times through their reset password option, but the problem seemed to be in their payment part of the website.  Finally, after three beers worth of trying, I finally managed to get through their system all the way and now we have an overnight ferry booked and paid for leaving Cherbourg to Rosslare at 8:00 pm on the 20th.

At this stage we have no accommodation booked at Cherbourg but are leaving that till we get there, just in case we don’t get there.  Just to make matters worse, there is a railway strike in France that, at this stage, is not affecting our currently booked trains, but if it escalates, we may find ourselves in Basel, Paris or somewhere else for the night.

Our other concern was that Rosslare is quite some way from Dublin where we had planned to pick up our hire car.  We had this problem sorted when we rang the cottage owner to tell them when we were turning up.  Heather and David Lawson own the cottage and when we explained our predicament to Heather, she told us we could catch the train from Rosslare to Rathdrum and she would pick us up and take us to the cottage for the night.  Her husband works in Dublin and will take us to Dublin in the morning so we can pick up our car.

As I write this, we are having breakfast at the hotel.  We have a taxi booked at 7:45 to take us into Zurich for our 8:25 train.

Glenda and Chris’s excellent adventure continues…

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Stuck on Zurich

April 17, 2010

Well it seems that we are going to be seeing a lot more of Zurich than originally planned.   Yesterday I mentioned that we had a flight via Frankfurt to Dublin at 10:30 … well that was to turn out to be incorrect.

But first I want to go back to yesterday…after checking into the Park Inn, Glenda and I had a very welcome shower and change of clothes, some lunch and then decided that we wanted to go for a walk to get some fresh air.  We’d been breathing processed air for so long, we’d forgotten what the fresh stuff tasted like.  Luckily the Park Inn lies near a bridle path running alongside a stream of sorts and that proved to be exactly what we needed.  We headed along that for a while before deciding to head to a church we could see from the road.  This took us into the village of Rümlang.  We wandered through the village noting all the little things that differentiated Switzerland from Australia.  The multi story houses, the shutters on every window, the prevelance of Mercedes, Volkswagens and Audis, the wildflowers growing in lawns, the flowers growing in every conceivable place, the totally foreign roadsigns and road markings, learning to look left rather than right when crossing a road, the lack of fences between houses which leads to a feeling of community, the wooden buildings, the familiar birds [blackbirds, sparrows, coots] and the less familiar birds [mallards, rooks, tits, robins and others I didn’t recognise] …  I could go on, but Rümlang was a very interesting introduction to the Swiss environment.

This morning we checked out and headed back to the airport with our luggage.  We took one look at the queue at the Swiss Air counter and decided to come back later.  We dropped our luggage off at the left luggage station and decided to catch a train into Zurich. After a few puzzled moments at the ticket machine we found our way down to the platforms with our 2 adult tickets plus an extra child ticket which we somehow mistakenly ordered.  The train into town was excellent and we soon found ourselves in Zurich HB.  Grabbed a map from the tourist bureau and then wandered down Bahnhofstrasse for a bit before heading across the river to the old part of town.  We strolled along the river bank towards the Grossmünster.  Once at the Grossmünster, Glenda sat and watched a choir performance while I paid 4 CHF to climb the tower. [Thanks for the suggestion, Prescott]  First off was a fairly tight spiral stone staircase which soon gave way to wooden stairs. The view from the top was quite impressive but would have been better if the sun had been out.

Once down we headed over the closest bridge to the other side of town and wandered through various streets marvelling [drooling actually] at the window contents.  All the while promising ourselves that we would be back in a month and so we would be good and not buy anything.  We then found our way back to the Bahnhof and caught the train back to the airport, grabbed our luggage and headed to the checkin area.  The queue did not look any shorter than it did when we had been there 5 hours earlier, but there was nothing to it but to join the queue and wait our turn.  We already realised that our flight had most likely been cancelled but we needed a change of flight and a hotel voucher for tonight.  After more than 2 hours in the queue, we finally reached the front and eventually managed to score a flight to Dublin on Tuesday morning.  We were also put up at the Hotel Ibis instead of the Park Inn.  After missing the first hotel bus by one seat, we finally made it to the hotel and decided to book our remaining 3 nights here as well.  Seems we were not alone in having to change hotels as we saw two others staying here that we had seen staying at the Park Inn.  The Hotel Ibis while having a much better reception and dining area than the Park Inn, loses hands down as far`as the rooms go.  But its a roof over our heads and at this stage that all that really matters.  More tomorrow.


Well that didn’t go to plan

April 15, 2010

As Robert Burns so aptly noted:

The best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men
Gang aft agley [Often go ugly]

After a long and tiring 13 hour flight from Hong Kong to Zurich which at times seemed to be a rather convoluted loop through China, Khazakstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, over the Caspian Sea over Azerbaijan and then along the Black Sea probably designed to avoid Iraqi and Russian airspace, we found ourselves looking slightly dishevelled and in desperate need of sleep in an almost deserted Zurich airport.  Looking to find the transfer station, we checked the departure boards and noticed our Zurich – Dublin flight had a strange red German word next to it. A couple of seconds later that word changed to the equivalent English word.  “Cancelled”.  Our hearts sank.

There then ensued some almost frantic discussions with a couple of airport staff where we discovered that a rampant Icelandic volcano was doing its best to thwart our [and thousands of others] travel plans.  All flights in and out of Ireland, the UK and Scandinavia had been cancelled.

When we got to the transfer station we worked out where everyone had got to.  The queue at the transfer station rivalled the best that Sydney airport could ever hope to throw up.  There was nothing for us to do but join another 2 hour queue to finally get a new flight to Dublin [via Frankfurt] tomorrow.  So Swiss Air have put us up in the Park Inn near the airport for the night,  including vouchers for lunch and dinner [breakfast was included in the room charge].  This was very decent of them considering that the volcano had nothing to do with the airline.  For those that have ever stayed in Formula1 hotels, the Park Inn is a slightly upmarket version.

So what this all means is that we will be arriving in Dublin at 10:30 pm on Friday rather than at 9:20 am on Thursday.


Talk about the last minute …

April 7, 2010

We have made a last minute change to our accommodation in Luzern. We were planning on staying at the Tourist Hotel, but have now decide to switch to the Hotel Bellevue. The reason for this was two-fold. One, we worked out we had spent much less on accommodation than we had planned. And two, we decided that while at Luzern we would like to have a lake view, yet not be too far from the town. So based on tripadvisor.com reviews, the Hotel Bellevue got the nod.


Glacier Express

March 31, 2010

Glacier ExpressOne of the highlights of our time in Switzerland will be a trip on the Glacier Express, advertised quaintly as “The Slowest Express Train in The World”.

This train travels through the Rhine gorge between the mountain village of Zermatt, (which nestles at the foot of the Matterhorn) to the celebrity strewn mountain resort of St Moritz.  We are travelling about 75% of this journey and will be getting off at the town of Chur [famous for being the birthplace of H.R.Giger who inspired the creature in the Alien movie series].

Glacier Express Route

The reason for terminating at Chur is that we want to be in Luzern by the end of the day [and, truth be known, we didn’t see ourselves fitting in at St Moritz].  We leave Zermatt at 10:00 AM and arrive at Chur at 3:15 PM.  An hour in Chur [with maybe a visit to the Giger Bar] and then its on to Thalwil before changing trains again to head to Luzern.  Our expected arrival in Luzern is at 18:25, 8 1/2 hours after leaving Zermatt.

We will be travelling 2nd Class, but from all accounts the only difference between 1st and second class is the size of the seat.  And as you can see in the advertising photo the views are just as spectacular.  As we have purchased a Swiss Rail Pass, the cost of the journey is covered, however for this train, there is a reservation charge of 33 CHF each plus an extra 44 CHF for a 3 course meal served at your seat.

This will definitely be one of the days we will be looking forward to.


More Accommodation

February 27, 2010

Some time ago I outlined details of our Irish accommodation so thought I’d better outline details of the remainder of the accommodation we have booked.

The list  falls into four main parts : London, Paris, Switzerland and Hong Kong.

London

108 StreathbourneFor London, we have chosen 108 Streathbourne, a B&B a little way out of central London.  This B&B has been recommended by Trip Advisor as the 2nd best B&B in London.  Its run by an English/Australian couple and is close by the underground [Tooting Bec on the Northern line is the closest station], yet far enough out of central London to be relaxing.  We are looking forward to staying there.

Paris

10 rue Fontaine ParisOur Paris accommodation will be at 10 rue Fontaine.  Located in the heart of one of Paris’ liveliest neighborhoods, this one-bedroom 4th floor apartment is just steps away from the Moulin Rouge, Montmartre and Sacré Coeur.  We are renting this apartment from Frenchy Rentals, a small property management group who rent out apartments for the owners.  We found this apartment via vrbo.com [Vacation Rentals by Owner] but booked it directly through Frenchy Rentals.

Switzerland

We are staying in five different locations in Switzerland ranging from the capital city to a mountain resort.  Accommodation in Switzerland is quite expensive despite the very good Australian dollar to Swiss Franc exchange rate, so we have had to economise a little.

Bern

For our two nights in Berne, we are staying at the Bern Backpackers [Hotel Glocke], booked through hostels.com, in a Twin Private room with a shared bathroom.  Located in an historic building which is part of the city’s UNESCO world heritage area, the hostel is centrally located and close to the train station.

Wengen

For our two nights in Wengen, a Swiss ski resort, we are staying at the Hotel Belvedere.  Wengen is a no-car zone, so we chose the Belvedere because it is within walking distance of the Wengen station and because it was the best looking hotel in Wengen.  The hotel is a traditional art nouveau-style chalet hotel overlooking the Alps.  We’ve chosen a double room plus breakfast.

Zermatt

For our two nights in Zermatt, a small village close to the Matterhorn, we are staying in Le Petit Hôtel, a fairly modern hotel.  Being a very popular tourist destination, and at one end of the famous Glacier Express train trip [more on that in a future post], accommodation in Zermatt was hard to come by and I think we were lucky to get a place to stay, despite booking 6 months in advance.

Luzern

For our two nights in Luzern, we have chosen a budget hotel imaginatively named the Tourist Hotel.  This hotel is located on the Reuss River and is close by the main railway station and is just a couple of minutes walk from the streets of the old town of Luzern.  Despite being classified as a two-star hotel and being closer to a hostel than a hotel, it  received fairly good reviews from TripAdvisor.com.

Zurich

For our three nights in Zurich, we have splurged a little [within our budget, at least] and have booked into the Hotel Continental. Built in the 1960s, the Hotel features Swiss chalet-style interiors and is centrally situated, 500 metres from the downtown area and the main train station.  It also received very good reviews on TripAdvisor.com.  The exterior of the hotel, in the photos I’ve seen, looks to be your typical bland 60’s architecture, but the interior photos belie the drab exterior.

Hong Kong

We are staying in Hong Kong for 3 nights on our way back to Australia.  We have chosen a harbour view room at The Salisbury – YMCA in the Tsim Sha Tsui part of the city.  Reasonably central, this hotel came recommended by a couple of friends which was good enough for us.



Training through Europe

December 28, 2009

Been spending a lot of time looking at train options for our trip.

We have 3 main train components in our plans. The first is from London to Paris. Second is Paris to Berne and lastly the train journeys through Switzerland.

The rail networks throughout Europe are quite extensive [for example, here is Switzerland’s] and very well run and maintained. They also compare very favourably to air travel. A vast difference to the Australian rail network which is abysmal by comparison. Once you start looking at train options, there is a wealth of information of varying usefulness out there. Many sites are just fronts for travel agents or ticket agencies and don’t give to a lot of pricing information unless you go through their booking process.

The official rail websites for France and Switzerland [www.sbb.ch] on the other hand were very useful for getting timetable and ticket price information. The Swiss one in particular was extremely good. Give it your starting point and your destination and it will tell you all the connecting journeys required as well as produce a map of your journey. Very useful but a little dry on useful details on the best options.

By far the best site I found was an independent site called The Man in Seat 61 [www.seat61.com]. Started as a hobby this site is amazingly full of detail. He discusses the best options for travelling by train, including when and how to buy your tickets, details of what you will see on each train journey, photos of the trains, inside the trains and the stations, when and where to change trains, whether to get a rail pass or not, seat maps on some services and details of the food and other services available. Full of links to the various official train sites and ticketing agents. I used this site extensively to get up to speed with the options available to us and recommend it as a first point to visit for anything to do with train travel in Europe.