Eurotrip 2011: Interlaken


I planned to spend two nights in Interlaken, but after seeing the mountain peaks and turquoise lakes on the train ride in, I decided that the city deserved three nights.

It was an environment I hadn’t seen before. I’d seen big mountains in Colorado, but never a town in between two lakes (hence the name) surrounded by mountains. The water is extraordinarily clear, making the streams milky grey, the color of the stones at the bottom.

Unfortunately, you have to pay for the beauty. The cheapest meal I’ve found is a hot dog for 4.50 francs (about $5.50). The price of a gyro, which I’ve come to use as the standard for how expensive a country is, is 8 francs.

It’s frustrating that Switzerland isn’t on the euro. I withdrew 80 francs from an ATM when I arrived, which turned out to be way more than I needed. However, this mistake has ended up giving me a lot of pleasure, because I have to spend all the francs before I leave. So, I have been buying lots of food from restaurants – or, rather, from a restaurant called Mr. Grill’s, the cheapest in town. You can get a delicious bratwurst there for 6.50 francs.

My bratwurst from Mr. Grills.

At $29 a night, my hostel, the Alplodge/Backpackers Interlaken hostel, is the most expensive yet. However, it is exceptionally clean, it has a fully-stocked kitchen, more than enough bathrooms, and the staff is great at suggesting what to do in town. There isn’t much of a social atmosphere, though. The people staying here do their own thing during the day and come back exhausted, including me. My roommates are three Chinese girls. Interlaken seems to be popular among Chinese and Japanese tourists.

Yesterday I hiked to the other side of the lake to the east of Interlaken. It was a beautiful hike, taking me past many bright green farms. It was also exhausting, especially because I got lost twice. I visited a waterfall that, as far as I could tell by looking at a map, comes entirely from melted mountain snow. I ended up at a town called Brienz, from which I took a train back to Interlaken.

A farm by the lake.

The turquoise lake.

The waterfall.

Today I took a train to Grindelwald (20.80 francs round trip), a town higher up in the mountains. From there I hiked to the top of a mountain called Bort. I think the thin mountain air made me light-headed, because the joke from the Simpsons about Itchy and Scratchy Land having plenty of “Bort” license plates but no “Bart” ones kept running through my head. I hiked even further up from there to the top of a mountain I don’t know the name of. I stopped when the snow became so deep that my feet sank a foot into it with each step.

Despite the presence of snow, the weather was hot, or at least it felt hot to me. When I took off my daypack to get my waterbottle, I thought the waterbottle had burst open because everything was wet, but then I realized it was just my sweat that had soaked through.

Here I am as far as I hiked up.

The views were extraordinary from the top. I could see drifts of snow falling from the mountains in the distance, followed by the sound of it a split-second later. The snow seemed to be melting fast. Parts of the trail had turned into little streams.

The train ride back to Interlaken was very enjoyable, as train rides always are when you’re really tired from walking. Tomorrow, I head back to Italy to see Venice.

Eurotrip 2011:  Florence and Pisa

Eurotrip 2011:  Rome pt. 2

Eurotrip 2011:  Rome pt. 1

Eurotrip 2011:  Palermo

Eurotrip 2011:  The Journey To Palermo

Eurotrip 2011:  Santorini and Athens

Eurotrip 2011:  Athens

Eurotrip 2011:  Istanbul

Eurotrip 2011: Florence and Pisa

The Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore, a.k.a. the Duomo.

While I was in Florence, the dominant thought in my mind was that I was glad to be there. However, there was also a voice telling me how stupid I was to have spent ten nights in Rome and only six in Florence, which I like better.

Every corner of Rome seems to be covered with a tourist sheen, while Florence feels more like a normal city that has a few tourist hotspots. It’s smaller, more intimate, and more peaceful than Rome. Sometimes when you turn onto a street in Florence you are the only person in sight, which never happened to me in Rome. Also, many Florentines ride their bikes to get around, which helps create a friendly atmosphere, although the people there still drive like sociopaths.

Florence isn’t as agonizingly expensive as Rome, but it’s still much worse than Athens and Istanbul. I miss being able to buy an overflowing kebab pita for 1.5 euros. In Florence, I started the habit of buying a large Moretti beer every night for only 1.30 euros from a little convenience store near the Duomo and drinking it on one of the bridges.

I enjoyed my hostel in Florence much more than the one in Rome. I stayed at the Sette Santi hostel, which is in a quiet neighborhood about a 25-minute walk from the center of Florence. It used to be a convent, and it’s still next to a church, the ringing bells of which were one of the few annoyances I had to put up with there. Unlike my hostel in Rome, it was quiet and spacious, with the wide, echoing hallways you would expect in a convent, and enough showers so that some were always free. There was a nice hang-out area outside with plenty of seats and picnic tables. The walk to the city was annoying when I had to do it multiple times a day, but that was due to my own poor planning.

My only major complaint is that there wasn’t a kitchen. In Italy, where it’s hard to find a meal for less than 7 euros, a kitchen is a big plus.

Most of the guests at the hostel were American college students traveling around Europe during a break from their study abroad programs. I hate to criticize my fellow countrymen, but I did not enjoy having so many Americans around. They have a super-cheerful attitude that is somehow offensive to a long-term traveler like me. They tend to arrive in groups, so they have little interest in making new friends at the hostel.

A building in Florence.

One of my favorite things about Florence is that it has its own style of architecture. I noticed a few common characteristics in buildings in Florence. Many old buildings have detailed images painted on the outside, something I haven’t seen anywhere else in Italy. I also saw many buildings that had a distinctive contrast between white walls and dark grey stone that looks like clay that hasn’t dried yet. Many of the buildings of the famous Renaissance architect Filippo Brunelleschi have that look, including the inside of the Duomo and the Santo Spirito cathedrals.

The inside of the Duomo.

Paintings inside a church in Florence from an early Renaissance painter.

I prefer the cathedrals in Florence to those in Rome because they are less ornate inside, which makes them feel more spiritual to me. They give the impression of having been built by a community instead of by the Catholic Church. They have a subtle but unique style, which paintings and sculptures from local artists. The exteriors of the churches often have the red and green stripe style seen on the Duomo.

I made a point of seeing Brunelleschi’s Pazzi Chapel because I remembered my history professor giving a lecture about it in college, describing how Brunelleschi tried to give it ideal classical proportions. I thought it was a beautiful, creative little church, and there weren’t many tourists there, which was a bonus.

The Pazzi Chapel.

Another Florence landmark with the wet-stone style is the Laurentian library, designed by Michelangelo for the Medici family. On the outsides of the benches you can see in the photograph are lists of the manuscripts that used to be chained to them. The entrance to the library is a famous staircase that looks like stone oozing out the door. My visit to the library was a nice break from an itinerary consisting almost entirely of churches. It was nice to see a brilliant Renaissance design used solely in the service of knowledge, like the pope’s study in the Vatican museum (one of the Raphael rooms).

The Laurentian library.

Michelangelos famous staircase.

On Wednesday I took a train to Pisa with Dhika, an Indonesian girl from my hostel. The train only took an hour, and it was free with my Eurail pass. I got to check the Leaning Tower off my list of “famous sights I haven’t seen.” The community of Pisa surely appreciates the tourist dollars the tower brings in now, but it must have been embarrassing for them when it started tilting over centuries ago. It doesn’t look good when the tallest building in your city looks like it’s about to fall over.

I liked the parts of Pisa you don’t see painted on the walls of pizza restaurants. The cathedral next to the tower was the first Romanesque-style one I’ve seen. The city itself was like Florence except even more peaceful. It had the Italian beauty without the obnoxious motorbikes. There were almost no tourists outside the cathedral area. It was cheap, also, which led us to get a meal in a restaurant – the first time I’d been waited on since Istanbul.

Pisas tower and cathedral.

Pisas riverfront.

On Thursday I made the mandatory trips to the Uffizi and Academia art galleries. I happened to arrive in Florence during “culture week”, when all the museums were free. The Uffizi gallery helps you appreciate how much art changed during the Renaissance. From the early 1300s to the 1400s, it seems to me, art in Florence went from conservative Byzantine-style mosaics to idiosyncratic works by artists like Botticelli, beautiful in unique ways and covering diverse subjects. In the Uffizi gallery, you can see this happening when you walk from one room to the next. It’s worth the two-hour wait.

Thursday evening, Dhika gave me a McDonald’s hamburger when she returned to the hostel. I pledged not to eat fast food on my trip, but I ate it anyway because I’m not one to turn down free food. McDonald’s tastes the same everywhere, and I won’t pretend I don’t like that familiar taste. Today I took a train from Florence to Interlaken, Switzerland, and during my layover in Milan, the cheapest lunch option by far was McDonald’s, so I got a double cheeseburger there. Hopefully, it will be my last.

Eurotrip 2011:  Rome pt. 2

Eurotrip 2011:  Rome pt. 1

Eurotrip 2011:  Palermo

Eurotrip 2011:  The Journey To Palermo

Eurotrip 2011:  Santorini and Athens

Eurotrip 2011:  Athens

Eurotrip 2011:  Istanbul