First of all, Mayur really did most of the planning, booking, running around for this trip so lets just say hats off to him before we move on! Switzerland was really just a lot of eye candy so I am not sure that there will be enough matter for the beautiful pictures which will speak a thousand words. It was full of cheese, chocolates, cows, always-on-time-except-one trains, switching languages, and statistics. As for Paris - Visitez Paris quand vouz pouvez parler francais (I hope I got that right!). Even two weeks is not enough for Paris but hey - enjoy what you can in the time you have (sort of like life itself). The main annoyance we discovered with both Switzerland and Paris was that a lot of the nice places have become extremely touristy, and have lost their original local charm. So its best to have a mix of famous places and some sidey places which may not be as spectacular but which will allow you to see some of the local flavors too. Oh - and shop in Geneva - no other place in Switzerland will offer you the same wide range of products and souvenirs.
July 7, Tuesday
We both reached Zurich on the same day although Mayur reached in the morning. He came to pick me up at the Zurich Hauptbanhof Main Train Station. We were supposed to meet under the big blue lady who was really not very big; but we sort of just saw each other and then Mayur showed her to me. We bought our Swiss train passes which allowed us unlimited train travel for 8 days on all Swiss trains and free admission to all museums - this was the best deal ever and we made a lot of use of it. We took the Zurich tram to Bahnof Enge which is a short walk from the Google office. After a brief sojourn, we took off to see the city. Our camera had no batteries so no pictures from that day. We walked along the main shopping street Bahnofstrasse, and then crossed over the river to Limmatquai on the other side. There were lots of little shops and restaurants along the way. We saw the pretty churches: St. Peter's with the largest clock-face dial in Europe, Grossmunster, and Fraumunster. We walked south to the beautiful lake where we sat awhile with people feeding local ducks. We also saw the Opera House which was cutesy - not up to the mark with the Paris One. It was a short day and we ate dinner at Google, and headed off to the Google Guest House which was ways off on Rehalpstrasse. Zurich was predominantly German as were the next couple of places we visited till we got to South West Switzerland and Paris of course.
July 8, Wednesday
Today was our grand day for Jungfraujoch! We were off to an early start and took a fast train from Zurich to Bern. We met a couple of investment bankers from UBS in the restaurant car and enjoyed a hearty breakfast. Totally enjoyed eating in luxury in the fancy fast train! We switched trains at Bern and off to Interlaken in Bernese Oberland. The weather was quite lousy - cloudy and rainy - so we thought we would spend some time in Interlaken. They had live cams of Jungfraujoch at Interlaken and there was zero visibility up there :(. So we walked from the Interlaken West train station to the Interlaken East train station. We took a small detour to a funiculaire going up to a local peak called Harder Kulm. We skipped on going up as we were still optimistic about the weather clearing up so we just took a short hike to get a nice view of the Interlaken city. It didn't seem like we were going to make it to Jungfraujoch as the weather was totally crummy so we just decided to go to a lower peak called First at a height of 2000m. We took a train up to Grindelwald and then took a cable car from there. One has to go to Grindelwald or Lauterbrunnen to get to Jungfraujoch so we figured we'd at least go to Grindelwald and then decide whether to continue to the big one or little First.
Grindelwald was a really cute little town with neat little sloping-roof houses. Every house had a little plant pot outside each window lined with pink and red geraniums. Looked absolutely spectacular and very Swissy - just as one would have imagined it! We walked towards the Gondola station and then took the cable car up to First. From the gondola and at the top, we enjoyed some splendid views. We also ate lunch at the cafeteria at the top. The weather changed almost instantly on us after lunch and we could not see 5m ahead of us so the views were totally lost. We were just happy not to have gone all the way up to Jungfraujoch or Schilthorn and missed all the fun! We got back to Interlaken and wanted to walk to the lakefront but it turned out to be too far. So we just took a bus to a local restaurant Nearhaus and enjoyed a coffee by the lakeside. We took a train back to Bern and on to Zurich. I have to say that the trains in Switzerland were just amazing - very clean, always on time, and connections were simply perfect. We never waited for more than 5 mins for a connection and the stations for connecting trains were arranged so well that one did not have to stress about running to catch trains at all. Dinner that evening was at Google and off to St. Moritz the next day!
[TRAINS: Zurich - Bern - Interlaken - Grindelwald - Interlaken - Spiez - Bern - Zurich]
July 9, Thursday
We stopped early morning at this local sweet shop in Zurich called Sprungli (remember Lindt and Sprungli?) in a fancy square called Paradeplatz. It was filled with sweets that are beautifully displayed and impossible to ignore. We bought a bunch of 'Luxemburgerli' which were tiny sweet burgers of different flavors - champagne, vanilla, cappuccino, and lemon. For the first and only time, our train from Zurich to Chur was delayed as they were unable to shut one of the train doors. So we missed our train connection at Chur to St. Moritz. We took a small walk around the train station at Chur before going onwards to St. Moritz.
I had always read about St. Moritz and Chamonix as haunts of rich people in crappy novels so always wanted to see them. St. Moritz was extremely picturesque and totally lived up to all expectations. We stayed in this fabulous hotel called the Kempinski Grand Hotel Des Bains. At the station, we called them and they sent this fancy all-black BMW sedan to pick us up. It was all very royal from the get-go - our room was posh and the view of the mountains was great. We took a bus from our hotel to downtown and ate lunch at Hanselmann's sitting outside in a busy square of the town. I ordered a cheese sandwich - now in all other places in the world, a cheese sandwich has some cheese inside a couple of pieces of toast or bread. In Switzerland, they give you a couple of slices of toast dipped in a bowl full of melted cheese! Ignoring the calories, I totally enjoyed the lunch! We then visited the D&G shop and enjoyed looking at the 'sale' prices of thousands of dollars, including a fur coat made of 'Wolve' for 12000 Swiss francs.
After our lunch, we walked along St. Moritz Lake. It was beautiful day and the view was crystal clear. We totally enjoyed the peaceful afternoon just walking around and chatting. The Swiss National Park is close to St. Moritz but we decided to just spend the time locally. We bought some postcards to send back home at a local shop and the lady there told us of a nearby gondola at Corvatsch. Since we were starved for high-altitude views :), we took a bus there but reached at 5PM and missed the last cable car up by a whisker. We enjoyed the rest of the evening in our fancy hotel - swimming and sauna at the spa. We ate a delicious pizza dinner at Hotel Laudinella and spent some time in the local casino at the hotel. There was really no action with just one person playing roulette and a handful playing blackjack.
[TRAINS: Zurich - Chur - St. Moritz]
July 10, Friday
Glacier Express, Montreux
Spectacular breakfast in the morning at the Kempinski - the spread was fancier than our breakfasts in Egypt too! We sampled a lot of local cheeses. We then took our special BMW limousine service back to the station to board the Glacier Express from St. Moritz to Zermatt. Switzerland has many special train journeys through scenic areas of the country - the Bernina Express, the Golden Pass Line, and the Glacier Express which we took. Its a panoramic train so the entire side of the train is made of glass for exceptional views. Make sure to get window seats when you book your tickets as Mayur did online. Another excellent option to purchase these tickets is at any train station. We saw many beautiful spots along the way: small villages and churches, tunnels, little streams running under bridges, viaducts, winding railways tracks, snow-capped mountains, and glaciers. We passed the massive Landwasser viaduct which was under construction yet impressive. We also stopped at the high mountain pass Oberalp Pass at 2000m. Good pictures were hard to get due to the reflection from the large windows. But the service in the train was impeccable - they had brochures for every little important spot along the way. They gave us an audio guide which told us about each region as we moved along, and gave us random stats which we quickly forgot. And they served a nice lunch and drinks during the journey too. One should really take a course in marketing from the Swiss tourism industry! We met a couple of Swiss nationals one of whom was originally a Tibetan born and brought up in Chandigarh. He said that his wife still watches a lot of Hindi movies! I think it was more the moments like this that made the trip memorable rather than the exact set of places we visited.
We considered going all the way to Zermatt to see the Matterhorn but the weather was not looking good again. So we just got off at Visp and took off for the Montreux Jazz Festival. Montreux hosts an annual jazz festival for a couple of weeks which gets performers from all over the world. The entire town is abuzz with the entertainment and very very lively. First, we went to the Chateau de Chillon which is a short train ride away from the city along Lake Montreux. It is here that Lord Byron penned his famous poem 'The Prisoner of Chillon'. The Tibetan guy we met in the Glacier Express had mentioned that he had studied this poem in his Indian school but neither of us could remember studying it! We walked around the Chateau which was just about alright - I think it looked prettier from outside than from inside. Oh by the way, in Montreux we started off with French - we took a wrong train and ended up far away from the Chateau and had to take a bus back - we totally spoke French and reached the Chateau. From the Chateau, we headed off to the Montreux lakefront. Montreux is located on Lake Geneva along with many other cities such as Lausanne and of course Geneva itself. Its very beautiful with pretty buildings lining the entire lakeside.
Along the lakefront, there was a huge statue of Freddie Mercury, our local desi British rock star. I wonder why he is so popular in this part of the world. And then there was Mayur and his huge Heineken beer. We walked along the huge lakefront which had a huge fair going on - stalls with food, artists and their wares, trinket sellers, music stages, street performers - it was quite a blast. We ate falafel for dinner and then headed off to the Montreux Jazz Cafe. We heard a couple of bands perform there. It was okay - I think the paid venues would probably have had better performers. But the atmosphere was very cool. People were just hanging out and it was not just youngsters. Families had also come there will little kids who were enjoying the music. All in all a nice fun place. We were fairly tired from the long day so after a couple of drinks, we headed back to Geneva via Lausanne, and hit our hostel there.
[TRAINS: St. Moritz - Visp - Montreux - Lausanne - Geneva]
July 11, Saturday
As I said earlier, shop in Geneva - brilliant watches and souvenirs! We headed to old town Geneva first. We crossed one of the bridges across Lake Geneva in the search of the famous fountain on one side of the lake - Jet D'Eau. We could not see it and were told that it runs at random times. So we just saw the statue of Rousseau on Ile Rousseau along the bridge, and headed off to the United Nations. We first arrived at the huge Place des Nations Unis which is a big square surrounded by the buildings of the UN. In the center there are many fountains jets and a huge broken chair representing opposition to land mines and bombs. The UN tour is the hardest thing to find! There was a board which said that they conduct tours but it was inside a closed grilled gate and it said to walk 500M ahead. We asked a guard there who said that there were no tours on weekends. We decided to walk up anyway as the Red Cross Museum was there. As I posing under the Red Cross Museum board for a picture, we saw another UN building across the road. After going there too, it was really hard to get to the tour place, and we were certain that they will refuse us but we just wanted to confirm. And suddenly we came upon a security booth which allowed us to just go in and join the English tour just in the nick of time! The tour was very nice with this nervous Italian tour guide who was very conscious of her nearly-perfect English. The UN building was very impressive - it was the site of the WWI League of Nations. Most of the non-Security Council meetings and decisions are made here in Geneva. There was a beautiful garden outside the main Palais du Nations building along with a view of Lake Geneva and Jet D'Eau. There was a large obelisk-like concrete needle gifted by Russia to the UN to commemorate their space program. Inside the building were large meeting halls for different committees including the Human Rights Commission. The building itself was very spacious with large corridors and gifts from different nations all over the world. We enjoyed the tour and then headed over to the Red Cross Museum. They had a very interesting saying right at the entrance itself "Chacun est responsable de tout devant tous" - "Everyone is responsible for everything before everyone". I thought it was very true and we cannot turn a blind eye to atrocities in the world because they do not concern us. The museum had interesting exhibits from different wars, the origins of the Red Cross, records of the prisoners of war of World War I, etc.
We took a bus to the Jardin Botanique and walked around there for a bit. Then we headed back to downtown Geneva, struggled to get a quick bite (although we later found out that there is a good salad bar there in a departmental store called Manor), and headed off to the Patek Phillipe Watch Musuem. Mayur actually wanted to see a working watch making industry but apparently its not really possible to do that in spite of the hundreds of watch makers in the Lake Geneva region. So we settled for the three-storey Patek Phillipe Musuem which had a ton of masterpiece watches to admire. On the topmost floor they had the history and awards earned by the company. It started off with two partners Patek (who was the MBA) and Czapek (who was the engineer). I think the engineer got screwed over by the business guy :), and the latter brought in another engineer Phillipe who had some new patents in clock movement. The company was bought over by the Stern family in the early twentieth century, and has remained with them ever since. They try to maintain the sale record for every watch they have manufactured, and guarantee service for all their watches no matter how old. Right now, their watches start off at 10000 Swiss francs! We saw beautiful watches - made of enamel, wood, enameled, with accurate movements, in the form jewelry, as a part of other objects such as rings and keychains (chudo-style), etc. Unfortunately, we would not take any pictures inside. They had a nice collection of complicated watches - the biggest one had 23 complications and weighed more than 1 kg made to commemorate the 150th anniversary of Patek Phillipe! After PP, we headed back to old Geneva and the lakefront. The Jet D'Eau fountain was in full action and very impressive. We saw the famous floral clock face after much hunting. We saw a bunch of other equally-pretty floral clocks in Switzerland so we were not sure why this one is so popular :). We also saw some other commemorative statues such as one of Brunswick and one of the merger of Geneva with Switzerland. There are famous brand name watch shops along the entire lakefront - Patek Phillipe, Omega, Cartier, Omega, Raymond Veil, etc. - all very impressive. We then roamed around in old Geneva seeing little cobbled streets, old buildings, the Catherine St. Pierre church, Museum of Reformation, Hotel de Ville, Espace (birthplace) Rousseau, cannons, continuously running water fountains, a floral market (Molard), and the likes. We ate crepes at Globus while looking out to the street fare including a Swiss cross-dresser dressed in pretty pink frills! Then we headed back to our hostel, collected our bags and barely made it to our train to Lausanne. Since we climbed into the restaurant car, we grabbed some chips and our soon-to-be-favorite Erdinger Weissbrau beer. The waiter there was a Bangaldeshi who had settled in Switzerland for 20+ years. We actually bumped into him again on another day at Zurich and he gave us some recommendations for local restaurants. We reached Lausanne and our hostel had a lovely view of the city and the railway station. Mayur spent several hours looking at the trains at the station in our short stay there! The lady at the guest was supremely enthu and gave us all sort of information about Lausanne and Gruyeres where we wanted to go the next day.
[TRAINS: Geneva - Lausanne]
July 12, Sunday
Gruyeres, Broc Fabrique, Lausanne
We left early to get to Gruyeres - be careful - very few trains to Gruyeres so its best to go there early in the morning. Since there was some time till our train, we walked around town and tried to go to the Lausanne Cathedral but it was too far so we gave up on it. We took on train to Palazieux and then switched to go to Gruyeres. Right outside the station is La Maison Du Gruyere which has demonstrations of cheese making twice a day. Really most of it happens at the end so its better to just go at 11AM (instead of 9AM) and 3PM (instead of 1PM). We landed at 11AM and saw some process of cheese making. It was uber-cool and really cannot be described. In theory it is just like making paneer but it was fun seeing it being made at a production level. All the machinery to make the cheese and the cleanliness was just too impressive! We saw the stores of cheese where they can keep up to six months of cheese production for aging. Each round of cheese is marked with the exact date of manufacture and the dairy where it was made. We took a bus to the Gruyeres village itself - the Chateau de Gruyere is located there. The village itself was very picturesque and it also houses a museum with artefacts from the 'Alien' movie. We got spectacular views of the countryside from the Chateau, and saw interesting artefacts in it including a huge decorated dining hall and beautifully landscaped gardens outside. We walked to the Maison (worked out well - took a bus to the village which is at a considerable height and walked our way back) and saw the boring initial part of the cheese making. Mostly Mayur watched and I spent some time in the gift shop eating the cheese samples they gave us with our tickets. From Gruyeres we took another train to Broc Fabrique which houses the Nestle chocolate manufacturing plant. There is even a special Swiss Railway Chocolate Train that goes there from Lausanne. However they do not show the actual manufacturing process so we just left immediately. But its a good place to visit to buy cheap chocolates as we discovered an IIT intern from Lausanne had come to do :).
We got back to Lausanne from Broc Fabrique and headed to the Lausanne Cathedral. It was a really nice and big cathedral although parts of it were under construction. Since we had seen other parts of Lausanne in the morning, we headed south to the lakefront of Ouchy. Very pretty - had yet another floral clock ala Geneva. We just sat around and enjoyed the view, and then had our grand fondue dinner . As most of you may know, X fondue is this huge pot of X in which you dip pieces of things and eat them. We had a cheese fondue made of two cheeses - Gruyere and Vacherin. We dipped pieces of bread in it and ate them. The waiter actually showed us how to eat it properly since looked so naive. There was a small family next to us in which an old man was totally enjoying his fondue - they even ate the last remains of the burnt cheese! We ate a portion for one person and still could not finish the whole thing! It did taste good but the calorie content was way too much to have it every so often! I totally recommend that restaurant though since a lot of locals were also having fondue there - Cafe du Vieil Ouchy. After that we headed back by the metro to our hostel and further enjoyed our second night of nice views of Lausanne and its train station.
[TRAINS: Lausanne - Palazieux - Gruyeres - Bulle - Broc Fabrique - Bulle - Lausanne]
July 13, Monday
Mt. Titlis, Paris
This was our grand Swiss snow-covered peak day. After having missed both Jungfraujoch and Zermatt due to bad weather, we decided to go to Mt. Titlis. We took a train from Lausanne to Lucerne. We had to store our luggage at Lucerne, AND we managed to store it, change platforms and board our connecting train to Engelberg in less than 5 mins! Thanks to the fantastic Swiss railways. From Engelberg, we took a cable car to Trubsee (1800m) and Stand (2400m), and then in the first rotating gondola to Mt. Titlis! The views from every where were absolutely spectacular as the weather was just perfect - the pictures speak for themselves. We took a short ride in a ski-lift called the Ice Flyer Lift to reach the snow park. Here we did some snow tubing. Initially I was a bit scared to do it but with suitable encouragement from Mayur, tried it and loved it! You stick your bum in a big tyre (similar to black water rafting in New Zealand), and let yourself go down a nice slope where it zooms down, rotates once in a while, and eventually slows down and stops. Unfortunately the line to do it again was too long so we just did it once. Its really not scary and just as enjoyable (but still second to Space Mountain!). After coming back from the Ice Flyer and the glacier, we went to a small cave snow cave below the main gondola station. It was cold and lit up with fluorescent lights. There was a small machine from which one could choose the music to play in the cave - and it had the Indian national anthem which we played :). In general the whole place was catered to Indians and Chinese - the most frequent visitors there I guess. There were notices every where in Hindi. At the top of Mt. Titlis, there was a full fledged Indian buffet with palak paneer and naan etc :). We had 'the spicy Indian vegetarian pizza' ourselves along with our favorite Erdinger beer which was cheaper than water :). At the bottom of the mountain, there was YAIS (Yet Another Indian Stall) which had a server with a turban and they were selling everything from pav bhaji to masala chai! All terribly interesting!! We had a really nice time at Mt. Titlis and its totally worth it especially with the extra activities like snow tubing and the snow cave. We hurtled back to Lucerne, and then Basel (kiss the ground of the hometown of Roger Federer - Go Federer!!), and onto Paris in the super fast TGV train. Oh and we used these really fancy privately-operated toilets by McacClean at the station which were super-expensive at 2 euros for a visit!
We reached Paris and then took a metro to our hotel which was far south and took about 30-45 mins to get there. Apparently we reached Paris very fast and our train reached speeds of 250kmph according to Mayur which was supposedly very impressive! That night was the night before Bastille Day in Paris and all the fire stations are converted to pubs which hold dance parties. We asked the not-so-good reception guy who asked us to go to Champs D'Elysees. So we patiently took a metro there and walked more than 2 miles to the Arc de Triomphe along the Champs D'Elysees. And there was absolutely nothing happening there! The Arc was lit up beautifully but there was nothing else we could do there. Plus all the metros shut down at 2AM! We waited around for a while for a bus but the drivers were not very helpful about which connections we could use to get to our hotel so we just took a cab back to the hotel. We had got some information from the metro person about a fire station to go to but we disregarded it - in retrospect we should have just gone there and enjoyed one of the Parisian parties - c'est la vie! Bastille Day tomorrow!
[TRAINS: Lausanne - Lucerne - Engelberg - Lucerne - Basel - Paris]
July 14, Tuesday
Bastille Day - we got up early in the morning, and went to Champs D'Elysees to get a good spot to see the National Parade. We stood for about a couple of hours before the parade started. The Indian prime minister Dr. Manmohan Singh was there too with the Maratha regiment but we were standing closer to the Arc De Triomphe so we could not see them. We first saw airplanes release the French flag tri-color gases which was spectacular! We saw the French president Nicholas Sarkozy as he saluted the different regiments. This was followed by an impressive display of France's military power and such - regiments, tanks, guns, policemen, firemen, etc. The parade lasted for about 60-90 mins and then we walked around taking pictures with the tanks and the military people (read G. I. Joes) standing around. We also walked over to the Arc de Triomphe. It is a very impressive structure up close - really big with the tomb of the unknown soldier inside it. Since we were beat from less sleep the earlier night, we just slept off at the hotel after the morning parade. We discovered a gem of an Italian restaurant for lunch bang opposite our hotel where we enjoyed a nice vegetarian meal. In the evening, we went to the Johnny Halliday concert at the Champs de Mars - the Eiffel Tower lawns. It was completely packed with people for the music concert and the subsequent fireworks. The environment was totally brilliant and we just sat around and enjoyed the music. Mayur bought us some food from a nearby grocery store and we were there till midnight! We saw the fireworks at the end which was mind-blowing. They put up an excellent light and fireworks show to highlight the entire history of the Eiffel Tower for its 120th anniversary. We had a great time there - when it was all over, we walked back to the hotel - no other transport was possible with the huge crowds. It was just totally fun spending a day in Paris just like the locals and seeing something special!
July 15, Wednesday
We got off to a late start due to all the excitement and lack of sleep from the earlier day, and headed straight to the Louvre Musuem. That part of town is really really touristy and avoid it at all costs except to go to the Musuem. We first stopped by the tourist office for some information and Mayur bought the museum tickets there to avoid the long lines at the musuem - what a relief that was as we discovered the sinuous lines for tickets at the musuem. I cannot say enough good things about the Louvre. I simply loved the building itself - must have been fun to live in as a house provided you had a gazillion servants to keep it clean! It was the palace of the French monarchs before they moved their palace to Versailles. The Louvre has a huge courtyard in the middle which houses the newly built glass pyramid, and it has the three wings on three sides of the courtyard - Sully, Devon, and Richelieu. It was HUGE, spacious and naturally well-lit. The main entrance is from inside the glass pyramid where you go down a huge spiral staircase to the ticket booths and musuem entrances. They had audio guides but Mayur had downloaded Rick Steve's guide to the musuem on his iPod so we just followed that to see the musuem highlights first. Beware that the directions in the guide are pretty bad so its easier to find the places using the musuem map and then listening to his (sometime irreverent) commentary. Our first stop was Venus de Milo. A statue of a beautiful woman with no arms - I guess I could go on as if I understood all these things but really it was just a nice statue - I liked David better. We then went on to the Winged Victory which was originally a statue at the bow of a ship indicating victory - the statue is now in a broken shape but still very towering and impressive. They later found one of the fingers of one of the missing hands in Turkey and it is now encased in a small showcase close to this statue. We then saw the super-famous La Jocund aka Mona Lisa in the most crowded salle of the musuem.It was pretty hard to appreciate the painting with all the crowds and the copy in the Victoria and Albert Musuem (or was is the British Musuem?) in London could be much easily seen and admired. One painting I loved was the Coronation of Napolean and his queen Josephine; the clarity of colors and details were amazing. Apparently Napolean thought that even the Pope was not good enough to crown him, so he crowned himself as the emperor and subsequently crowned Josephine. He had the artist add his mother to the scene (the prominent last in the first row in the seated audience) even though she was not actually present at the coronation ceremony itself. This painting was seen again at the Chateau de Versailles and I was able to admire it one more time there. We saw many other things in the musuem including this huge gallery of Greek sculptures. These galleries gave us a sense of the size of the Louvre which one cannot gauge from a single room or even the courtyard outside. After the Rick Steve's tour, we just walked around the musuem and saw the other highlights marked on the map. Other things we saw at the musuem were Michelangelo's dying slave, the French monarchy rooms, Roman, Persian, and Egyptian sculptures. We were there for more than 4 hours but we covered less than 1/3rd of the musuem. It was enough for us not being connoisseurs of any specific art or sculpture but one should at least plan to spend about half a day at the musuem. Even with that much time, you can end up really tired like this couple here :).
After the Louvre, we grabbed a quick bite and headed home as we had to attend a ballet at the Opera House in the evening. We ate a lot of Parisian pastries and coffee all the time since they were so easily available every where. Veggie food was not really a problem but not amply available. We ate a lot of wholesome food from grocery stores, and from the wonderful Italian restaurant opposite our hotel. We dressed up really nice and headed off to the Opera House which we reached barely in the nick of time for the show. The ballet called 'La Fil Mal Gardee' was playing that evening. We had reasonably good seats one level above the box seats. The inside of the Opera House was very nice - with gold and red decor. It was totally packed as it was the last performance of the season. The ballet was a simple love story with an evil mother who wanted the heroine to marry someone other than the hero - quite enjoyable with a live 50+ member orchestra and a happy ending. The main couple did an excellent job of dancing. After the show, we just roamed around the city, and saw the Place de Madeleine (an area where the original madeleines were made), and the Concorde (like the obelisk). We traveled all over Paris via the metro which was extremely convenient. We managed just fine with the discounted carnet of 10 tickets; we only bought the day pass for one day since we did not use the metros much when we were visiting the museums. Its good to have the pass when going to Montmarte or wandering to see the Paris by night with all the lit-up monuments.
July 16, Thursday
Today was a long day with Old Paris, Montmarte, and Paris by night so we got ourselves a day pass in the morning itself. First stop was the grand Notre Dame Cathedral. Huge huge line to get to the top so its best to get there early. We stood for more than an hour in the line before we even got to the entrance. The facade of the cathedral is impressive with three main entrances among which there was one each for Jesus and Mary. The facade also had the statues of 29 kings which the public mistook for some evil kings and beheaded them! The heads were found recently buried in a local backyard in Paris. In addition there was a huge circular rose window right above the three entrances. The building was lined with gargoyles and chimera - statues of animals and birds guarding the cathedral from evil spirits. One special chimera called Strygin sits with its head in its arms and watches all over Paris. We climbed 400 steps in total to go to the top of the Cathedral from where we got excellent views of Paris. The Cathedral also houses a huge belfry reminiscent of Victor Hugo's Hunchback of Note Dame. After seeing the top, we went inside the Cathedral and there was a service going on at that time. Very impressive since it was a huge building and it sounded very peaceful. We followed Rick Steve's tour of Old Paris too - it was okay - nothing special. We walked along the Cathedral towards the back where we saw the Deportation Memorial and the Ile De St. Louis (one of the two islands in the Seine - Notre Dame is located on the other island the Ile de La Cite). We also got a side view of the Cathedral which I thought was equally (if not more) spectacular compared to the front view. We walked along the Seine - these really cute book sellers sitting along it selling all odd sorts of books, pictures, memorabilia, souvenirs, etc. They are apparently very old and very famously known as the book sellers of Seine.
We then walked inside the Latin Quarter of old Paris. Like any old city, it had old historical buildings, narrow streets, cute restaurants. We saw the Shakespeare book company which was the haunt of famous British authors in Paris, and housed (apparently even today) struggling authors in the rooms above the shop. We also saw the Place des Beaux Arts and the Place du Saint Michel with a pretty fountain. Our next stop was the Saint Chapelle located inside the Palais du Justice or the French Supreme Court premises. Initially it was a royal church located inside the palace but after the revolution, the palace was converted into the court. We managed to catch a guided English tour which worked very well for us since we got a little bit more about the history of the church. It is a two-level church with the lower level reserved for the palace staff, and the upper level was for the royal family. It was decorated in the 13th century and redecorated in the 19th century trying to restore some of the damage done to it during the revolution, and yet keeping in style with the original church decoration. It took 3 conditions for the church to be deemed a Saint Chapelle - 1. It has to be inside a palace, 2. it had to house some monks, and 3. it had to have some original relics. Apparently at one time, this church had a lot of relics including Jesus' crown of thorns. The relics cost thrice as much to obtain than the entire cost to construct the church. The relics were displayed to the public once a year - they were housed in a mini Saint Chapelle-like structure on the first floor and the entire pedestal was rotated to point the relics to an open window on the other side. The first floor of the church was absolutely surprising and awesome, with huge stained glass windows lined on both sides. The church was constructed in a record time of 6 years, and now it takes 5 years just to clean the stained glass windows! The church was able to have these huge windows due to support obtained from external buttresses - very advanced civil engineering for those times! The window scenes use only 5 colors red, blue, yellow, green and purple, and the colors were reflected on the white marble floor when the sunlight came in. Each stain glass window explained some story from the Bible. The first panel showed the book of genesis, Moses and the burning bush was in the second, and the miracle to find Jesus' true cross was in the last panel. There was a brilliant rose window on the third side of the church. After the Saint Chapelle, we went to the Conciergerie (also located in the promises of the Supreme Court) which was used as a prison to house high profile prisoners like Queen Marie Antoinette and Robespierre before they were guillotined. They had accurate reproductions of what their cells would have looked like in those days. We also saw the Babeling Tower which was so named after the cries of the prisoners who were to be executed. We also crossed the Pont Neuf - the oldest bridge on the Seine onto the other side where we saw a nice square called the Place du Chatelet flanked on both sides by the Theatre du Chatelet and the Hotel del Ville. We then headed off to the Pantheon to see the graves of famous people such as Queen Marie Antoinette (again!) but it was closed so we just saw it from outside. We ate some crepes from a roadside vendor - kinda alright for a quick bite but nothing special.
Next stop - happening Pigalle and Montmarte! We first got off at Montmarte and took the funiculaire upto the massive Sacre Couer church which was visible from the top of the Notre Dame Cathedral. There were a huge set of steps to get to the church - there was a sizable crowd sitting there and enjoying the breeze. Some street performers were also singing and dancing and showcasing their talent. The church was beautiful from inside - very large, simple and quiet. They also allowed to go the crypt and the top of the church but we didn't have the time and had seen some good views of the city already. We sat on the steps for some time and soaked in the atmosphere. And made way back to the Artists' Corner in Montmarte. It is a small square which houses a ton of talented artists - oil painters, water color artists, portrait makers, cartoonists, everything you can think of. Surrounding this little square are little restaurants. I think this place was simply lovely but one of those tourist traps. Now only tourists come here so the paintings and the food were too expensive, and the food was bad to top it all. I got some prints of water colors to hang at home, and we grabbed local crepes for dinner. After that we dashed off a couple of station to Pigalle and saw the famous Moulin Rouge. This is one of the cabaret places where they serve dinner and have a nice show going on at the same time. Lido on Champs Elysees and Moulin Rouge are the two most famous shows in town. Having seen stuff at Broadway, West End, and Cirque du Soleil, we skipped on these shows. Since we were beat from the long day, we went home to freshen up. After that, we headed off to see Paris by night and get some nice pictures of the lit-up monuments. We saw the National Assembly and the Louvre by night which was just beautiful as the picture shows. But then we hit a thunderstorm with a lot of rain so we just called it a day.
July 17, Friday
This day was much more peaceful compared to the earlier and next day and the main highlight was the Musee D'Orsay. First we went to the Trocadero which is a huge building behind the Eiffel Tower and from where you get excellent views of the tower. Since we were already late, we did not go up the tower but headed off to the musuem. On the way there, we saw the Musee des Invalides which was an old hospital for war soldiers and houses the remains of Napolean. It has a nice golden dome which can be easily identified from many parts of the city. We also saw the bridge Pont Alexandre III with beautiful golden equestrian statues, the Grand Palace and the Assembly of Nations (the lower house of the parliament). Musee D'Orsay is an art musuem converted from an old train station. When the station was not useful for the new metro system, they converted the huge building into this nice musuem. It had a ton of beautiful paintings - the entire third floor has impressionist paintings of artists like Monet, Manet, Renoir, Van Gogh, etc. We saw the sunflower series pictures and the self portrait of Van Gogh. There was also some post impressionism and works of sculptors such as Rodin. We saw the Gates of Hell like the one in the Rodin garden in Stanford. On one wall of the musuem, there was a huge pretty wall clock. Among the other paintings that I really enjoyed: a huge Roman orgy, the birth of Venus, the new Paris Opera House architecture, and the layout of Paris at a lower level that you could walk over a glass top. After several hours at Orsay, we headed back to go up the Eiffel Tower but it started raining so we just grabbed dinner and headed back to the hotel.
July 18, Saturday
Went up the Eiffel Tower this morning. There were long winding lines even at 10M so its best to get there really early. It also tends to be cold so pick a sunny day or go well-prepared. It took us about an hour to get to the elevator to the first floor which continues on to the second floor. There we bought new tickets to go all the way to the top and that was another 45 minute wait. I think the views were the same from the second floor and the top but the experience of going up to the top was rather different than going up in a tall building. Overall the tower is about 106 floors tall but when you take the elevator to the top you are a in narrow lift and can see everything around you as you go up - a bit scary if you ask me! And it was cold at the top too! Nice views of the city - various monuments like the Trocadero and the Seine from all locations on the Eiffel Tower. There were some nice exhibitions explaining the history of the Eiffel Tower on account of its 120th anniversary. We even ate on the second floor and surprisingly it was quite reasonable :).
From there, we headed off to take a short train ride to Versailles. The Chateau de Versailles - the new palace of the French royalty after Paris - was a short walk from the train station. Again, long winding lines to buy tickets so just buy them from the visitor's center which is on the way when you walk to it from the train station. Since it was a peak season summer evening, they had weird timings for all the different parts of the palace - be careful of that. First, we saw the main Palace - the first stop was the Royal Chapel which has a similar two-level structure like the Saint Chapelle in Paris. We walked our way inside the Palace listening to the audio guide. We saw the state apartments of the King and the Queen which were the most fancy among all the personal rooms. One surprising fact that they told us was the queen always delivered her children in public so that there was no ambiguity about the successors! We then proceeded to the Hall of Mirrors which was a HUGE dining hall with mirrors on both sides and large chandeliers all along the room. They have a special visit to this room at sunset to get an idea of how the king felt when he walked here all alone but we thought it was too much hype :). We also saw the French National History galleries the apartments of the heir apparent and his wife - the Dauphin and the Dauphine (meaning 'dolphin'), the apartments of the mesdames - the king's daughters which were the least decorated of all. Its a huge palace and very spectacular with ornate interiors and murals on the walls and ceilings. It got a little bit repetitive with all the art descriptions but grand nonetheless. We had seen some of the decorations in the Louvre already but this huge ornate display of wealth was certainly impressive!
From the main palace, we headed off to the gardens which are just huge! About half a mile from the palace is the Grand Canal from where you get a view of the entire palace and the gardens in front of it. People were even boating in the Grand Canal. The gardens are a huge maze and have different themed fountains located inside.There were some beautifully landscaped pieces closer to the palace which were visible from the apartments of the royal family members. On summer evenings, they have musical fountains which means that they play music while the fountains are running. I thought that the musical fountains at the Vrindavan Gardens in Mysore, India are better but this was enjoyable too :). It was just a really long walk to cover everything and we got tired pretty soon! They have a little tram that takes you to the southern end of the gardens but to see all of the fountains, you really have to walk. You can get fresh orange juice from the local palace orchards along the way though :). We then walked to the southern part of the campus which has Queen Marie Antoinette's hamlet. This was a little world that she created for herself away from the elaborate etiquette of the main palace. It was a cutesy village with a few small buildings, farms, and gardens. We had bought tickets to the evening show with lit-up fountains and fireworks but the weather was starting to look really crappy. We walked back to town (a lot of walking!) and ate dinner. We headed back to the palace for our show but the weather was still bleak. So we sold our tickets and headed back to Paris. Selling tickets to people by talking to them in French was just super cool - I was impressed with myself! End of France and we headed back to Switzerland the next day!
July 19, Sunday and onwards
We headed back to Zurich the next day. We considered stopping by at Lucerne on our way back but we had had enough so it was just back to the Google guest house, and sundries like laundry and email and such. With the metro repairs going on, it took us a while just to get home so we were glad not to have stopped in Lucerne. In the evening. we stepped into town to see the new Harry Potter movie and the tickets were like $20 per person! I guess people here don't see too many movies in theatres with such prices. We grabbed dinner at a local Italian place. I spent the next day shopping around in Zurich - saw some beautiful but terribly expensive watches. Mayur stayed on in Zurich for another 4-5 days after me and took some pictures while he was there - the Hauptbanhof main train station, Zurich's Jet D'Eau in the lake, some pretty churches along the way, and Google's fancy Zurich office with the slide to the cafeteria. On his last day there, he also visited the beautiful Rhine Falls.
All in all a great trip - we got a nice flavor of both Switzerland and Paris - it was a good contrast between all the natural scenery and the urban life of Paris. Both countries are must-visit places! Happy Travels!
Hotels that we stayed in (my scale of 1 to 5 stars):
St. Moritz, Switzerland
Kempinski Grand Hotel Des Bains
Via Mezdi 27,
7500 St. Moritz
Well, this was our indulgence for the trip - absolutely spectacular. We booked on an online site so we got a side view of the mountains which was still pretty nice. There is no view of the main lake and its a tad far from downtown but there is a convenient bus there. And the pool and spa more than make up for all these factors. We had a splendid time there in the evening just relaxing. May have been more welcome at the end of the hectic trip :)!
City Hostel Geneva
Rue Ferrier 2,
Geneve Switzerland 1202
Very functional - nothing fancy or extra but absolutely clean. Its very close to the train station and centrally located. There is a bus right outside to go to the station and the United Nations. Great place to crash - we were hardly there for a few hours to sleep. But perhaps not suitable for a longer stay. They had very convenient and reasonable services for internet access, baggage storage, buying souvenirs, etc. Very friendly staff even when we arrived after midnight.
Lausanne Guest House
Chemin Des Epinettes 4,
1007 Lausanne Switzerland
Excellent hostel - close to the station and spectacular view of Lausanne and the train station. We had a private room and bath which was very nice. Loads of information at the front desk though internet access etc was expensive. Avoid the breakfast recommendations from the hostel. The Ouchy waterfront is at the other end of the city but it is useful to stay here as it is closer to the station. Rooms not on the top floor have nice balconies to enjoy the view.
257 Rue de Vaugirard
75015 Paris, France
Reasonable place given the pricey Paris hotels. It was located in a non-touristy area which was very helpful both in terms of getting food and help as well as enjoying the local scene a little bit. It was also (a longish) walking distance from the Eiffel Tower which helped us to walk back from the Bastille Day celebrations in the crazy crowd. Free internet at the reception though busy most of the times. The service could have been better but the room was comfortable and nice. Easy access to the metro.