The List: Favorite Trips Of All Time.

This post is dedicated to all the travelers out there.  We often get inquiries about our favorite places that we have visited outside of the US.  Before we forget, we wanted to leave detailed notes on our top picks in rank order.    Instead of putting it as a post and making it impossibly long to scroll through, we have created a new page on the site here.   You can find it in the future on the top menu of the blog. We pledge to continually update it through our travels!

Swiss Sports: Tobogganing

On our Neuchâtel fun day, we drove through La Vue des Alpes on the way home for what else but the view of the Alps.

The view wasn’t bad:

Forests, lakes and Alps. The average view in Switzerland 🙂

As we walked back to the car, we saw a chute underneath where we were standing….the place offered tobogganing!

The three bravest members of our fivesome decided to try it out.    The other two of us decided to partake in another Swiss sport: regional wine drinking.

T and I enjoying the Neuchâtel white….

When they passed, we left our perch to watch.

What goes up…..

……must…..

come down!!!!

They really enjoyed their adventure sports and joined us for a glass after they finished.  The warm sunshine and views of the Alps were quite nice.

The big find of the stop for me was a little farmer stand in the parking lot.   I adore buying things from local places.   I bought a pack of copa, a type of meat that was Gabe’s favorite delicacy from our trip to Italy.  It all has to be eaten in one sitting so think we’ll save that for when we have special visitors this month!

Irish Castles

We have seen our fair share of castles lately.  I thought I’d post a few from Ireland….

First of all, we ate in a castle on our way from Dublin to Galway.  At first glance, we thought it might be cheesy but it was the only open restaurant in town, Tyrellpass.  As it turned out, it was fully with locals.

Our 2nd castle-dining in a week. This one not a UNESCO site like Bellinzona.

Next we drove through The Burren and spotted a few on its craggy coast.

Dungary Castle

On the Ring of Kerry, we saw quite a few.   We spied this one from the road and it was completely deserted.  We thought it was quite cool with the growth.

Ballycarberry Castle

We also saw ring forts in the distance and explored two.   The ring forts were defensive structured.

Ring fort #1

Ring fort #1

Ring fort #2

Ring fort #2

Ring fort #2

On our way back from Killarney to Dublin, we stopped at Blarney Castle (home of the Blarney Stone) and the Rock of Cashel.  We found Blarney to be incredibly touristy.  We couldn’t wait to get out of there…

The Blarney stone is at the top

Rock of Cashel, however, was cooler.  It was a home for kings until one donated the grounds to the church for strategic reasons.  It then was used until only recently.  The roof has falled into decay so I am sure it is not that pleasant with the typical Ireland weather.

Approaching Rock of Cashel

Inside of Rock of Cashel

Nearby monastery

Beautiful gravestone

Adding a new color to the Spring palette….

We first noticed the yellow fields when Couch Surfer was here, on our drive to the Chocolate Factory.  We aren’t used to field being this vibrant!    They have been a big point of discussion this Spring.    So, what exactly is it?

The first thing I was told was Canola.  Then I was informed it wasn’t canola but grape seed.  Finally, I was told it was a type of green for salads.   I think that S solved it by meeting a farmer and concluded it was actually “rape seed”.

Whatever it is, I sure can tell you it is miraculous to see:

A patchwork of yellow at the foot of the Alps

Fields of yellow

Moo cow with the yellow fields.  Sorry, I still like taking pictures of cows.

More and more yellow

Traversing Swiss Mountains

After our trip to Lake Como, I am a lot more educated on how to get through, around, and over a mountain.

I remember when we first moved here, when we looked at a map, we were stupefied why there wasn’t a direct route.   It didn’t take long to find out that the reason the roads can’t go straight here is because of the big freakin’ mountains, otherwise known as “the Alps”.

Within our year, we learned about the wonderful Mt. Blanc Tunnel, which can save you a lot of time getting to Italy (and also adding a big dent to your wallet, around $60 USD).   We had used this tunnel to get back from the South of France, and also planned to use it to get to Lake Como.

However, I wanted to stop in Lugano and Bellinzona on our way home, putting us in the South of Switzerland, far from the Mt. Blanc tunnel.   I saw on Google Maps that there appeared to be two ways though.  They took longer but it was worth seeing a few cities in the Ticino canton.  No biggie.

The little yellow circle is where we came into Italy via Mt. Blanc. The other two were the ways we considered coming back into Swizterland.

The week before we left, I mentioned to my PT that we were going to holiday in Lake Como and return through Ticino.

“Are you sure the passes are open yet”?  he inquired.

No I wasn’t sure.   Anytime we’d gone that direction before, we were in a train.   This was to be our first time taking the car and it never occurred to me that in mid May some roads wouldn’t be open.

So, that week, I tried to research this.  Key word – “tried”.   Google Maps would still let me do directions home through the alternative ways.  It hinted that “some roads would be seasonally closed”.   No problem…i’ll just Google it.    Surely they’ll be a key like there is during ski season showing whats open and not.

I found a few message boards but nothing definitive that suggested if passes were open or not.   I did find a map showing that going up from Domodolossa there was a station in Iselle that you could put your car on a train to go through the Simplon Tunnel if the Simplon Pass wasn’t open.

See the little happy car on the dotted line? That means underground car on rail transportation.

I noted this would be a plan that could work.  Although, no information about the cost, schedule, etc.  Do these car trains go every hour?  Only once a day?  Once a weekend?

More research also found that the Gottard Pass was likely closed  since it usually is open until June, but the Gottard Tunnel was open year round.  A few message boards added that the wait could be up to 2 hours on a holiday weekend, creating a queue of traffic on the freeway for 10-15 km back.  Curses!!!

I’ll stop and interject with some basic vocabulary.  I actually didn’t really know this until our adventure this weekend.

Pass = a road that goes over an Alp.  It is likely curvy, amazingly beautiful, and will make you marvel at the wonder of Swiss civil engineering.  It can only be passable when the snow is gone or can be scraped.  During winter, its simply not possible based on snowfall.  Some passes, like Gottard, are only open 2-3 months a year.

Tunnel = a road that goes through a mountain, usually in a direct way, and will make you marvel at the wonder of Swiss civil engineering.  The benefit is that they can stay open regardless of snowfall.  If it is not in Switzerland, its costly.  If you live in Switzerland, you have a 40 CHF highway pass that allows you to do it for free.  If you don’t live in Switzerland and want to use said tunnel, guess what?  40 CHF.

The evening before we left Como, we tried to inquire about the best way home.  Our sweet apartment proprietor even knocked on the door of her neighbor to inquire since he knew more about Switzerland.  They said they’d think we’d be okay on the passes around Lugano and Locarno.  Okay, then…didn’t even know those were in contention to worry about either.    She gave us an internet password and we continued to look into it the evening before dinner. Nothing else was definitive.  Thus, we decided to get to Bellinzona and see how the GPS acted.

During our awesome lunch in a UNESCO castle, we inquired at the desk about how to get back to Geneva.  We mentioned what we knew.   When we said Gottard Tunnel and the phrase, “but we weren’t sure because it is a holiday weekend”, she immediately blurted, “that’s a terrible idea!!”.

So, we were off to the Simplon Pass or Simplon Tunnel   We entered “Iselle, Italy” into the GPS so that we could decide and evaluate the pass.

Gabe hadn’t had Ticino, Lugano or Bellinzona on his list.  He found Lugano average, Bellinzona cool because of the architecture and castles, but driving through the Ticino a 10.    We found ourselves curving around lush tropical mountains, feeling like we were in the Amazon.  Were we really still in Switzerland?      It was exhilarating for me to be in the car.  Luckily, Gabe is an excellent driver, but it was still a bit scary.

I made a little movie to show you what driving on these roads was like. Mom, please don’t watch this.

We crossed back into Italy.   And, two hours later, we reached Iselle.  We weren’t really sure what was happening as it wasn’t evident where to put your car on a train, but there were three cars with Canton of Geneva plates and we decided to follow them.   Crossing back into Switzerland, we saw this sign.

All green.  Thanks, Switzerland.  Would have been really nice to have this information online somewhere instead of having to drive here to verify it.

And again, we were in wonder.

Misty Alps

Lush fields with stone fence property lines

There’s still snow up here. The temperature had dropped from 20 C in Bellinzona to 2 C at the top of the Simplon Pass.

The hubby is a good driver. Thank goodness.

Driving over the Simplon Pass

Descending into the valley on the other side of the Alps

A view of Brig coming down from the Simplon Pass.

We had talked with some friends on the way home who warned us about the Gottard traffic.  We didn’t know they were returning to Geneva back through Ticino or we should have shared our information or lack thereof about the roads.

So, this post was to inform any folks trying to drive from Italy back to Switzerland.   It’s not so easy!!

Bellinzona, Switzerland

Bellinzona, located in the Ticino part of Switzerland, is an quaint medieval town.   It is best known for the three castles that dominate the landscape.  The castles were awarded the UNESCO world heritage designation, based on their key role in protection of an Alpine pass in medieval times.

In my recent Castles in the Sky post, I explained that castles were built at elevations for defense.

In Bellinzona, there are three:   Castelgrande, Montebello, and Sasso Corbaro.

We were limited on time so just explored Castelgrande.   Luckily for me, there is an elevator that shoots you straight up through the castle to the inner courtyard.  This is a godsend since my feet aren’t in hiking condition yet.  Visiting the other two is a much more significant effort in walking / climbing.

The town of Bellinzona was quiet on the rainy Sunday we stopped in

View from below at Castelgrande

A first look on the upper courtyard of the castle

Yup, its pretty securely built on this rock.

We admired the view to the other castles.

We were hungry and it was starting to drizzle.  We decided to dine inside the castle where we had read that there was a great restaurant offering Ticino style meals.

Since it was Italian style, we decided to continue the trend of ordering two courses, a primi pasta course and a secondi meat course.   This was a mistake, at least for me.    The first courses came out huge.  Oops.   However, it was so delicious, I finished every bit of my taglietelle with Ticino ragu.  And Gabe finished his gorgonzola gnocchi.    Sorry that I didn’t get a picture before we ate it.

Eating inside of a UNESCO castle.  The sauce that once contained gnocchi.

The meat courses were equally as good.  Gabe almost finished his veal piccata.   I didn’t come close on my beef.   I vowed that I wasn’t going to order Italian style anymore.  I would have been just as content with only a pasta course.  The ride home we were stuffed.

However, all in all, we were impressed with the Italian Switzerland cooking.  It was just as good as Italy.

It was already 2pm, so we decided we better head home.  Especially since we weren’t 100% sure how to get there.

 

Lugano, Switzerland

Did you know there are palm trees in Switzerland??

As we have mentioned before in the blog, there are four different lingual / geographical groups in Switzerland – French Switzerland, German Switzerland, Romansch Switzerland, and Italian Switzerland.

I had wanted to check out Italian Switzerland since we’d moved to Geneva.   Gabe was a bit more skeptical. He would ask,  “Don’t you just want to go to real Italy…it’s just as close?”

So, when we were only an hour from the Italian part (called Ticino – in green, below) when we were in the Italian lake district, I jumped at the chance to swing through two of the towns on the way home to Geneva.  I legitimized we’d need to stop for a coffee and for lunch, of course.   Little did I know the travel drama that this would cause (post to come).

Image courtesy of about.com

Lake Lugano rests in both Switzerland and Italy.   Lugano is at the northernmost part.    This entire area is known for its mild Mediterranean climate, complete with palm trees and tropical plants.  Yes, in Switzerland.

Image courtesy of escapeartists.com

As we drove into town, we were impressed by the scenery, most notably, the large hill to the left of the town.

Lugano, Switzerland

We parked and strolled through a nearby city park, sitting for a cappuccino and a espresso.   Just coming from Italy, we noted we were back to Switzerland prices. And service.

Gabe commented on the little baby Jet d’eau that they had (as can be seen in the photo above).

All in all, it was a nice city.   Not sure if we’ll travel back, but I am glad we got to see it.

You might want to check on Schwingen in Switzerland’s adventures there (link below).  They had a sunny day and a bit more time for exploration.

Related links:

Schwingen in Switzerland:  Ciao Bella Lugano

Frau Hilda rides a ferry

When we went to Lake Como, Frau Hilda got to ride her first ferry.   It is not her first time on a boat…she was ironically imported from South Carolina.

Because Lake Como is long and twisty (it resembles the body of a man), they have a network of boats and ferries so it is easy to traverse between towns on opposite coasts, saving time.

Bellagio is located where the legs meet.   Apparently there is a catchy Italian poem about this, but we didn’t hear it when we were there.

When we drove in, it was no big deal – we just passed through Como and continued up the left leg until we reached the village.    However, the drive was super hair raising and we didn’t necessarily want to repeat it.  Also, our destination was Lake Lugano which was due-west of Bellagio.    Luckily for us, they had car ferries between Bellagio and Cadenabbia (left side of mid lake) every 20 minutes.

Image courtesy of Owners Direct from Home Away

It only cost 19 euro for Frau Hilda, Gabe and I to ride.   We thought that was a smokin’ deal.    The ride was only about 15 minutes but saves us about an hour or two in driving time for where we were going.

Goodbye, adorable Bellagio

Frau Hilda was joined by a fancy car.   I guess these folks didn’t want to risk driving their antique Bentley on the curvy roads, either!

 

I am a ferry veteran.  We used to take the Cape May-Lewes one each summer to travel between New Jersey down to the beaches of Delaware.  However, this was Gabe’s first time.   He loved it.

What do you think of ferries?

The James Bond Trail: Villa del Balbianello

We are on the James Bond trail.

First we visited The Schilthorn in the Swiss Alps from Her Majesty’s Secret Service.

Next it was James Bond Island in Thailand from The Man with The Golden Gun.

Now its Villa del Balbianello in Lake Como from Casino Royale.

We took a little boat cruise with Bellagio Water Taxi.  Janine and Luca, who ran the operation, provide a really delightful experience.

Luca driving the beautiful boat on Lake Como

Luca grew up in Lake Como so added a lot of local flavor as he drove us past the majestic coast line.

Villa Carlotta and its magnificent gardens

Public park, not bad.

Town of Mezzegra where Mussolini was killed trying to escape across the Swiss border with his mistress

False George Clooney house. Thought the sign was funny that read “No George” with an arrow pointing South.

Approaching the peninsula of Villa del Balbianello

Gorgeous property of Villa del Balbianello

We hopped off the boat and were met with a great tour guide.     The Villa had many owners in its history including a monastery, then a cardinal, two Italians, an American, and then its last owner, explorer Guido Monzino.

When Monzino died, he left it to the FAI, the National Trust of Italy so that we could all enjoy it.    You can even rent the space out for a private event, as the funds help to maintain the estate.

The grounds, set for a wedding that evening

The room of the villa were left, still set just as if Monzino lived there.     We couldn’t take pictures but I found this photo online to show you our favorite room.  We entitled it, The Ultimate Man Room.    It was a collection of Monzino’s explorations.   It contained his snow suit from the climb of Mt Everest (he ultimately didn’t make it but sent his guides on who brought back rocks still displayed in the house), his sled from exploring the North Pole, and numerous amazing artifacts.

Image courtesy of FAI.

We learned that in addition to James Bond, the villa was also used in the Star Wars movie as well as a few others. You’ll have to check them out below.

*On a side note, back in my early twenties, my friend K and I also hit a James Bond Casino Royale site in The One & Only Club in the Bahamas.  The movie hadn’t come out yet, but I immediately recognized the hammocks when they appeared on screen and were found to contain James Bond’s murdered fling.  We had leisurely hung out in them one of our afternoons.

Related Links:

Schwingen in Switzerland:  Why You’ve Heard of Lake Como

You Tube scene of Villa del Balbianello in Star Wars 2: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OV0t4NS0j3I

YouTube scene of Villa del Balbianello in Casino Royale : http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0wGhBxSjg0A

Don’t go chasing waterfalls….

And I continue with my cheesy song title post names.

We mentioned that it was pretty neat to see the castles while driving on our road trip to Lake Como.   Now that is is Spring, the glacial runoff has started and there is a surplus of waterfalls to be found while driving on France, Italy and Switzerland’s Alpine highways.

Here are just a few of the ones we spotted in our short car ride:

And my personal favorite, driving in Valais, there is waterfall spewing out of the base of a house.