Friday, January 30, 2015

Swiss Travel Pass celebrates its 25th anniversary

The Bernina Express goes over, under, around and through a circular viaduct  (wikipedia)
SWITZERLAND Throughout the ages four inventions have altered the course of history; the wheel, the printing press, the computer and the Swiss Travel Pass.

Switzerland’s intricate rail system has been operating for more than a century, but the rail pass, a youngster by comparison, celebrates its 25th anniversary in 2015. For travelers the Swiss Travel System is the Mona Lisa of rail transportation.

Golden Pass between Lucerne and Montreux  (wikipedia)
Put away that American concept of renting a car for the ultimate independent travel experience and leave it at home. In Switzerland, trains, and their sister forms of transportation, can get you anywhere you need to go fast, efficiently, on time and without any hassles. It is truly travel perfection.

Veteran travel writer and author Paul Theroux once wrote about the “optimism” of rail travel, but until you try it yourself, it may be difficult to understand his meaning. In Switzerland a rail pass is somewhat of a misnomer. What you actually have is a key that unlocks an entire transportation network that operates like a precision Swiss watch.

For travelers that translates into the ultimate travel adventure.

Lauterbrunnen Falls in the Lauterbrunnen Valley of the Bernese Oberland  (wikipedia)
Not only does a Swiss Travel Pass provide unlimited access to the Swiss national rail system, it is also valid for hundreds of private rail companies. The key however, is the multitude of bonus services that frequently go unnoticed by users who may think they are only purchasing a rail pass.
Lake steamer on the Lake of Lucerne

In Switzerland, the Swiss Travel Pass is also good for all public transportation in more than 75 cities. In addition, you can use it for boats, lake steamers, postal buses, funiculars and some cable cars. Excursions to mountaintop regions such as the Schilthorn, Jungfraujoch or the Brienzer-Rothorn train offer discounts ranging between 25 and 50 percent.

In other words a Swiss Travel Pass is good for practically any transportation need you have within its completely synchronized system.
Castle of Chillon on Lake Geneva  (wikipedia)

But here’s the kicker that adds even greater value to the ticket. A Swiss Travel Pass is valid for free admission to nearly 500 museums throughout the country.

Among the outings that can be done for free with a Swiss Travel Pass is the historic train to the top of the Rigi. Situated along the shores of the Lake of Lucerne, Mark Twain described the Rigi in his book Innocents Abroad.

Also featured with the pass are classic Swiss rail journeys such as the Golden Pass between Lucerne and Montreux and the Centovalli Railway which begins in Switzerland before it tiptoes into Italy and ends in Domodossola.
Centovalli Railway en route to Locarno, Switzerland  (wikipedia)
One of the most recent additions to the pass is a combination rail/boat trip on Lake Constance where the boat also travels along the Rhine River.

Spectacular scenery abounds with all forms of transportation with a Swiss Travel Pass
Children under 16 ride free if they are traveling with at least one parent and Intercity trains also feature playgrounds for the little ones. Older passengers may even find a Starbucks coffee car on a couple of selected trains.

Even the famed Jungfraujoch has opened a chocolate shop in the highest railway station in Europe.

On Golden Pass Classic trains riders can experience a wine tasting while coasting through rolling countryside.

The Swiss have even added an hour of free Wi-Fi in many railway stations throughout the country.
Swiss funiculars are another way to climb mountains  (wikipedia)
The popular excursion to Mount Titlis now features a rotating cable car and new gondolas have been added to the mountain outing to Pilatus. Pilatus, which opened in 1889, also features the steepest rack railway in the world.

Opening in early 2016, the 35-mile Gotthard Base Tunnel will become the longest and deepest railway tunnel in the world cutting travel time between northern and southern Europe through the St. Gotthard pass to 2 hours and 50 minutes. At speeds of nearly 150-miles per hour, travelers will enjoy the novelty of burrowing 8,000 feet, or one-and-a-half vertical miles beneath the surface of the earth.
Glacier Express over the Landwasser Viaduct  (wikipedia)

The Swiss Travel System allows travelers the option of purchasing consecutive day passes or passes with flexible choices. There are also Grand Train Tours lasting 4 to 8 days in which visitors are able to travel according to a predetermined itinerary. Grand Train Tours also include hotel accommodations.

Finally, just to demonstrate Swiss ingenuity and ease for travelers, there are three levels of luggage service. One of the drawbacks of rail travel is the difficulty of traveling with luggage. In Switzerland, you can check your bags in many railway stations before 9 a.m., travel throughout the day without your luggage and then pick up your bags at your next station by 4 in the afternoon or sooner.
Glacier Express traveling through misty snow covered mountains  (wikipedia)
For comfort, convenience and the “optimism” of rail travel, the Swiss Travel System has it all. For more information contact the Swiss National Tourist Office or Rail Europe.

You won’t be disappointed. All it takes is a little training.

Friday, January 23, 2015

Bavaria, Germany: Alpine scenery, majestic castles and a Passion Play

Aerial view of "mad" King Ludwig II's fairy tale castle of Newschwanstein in Bavaria  (wikipedia)
BAVARIA, GERMANY When it comes to exploring Bavaria in Germany, Munich is the ideal spot for as a base.

Dating to the early days of the Holy Roman Empire, Bavaria is the largest state in the country, comprising about 20% of Germany’s land area.

When the Holy Roman Empire was abolished by Napoleon, Bavaria became a kingdom in 1806 leading to a building binge that still attracts millions of visitors each year.

Hohenschwangau as seen from Neuschwanstein  (wikipedia)
With castles such as Neuschwanstein, Hohenschwangau and Linderhof plus lush Alpine scenery and the dozens of captivating historic villages, Bavaria is a traveler’s delight.

Bavarians are deeply independent. So much so that they frequently refer to themselves as “Bavarians“ first and “Germans“ second.

Traveling along two-lane country roads, the oval rococo Pilgrimage Church of Weis, or Weiskirche, in Steingadan is situated in the foothills of the Alps.

The story goes that someone observed tears on a run-down wooden carving called the “Scourged Savior“ in 1738. Almost overnight, Weiskirche became a treasured pilgrimage site.

Over the years, so many testimonials have been given by those who prayed to the statue of Jesus at the altar, that the church has arguably become the most important pilgrimage place in Germany.
The pilgrimage site of Weiskirche, a UNESCO World Heritage Site  (wikipedia)  
By 1740, the number of pilgrims had grown so large that the church had to be expanded. In 1983, Weiskirche became a UNESCO World Heritage Site and has undergone two major renovations since. 

For nine years out of each decade, the quaint village of Oberammergau is relatively peaceful compared to the throngs of visitors who arrive in any year ending in zero. That’s when the world famous Passion Play takes place and, other than a few hiccups along the way, it has been faithfully performed since 1634.

Oberammergau's theater for its famous Passion Play  (wikipedia)
Fearful of the plague in the mid-17th century the people of Oberammergau prayed that their village be spared. In return, they promised to perform a Passion Play each year.

Before long, the site at the original parish church became too small to accommodate the massive numbers who wanted to see the play. Even more demanding were the logistics of performing the play each year, so the decision was made to do it every decade instead.

Today the theater is a permanent covered structure accommodating nearly 5,000 patrons. Unfortunately for the actors, the stage is outdoors and the show goes on rain or shine.

Berchtesgadan with a view of the Watzmann  (wikipedia)
Further south, about 20 miles from the Austrian border and the city of Salzburg, nestles the village of Berchtesgadan. The town is often closely associated with the Watzmann, which is the third-highest mountain in Germany.

The Watzmann is well known to rock climbers  for its East Face where there is also a beautiful deep glacial lake called the Konigssee.

Often the Watzmann is overshadowed by the Kehlsteinhaus, or the Eagle’s Nest, which was built in 1939 as a present for Adolf Hitler’s 50th birthday.

Hitler spent little time there, however. In fact, even when he was at the Eagle’s Nest his visits were extremely brief.

Also of interest is the site of the Berchtesgadener Hof Hotel which counted Eva Braun, Erwin Rommel, Joseph Goebbels, Heinrich Himmler, David Lloyd George and Neville Chambelain among its guests.

The hotel became the victim of a wrecking ball in 2006, but there is a good museum at the location called Haus der Berge.
Ludwig's elegant Linderhof Palace  (wikipedia)
But castle hunting is the preferred pastime in Bavaria and King Ludwig II does not disappoint. Linderfhof Palace is the smallest of three castles constructed by Ludwig, but the only one he ever lived to see completed.

Versailles, outside Paris, was the inspiration for Linderhof because French King Louis XIV was Ludwig’s idol.

A bedroom at Neuschwanstein  (wikipedia)
Though vastly smaller than Versailles, Linderhof has more than its share of opulence with a Hall of Mirrors, a Moorish Kiosk and the Venus Grotto, a luminous lake with changing colors and a golden swan-boat.

Ludwig’s crown jewel, however, was Neuschwanstein. Majestically situated atop a rugged hill overlooking Hohenschwangau Castle near the village of Fussen, Neuschwanstein represents the quintessential image of what a castle should be. So much so that it was the inspiration for Walt Disney’s Sleeping Beauty Castle.

Intended as a refuge for the king, Ludwig died in 1886 before it was finished. Today it attracts more than 1.3 million visitors each year.

The music room, Neuschwanstein  (wikipedia)
Architecturally Ludwig merged his passion for the music of Richard Wagner with his own romantic notions of medieval castles. Somehow when incorporated into the surrounding landscape where Alpine foothills blend with gently rolling hills, the odd combination of styles worked.

While his dream castle was under construction, Ludwig spent his days at nearby Hohenschwangau, the family’s summer residence which was completed in 1837.

Ludwig's dream castle of Neuschwanstein  (wikipedia)
Some say that Ludwig was “mad.“ Indeed, he was “crazy like a fox“ and Bavaria enhances the magic.

Friday, January 16, 2015

Munich, Germany: History, museums, Oktoberfest and, best of all, beer

Munich's famous Glockenspiel chimes daily at 11 am   (Taylor)
MUNICH, GERMANY Of all of Germany’s many faces, Bavaria may just be the happiest, and Munich is the ideal place to experience that joy.

Munich, or Munchen in German, is the capital of Bavaria and its largest city. It is also the third largest city in the country.

Munich derives its name from the Benedictine order who ran a monastery at the site that later became the old town. When translated from the old high German, Munchen means “by the monks.“

Munich is famous for beer  (wikipedia)
For travelers, Munich is a perfect base. With superb rail service to surrounding areas, it is easy to explore the city and environs and do day trips to other parts of Bavaria without changing hotels.

Allow at least two full days to experience the charms of Munich which include architecture, history, museums, parks and, of course, beer gardens.

Munich is known for its beer, thanks in large part to the world famous Oktoberfest which was first held in October of 1810 to honor the marriage of Crown Prince Ludwig. Oddly enough, today the festival now takes place mostly in September and finishes on the first Sunday in October. The only exception is when October 3rd, the national holiday known as German Unity Day, falls on a Monday or Tuesday. When that happens Oktoberfest is extended for those days.
Oktoberfest fairgrounds, the world's most famous beer festival  (wikipedia)
Though Oktoberfest is a magical time for Munich, it is possible to have a same type of experience any time of year in one of the numerous beer gardens throughout the city.

The Hofbrauhaus is a favorite attraction  (Taylor)
Arguably the most famous beer hall in the world is the Hofbrauhaus am Platzl. It is certainly one of Munich’s most famous attractions.

If beer is not your cup of tea, a glass of “radler“ might be a good substitute. Radler is half beer and half lemonade. The citrus addition cuts the beer taste enough to make a refreshing alternative to its more hoppy cousin.

The pedestrian-only Marienplatz is the heart of the city where locals and visitors alike gather for shopping, eating and socializing. The main event takes place each day at 11 a.m. when the Glockenspiel chimes at the New Town Hall with its re-enactment of two 16th century stories.
Depending upon which tune is played  performances last between 12 and 15 minutes. When the small golden rooster at the top of the Glockenspiel chirps three times, the show is over.

Munich suffered massive bombing damage during World War II, but it has been lovingly and meticulously restored to its previous splendor. Nowhere is that better witnessed than Marienplatz, or Mary’s Square, where it transforms at night into a fairy-tale atmosphere with its softly glowing amber and lime colored lights.

Munich before and after rebuilding  (wikipedia)
The city’s comprehensive transportation system, which incorporates the underground U-Bahn and suburban S-Bahn trains, was extensively modernized for the 1972 Summer Olympics. As a result, more than three decades later, getting around Munich is still a traveler’s dream.

The Olympic village and many of the sports facilities remain active, and, have become a major attraction, largely because they were the site of the Munich massacre when Palestinian gunmen known as “Black September“ kidnapped and later assassinated 11 Israeli athletes.

History comes alive in Munich where much of the past blends with the present to create a living museum.
The majestic Schloss Nymphenburg, birthplace of "Mad" King Ludwig II   (wikipedia)
Schloss Nympehnburg, or Nymphenburg Palace, for example, was the summer resident of the former rulers of Bavaria. The Baroque German version of Versailles is majestically situated on the outskirts of the city. It was the birthplace of “Mad“ King Ludwig II who was renowned for his luxurious castles and extravagant lifestyle.

Ludwig II's fairy tale Castle of Neuschwanstein near Fussen  (Taylor)
Ludwig’s appetite for opulence has evolved into some of Germany’s most popular tourist attractions with the Castle of Neuschwanstein in southwestern Bavaria, along with Hohenschwangau Castle and Linderhof Palace.

King's Square in Munich with three Greek buildings  (wikipedia)
The King’s Square, or Konigplatz, in Munich is the only plaza in the world that features buildings constructed in the three styles of Greek architecture; Ionic, Doric and Corinthian.

During the World War II era, King’s Square was a major gathering spot for the mass rallies of the Nazi Party, and the national headquarters of the party is located at Brienner Strasse near the square.

Munich is also a city of parks and museums. Among the best is the Alte Pinakothek which is one of the oldest galleries in the world featuring a vast collection of Old Master paintings.

Munich's English Garden is especially popular in warm weather  (wikipedia)
The English Garden, one of the world’s largest urban parks, is bigger than Central Park in New York. Englishman Lancelot Brown, better known as “Capability“ Brown, had so much input in the project that it made him world famous as a landscape architect.

These are just a few of Munich’s countless treasures. It’s charm is obvious. It is a city that beckons travelers with its friendly ambiance, but it is also deceptive for it is a place that must be absorbed through the pores.

Seek and discover the magic of Munich and she will not disappoint.

Friday, January 9, 2015

Centovalli Railway: Switzerland’s most romantic train trip

The Centovalli Railway passes through Switzerland and Italy  (wikipedia)
TICINO, SWITZERLAND The Centovalli Railway is a bit of a paradox.  On one hand it is arguably the most romantic rail journey in Switzerland.  On the other, it’s real name in Italian is Ferrovie Autolinee Regionali Ticinesi.  Otherwise, affectionately known as the “FART” train.

Once the laughter subsides, the jokes made and the pictures taken however, this picturesque two-hour train excursion through Italian Switzerland and the northern tip of Italy is a gem.

Every place has a view on the Centovalli train  (wikipedia)
The Centovalli, which translated means “Hundred Valleys,” connects Locarno, Switzerland on Lake Maggiore with Domodossola, Italy.  The line was built in 1923 when a team of Italian workers from one terminus met another group of Swiss laborers at Santa Maria Maggiore.  For nearly 90 years the privately owned sections of the narrow-gauge service have been administered by separate companies.

With 83 bridges and 31 tunnels, the Centovalli Railway is a source of perpetual delight.  Food services are not available aboard the trains, and there are no reservations.  Best of all, passengers with a Swiss Rail Pass or a Eurailpass travel free.

Railway station on the Centovalli line  (wikipedia)
Many travelers begin in Domodossola after a visit to the Matterhorn in Zermatt, transferring between the German-speaking part of the country to the balmy Mediterranean-like Italian region.

From the other direction, the Centovalli Railway departs from a stunning mosaic-lined underground terminal in Locarno before it surfaces into brilliant sunlight just outside of Ponte Brolla.  No matter which way you choose, bring your passport because there is a check at the border.

Diversity is the secret to Centovalli’s charms.  Plunging rocks dive into canyons of cascading streams.  Tracks twist.  Rails sing.  Waterfalls hide behind each bend, delighting passengers who rush from one side of the coach to the other to catch a glimpse.  Crystal lakes glisten below towering trestles that disappear into tunnels before re-emerging into sun splashed forests and vineyards.

There are fresco-covered villages, ancient stone cottages and historic churches all blended with Swiss efficiency and Italian flair.  The sleek, cream-colored coaches with blue trim feature over-sized windows for maximum viewing.  Trains with panoramic cars, however, do require a small additional fee on the Italian portion of the journey.  The supplement can be paid to the conductor during the ride.

One hundred valleys plus waterfalls, lakes and mountains  (wikipedia)
Locals regard the railway as a lifeline.  Visitors, however, use it primarily as a transfer route and, in the process, often fail to realize much of its value as destination unto itself. 

The way to enjoy the Centovalli is to make a day of it.  Hop on and off now and then and savor the rewards of its riches.  There is no real advantage to taking the train from east to west or vice-versa, although the right side of the carriage is probably best from Domodossola and the left is generally better when riding from Locarno.
Centovalli train traveling through Intragna  (wikipedia)

Departing from Domodossola, the Italian village of Santa Maria Maggiore, population  approximately 1,200, nestles about 10 miles down the tracks.  The town features a couple of small museums, but the cobblestoned, tree-lined streets filled with ancient architecture and wrought iron balconies are a highlight.

Next stop along the line is Re which lies just 4 miles from the Swiss border. It’s a popular site for the faithful who make pilgrimages to the church to view the miracle of its bleeding Madonna.

At Verdasio, take the picturesque cable car up to the remote village of Rasa.  There’s not much to do there, but the ride to the summit, and its peaceful isolation, is worth the trip.  Adventurous travelers often hike to Rasa from Locarno.

 The parish church of Intragna reaches above the treetops in the town regarded as the gateway to the Centovalli.  Completed in 1775, the church tower remains the tallest spire in the region and  is a popular landmark along the route.

The tiny stone village of Borgnone  (wikipedia)

Just before the train reaches Ponte Brolla, where it ducks into the underground that arrives in Locarno, the Centovalli Railway passes through Verscio.  The village of fewer than 1,000 inhabitants is home to the world famous Dimitr Theatre School which was founded in 1975.  Applicants come from all over the world, but the school only admits 12 students each year.

Locarno is a great place for the grand finale of the trip.  The lovely little holiday resort lies on the northern shores of Lake Maggiore.  Palm trees gently sway along the perimeter of the lakeshore promenade.  Sidewalk cafes ease the day into twilight as the shimmering lake reflects the rising moon.

Castles, museums, gardens and nearby Ascona are also there, waiting for another day.  Patience is a virtue.  Why rush?  They will still be there for a happy tomorrow.  Forget the checklist and the “been there, done that style of travel.  Absorb the surroundings through your pores.  There are memories to be made.

Everywhere you look there are charming villages and churches on the Centovalli Railway  (wikipedia)
The Centovalli Railway may indeed be the most romantic rail journey in Switzerland.  After all, it’s the perfect way to travel if you just want to FART around Switzerland and Italy. 

Friday, January 2, 2015

Discovering Yellowstone National Park in winter

Wildlife abounds in Yellowstone National Park during the winter season  (
MONTANAJanuary 2, 2014 – Trivia question: How big is 2,200,000 acres? If you guessed “the size of Yellowstone National Park” you’d be dead on.

As America’s oldest official national park, established by Ulysses S. Grant in 1872, Yellowstone spreads across three states -- Wyoming, Idaho and Montana. While Wyoming claims 96% of the land in Yellowstone, the three percent that tiptoes into Montana is unquestionably spectacular.

Thermal mist meets "cold smoke" in Yellowstone  (Taylor)
For travelers seeking to get “far from the madding crowds” here’s a little secret about one of our country’s most popular wilderness regions: one of the best times to visit is during winter. There are virtually no cars and hardly any people. Wildlife is in abundance and the snow-covered landscapes are pristine. Geothermal fountains gush from the center of the earth as if you are at the midpoint of creation
Montana’s primary gateway is West Yellowstone, which is reminiscent of a frontier town in the mid-1800s. Unlike most cities in the United States that dread the thought of snow-packed streets, West Yellowstone thrives on them, eschewing plowing them so that snow mobiles and Sno-cats have ready access to seemingly endless miles of Yellowstone’s wilderness.

Snowmobiling into the Yellowstone Caldera  (Taylor)
From the west entrance, located about a mile and a half from West Yellowstone, it is a thirty mile ride to view Old Faithful, the famed geyser that has been erupting roughly every hour for centuries. Along the way visitors pass lakes, canyons, rivers and mountains while traveling through the Yellowstone Caldera, an active volcano where mud pots boil and steam spews from cracks in the earth.

It is impossible to be unaffected by Yellowstone’s sensations of primeval nature where thermal mists merge with powdery wisps of snow smoke, eerily reminding us that we live on a planet that is still evolving.

Many visitors prefer the independence of tracking through Yellowstone via snow mobile, versus  a Sno-cat, which is slower, bulkier, noisier and more confining, therefore allowing less opportunity to commune with nature. Indeed, many recent incarnations of the Sno-cat are large which can be cumbersome, 

Bombardier Sno-cat ready for action, seating for 8 passengers  (Taylor)
Yellowstone Alpen Guides, a tour company based in West Yellowstone, uses older snowcoach technology that offers smaller, faster, less intrusive, more private exploration of Yellowstone than its more contemporary relatives. The fire engine red, Canadian-built Bombardiers carry just eight passengers, giving them speed and flexibility as well as protection from the elements. Best of all, participants can converse with their guide while adapting their tour to personal wishes.

Symbol of America, the bald eagle  (wikipedia)
Madison, roughly the halfway point between the main entrance and Old Faithful has restrooms plus a selection of snacks and drinks at a small but comfortable warming hut.

Other than bears, wildlife abounds across wide expanses of grasslands that link Yellowstone’s snowy mountain peaks. Hundreds of species roam peacefully within the nearly intact ecosystem that includes free-ranging bison and elk, moose and big-horned sheep. Visitors may also encounter an occasional bobcat, a lone wolf or a majestic American bald eagle perched high atop a tree.

The terrain also travels through thick evergreen forests past rushing rivers that may eventually become scenic waterfalls further downstream. Layers of powdery snow insulate everything under a blanket of white. Stand quietly and savor the silence that seems to have a sound all its own: the hushed echoes of untamed vistas.

Primeval beauty of nature's wonder in West Yellowstone  (Wordpress)
According to some sources, Native Americans inhabited the Yellowstone region for more than 11,000 years. Bypassed during the Lewis and Clark expedition, the land was ironically regarded as worthless by many because it contained no gold. Until the late 1860s there was no organized exploration, yet within a few years the region became what is believed to be the first national park in the world.

Mudpot steams from the earth in Yellowstone  (Taylor)
Traveling through the geothermal activity of the caldera is an other-wordly experience somewhat like witnessing life in its embryonic stages. A short boardwalk stroll past bubbling pots of mud, brightly colored algae and steaming lava is like walking through a millennial past that seems light-years away rather than just a few hundred yards from all that is familiar.

The culmination of the tour is Old Faithful with its clockwork performance. Other geysers, some even more impressive than Old Faithful, erupt in the distance showcasing Mother Nature in all her primitive glory.

Old Faithful erupts on a regular basis in Yellowstone National Park  (wikipedia)
Many visitors prefer to stay in West Yellowstone, but another option is using Big Sky as a base. Big Sky is an easy 45-minute drive to Yellowstone, and the range of its winter activities includes snow mobiles, sleigh rides, dog sledding, fly fishing, cross country skiing, snowshoeing and, of course, skiing. With over 200 named ski runs covering 110 miles on three separate mountains, Big Sky proudly claims to be home to the biggest skiing in America.

Grazing by a stream  (Taylor)

Montana in winter is mountains of fun where Yellowstone National Park is an undiscovered natural treasure.