Everyone has their own favorite images that come to mind when reminiscing on things they did while growing up. For me, many of my fondest memories came during my junior high years while living in Geneva, Switzerland. I always had a love of mountains, but it wasn't until living in Switzerland that I really got to experience them up close. One vivid memory I have was of our first visit to Zermatt, several years before moving to Switzerland. Looking up at the surrounding foothills I couldn't believe how tall and steep the mountains were, and they were so much greener than the ones I'd seen back home in Utah that they seemed almost artificial, as if they were plucked straight out of a fairy-tale book. Later on, it was here that my parents taught me how to ski, and some of my most fun memories are of chasing my friends down the slopes of La Faucille and Crozet in the nearby Jura Mountains (France), looking for makeshift jumps skiing off-piste between the trees, and from skiing with my family in other places in the Alps such as Avoriaz (France) and Garmisch (Germany). I was also fortunate to take part in some other fun activities in the Alps, mainly through the Boy Scout program, including hiking, mountain biking, rock climbing, river rafting, and parasailing. While in reality only a fraction of my childhood was spent here, every time I had the chance to return, it felt like I was coming back home.
Boy Scout High Adventure glacier hike over Lotschenpass Gornergrat view of Breithorn St. Bernard Pass
When I heard that my parents would have the chance to live in Geneva again for a few years, I knew we just had to get over there. Not only would it give me the chance to share with my own wife and children what I unashamedly feel is the most beautiful mountain terrain in the world, but it would also allow me to finally see the Dolomite Mountains as well, which has been on my bucket list for some time. Besides, with my parents already there to help with the children, and also having access to the best tour guide around (my Mom), there was really no excuse to not make the trip. The last time my wife and I traveled to Europe, we spent more time seeing the sites in Paris and London, but this time we'd focus more on the outdoors.
Skiing with my Mom at Lermoos (with Zugzpitze behind) ... ... and my brothers at Kitsbuhle (Austria)
The two months before the trip we made a detailed itinerary of all of the places we wanted to see, with primary site-seeing goals and backup options as well (taking into account that with four children ages 10 and under, including an infant, we'd need to be flexible in taking more stops and bathroom breaks). We planned on using my parents' house in Geneva as our base of operations, from where we would embark on an 8-day road trip through other parts of Central Europe during the middle of our two week stay. This would give us a few days upon arrival in Geneva to recover from any jet lag and do some little day trips, and the same after our road trip before flying back to Utah. We shipped over a couple boxes of treats beforehand, since we weren't sure how receptive our children would be to the local cuisine, and also to save some money by not having to eat out the entire time. It ended up working out that we'd be making the trip during the second half of June, which was a bit earlier in the summer than I would've preferred (early summer is still the rainy season there, as I knew well from experience, as the two times I went to week-long scout camp in Kandersteg as a teenager it rained a little bit each day), but I was hoping we'd be lucky with the weather.
The incomparable Matterhorn, seen from Rothorn Paradise
Day 1 - Traveling to Europe
Not having been on any flights as long as the one from Salt Lake City to Amsterdam, we weren't sure how the children would do, but they loved it. We brought plenty of snacks/toys/games to keep them occupied, and the wide selection of movies helped as well. Matthew got to sit by a window, and he loved peering down at the icy terrain around Hudson Bay and Greenland. Every now and then he'd pull up the flight tracker map to see where we were, and would excitedly pass along the info to the rest of us. I knew that he and Ivy (ages and 10 and 6) would have the most fun on the trip, while Elissa and Easton (ages 3 and 10 months) would be a bit more of a challenge.
Flying over the southeast coast of Greenland Flying into Amsterdam At a park with their Grandma and Grandpa near Geneva
After a layover in Amsterdam we arrived in Geneva, and got settled in at my parents' home there. Since it was early afternoon, we did our best to keep the children awake, and adjusting to the 8-hour time difference on the very first day of the trip made everything else run much more smoothly. We took the kids to a couple of parks near my parents' home in Chambesy, went by our old house in the little town of Mies (which celebrated its 650th anniversary when we lived there back in the mid 90's), and then drove the 10 minutes or so to Coppet to a little grassy area along Lake Geneva where they could skip rocks, one of their favorite pastimes. Before turning in for the night, we hopped over the border to get some groceries at a Carrefour store in France, which is the only way to shop there unless you want to run out of money very quickly (since Switzerland is much more expensive).
Vineyard near Lake Geneva
Day 2 - Annecy
After attending church with my parents, we took a short drive over to the town of Annecy in France. We first walked along the side of the lake, and then went to the town center. There were several quaint little restaurants and cafes lining cobblestone streets along the Thiou River, and one thing the children won't soon forget is the huge contingent of Mexico football fans parading around the streets in celebration of their team's World Cup victory over Germany earlier that day. They were singing and playing vuvuzelas, and one of the smaller kids in their group gave his horn to Ivy to play. It definitely gave the kids an appreciation of how invested other countries are in the success of their football/soccer teams, which they'd never experienced firsthand. Every restaurant that had a television set was tuned to the games, and fortunately for the local fans, France and Switzerland ended up playing quite well, respectively.
Lac d'Annecy Annecy town center
Day 3 - Vevey, Nestle Museum, & Chillon Castle
Lake Geneva, near the town of Vevey Matthew crossing the moat ... ... and going through a secret passageway
The next morning we took the children to a park at Signal de Bougy where my younger brothers had spent many hours climbing jungle gyms and riding ziplines. Then, we drove east along the northern shore of Lake Geneva, stopping in the town of Vevey to walk along the lake. The nearby Nestle Museum had several interactive exhibits, along with free Kit-Kat bars at the end, which the children appreciated. Before heading back home, we also visited Chillon Castle, exploring the dungeons and climbing up to the highest central tower. While we hadn't really done any hiking yet, all of the walking would serve as a good warm-up for when we went into the mountains.
Chillon Castle had many fun rooms to explore ... ... along with this walkway below the tallest central tower
Day 4 - Jungfraujoch
Elissa throwing rocks at Thunersee Breithorn (Bernese Alps)
With clear, sunny skies in the forecast, we decided it was time to take advantage of the great weather by heading to the big mountains of the Alps. Our first location, and probably one of the most well-known, was the Bernese Alps. The entire drive from Bern to Lauterbrunnen is quite scenic, with the mountains looming larger as one approaches. At first my wife thought they were clouds, but upon getting closer she was amazed to see that they were in fact large glaciated, snowy mountains we were driving towards, rising up 12,000 feet above our current elevation.
Eiger & Jungfraujoch Train Jungfrau Eiger North Face
We made a short pit-stop on the shore of Thunersee just before Interlaken, and then took the train from Lauterbrunnen up high into the mountains. For this area in particular, the weather can be quite finicky, so we were fortunate to have mostly clear skies. The waterfalls coming down from the cliffs above were just as impressive as I had remembered them (this valley is somewhat similar to Yosemite Valley in California, except for the fact that there are huge, glaciated peaks up high above the cliffs in the valley), and the green fields with rugged mountains above were quintessential Switzerland.
Schreckhorn (from Eismeer) Monch Jungfraujoch ice cave Aletsch Glacier
At first I had wanted to head over to Grindelwald and take the tram to First, to hike up to Bachalpsee and the summit of Faulhorn, but with the weather looking clear the next couple of days, we decided to get the 4-day Swiss Family Rail Pass, which we could use to get free and/or discounted tickets on some of the more expensive lifts, such as the Jungfraubahn. Getting off at Kleine Scheidegg, where my younger brother and I had once hiked to the top of Lauberhorn in the rain (with no views to speak of), we then switched onto the train that would take us up through a tunnel inside the Eiger and deposit us at Jungfraujoch, the high saddle between the peaks of Monch and Jungfrau.
From the Jungfraujoch viewing platform were great views of peaks like Rottalhorn ... ... and Jungfrau Scharzhorn Tshingelhorn
From the highest viewing platform there were top-notch views in every direction. Even with jackets, it was pretty cold, although it was even colder inside the Jungfraujoch ice caverns. I'm guessing they keep the temperature that way to ensure that none of the ice sculptures melt (my favorite were of some penguins and a mini-igloo). Visiting the big chocolate shop afterward helped warm our bellies, though. Before heading back down, we walked around in the snow below Jungfrau. My cousin David and I had talked about hiring a guide to lead us to the top (we figured Jungfrau would be a nice peak to try, being more difficult than the easy Breithorn near Zermatt, but not quite as demanding as the Matterhorn), but with this being primarily a family trip, I was happy to simply admire the summit from down below.
Back down at Kleine Scheidegg, we enjoyed great views of Wetterhorn ... ... and the Eiger, now shrouded in clouds Lauterbrunnen
Back down at Kleine Scheidegg, we wandered around some dirt roads and trails above the train station, taking in the views of the mountains to the east. Matthew and Ivy decided to chase each other around one of the large nearby ponds, and this led to Ivy tripping and falling into the water from the waist down. Fortunately, this would be our only mishap of the trip.
Lauterbrunnen from Wengen
Day 5 - Shilthorn & Zermatt
From the top of the Schilthorn we had great views of peaks like Wetterhorn ... ... Monch, and Jungfrau
Since hotels in the Grindelwald/Lauterbrunnen/Interlaken area were expensive, we had stayed the night back in Geneva before returning to Lauterbrunnen to use our Swiss Pass to take four cable cars in succession to get to the top of the Schiltorn for free (as a US Mission employee, my Dad has a gas card that enables him to pay US prices for gas at Shell stations across Switzerland, so despite the extra travel time, we saved more money this way). This is where part of the old James Bond film "On Her Majesty's Secret Service" was filmed. Despite having to wait in line to cram into the cable cars with throngs of other tourists (mostly Asian), the views on top made it worth it.
Eiger & Monch over the town of Murren Breithorn & Gspaltenhorn Kandersteg car train
We then left Lauterbrunnen to make it to the other most well-known alpine town in Switzerland, which was Zermatt. Along the way, we passed through Kandersteg, where I'd spent several summers camping as a Boy Scout. Unfortunately, we were on a tight schedule, so we wouldn't have time to explore the area, but I was hoping to make it back this way after our road trip. The children got a kick out of us being able to drive onto a train in our car, and ride it from Kandersteg to Goppenstein. From there we descended down into the valley that cuts through the heart of Switzerland, caught a quick dinner at Restaurant Rothis Western City (near Visp) and then started driving back up again on our way south towards Tasch.
Taking in the mountain sights ... ... with my family
During the train ride from Tasch to Zermatt we got our first glimpses of the giant mountains above us, and I was incredibly pleased to see that we'd have clear skies here as well. We took a little golf-cart-sized-taxi cab to our hotel, and were able to enjoy an incredible view of the Matterhorn from outside of our hotel rooms just before it got dark. The view of that mountain from the town below has been taken by countless numbers of photographers, but it's a view I'll never tire of.
Classic view of the Matterhorn ... ... standing watch over the town of Zermatt
Day 6 - Gornergrat & Riffelsee
Rise and shine! Matterhorn Hornli Ridge
The next day, with the weather looking great yet again, I was faced with a bit of a dilemma. To fit in time to visit one of the sites we'd picked specifically for the children (the Swiss Miniature theme park in Lugano, which closed each evening at 6 pm), we could either spend more time in Zermatt, heading up to Gornergrat, and see the miniatures the next morning, or head straight to Lugano and see them today. The drawback with visiting Gornergrat today is that likely meant we'd have to cut out visiting Santa Maddalena with a great view of the Odle mountains, as well as driving the Great Dolomite Road two days later (domino effect caused by there not being enough time to see everything). Either way, I shouldn't complain, since we'd already been able to see some great mountain areas already. Thinking more on it, I decided we should head up to Gornergrat (when in doubt, always take advantage of good weather), which gave me an extra day to think about which exact parts of the Dolomites I wanted to see the most.
Matterhorn from Gornergrat Train Lyskamm & Grenz Glacier Castor & Pollux
After checking out of our hotel and storing our luggage in some lockers at the main train station in Zermatt, we headed up the Gornergrat Railway. Besides the views of the Matterhorn, most of the other high peaks around Zermatt are hidden until you start ascending from the valley. As we gained elevation we could make out several other peaks such as Zinalrothorn and Weissmies, with views of the Matterhorn becoming ever more impressive the higher we got. No matter which way you look, your eye is somehow drawn to its distinctive profile. There's a good reason so many other mountains are compared to the Matterhorn, because it is likely the most eye-catching peak in the world. Closer towards Gornergrat we started crossing between some giant snowfields, where even in late June it looked like the snowpack was still quite deep.
Ivy at Gornergrat, with Dufourspitze behind My Mom admiring the Matterhorn from above Riffelsee Breithorn (Pennine Alps) Gornergrat family pic
Up at Gornergrat, we were surrounded by many of the highest peaks in Switzerland, including Dufourspitze, the highest peak in the country (even higher than Matterhorn, although not quite as impressive). Our view north towards Dom was obscured by clouds, but it was clear in every other direction. Although not quite as high as the Jungfraujoch area we'd been to a couple of days earlier, Gornergrat was impressive in its own right, and despite all of the other tourists, it was quite relaxing taking in the amazing views. There are actually a couple of lifts that can take you even higher in the Alps, such as the Klein Matterhorn lift which also ascends from Zermatt and the Aiguille du Midi lift which ascends from Chamonix near Mont Blanc, although the panoramic views from those probably aren't quite as impressive.
Riffelsee Family pic ... ... at Riffelsee
On the way back down, we got off at the Rotenboden stop for a short hike down to scenic Riffelsee, with a pointy-looking Matterhorn reflecting nicely in the background. The terrain was a little muddy since the snow in this area had just barely started melting, but it was nothing the kids couldn't handle. After a few more pics, we took the train back down to Zermatt, and timed things so that we could check out the inside of the main church in town before experiencing some delicious crepes at Stefanie's Creperie. Most of us had strawberries and chocolate in ours, while Matthew picked bananas and chocolate instead. Mmm ... so good.
Simplon Pass Zinalrothorn Zermatt ibex statue
On the way to Lugano we took the scenic road through Simplon Pass, and were soon in Italy. You can definitely tell when you've left Switzerland and entered Italy by the lower quality of the roads and increased aggressiveness of the drivers. It was fun driving on the freeways there though, with no one seeming to care much about the speed limit signs. To get anywhere in a logical direct line, you're bound to cross through several toll stations, and one of the automated machines incorrectly charged my Mom over 80 Euros (for us, after spitting out my card the first time, requiring me to get out and retrieve it from underneath our car, it finally worked and charged me the correct amount of 5 Euros), which she later disputed with her credit card provider. Eventually we made it to Lugano, and after checking into our hotel we were able to get some decent, but overpriced pizza.
Day 7 - Lugano Miniatures & Drive to Bolzano
Mountain Miniatures in Lugano Milan Cathedral miniature St. Nicolas Cathedral miniature
After a great breakfast and a little swim in the hotel pool, we went to the Swiss Miniatures theme park in Lugano. There were models of all of the most famous buildings in and around Switzerland, including one of the Chillon Castle, which we'd just recently been to. Since the kids were too young to appreciate all of the art and architecture, we figured this would be a fun way to let them see what a lot of the most famous buildings looked like. They got a kick out of seeing the occasional lizard or pigeon wander (or fish, in the sections with water) close to the exhibits, as compared to the miniatures they looked like giant monsters terrorizing the city. There were also some fun little bump cars and bumper boats nearby.
Lake Lugano Delicious Italian pizza ... ... at La Lanterna in Bolzano
Driving to Bolzano wasn't too bad, except for the section that went through Milan. I'd already seen the sites there when we lived in Europe before, so we were simply trying to go that way taking the major roads, but the traffic was pretty bad, which made me glad that we weren't going into any major cities on this trip. Closer towards Bolzano the terrain became much prettier, with vineyards lining the highway and increasingly rugged peaks appearing on both sides of us. Checking into our hotel a bit late, we weren't expecting to find much in the way of food, but were pleasantly surprised to find an awesome pizzeria called La Lanterna hidden underneath some apartments a couple of blocks away. We were seated next to a large group of boisterous Italian teenage girls, but it was nice because we were also right next to a little indoor playground, which the kids took advantage of while we were waiting for our food. The pizzas were amazing (best I've had in a long, long time) and much more affordable than the tiny, expensive ones we ate the previous night in Switzerland.
Day 8 - Seceda & Tre Cime
This day, right in the middle of our trip, was the one I had been looking forward to the most. While we'd been to some great places in the Alps, I'd already seen them on previous trips, but I had never been to the Dolomites before. While not as high and glaciated as the Alps, the pictures I'd seen of the Dolomites made them appear just as rugged. The problem was that we had to get from Bolzano, Italy to our next booked hotel in Lienz, Austria, seeing as much of the range as possible along the way in just a single day.
From Seceda there were impressive views of nearby Langkofel (Sassolungo massif) ... ... and other far-off mountains (similar to the Grand Teton seen from Table Mountain in Wyoming)
With time to whittle my short wish list of places to visit down to two or three the night before, I finally decided on the places we just had to see. First, I was hoping to take the Furnes cable car from the town of Ortisei up to Seceda, and walk along the ridge line below Grosse Fermeda. Second, we could take another cable car up from Passo Falzarego up to an outdoor World War I museum (including tunnels built/used by soldiers). Finally, we'd hike whatever part of the Tre Cime trail we had time to do, as most seemed to agree that it was the one hands-down must-do easy hike in the Dolomites.
There were scenic wildflower-filled meadows all around Seceda ... ... above Val Gardena
After a great breakfast included at our hotel, we made the short drive to Ortisei and found the covered parking area for the cable car heading up to Seceda. On the way up we were teased with occasional views of the impressive Sassolungo massif to the south. While Seceda was definitely higher on my wish list, I had also considered having us take the Alpe di Suisi lift going up from the opposite side of Oritsei as well, as it had amazing views of Langkofel (highest peak in the massif) rising 4,000 feet straight above the alpine meadows of Val Gardena. Upon getting to the lift at Seceda and stepping out of the cable car station, I felt vindicated for my decision, though.
Impressive ridge line views of Sass Rigais (left) & Grosse Fermeda (right) ... ... with several patches of yellow wildflowers next to the trail
Besides offering nice views of Langkofel (granted, probably not as good as the ones from Alpe di Suisi), the alpine meadows around and below us seemed to be at the peak of wildflower season, with large patches of purple and yellow flowers everywhere we looked. The real draw to the this area for me though, was the summit of Grosse Fermeda, towering above us to the east. If there was one mountain I had really wanted to see above any others on this trip, it was this one.
Family pic from our favorite hike of our entire Europe trip Northern Dolomites Monte Cristallo over Lago di Landro
We let the children spend some time on a nearby playground, and then followed the wide trail up to the ridge line. Along our short walk we were treated to more nice views, and could now also see the higher summit of Sass Rigais behind and to the left of Grosse Fermeda. I'd done a few easy ridge walks and scrambles in the Wasatch, but nothing approaching the beauty of what we saw here. It was truly awe-inspiring. We continued a little bit farther, and then turned back on another trail leading back to the lift. We let the kids wander around and explore the area a little bit, and they enjoyed watching the cows walk around a couple hundred yards below us, with their bells jingling whenever they moved. I would've loved to have stayed longer, but we were hoping to see some other sites that day too. Despite the shortness and easiness of the hike (our little loop was probably just under a mile roundtrip), I don't think I've ever experienced one with such a great bang-for-your-buck reward as far as scenery goes. It ended up being my family's favorite hike of our entire Europe trip, and my Mom was also glad to be able to experience the area for the first time, as it was one of the prettiest places she'd ever seen as well.
Great views of Cadini di Misurina ... ... on our second little family hike of the day, along the Tre Cime trail Cimon del Froppa Lago di Santa Caterina
Shortly after getting into the cars and continuing along the road past Santa Cristina, we encountered a road closure right where we had planned on going to get to Passo Falzarego, due to a bike race that afternoon. It was frustrating, because this threw a big wrench into our other plans for the day. If push came to shove, Tre Cime was the one other area I really wanted to see, so after consulting google maps and talking to a local bus driver, we agreed that it made sense to backtrack past Ortisei and then drive up to the north and then come back down from Dobbiaco to get to the Tre Cime trail head at Rifugio Auronzo. This meant we wouldn't get to see Passo Falzarego, but there wasn't much we could do about it.
The cold weather and incoming clouds made for interesting lighting on Croda dei Toni ... ... and Ciastelin Backside view of Tre Cime, ... ... one of the most iconic peaks in the Dolomites
Fortunately, the drive north from Ortisei through Bressanone and Brunico was still quite scenic. We were treated to panoramic views of several other impressive mountains I'm still trying to learn the names of (many don't appear to even be named on Google maps), and since it was a major road, we ended up getting to Rifugio Auronzo only half an hour later than we would've if we'd been able to drive straight through Passo Falzarego and Cortina d'Ampezzo to get there. The constant stream of motorcycles passing us on blind corners and then slamming on their brakes in front of us was a bit annoying (they're almost like gnats, in a way), but other than that it was a relaxing drive.
Looking up at the westermost tower ... ... and easternmost tower of Tre Cime Monticello & Cima di Vallonga Monte Antelao
The drive from Dobbacio to Rifugio Auronzo took us through a canyon past a couple of scenic lakes, with the road steepening after passing through a tollbooth. After parking next to a narrow one-lane road just below the hut, I had a chance to inspect our surroundings more closely, and was blown away by the scenery. In terms of a view you can get stepping right out of your car, the only other place I'd ever been to that I could even remotely compare this area to was Logan Pass at the top of the Going-to-the-Sun Road in Glacier National Park. Everywhere we looked were impressive peaks and ridge lines, many which seemed to resemble the Tetons, except on a more expansive scale. I didn't find an exact statistic for the overall area covered by the various sub-ranges of the Dolomites, but it has to be close to covering the same area as the San Juan Range in Colorado.
Hiking along the trail ... ... that would take us back to Rifugio Auronzo Punta Sorapiss Croda Rossa
At Rifugio Auronzo the weather was much colder and windier, so we only hiked about a mile along the trail in a counter-clockwise direction (ending at Rifugio Lavaredo) before heading back. I would've liked to have continued another mile or so to the point where you can start to see the more well-known views of the iconic Tre Cime, but with the weather becoming a bit cold for the baby we decided to turn back early. Nevertheless, the scenery we did experience was awesome, and reminded me of some of the more scenic places I've hiked in the American Rockies. To the south, Cadini di Misurina seemed to resemble a slightly pointier version of Mount Sneffels (San Juans, Colorado), while some of the other peaks reminded me of the Tetons (Monticello and Cima di Vallonga looked a bit like Middle Teton and South Teton, while Ciastelin looked like Teewinot).
Parting view of Misurina peaks above Lago d'Antorno ... ... and the northwest aspect of Tre Cime
With my mountain needs completely satiated, we ate some more Italian pizza at a restaurant near Dobbiaco before continuing to our hotel in Lienz, Austria. The entire way there we were treated to even more great mountain views, which made me wonder how it was possible for this much breathtaking scenery to be contained in such a relatively small geographical area. While I was completely happy with the way our day turned out, I'll admit that besides the time we left Glacier National Park during a family trip back in 2010, this is the only other time I've felt a certain twinge of sadness when leaving a mountain range, as it left me wanting to stay longer. I'm sure most everyone on this site can relate to the feeling.
Part of our hotel room in Lienz
The owner of the hotel seemed a bit annoyed that we had arrived later (we had given him a heads up on the phone earlier that afternoon that we wouldn't arrive until around 8:30 pm, though), but the hotel ended up being quite nice (probably my favorite along with our hotel in Zermatt), with a balcony view overlooking the town center of Lienz. Another bonus was that it had plenty of room for our infant to crawl around, as the successive days of being stuck in a car seat and hiking pack weren't easy on him. Our hotel in Zermatt had given us a CD of Wolli songs (little goat mascot for the town), which we listened to quite a bit during our road trip, as the songs really calmed Easton down, especially the ones in German, for whatever reason. But still, there was no substitute for letting him get out and crawl around. One thing I love about European buildings in general is that they are much better built than the cheap hotels in America, where you can hear practically everything in the rooms next to, below, and above you. Europeans definitely like their peace and quiet, as do I, so it was nice not having to worry too much about our children being noisy at the end of their exciting day of hiking in the Dolomites.
Dolomite alpenglow views of Cima Nove ... ... and Cima di Sesto & Punta Tre Scarperi
Day 9 - Werfen & Salzburg
Peak north of Lienz Peak southeast of Lienz
Since we were able to see so many mountain areas that I had selected leading up to this point, it was now time to see some of the sites my wife was more interested in. She's always been a big fan of the Sound of Music, so on this day we'd be seeing several areas used for filming the movie.
Cheesy frolicking at the end of the Sound of Music Trail ... ... in the meadows above the town of Werfen Kleines Fieberhorn Spires near Hochkonig
First off, we visited the meadow from the movie where Julie Andrews teaches the Von Trapp family children how to sing. It involved an easy little hike on the Sound of Music Trail, leading to an enclosed meadow with picnic tables, where we ate gas station sandwiches for lunch. The views of the surrounding mountains were quite nice.
Raucheck, Hiefler, & Kleines Fieberhorn above mountain huts near Werfen Salzburg Cathedral Mozart statue
Next, we drove to Salzburg to see the outdoor veranda which is located in the backyard of the house in the movie, followed by two other separate locations used to film the front and back exterior areas of the house. After that, we walked around downtown Salzburg, checking out the inside of the cathedral, and then went to all of the places in Mirabell Gardens where they sing the "Do-Re-Mi" song.
We didn't leave Salzburg until close to dusk, and we still had a long drive to our next hotel in Fussen. Luckily, driving fast on the autobahn helped us cover the first section of the drive quickly, and a quick stop at a large McDonald's was all we needed for dinner. The remainder of the drive through back-country roads it was raining the entire time, but thanks to my Mom's excellent job leading the way, we were in Garmisch and then Leermoos before we knew it. Crossing back into Germany just outside of Fussen, we were stopped at an impromptu border check by German police, who inspected our passports and then let us through. We all zonked as soon as we got to the hotel around 1 am, as we only had time to sleep until 6 am before waking up the next morning.
Day 10 - Neuschwanstein Castle & Legoland
Due to all of the tourists that have flocked to the area, you now need to make online reservations to see the inside of Neuschwanstein Castle. Before the trip, we decided that picking the earliest time would be best, so we quickly drove to the nearby town of Hohenschwangau to pick up our tickets at 7:30 am. We had to wait in the rain for the first bus to come and take us up to Neuschwanstein Castle, but it was actually refreshing, as it was surprisingly the only rain we encountered on our entire trip.
Town of Hohenschwangau (where you pick up your tickets for Neuschwanstein Castle)
I wasn't sure how our two young children (ages 3 and 10 months) would handle a 45-minute guided tour, but they were perfectly behaved. Being able to listen to their own audio guide definitely helped keep their attention, as in between the narration there were little snippets of orchestral music as well. My favorite part of the castle was Ludwig II's throne room, although all of the rooms were quite beautiful and ornate. They didn't allow any photographs inside, so we got each of the kids their own little souvenir to remember it by. We couldn't really see the castle from Queen Mary's Bridge because of the cloudy weather, but as we drove away we caught a nice view of it from down below.
Looking up at the famous Neuschwanstein Castle ... ... on a cloudy day
Halfway on our drive up to Legoland is when our non-stop driving and site-seeing started to catch up with us. Both my Mom and I were quite tired and sleepy, so we pulled over at a gas station for a quick catnap, lulled to sleep by the German oompah music coming from the loudspeakers outside. Somewhat refreshed, we then continued on to Legoland, where the kids spent the afternoon having fun on the rides and admiring all of the Lego models. They had several large areas allocated for buildings from different parts of Europe, somewhat similar to what we saw at the miniatures park in Lugano, and included was a Lego version of Neuschwanstein, which we had just visited.
After Legoland, we continued on to our next hotel in the rural town of Vehlberg, making it just in time to eat at the Hotel Wender's restaurant. I had some lamb meat and potatoes, which was really good. The German proprietor here was very helpful and friendly. In general, it seems most of the Germans we encountered didn't mind our large American family, perhaps because they've already gotten used to American expats near all of the military bases over the years.
Day 11 - Rothenburg ob der Tauber
By design, this was a more mellow day, with our only plans being to explore Rothenburg ob der Tauber before driving to the Black Forest. Liz wanted to check out the famous Christmas shop in town, which did not disappoint. Upon walking in, one of the first things you see is a giant display full of automated toy animals moving around a small village. Walking farther into the shop, we came across wall-to-wall Christmas ornaments of every kind. My favorite part was the giant Christmas pyramid in the basement, with the windmill at the top and candles at the bottom. We also stopped by a little teddy bear shop in town as well, which the kids seemed to enjoy.
In the town of Rothenburg ob der Tauber ... ... was an impressive Christmas store
After a yummy lunch including beef goulash soup, we got back onto the autobahn. Due to some GPS issues and simply having too much fun driving in the fast lane (got up to 130 mph at one point), we ended up missing the turnoff for another little town Liz wanted to check out, where one of her ancestors lived. Google Maps had computed the directions to a different Michelfeld, and before we realized it we had driven an hour past the town we originally intended to see (just a note to those exploring southern Germany, there are several towns with the same name, including Rothenburg, which we had just visited). Not wanting to backtrack, we had some Burger King for dinner before continuing our drive through the Germany countryside. Even though we'd missed Michelfeld, Liz knew that many of her ancestors had lived all around this area, so it was nice to just drive around and see what it was like in the general area where they were from. Eventually we made it to the Black Forest, and checked into our hotel in Triberg for the night.
German countryside in the area where Liz's ancestors lived
Day 12 - Black Forest
... is famous for their cuckoo clocks The Black Forest area ...
With our Best Western hotel in Triberg being only the second one on our trip with a pool, we let the kids do some swimming before heading out for the day. Liz's mother had wanted us to look for a cuckoo clock there, so Liz spent some time checking out the big shop in the center of town, as well as a smaller one right next to it which had better prices. While waiting to hear back on which clock she liked the most (her parents' time zone was 7 hours behind), we made the short walk up the street to check out the Triberg waterfalls. There was a nice paved trail all the way to the upper falls, along with bridges in a couple of places to get a better view of them.
Triberg's impressive lower waterfalls ... ... and upper waterfalls On the way back to Geneva were more nice views of mountains ...
Having ordered the perfect clock, which the store would end up shipping back to the States to save us the hassle of trying to fit it into one of our suitcases, we had some delicious bratwurst and fries for lunch and then made the long drive back to Geneva. Along the way, we stopped in Bern for a bit
... such as Mont Blanc
to check out the LDS temple there. As early as Lausanne we were able to see some great views of the mountains on the other (south) side of Lake Geneva, all the way to Mont Blanc. With an incredibly clear forecast for our last few days in Switzerland, we still had the chance to take in some more mountain sights, which I was excited for.
Day 13 - Chamonix
It's a short drive from Geneva to Chamonix (just over an hour), but along the way we saw a few other impressive little mountains. There was one pit-stop from where we got an excellent view of Tete du Colonney in the Faucigny Massif, which wasn't very high compared to nearby Mont Blanc, but was quite impressive nonetheless. If we had more time, it looked like it would've been a fun one to hike (come to find out, there's a trail all of the way to the top).
On the way to Chamonix, we saw the "little" peak of Tete du Colonney ... ... as well as this precariously-placed hut just below the terminus of one of Mont Blanc's glaciers Aiguille Verte & Aiguille du Dru
On the way to Chamonix, my Mom led us to a little area where we could get a close-up view of the terminus of one of Mont Blanc's massive glaciers (not sure if it was Glacier des Bossons, Glacier de Taconnaz, or a different one), and surprisingly there was a chair lift and hut which appeared to be right underneath the glacier. The Swiss are the best at erecting man-made structures in mountain areas which are seemingly inaccessible, so I'm assuming whoever built the hut knew what they were doing (I'm guessing the glacier is retreating), but it was still surprising to see it so close to the glacier above.
Across the valley were impressive views of Aiguille du Chardonnet and Aiguille d'Argentiere ... ... as well as the Grandes Jorasses and other peaks in the Mont Blanc Massif
The lady at the ticket booth for the cable car leading to La Flegere was hesitant to sell us tickets because we were taking Easton, who was only 10 months old, but after some reassurance that we knew what we were doing in my very rusty French, she finally conceded. Granted, the cable cars over here do gain elevation quite quickly, but on every one we went on we made sure to give Easton water and snacks to chew on to help his ears pop, and he never cried or showed any discomfort on the way up.
Walking back, I took some zoomed-in shots of Grandes Jorasses ... ... and the summit of Mont Blanc
Up at La Flegere, the views of the Mont Blanc Massif were incredible. While taking the cable car to Aiguille du Midi would've given us a closer view of the summit of Mont Blanc, from the opposite north side of the Chamonix valley we were treated to a more panoramic view of not just Mont Blanc, but also all of the aiguilles and other impressive peaks comprising the massif. The original plan was to hike to Lac Blanc, but with all of the travelling we'd done the past couple of weeks, the kids weren't quite their usual energetic selves, so we decided to just wander around the trail/road below the Flegere station/restaurant area, without pushing them to hike to any particular destination in particular. That was fine with me, since the views all around this area were top-notch. Elissa wasn't in the mood to hike at all this day, so she stayed with my Mom at the restaurant while the rest of us explored for a little bit.
Aiguille du Grepon & Auguille de Blaitiere Aiguille du Plan Aiguille du Midi
On the other side of the valley, there were several peaks that caught my eye. Looking south across to the other side of the valley, on the left (northeast side) side of the massif was impressive Aiguille du Chardonnet. Closer to us was the incredibly pointy Aiguille du Dru and the famous Grandes Jorasses, both of which have some very difficult rock routes scaling their faces. I was a bit disappointed to see that the Mer de Glace looked like it had completely melted/disappeared from the angle we were looking at it. All the more reason to see places like this when we had the chance, before global warming takes its toll. Closer to the main summit of Mont Blanc were other impressive needles, including Aiguille du Midi.
From the cable car station at La Flegere ... ... it's easy to see how Mont Blanc towers over the town of Chamonix
Walking back to La Flegere, we ran into several people from North Carolina doing the Tour du Mont Blanc, a route which navigates around the entire massif. We were lucky to be able to quickly ascend to one of the most scenic parts of the route with minimal effort, thanks to the cable car, and it gave us a great perspective of the huge vertical relief. Mont Blanc, which many people consider the tallest mountain in Europe (I'm not sure who decided Russia was part of Europe, to instead make Mount Elbrus one of the 7 Summits), at 15,781 feet towers over the town of Chamonix, which is at an elevation of 3,396 feet. Many people back in the US like to brag about how many vertical feet of skiing there are at their favorite mountain resorts, but it really can't compare to the Alps. If you took the Aiguille du Midi lift, for example, and skied off-piste all of the way down the Vallee Blanche to the Montenevers rail station, you'd be descending over 9,000 vertical feet. Enough said. We descended back down to Chamonix, and then drove back to Geneva a different way, heading through a pass to the north instead. Along the way we saw several other impressive peaks, many of whose names I'm still trying to figure out.
Taking in one last view of Aiguille du Dru from the cable car parking lot ... ... before driving back to Geneva via Martigny, giving us more nice mountain vistas
Day 14 - Vallorbe Caves & Yvoire
To mix things up a bit, we decided to visit the Vallorbe Caves today, about an hour's drive from Geneva. We had almost the entire place to ourselves, which allowed us to explore them at a nice leisurely pace. They contain the largest underwater river in all of Central Europe. In one of the larger caverns we could actually see and hear the fast-flowing water far beneath the metal walkway we were crossing. Surprisingly, expert divers and explorers were able to map out the entire cavern, and dive underneath the water to explore several other neighboring caverns which extended for miles underneath the ground. Haha, and people think mountaineering is dangerous.
Vallorbe Caves Riding a ferry across Lake Geneva from Nyon ... ... to Yvoire
On the way back, we stopped off in the town of Nyon on the shore of Lake Geneva. After some tasty pork sandwiches and crepes, we took the ferry across the lake to the town of Yvoire, which is one of my Mom's favorite places. It's a quaint little village with cobblestone streets, window boxes, and vine-covered walls everywhere you go, giving a very authentic European feel. The kids had fun sitting by some boat docks and watching a rowing coach yell at his team to row harder in French. At sunset we took the boat back across to the other side of the lake.
The quaint little lake village of Yvoire ... ... had many fun streets to explore
Day 15 - Kandersteg
Chlyne Lohner & Bunderspitz
With just one day left on our whirlwind tour of the Alps, we decided to head back to the Bernese Alps one last time to see Kandersteg. Even though it is a bit of a drive from Geneva (~2.5 hours one way), we figured the kids would enjoy riding the alpine slide, it would give me the chance to show them where I spent time back in the summers of '95 and '96 at the International Scouting Center and see Oeschinensee again, and my Mom was hoping to take some pictures of the children in some traditional outfits she had bought for them recently. Matthew wasn't very excited about dressing up in lederhosen, but when we told him it would make Nana happy, he finally agreed to do it.
Nice views of Bluemisalphorn ... ... and its glacier Matthew and Ivy having fun ... ... riding the alpine slide at Kandersteg
Part of the reason this area of the Alps is so green is because of all of the rain it receives. I remember at the end of one camp in particular, it rained so much that one night several scouts' tents stakes gave out as their tents were washed down a very moderate hillside, and by the end of the week there were a few places around our campsite with mud that was several inches thick (had to be careful to not lose my boots in the mud). Despite the wet conditions, I had a lot of fun, though.
Dressing up in traditional outfits ... ... at Oeschinensee
On this day, we had no such problems. Besides a few clouds here and there, it was a bluebird day, and surprisingly hot. We rode the cable car up to the Oeschinensee (Lake Oeschinen) area, and let the kids ride the alpine slide a few times. After that, we hiked over to a nearby meadow and let my Mom dress them up for some pictures. They did look pretty cute in their outfits, and even the most serious-looking hikers couldn't help but crack a smile as they passed by.
There were impressive mountains (Dundenhorn pictured) ... ... all around Lake Oeschinen Waterfall below Doldenhorn Gallihorn over Kandersteg that I climbed as a Boy Scout
Before the trip, I had originally planned on us doing a long loop hike that would take us partway up the slopes of Dundenhorn above Lake Oeschinen, but with the entire family in tow, we weren't quite so ambitious. I was at least hoping to see Oeschinensee on a clear day, because whenever I'd come here before as a youth it had been completely overcast. This time we had an unimpeded view of peaks like Bluemisalphorn and Frundenhorn, rising 7,000 vertical feet over the lake below. With such great weather on a Saturday, it was a little crowded on the trail leading to the lake, which was to be expected. Kandersteg isn't quite the tourist trap that other places like Interlaken, Lauterbrunnen, and Grindelwald are, but I think the secret's out about what a cool place it is. Along the western shore of the lake, we saw a few cows as well, which the kids were excited for. On the drive back to Geneva, I couldn't help but feel grateful for the chance I'd had to share some similar memories of the Alps with my own children.
Posing for pictures for my Mom ... ... and looking for cows
While this was really more of a travelogue than an actual hiking report, taking four children ages 10 and under on a trip to Europe to see as many mountain sites as we did in a two week period seemed adventurous enough to warrant a trip report. If anything, it also gives us something we can show the two younger ones (ages 3 and 10 months) when they get older, as they may not remember everything we did. Some hiking purists don't like the fact that the Alps have been developed with so many roads and cable cars to give people easy access to the mountains, but I think that's part of their appeal. I can't think of anywhere else where it's possible to see so many incredible mountain views for so little effort (I still need to check out the Icefields Parkway area of the Canadian Rockies, though). While traveling around Europe, especially in Switzerland, can be quite pricey, there are many things about the area that are very family-friendly, and if you plan things well, taking advantage of family rates on tickets, it's really not that bad.
I'm truly grateful to my parents, who made this trip possible, both in terms of helping with the cost of plane tickets (luckily, they've racked up hundreds of thousands of air miles over the years), and being great hosts and tour guides during our visit. Having lived almost sixteen years in Switzerland, Germany, France, and Italy, they know the area quite well, and without their travel tips (such as carrying zip-lock baggies with a lot of Swiss Franc or Euro coins to handle unexpected expenses like parking and even toilet fees) there's no way we could've done this trip on our own. It was great to come back and see the Alps again with my family, and it's a trip we'll never forget. Matthew would always ask my Mom why she talked about Switzerland so much, and now he knows from firsthand experience what an amazing place it is. I knew the trip was a success when as soon as our daughter Ivy unloaded her backpack upon driving back from the airport in Salt Lake City, instead of heading to bed to catch up on sleep, she got out all of our hot-wheel toys and blocks to make tunnels like the ones we drove through in the Alps. All in all, it was the best vacation I've ever been on, and it was fun watching my children's faces when they were able to see things like the Matterhorn for the first time.
No comments posted yet.