The Final Countdown: Europe, North America travel blog

Sunrise over a misty valley near Cologne

The Rhine Valley

Boppard, Rhine Valley

Some of the tour group sailed up the Rhine from Boppard to...

Those of us who stayed on the coach made up our own...

Digby tries some Nussecke in Oberwesel, in the Rhine Valley

Taking down the trees after a recent festival in the village




There was a wedding in town while we were there



Rhine Valley, there used to be a chain across the river, blocking...

Heidelburg, Germany

The bronze monkey statue, Heidelburg




Having Black Forest cake, near The Black Forest, Heidelburg


Heidelburg town square

Heidelburg castle

On offer across the border in Switzerland. Didn't have any Swiss Francs...

The Astoria, our hotel in Lucerne

The Lion of Lucerne, a memorial to the Swiss soldiers who died...


The Chapel Bridge (Kapellbrücke), Lucerne

The Chapel Bridge (Kapellbrücke), Lucerne

On the road to Mt Titlis, no fences....

On the road to Mt Titlis

Start of the cable car, Mt Titlis

The first cable car up Mt Titlis, six seater bubble

The 2nd cable car, room for about 30 or more in this...

The third cable car, Rotair, had a revolving floor

The view we would have had, had the mountain not been covered...

An ice cave, supposedly inside the glacier, but no creaking sounds that...

Cynthea on Mt Titlis

Tony with one of the snow plows, we are at 3020m

Just what you need to warm up, hot coffee and scnapps

Ben (Liam's brother, Steve's son), couldn't make the tour, so they took...

Coming back down Mt Titlis

Coming back down Mt Titlis

Coming back down Mt Titlis

Coming back down Mt Titlis

Link to photos (London to Lucerne), copy and paste:!/media/set/?set=a.10152104219500707.901093.746395706&type=3

Tuesday 18th September

Day 3 Rhineland (Germany) – Heidelberg – Lucerne (Switzerland). 530km

An early start, wake up call is at 5.30am, we pack, have breakfast and are on the bus by 7am. Breakfast was a choice of muesli and cereals, breads, meat and cheeses, and we get some rolls and cheese for lunch too. It was not quite light when we left. We leave the hotel thinking we have seen very little of Germany in our brief stay here, and hope that the situation changes as we head for Switzerland. The group is starting to bond, and so far it continues to be very pleasant, no constant “nothing is ever right” moaners. If someone does have a moan, we are usually all thinking the same way. One or two get a hard time over their timekeeping, and that could become a problem as we have some very long days. Ciro can only drive a certain number of hours, so if anyone is late it usually means we lose time on the next break, and they are short enough as it is. Mariella tells us that the first time you are late you have to sing. The second time you have to sing and dance, the third time you get left behind.

The traffic is quite heavy, but flowing well. We cross the Rhine at Cologne, it looks very industrial here, but the pollution is not too bad, a little hazy, but that could just be mist. Tony is amazed by the number of planes around, and the many jet trails that criss-cross the sky. As we get to the Rhine Valley we strike a lot of heavy mist, those booked on the river cruise will be hoping it clears! Some of the bridges and viaducts that we cross are very long, and sometimes we can even see the river below!

We stop briefly at Boppard where most of the group took a cruise up the Rhine, there is still quite a bit of low cloud. About a dozen of us decided that we would not do this tour option (EUR25). We all hoped that the coach would take the same route by road along the Rhine, which it did. We will miss out on the official commentary, but we just made up our own as we went along – “Look, there’s a castle, and there’s a castle. Hey, there’s a castle!” – you get the idea…

Ciro stopped to fill up, and we get off to use the toilet at the service station, but the bloody woman behind the counter would not give us the key. She kept telling us it was already in use, which was a lie, we had already knocked on the door to see if it was occupied. When he has finished gassing up Ciro gets the key, and we all use the toilet, including Ciro. There was some satisfaction in seeing that the coach blocked the pumps for some time while we all used the toilet. There was only the one available, and it had no toilet paper, so those that needed some had to use the paper hand towels.

We stop in the village of Oberwesel for around an hour while we wait for the boat, the mists have cleared along the way, and it is a stunning day. We have a wander around the village and stop for a coffee, hot chocolate and cake, very reasonably priced at just EUR5.00. We don’t have time to walk to the local castle, a couple of kilometres away, so we settle for another wander around the village. At last we feel like we have seen a small part of German culture, and as a bonus we see a wedding party at the town hall.

There must be more castles per kilometre than anywhere else we have been, they are everywhere. Many are high on a hill above the Rhine to give the best defence. The other feature is the many vineyards that make use of every available space, even if it means being perched on a near vertical hillside.

Our next stop is in Heidelberg, a very pretty town a couple of hours along the road. We have just an hour here for lunch and a look around. There is another castle, but again we don’t have time to visit. There is a statue of a Brass Monkey holding a mirror and surrounded by mice: touch the mirror for wealth (tick!), the outstretched fingers to ensure you return to Heidelberg (tick!) and the mice to ensure you have many children (don’t think we did, bit late now anyway, haha). Before the Old Bridge was built, the only way across the river was the ferry. The man that ran the ferry always had a monkey on his shoulder, this is a tribute to that.

We walk into the town centre and get a coffee and a couple of local dishes. One was a Black Forest Gateau, not at all what we expected it to be, but very decadent all the same. It is a lovely day here, blue sky and sunshine, and we wander around the town centre. We pass a shop selling crystal spinners, and one in particular takes our fancy. The store stocks a huge variety, making it hard to decide which one to get. The prices are about the same as back in London, we decide to get the one that we saw first and hurry back to the bus.

We get to Switzerland around 5.30pm. Mariella tells us we must stay seated on the bus, no joking around (as if!), and NO PHOTOS of the Swiss guards. We stop across the boarder in Basel for a short break. Once again we pay to pee, one Swiss Franc, and the machine will also accept Euro coins. Tony tries to get some Francs out of the ATM, but the card is refused a couple of times. He thinks he must have forgotten to tell the bank to add Switzerland to the list of countries we visit. The card is blocked for international transactions unless you specifically add a country to a travel list, with the dates you will be there. We decide to just use a Euro coin, and we get a voucher each for 1 franc (worth about EUR83c, or 70p). Tony picks up another voucher off the floor, and we spend our three vouchers on a Toblerone – even their own chocolate is expensive here, we would have paid £1 for the same thing back in the UK.

There are notices in the shop advising that Switzerland is not a member of the Euro zone, they will accept Euros, but only notes, and will give change in Swiss Francs at whatever the current conversion rate is. The exception to the rule is the machine at the turnstile into the toilet.

While we are waiting to get back on the bus, Cynthea tries her debit card and it works, we get CHF50, the equivalent of £35. We are only here for two days and expect we can use our debit cards at most places, that is once Tony logs on to the bank website and gets his card registered for travel in Switzerland.

We continue on to Lucerne, in the German area of Switzerland. Switzerland has four official languages, the others are French, Italian and high Swiss (from the mountain area, spoken mainly by the older generations). There are a lot of road tunnels on the way, some are several kilometres long. It makes for a quicker journey but there is not a lot to see! The weather has clouded over, and by the time we get to Lucerne around 7pm it is raining, and dark. It has been a long day.

The Astoria is a very nice hotel in the centre of town, but all the mirrors are taking a bit of getting used to. There are mirrors beside the stairs and escalator, more in the lobby, and lots of mirrors in the room itself. The room is nicer than last night, though we have two single beds again, and no tea and coffee facilities. It is a large room, but there is no light by the luggage rack (where you would need one when you are packing). The travel adaptors wont fit the power outlets, it seems that Switzerland has its’ own configuration of three thin, round pins. Two Swiss adaptors are collected from reception, there is a EUR20 deposit charged to the room.

We head into town a little after 8pm, and find a food court at the railway station nearby, but by the time we decide what we want it is 9pm, and they are all closing. Tony wants a coffee, “We are closing in one minute” he is told, so they better be quick serving. We have some food from the supermarket in Amsterdam, but Cynthea wants a salad, so we go to McDonalds. Phew, expensive here. CHF12.50 (£8.50/$17!) for a BigMac, we think that is just the burger, but it could be a meal, as the menu is hard to work out, given that half of it is in German. We get a salad and a small fries, costing CHF8, (about $10).

We catch up with a few of the tour group at a restaurant bar in our hotel, they had also settled for Maccas. Restaurant prices are very high, CHF20 (£14/$28!) for soup, CHF50 (£35) for a mains.

Back at the hotel we use the WiFi in the foyer (you have to pay for internet in the room), and check the bank account. Still no pay, and Tony sees he had registered the card for Switzerland after all. There is a reply to Tony’s message about his card. It seems they have blocked it because of suspicious activity. He is given a number to call, and asked to reverse the charges. But there is difficulty getting the hotel staff to understand the concept, they keep telling him just to call the number and they will charge the room. In the end Tony calls the UK on his mobile and asks the bank to call him back. They take quite some minutes to do that, and he wonders if they have got the number wrong.

Eventually the call comes, and it is explained that the “suspicious” activity was buying airfares on line. When asked what triggered the alert, he is told that the security questions flagged up – and the only thing that was wrong there was that Tony entered a postcode in lowercase!!! He gives them a rarkup for not calling him, they said they tried and there was no answer, and no answer service. Tony tells them that is bullshit. There are no missed calls on either of the UK phone numbers, nor the global roaming number. There is no excuse for not contacting as he had given the overseas contact telephone number. Tony says he is very upset, or words to that effect, because the special offer airfare is no longer available and it looks like it will cost another £100 for the tickets. He is told to write a complaint to the bank and they will reimburse him the difference, they cannot do that over the phone unless the amount is under £20. It is quite late now, too late to try and book the tickets, besides he will have to all the way down to the foyer to get internet connection, so he will try that again tomorrow.

We can “sleep in” tomorrow, breakfast is not until 8am.

Wednesday 19th September.

Day 4 Lucerne (Switzerland).

It is an early start, despite the “sleep in”. Tony has problems with his contact lenses, he loses both of them when he tries to put them in, and cannot find them anywhere. Both the counter top and bathroom floor are of a flecked marble, and with splashes of water around it is very hard to find one contact lens, let alone two! Cynthea comes to help, and cannot find them either. Tony puts his glasses on and still has difficulty seeing, and he starts to get worried that something is wrong. Yes, there is something wrong, he is suffering from “”F.I.T.Hs”, and he eventually finds them, both are in the one eye!!

After breakfast we are taken into the centre of the city, which is not far from where we are staying. There is a lot of low cloud, and a few showers are about this morning. We hope it will clear up for our trip up Mt Titlis.

We visit the famous ‘Lion of Lucerne’, which was carved into a sandstone face in 1820. It is a memorial to the Swiss soldiers who died attempting to save Marie Antoinette in 1792. Those of us not doing the optional lake cruise (EUR25 ea) are left in town to shop and explore. Cynthea looks at the chocolate shops (for cake decorating ideas), and as it is not too wet, Tony goes for a walk along the lake front, and then checks out the old covered wooden bridge.

The Chapel Bridge (Kapellbrücke) is a covered 204m wooden footbridge spanning the Reuss River. It is the oldest wooden covered bridge in Europe, as well as the world's oldest surviving truss bridge. The bridge is unique as it has some interior paintings dating back to the 17th century. Although many of them were destroyed along with most of the old bridge in a 1993 fire, the bridge has since been restored. There are masses of flowers, mainly begonias, in planter boxes everywhere. The bridge is well covered in them.

Our trip up Mt Titlis costs EUR75 each ($120), though there is an option to go to Engelberg only for EUR30. The bus is late back to collect us, and we give them a hard time. Engelberg is about half an hour drive away to the series of cable cars that will take us almost to the top of the mountain, at a height of around 3020m (10,000 ft). It is an amazing drive there, the countryside is so different with the houses dotted around the hillside, connected by narrow paths. The are huge open spaces around the houses, and not a fence in sight. Everything looks so precise, even the firewood is stacked according to size, and the wood piles are perfect, not a log out of place.

There is not a lot of traffic heading up the mountain, so we are surprised at the huge number of coaches in the car park. There are relatively few people in the shop and ticket office, it looks like it is going to be busy up there. The cable car system is very long, it will take us 45 minutes to get to the top, and we will travel in three different styles of car. Our first trip is in a six seater gondola “bubble” that takes us up to the first station where the car is automatically put onto the next set of cables. The car never stops, but it is possible for passengers to get off and grab one of the many bicycles to head off around the trails, or take a fast trip downhill to the base station. The gondola takes us down into the valley below and then we ascend again.

At the second station we get into a huge box shape cable car, it will take about 40-50 people but we are lucky, only our group is in this trip. This is a much shorter trip, but we gain a lot of height as we head into the mists. It is even “snowing” inside as the condensation falls from the ceiling. At the third station we get into the Rotair, a round car that has a rotating floor, and that takes us to near the 3020m summit. Once again we have the luxury of just our group, and despite the cloud we see some amazing sights. Though we would have preferred blue sky and sunshine, it is still special as some in the group have never seen snow before, let alone see it fall.

At the visitor centre we find all the usual tourist traps – a couple of pricey restaurants, the highest bar in Europe (but it was closed), traditional costume photos (very expensive), and a lunch room for those who brought a picnic lunch with them (free!). On the ground floor is a walk “through the glacier”, though we are very sceptical about that. An ice cave, certainly, but there is not the usual creaking, groaning and cracking – well, not from the ice cave. There are a few ice statues carved into recesses as we walk in a short loop around.

Although there are big crowds here, everyone is well spread out over the five levels, so it only feels crowded in a few places. We venture outside to the IceFlyer, a chairlift that crosses over the glacier, but it is closed because of the misty weather. The temperature is a balmy –4C, but doesn’t feel too bad, there is no wind chill.

We head in for a picnic lunch and watch a video of what the mountain looks like in clear weather, Tony takes a photo of a poster. We decide we have to have something “local”, and Tony orders a black coffee laced with Schnapps. We start heading down at 3pm, the rotair car is packed, as is the box cable car, but there is not too long a wait for the seats in the bubble gondolas.

We take the bus back to Lucerne where we are dropped off at a flash department store. We are all given a couple of envelopes containing brochures on very expensive watches, and there is a voucher for a free silver teaspoon souvenir. This is the same shop we were dropped at this morning, and we wonder why the vouchers couldn’t have been handed out then – but then you really don’t have to think about that do you. We head up to the third floor and collect our teaspoon. We also get another Christmas tree souvenir, a Swiss cow bell, CHF12. Probably twice the price you would pay anywhere else in town, but we are tired after another long day. The souvenir stalls are some way off in the opposite direction to our hotel, so we just buy one here and head back towards the hotel. We buy a quarter pizza on the way home and have fruit when we get back to the hotel.

There is another optional tour tonight, a dinner and Swiss folklore evening sets you back EUR65 ea. These optional trips are really adding up, and we won’t be able to go on many of them. Those that did go out reported they had a wonderful time.

After a bit of a rest Tony decides to go down to the lobby to use the internet, and as he bends to tie his shoes he puts his back out, again! It is more than a little bit painful, hopefully it will come right soon, but when that happened in London a couple of weeks ago, it took as few days to come right. While getting something out of the (unlocked) top of his backpack, Tony spots a diary – not his. There is no name in the front, so he starts reading from the last entry and figures it is definitely someone on the tour, most likely one of the Canadian girls.

We finally get to book our tickets to leave the UK, departing on the 28th October out of Manchester, bound for Toronto with a stop over in Reykjavik (Iceland). £346 each for the tickets, the cheap seats had gone, so Tony writes to the bank asking for compensation (he had been advised to do so the night before when talking to the bank call centre).

As he is leaving the lobby a group arrives back from a night at the pub. He asks about the diary and Nicole is thrilled to hear he has it, but it is still a mystery how it turned up in the pack. We figure that it was found with the group luggage, and was just put in there in the hope it would get to the right person in due course. It does make Tony think about how easy other “things” can be placed in a bag or pack.

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