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The Flying Dutchman

Florence and the Swiss Alps!

SWITZERLAND | Friday, 9 April 2010 | Views [2072] | Comments [3]

We had now arrived at Ancona, Italy, and had to catch a train to Florence. We walked off the ferry and onto the vast expanse of concrete that was the port. We did our best to dodge the semi's that were barreling out of the port, and managed to survive despite our very poor agility. We didn't really know which way to go, but knew that the train station was North of the port, and not too far, so we planned to walk there. We came onto the highway that ran along the port and walked down the little sidewalk. The highway ran parallel to a set of train tracks, so we knew we were in the right spot. Eventually, our sidewalk narrowed and narrowed and then ceased to exist altogether. FAIL sidewalk. We were now left with a choice. One life-changing choice. We could try to "run" (read: waddle/scamper) across the busy highway on our left and get to the median, OR we could jump down onto the train tracks on our right and get to the path on the other side. As we pondered our options, a local came up behind us made our choice easier by telling us to run across the road. I wasn't looking and Bonnie panicked and went and I followed and by some miracle we made it safely to the other side with all of our limbs, though my heart may have stopped for a brief moment. (sidenote from Bonnie: I had full confidence that we would survive that whole ordeal…. I am the jaywalking queen)

We eventually made it to the train station after what was a longer than expected walk (it is ALWAYS a longer than expected walk when loaded down with big backpacks) and caught the next train to Faenza, where we would catch another train to Florence. We arrived at Faenza, and had an hour to wait for our connecting train. It was here in Faenza that we discovered something new to both of us: the unisex washroom. This wasn't weird because girls and boys used the same washroom, the weird part was the toilets that were employed. I walked into a stall, and was a little confused by the lack of toilet. I looked down and found it: two foot pads for standing on, a hole in the floor between them. I didn't need an instruction manual to figure out how this toilet worked. I think the situation may have been more exciting for Bonnie. 

We grabbed some lunch from Chef Express (which is in every train station in Italy. They sell sandwiches named after famous travelers. I enjoyed a Vasco de Gama, Bonnie had a Magellan) (sidenote from Bonnie: How Neil remembers these kinds of details baffle me) and waited for 4:20 for our train to arrive. We sat around, and I kept checking my watch to see how long we had. 3:45, 3:50, 4:00. We passed the time through conversation, until I looked at my watch (which I hadn't done since 4:00 for some reason) and it was exactly 4:20! Within seconds and without a word I had thrown my bags on and turned to run to our platform. Bonnie, who had stopped mid-sentence, understood and followed. We ran onto the platform and our train was sitting there. We dove through a door and it closed behind us and the train pulled out of the station, with us on it. Had we missed that train it would have been hours until the next one arrived, if not until the next morning.

We arrived in Florence that evening and checked into Plus Florence, the same hostel Alice and I had stayed at when we were here. Where Alice and I had taken a cab to the hostel from the train station, I was able to get us there on foot! (Alice's puke-fit may have had something to do with this, but STILL) I felt kind of worldly in this moment. In our room we met a Brazilian guy, and an American girl (names Bonnie, help me out here). (sidenote from Bonnie: I am no help here….you are the one that remembers what we eat at Chief Express…remembering is your part of the job)The American girl just happened to grow up in Grand Forks, and knew all about Winnipeg. She was pretty impressed by this, but for us, after meeting Amanda in Greece, it takes an awful lot to get us excited about how small this world is. She said that her friends and her had partied in Winnipeg all the time before they were 21, and she remember the Tijuana Yacht Club in Winnipeg. She was pretty sweet as far as Americans go, and didn't fit any of the stereotypes. We suspect this is because of her close proximity to the Canadian border from an early age, and intermittent immersions into Canadian culture. 

The next day we set off into Florence to see everything that I had missed the first time around, and show Bonnie what the Renaissance city had to offer. Our hostel had a path through the city mapped out titled "Florence in a day", and that was all that we had, so we took a picture and followed the route all day.

Our first stop was the Duomo, which we climbed to the top of, and it was just as spectacular for me the second time. We next went to the Uffizi Gallery, which is known as the most crowded art museum in Italy. It was full of Renaissance works and other really old paintings and sculptures, and had some famous pieces, like the Birth of Venus (sidenote from Bonnie: As Neil and I are walking around looking at pictures we realize that the women are more on the plump side then nowadays. We stopped at one painting and Neil says “Hey that girls got some abs going on there”…..it was a painting of Jesus….fail Neil…fail). 

We continued on and, though I was a little nervous about it, we walked past the living statue who had chased me down the street when I tried to take a picture of him the first time I had been here. Luckily, he was on the job and in true statue form, unable to move from his pose. I looked him in the eye and stuck out my tongue as I sauntered past. I win.

We walked across the Ponte Vecchio, and around the neighbourhood on the other side of the river. (sidenote from Bonnie: Here I had my very first legit gelato….it was amazing) We returned to the main side of the river and walked through the city until we came to the Accademia Museum. We went inside and saw David which is really the only reason to go in the museum, and quickly skimmed through everything else before exiting. (sidenote from Bonnie: I was really excited to meet Derek…I mean David…I kept forgetting his name….I wanted to shake his hand, once getting there I realized how big Derek, I mean David actually was. We also were told that we weren’t allowed to take pictures..but we of course were extremely stealthy and got some anyways),  We enjoyed the restaurant in the hostel for supper, and relaxed, after hitting up all of Florence in one day. 

The next day we took the train to Milan, again, and just like every other time, we didn't see the city, just stayed at the train station. (sidenote: Here we had some time to kill so we decided to take pictures of us dressed in our travelling attire next to these big advertising posters that showcased exactly what Milan is known for…high fashion…. I think the Aggie jacket, curling pants, and running shoes were awesome the first time I went to Milan, but I did class it up a bit more this time as I threw in some hot aviator sunglasses that I bought in Florence) We caught a train headed for Geneva, and sat back as it wound through the hills up into the Alps, past the little villages on scenic lakes, around castles and into the city. Though all we had done was ride the train, it was one of our favorite days yet. (sidenote from Bonnie: Life is like a train ride.....there are some beautiful moments, some ugly, some bright and some dark, but rest assured there will always be light at the end of the tunnel J)

We had a couple hours in Geneva before we had to leave, so we walked around the city and took pictures of the lake and the mountains and the buildings. We needed an internet connection so that we could find some details about the trains we had to catch, and how to get to our hostel that night, so we searched for a Starbucks. We passed a group enjoying their fresh Starbucks coffees, so we asked them and they gave us directions. We took the roundabout way and walked through the Old Town, and found a chocolate shop. We bought some very expensive but very delicious Swiss chocolate, and found our Starbucks. We essentially spent 18 Swiss Franks on internet ($18), because that is what our two drinks cost. Oh Switzerland.

We returned to the train station and got on our train headed for Bern, where we would switch to another headed to Interlaken. The train was so crowded that we couldn't find a seat, and had to sit on the floor next to the door. At one point, the train came to a stop in the middle of the field, and nobody knew what was going on. A man came on the intercom and informed us that the train had pretty much broken down, and we would be here for a little bit. They eventually fixed the problem and we started to roll forward. We were now a little worried, because we only had a few minutes in Bern to catch our connecting train. We came into Bern and jumped off the train and ran down the stairs towards our connecting train. We had arrived at the exact time that our train was scheduled to leave, so we had reason to hurry. We found the right platform and ran up the ramp to our train. We got the top of the ramp and were only a few feet from our train as the doors closed and it left the station, right in front of us (sidenote from Bonnie: This was as epically close as Neil writes it…..a made for movie moment).

Luckily, there was another train to Interlaken in an hour, so we were given some time to see a little bit of Bern. We took the elevator to the rooftop of the train station, where we had a good view of the city. This was also a local hangout for the teens of Bern, so some intoxicated teens took the elevator down with us. They started talking to us in German, and I answered them with "No sprechen sie Deutsch". Big fail on my part, as I had intended to say "I don't speak German", but actually said "No (in English), do you speak german". They looked confused so we bailed out of the elevator and made sure to keep the English-German dictionary closer at hand(sidenote from Bonnie: You have to imagine this situation with Neil trying his best to have a German accent as well…..it as hilarious….if the situation had a like button, I would have clicked it). 

We came down to the main floor, and were greeted by a marching band, all dressed up in golden costumes, playing their music in front of a crowd of apparent trick-or-treaters. Children and adults alike were dressed in costumes, and Bonnie and I were a little confused. We eventually learned that this was because it was Carnaval, but at the time we wondered if this was some sort of belated Hallowe'en. 

We caught our train to Interlaken (yes, the only reason we initially planned to go to Interlaken was because we are from the Interlake) (sidenote from Bonnie: This was the greatest reasoning ever to go to a certain place) and arrived after the last bus or ferry to take us to our hostel, which was in the town of Iseltwald, across the lake (sidenote from Bonnie: It clearly was called Istanbul Neil….geeze!). We had no other option but to hop in a taxi, and 30 Franks later we arrived in Iseltwald at our hostel. There we met a group of, Swedish, Finnish, Polish and Norwegians who were playing a drinking game while watching the biathlon at the Olympics. Every time that a shooter from their respective countries missed a shot, they drank a shot. We were invited to join in, and since there were no Canadians in the event, Bonnie got to be Austria, and I got to be the Czech Republic. These two countries aren't very good at the biathlon, end of story. 

The next day we met some Alaskans over breakfast (one of them knew Sarah Palin! but he couldn't see Russia from his house) and they suggested that we go rent a sled and take it down the mountain. It was much cheaper than skiing, so we went for it, and a couple hours later we were on the mountain, with our sleds. To get to our sledding trail, we had to hike up the mountain a ways. The trails weren't very well marked, but we asked directions and headed in what we thought was the right way. 

We hiked quite a ways up the mountain (it was about 45 minutes to the start of our trail) and didn't see anyone. We got up so high we were above the tree line, and the clouds were caught up around us, so we couldn't see very far. We thought about turning back several times, but trekked on. I really felt like we were going the wrong way, but didn't want to turn back and lose precious time. We were already running pretty late. We finally came to a point where the trail headed down the mountain, so we hopped in our sleds and took off. The kid at the rentals store hadn't given much instruction ("Just lay back and steer with your feet"), so we figured out most it on our own. We had rented ski-pants but only had our sneakers for our feet, so as we sped down the hill, and the only thing we had to slow us down and keep us from flying off the edge of the mountain was our feet, we quickly got booters as all the snow pushed up the ski pants and filled up our shoes. 

The fog was now thick and we couldn't really see much at all now. We would launch ourselves down the mountain and go about a hundred metres before having to stop because I would fly out of control or the sleds would get too fast to be anything near safe. We had to keep stopping also because it was now such a white-out that we couldn't see the trail (sidenote from Bonnie: For the people who watched the Olympics this year, remember when they had to cancel the downhill skiing because of the white out….it was like that if not worse.). There were orange posts that marked where it was, but we could only see two posts ahead of us. At one point, Bonnie came to a stop, and I was unable to stop my sled, and I ploughed into her from behind, but luckily, I was fine (sidenote from Bonnie: Luckily he was fine but I just got a sled rammed into the middle of my back, initially I wasn’t too concerned about it probably because of the adrenaline of not knowing where we were or where we were going or the fact that Neil running into me had prevented him from sledding off the side of a cliff….at the time it was a great distraction from the pain)

I kept cleaning the snow out of my shoes every time I stopped, but eventually my feet just became numb and I didn't have to get rid of the snow anymore. We made our way down the mountain and didn't see another human being for a good two hours. We didn't see a single tree for at least an hour either. Finally, we came down below the tree line and were able to see where the trail was. We came upon a group of cabins and hoped to find the people that lived in them who could tell us where we were, but the place was a ghost town, and the snow stood halfway up the sides of the buildings. We carried on and came to a cabin all on its own on the side of the trail and stopped. We looked in the window and could see people so we knocked, hoping they could tell us where we were. They were kinda DB's, and didn't answer the door, but Bonnie noticed that the sign on the house matched a name on the map, so we knew where we were! Contrary to my belief, we actually were on the right trail, so we continued on happily down the mountain. 

Over time, we got pretty good at this sledding business, and perfected a technique in which we linked arms and made the two sleds one cohesive unit. I was the left leg - for left turns - and Bonnie was the right leg. We made our way merrily down the mountain, but had to keep up good speed because it was getting late in the day, and the last thing we wanted was to be stuck on an Alp after dark. (sidenote from Bonnie: We also spent this time alone to perfect our singing skills which helped ease the stress and enhance our vocal skills which helped us have lovely random outbursts of singing that occurred for the rest of the trip) We finally made it back down near the bottom, and met a father and daughter who knew what they were doing, so we followed them down into the village, where we returned our rentals and caught the train back to Interlaken.

On the train back to Interlaken, the conductor came along and asked us for our tickets. We showed him our Eurail passes, but he said that Eurail passes were not valid on this train, as it was a private railway. He made us pay the full fare for a ticket back to Interlaken. 

In Interlaken we grabbed a kebab (which are everywhere in Europe. This was the first time for both of us. The Verdict: Delicious, but a tad messy) and rented our skis for the next day before getting a ride from the rental company back to our hostel. 

The next day, after breakfast (which consisted of cheeses and meats on WARM home-made Swiss bread with butter melting on it......) (sidenote from Bonnie: this is making me hungry) our friendly hostel manager with a cool Swiss accent drove us into town, where we caught the train back to the mountain. We were going to ski on a different mountain than we had sledded down yesterday, so we took the train to Lauterbrunnen, rather than Grindelwald, which is in the other valley.

We really didn't want to have to pay the ten something euro to take the train, so we decided to cross that bridge when we came to it. We hadn't been checked the previous morning anyway, and we were going a different route now, so we wouldn't have the same conductor as yesterday evening. Funny story, we had the same conductor as yesterday evening. He came walking down the train checking tickets, and we didn't know how we would be getting out of this one without a fine. I took off all of my bright red clothing and Bonnie changed her appearance as well. I decided to do the talking, whereas Bonnie had done the talking yesterday, and maybe he wouldn't remember us. He came to us, "Tickets?" We showed our Eurail passes and gave our best innocent faces but he immediately recognized the dumb Canadians who couldn't figure out how to buy real tickets, and got quite frustrated at us. Luckily, we came off just really dumb ("Oh, we need to buy tickets EVERY time? We didn't know. We're so sorry") and he never suspected us of being smart enough to have been trying to beat the system. He made us pay for our ticket to Lauterbrunnen and back to Interlaken, and stormed off down the train. 

We made it to Lauterbrunnen, immediately able to laugh at what just happened, and now took a little train-car UP the mountain, to the town of Wegan. It was packed, so we were unable to sit down, and had to stand at the front unable to lean against anything, in our ski boots. I thought my legs were going to fall off, because my ski boots were pretty stiff, so my knees were constantly bent, and this train went up the mountain at a great angle and was stuck facing down it, so I pretty much half-squatted the whole journey, which felt like an hour, but was probably like twenty minutes (sidenote from Bonnie: Sadly Neil was unable to experience the view that I had, it was breath taking. We pretty much scaled the side of a mountain. When you looked to one side all you could see was rock and the other side was a steep drop that overlooked the valley….BEAUTIFUL!). 

Finally we made it to the Wegan and everybody piled onto the platform. We grabbed our ski's from the rack in front of the train and headed into the town to find the gondola. We got on the gondola and got up the mountain, where we finally could step into our skis and my shins could take a break. I had been wearing my ski-boots the whole time because my shoes were still soaked from sledding the day before. It was such a relief to be able to glide effortlessly down the mountain, and they had way more snow than I had been expecting. There was powder all over the place. We did a few runs and worked our way up to the top of the mountain. It was still quite cloudy today, though not quite a white-out like the day before had been. When we got up to the top it cleared up though, and we had an awesome view of the nearby peaks, and the skiing was much easier as well, since it was sunny(sidenote from Bonnie: I need to give a lot of credit to Neil for putting up with me on the ski trip, he was a champ. Whilst he was “gliding effortlessly down the mountain” I was tumbling, stumbling and falling all over the place (with kids on the ski lift even yelling out “WHIPEOUT”-thanks kids I didn’t realize)…..intermediate hills in Manitoba are not intermediate hills in Switzerland, they are harder then black diamond hills here. To get to the top of the mountain you had to do a lot of intermediate hills but I didn’t want to let Neil down and stop us from getting to the top of the hill so I carried on. Neil was amazingly patient putting up with me and waiting…on the plus side he was able to get some spectacular pictures…..on the downside that sled in the middle of the back from the day before really made its presence known! )

We stopped in at the restaurant at the top and it was full of people so we got a tiny little table in the broom closet (not literally, but close). The prices were exorbitant, the water was carbonated, and the food was delicious, but all of that was expected of Switzerland (sidnote from Bonnie: The view from here was amazing, any picture we took, we look photo shopped in, all around us all you could see was mountain peaks and pure blue sky…LOVE). 

Bonnie had been skiing in a great deal of pain in her back (probably had something to do with being hit by a sled at some point, but I'm not a doctor), so she decided to take the train down, and I would meet her at the bottom. We left the restaurant and she changed her mind, and we skied down, with the best runs of the day. (sidenote from Bonnie: I actually had begun to improve! But we did end up taking the easier hills to get down most of the time.)We made it to the bottom and had skied over the top of the mountain and were now on the other side of the mountain, in the Grindlewald Valley. We got on the train back to Interlaken, and saw that we had a different conductor than the last two times, thank goodness. I think our train ticket had been destroyed somewhere on the mountain, so we now we were going to take the train illegally once again. We decided to try our best and see if there was anything that could get us a free trip, so Bonnie held in her hands our Eurail pass, bus ticket, ski pass, and gondola ticket, and showed them to the conductor and said "What would you like?" The conductor informed us that our ski passes would have gotten us a free ride on this train the whole time, and that we shouldn't have bought tickets that morning, or the day before. Nobody had told us this. Not when we bought our ski pass, and not when we had been sitting on the train TO THE MOUNTAIN with OUR SKIS but without tickets. Fail, guys.

After dropping off our skis, we had to get on the bus back to our hostel in Iseltwald across the lake, but didn't know where to get on this bus. We did know that it stopped at the train station, so we decided to catch it there. We didn't have a map, however, and had no idea which way to go. We decided someone at a hotel would be able to tell us where to go, so we went into the nearby Hotel Sonne. There was nobody at the front desk, but we saw a map used that. We couldn't find ourselves on the map, so Bonnie ran outside to read a street sign so we could locate ourselves. This wasn't an awesome map, so we still couldn't find ourselves, but the curve in the road looked a lot like a curve in a certain road on the map, so we guessed we were about there. This whole event was really awkward for us, because we definitely weren't staying at this fancy hotel, and there was a group of people sitting in the lobby, not helping us. I went back outside to see if there was some sign to tell us anything. While I was out there, someone finally came out and talked to Bonnie and we got directions to the train station. 

It was quite a walk, and we weren't sure if we were going the right direction the whole time. Also, and this was the real disaster, I didn't have my arch supports in my shoes (I hadn't put them in, because my shoes had been drying out, because they had been soaked sledding the day before - it was fate) so I was limping like a wounded dog (is that the term?), but I soldiered on. After a little bit I rolled up a ball of kleenex and molded it to my foot, and it worked wonders! I thought it was pretty ingenious. Bonnie's back was really paining her, but I couldn't make anything out of kleenex to fix that. At least not in the time I was given (sidenote from Bonnie: But he thought jumping on my back for a piggy back was a good idea…).

We eventually came to the train station, and had a little bit of a break before the bus arrived, so we headed into the little city to see what was there. It was scenic place with big old fancy buildings and the mountains as a backdrop. Bonnie bought a phonecard and got to call her mom too! (sidenote from Bonnie: OH HI MOM!!!) 

We bought some cheap wine and took the bus to the hostel to celebrate (or mourn) Bonnie's imminent return to Canada, but as we got off the bus, the whole group of Swedes, Norwegians, and Finns got on the bus to leave. There went half the party, now we only had the less fun Americans. When we got to the hostel they didn't want to join anyway, but Bonnie and I went ahead with the night as planned, and it was an awesome time.

The next day we enjoyed that amazing warm bread for breakfast and packed up our things and checked out. After busing into town, we hopped on a train aimed for Lucerne. It wound through the mountains and along the lakes and down into the emerald valleys and past little villages until we got to Lucerne, which was very beautiful itself. We spent the night at a hostel in Lucerne because we hadn't been able to book a hostel in Zurich, where Bonnie was flying out of. Everywhere in Switzerland was really packed because of skiing at that time of year. 

The next morning we trained to Zurich Flughafen (airport). (sidenote from Bonnie: While taking the train back we were reminiscing about my time spent in Europe and kept saying how we couldn’t believe how smoothly it went....everything had worked like clockwork with hardly anything screwing up along the way….as we were saying this we ended up getting off at the wrong station and had to wait 20 minutes to get on the next train….great way to end it!) Once we arrived at the airport, we ate and each had an orange juice from the cool machine like they had in Barcelona! It was a 6 euro cup of orange juice. I was so ready to leave Switzerland and so ready to leave airports. Apparently Bonnie was too, because after we ate she checked her luggage and boarded the plane home. It was an awesome 12 days eh Bonnie? (sidenote from Bonnie: I was leaving on a jet plane, don’t know when I’ll be back again….oh Europe, I hated to goo ooo oo) hehe. I had the time of my life for those 12 days, it was an adventure I will never forget! If anyone is even thinking of travelling…DO IT….be it 12 days or 12 weeks or even 12 months, its time well spent. I couldn’t have asked for a better chauffeur and travelling partner to guide me through this whirlwind adventure THANKS NEIL J)

Tags: florence, geneva, interlaken, italy, lucerne, neil loewen, skiing, sledding, switzerland, zurich




I laughed SO hard at your German speaking attempt to the local teenagers. ''No, do you speak German?'' That is now in competition with the phlegmed 'g' in Hambur-phlegm-er in Amsterdam. I wish I witnessed both to decide which was worse. Neil.. FAIL! p.s. I am so jealous of your skiing and tobaggoning adventures.

  Kendra Jae Apr 9, 2010 7:41 AM


The magellan is DEFINITELY better than the vasco de gama. Good call Bonnie.

This sounds like an amaaazing adventure!! Your competency to conquer transportation systems now never ceases to amaze me.

  Alice Apr 9, 2010 8:13 AM


I am so impressed by your ability to come out victorious over any transportation system, in any country in europe. good work guys!!

also, putting on my nerd hat for a minute, Grindelwald is TOTALLY the dark wizard Dumbledore fought.... just saying.

I will be sad when this blog ends. true story

  Helen Apr 9, 2010 10:55 AM



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