Europa 2017 - The Epilogue!

How could any adventure be complete without a trip to...

Wait for it....


Loyal readers know one of us LOVES an IKEA store no matter which of their 389 worldwide locations happens to be nearby.

I'll give you a hint who this is: It's Natalie.

Yep, we made a trip to the Frankfurt IKEA, conveniently located on the A5 just 17 minutes from the Frankfurt Airport. Other than the presence of Germans, this IKEA was identical to each of the other 388 IKEAs. And look! We could have bought an advent calendar for €12.95! In October! We didn't!

With endless movies to watch inflight, gazing out the window is a seemingly forgotten pastime. I occasionally broke with etiquette by sliding my window shade up to see what was happening outside. Shown above, Greenland passing by at 500 miles an hour. The temperature outside was -53°, but inside the window was hot to the touch from solar radiation. What a difference an inch makes.

Our approach into the Bay Area took us by the catastrophic fires and, after clearing customs, we learned our flight home was cancelled; smaller planes were not landing at the airport due to smoke. We were rebooked for flights the next morning. With hotels across the entire area sold out, the San Francisco airport became our home for the night. Hmmm... what to do? How about dinner? Yes! I had a good burger and two beers, and Natalie enjoyed fish and chips and a glass of wine. "L'addition s'il vous plaît!" Including tip? $90.00. It really didn't matter anymore. 

Wandering around the airport we came upon an exhibit of the work of model builder Edward Chavez. This was super weird because Edward was my uncle.

Thirteen of Edward's models were on display. Here, the Curtiss Condor AT-32-B. Some of his models have been displayed at the National Air & Space Museum in Washington D.C.

Around 1:00 a.m. the music in the San Francisco airport became oddly soothing. The shops were closed. TSA had gone home for the evening. And there were cushiony bench things... By day, they're occupied by everyone putting their shoes back on after comparing sock styles at security. By night, they become heavenly beds for airport dwellers... like us... and these two who insisted on spooning in public. Hey! Get a room!... Oh! Wait... You can't...

I'd give the San Francisco airport a thumbs-up hotel review on if it weren't for the crazy loud announcement, repeated at frequent intervals, reminding everyone sleeping to also watch their bags at all times. It was literally impossible to comply with this request. There was another announcement about a cafe in a corner of the airport, far, far away (and on the other side of the security gate) that stays open until 4:00 a.m. Oddly enough, coffee wasn't interesting to people trying to sleep.

Lonely tracks at the Wengen train station above the Lauterbrunnen Valley, Switzerland.

The photo album work is underway. Until then...

Ciao! ~ Todd

Cliff Top Living and Other Scary Things

The TourAlongWithTodd Europa Odyssey 2017 is nearly complete, but there's one more opportunity to don your lederhosen and/or dirndl!

NOTE: Readers fearing heights might want to include an adult diaper.

OK! Is everything strapped tightly into place?

Let's begin, shall we?  

Natalie and I thought a quick round of ice skating would warm us up for our last few days in Switzerland.

Mürren, Switzerland, sits cliff side above the Lauterbrunnen Valley and is accessible (for tourists) only by cable car and train. Mürren and its sister village, Gimmelwald, offer peace and quiet. Rick Steves has an excellent episode about the area.

After a morning of heavy rain, the waterfalls came to life. It's easy to see why the Lauterbrunnen Valley inspired Tolkien's Rivendell in The Lord of the Rings. Gimmelwald is visible cliff top at the right.

Lauterbrunnen, Mürren, and the Schilthorn were the backdrop for the 1969 James Bond movie, On Her Majesty's Secret Service. Unlike The Lord of the Rings, James Bond is real. I know this to be true because I'm a man.

Never missing an opportunity to capitalize on the past, the nice people atop the Schilthorn have provided an opportunity to "be a Bond" via a giant tube replicating the view through a gun barrel. Pictured here, Natalie gets ready to shoot her fingers at lurking spies. I didn't want to spoil her fun with a lecture about the efficacy of using fingers to shoot things.

The bathrooms at the Schilthorn are cleverly disguised. Can you guess which door is for which sex? Bonus question: Can you guess which door is slightly more sexist? Regardless of which door is best for you, once inside, dialog from the movie plays out while you do your business. "Oh Todd, you DO have a big gun!"... at least that's what I heard. AND, while washing my hands, an image of actress Diana Rigg floated into view on the mirror and said "Oh Todd, take me!" GAWD, I never wanted to leave that bathroom.

Other than the bathroom, the rotating restaurant, and the museum devoted to the 007 movie, there's a view of some boring mountains. In this case, the Eiger, Mönch, and Jungfrau. The Mönch (the monk) keeps the Eiger (the ogre) away from the Jungfrau (young woman). Below and out of frame is the Lauterbrunnen Valley.

Cattle of Mürren are moved from pasture to barn via village streets. This normally quaint event, ideal for snapshots, became quite a spectacle when two rival groups of cattle met. In this Cliff Side Story, the herd leaders locked horns, much to the delight of fellow tourists, and much to the dismay of the farmers trying to sort out the melee. 

Cattle fights are not limited to the street. Tables and chairs were shoved aside as bovine differences played out (I'm guessing over grazing rights). Now... look at the picture, close your eyes, and imagine the smell. Ummmm....

We ate dinner in this restaurant minutes later. 

A fun activity for all? Rent bikes in Mürren and ride down to the Lauterbrunnen valley, see the Trümmelbach Falls carved deep inside rock walls, and then take the tram at the far end of the valley back to Mürren!

The Swiss created a path to get up close and personal with the Staubbach Falls, the most famous of the valley's 72 cascades. Interestingly enough, the number of fellow tourists visiting a site drops exponentially as the amount of physical effort required to reach the site increases.

The Swiss sort and stack firewood in amazing ways. Playing with matches is strongly discouraged... It must suck to be a kid growing up here.

We met lots of fun, interesting people on our trip, like Jeffrey and Bill. Jeffrey was a bit surprised when Natalie was seated next to their table at the restaurant in Mürren and asked, "Are you Jeff?" Yes... the very same Jeff Curnes Natalie grew up with in Grangeville, Idaho! The world's a big place, until it's a small place!

Check your adult diaper for a tight fit because here we go on a cliff side "via Ferrata" high above the Lauterbrunnen Valley! Here, exposed 2,000 ft. above the valley floor, Natalie tests the iron steps by jumping up and down on each one as hard as she can over and over again! Our guide, Willy, led the way for our group of eight.

"Hey Natalie! Look down!" "You know, a helmet's not going to help that much."

The suspension bridge was trickier than you might think. Near its beginning and end, there was just one cable to hold on to (the lower of the two on the right), and the vertical cables are spaced about eight feet apart... and the bridge bounces and sways... and the drop is 1,000 ft... and there's no time to cinch up your diaper. 

Andrea, host at Hotel Schützen, moved to Lauterbrunnen from Hungary seven years ago after falling in love with it and a young man there. Though we were booked at the sister hotel, Hotel Jungfrau, Andrea upgraded us to the Schützen on her initiative. She also let us park our car in the lot for the days we were up in Mürren. Andrea wins the TourAlongWithTodd 2017 Award for Excellence!

A long drive to the north and into the home of our 2013 German exchange student - Leonie Ottovordemgentschenfelde. Above, Natalie, Marcello (Dad), Petra (Mom), Oma (that's "Grandmother"), and Leonie and her beau, Felix! Being around Leonie was a treat. It's as if time had stood still.

In a lecture hall of her university. Just back from a year of volunteer service in the African country of Benin, Leonie is beginning her university career, studying sociology. 


And there you have it! 22 days and a whirlwind tour in and around the Alps!

You can now safely change from your lederhosen and/or dirndl back into your everyday boring clothes, but we always suggest keeping them and a diaper handy; you never know when the urge to yodel will well up from from the Alps deep inside you.

As cliché as it may be, this trip was as much about the people we met and visited as it was the valleys, mountains, and food. As for schnapps, flat tires, and bidets? For one of them, I will wield sweet, sweet revenge...

Ciao! ~ Todd 

Fall colors and glacial melt water outside Trümmelbach Falls, Lauterbrunnen Valley, Switzerland.

Yes, there WILL be an official photo album of the trip... eventually.

Coming Face to Face with an Italian Bidet

Leave your lederhosen and/or dirndl in the closet for this update because we're going to go Italiano for un momento!

Andiamo! Shall we?

Day 10

Careening around steep curves on Italy's the Fucca Pass kept Natalie awake! But stopping for alpine snapshots on our way to Milan was a rare event. It was just as well. Caro, our former exchange student from Ecuador, now studying in Milan, was expecting us mid-afternoon.

Deep in the Val de Fiemme, Natalie noticed a “click, click, click” sound, like a rock in a hub cap. A few miles later, the left rear tire went flat in seconds. The first parking lot we could find in the village of Ziano de Fiemme turned out to be the world headquarters of the La Sportiva company – makers of shoes for all types of outdoor pursuits, including the best rock climbing shoes available. The kind people at La Sportiva told Natalie that the nearest repair shop was two miles back in Predazzo. It was already 12:30 p.m.

After lunch (because everything was closed for lunch) the guys at PilaPneus Di Giacomelli Sandro & C. Snc. took care of us presto! At 2:30, and $240 poorer, we had two new rear tires (Italian law - rear tires have to match) and were again speeding toward Milan... hours behind schedule.

Getting past the ubiquitous graffiti, trash, and cigarette smoke that characterizes Milan and many other European cities can be difficult. But within an hour of beginning our Friday evening walkabout with Caro, the vibrancy of the city came into full light. The city’s central district hummed with thousands of people out for the evening to have dinner, drinks, ice cream, or just stroll along the canals and boulevards. We were off to a good start after a deflating day.

Below, Caro and us on our Friday night walkabout!

Day 11

We saw a ton in 10 hours walking Milan with tour guide Caro. We went to the Duomo, the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele, and past the Sforza Castle and the Leonardo da Vinci monument at Piazza della Scala.

We also strolled along narrow streets lined with carefully crafted display windows of top clothing designers. People like us look in these windows. People with stacks of cash go inside the stores. Inside, there are extremely bored hosts and guards in dark suits with earpieces. Some stores allow commoners to enter, while others have a doorbell to request entrance. These are by far the best streets in the world to play doorbell ditch!

NOTE: Above, the sport jacket is 5,800, the jacket is €4,700, the shoes are €2,300, the jeans are $750. "Excuse me, Giovanni! How much for the slightly soiled underwear?"

To help us wash away our shame of being so poor, Caro took us back to the Navigli Canal district for dinner, Milano Apertivo style! Now this is something to take note of!

It works like this:
  • You pick your bar of choice – there are hundreds of options. Sit inside because it costs less than outside and there’s no cigarette smoke.
  • Order a beverage (wine, beer, or mixed drink).
  • Pay €7.00 per drink/per person.
  • Go to the buffet of meats, cheeses, fruits, pastas, and desserts and fill your plate.
  • Go back to the buffet as many times as you want.
Here's a funny note: Our waitress tried to charge us €9.00 per person. Caro pushed back – in Italian rather than English – the rate was quickly reduced.

Our first impression of Milan had been transformed. No, we wouldn’t live there, but we would go back for another round of Italians enjoying weekend life.

With that, it was time to sleep. We were exhausted.

At 5:00 a.m. nature called; I didn’t turn the bathroom light on. That decision, it turns out, was a big mistake. Do you see that small step up? I didn't. In the dim ambient light, my outstretched arm reached for the wall, but it kept receding as I fell forward. And CRACK!, my face hit the bidet. A BIDET!... A BIDET!

In more shock than pain, I moaned (Natalie says I swore… so I’m going with “flibberty-mothra-flooker!”) and turned on the light. I spit blood and tiny pieces of tooth into the sink.

I’ve never been in a fight and have no idea what it feels like to get smacked in the mouth by a fist. However, I NOW can tell you EXACTLY what it feels like to try taking out a bidet with your face! I might have succeeded with more momentum.

Day 12

You know how your jaw and mouth feel when they wake up from novocain’s numbing effects? As dramatized by Milan street art, above, that’s how my face felt all day Sunday during our drive from Milan to Switzerland. My retainer was firmly in place to stabilize traumatized upper front teeth. Yes, there will be a trip to the dentist upon my return.

Entering the Berner Oberland of Switzerland – the heart of the Swiss Alps – will brighten anyone’s smile, even if it was hit in face by an Italian bidet the night before. The Lauterbrunnen Valley is kind of like Yosemite Valley, only prettier, with green pastures hosting cows, sheep, and goats, and glaciers hanging above soaring cliffs, along with quaint tourist villages connected by trams, trains, bike and walking paths, and narrow roads. Oh, it’s expensive, but I was in a much happier place.

Day 13

For a mere $135 per person, we rode cog railway from Lauterbrunnen, through the Eiger, and to the 11,371 ft. high JungfraujochThe Top of Europe! as the Swiss have named it. The Jungfraujoch is another massive structure built inside and on top of a mountain. The weather never did cooperate – we never saw Europe’s longest glacier – but we did see man made attractions courtesy of Swiss Tourism, like the Ice Palace carved inside the glacier and the Alpine Sensation – a multimedia creation showing what we would have seen outside. The Swiss even went to the trouble to provide shopping opportunities for Lindt Swiss Chocolate, Victorinox Swiss Army Knives, and, of course, Swiss watches.

Now here’s an odd thing: Everyone in China is currently visiting Switzerland. We first noticed this in Bavaria and now here in the heart of the Swiss Alps. It was an odd culture shock! 

Swiss watch sales do take place at the Jungfraujoch! I'm pretty sure the woman behind the counter was not Swiss; she sure didn't sound Swiss. A cheap watch sells for $500. The somewhat nicer watch I promised to buy Natalie is $35,000.

Can you guess which one of the three options was the best seller at the Jungfraujoch cafe? By far the most popular item was the 8.00 Chinese-labeled cup-o-noodles (Yes! It comes with hot water AND chopsticks!). The entire room smelled, in a good way, like cup-o-noodles! We almost bought some, but I'm saving for that Swiss watch.

Though we were in culture shock, the Swiss Tourism Bureau is not. They clearly know their current market.

Like many Americans, the Chinese may be reserved as individuals but are loud and pretty crazed in groups! Oh, and they LOVE taking selfies with selfie sticks... even when there's absolutely NO scenery!


Up next? The sun comes out at the clifftop village of Murren... yes, on top of THAT cliff... and we go hiking, biking, along with some vertigo-inducing via ferrata!


At this point it's probably clear that we love travel and everything that comes along with it. There’s rarely a place we say we won’t come back to – even cities like Milan. Actually, I’m totally committed to my return to Milan because I have a hot date! Just me, a hammer, and a certain Italian bidet in room 302 of the New Generation Hostel Urban Navigli. I’m not going to turn the light on… I’m going to surprise my Italian bidet… CRACK!

Until next time... Ciao!

Sunrise in the Alps...

The Italian Army Means Business!

Welcome back!

Strap your lederhosen and/or dirndls back into place and shout out Yodel-odel-ay-hee-hoo!

Let’s pick up right where we left off on the Europa TourAlong…

DAYS 5, 6 & 7
Just an hour’s drive south of Parrkirchen, is Liezen, Austria -- the small village from which Natalie’s relatives hale. There’s no blog that could adequately explain how Natalie and her Idaho family are intertwined with Austria, but they are, and Liezen is the epicenter. One way or another, Natalie is related to everyone in Liezen. Lacking an accurate record of affiliations, we refer to them all as “cousins.”

During our stay, we were hosted by cousins Brigitte and Gerold Haider, and senior cousin, Fritz, Brigitte’s father. At 97 years old, Fritz is spry and gets himself around remarkably well; Brigitte and Gerold visit every month to keep him in line.

Here are the highlights of our Liezen visit:
  • The hike to the family hut on the alm with cousins Guenther and Martina. The hike was nice and cool. The beer, schnapps, and stinky cheese were refreshing.

  • The hike up to the top of the Plannersee ski area… cool, cloudy, and with remnants of fresh snow.

Cousins Gerold and Brigitte with Natalie at the Burgruine Wolkenstein ruins.

Natalie's Grandma's cousin (really!), Fritz. Spry at 97 years old!

Along the hike to the family hut on the alm. Cattle, sheep, and goats eat really well in the Alps!

TourAlongWithToddBlogTravelTips strongly suggest a limit of one beer and a single shot of schnapps at a hut on an alm to achieve optimal pleasure. Significant deviation from this suggestion may result in an abdication of intelligence and dignity... as I was able to unequivocally demonstrate.

What can possibly go wrong with tiny little shots of schnapps?

We stopped for the day just an hour’s drive west of Liezen… another mountain tram was yodeling to us. Like the Zugspitze, the Dachstein doesn’t quite top 10,000 feet, but it’s an imposing massif. The ride up was super fun because we rode on top of the tram car in open air! After putting our hair back in place, we ventured out onto the well-marked glacier to hike to the Seethalerhütte (hut). Halfway along, the clouds rolled in and that was it for the day’s scenic views. The mountain hut was warm and served spicy good goulash! By the time we were back at the mountain top tram station, few people remained.

TourAlongWithToddBlogTravelTips suggest being at a mountain top tram station in the mist of clouds is actually a good idea because you get to walk on a skywalk and a bridge to nowhere all alone. And, you get to explore the Ice Palace (yes, it’s carved into the glacier) in total privacy as well! Natalie and I had these normally jam-packed attractions entirely to ourselves. It was really cool.

The top of the Dachstein tram station.

Shrouded in cloud and wind, the Seethalerhütte is cozy warm inside.

Natalie disappears into the cold mist on the Dachstein's Bridge to Nowhere. This would be packed with people on a sunny day.

Natalie, normally put off by heights, peers into mist on the Dachstein Skywalk, 800 ft. in air.

TourAlongWithToddBlogTravelTips suggest planning adventure by weather forecast is folly. Though our brief foray into the Italian Dolomites was scheduled to be rainy, cloudy, and a bit rainier, we stuck to our plan. The morning weather was looking pretty nice! And, as we drive from the Dachstein area toward the Dolomites, it stayed that way.

Our hotel room view in Ramsau, Austria, near the Dachstein massif.

Soon after crossing the Italian border, the Dolomites came into spectacular view. At San Candido, I hopped off the highway to snap a couple of photos of the peaks. It so happened that the Italian army was training 100 yards away… training in the line of my photography. OMG! Yes, Italian army was literally scoping and moving toward us as we drove further down the very narrow lane, toward them, hoping it would loop up and back to the main highway; it did not. With no easy way to turn around, I stopped and drove the car in reverse back up the lane. The Italian army kept advancing on us!… and we kept retreating! (I am not making this up -- they were not pleased with our presence). I was finally able to turn the car around and get back on the highway. My heart was pumping. We had escaped death… or a very awkward conversation… and lived to tell about it.

First view of the Dolomites... and the Italian Army (low in photograph). Note the one-lane road at lower left. We drove down it, nearer the troops, and then back up in reverse, making a hasty retreat!

An hour later, with the international incident nearly forgotten, we drove up a crazy-stupid-curvy-steep road and arrived at the Rifugio Auronzo, at the base of Tre Cime, or Drei Zinnen, depending on your choice of language. These peaks are synonymous with the Dolomites. We arrived just in time to check in and do a quick hike to catch the sunset on the famous peaks’ west faces.

The Tre Cime in sunset light.

Rifugio Auronzo is a quaint mountain “hut” offering sleeping accommodations for 104; the rooms are simple, and a quick shower is €5.00. Super good food is served cafeteria-line style, but don’t lollygag, because dinner is served only between 7:00 and 8:00 p.m.; breakfast between 7:00 and 8:00 a.m. But at 8,000 ft. on the crest of the Dolomites, it’s easy to adhere to the routine -- the views are unreal.

The view from our room at the Rifugio Auronzo.

Starting our hiking tour around Tre Cime. The Rifugio Auronzo is on the right.

Our main hike was the tour around the Tre Cime with 1,000 of our best European hiking friends. Like Mad Ludwig’s castles, this area of the Dolomites is popular on any clear day in late September. We could only imagine the crush of humanity during the summer peak periods. The seven-mile hike took six hours due to side trips, such as the ridge we clamored up to place our hands on the walls of the Tre Cime, only to discover World War I gun placements tunneled into the rock. A century ago people fought and died up here. War, even in the past, is a fun sucker, isn’t it?

Natalie at one of the World War I era gun placements at Tre Cime.

An hour before arriving back at the Rifugio, we stopped at the Langalm hut for a beer.

War is bad. Beer at mountain huts is good. And the Italian Army is going to make damn sure it stays that way!

Coming up next?

Todd and Natalie get all metropolitan Milano Style!

Don’t worry, you’ll get to wear your lederhosen and/or dirndls again real soon!

Ciao! ~ Todd

A Milano getting his lower lip bit off. He didn't complain.