The day finally came and we were off to Newark Airport to begin our trip to Tuscany, Italy. We had a late flight so we made a stop at Pru Thai in Clinton, NJ for dinner on our way. Pru Thai is our favorite Thai restaurant and it was a good way to avoid the rush hour traffic too. We dropped our car off at the ABC Airport Parking and were quickly whisked away to Terminal B at Newark Airport. As we rolled up to the terminal it was starting to sink in that we were finally on our way. Or so we thought.
The SAS Ticket Counter
The SAS ticket counter was rather vacant of travelers, but there were several ticketing agents standing there. Hmmm…that’s strange? The ticket agent swiped our passports and said “do you know your flight was cancelled?” WHAT??!!! Suddenly I felt like I was in a dream and this was not really happening.
There was a lot of back and forth and the eventually all of the agents had come over and were huddling around trying to figure out alternatives for us. There wasn’t any, other than to fly out the next day. One option was to fly a little earlier on Friday morning with another airline that had a connection that was less than an hour. It would get us there 8 hours earlier, but we would risk missing the connection and possibly our luggage. The other, safe option was to leave at 6:55pm EST Friday via SAS with 2 stops and get to Bologna at 5pm on Saturday.
We chose the safer option and they put us up for the night in a hotel in Newark. Yippee!! The girls at the ticket counter were really nice and they told us we could use the airline lounge the next day since the one girl would be working the counter.We headed down to the welcome center at the airport to line up a hotel and shuttle pickup. Our voucher was for the Wyndham Garden hotel, but when I called the number the Hilton Garden answered. They said they would take our voucher and we needed to head to the P4 parking area to meet the shuttle.
We made our way via the AirTran to the P4 Parking area to shuttle pickup. We waited while shuttle after shuttle came and went. None of which said Hilton Garden. There was Hilton, Hilton Newark but no Hilton Garden. There was even a Wyndham Garden! WTH? I asked the driver if that was the same as the Hilton Garden but he said no. Well we waited over an hour and saw the same shuttles come and go. We took the next Wyndham Garden.
We got a room at the Wyndham Garden, no problem, with vouchers for dinner and breakfast. I have no idea to this day where the “Hilton Garden” is or if it even exists. After checking in, I snagged some to-go Corona’s and water at the hotel snack bar and settled in for the night. I started cancelling and sending emails to change our reservations before falling asleep.
Wyndham Garden Newark Airport
We headed down for our free breakfast after a pretty decent nights sleep. We hung out in our room most of the morning until our late checkout at 1PM. I finalized changing our museum arrangements, rental car and cancelling our first nights room. We packed up our stuff had our free lunch at the hotel before heading back to the airport.
When we checked in at the SAS ticket counter and there was some more confusion with the ticket agents again. Now what?? The guy kept asking us what flight we were on and kept reminding him that they were supposed to be all confirmed for the day. He started going down the line asking the other agents something. Eventually he reached the last lady who seemed to know what she was doing. We walked down to her and got the scoop. She said there was two options. We could wait until 11:30pm and do a similar flight as what we were supposed to do yesterday with only one stop in Copenhagen. Or we could just do the two-stop flight that we were planning on doing which left at 6:55pm, but stopped in Oslo and Copenhagen. Either way we still got to Bologna at 5PM. We decided on the two stop flight just so we could get the hell out of the US. We made our way through TSA and headed to the gate.
The SAS Lounge – Newark Airport
I spotted the SAS Lounge and we looked through the doors and spotted the girl from the ticket counter the night before. She recognized us right away and we chatted a bit with her. She let us in to the lounge for free which was cool. It was free food and drink, comfy chairs and free WIFI. We enjoyed some nice snacks, wine and beer. They even had an open bar that you could make your own mixed drinks. It was pretty nice!
Before we knew it, it was time to head to the gate. We boarded the plane and settled into our seats. Our seats were at the exit door and bulkhead so we had a ton of leg room to stretch out a bit. SAS has gotten pretty stingy with their food & beverage service these days. They now charge for beer and wine on international flights which they did not the last time we flew with them. Oh well their flight was $400 cheaper(per ticket) than any other airline for the flight.
We taxied down the runway and we were finally off to our Tuscan vacation!
The following documents some of the travel and logistics details of our weekend up in Gilford, NH for Ironman 70.3 Timberman.
Google Maps show the drive from Allentown, PA to to Gilford, NH to be anywhere from 6.5-7.5 hours depending on the traffic and route you choose. The shortest route takes up by New York City then onto I-95 through Hartford, CT. I had taken that route once before and it was a bit too insane for me. We were also leaving on a weeknight after work, so this would be all the more crazy. So, instead we opted to head north on I-87 up to Rhinebeck, NY, have dinner then take the Taconic Parkway to I-90 West.
Sunset Inn, Lee Ma
We also had decided to split the drive up and stay over night in Lee, MA where we found a nice little place to stay for ~$85 called the Sunset Inn. The place was nothing fancy, but it was clean and not far off the highway. The other benefit is that it is only a short drive to Kripalu Yoga Center, which is a favorite of my wifes’. Since we were close, we were able to head there for a very healthy buffet breakfast which was only $10 each.
We then headed East on I-90 towards Worcester, MA which is pronounced like “woo-sta!” We also continued to shout the name multiple times as we flanked the city via some connecting bypasses. Eventually we ended up on I-93 which took us past Concord, NH where we picked up Route 3 taking us into our final destination of Gilford, NH.
When I signed up for Timberman, I originally booked a room in Concord, NH due to the price and availability and lack thereof in and around Gilford. After Denise decided she was going to volunteer for the race and would have to be there earlier, I decided to seek out something closer. This was a wise decision! Staying in Concord would have made this weekend suck! It would have been too long of a drive and it was worth paying a little more to be closer.
The Fireside Inn-Gilford, NH
I happened to find the Fireside Inn with vacancy only a few days before leaving for the race. I had changed hotels in Concord twice before that and eventually cancelled them both. I don’t think the Fireside ever showed up on Hotels.com or it was just lower in the list because of the price was a little higher. I ended up paying $200/night there and it was so worth it. It was only 3 mile bike ride from the race site at Ellacoya State Park which you could get to by a light traveled road which happened to be the run course. It also provided beautiful views of Lake Winnipesaukee the entire way, which were even more spectacular at 5:30am when the sun was coming up. The bike and run course also went right by the hotel too so if you just wanted to stay there and watch the event you could see 2 of the 3 disciplines right there.
You just never know what you’ll find in the woods of New Hampshire-A Hockey Rink?
The hotel was also very clean and had plenty of room. Some people in the review complained about the older TV’s but that was not really an issue for us. The rooms had a nice big refrigerator and microwave so you can make some things for your early morning pre-race breakfast. There is also a market/deli, liquor store and Pub right across the street too. A short drive will also get you into Laconia, NH which has basically everything you need.
Our Room at the Fireside Inn-Gilford, NH
The staff at the hotel are also very friendly and helpful. They give you whoopie pies at check-in and make popcorn in the afternoons whose smell would drift down the hallway luring you in for some. They have and indoor and outdoor pool, nice weight room and access to a local beach on the lake which is $5/person. They also have full suites which offer a full kitchen if you need that. All the rooms also have little balconies or patios which I liked.
The only negative I could think of was that the hotel was right in the flight path of the local airport, so there was a few planes landing and taking off from time-to-time. The one day I kept getting blasts of jet fuel fumes coming in the screen door, but closing the door and putting A/C on solved that.
My wife and I like to eat pretty healthy and avoid the chain or franchise restaurants at all costs. I am a plant-based vegan 95% of the time and my wife is more on the “paleo” side. Finding good places for us to eat is usually a bit of a challenge, especially when you are in more off-the-beaten-path places. My wife Denise is a pretty good researcher when it comes to finding places to eat and she did a pretty good job routing them out in and around Lake Winnipesaukee too. So here are our favorites around Gilford…
Tavern 27 Dining Room
Tavern 27 is located a little bit north of Laconia nestled between the links of the Mystic Meadows Golf Course. It is a family run, farm-to-table American-style “tapas” restaurant which are little larger portioned than your typical Spanish tapas. There are a long list of different dishes to choose from, but our favorite was the Chickpea Fries. My wife was also a fan of the Egg Cups and I though there little pizzas were really good too. The place is very small and it seems they are always busy. The owner told me he has been booked up for several days and has had to turn away many walk-ins. We had lunch there on our first day, but were able to get in for dinner on Sunday night. I would highly advise calling here well in advance unless maybe in the off-season.
The Local Eatery
The Local Eatery-Laconia, NH
The Local Eatery was another favorite of ours. Also a farm-to-table restaurant and located in the old train station in Laconia. It is a small place but we were able to get reservations on a Friday and Saturday night here during Timberman weekend. Denise enjoyed their local burger so much she had it two night in a row. I had the Chana Masala on Friday night and the house made gnocchi on Saturday. The Chana Masala was a very generous portion while the gnocchi was a bit small. The gnocchi was a little more filling than it looked though and it also left me some room to have the Vanilla Crème Brulee for desert, which I think was the best I have ever had. I also had the hummus plate on Friday which was very good as well. Definitely a place to check out when in the area. They also have outdoor seating.
Kitchen Cravings is a little breakfast and lunch restaurant just a short drive or bike ride away from the Fireside Inn. It is basically at the other end of the airport runway. Their menu is extensive to say the least. They have tons of options and have no issues with substitutions. My wife was in heaven since she is the queen of substitutions. It isn’t very big inside so if there is something going on like Timberman, be prepared to wait.
Bike Ride to Breakfast
Ellacoya Barn & Grille
The Ellacoya Barn & Grille is a little pub just up the street from the Timberman race venue at Ellacoya State Park. We walked here after the race to get some lunch. Not necessarily the healthiest of the bunch here, but the food was good and it is convenient to the race. I particularly like their Bruschetta and they have a bunch of good beers on tap. I ordered a pizza after the race which I thought was a personal size since it was only $10, but it was huge! I did end up eating 5 out of the 8 slices though.
We had a really nice weekend in Gilford, NH and I think much of that is due to the logistics of where we stayed in relation to the event venue. Staying in Concord would have made this a much less enjoyable weekend. We had an easy 3 mile bike ride to/from the event which allowed us to not be trapped or have to deal with vehicle traffic. We were able to easily get in and out via the bike course or the run course.
I heard Denise’s watch alarm go off around 6am and I laid there until about 6:30am. We had shared the bunk room with another couple who slept on the bottom of the bunk and we were on top. They were a bit ricketty, so I was a bit self-conscious about moving around through the night, so I didn’t sleep all that well. We packed up and made our way down to breakfast at the Europahütte. More cereal, bread, butter, jam and coffee. Standard fare these days. I really miss my smoothie! My first glance out the window revealed total white out. It was looking more and more like a valley walk so far us. We had assumed that the others were going to hike back up to the other side of the suspension bridge and walk the Europaweg in to Zermatt, but we never actually talked about it with them.
We finished eating, paid up our beer and water tab, packed up and made our way down the mountain to the town of Randa. We had to meet the taxi there around 8:30am and it was almost a 3 mile hike down to the pickup point. We left the hut around 7am.
Last Day on the Haute Route…down to Zermatt
Denise and I started at the back of the pack as we all made our way down. The descent was pretty steep with numerous rocky zigzags paved the way down. My knees were not used to the steep descent first thing in the morning and they were letting me know that in no uncertain terms. We usually start the day with a good climb and end with the descent, so this was a bit of a change. Denise had been sagging back a bit and I tried to stay in between her and the rest of the group who had gained a bit of a lead on us. I glanced back one time to find her taking her pack off. I stopped and waited a bit and saw her doing some stretches. I went up to see what was up. She said she had taken a pretty good fall and now had a stiff neck. She hadn’t fallen at all in the last 12 days of hiking and now she tumbled on our last day of hiking. This would solidify our decision to walk the valley in to Zermatt.
We continued down the trail slowly after Denise collected herself. She had been listening to the audiobook Unbroken by Laura Hildebrandt and was trying to finish it before the hike ended. Denise fell again a short time later. This time not quite as bad. I then stayed behind her a bit. I was now getting a little worried we may miss the taxi and have to walk that much further.
I caught up to Denise sometime later and she turned around in tears. I immediately thought she fell again and hurt herself and asked if she was ok. She turned around and headed down the hill not saying a word. I later found out that the book had a emotional ending that she had hit which was what caused the sudden burst of tears.
We eventually got down to the taxi pickup point and the taxi driver was coming up the road looking for us. We had decided we would walk the valley in to Zermatt since the clouds had not broken up high. It would not be worth climbing back up the other side of the bridge again. When we got to the taxi we were surprised to see all the others from our group were in there too. We thought they had left in another taxi already. The taxi van was quite full and Denise sat up front and I was crouched on the floor by the sliding door. The taxi stopped at the bus terminal in Tasch and we got out. We were surprised when all the others in our group got out too. They had also decided to walk the valley in as well due to the cloud cover.
We all walked over to a nearby coffee shop and reminisced for awhile about the trip some more. Afterwards we made our way to Zermatt on the trail that followed the river down the valley to Zermatt. The trail had a few undulations in it, much like the trail we started on 14 days ago in Chamonix. This time it seemed much easier now that we were all seasoned Haute Route hikers.
We eventually came to a small rise with a bench overlooking Zermatt and the Matterhorn peeking around the corner. We took a bunch of group pictures and had a big “group hug” to celebrate the long, two-week journey from Chamonix. It was a pretty special moment. We then continued down the hill into Zermatt town. It was the end of the journey.
Entering Zermatt was an immediate culture shock. There were throngs of tourists everywhere. Stores and restaurants lined the street. We spotted the Molino Italian restaurant for lunch and we headed in. It was a beautiful day so we decided to sit outside. I am sure we stuck out like sore thumbs amongst the extremely clean tourists. The pizza and the beer were really good!
After lunch, we all parted ways to our respective hotels. As we were walking up the street, I heard my name being called. Huh? Someone knows me in Zermatt? It turned out to be Anne, Nate, Paul and Claire who had diverted off the trail earlier. We chatted a bit with all of them and then made our way to the Hotel Allalin. We had decided that the entire crew would get together for a big final dinner tonight and then hit some clubs afterwards. Sounds like a party!
The Hotel Allalin was quite the site for sore eyes. Especially after staying in a mountain hut the night before. The lady at the front desk was so friendly and gave us such a warm welcome. Denise had been hoping for a room with a view of the Matterhorn. She asked the lady if we had one, she said she wasn’t going to tell us with a little smirk on her face. When we got to the gorgeous room I glanced outside to see the Matterhorn in all its glory right in front of us. Ahh! The folks at Alpine Exploratory made a good call on this place, especially for your last night of your hike.
We spent the rest of the afternoon relaxing and doing our wash in the sink. The day had turned super clear and sunny and it our clothing dried rather quickly on the balcony. The plan was to meet the others at 7pm at the church in town and go out for a final bash before everyone leaves.
We all met up in town and walked up and down the streets for awhile trying to agree on someplace to eat. We ended up eating at the Ristorante Molino again(same place we had lunch), except we ate inside. After a good dinner, we ventured out searching for some type of nightclub to go to. A couple were pretty lame, but we ended up finding this one in a basement. There was no one in there when we got there, but the tunes were good. It ended up getting pretty crowded as the night went on. We also started getting crazier as the drinks flowed. We were all dancing on some little platform and then swinging from a beam in the ceiling. Denise and I decided to head out a little earlier along with Nate and Anne, so we said our goodbyes and parted ways. It was fun trip and even though we had planned on doing this trip on our own, we met such a great group of people anyway to share the experience with. It all worked out really well.
Post Hike Partying at the Disco!
Well technically the Haute Route trek is completed, but we still have another day in Zermatt. Would we dare venture out for more hiking? Or would we just relax around Zermatt all day? Hmmm…stay tuned. While the entire trek was supposed to be a 14-day trek, we combined the first two days into one doing the 17+ miles from Chamonix to Trient.
Denise, Val, Kathy, and Garreth heading out of Gasenried to hit the Europaweg
As I mentioned in my Haute Route Day 11 post, my mattress had a large crater in the middle of it and I spent most of the night sleeping curled around the edge of it. By the way, Paul from the UK informed me later that this was easily resolved by moving the boards closer together. Unfortunately, I am not that clever or motivated to get up in the middle of the night and deal with it I guess. Anyway, I heard Denise waking around 6am and knew I had a about a half hour until I needed to wake. We needed to pack up before the 7am breakfast at Hotel de la Reserve so we could make the 7:44am bus to Gasenried. We decided to take the bus up to Gasenried instead of making the 2.5 hour hike up there. It would be a long day even without the extra 2.5 hours. Kathy, Val and Gareth had decided on doing the same thing so it was an easy decision. They are all pretty hardcore mountaineers, so if they are taking the bus I really don’t bad doing the same.
After arriving in Gasenried, we spotted a little market and I picked up a roll, some Gruyere cheese, and a sleeve of cookies for my lunch. We met up with the others and started on our way.
Start of the Europaweg
We walked up the road a bit, passed a church, crossed a bridge, made a left and were immediately in the woods and climbing. And climbing. We spent a good part of the morning climbing through the woods. Kathy, Val and Gareth stopped for a bit and we had kept going so we were split up for most of the day. Eventually we came out above treeline and reached a statue overlooking the towns below which was our first waypoint. Again the distances we got were far more than what was listed on the Alpine Exploratory route card we had. What they listed in km, I had in miles.
DANGER!! Cross the rockfall quickly!!
After this, the landscape had changed to very steep and rocky. It would stay this way all day too. The path was very narrow with some serious exposure all day. The worst parts were the areas with the fresh rockfalls and the signs indicating that you are to proceed through quickly to avoid danger. One of the gullies I had crossed has some very loose rocks and I found myself on all fours, spread-eagled across the boulders, trying to make way without causing a rockfall myself. It was rather stressful to say the least. Right after this, three guys through and walked across it like it was nothing making me look like quite the wuss. Denise had been waiting for me to find my way and just followed the guys path and made it without any issue.
When you were not on a rockfall area you were skirting a very narrow, 1 foot wide or less path that had a sheer drop over the edge. If you mistook a step, you are a goner. Several areas in the paths had big cracks in them that looked like the whole walkway would just drop off at any second. There were also several sections that had ropes attached to the rockwall on the uphill side of the path. Most of these sections were a lot less scary than some of the sections that didn’t have any.
This went on for hours. I was very exhausted from all this stress. Normally there would be spectacular views the entire way too, which may make this difficult terrain more tolerable. But today the mountains were socked in with fog most of the time. As the afternoon went on, the clouds eased up a bit, but it was if they were playing hide-and-seek with us. They would reveal small parts of themselves, but never the entire mountain. The Weisshorn, the Grand Gendarme, and the Brunegghorn were never totally able to be seen in their entirety.
Eventually Kathy, Val and Gareth caught up to us and passed us. We mentioned to them about the scariness of rockfall areas, but they didn’t seem phased by it at all. I guess they are used to that or we just wussies! Or both.
The path did ease up a bit and get a little wider making things a more relaxing. Just as we were settling into some nicer walking, we rounded a bend only to find a cabled suspension bridge linking up the trail across a section of the that was once the mountain. A large rockfall had wiped out a large section of the former mountainside. The bridge was pretty shaky and the narrow planks that were laid on the bottom of the braided cabling would frequently click into place making it feel as if they were giving way. The wood also looked like the thickness of wood paneling and seemed like I could break through at any second. As I approached the middle of the expanse it began to swing more and more. It was actually kind of fun though.
EuropaHutte!! An oasis among the rocky mountainside. Note the other suspension bridge further on which was closed.
We finally arrived at the Europahütte after rounding a couple more bends in the mountain side. It was a relief to finally get there. We settled in and got the lay of the land for the place. We sat out on the deck for a while with Rich, Martijn, Val, Kathy and Gareth and enjoyed some beers, snacks, laughs and the beautiful views of the mountains across the valley. We eventually moved indoors after it got a bit more chilly out.
Apres Hike at Europahut with Martijn, Rich, Val, Denise, and Gareth
Dinner at the Europahutte or Europa Hut(in English) was some scallopini style meat and potatoes with gravy along with a consomme soupe and salad. We had some pink ice cream and whipped cream for desert and sat around talking for a bit. Tomorrow we had to make a decision of how we would proceed to Zermatt. There was another suspension bridge right after the Europahutte which was closed due to another recent rockfall, so we needed to decide whether we would take a taxi from the town of Randa below the hut back up to the other side of the suspension bridge or just walk the valley into Zermatt. Denise and I reserved the taxi, but would decide on the way down to Randa based on if the mountains were clouded in again. It sounded like the others would be hiking back up to the other side of the bridge and taking it in on the high side.
As the sun set, I broke out the tripod and tried to get some sunset shots beyond the mountains. The clouds had cleared up quite a bit now, but the sunset really didn’t materialize too well. We headed up to the bunks around 9-9:30pm for a good night sleep.
We headed out of the Schwarzhorn Hotel after a relatively mediocre breakfast. It was an immediate grunt uphill as we left the building and switchbacked our way towards the Oberstafel . We started out at around 6500′ elevation and would peak at just short of 10,000′ in less than 4 miles.
View on ascent out of Gruben
We were had a forced opportunity for a break part way up the mountainside as a stampede of cows were being coerced down the mountain by a young couple. They had a large bag of salt, which they would pour on some rocks on their way down. The cows would then follow along and compete with each other to get the salt. We were a bit startled by it at first as this large herd came bursting out of the trees. We didn’t know which way to go. They eventually moved on and we continued our slog uphill.
The weather quickly turned windy and cold as we exited the tree line. Now we could see most of the way up to the pass that we would eventually climb to. The terrain became very rocky and barren from here up. The next section was a little less steep and then it kicked up for the stretch before the pass.
We took a bit of a break at a large rock to put on some more layers, hats and gloves. Rich from CA had passed on by us. Eventually Martign(Ned) and Garreth(UK) came flying up behind us in hot pursuit. They had practically flew up the hillside, which was evident by the sweat dripping off both of their faces. Martign is very tall guy and one of the faster hikers I have ever seen. He just goes consistently fast and you may keep up with him for a little while, but eventually he will vanish.
The others passed by us and we could see them making their way up the large, rocky summit. It had started to snow after we put our jackets on and the pass was going in and out of sight. Denise and I somehow took a path to the right that wound us on the right side of a small pond before the steeper stretch. We realized this had taken us out of the way of the main trail and it was a little tricky getting back over to the left due to the large rocks that covered the area we were on. There was no real trail so we had to figure a way back over. Kind of burned up some time there.
Heading up the very steep section before the pass, the snow was coming down pretty good and a very cold wind blew. The rocks and plants had a very windblown, icy look to them like Sastrugi which makes this pretty evident. We eventually reached the pass where the temperature was well below freezing and the winds were whipping. I took a couple shots of the trail marker sign which looked pretty cool with the windblown snow and ice on it. The Schwarzhorn summit was just to our left, but the fog did not allow us to see it.
We started on our down from the pass on route to St Niklaus. It remained foggy for a while as we descended the rocky path. The path angled to the right side of the valley. I passed an older couple taking a break who brought a small group houses just below in the valley to my right. They could just barely be seen through the dense fog.
We continued bearing to the right following the mountainside. Eventually we came to a landing where Martign was taking pictures. It was an amazing view of the entire valley or “Valais” leading down towards Zermatt. The view was amazing despite the fact that there was a large volume of clouds covering the peaks of the mountains on the other side of the valley. We also watched a couple Chamois(deer-like animals) run around on the flat just below where we stood. It was a just an amazing viewpoint. We stood there taking it in for a while and Kathy and Val eventually caught up. Val took the picture of Denise and I here.
We had a snack and continued on gradually down the mountain side towards the small town of Jungen. We were hoping for the clouds on the mountains across the valley to lift, but they never did entirely. The town of Jungen was supposed to have a cable car to take you down to St. Niklaus too, which we were contemplating a bit.
Jungen was a cute little mountainside village with matching slate roofed cottages. As we came out of the woods the trail angled around the left side of the village eventually coming a small pond and picnic area. There was a nice area to view the valley immediately after where we could also see the cable car. We decided to keep pushing down the mountain on foot. It ended up being a great decision because we found a little restaurant in the narrow village pathways with a big grass terrace and the most incredible view ever! Denise asked me if I wanted to stop for a beer…Yeah…twist my arm!
We unloaded our packs and made ourselves at home on the wood picnic table overlooking the valley. There was yodeling music playing which really made me feel like I was in the Alps for sure. I ask German speaking hostess if they had any food. She said “Brautwurst and Rosti” in some Germany-English language. I gave her the thumbs up! And added a big bottle of Feldschlosschen beer too. Ahh….Life is good!
We were entertained by a group of older gentlemen hikers with a table full of empty beer bottles and wine glasses. I don’t think they were hiking down the mountain. I recorded a little video of Denise and I as we were enjoying the view. We thought it was funny.
Eventually Rich from California showed and joined us. My meal came out soon after and it was the best meal ever! I put my vegan hat off to the side for this one. Rich ended up ordering the Bratwurst and Rosti meal too after seeing mine. Nate and Anne(from Seattle) showed up too … it was becoming quite the party.
We eventually loaded up and started our way down the mountain. It was a little steeper now and consisted of switchbacks most of the way. Once down into St. Niklaus we had to navigate some train tracks and then we were in the town. It was a relatively modern looking town, but it seemed pretty deserted. There was a more quaint section with more shops and dining, but most places were closed. We eventually found our hotel, Hotel La Reserve, which was on the opposite side of town. Our hotel had a pizza place which was rated as one of the better places to eat, but it too was closed.
We settled into our bright yellow hotel room, unloaded our gear, took showers, and washed our clothes in the sink. I did some research on where to eat and decided to head back into town and do some searching there. We settled on the only place that seemed open. Turns out Nate, Anne, Val, Garreth and Kathy were there. Some of the others continued on up the mountain towards the town of Gasenried for the night. We would be starting there tomorrow, but would be taking a bus up to it.
More Bratwurst and Rosti in St. Niklaus
The waitress did not speak very good English so it was a bit difficult for me wife to order since she has so many special requests. She ended up having to seek help from Nate who spoke a some German. We found that we had more trouble language-wise since entering the German-speaking portion of Switzerland. I think some of that may be because we prepared a little more for the French. Dinner was ok, but not one of our best meals.
The bright yellow room at Hotel La Reserva
We headed back to the hotel for the night and settled in for a good night sleep. Or tried to. My side of the bed had the most enormous crater in the mattress I had ever seen. I ended up sleeping in “C” position on my side all night. We found out later on that Paul and Clare(UK) had slept in the same room a night or two later. Paul also had the larger crater to deal with. He ended up coming up with a more ingenious way of dealing with it, but I forgot what that was exactly.
We enjoyed a nice breakfast at the Hotel Europe around 7:30 AM then packed up and started on our walk. We saw the older Brit Posse congregating at the supermarche(grocery store) as we headed to the trailhead. It was nice to know we would not have to pass them later and get the dirty looks that they typically give us when we do.
We started up through some roads in town past some large apartment buildings and eventually into the woods. We went through a small tunnel that is apparently part of their avalanche defense. Not sure how they can get the whole town in the tiny tunnel that quickly, but whatever. We then began the long, steep climb up and out of the town. It was pretty exhausting first thing in the morning and I was burping up my croissants right away. Eventually it flattened out a bit to a narrow path that traversed the side of the mountain. After a bit we caught up to Bob and Matthew, our Ohio contingent. They were heading to Hotel Weisshorn for the night so we probably would not see them until Zermatt. Next we ran into Herman from Holland.
The path then turned into a much wider path that was pretty flat traversing the hillside. We eventually reached the point where we needed to decide whether to go straight to Gruben via Forcletta or go to Hotel Weisshorn and over the Meidpass to Gruben. The later would be a much longer day. It was very cloudy up high and the views were minimal, so we decided to go the more direct route up and over Forcletta to Gruben.
Denise heading down towards Gruben
We had gotten pretty far ahead of Bob, Matthew, and Herman when we reached the decision point. We pressed on figuring we would see them again probably in Zermatt. We never did though. Fortunately Bob had found this blog on the web and reached out to us through that. Anyway, the climb over Forcletta was so foggy and damp. We stopped to dig out some rain gear and another warmer layer. Eventually we hit the peak and started our descent into Gruben.
The descent down to Gruben meandered casually down the valley. View of the Brunneghorn and Weisshorn were to our right. We were the only ones on the path too, since it appeared that the others were planning on heading over to the Meidpass and staying at the Hotel Weisshorn for the night. Eventually, we reached a series of huts at Chalte Berg where soon after we picked up a dirt road that took us in a more northerly direction downhill.
Further down the road, the path broke off to the right(East) and then switchbacked more quickly down the mountain. After passing through a more wooded section we emerged at the top of the hamlet of Gruben. We followed a small path along the stream through farms and pastures eventually reaching the heart of the town. The Hotel Schwarzhorn could easily be seen the entire was as it dominated the other buildings in the town.
The mileage on our route card had said 9 miles for this trek, but we ended up with just under 12 and we didn’t get lost either. The route card was spot on for the time(7 hours) and elevation gain and loss.
We checked in to the Hotel and made our way to our room. The room had two single beds and we quickly unloaded, showered up in the shared bathrooms, and then laid down for a good nap. We were getting pretty tired at this point. 10 days of hiking in the alps are beginning to take their toll on our bodies.
Hotel Schwarzhorn Gruben
We headed down to the dining room for dinner after we woke from our nap. We were jolted awake as we entered the dining room and the large table of the group all yelled as we entered. We were surprised to see everyone was here. We sat at a table for two and enjoyed nice hot dinner. Rich from the group came over and chatted with us a bit and told us about his experience at the Hotel Weisshorn earlier in the day. Apparently it was inundated with kids and he then decided to move on. I guess we made the right decision there.
After dinner we hung out for a bit in the sitting area catching up on our social media since it was the only place to get WIFI. We then chatted a bit with Anne from Seattle for awhile then off to bed. Tomorrow is another big day as we head to St. Niklaus.
It is really hard to believe that I have lived in Pennsylvania for over 45 years, traveled all over the world and have never been to the city 4.5 hours to our West. It is the place we Eastern-PA-er’s usually refer to when we hear of a PA town that we have no idea where it is. “Oh that must be out near Pittsburgh somewhere…” is the typical phrase. If you ever meet someone who is from Pittsburgh or grew up there, they have nothing but great things to say about it and there is a large sense of pride for their city. My wife has been itching to visit there recently and came to the realization that the only way she could get me out there was to find some type of endurance event to sign up for. She saw the Pittsburgh Marathon table at the last years’ Runner’s World Half Marathon race expo and made a B-Line for it. Before I knew it we were signing up for the Half Marathon in 2014.
Over the months that passed between signing up for the event and the event itself, my wifes’ knees had not cooperated with her training. She eventually came to the realization that she was not going to be able to do the race. So it was down to just me, but we were still doing a long weekend in P-Burgh.
We made the 4 1/2 hour drive west on the PA Turnpike on Friday morning after I knocked out my long swim for the week. It was a recovery week for me so it worked out pretty well with the race on Sunday. My wife had performed in-depth analysis on all the restaurants in the Pittsburgh area locating all “farm-to-table”, organic restaurants. They were also required to have at least one vegetarian or vegan option for me. Dining out for us has become much more complicated these days since my wife has changed to eating a more “cavewoman”-like diet and me being the plant-based vegan. Although I sometimes slide into more of a vegetarian while traveling just to make things a little easier.
The big leather couches in the dining room of BRGR in the Shadyside district of Pittsburgh
Our first stop in Pittsburgh was BRGR on the Eastside of the city. They also have a couple other locations, one of which is in the PNC Park baseball complex. The place was really good and they have an extensive draught beer selection. This came in handy for my new favorite social network, Untappd! They have good selection of handcrafted burgers which you can get with the roll or lettuce for any of you carnivorous folks out there. For the veg-head, the “Santa Fe Hippy” burger is outstanding! I think this is the best veggie burger I have ever had in my life. I knew when we left here that we would be back again before we left. At least once.
We made a quick stop at the Whole Foods Market just down the street, before making our way to our hotel. One of good friends is from Pittsburgh and her dad had helped us with where we would should stay. We stayed at the Hampton Inn just north of the city which was a very nice hotel and the location made the logistics for getting in and out of the city very easy. It is a short drive to get to the “T” light rail line at the Allegheny station which is right next to Heinz Field. Two stops and you were in the heart of downtown Pittsburgh. It made the whole experience very enjoyable. Especially considering all of the events that were going on downtown that weekend. Marathon of 30,000 people, Penguins playoff games, and Pirates baseball games.
We settled into our nice room at the Hampton Inn on McKnight Road and before we knew it is was time to head out for dinner. For dinner, we had made reservations at Salt of the Earth (NaCl) which was also located on the East side of the city not too far from BRGR in the Garfield neighborhood. The area looks like it had been pretty run down at some point but they were working to bring it back to life a bit. The NaCl looked to be the “seed” for doing that as it stuck out well against some of the more dingy buildings around it. Although the lime green Mexican restaurant up the street did its fair share of sticking out too. Salt of the Earth is a pretty trendy looking place, with a very high ceiling and the dining room lined with long tables providing a more communal dining experience. The bar wrapped around the perimeter of the dining room on two sides and a large chalkboard wall and a large front window took the other sides. We were seated upstairs in a loft-like area that overlooked the downstairs in the middle. It was kind of odd décor since there was nothing on the walls. It was also very warm up there since all the heat had eminated up there.
To start off I had the White Asparagus soup and my wife had the Steak Tartare(ugh!). The soup was a puree soup with some almonds on top for garnish. It was very good. My wife seemed to enjoy her raw animal flesh and said that the pickled vegetables added to the flavor. It looked like dog food to me though. For my entrée I had the Tofu Curry which was also very good. It was a mix of spice and sweet and was definitely a unique mix. My wife enjoyed the Duck entrée but said that the carrot puree that came with it didn’t really blend well with the asparagus and duck.
It was also Craft Beer Week in Pittsburgh so I hit it at a good time. NaCl was running a food pairing with Shawneecraft brewery this evening so I was able to sample their Double IPA along with my meal. It was pretty good. After dinner, we stopped at Toast! Kitchen and Wine Bar for a nightcap. My wife was itching for a glass of wine and the wine at Salt of the Earth was a bit pricy for her taste. Toast had sampler taste size glasses of wine which was perfect for her. I enjoyed a Lagunitas IPA, which I had had in San Francisco last month and also a Breckenridge Brewery Ophelia(draught) which I didn’t care for. I am not a fan of wheat beers. I traded the Ophelia in for a Dogfish 90 minute IPA, which is always good.
After a good nights sleep we had breakfast at the hotel. The conti breakfast was one of the best ones I have seen, but there was a large group of kids in green t-shirts infiltrating it when we went down there so it was pretty hard to get what you wanted. I ended up going down an hour later and it was smooth sailing. I enjoyed a fresh Belgian Waffle which was rather delicious. While we ate in the room, we researched our logistics in the city for the day. We would do a dry run of our plan for Sunday Race morning just to familiarize ourselves with it. Park at the Carnegie Science Museum/Heinz Field, then T-rail to downtown. Piece of cake!
We then walked around the city a bit and headed over to the area called “The Strip.” A lot of outdoor markets and things along the way. It was about a mile and quarter, but seemed a bit longer. Our plan was to hit the Church Brew Works for lunch which was another 1.25 miles past the strip. On the way I decided we would catch a bus back into town. I hate how we always seem to walk all over the place the day before my races. I should be taking it easy.
Church Brew Works was really cool. It was an old church converted to a brew pub. Food was pretty good and the Thunderhead IPA was excellent. I found out later that the Thunderhead IPA was not actually brewed by the Church Brew Works. Oh well it was good. To eat I had pizza and pierogies. Kind of lame, but I was rushed to order and kind of choked. Regardless, it was tasty.
After lunch, we then took the bus back to downtown. It worked out well because it had started raining. The bus stop had a bit of shelter so it was a good decision. We then went to the convention center for the packet-pickup and expo. It was a huge expo and there were tons of people pouring in and out. This was bigger than the San Francisco Rock ‘n’ Roll Expo. We collected our swag and were out of there. The rain was just stopping as we left.
Next, we walked downtown a bit and ended up at Point State Park. This is the triangular-shaped park at the convergence of the three rivers. Very nice park with a fountain and nice landscaping. We ended taking a little siesta due to the insulin surge and beer buzz from lunch on the river wall that runs along the Monongahela River side. The sun had come out and it was quite nice out. The breeze had a nice coolness that balanced out the heat of the sun.
After walking around a bit, we decided to go to dinner a little earlier than planned. We had reservations at Six Penn Kitchen for 6:30pm on OpenTable, but I was into eating a little earlier with the race tomorrow. They agreed to seat us early, so we did. It was a really good meal. I think the best one we had in Pittsburgh. Service was outstanding too. We decided to split a bottle of wine, which probably wasn’t the wisest decision for me with the race tomorrow but what they hell. The wine was called the “Immortal Zin” which I though was funny since we were at the Church Brew Works for lunch. It was a whole religious, alcohol theme today. We started out with the house salad, which was a really good salad. I had the Garden Risotto and Denise had the Braised Short Ribs. Both were outstanding. Denise said the Short Ribs were amazing and she was kind of uncertain about it when she ordered. Great meal and worth a stop for sure.
Post-dinner, we made our way back out of the city and up the highway to our hotel. Early to bed since I had to get up at 4:30am for the race. I will create a separate post for the Race Report and will add a link here once I get it done.
After the race, we quickly made our way out of the city and back to the hotel. It was still before 10am, so I was able to get last dibs on the hotel breakfast buffet. We then showered up and headed north to the BRGR located in Cranberry Township mall. It was about 20 minutes north of the hotel. This one was quite a bit larger and they had almost double the beer selection. I had another great veggie burger and best of all was a Mojo IPA that was a NITRO tap. Yummy! It was like a creamy Boddington-style IPA. This put a damper on my trying any other types of beers and I ended up having two of them. So good!
Mojo IPA NITRO!
We then headed over to a nearby Whole Foods. My wife had gotten some Gouda cheese at the other store and was desperately seeking more to stock up on. She was pretty psyched to find they had a bunch of it too.
We then headed back to the Hotel and I headed down to the Hotel Pool. I was going to jump in the hot tub but there was an older couple in there and the guy was massaging the lady’s shoulders, so I decided not to crash their party and jump in the pool for bit. They eventually left and I jumped in the hot tub for a bit. This was then followed up with a little nap afterwards.
For dinner we had made reservations at Spoon also through OpenTable. I am a big fan of OpenTable. Here is a list of all the Pittsburgh restaurants they serve. Spoon is the big brother restaurant of BRGR and is located right next store to the Shadyside BRGR location. Spoon is a little more fancy and expensive than BRGR. The food there is well presented, but portions are pretty small. They are also pretty lacking in vegetarian or vegan options on the menu, but most places in Pittsburgh are. I had their only option which was the Spring Vegetable Tasting, which consisted of saffron and mushroom rice “grits” , white asparagus puree, artichokes and fava beans. It was pretty good again not a lot of food for someone who just ran a half marathon. My wife had more steak tartare (“raw meat”) for appetizer and the duck for entrée. She said it was good.
The Duquesne Incline(aka Vernicular) on South Side of Pittsburgh.
After dinner we ventured over to the Duquesne Incline which is a funicular that runs up-and-down the steep hill on the South Side of the city. We parked across the street and took the steps and pedestrian bridge over the road to the station house, paid our $2.50 each and road to the top. We were the only ones in the car which was pretty cool. There is a small museum at the top and an overlook of the city. They had large wrought-iron bars around it so it was kind hard to get any pictures on the tripod. There was also a bunch of East-Asian tourists jockeying for position too. The view of the city was pretty nice though.
Pittsburgh At night. Not the greatest shot, but you get the idea. Tripod mounted here but it was windy and I was trying to squeeze lens between a wrought iron gate. Really, you couldn’t ame a little room for people to take some pictures??
We took a walk down the street hoping to get some better views but it was totally blocked by either houses or restaurants. Since it was Sunday night most of them were closed. We did manage to finagle a glass of wine at La Mont Restaurant by the manager who was nice enough to serve us despite the bartender going home already. It was a really nice view from there through the large picture windows. The place seemed like it was out of the 20’s with the large glass beaded chandeliers and very ornate woodworking on the walls and ceiling. The people eating there seemed ot be out of the 20’s too, except for the one girl with the skin-tight red sequined pants. Hmmm? I hope that was his daughter?
Denise excited for her ride on the “incline”.
Our ride back down was solo too. It was a great finish to a nice weekend to our city to the west. The city has a very special feel to it. It is big city with a small town feel to it. I always felt very safe here and it is so easy to get around. I think it will only get better in time. Hope to get back again soon.
Last night in Pittsburgh. Glass of Wine at Le Mont overlooking the city. Great weekend in the city to our west.
We enjoyed another hotel breakfast and then packed up our stuff. We made one last stop at BRGR for lunch and then we were on our way back east on the PA Turnpike. Denise ended up getting sleepy, so I took over on the drive home. We had a pretty smooth drive with no traffic issues. It was a fun weekend, but back to reality.