If food is a love language (and trust me, it is!), then so is travel. I love to get away and put real life on hold for a few days, whether it is 40 miles or 4,000 miles away. There is less distraction from day-to-day responsibilities, and it opens us up to all there is to learn about our world and ourselves. It gives me a reset in a way that nothing else can. So, when in the spring of 2021, my son came home with information on an international trip through EF Educational Tours, we knew this was a YES for him. It was a trip to the Swiss Alps and the Mediterranean Coast for Summer 2022. However, I had never been out of the country and felt slightly envious. After much teenage consideration, Jackson agreed I could come along. However, the trip got pushed from Summer 2022 to Summer 2023 due to Covid concerns, so we anxiously waited for two long years.
Our fearless leader was Bahar Hill, a middle school teacher at Bearden Middle. She grew up in Turkey and speaks three languages. She has taken students on 10+ of these tours and is a pro. She also patiently tolerated all my questions, a skill I’m sure she developed as a middle school teacher. We had a group of 26 teens and adults from Knoxville. (Upon arrival in Switzerland, we met up with two smaller groups to put our final number at 38.)
We left Knoxville with an eight-hour layover in Philadelphia. Since we had such a long layover, the company arranged for us to tour Philly with a local guide. Most of us had never been to Philadelphia, so this was an unexpected treat.
We visited the Liberty Bell and saw Independence Hall, had a driving tour through many of the historical parts of the city, had lunch in Reading Terminal Market, had my first Philly Cheesesteak in Philly, watched a protest, visited the Rocky statue, and ran up the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Although our terminal in the Philadelphia airport left a lot to be desired, many creative art installations kept it interesting.
Next, was our 7-hour, overnight flight into Zurich, Switzerland. We flew American Airlines on a Boeing 787-8. It was as comfortable as you can be for economy seats with a 3-3-3 setup. I did appreciate the LED lighting they dimmed for sleep and the windows with adjustable tints rather than shades. We ate a surprisingly good dinner and tried to get some rest. After a few hours, they brightened the lights, served a small breakfast, and we landed in Zurich, not too worse for wear.
We freshened up, met our European tour guide, Milos, Serbian, and Greek bus driver Yanis, and headed to the city. Milos has been a tour guide for 19 years, and Yanis has driven for tour companies for 24 years. The tourism industry is unlike any I’ve experienced in the States, and they both were fantastic.
Of all the countries we knew we would visit (Switzerland, Italy, France, and Spain), Switzerland was the lowest on my list. I didn’t know much about it except that they are neutral and make great chocolates and cheeses and Swiss army knives. I am happy to report I was blown away by its beauty, the pristine lakes, the Alps, the artistry, and the food. Impressive clock towers were everywhere and rang out on the hour. You could feel the depth of the history at every corner.
We had several hours in Zurich and split into groups to explore after Milos showed us around and helped us get our bearings. The small streets were pedestrian-friendly, and though there were crosswalks, they seemed optional. Very few cars drove through Zurich and Lucerne. Most people bike in and walk to their employment or entertainment. Finding great food was easy, as was finding great chocolate. We in the States would view the drinking fountains in these cities as ornamental water fountains. It was startling at first to see adults and kids alike stopping to put their mouths under a running fountain or fill a water bottle with the water. We soon found ourselves doing the same. Another unexpected difference from lakes I’ve seen in the States was the crystal clear waters of Lake Zurich and Lake Lucerne.
In Lucerne, we visited the Lion Monument, built in the 1800s to commemorate soldiers who died in the French Revolution. We walked the Chapel Bridge, considered Europe’s oldest covered bridge. We visited a watchmaker’s shop that has been family owned for five generations, and took a ferry to take a train to go up to Mt. Rigi. It was overcast and cool that day, but once we reached the mountain, the clouds moved quickly past us, and we had breathtaking views of the valley and lake below. We capped the night off with a traditional fondue dinner and classical Swiss entertainment of yodeling and alphorns, and a less traditional conga line.
Day 3 took us from Switzerland to Italy. I couldn’t tear my eyes away from the countryside as we traveled though I was sleep deprived and could’ve used that nap. It was too beautiful to turn away from. We stopped once along the path at the bougiest rest stop I have ever seen. The paid toilets (one Euro) with private stalls(no gaps in the stalls for accidental peepers!) were immaculate. One side of the shop was an conventional convenience store but with things like fresh eggs on shelves and other produce you wouldn’t typically see in an American convenience store. The other side was a full-on Fresh Market meets local coffee shop/wine bar vibe. You could get made-to-order pizza, sandwiches, pasta, pastries, fruits and veggies, and a cup of coffee or a glass of wine or even an herb and fruit infused water.
Our first stop in Italy was in Como. My initial impression was the lake water was muddy, unlike the water in Switzerland, and smelled of dead fish. We walked into the city for a brief look inside one of the ancient cathedrals and walk the city streets. It was a quick stop, but we managed to find a great brunch and gelato before returning to the bus.
We ended the long travel day at our hotel, La Pineta Park Hotel, in Mulazzo, Italy. It’s the cutest, family-run hotel nestled in the mountains. It had fantastic air conditioning! I will never take this for granted again, as our other hotels did not value A/C as we do here. They served us 3-course meals of family recipes both nights, which were delicious. And we met the three-legged family dog, Bill, who lost his leg fighting a wild boar.
Day 4 was the region of Cinque Terre, made up of 5 villages. We took the train from La Spezia to the first village, Riomaggiore, for stunning views of the Ligurian Sea, a branch of the Mediterranean. Its waters were much like the clear turquoise we saw in Switzerland, but the beaches were smooth stone.
I had five goals in Italy: bread, pasta, gelato, coffee, and local wine. I accomplished them all by lunch! After some shopping, we swam a bit and took the train to the last of the villages we were visiting. The village of Manarola has the most Instagram-famous views. Our stop there was brief but lovely. Cinque Terre met all the high expectations I had for it. The colorful, pastel houses, small shops, excellent food, cathedrals, hills, and steps were everything I hoped they would be. I only wish I had more time to soak it all in.
Thursday-Part 2: Monaco, France, and Barcelona, Spain