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Published: August 26th 2007
Switzerland, the country pictured so often in Bollywood movies that it has become the stuff of dreams for Indians. This was our destination this summer, away from the Delhi heat. Since my parents and my cousins and sister were accompanying me, at least for part of the seven days, it happened to be one of the trips that took me longest to plan. This was after ages that I was going somewhere with my parents. Last time, as far as I can remember was about eight years back. When you are traveling with friends, there is hardly a need to plan anything. But this was different because elderly people always look forward to a plan. I believe it is a result of years of experience. Experience that teaches them to plan every step ahead carefully; the very lack of it is the source of adventure for the less experienced. Keeping the current factors in mind, this time my plan of action was different. In the end it turned out that I had browsed the political and physical map of Switzerland, knew names of the strangest of places in Switzerland (some of which even a few of my Swiss friends were hearing
for the first time, but these are places any Bollywood movie producer would know), and have chalked out an itinerary well in advance. The thing that was not quite in my control was the weather, which would later throw some of the plans off track -- quite to my liking.
The British Airways flight dived through the clouds and dropped six sleepy Indians at Zurich airport. It was an early morning flight from London, and a weekend full of activities in London had left me, if not all of us, low on energy. The welcome looks in the faces of the immigration officers, and a namaste left no doubt that they have been clearing loads of Indians everyday. The first hitch in my plan hit me as soon as we cleared the immigration. I had forgotten to get the exact address of my friend’s place, and I had one phone number, which incidentally did not ring the last evening I had tried, to get to my destination. But I kept a brave face and let the others enjoy till the inevitable hit us. But luckily to my relief when I called from the airport phone booth, I heard the
voice of Laura, and knew once again I have bailed myself out of trouble. A short train ride, followed by a tram to “Radio Studio” got us to our destination. But what left me wondering was, unlike the trams in our good old city of Kolkata, there was no ticket collector in the tram. So we traveled without ticket in out first journey in Switzerland. Looked like a really nice and friendly city !! … it was only later that I would find out that there are ticket vending machines, and like an idiot, or an illiterate (which I was since German is as foreign to me as Hindi would be to them) I just overlooked them. There is usually a hefty fine for traveling without ticket on trams. I can only say that fortune favors the brave, and sometimes the ignorant. Once at the tram-stop, I was trying to get my direction right for the house from the host of signs with “strasses”. I couldn’t locate my strasse, and started off on gut feeling. Like six refugees looking for their tent, we were walking down the street, when I heard a voice beckoning us from a window. We have
reached the place which would be our shelter for the next few days.
Hearing my ordeal in the tram, Laura volunteered to educate me a bit. I soon knew how to use the vending machines just by looking at the colored buttons and its sequence, but my bitter-sweet experiences have just begun. Next I was in a grocery store (Migros happens to be a good grocery chain in Zurich), and looking for rice, lentils and eggs. I have done grocery shopping many times before, but when you have to explain egg to someone who doesn’t understand English, that is the most practical application of dumb charade you will ever encounter. You can start from the chicken and make it hatch eggs, but you still may not meet your goal. Finally, despite my never give-in attitude, I had to leave the grocery store empty handed. But again, the gods were in my favor, and I found a little grocery store right next to our “home” with a friendly Egyptian as its owner. I found all I needed over there, and he happened to become a good friend of mine for the next few days of my stay at Zurich.
As I came back, I realized that everyone is in a mood to step out. You don’t come to Zurich to sit back and relax. So we were out again for lunch to a Pizza place. It was not Pizza Hut or Dominos, rather an authentic Italian speaking hostess welcomed us in chaste Italian, I guess, and left us with a menu card. My dad tried with his long-forgotten German to decipher some of the things that are written, but in the end nothing works like sign language, and a smile. We had a hearty lunch of pizza, and set out for a walk around Zurich … till we were near the lake front, and were greeted with the welcome sight of shops (for the female members in our group) lining the roads on either side. Time flew as window shopping continued, and then the weather turned against us and it started drizzling. People who bear the monsoon rains every year should not be worried about this drizzle, but the drop in mercury was something that the brave Kolkatans were not accustomed to. So, with a quick trip to the tourist bureau office, and setting up plans for the next
couple of days, we headed back to the comfort of home. To the Rhine Falls
Rhine Falls is an hours drive from Zurich, and we took a coach which was at its full capacity. Summer must be the season for tourists in Switzerland. This was our first opportunity to look at the famed countryside of Switzerland. The guide was explaining all through different aspects of the culture, diversity and way of life of the Swiss people. Just for readers’ interest, there are four languages used in Switzerland - German, French, Italian, and Romansch, besides English. It turned out to be a gloomy day. But this could hardly dampen our spirits, as we set off on the boat ride that takes you towards the waterfall and you get sprayed by the mighty falls. It looked all so similiar to the “Maid of the Mist” ride at the Niagara Falls. I will not go raving too much about this place because we were there for a short time, but this would certainly make a good place for a day outing. A comparison, that naturally came to my mind while at Rhine Falls was with Niagara. Although there is no questioning
the grandeur of the Niagara Falls itself, but when it comes to preserving the natural beauty of the surroundings, I think the Swiss have done a better job than the Americans. Off to Lucern and Jungfrau
The best mode of travel in Europe as I was told is railroad. One can get a train to almost anywhere in Europe from the Zurich Banhoff (Central Station). We took a train to Lucern from Zurich in the evening, hoping to find better weather in Lucern. It is just an hour from Zurich. Lucern is in the central part of Switzerland, and can be looked upon as the base camp for tourists interested in venturing into the Swiss Alps. In itself Lucern is a pictureseque town which has preserved many of its antiquities, like the cobbled streets, spired churches, an old wooden bridge with floral decorations built sometime in the nineteenth century. With our limited time, we could only explore a small portion of this town. There was also a growing interest in our touring party to look for some Indian food for dinner, after a day of bread, pasta and salads. Surprisingly, every tourist spot in Switzerland seems to have
some Indian joint, testimony to the large number of Indian tourists who must be thronging these places every year. Non-veg Indian thalis satiated us longing for some Indian dal-chawal and chicken butter masala.
We took the first train next morning for the highpoint of our trip - Jungfrau, the top of Europe. The internet is littered with pictures and information on Jungfrau, so I will not go into the mundane details. The only bit of information that I took note of was the route. We would be going via Kleine Scheidegg and Grimweld, and there would be two change of trains and a good 4 hours to reach the top. The train ride itself is one of the highlights of this trip, where one gets a good view of the quintessential Swiss countryside with cows grazing, expansive fields of flowers, little huts dotting the countryside, lakes painted in all shades of blue and green; only if the weather permits it. In our case, we were still not fortunate enough. We did get some glimpse of these famed views, but it was getting gloomier as we were climbing higher up, and the clouds were approaching fast. We kept our fingers
crossed for at least one glimpse of the view from the “Top of Europe”, which costs a fortune compared to the visits to the other tourist sites. The final stretch of this train journey goes “inside” the Alps. Its an engineering marvel where tunnels are dug through the mountains to take you up to the top. There are pit stops at viewpoints in the tunnel, but for us it was just clouds that we could see from there. A Japanese engineer had his share in designing and constructing this tunnel. No surprise that there were train loads of Japanese tourists visiting Jungfrau. The Japs must have a very strong sense of fellow feeling !!
But once we reached the Jungfrau, I realized the Indians can outnumber anyone in any corner of the world. Its just the sheer number of Indians who inhabit the Earth . To my disbelief, there was a restaurant at Jungfrau, named Bollywood Restaurant with pictures of movie stars from Hindi movies. Now, Jungfrau appeared to me to be a theme park at high altitude. You have plenty of activities - there is an ice cave with snow sculptures, skating and skiing zones, guided snow treks,
and several other things, besides the viewing arenas. Flurries had started by the time we reached on top. So the hope of getting the view of the gorgeous surrounding dwindled, and we had to be happy looking at the photographs adorning the walls. But, the little snowfall was a source of great enjoyment for many, given that it was for the first time my mom actually encountered snowfall.
For my part, I was a bit disappointed to see this carnival atmosphere. Recently it is in the news that China will build roads to reach the base camp of Mount Everest. I wonder whether this is really desirable. Undoubtedly, it will boost the local economy, do wonders to attract huge crowds of tourist, but then where will one go to enjoy the pristine beauties of Nature. Sooner or later, this frenzy of making every corner easily accessible to all will lead to a state where we will forget to appreciate the hardships of undertaking such a journey, and the pleasures derived from successfully completing one. A tourist’s day in Zurich
We had only a day to spare, and the choices were between making another dash to a tourist
spot, or take a look around Zurich. My cousins and sister preferred going to Mount Titlis, which is a glacier in the Alps. Along with my parents, I decided to leisurely explore Zurich. We also got a friend of my dad, who has been a resident of Zurich for last 25 years, to show us around. A day-pass allows one to take the tram, bus or the ferry throughout the day any number of times. After a walk down the Limmat river, we stopped at a café for lunch. We took the ferry that goes down the Limmat river and into Lake Zurich. We followed a walkway along the river, which is by the old city of Zurich. Buildings from old and modern times stand side by side providing a nice blend of architectures. We ambled up to the campus of the University in Zurich (ETH) which is located on top of the city. There is an overlook around that place from where you get a nice panorama of the city. I enjoyed every bit of the day soaking in the ambience of the city as much as was possible in a tourist’s day out. The French-speaking section
Everyone else had left in the early morning flight. I had couple of more days. Followed by some impromptu planning, I was headed for the south-western part of Switzerland to Lausanne, the French-speaking section of the country. I was greeted by Maya, who hosted me graciously for the next few days. Only knowing her when she was in India, it was quite different to observe her in her more familiar surrounding, switching between French and Italian … and English (mostly for my sake ). For dinner, I was treated to the most authentic Pizza I have had so far, since the chef was right from Sicily. I enjoyed his style of conversation, which, should I say, reminded me of the nonchalance of the Godfather-like mafia gangs. And, add a “panache” with your order of Pizza. It is a cocktail of beer and sprite, and it will add a punch to the meal. If you would like to spice it up a bit more, go for the Limoncino, the coolest drink I have had in a while. I have become a fan of this stuff, but alas it is hard to get in India. I will just have to
wait till I manage to coax someone to get one for me from there.
During the few months of summer in Switzerland, there are usually a lot of small festivals - appeared to me like little carnivals with music, food and drinks. I was lucky enough to catch one in Lausanne. It was in the older part of Lausanne adjoining the biggest and oldest church in the city. There were food stalls catering cuisines from different parts of the world. Many of them were organized by students at the local University of Lausanne. There were also stages with performers regaling people with song and dance. I followed Maya and her friends to the stalls from Ticino, the Italian-speaking region of Switzerland, and feasted on Polenta, a dish which felt so similar to “Khichdi” in India, a mix of rice and lentils boiled together. And, there was enough Limoncino to spice everything up. Time flew at the festival, and roaming around so many Italian speaking people I also started picking up a few Italian words, with adequate help from friends, to help me mingle.
To know any city closely, the best way is to walk aimlessly if you have
the liberty of time. In this case, although time was short, I managed to walk and see quite a bit of Lausanne, thanks to Maya for guiding me on my day-long walk. I saw the cathedral and even listened to the choir performing there. From there, we walked down to Ushi, which overlooks Lake Geneve. On the other side of Lake Geneve is France, only a 2-hour ferry ride. My visa did not allow me to take this trip this time. A long walk by this expansive lake was exciting enough for me giving me glimpses of a leisurely weekend in the city.
Next day after a hearty breakfast of nutella, which is a chocolate spread, and the “Sunday” bread, I was off from Lausanne to Bern. Bern is the capital of Switzerland, and as Maya, who accompanied me, pointed out that the most notable thing to visit here are the two brown bears. The bears are the symbols of this province. I also heard some jokes about the characteristics of people from Bern, especially when I quipped that the entire city looks really laid-back. It was a short stay at Bern, and time for me to bid adieu
for now, and head back to Zurich. Heading home
In my own just-in-time way of operation, I had postponed checking my return flight timings. I was always under the impression that it is an early morning flight. When I woke up in the morning I found out that it was a late afternoon flight. This worked out well for me because I was treated to a Swiss breakfast, as I would like to believe, by Laura.
On the fairly long flight back to Delhi, I was musing over the trip. I was wondering that it is not often in a lifetime one gets to visit a place with completely different cultures and ways. In the short time one can afford, it would be so nice to know as much of their ways, rather than clinging on to your habits and preferences. I was lucky to see glimpses of Switzerland quite closely, but there were still many sections that were left out. If opportunity comes it will be in my agenda for the next trip.
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