Switzerland: October 2009

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Europe » Switzerland
October 24th 2009
Published: January 10th 2010
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Within a few hours of arriving in Zurich we were already amazed at the fabled Swiss efficiency! Every train runs on time with a margin for error of about 7 seconds, without exception! We took a train and a tram to our hotel in the young trendy district of West Zurich and quickly stowed our stuff before heading into the city centre to check out the sights.

Zurich is a nice city, it had an almost intimate feel to it and the ‘old town’ area is quite lovely - we even had roasted chestnuts from a street vendor who looked like he and his cute little stall could have been straight from the 18th century! One of Zurich's ‘claims to fame’ is the biggest clock face in Europe - which to be honest - is not as exciting as one might think! (And we're pretty sure we've seen bigger ;-) ) However the riverside area is just lovely and we even managed to stumble across a surreal bohemian market just off the main street - complete with crystals, trinkets, tie-dye t-shirts and suspicious odours!

When we eventually returned to our hotel near Escher-Wyss Platz we were gobsmacked at the changes the night-time brought! What was a quiet, nondescript area in the daylight was now crowded, vibrant and lit up like a Christmas tree; roller doors on quiet unassuming streets were pulled up revealing countless bars, cafes and kebab restaurants! It felt like we were back in London, except of course most people spoke German or Swiss German!

An early start saw us on the train to Lucerne, a quiet town on the edge of Lake Lucerne, at the foot of the lowlands leading to the mighty Swiss Alps. Lucerne is famous for its historical buildings and sleepy pace of life; however we arrived on the day of the very popular Lucerne Marathon! The rivers edge was packed with spectators and support crews. Luckily the runners were based on the lake’s edge away from the old town, so we were well away from the crowds as we explored the picturesque 14th century Chapel Bridge and the quaint old town - complete with hand painted murals on several of the older buildings. We visited the obligatory chocolate shop and enjoyed some Swiss chocolate and Bunny had a very awesome looking mousse! Sheepy was also much impressed with the local fare!

After meandering around Lucerne (which really is quite tiny) and watching the runners and soaking up the carnival atmosphere we hopped back on a train and headed another couple of hours east to Engelberg. Engelberg is very much a ski town, reminding us a bit of Whistler in Canada or even Queenstown, NZ. As most of the slopes weren’t open yet the town was pretty deserted, many of the hotels and stores would not open until December. However the town still has a great atmosphere, and is in a stunning location, nestled in amongst towering peaks on all sides. The train ride from Lucerne was just beautiful; some parts were so steep we struggled to see how the train would actually make it up (and our ears were popping!) After a quick look around the township (Engelberg is so little it makes Lucerne look big…) we headed to one of the ‘must-do’ activities in Engelberg - traversing to the top of Mount Titlis, via 3 very different cable cars. The first, a standard gondola (just like Rotorua!), takes you up several steep inclines, up to where the snow begins in earnest. Then we transferred to a giant cable boxcar - basically a huge shipping-crate sized gondola. The third and most impressive ascent takes place on a gentle rotating round gondola (Just like at Table Mountain, Cape Town… hmmm we do like gondolas!). This last part of the trip up is stunning, there are mountain lakes surrounded by snow and incredible views across the seemingly endless Alps. The summit of Mount Titlis features a multi level structure with all the facilities you would expect for a ski station, including restaurants, bars and tourist shops - we even had a drink at the highest bar in Europe; 3020 metres above sea level. An unexpected feature of the Titlis summit is the presence of an awesome ice cave that stretches some 150metres right into the heart of a glacier. The tunnels are very cool and are lit up with florescent lights, just to add a certain ‘science-fiction’ feel to the experience, there is even a booth where you can choose from a range of ‘Mood Music’ including different genres and a variety of national anthems… sadly New Zealand’s was not featured so we made do with ‘Get Funky’!

After taking a few last photos, (you just can’t do justice to those sorts of views without a panoramic lens!) we headed back down into Engelberg just as low clouds set in and the last light drained away - we were pretty lucky to get such great views from the top, as clouds often obscure the entire place. Dinner was at great little restaurant, complete with pour-your-own beer on tap - very cool!

The following morning we were back on the train ready for our journey into the Alps to the town of Interlaken. Another lovely train ride, un-crowded, with fantastic views on all sides. The Aare River flows right through the town and Interlaken is located between Lake Brienz to the east and Lake Thun to the west. We were staying right in the middle of town in a very cute family run hotel. After a good look around the town we decided to head to Lake Brienz for a looksy - we had passed it on the way in and wanted to have a close look. What seemed like a quick walk ended up being a random hike through industrial areas, and right through people’s back yards! However we did eventually reach the lake and were very impressed with the afforded views. That evening we went to ‘The Most Popular Fondue Place in Town!’ as you can’t go to Switzerland and not have fondue - it was great :-) Our entire meal consisted of nothing but cheese and bread - yummy!

The next morning we were up very early to catch the famous Golden Pass Panoramic train form Interlaken to the very French Swiss town of Montreux. Switzerland is quite unreal in the way half the country feels like Germany, and the other half like France! The train ride was just wonderful, the scenery eclipsed all that had come before it, and that is no small thing. The rolling hills and cute farmhouses dotted all over the place, the vast forests in autumn shades of yellow, orange, reds and browns and overlooking everything are the ever-present, mighty, towering Alps. Sitting in first class, most of the train ride is in a train cabin with a partially clear roof, which gives a real sense of the sheer scope of the surrounding landscape - it was brilliant.

The final glorious descent on the train took us to the edge of the vast Lake Geneva into the small city of Montreux. The first thing that strikes you as you arrive in Montreux is the vast crops of grape vines lining the steep hillside in stepped partitions, the lines of grapes look kind of like the rice paddies of China, Indonesia or Thailand - but these crops are a rich yellow, compared to the bright greens of Asia.

Our hotel was very Funky indeed, aside from the ridiculous name of ‘Tra-la-la’, the place had a musical theme and every room was a tribute to a great singer - we got the Santana Suite - wicked! The hotel was ultra modern, and offered a stunning view across the lake's edge to the famous Chateau de Chillon. The Chateau began life in the 1100s and is remarkably well maintained, its fame largely stems from the visit of the English poet Byron and his resultant poem The Prisoner Of Chillon about François de Bonivard, a Genevois monk imprisoned there for 6years! Byron even carved his named on a pillar in the dungeon - some very famous graffiti. We spent ages at the Chateau, exploring the myriad of rooms with our trusty IPod audio guides. It would have to be one of the most impressive castles we have visited, excluding of course the gigantic Krak des Chevaliers in Syria. After leaving the Chateau we then explored the town itself and negotiated the steep hillside about a million times! Towns on hills should be banned! :-) It is worth saying though that the public transport in Switzerland is excellent: regular, punctual, comfortable and cheap - what more can you ask for? Most cities even provide free travel for tourists with a city card, so long as you are staying in a local hotel - which is wicked.

The next morning we took a train across the entire edge of Lake Geneva to the ever-so-French city of Geneva itself. Geneva is much bigger than most of the places we visited, which took a bit of adjusting to. The city itself is very nice, the highlight for me being the electric water geyser (Jet d'eau) that shoots a continual jet of water over 100 meters straight up into the air - very, very cool. Another part of the city we loved was Parc des Bastions, the whole area is surrounded by imposing buildings and manic streets, but the park is relaxed and placid, there are several dozen giant Chess and Checkers boards in one end of the park and they are constantly in use, most often by old Swiss men who argue and shout their way through game after game, frequently attracting small crowds of onlookers - that sounds like a great retirement to me!!

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21st January 2010

Nice pics guys! Lucky Sheepy was on hand to help the BA staff, eh? ; )

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