The snowy white peaks and sprawling green meadows of Switzerland were calling our names. First up we were bound for Bern, the Swiss capital. Our backpacks laden with bread, vegetables, snacks, pasta and rice, we crossed into the land of chocolate, mountains and watches, well-prepared for whatever excessive prices lay before us. We learnt quickly that it was prohibitively expensive for us to eat out (we did manage to scrape a few meals together during our time there), that souvenir shopping was virtually out of the question (except for a wee Victorinox knife we bought for future picnics) and that fortunately, walking was free. Beauty is priceless however, and some of the views we managed to scope out during our time in this glorious country are images that I will hold with me forever. Switzerland sure is special and there is so much more of the country I intend on visiting in the future. My lasting impression is that Switzerland is like New Zealand in so many ways, but still different in enough that it is still a wonderful place to travel.
Strongest memory: Our accommodation in Lucerne. It was an absolute shocker. We loved the idea of it – it was a prison converted into a hostel, obviously modernized but with slightly more freedom… however it ended up as my most memorable accommodation of the entire trip for how bad it was. It was so small the four of us could barely all be standing at the same time and have space to move. The room had two sets of bunk beds and a little capsule bathroom. We had the horrible fortune of having the hot water pipe running across the roof and wall of our room, meaning our room was always at least 10°C hotter than we needed it to be. Unfortunately the bathroom provided no relief, in fact it was even hotter in there. We lived as sweaty messes – I barely slept. Oh yeah, and mum and I got bedbugs. It was a definite dampener on an otherwise fantastic city.
Memorable meal: Tibits in Lucerne for a number of reasons. First up, we were catching up with Hayley and Robert, some of our oldest family friends who just happened to be in Lucerne at the same time as us. We visited Tibits on their recommendation: they had been there before and said it was good value for money. The reason for this is because the price is determined by the weight of the plate. This definitely suited some of us better than others. Mum and I loaded up on salad and our plates only came to a few francs each. Andy however, went a bit too hard on the samosas and it ended up costing him double what we had paid! We didn’t eat out a huge amount in Switzerland so it was especially nice to be able to enjoy this tasty meal with friends.
Best activity: It is hard to go past hiking for this answer! We had rail passes which gave us mostly free transport in most places. We did nothing more than day hikes (and usually shorter), using our rail passes to take us to some cool mountain with a known cool view, where we’d catch a funicular or some other kind of transport most of the way up and then hike from there. A firm favourite was the hike we did at Mt. Rigi. We actually took a boat to begin with, then an iconic little funicular. We arrived almost at the summit, so we just had to walk a short way before being rewarded with 360° views. The day was beautiful, so we basically hiked our way down and around the trails heading to the base of the mountain, stopping for lunch at one of the most glorious vistas I have ever seen. My peanut butter sandwiches never tasted better! All the views we saw were incredible, so having the rail pass just enabled us to see more of these views than we would otherwise been able to. And none of the hiking was particularly hard, which suited me fine 🙂
Favourite place: The Lauterbrunnen Valley is everything I ever pictured about Switzerland and so much more. We stayed in Murren which I absolutely adored, a sleepy hill-side village with chalets and mountains, cable cars and lanes. We arrived in fog and rain and once we were all settled into what was probably the most spacious Air BnB I’ve ever stayed in, we ventured outside for a wander. The clouds had just lifted and we were literally looking directly across the valley at several snowy mountains and their peaks. It was jaw-dropping just how high we were. Murren is a place that is very popular for day-trippers visiting from elsewhere in the valley, so in the evenings when everyone returns home it is such an idyllic spot to wander. The photo opportunities are endless. Its biggest flaw was that each time we wanted to go anywhere, we had to catch the cable-car and gondola down into the valley, before heading off to where we wanted to go. The gondola was a bit more cramped than what I was expecting from New Zealand: essentially standing space only and jam-packed. The views made it worth it though!
Unforgettable sight: The view from the top of the Schilthorn. Prior to our arrival, we were very indecisive about which peak we wanted to summit. Obviously the Jungfrau is the most famous, for the simple reason that it is the highest point in Europe. But the highest point in Europe comes at a ridiculous cost, a cost that was inadequately covered by our rail passes. On the other hand, our rail passes would get us to the top of the Schilthorn and would hopefully provide us with views across to the Jungfrau. The weather had been a bit up and down, so we ended up going with the latter – just in case we woke up and the day was bad, I didn’t want to sink $300 on an ascent without a view. We made the right choice. The day was beautiful, but the Jungfrau had a layer of cloud hugging its summit the entire time we were up the Schilthorn. We were gifted with blue skies and panoramic views from the top of the Schilthorn, which we marvelled as we sipped on coffees and pastries in the revolving restaurant. Clear blue skies pierced with jagged white peaks and snowy mountains is a view that is incredibly hard to beat!
Strongest memory: My memory of Switzerland is completely dominated by our three days and nights spent in Murren, in the Bernese Oberland. So much so that I often forget that we actually visited several other places while we were in the country! When I visited the Yosemite valley in 2014, I thought that I might never see another place that was as visually stunning, but the Lauterbrunnen valley certainly comes close. Add to that the remarkable feats of engineering that the Swiss have grafted into the landscape, managing to effectively shift hordes of sightseers around in a variety of twee modes of transport that I thoroughly enjoyed. The area was a natural playground on the grandest scales, and it is one of several places in Europe that I would happily return to at the drop of a hat.
Memorable meal: Hmmm. If you’ve read much of this blog, you may have picked up that prices in Switzerland are, no kidding, twice what they are just about anywhere else. Accordingly, we don’t have a long list of professionally-prepared meals to choose from, despite being in the country for ten days. The meal that first comes to mind does so not for the quality of its food (although I have no complaints there), nor its ambience (it was a restaurant in a train station), but because of an anecdote. In Lucerne, we were recommended a vegetarian buffet restaurant where you pay by the weight of your food. As I loaded up my plate, the only information that I had to work off was that “a large plate should cost about 13-15 CHF” ($21-25 NZ). It’s a pity that once you’ve put the food on your plate, you can’t put it back. Because when I got to the counter and was told that my plate would cost 22 CHF ($36 NZD), all I could do was sadly start rifling through my wallet for coins I never dreamt I would be using. As I returned to my table I whispered a warning to Jamie and Nicole, who sneakily put back some of their heavier food, and they both managed to pay with a single 10 CHF note (and even got change).
Best activity: At the risk of sounding dull, the best activity in Switzerland is transport. Sure, the scenery is the hero here, but the Swiss have gone to extraordinary lengths to ensure that you can take it all in from the comfort of your train carriage, or from the window of your funicular. Before we left, we wisely invested in 8-day comprehensive Swiss Rail Passes which, while painfully expensive, allowed us to ride far more than the regional rail lines. The cost of the pass covered almost all of the funiculars and scenic carriages in the Bernese Oberland, including a dramatic cablecar to the top of the Schilthorn – a great alpine peak. And that’s not all. Our Rail Passes also gave us discounts on two of the world’s great rail journeys – the Glacier Express from Zermatt to Chur, and the Bernina Express from Chur to Tirano on the Swiss-Italian border.
Favourite place: This is an easy one – Murren is one of my favourite places in the world. Sure, it’s a tiny town where almost nothing exciting is likely to happen, but I truly believe that no other town has ever been built in such a beautiful setting. Murren is dug into a steep grassy hillside, on the edge of a sheer rock face that plunges to the valley floor 800 metres below. To highlight it’s precarious position, it is only accessible by a combination of cablecar and cog railway. Across the steep valley, the glaciers and peaks of the Eiger-Monch-Jungfrau massif rise and dominate the skyline. As we rode the cable-car up to Murren for the first time, the valley was filled with low-lying mist and cloud, and we could barely see more than 20 metres ahead of us. We managed to find our accommodation in the fog, but we had no bearings at all of what lay either side of the narrow car-less lanes that we had walked from the railway station. Later in the evening, just as the light of the day was nearly spent, the clouds suddenly lifted. We rushed outside, and were rewarded with one of the most breathtaking vistas that I have ever seen, and will ever see.
Unforgettable sight: Our time in Switzerland was supposed to include the most unforgettable sight of the entire trip – the incredible Matterhorn mountain. However, despite our best efforts, camping out in Zermatt for three days hoping to catch a single glimpse of the iconic peak, the cloud cover never lifted above the lower slopes. My consolation prize was the north face of the Eiger. At the time that we visited, I barely understood the significance of this monstrous rock face to the mountain climbing fraternity, but I have since read extensively about it. Thankfully, the mountain’s towering face was memorable enough (even to the uninitiated) that when I began to read essays about brave climbers that have risked it all to scale the so-called Nordwand, I was glad to have my own mental images to draw on.