Traveling places is one of my interesting pastimes and I love places of scenic beauty. Almost every year we go to places. During 2007, we visited Badrinath, Kedarnath and Gangothri on Himalayas. Himalayas always thrilled me. We had been planning a Europe trip for quite some time. Any number of tourist packages were available, but we felt that they were so cramped not really affording extensive and exclusive visits to places. The tour packages did not offer leisurely visits to important places. So, we decided to make a trip to Switzerland only on our way to USA during this year to save on flight costs.
My 60th birthday provided the ideal opportunity for us to visit USA and be with our children. So, we started hunting around for tour packages. The brochure that I had received earlier from Exotica Vacations gave us a clear broad picture of the places of interest In Switzerland. We wanted to spend our days in Switzerland at leisure spending time as it pleased us. Eventually, we got in touch with Swiss Tours in Bombay who gave us a package that met our expectations. Having experienced ' tour on your own' to Scotland and London earlier, we preferred a tour, where we were at liberty to spend time as it pleased us rather than being put on a tight schedule moving from place to place. We settled for a 8 days and 7 nights tour package offered by Swiss Tours ( I understand that this is part of Government of Switzerland tourism). This package offered us hotel accommodation for 7 nights (with complimentary breakfast), a swiss (train travel) card that would enable us to make five transfers, three excursions (including the one to Mount Titlis that we asked for) and a complimentary excursions to a place known as Harder Kulm.
The five tranfers planned were:
Land at Zurich by air and take the train to Geneva (2 nights halt at Geneva)
Geneva to Zermatt (one night halt at Zermatt)
Zermaat to Interlaken (two nights halt at Interlaken)
Interlaken to Lucerne (two nights halt at Lucerne)
Lucerne to Zurich and board our flight to USA
We requested them to provide us accommodation as close as possible to the railway stations in respective places. We bought tickets to Zurich and USA on our own thorough our travel agent.
I was assured that language won't be a problem in Switzerland. We made considerable research through websites on Geneva, Zermatt, Interlaken and Lucerne where we were supposed to be staying overnight, the directions from the railway station to the hotel, directions from hotel to all important places to visit, location of Indian restaurants and took print outs for all the information we had found on the net. This booklet of information we made was our main guide when we were actually on the tour. Google Maps that we took from the internet were great tools, though in some places, the directions given were slightly skewed; we discovered much shorter and direct access at some places when we were physically present. We realized that many of the places we were visiting were not very large cities and one could easily navigate by walk. Besides, we came to know that public transportation by bus, train, boats are extremely efficient and economical. Taxis are prohibitively costly.
The weather was supposed to be okay, but rains were a clear possibility during our trip and so we carried umbrellas. If it rained, especially on the days we were planning to visit peaks, it would play spoil sports and no view would be possible. During the first couple of days of our tour, it was predicted to be raining continuously and it rained as predicted. You would see our umbrellas in most photographs during our visit to Geneva. Moreover, we learned that the places like Geneva, Zermatt, Interlaken and Lucerne by themselves were not located at higher altitudes but surrounded by Alpine hills. So, in the plains, it was not supposed to be very cold and it was so.
There were enough Indian Restaurants in all the places we were visiting, but they were all very costly. A dish of cooked vegetables could cost about CHF25 (Swiss Francs) and so a lunch or dinner could cost two persons about CHF50, if you were seriously particular about Indian food. We decided that we might not really go in after only Indian food. We decided to carry with us, a few savories, chutneys, snacks that could be combined with bread or rice, curd etc if they were available.
We did not have much problem with winter dresses as we had sufficient store. But, as we would be passing through five different places and carrying all the baggages everywhere could be a big drag on our energies, we decided to pack our materials in such a way that we could leave some of them in the Zurich Airport with the ' left luggages' facility.
We were told that for getting visa for Switzerland, we might have to visit their consulate at Bombay for a personal interview. However this was not needed and we got the visa without any problem. We also collected sufficient Swiss Francs cash to meet our day to day expenses from the authorized currency dealers.
In order to save some cost we decided to reach Mumbai by train and then fly from there to Zurich.
We reached Mumbai on the early morning of 11th Sep and we flew by Swiss Air to Zurich the same mid night. The flight took nearly 9 and half hours and we landed at Zurich airport on 12th Sep at 6:30 in the morning hours. Immigration and custom procedures were quite simple and efficient. We lodged one of our bags at the airport ' left luggage' facility. They charged us for the first day CHF12 and for subsequent days CHF8 per luggage per day payable when we go back to them to collect our luggage.
We went to the SBB counters (Swiss Rail) at the airport and collected all vouchers for our hotel stay and excursions besides the Swiss Card. They were all kept ready for our arrival and after checking them that they were in order, we went two levels down to the train station within the airport and boarded the next available train to Geneva. Clear directions were marked everywhere at the Airport and we met no difficulties. Besides, the people at the information counters were all very helpful.
We had a direct train from Zurich to Geneva and it took nearly 3 and half hours and we reached Geneva around 12 noon. Hotel Strassbourg Universe that was booked for us for 12th and 13th was just five minutes walking distance from the the Geneva Main Station (Called Cornavin Station). On our arrival, we were also given Transport Card by the hotel and this card entitled free bus travel within the city of Geneva. We had a bath, changed ourselves and left out for oursight seeing
We were not particularly interested in visiting buildings and so we decided not to visit other museums and building where other organizations like International Red Cross were located. After finishing with UN building, we returned back to Cornavin Place, that seemed to be a major central district within Geneva for shopping, eating and whiling away one's time. The river Rhone flowed through the city. We then walked down to the lake side towards the English Garden, the Floral Clock and Jet d'eau, spouting a column of lake water jet as high as 450 feet.
Floral Clock, Geneva
view of Jet Deau, Geneva
We walked back to the hotel and on the way back my wife spotted a small stores very close to our hotel where we bought some fruits, juice, snacks and believe me – samosa. (Even plain rice was available that we bought next day for our dinner)
The hotel room was quite small, but well done. There was a pay-phone and we could use that to call our children and narrate our first day experience.
Day 2: 13th September 2008: Geneva
Today, we were able to quickly find out the bus that will take us to the places we decided to visit. Our first destination was St.Pierre Cathedral (constructed between 1160 and 1232) where we climbed to the top of the tower through about 160 spiraling steps. One has to buy ticket to have a view from the tower. We were wondering how people who lived almost thousand years ago could build such difficult structures even without any of the modern engineering tools and lifts. We had a beautiful view of the entire Geneva from the top.
It was raining that day continuously. Disregarding the rain, we walked back from the cathedral to Place Bourg De Four, Hotel De Ville and to Place De Neuve. The names could sound odd, but bore strong resemblance to English names. Bour De Four was just a junction where four roads met and there was a market place that was called Place Bourg. ('De' means 'of' ) Hotel De Ville is the Mayor's office (Geneva's Parliament) and we climbed the cobbled square shaped ramp to the third floor. The ramp was said to have been used by the earlier rulers to travel up and down on horse-back. Place De Neuve was the artistic centre of Geneva and surrounded by a number of museums, music concert halls, parks.
As the bus ride was free, we returned to Cornavin Station, had lunch and went back to Place De Neuve and by then, the rain has stopped. We walked inside the Parc Des Bastions, a pleasant promenade embellished with monuments, fountains and statues along shady walkways. We walked along the Reformation Wall, erected in 1909, celebrating the great figures of Protestantism. We came out of the garden from the back side and walked around the University of Geneva campus, had coffee at Starbucks and returned back to Cornavin shopping area. We did some shopping. Watches, crystals, jewelery, army knife, cattle bell, and host of momento items were available.
Overall, Geneva, by any international standards was a small city, but beautiful. One can reach many places in Geneva by walk. It is a city of parks and museums and houses the offices of many international organizations. Though it was raining all through the days we stayed with intermittent breaks, was not cold. The city bus service was excellent and punctual. Plenty of eating places for those who like to wine and dine. People are very courteous. There was even a street market for vegetables that disappeared in the evening. We could hardly find any stores. We were wondering whether everyone eats out there and presumably, does no cooking at home. Everywhere, there were small and big eating places. The lake side and its boating facilities added to the attractions of Geneva. The breakfast at the hotel was sumptuous. Swiss chocolates are very famous and there were any number of shops selling chocolates.
We rested for the night to be prepared to vacate the hotel and leave for Zermatt the next day.
Day 3: 14th September 2008: Zermatt
This morning we left Geneva for Zermatt. We had some anxiety about this part of the journey as we had to change over at Visp that would mean getting down at one platform and carrying all our luggage to another. The changeover time was very short and the trains were punctual. However, we could do it sufficiently in time for the next train from Visp to Zermatt. Before leaving Geneva, we had gone to the Railway Tourism information counters and got the exact train timings for two successive trains so that if we missed one, we would know how long to wait for the next one. We noticed that everything in Switzerland – especially the trains, buses – are very punctual and you do not have to look at the clock at all. The journey from Geneva to Zermatt took about three and half hours.
When we arrived at Zermatt, it was raining and the Hotel Butterfly Best Western was located at a five minute walking distance. We took a taxi who charged CHF17 for this one minute drive. Taxis in Switzerland are very expensive and one really needs to be an amir to use a taxi for commuting. After we had checked into our room, we left for the local sight seeing.
There are two important peaks – Gornergrat (3089 meters) and Matterhorn (3883 meters)– that can be visited from Zermatt. However, the day was cloudy, though by afternoon, the rain stopped. We were told by the officials at the information center that it was very unlikely that we would be able to view anything at all after reaching those peaks. Besides, the last leg of the journey to Matterhorn peak – at a height of 3883 meters - was temporarily closed due to fog and weather conditions. Moreover the trips to these peaks were costly and were not included in our tour package. We calculated that anyhow we were going to visit similar places in our remaining part of the tour and so we decided to opt out of Gornergrat and Matterhorn. Matter horn was popular for its glaciers, glacier caves and for its highest sightseeing platform in Europe.We roamed around the small market street, the narrow beautiful roads, shops. There was only one main road Bahnofstrasse (that means, Railway station road – you will find this name in all the towns we visited) where most of the shops were located. We could not locate even a single departmental store as that happened to be a Sunday. We had a good long trek along the market street up to the cable car station where one can get into cable cars to reach Matterhorn. Though the cable cars were running, it was four in the evening and they had closed the counters when we arrived there.
We relied on our bread supply for lunch as well as dinner for the day.
Day 4: 15th September 2008 : Interlaken and Zungfrau
Today, we left Zermatt for Interlaken. On all the days, we got up at around 5 in the morning, had our bath and breakfast (that was generally ready by 6.30) and vacated our hotels around 7.30 and this was our schedule that helped us have sumptuous breakfast and reach our destination before noon so that we will have plenty of time at the destination for the day.
The train journey from Zermatt to Interlaken took about two hours and fifteen minutes including two change overs at Visp and Spiez. At each of these places, we rushed from one platform to another just to be sure that we don't miss the connecting trains. The train journeys were very comfortable and we had to show the Swiss Card to the Ticket Examiner in the train. One another thing - we were told to validate these Swiss Cards by punching them in a small yellow machine located on the platform. We had difficulties in locating these small machines – though I was still not sure whether this validating was really required; one could write out the date by hand on the Swiss Card as we were told when we collected the Card.
All the railway stations were neat and clean; hardly any crowd was there. We felt like privileged people, trains running for just a few of us. We noticed a number of commuters getting in and getting out at several stations in between during our train journey.
At Interlaken, Hotel Citi Oberland that was booked for us was little further away from the Interlaken West station. However, we could make it by walk even with our baggages. Here, as we arrived, we were told that the check-in time was 2.00 in the afternoon and that we would have to wait. Alternatively, we could leave the luggage in the office and go around the city until the room is ready. We checked about the weather at Zungfrau(joch), the 4158 meters high peak, we planned to visit only the next day and we came to know that the weather was extremely good over there. So, we took a quick decision to change our plan and complete our Zungfrau trip on that day itself rather than waiting for the next day Who knew, weather could play spoil sport for Zungfrau trip next day. Jungfrau is Switzerland's most popular and expensive mountain railway excursion and is unmissable.
So, we left our baggages in the hotel reception and started walking towards the Interlaken OST(East) station that was about 15 minutes away by walk. The journey involved our traveling from Interlaken to Lauterbrunnen by train and changeover to mountain train that took us to Klein. As we reached Klein, we could feel the cold and we saw snow having fallen here and there. The Klein station was remarkably small and beautiful and it was a scene to watch, from there, the red colored mountain train moving among white snow and ice. The mountain train that takes you from Klein to Zungfrau had just two coaches – small and cute. It also stops at two stations for five minutes for people to get down and enjoy the breath-taking view of Alpine hills and villages. The last pull of our journey from Klein to Zungfrau included a near ten minutes ride completely under tunnel dug between hills only to reach the Top of Europe – the highest at 3454 meters above sea level– railway station that was also built under rocks, just beneath the Jungfrau summit.
A view of the glacier river, ZungfrauAs we got down from the train, there was a visitor area with restaurants, souvenir shops and lift to take one to the Sphinx observation hall and terrace. From here we had the most fascinating and unforgettable view of the round-the-year glacier and the snow clad mountain peaks. Ice here never melts. The Great Aletsch Glacier, a 22 km long – rather the longest – ice-stream in Alps begins on the Jungfrau. The other attractions within Zungfrau included the Ice Palace, Glacier Caves and Top of Europe Glacier Restaurant. The day was extremely bright and I remembered to carry my sun glasses – a very essential matter one should remember to avoid the sun light glare (due to light reflections on the ice). It was extremely cold. One could walk over the glaciers to reach ice play grounds. As we were not very confident that we could bear the cold for long time, we did not venture much into the glacier ice. We made small walks into the glacier for taking photographs.
Overall, Zungfrau afforded one a view and the feel of the “heavens” - to describe my feelings. We returned back to our hotel in the evening after having Chapathi and Dhall in an Indian Restaurant on the way back from Interlaken OST station. The return train took us through Klein and Grindwald to have a round trip view of Alps. One way journey from Interlaken to Zungfrau took a little more than 2 hours.
Day 5: 16th September 2008: Interlaken and Harder Kulm
Interlaken city, by the very name implies that the city is located between lakes. It lies between Lake Breinz on the east and Lake Thun on the west. River Aare flows through the town. The city is small -with a meagre population of about 5000 – and is beautiful though very much bigger than Zermatt. Here too we were provided with the free transport card by the hotel. This day, we decided to explore the lake regions and they were located a bit far from the main city. We reached the bus station near the railway station and boarded a bus that took us to Lake Breinz. We went as far as the free trip allowed on the bus along the lake. The bus was actually traveling beyond into the villages. We got down and walked back noting that the bus will take thirty minutes to return to the same place. The locality surrounding the lake was quiet; we hardly found anyone on the road, though occasionally some vehicles were passing by and a couple of buildings were there overlooking the lake. The lake waters were cool with the mountain ranges on one side and was exquisite to look. We had a quiet walk for thirty minutes and found several overladen with fruits hanging down heavily from its branches. We boarded the bus again and returned back to Interlaken OST station.
A view of the lake at Interlaken
A view of snow clad mountain from Interlaken
A view of a Junction at InterlakenWe then decided to visit Harder Kulm, another view point for which we had a free excursion voucher as part of the tourist package. The Valley station from where we had to take the cogwheel funicular train was nearby and we reached there by walk. The steep cogwheel train journey from Valley Station to Harder Kulm (1322 meters) took about ten minutes. As we were seated in the front seat for better view, we could notice that the gradient on the hill was very high – could be as high as 50 percent- however, we never felt any discomfort during the journey on a steep track. I believe it was due to the structure of the red funicular they used to transport people up the hills. At the peak, we had a magnificent view of Interlaken and adjoining areas from the spacious sun terraces. On top, we notived several walking trails including the one to the city. Eventually, we met a couple who have just trekked up from below and they told us that it took them three hours and that the trek was very very steep in several places. On our return back to the hotel, we bought some plain rice from an Indian restaurant (for just CHF6) that was located just opposite to our hotel. We had stock of curd and some chutney, chips and cut vegetables, and enjoyed a great Indian lunch.
After taking some rest, we again stepped out into the city and walked around the market area, a vast open green area where para gliders (from Alpine Center) were flying into, some casinos, the river side, and Metropole Hotel (one of the large multi storied buildings) till it became dark when we returned back to the Hotel for dinner with rice.
Interlaken is often visited by adventure seeking back-packers. We came to know of a couple of other peaks too for great view. Since our stay here in Interlaken was restricted to two days only, we satisfied ourselves with visit to the most important places around.
Bus services in the city was extremely good. We saw frequent buses plying between several locations, though there was hardly any crowd. Probably, we arrived in Switzerland after the season was over. Everything was lush green, neat and clean. Shopping could be very costly in Switzerland, especially for Indians who are used to buying cheap back in India. Watches are great momentos and we did plenty of window shopping. Watches whose prices went up to even CHF23000 were under display.
Day 6: 17th September, 2008: Lucerne and Mount Pilatus
In the early morning hours we left Interlaken and reached Lucerne by a direct train. To reach the Interlaken Ost station from our hotel, we decided to take a bus and the bus was not to be seen at the time mentioned in the schedule board kept at the bus stop. We were becoming nervous because if we missed the 8:04 AM train, the next train was only after an hour. This was one occasion, where for a change, we noticed that the bus did not maintain the schedule displayed at the bus stop. We never knew why. However, the bus came a little late and we reached the station with just enough time to catch the train.
After reaching Lucerne station, (after a 2 hours and fifteen minutes) we walked to our hotel – Hotel Waldstatterhof – that was located at just 5 minutes walking distance. As soon as we unloaded our baggages in our room, we stepped out for our journey to Mount Pilatus. We needed to catch a boat, the jetty was adjacent to the railway station. We boarded the large steam boat that accommodated more than hundred people and the boat journey took 90 minutes to reach the base station at Alpnachstad for Mount Pilatus(elevation 7000 ft). The day was a bit cloudy and we were praying that we should be able to get good view at Mount Pilatus.
The cog-wheeled train that took us to Mount Pilatus went through another steep track, with gradient exceeding 40 or 50. I understand that this was the world's steepest cogwheel railway. This part of the journey took thirty minutes.
We were over the clouds, Mount Pilatus
A view of terrace and the hills at the back, Mount Pilatus
We were having a Golden Round Trip ticket to Mount Pilatus. So on our way back we returned to Kriens by aerial cable-ways and took a bus to Lucerne taking only about half an hour from Kriens.
Day 7: 18th September, 2008: Lucerne and Mount Titlis
Today happened to be the day of our great expectations. We had a Golden Round Trip ticket to Mount Titlis that entitled us to ride on the Ice Flyer Chair Lift. Initially we had no idea what a Ice Flyer Chair Lift would look like and how would be the experience. The very idea of traveling in a open car at higher altitudes was churning my stomach. We read that an Ice Flyer Chair Lift is an open-to-the-sky cable chair taking one over the snow clad hills and the glacier valleys and that information scared us. We were not very sure whether to take that trip or not. We set aside our thoughts for sometime and decided to enjoy whatever the trip could provide us and see later when we were actually there about the ice flyer chair lift.
First, we had to travel by train from Lucerne to Engleberg that took about an hour. There was an hourly train from Lucerne station. As we got down at Engelberg, there was a bus waiting just outside the train station to take us to the Cable car station about a kilometer away. During this journey, we met a young Indian couple from Pune and we had good company during our Titlis trip. The cable car initially took us to another station, where we had to change over to another cable car that took us to the second station. From there, we traveled by Rotair, a rotating cable cabin car, that rotates around its own axis. One needed to be standing inside the cabin. We had fabulous view of the mountains and snow as we went higher and higher on the hills.
When we reached Mount Titlis (10000 feet elevation), we had our first ever experience of glacier. Earlier, we had visited Zungfrau where there was glacier, but we did not step into the glacier. The weather at Mount Titlis was extremely good, bright, sunny and extremely cold. The temperature was negative zones as it was in Zungfrau too. However, we decided to walk down on the glacier to reach the Ice Flyer Chair Lift station and my spirits started going up as we were walking on the ice. As I was enjoying the walk on the ice and glacier, I decided to get into this Chair Lift and experience it for myself. On my motivation and assurance, my wife too agreed with me. We got into the Chair lift that went above the sloping hills and glacier. The glacier park at the other end was not open yet for at least another hour or so and we just came back on the same chair lift. The Ice Flyer Chair Lift journey was comfortable and very exhilarating. The view was breathtaking with snow all around.
A view from Ice Flyer Chair Lift, Mount Titlis
Inside the Glacier Cave, Mount Titlis
A number of fun activities were supposed to be there at the glacier park, provided we were willing to be playing in the glacier. We decided not to spend much time on ice for fear of falling sick and we came back to the terrace view station. We went to Glacier Grotto – a glacier cave – a 150 meter tunnel down to 20-meter under the glacier's surface. We were also pleasantly surprised at the number of Indians visiting this place and also by the presence of Indian restaurant at the Glacier station. We spent nearly two hours at Mount Titlis and enjoyed the place thoroughly. We carried some small snacks that we ate and returned back to Engelberg.
At Engelberg, a second surprise awaited us. We saw a Rajasthani restaurant just as we stepped out of the cable car base station, selling idli sambar, bada pav, pav bhaaji, and masala chai. We had some authentic pav bhaaji and masala chai as our lunch. They told us that they worked for six months and went back to India. We waited for the bus to take us to the train station. However, we did not know that it was lunch break for the driver and so the bus did not arrive. As our next train was just a couple of minutes away we decided to walk to the station To our disappointment, we saw the train leaving even as we just entered the station. Our waving hands to the driver was of no avail. We waited for another one hour at the station and reached Lucerne by around 4 in the evening.
Then for about an hour we were roaming around the Lucerne city criss crossing the river and reached back our hotel. We did not notice anything spectacular about the city. The city was quite big and crowded with lot of vehicular traffic, more active than the other cities we saw. Many of the old city buildings were presenting a picturesque skyline across the river.
After reaching the hotel, we started packing ourselves for our next day's return to Zurich to board our flight to Chicago.
Day 8: 19th September 2008
The train journey from Lucerne to Zurich took only one hour and we were there at the airport by around 8.15 AM. We collected our luggage from the left luggage counter and checked in for our flight and waited for boarding the flight. At 12.55 PM, our Swiss Air flight took the sky towards Chicago.
Our trip to Switzerland was enjoyable, comfortable and memorable. I was always attracted by hill stations as they offered beautiful view of greenery, trees, shade, flowers, birds, quietness, and fresh air my spirits go up. Each time I was in a hill station, I always felt my awareness shifts to higher planes with un-explicable feelings. Himalayas are great attraction to me and the scenery is different over there. I don't think anywhere in the world, one sees so much greenery as one finds in Switzerland and no wonder, it is looked upon as ' Heaven on Earth.' Time and finance permitting, I wouldn't mind another trip to Switzerland when I would spend my time exclusively on small villages and hill tops rather than in bigger cities.
My next ambition is to visit Kailash and Manasarover on Himalayas located on the Tibetan side. I am determined to work towards this trip and I trust it will happen in the near time.
I hope I presented a fair and exact picture of our trip to Switzerland and I hope you all enjoyed reading the report.