When we were thinking about traveling through Europe, we knew it would be much more expensive than Southeast Asia. And Switzerland (CH – look it up!) would be right at the top, boasting the highest nominal wealth per adult in the world (in 2019). Luckily our “Traveling
Fairy” intervened and scored us a pet-sitting gig in Ruschlikon – an upscale suburb of Zurich on the west side of the lake.
Susie was excited to revisit some areas from her trip in the ‘80s and suggested taking the Bernina Express, a scenic narrow-gauge route operated by the Rhaetian Railway to cross the Alps from Italy. That meant taking the train from Venice to Milan and another on to Tirano where we spent the rainy night, after a quiet dinner in a small Asian café.
We had burned many hours researching the Bernina Express – particularly which side of the car to reserve seats for the best views. There were many online posts with no definitive answers. When we boarded at Tirano, imagine our surprise that we were the only people in “our” car as we pulled away from the Tirano station! Halfway through the 4-hour trip, we passed another train coming from Switzerland – and it was packed! Maybe the wealthier Swiss take the B.E. over to Italy for a day trip?
Gigantic windows on the cars offered amazing views of the mountains and valleys on both sides, so I think either would be fine. But I was standing and moving from one side to another throughout the journey. The trip crosses 196 bridges and traverses 55 tunnels, as well as the famous Landwasser Viaduct and Brusio spiral viaduct. There was a (chilly & windy) 15 minute stop at Grum (e. 6860’) near the pass, to get coffee or a snack.
We enjoyed amazing views of the glaciers and snow-covered peaks, which became steeper
as we approached the continental divide at Lago Bianco. At this point the water flows either to the Adriatic or Black Sea. All the streams were light green colored due to sand in the glacial melt. I can just imagine how magical this trip would be in the winter when everything is covered in snow.
The north end of the Bernina Express terminates in Chur, one of the oldest settlements in Switzerland. We boarded one of the SBB trains that would take us to Ruschlikon, on it's way to Zurich. But – it did not stop! And rolled on to Zurich, passing our house-sitting hostess at the Ruschlikon station. And of course, our Italian SIM cards did not work in CH. And we could not connect to WiFi in the station. Susie managed to collar a young local woman who dialed our hostess and alerted her to our sitrep. One more short train ride & we were finally there!
Our pet-sitting gig was fabulous! The young, professional couple were traveling for 3 weeks to see their parents in Beirut whilst we took care of Moka their beautiful Bengal cat and some plants. Their lovely apartment was just across the street from Lake Zurich, and an easy walk to the Coop market, bus, train & ferry stations, and several beaches and parks.
After packing in many famous attractions and museums the last month, it felt wonderful to just relax “at home” with Moka, eating home-cooked meals on the porch, reading and watching TV. The weather varied from cool and rainy to warm and sunny, finding us lying on the beach during the nice days, and actually swimming or riding a paddleboard in the 70°F lake water!
The park closest to us had a swimming pool, beach, beach volleyball, small marina & ferry
landing. Ferry boats (mostly passenger, but some for vehicles) plied the lake continuously, and on my birthday we took a trip from Zurich at the north end down to lovely Rapperswil near the SE end, where we walked around and got a high-priced, mediocre meal that the servers totally bungled. Oh well. On the return trip we stopped at a small island with a church and tiny vineyard.
Another major attraction here in Switzerland are the cable cars running high in the Alps, affording breathtaking views of the mountains. We spent many days planning a trip to Jungfraujoch – a “saddle” between two of the highest peaks in the Swiss Alps. Trying to determine which day/rail passes were the best, and how to get there proved to be daunting – even for the travel-wise Ms. Susie!
But we did it. Got up very early, packing every bit of clothing we had and walked to the train station. Had to change trains 5 times! And the 4th one broke down, leaving everyone (it was FULL – many hikers) on the side of the road waiting for 3 buses. Finally arrived at Grindelwald where we boarded the Eiger Express, a tricable gondola that whisks passengers up to the Eiger Glacier station much faster than the cogwheel train. We soared over green pastures that gave way to rocky cliffs, with the Eiger (13,415’) towering on the left side. Arriving at the station we needed just one more (!) train to the top!
Now we are here! Jungfraujoch – between the peaks of Jungfrau (13,642’) and Monch
(13,480’). The building has gift shops, food & drink, an ice palace, and walkways with panels depicting the construction of the summit railway. We took the elevator up 108 metres to the Sphinx Observation Deck, where the views were truly amazing! Looking out over the peaks and the Aletsch Glacier was spectacular, and we were so fortunate to have perfect weather with great visibility.
Back at ground level we ventured outside, and even though the thermometer said 4°C we both took off our heavy coats as we walked a little way down the path. The snow was soft and wet – the air smelled delicious. There is a popular hike to a hut out there somewhere, but we passed on that, not having waterproof shoes. I saw one man coming back with his hands covering his mostly closed eyes. Probably forgot his sunglasses.
We opted to go a different route back down the mountain, traveling through Lauterbrunnen instead of Grindelwald. The railway ran through beautiful alpine valleys, with young and old hikers everywhere. We walked through the cute village of Lauterbrunnen, with small stores, hotels and cafes and a waterfall at the end. Sat for a few minutes to savor some gelato before getting back to the station, and catching a few more trains back home. A good day.
One afternoon we walked to the nearby beach and noticed some construction going on. Temporary fencing was put up along the road and food vendors were setting up inside. A large floating stage had been towed into place and anchored just offshore, and a live band was doing a sound check. It was part of an 8-night Sunrise Skylights concert series, where the stage was moved to a different location on the lake for each event. These were “silent concerts” where the audience (700 max) was issued headphones.
That evening we walked back as the headliner Anna Rossinelli was performing. The music was certainly audible, which was puzzling to me. I can understand that the headphones would give the patrons good quality sound in a noisy environment, as the busy street was close. But why would they need live monitors, or live sound from the bass & keyboards? Still a mystery to me….but cool nevertheless.
What do you think of when someone mentions Switzerland? Chocolate, of course! And the
Lindt Chocolate Factory was only a couple blocks away – the delicious aroma was often in the air! Tours were only €15 and very entertaining. The big takeaway was when Rudolf Lindt invented the conching machine when he accidentally left his motorized stirrer on over the weekend, which resulted in a creamier chocolate. He also added cocoa butter which improved the eating quality - it had primarily been a drink before this.
The modernistic building had exhibits showing the complete cycle of chocolate – from growing the cacao beans to the packaging. We walked through an area viewing a small production line where chocolate bars were poured and packaged. And of course – the tasting room! First, 3 fountains of white, milk & dark chocolate, with little spoons to fill up – over & over! Next were 6 machines that had different flavored chocolates – fruit & spice flavors – with little paper cups! And finally, the room with Lindor Truffle balls – all you can eat! Yum!! No dinner tonight!
One other excursion was a day trip to downtown Zurich for a free walking tour. Quick train ride to the Burkliplatz by the lake and then walk downtown to meet in front of the Savoy Hotel. It was a nice tour of the town with some history, viewing St. Peter and Grossmunster churches. We crossed the Limmat River twice and walked through funky & swank neighborhoods.
Zurich was settled as a town by the Romans over 2,000 years ago and was later ruled by Franks and Germanic peoples. In 1351 it joined the Swiss Confederacy. Zurich currently has a population of 434,000 - largest in CH. Banking and finance have been prime drivers of the economy, with high rates of wealth, education, and literacy - and of course, cost-of-living.
The city was very clean and well maintained, if not particularly aesthetic. We certainly enjoyed strolling around the wide boulevards and narrow streets and had a tasty lunch on the bridge from a kebab takeaway shop. Stopped at a Coop for some groceries, and a short train ride home.
All good things must end, meaning we have to bid Auf Wiedersehen to Moka and get on our merry way.
Next stop – Gay Paree!