Since my school days I have had a secret desire to visit Kashmir, the Switzerland of India. Time passed by and my desire remained unfulfilled. Years later and after a series of aborted attempts my dream to visit Switzerland finally saw the light of the day. Only this time it was not the Switzerland of India but the Switzerland of Europe. And here is my endeavor to take you along on a virtual trip and relive my experience.
The best time to travel to Switzerland is April to September, unless of course you are the adventurous kind who loves winter sports. Since we were traveling with children, one of them school going, the best time for us to travel was when the schools were closed for summer. The planning went on forever. After contacting a few reputed tour operators, a bit of research and help from the rumor mills, we zeroed in on one that suited our time and budget. Importantly, we knew what was part of the deal and what was not. The week before the day of travel was one of uncertainties as the rain gods were playing truant and Switzerland and most of Europe were facing heavy rains despite it being summer. As a matter of abundant precaution we had to increase our load of parkas, woolens and shoes and couldn’t be just backpacking as was the initial plan.
(Map courtesy: Travel brochure of Thomas Cook)
The D-day arrived and with great anticipation we boarded our flight from Doha to Zurich and once there walked out of Terminal Two straight into the railway station ? out of the dry heat of the Gulf straight into the cold breeze of Switzerland.
Our rendezvous point to join the "Tour" was at Lucerne. Despite the weariness of the flight we just could not get enough of the scenic beauty on our two-hour train journey from Zurich to Lucerne. It was a preview of the exciting times ahead. It then began to sink in that we were in Switzerland ? the land of unsurpassed scenic grandeur, snowcapped mountains, lush green meadows, beautiful lakes, idyllic farms, long narrow winding roads, quaint tiled houses, unending tunnels, vineyards, orchards? one does run out of adjectives to describe this peaceful country nestled in the heart of Europe with Germany, Austria, Italy and France for its neighbors. Not surprisingly German, French, Italian and Romansch (Latin derivative of Rhaeto-Romance) are spoken by the people depending on the cantons. The cantons are akin to states or provinces (divided for the purpose of administration) and Switzerland has 26 cantons, each of them flying their own distinctive flag.
The hotel in Lucerne was just a two-minute walk from the railway station. From this point onwards we were part of the conducted tour, so aptly coined as, "Swiss Delights" by Thomas Cook, India.
After the initial icebreaker and rounds of introduction with all our tour mates we set off on the first part of our tour ? the walk to Kappel Brucke. Kappel is a wooden bridge and the oldest bridge in Europe, which was built in the 14th century.
From there we went to the Lake Lucerne for a boat ride. The magnificent scenery made a perfect setting for a candlelit dinner on the boat with Eric Clapton crooning to "Wonderful Tonight".
A visit to Lucerne is not complete without a visit to the Lion Monument. Carved out of natural rock in 1821 by Bertel Thorvaldsen it stands testimony to the memory of the heroic death of the Swiss Guards’ at the Tuileries in 1792. The inscription, HELVETIORUM FIDEI AC VIRTUTI, meaning ‘the loyalty and bravery of the Swiss’, says it all.
Curio and Window Shopping
The evening in Lucerne was also an opportunity for us to taste the local ice-creams and chocolates, do some window shopping and buy those ever important souvenirs for our loved ones.
After a goodnight’s sleep at Hotel Flora, we were ready to begin our day two. The drive from Lucerne to Lauterbrunnen was breathtakingly picturesque. Our first stop of the day was at the Trummelbach Falls.
Trummelbach Falls is located in a cave-like canyon, deep within the walls of the Lauterbrunnen Valley. They are the only glacier falls of their kind in the world which have been accessible to man. We took the tunnel lift to the top of the canyon and then walked up wet slippery stairs. The atmosphere was biting cold and made one wonder whether it was a cave or a canyon. The Trummelbach drains the mighty glacier defiles of Eiger, Monch and Jungfrau. After this spellbinding sight of the waterfalls, which an hour before was probably in the form of ice, our bus took us to the Lauterbrunnen Station. We were now all set ? both excited and a shade apprehensive ? for our trip to the top of Europe. Even the rains were unable to dampen our high spirits.
It has been said that if you have not seen Jungfraujoch (pronounced yungfrauyoch and means "young lady’s ridge"), you have not really seen Switzerland. Here you are sitting pretty at 3454 meters at what is said to be the top of Europe. Higher than this then you have to be on an airplane! This high altitude is said to make one dizzy, breathless and nauseous and just not recommended for the weak hearted. Well, I passed the test (barely), as did the rest of us. For those of you with acrophobia the virtual tour here should be just what the doctor ordered. Getting to Jungfraujoch is an experience by itself on the "cog wheel" train from Lauterbrunnen with ice and snow into eternity.
While at Jungfraujoch we visited the Ice Palace on top of the longest glacier in the world and the Sphinx, an observatory 107 meters above Jungfraujoch. We also got to taste a local meal and a glass of champagne. Needless to say Jungfraujoch is the highest altitude railway station in Europe. The excitement that we experienced here will surely last us a lifetime.
Casino Kursaal in Interlaken
After Junfraujoch we drove to Interlaken, a charming city nestled between Lakes Thun and Brienz and surrounded by the splendid Bernese Oberland Moutains. We took pictures in a public garden where most of the romantic scenes from the Bollywood movie Dilwale Dulhaniye Le Jayenge were shot.
After a round of anthakshari in the coach, we were back to Hotel Flora for hot supper and a warm bed.
After a continental breakfast the next morning, we checked out of the hotel and set out on yet another day of action and adventure.
The Magnificent View on our way to Mt. Titilis
The brochures and full-page newspaper advertisements enticing tourists to Switzerland never fail to depict the cable cars to Mt. Titlis. Well, it does form one of the key attractions of the tour. The ride to the top of Mt. Titlis on the "Rotair", the world’s first revolving cable car was truly adventurous. It was easily one of the high points of the tour. Mt. Titlis is 3020 meters above sea level. The visit to the snow terrace atop Titlis at -7 degree C took us to yet another level of exhilaration.
From here we drove to Bern, the capital city of Switzerland and home of the Swiss parliament. With its cobbled stone lanes, arcaded edifices and gothic fountains, it is easy to see why Bern has been named World Heritage Site by UNESCO. Apparently Albert Einsten wrote his Theory of Relativity when he lived in Bern. The settings are perfect for people with a penchant for poetry too. After spending a good part of the day here we drove back to Villars, apparently chosen for us to get a real feel of Switzerland.
Drive to Villars
The drive to Villars is like everything else about Switzerland ? picture perfect. In many ways the drive reminded me about the times I used to travel to Mangalore from Bangalore by road during the monsoons, except that there were no potholes to jolt me out of my dreamland. We were scheduled to spend our next three nights in Hotel Eurotel at Villars.
From our history lessons in school one thing that stayed ensconced in our mind about Switzerland is the United Nations Headquarters and this was a great photo-op for our albums. This was on day four. What struck a chord in this peace-loving country is the symbolism in the gigantic three-legged chair, which is placed opposite the UN building, dedicated to the landmine victims the world over.
Geneva is nestled around Lac Leman (Lake Geneva) and strikes a beautiful balance of a city and unpolluted countryside. Right in the heart of the city in the middle of the lake is this mammoth fountain, Jet d’Eau. It is the tallest water fountain in Europe, 140 meters in height, and at any given time throws up seven tonnes of water in the air. As we found out, one could spend days on end discovering Geneva and its haunts.
A floral clock made up of 6500 flowers is a piece de resistance with a perfect blend of technology and floral art, situated at the edge of the English Gardens.
Chateau d’ Chillon
Our next stop was the Chateau d’ chillon near Montreaux and this castle is among the most visited monuments in Switzerland. For those inclined to literature and poetry, the English romantic poet Lord George Byron’s "The Prisoner of Chillon" would ring a bell.
After this historic trip, our coach took us to Gstaad to board the panoramic Golden Pass train, for a full view of the magnificent landscape of the countryside.
One sight that stayed imprinted in my mind was the sight of the cows, with their cowbells resonating, as they meandered and mowed in the lush green meadows.
Well, we were now into day five already. I grudging got out of bed. Our tour leader’s voice was ringing in my head ? "6 am wake up call, 7 am breakfast, 8 am the coach departs".
As we drove out of Villars towards Tasch, the train terminal, I couldn’t help admiring all over again the quaint tiled houses. Almost every house had bright colored flower bearing plants on each of its windowsills. We were on our way to Zermatt, the idyllic village situated 1620 meters above sea level. Zermatt is a vehicle free resort nestled in a deep valley wedged between steeply scarped mountains.
The only form of transportation allowed here is the horse carriage and battery operated cars. This mountain village is supposedly one of the greatest skiing and climbing centers of the world.
It is here that you can view Matterhorn, a symbol of Switzerland. It measures 4478 meters and has the chilling statistics of the highest death rate amongst mountaineers.
The train then took us back to Tasch where we boarded our coach to return to the hotel, though not before a quick stop at a local winery where we indulged in wine tasting.
Was this the last day of our sightseeing trip already? We were now on day six. My kids woke up bright and early. This was the highlight of the tour for them and the other children in the group ? a trip to the chocolate factory of Nestle’s Cailler. A strong aroma of cocoa engulfed us as we got off our coach. After a brief tour around the chocolate factory, we tasted the different kinds of chocolate that is produced in this factory. It was nowhere like Willie Wonka’s Chocolate Factory!
After this sweet chocolaty experience, we drove to Zurich, the commercial and economic center of Switzerland. We strolled around Bahnhofstrasse, Switzerland’s most beautiful and busiest shopping street. This was the hottest day in Switzerland for us. So this was what the heat wave in Europe was all about!
We then made our way to Schaffhausen to view the magnificent Rhine Falls. It measures 25 meters in height and has a width of 135 meters making it the largest waterfall in Europe.
Lo behold! Saare Jahan Se Accha Hindustan Hamara. In addition to the curio stores and a restaurant, there was a stall selling Indian masala tea and snacks holding its own!!! After a nice cup of steaming masala chai, we boarded the coach and made our way to Zurich and checked into the Marriott Courtyard for our last night in Switzerland.
After dinner, we said our goodbyes to the new friends that we made, exchanged telephone numbers and email IDs.
A week had just flown by and how we wished we could do it all over again. 1635 kms by road, crisscrossing through a land where man has not had the heart to desecrate nature’s beauty has been an experience of a lifetime.
The Mangalorean Connection
My travelogue would be incomplete without a word of appreciation for Thomas Cook where I did not need to read the fine print as to what I would get and what I would not. Every need of ours was taken care of and with a tour guide like Rakesh Shetty nothing was left to chance.
As memories of a week well spent in Switzerland turned into dreams, I felt this steady gentle nudge breaking me from my reverie. It was my husband announcing our touchdown at Doha and I looked out of the porthole and realized that I was back to the ground realities of my daily existence.
Author: Joyce Alvares- Qatar