Eurfirst Trip to Switzerland
Revised January 14, 2006
Say the word "Switzerland" and most people think of mountains, skiing, and secure bank accounts. You admit your age if you think of Heidi and the green hillside pastures where cows and goats are grazing. Switzerland is all those things: modern cities that are the center of international trade and relations dotting a country filled with some of Europe's most dramatic scenery. We spent just enough time in Switzerland to realize we had not given it the amount of time it deserved; enough to make us want to return.
On the next trip, we will spend more time in Zurich and Lucerne getting to know the politics and economics of the country, but on our first trip to Switzerland, we spent our time in the Alps and in the beautiful region of Lake Constance, called the "Bodensee" by local residents and were awed by the ruggedness of the region.
On a gloomy summer morning, we headed into Switzerland. Though the forecast promised clearing, the drizzly drive toward Interlochen seemed to contradict the weather gurus. Still, it was one of the few days we would have in Switzerland and we planned to make the best of it. Shortly before noon, we arrived in Interlochen (Interlaken). From Interlochen we continued on to Wilderswil and found the cogwheel train at the center of town. From the valley floor, you climb into the Alps, through verdant hills where cows are enjoying the summer grass. A series of switchbacks provide you with panoramic views of the city of Interlochen and the two great lakes between which it sits. Eventually, the train leaves the valley wall and heads up a river canyon. A few final turns take you deep into the Alps to Shynige Platte. A small restaurant/hotel provides refreshments and lodging, giving you time to acclimate to the change in altitude. From there you can enjoy a stroll through an alpine garden, set at almost 6500 feet, which carefully identifies the 500 species that can survive the harsh conditions they call home. We wandered with interest through the display but hoped to that we would be able to see the famed face of Eiger, a glacial carved mountain that beckons ice climbers from around the world. Late in the afternoon, the sun burnt away the clouds for a brief moment and gave us some spectacular glimpses of the Alps. And then the clouds quickly reappeared and the great mountains disappeared as quickly as they had materialized.
When you get on board the train in Interlochen, remember that you are going to climb many thousand feet with a corresponding drop in temperature. Generally, expect to find weather at the top in the 40s or 50s (Fahrenheit), with strong gusty winds.
The train to Shynige Platte is the least expensive round trip into the Swiss Alps on the many trains operated by Jungfraubahn. But the many trains are often used by tourists who set out on dramatic hikes through the Swiss Alps. The moutains are dotted with hotels/lodges/hostels and laced with hiking/cross-country ski trails. The trains will also take many ski resorts which operate sight-seeing rides during the summer. For more information, visit the Jungfraubahn website.
An alternative route deep into Switzerland's alpine beauty is the Lauterbrunnen Valley. The most common way to visit the Lauterbrunnen Valley is by car though bus and train service is available. When you reach Lauterbrunnen, there is a multi-story parking garage where you can park you car for one of the many excursions into the Bernese Alps available from the area. An amazing combination of nature and human engineering takes you to Trummelbach Falls where the glacial melt of the Jungfrau region cuts through a narrow slit in the mountain. An elevator through the hillside takes you to the base of the upper falls where the vibrations of the pounding water are both deafening and a bit unnerving. The sheer power, literally, of this place is unforgettable and considered one of Europe's most amazing sights.
As we continued toward Lucerne and Zurich, we drove through the spectacular Aare Gorge. Heading east from Interlochen, the valley narrows and along these steep sides, spectacular waterfalls drop hundred of feet. (continued below)
We spent the night in a clean and comfortable campground not far from the medieval city of Stein-am-Rhein. Famed for the beautiful painted walls that adorn the city center, Stein-am-Rhein fills with tourists during the day but if you get there before 8 a.m, you will share the city with merchants and delivery trucks and be free to wander the empty streets. Save space for some delicious pastry on sale in one of the many bakeries in town.
From Stein-am-Rhein, we continued to the Rhein Falls, the largest waterfalls, based on volume of water, in Europe. While it is smaller than Niagara Falls, there are many similarities that make the falls a popular tourist attraction. In the middle of the river near the base of the waterfalls, there is an island. You can take a boat ride that brings you close to the pounding water, much like Niagara's "Maid of the Mist." Be prepared for a good soaking. The boats then drop tourists on the island where you can get up close and personal with the waterfilled cataract.
You can also experience the intensity of the falls from the shore. A well-maintained trail takes you down the side of the gorge to a viewing platform that lets you see the changes of volume flowing over the cascade firsthand. The platform is so close to the flowing water that it is somewhat intimidating. If you walk further down the path, you'll get the classic shot of a huge waterfall dropping over a sheer cliff.
We picture Switzerland as a land of mountains and snow; but with snow comes snowmelt and with the volumes of snow deposited in the Alps, come many lakes including many large lakes like the Bodensee (Lake Constance) and Lake Geneva. Zurich is one of the many Swiss ciites on the shores of lakes. It's location makes it a great place for watersports. The city boasts many festivals throughout the year including a popular Christmas celebration with candles floating down the river.
Zurich is also the starting or ending point of a trip down the Jura Hohenweg which takes tourists through many small farm towns past impressive castles from days gone by. The trip of more than 100 miles through the Jura mountains is usually done by foot but since many tourists don't have the 14 days it takes to complete the journey, many travel to one of the small medieval villages by car, bus or train and complete a day hike along the "High Road." Alternatively, you may want to do part of the trip on bike, taking advantage of the rail system which accommodates bike travelers.
The ride from Interlochen to Lucerne is one of the most beautiful expressway trips in the world, past spectacular waterfalls, through a mountain pass with breathtaking views at almost every turn and then into a pastoral valley. The road between Lucerne and Zurich is equally pastoral, with classic Swiss chalets and farms along the way. As you tick off the kilometers, you start to understand the relationship between the Swiss and their hole-y cheese.
Like Geneva and Zurich, Lucerne is on the shore of a lake, Lake Lucerne (the Wierwaldstatter See). Nestled on the valley floor, the charming medieval city is a popular tourist destination with good shopping and a busy nightlife and the beauty of its mountains as a backdrop. In February, it celebrates the arrival of Lent with the biggest Carnival in Switzerland, with beer and music flowing throughout the city.
If you choose to stay in hotels in Switzerland, it will cost you dearly. Remember, this is the home of major international organizations and the best banking system in the world. The hotel industry caters to a very affluent clientele. But Switzerland makes provisions for budget travelers as well. There are many youth hostels throughout the country, some are found along the mountain trails near the country's most famous peaks. There is also a very good system of campgrounds that will make it easier to stay in Switzerland.