Exploring Switzerland: Rebecca Bisset's Swiss sojourn
By Rebecca Bisset
31 March 2013
When most people think of Switzerland, mountains, watches, cheese and probably chocolate would come to mind. The Swiss are apparently the largest consumers of chocolate (followed closely by me!). As far as I’m concerned, though, Switzerland is a land of water, whether it’s lakes, rivers or fountains. These features add aesthetically and practically to this self-contained country and more than make up for the lack of sea and coastline.
I had dipped my toe (literally!) into Swiss waters in the past before my more recent trip in August. The trip included rolling down a mountainside (in a small Fiat) to end up upside down in the middle of a small stream. It was only small because it was wintertime; if it had been summer, we would have been fully submerged. We’d been coming home after a beer fest and had decided to take the scenic route!
We also spent an afternoon at Lake Zurich one summer, visiting a friend who lived about an hour out of the city. We spent most of the time trying not to react to the half-naked bodies lying in the sun next to us. To everyone else it seemed very normal that bikini tops were just not on the agenda, but if you’re not brought up in that environment, it’s a bit awkward. The rivers and lakes are natural swimming pools for most of the population.
On those earlier trips, I’d been impressed with the quality of life, the food and the general environment in Switzerland. But my recent visit, starting in Lucerne and passing through Solothurn to Neuchâtel, opened my eyes to the incredible beauty of the place. The water in the lakes is so pure that you can drink it and so clear that you can see the fish swimming in it. Having lived in Asia for so long, it’s a fairly novel experience.
Two other things particularly wowed me. First, the beauty and age of the buildings; some dating back to the 1300s and many from the 1600s. Second, the combination of Tête de Moine (monk’s head) cheese and riesling. I’m not much of a wine drinker and I rarely eat cheese (I’m a bit of a heathen!) but I couldn’t believe how much I enjoyed this combination.
Trains are definitely the way to get around (pick up a Swiss Rail pass – you can get them for varying lengths of time) and their reputation for running on time is justified. It does mean that you have to pack relatively light though, or at least take two smaller bags rather than one heavy one.
Lucerne and Surrounds
Less than an hour from Zurich by train, Lucerne is probably the prettiest city I’ve ever visited – so different to the mishmash of construction and unfinished buildings you find in many Asian towns. I was in heaven.
I stayed in the nice and affordable three-star Hotel de la Paix, within walking distance of the station but still on the older, prettier side of town. Attached to the hotel is the Restaurant Lapin, very well known in Lucerne. Yes, it does serve rabbit, but I couldn’t bring myself to eat it and chose a dish of creamy veal and Röschti instead; not that veal is a kinder choice, but I have rabbits as pets!
The Chapel Bridge, the large, wooden, pedestrian bridge over the River Reuss, links the old town with the “even older” town on the north side. While various parts of the bridge have been destroyed by fire (including one in 1993), bits of the original 14th-century bridge still exist.
Boat trips are available in different forms and they’re not to be missed; I went on a more modern one down to where four cantons meet along the edge of the lake. The countryside is picture-perfect. There are also some beautiful hotels and chalets along the lakefront such as the Seehotel Hermitage where we had dinner one night, arriving there on an old paddle steamer, the Uri.
You should also spend a couple of hours walking around the streets marvelling at the age and beauty of the buildings; there are gothic churches, painted market squares and fountains that you can actually drink from; plenty of al fresco cafés for taking a break, too, all of them with good coffee – or beer, if you prefer.
There are various tours that can be done from Lucerne, including one to the city of Schwyz and another to Hallwyl, one of Switzerland’s most important moated castles. I chose to head to the snow, and the Mount Titlis area (which, immaturely, I couldn’t say without smiling) – again by train. Titlis is a huge winter playground, but even in summer there’s an ice cave, a tobogganing area and wonderful views from the various ski lifts and the revolving cable car that carries you up to the summit at 3,020 metres. The glacier cave on Titlis is interesting, too, but like most glaciers worldwide, this one is disappearing at a considerable rate; some areas have been covered to prevent the sun thawing it further.
We chose to come down the last leg of the mountain on scooter bikes – no seats or pedals. The brakes are super sensitive so it’s a real balance of letting yourself zoom down the twisty forest road while not reacting too drastically on the brakes. From tobogganing down a slope that looked like you could fly off into nowhere to this, it was all such fun; when rounded off with a pile of delicious French fries and a substantial sausage, it was a perfect day.
For other adventures, there are kayak tours, walking trails, fishing and boat trips available from Lucerne. I think if you wanted to base yourself here you could happily fill a week with day trips, all accessible by train.
Neuch â tel and the Jura Region
We headed out of Lucerne by train to the beautiful Baroque town of Solothurn (and another stunning river setting) that entertained us with more great architecture, churches and food. It’s amazing how unpopulated these places are. I kept thinking everyone must be away on holiday! We cruised along the River Aare and I did at least see a couple of people swimming in it.
From Biel, a bit further on, we took a boat to St Peter’s Island and the former monastery where 18th-century philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau stayed for a few months to get away from it all. We saw the bed where he and his wife slept (one presumes, unless she slept on the floor...). They must have been incredibly short – my dog’s bed is bigger than it, and I have mini-Maltese poodles! Later we visited a vineyard on the island where we had the most divine wines, and custard and fruit delicacies.
Our next stop for two nights was Neuchâtel at the junction of the Three-Lakes-Region and the Jura region. We stayed in a beautiful 16th-century hotel (no lifts!), Maison du Prussien, set in an old brewery on a gorge. At night, the full stream running past the hotel sounded a bit like an air-conditioner; but I’m used to sleeping with background noise, so I was happy.
The city of Neuchâtel has a French influence and the architecture is definitely different from the Lucerne region. It has a strong links to the Reformation (Lutheran and Calvinism) dating back to the early 1500s and this is evident in its statues and buildings.
An incredibly steep funicular climbs from the city to the small settlement of Chaumont. We went up and enjoyed a delicious steak meal at the Petit Hotel de Chaumont with views of the three lakes (Biel, Murten and Neuchâtel) and the Alps.
We also took a day trip in the Jura region, including a visit to the Tête de Moine cheese factory, another delicious meal in an ancient mill at Le Theusseret, on to Saint-Ursanne (small but old and quaint) followed by some leisurely canoeing on the River Doubs. You could say that my partner’s paddling skills were very “Doubsfull”... we only went in circles!
Dinner in Neuchâtel the second night was again water-focused. The lakeside restaurant Les Bains des Dames is set in a building erected in the 1800s to allow ladies and children to swim in the lake hidden from view. How times have changed!
We tagged on a visit to the Laténium Archaeological Museum just outside the city which is also the archaeology faculty for the university and an ancient archaeological site. It was a highlight for me. It’s filled with Neolithic, Celtic and Roman remains including one of the oldest brains (still intact) in the world. Again there was the influence of water, the lake in this case; the change in water level had actually covered ancient pile dwellings and kept personal belongings – including the brain – in near-perfect condition. It was fascinating and a place that children would appreciate as much as adults.
In three days I had packed in an enormous amount, but I still wanted more. Like Lucerne, this beautiful place is definitely worth an extra week.
Throughout my trip, the Swiss were very friendly – there was always plenty of laughter. And no matter what language you try to speak, they’re very helpful. Most spoke English after hearing my pathetic French and German words!
The food is delicious, too – from breakfasts of croissants, cheese and thick chunky breads with homemade jams to lunches of perfect baguettes or sausages and fries, and dinners of trout or cheese fondue.
Add to all that the beautiful architecture and the amazing mountain and water views, and my visit to Switzerland holds some perfect memories.
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