And I’m back after a visit to luterburnnen and schirmertorweg, flying face to Jungfrau, feasting at Goldener Anker, and wandering in Glentschergarten Lowendenkmal. That should sum up my last three days in Switzerland. Are you sure you’ll be able to keep up?
Last time I wrote, I had just arrived in Geneva. And I planned to visit 3 cities in 3 days. Three very different cities. First, Geneva, the capital of social goodness with headquarters to such organizations as the UN and the WHO. Then, Interlaken, the typical but not-so typical swiss village known for extreme outdoor sports. And finally Lucerne, a trip back in time to the 14th century. In a sense, this mini-trip across Switzerland perfectly embodies my vision of what my full eurotrip is about: meeting up with friends (Geneva), going wild (Interlaken), admiring the beauty Europe has to offer (Lucerne).
On my first and only day in Geneva, as I’m walking around the city, and especially the Old Town, it feels weird. It seems as though something is missing. Ah, yes! The millions of people running around in all directions! I just went from spending 10 days in mega-cities with populations in the millions, to little old Geneva with it’s 250,000 inhabitants. This is so peaceful, and after 10 days of chaos (in the good sense), is a welcomed treat. The next surprise is how expensive everything is! And I will unfortunately keep rediscovering this over the next 3 days. This one, on the other hand, is not very welcomed…
In the short time I have to visit, I get a good understanding of Geneva, but you should already know this: Swiss watches, Swiss arm knives, Swiss chocolate, Swiss banks, and social goodness. I also visit the main cathedral, Cathédral St-Pierre, and again experience a peaceful moment as I am one of only a few tourists inside. But right before I enjoy this moment, a thought crosses my mind. As I remember my visit of the Notre-Dame cathedral in Paris, it now feels a little different. I can’t get over the thought that we (the tourists) were all being herded like a bunch of sheep. Hundreds and hundreds of people in line, following orders from guards on our sides, walking along a well determined enclosed path, forced to visit the same areas in the same order. I much prefer my latter experience, free to roam wherever I please.
Another highlight of my stay in Geneva is the visit of the UN headquarters. I take a guided tour of the offices and conference rooms and learn more about the history and structure of the UN. As is my tradition in these situations, I will skip sharing what I’ve (attempted) to learn and tell you that Google is your friend. An unfortunate event did occur as the tour went on: a man collapsed of apparent exhaustion. We continued the tour as he was tended to by paramedics. Our guide discretly tells me with a worried look on her face: “I fear the worst”. Thirty minutes later, as we walk past the same spot, the man still lies on the floor, the paramedics are still performing CPR…
The guided tour marks the end of my first day in Switzerland. I head to the train station for my next adventure. But before I move on, let me share a few words in the section that I will now call The Blasphemies, or “Exploring Europe through Gustation”: I had to try Swiss cheese and so I headed to a typical Swiss restaurant for a tartiflette on my first meal. Then, I indulged in some Swiss chocolate and truffles for desert. Great success on both accounts!
I arrive at the train station with some time to spare, this has more to do with my lack of understanding of the transportation system in Europe than my punctuality (duh!). No train in sight, I wonder if I made a mistake. But I soon learn a new thing about the Swiss: with great watches comes great punctuality! My train, scheduled to leave at 18:10, arrives at 18:07 and promptly departs at 18:10. They are very serious when it comes to time! (They have also sold a Patek-philippe for 1.4M sfr; 1sfr = $1.2 approx.)
During the ride from Geneva to Interlaken, I admire the breathtaking countryside from my window. A mix of tall mountains and endless green fields with small villages here and there (pic). Interlaken is one of these villages. I thought a population of 250,000 was low, I was now heading to a village with a mere 5,000 residents! I can’t really explain the feeling, but jumping around areas of such different scales makes me realize how vast the world is. As I arrive, at my destination, this place seems to be buzzing with more energy than expected. For one, I come on the last day of a big rock concert, and second, since Interlaken is known for it’s extreme sports a lot of people come from around to get an adrenaline fix in this beautiful setting. You can try paragliding, sky diving, bungee jumping, canyoneering, rock climbing, rafting, and many more. To make the most of my day, I decide to sleep early. This is my first night in a hostel. I am in a 6-bed room with a German girl and two American guys.
I wake up early the next morning, and step outside the balcony and realize how beautiful this all is. I am in a tiny typical swiss village, surrounded by some of the biggest mountains around (Eiger, Jungfrau) – a few still covered in snow – along a small river, with fresh air and wilderness all around. For the first part of my day, I sign up for a paragliding flight. My tandem partner and I drive up to an altitude of 1300m, strap on a big gliding parachute, wait for the wind to blow in the right direction, then start running fast down a very steep hill (not quite jumping off a cliff, but it’s so steep I can’t even see what’s in front). The parachute catches the wind and lifts us off the ground. This is surreal. Within seconds, I am in the middle of the sky, fresh alpine air blowing in my face, strapped only by a harness. I’m flying! This is as close as it gets anyway. How’s this for “free to roam wherever I please”??
The next part is even better. My partner starts “looking” for wind tunnels. These are pockets of air flowing upwards. He tells me it’s an art that requires the mastery of 4 senses. You LOOK for the edge of clouds (a sign of high winds), FEEL the direction of the winds, LISTEN to an altimeter that beeps when we gain height, and SMELL?? Suddenly, a refined smell of cow dung fills my nostrils… We found the wind tunnel! Of course, as mother nature shoots the air upwards, she doesn’t discriminate between the fresh scent of flowers and the less appealing, but no less natural, scent of bovine flatulence. As we enter the tunnel, we start flying in circles and gain height rapidly, exactly like big birds, such as falcons, do! After just a few minutes, we are at a height of 2000 meters, among the clouds, we get out of the tunnel and just glide around the beautiful nature, past a small mountain, above a big lake, over huge forests, and then back into the village! Unreal.
For the next part of my day, I rent a mountain bike and decide to ride to the next village, Luterburnnen. It takes me a little more than an hour to get there as most of it is uphill. I won’t go into too much detail here, but just picture a lone biker, on small roads, in between two very steep mountains with waterfalls blasting out from them. I take the time to stop a few times to refresh with water from the rapids along which I am biking (ice melted from the mountains), and rock climb a few interesting walls I glimpse along the way.
Two meals are worth highlighting for another episode of The Blasphemies. the first is a not-so-fine cuisine meal referred to as berner-wurster; apologies to the Swiss if I am butchering its name. Get ready for this: It consists of a melted cheese injected sausage, wrapped with bacon, and fried! How many of you got a heart attack just reading that? the second is more of a delicacy: an ostrich steak with a special Swiss potato dish. Delicious!
My final stop in Switzerland is Lucerne. As I arrive at night and head to my hostel, I get this feeling of excitement entering a new city and checking out my new room and fellow travelers. This time I’m with an Asian young man, and an old Russian architect in his sixties – that talks a lot! On the next day, I wake up early and head towards the city center. I just stepped back in time! (pic) It seems as though Lucerne has been stuck in the 14th century. Most of the streets are in cobble stone and the city is surrounded by a fortified wall with towers. I shouldn’t even call them streets, they are more like small passage ways between houses. Wooden bridges connect both sides of the river. As I walk through them, I notice the smell of the aging wood. I also find fountains at every corner, and the water is so clean I am told fishes are dying. (maybe all this “kills 99% of bacteria” craze isn’t all that good?)
As I ride the bus back to my starting point, I realize for the second time that no one checks for tickets. So I decide not to buy one and develop instead a fail proof technique in case I get caught: a clueless and lost face expression combined with a mumbling of random words with a thick accent from no apparent region. I have yet to test it’s efficacy…
And that raps up my city-hopping in Switzerland! The next major stop is Prague. On my way there, I decided to stay half a day in Munich since it is right in between there and Lucerne. I am starting to enjoy city-hopping. Time seems to run slower. Geneva and Interlaken seem far away now that I am in the train leaving Lucerne.
Guess what? I found a 40-bed dorm in a hostel in Munich. What do you think?
[This post is part of a series on my 2011 eurotrip, check out the whole series here]