My husband and I recently had the good fortune to spend New Year’s in a lovely little country known as Switzerland. It is by far the most beautiful place I’ve ever visited, and I’ve spent the days since my return longing to be nestled in its Alpine embrace once more.
But before launching into a blow-by-blow account of my most recent European adventure, let’s go over Switzerland 101:
- There ain’t no recession in Switzerland. On the contrary, the Swiss franc is doing so well that they’ve been trying to keep its value down so its citizens doing business outside the country don’t lose money when exchanging back to their native currency. According to Wikipedia, Switzerland also has once of the world’s lowest inflation rates, and the Swiss have the world’s highest average wealth per adult at $372,692. These folks are rich, which means that…
- Switzerland is EXPENSIVE. One never expects a European vacation to be cheap, but when faced with the equivalent of a $75 price tag for breakfast for two, it’s a bit overwhelming. My advice: stick to the grocery stores, gorge yourself on cheese and baguettes, and revel in the fact that Switzerland is going to force you to lose those pesky five pounds you’ve been complaining about since Thanksgiving.
- The Swiss are hands-down the nicest, warmest, most welcoming people on the planet. I had not one even remotely rude encounter throughout the duration of my stay in their magnificent country. And they are made all the nicer by the fact that…
- …they all speak English. I only encountered one or two people (rail or restaurant workers) who spoke not a lick of my mother tongue. Of course, you can’t (and shouldn’t) expect anyone in a foreign country to speak English. But it certainly does make travel easier.
- Switzerland has four official languages, which I suppose may explain why everyone speaks English — they had to find common a common denominator. In the north they speak Swiss German (a variation that is infinitely more pleasing to the ear than Germany’s), in the southwest, in and around Geneva, they speak French (of which I took several years in high school and college; I was excited to flex my francais muscles, and I think I got along quite well, except that people kept figuring out that I was American and then they’d just start speaking English…domage…), and in a small area in the south, they speak Italian, or an Italian dialect called Romansh (we didn’t go to that region so I didn’t get to use my four words of Italian; piacere!).
- The Swiss are train addicts. They are also obsessed with punctuality and efficiency. This results in a fortuitous confluence of Swiss preferences if you’re a tourist. We never had to wait for a train. Every train literally arrived exactly on time, to the minute if not the second. Before crossing the pond, I printed out timetables from this website, which gives you door-to-door directions, including which platform you need to be at. It’s like HopStop for Switzerland. (On a side note, there are plenty of things in Switzerland that will convince you, unwaveringly, of its superiority to America, and their rail system in particular makes you realize what a bunch of gas-guzzling a-holes we really are.)
OK, there’s your crash course. Onward…
Day 1 – Luzern
The further west your distance from the East Coast of the U.S., the more of a b***h it is to get to Europe. Especially when you have an almost crippling fear of flying, as I do.
We generally fly Delta, which means we have to stop in Atlanta nine out of 10 times we go anywhere. On this particular occasion, the pilot on our flight from Dallas announced that the turbulence we began to experience early on in the flight would last all the way to Georgia, and the preparatory drinks I’d thrown back in the Sky Lounge were no match for this airborne roller-coaster. For some reason, my husband and I didn’t have seats together on this flight, which meant that I was trapped in the center seat between two elderly gentlemen from whom I tried my best to hide my white-knuckled trepidation. Alas, turbulence on the part of the plane lead to hyperventilation on the part of Stephanie, and I closed my eyes, planted my forehead on the back of the seat in front of me, and started counting to 100 over and over again, my one meager coping mechanism in such circumstances. (Running up and down the aisle screaming, “Make it stop! Make it stop!” as my instinct compels me to do would not likely go over well with the TSA, and I travel too often to risk being added to the No Fly List.)
Once we had landed safely at ATL, we booked it over to the Sky Lounge for more liquid courage and then boarded the much less bumpy flight to Zurich. The movies were decent, the food less so, and a cocktail of sedatives, red wine, and nascent jet lag lulled me to sleep for at least some of the nine-hour transatlantic journey.
We landed in Zurich around 7:30am, and I have to say, it’s the best of the European airports I’ve been to so far. It’s clean and modern and incredibly easy to navigate. We collected our bags, had our Swiss Passes validated (we got the eight-day multi-traveler pass, the best deal if you plan on traveling extensively while in Switzerland; it gives you unlimited travel on trains and other public transportation, as well as discounts on mountain cable cars and free access to more than 400 museums…wow, I sound like a Swiss tourism ambassador, a job which, in all honesty, I would happily take…), and got on the train to Luzern, our first stop. Less than an hour later, we were here:
Luzern is a breathtaking, historic, ambient town of bricks and cobblestones and exactly the kind of chalet-style architecture you’ve imagined in your Heidi-inspired fantasies.
We made the mistake of taking a taxi from the train station to our hotel, thereby losing 14 of our precious francs, but it’s difficult to get around on your own when you’ve just landed in a new country. But in case you’re wondering, the Hotel des Balances, where we stayed, is only a 10-minute walk from the train station. If you can avoid it, do not take a cab.
Checking in at the hotel gave us the first of our many experiences with Swiss hospitality. The girl at the front desk let us check in early and upgraded us to one of the slightly more expensive river-view rooms (we had a balcony and a direct view of the Jesuit Church). She also gave us two vouchers for drinks at the hotel’s tres chic bar. We went up to our room, cleaned up a bit, and then napped off some of the jet lag (which we never fully overcame throughout the week).
Once we were feeling a little less dead to the world, we bundled up (as you can imagine, Switzerland is rather frigid in late December/early January) and went exploring. Luzern’s most iconic landmark is the Chapel Bridge (which you can see in the above picture), so we started there. It was originally built in the 14th century, but a lot of it had to be replaced in the 1990s after a fire destroyed it, ignited when one of Europe’s two bazillion smokers failed to properly extinguish a spent cigarette. My favorite part of the bridge are the paintings you can see as you walk through it, if you look up:
After the bridge, we walked to the newer part of the city and checked out the Rosengart Collection, a smallish museum where art dealer Angela Rosengart’s sizable private collection of Picassos are on display. We also hungrily peeked into Starbucks and McDonald’s and confirmed our suspicion that even our American go-to fast food joints were going to be too pricey for us franc-less vagabonds…
But we did have two free drink coupons to cash in at the hotel. My oh my, Hotel des Balances is home to a deliciously posh restaurant and bar. After the nine-hour flight and a day of trekking around in the cold, my hair and makeup left something to be desired, and sitting next to all those impossibly polished Swiss ladies wasn’t doing my confidence any favors. But the bartender was happy to whip up two proper and quite delicious cocktails in exchange for our vouchers, and we sat there for a long while, lounging and sipping and people watching.
I have to say, Europeans are phenomenal drinkers. I think the whole of the continent maintains a constant blood-alcohol level. And yet, with the exception of the United Kingdom, you’d be hard pressed to find a belligerent drunk anywhere, at least not one of the volatile caliber you can’t throw a rock without hitting in the U.S. It’s really inspiring. As we sat at the bar, we watched the middle-aged couple next to us nurse a steady succession of drinks (at 17 francs for a glass of Veuve Clicquot, I can only imagine what their tab looked like at the end of the night) and split an entree. I just love how they lingered there, taking their time, drinking and eating and talking. They weren’t in a rush and the bar staff didn’t rush them. I would very much like more of that in my life.
After milking our free drinks for an hour or so, we ventured back out into the cold to seek more solid sustenance. Alas, there was none to be found, unless you were willing to pay a handsome sum. Exhausted and famished, we popped into a cozy Italian restaurant and shelled out 21 francs for a pizza and a bottle of water (16 for the pizza, 5 for the water — there’s no such thing as free water in Europe…or ice). Our hunger assuaged, though only moderately, we returned to our hotel and slept that fitful sleep that fills the interim between the end of a long journey and the beginning of a new one.