Monday, November 5, 2012

Swiss Bliss: Denouement

Switzerland was everything I expected it would be and more -- including more money. While the Swiss standard of living is high, it’s also among the most expensive countries in all of Europe. But in the final analysis, I can also say the experience was worth every franc.

For me, the formula for a great overseas vacation is to establish a base -- in this case, Zurich -- and strike out from there. I’m not one for schlepping from place to place with a tour group. I like to get to know a country and its people: so far, it’s an approach that has worked out in Korea (Seoul), Italy (Genoa) and Germany (Munich).

Zurich was my kind of town. Nearly everyone spoke English, as well as several other languages. I only had to speak German in a couple of situations during our trip. Switzerland’s largest city is definitely a hot spot, but not without a classically European old town, a shopping district that would rival Rodeo Drive and a world-class university.

Hotel X-tra was mere blocks from the main train station and the public transportation system in Zurich runs like -- you guessed it -- Swiss clockwork: on time, every time. Took the local train to the top of Uetliberg Mountain (below) for prime views of Zurich, Lake Zurich and the Alps in the distance to the south.

As in Germany, Gina and I also utilized other forms of transportation: taxi, bus, streetcar, trolley and cog train. When touring Switzerland, you can’t help but notice all the tunnels: miles and miles of tunnels. On our way to Liechtenstein, we must have been in one tunnel for over 15 minutes, and that was traveling at freeway speeds.

Weather could have been better. When I arrived, it was nearly 100 degrees Fahrenheit, and the natives were wilting. But over the next several days, it rained periodically, and I took the opportunity to walk the streets of Zurich to really get to know the place.

Then the clouds broke and I jumped at the chance to see the countryside on a short half-day tour to the Rheinfall (above), perhaps the most impressive water feature in Europe. An American named Nicole from Virginia asked if she could sit next to me in the front seat of the tour bus and I eagerly obliged, looking for some conversation.

She was going to “do Zurich” in a day before continuing on to Austria for a conference. She said she had just flown from Washington, D.C. to Paris in six hours. I thought: “six hours?” It takes that long to fly from Eugene, Oregon to Miami, Florida, emphasizing the fact that the U.S. is indeed a very large country.

Cecilia, one of our tour guides, said that the Swiss do three things in a big way: chocolate, cheese and watches. The watch shops in Zurich are second to none. In the countryside, cows and corn (used mostly as feed for the cows) were everywhere. The bovine is a national icon: I have a refrigerator magnet or two as proof. 

Gina arrived nearly a week after me, and we decided to take a city tour of Zurich, which included a boat trip around Lake Zurich (above). However, following the bus tour, Gina was exhausted after the long flight so we saved our boat tickets for another day.

The next day, we were off to the Jungfrau Region, the pinnacle of our “alpine adventure” -- both literally as well as figuratively. The bus ride from Zurich to Lucerne and Interlaken was scenic, but the views were even better as we boarded the train in Lauterbrunnen.

As we climbed, the views grew more spectacular by the minute through the towns of Wengen and Allmend, accessible only by train or on foot, on our way to Kleine Scheidigg, which rests at the base of The Eiger (below, left) and Jungfrau (right).

The tunnel to Jungfraujoch is nothing short of an engineering marvel. But these kind of projects start with a vision. Adolf Guyer-Zeller literally stumbled onto the notion of tunneling through the heart of the Eiger and Monch to the summit of Jungfrau while on a hike, though he died before he could see his idea reach fruition.

A generation later, the project fell short of its goal of reaching the summit of Jungfrau, the tallest of the three peaks. But a cogwheel train to the saddle between Jungfrau and Monch (the Jungfraujoch, the highest train station in Europe) became a reality in 1912.

The train ride features two stops, at the Eigerwand and Eismeer stations, where a bizarre glacier world opens up for guests for the first time (below, left). At the Jungfraujoch, the view of the longest glacier in the Alps is quite a spectacular sight.

The Sphinx Terrace, a weather and climate research station above the Jungfraujoch at 3,571 meters (11,715 feet) above sea level, offers compelling views of the Alps in every direction and you can virtually see all the way to Italy, Germany and France.

The way back to Interlaken took a different route through Grindelwald. This delightful spot is yet another classic Swiss mountain village that is popular with winter sports enthusiasts.

Grindlewald features a backdrop that includes the chiseled and precipitous north face of The Eiger, along with the shimmering tongues of the Oberer and Unterer glaciers and the rugged Wetterhorn Mountain.

After another day of questionable weather, we climbed aboard the boat tour of Zurichsee, a great way to see the towns on the lake. The next day, we stopped at Rapperswil on the south side of Lake Zurich on our way to eastern Switzerland; the old town features a 13th century castle and other medieval buildings.

After that, it was on to the tiny principality of Liechtenstein (below), which -- at 62 square miles -- would be considerably smaller than the smallest county in Oregon. Much like Switzerland, the country’s economy is based primarily on banking and insurance.

Heidiland (below) was a tourist magnet, but we enjoyed it. After a while, though, I could understand what the writer in Lonely Planet: Switzerland was talking about: “When you’re done, you might be in need of some Heidiwein for your Heidiheadache…or perhaps just hit the A13 and Heiditail it out” of there. We did just that.

Gina flew back on September 2; I followed a few days later. After arriving at JFK in New York City, I had a layover for a couple of hours before boarding the next leg of my journey home to Salt Lake City.   

As I waited, some Secret Service types milling about the boarding area caught my eye. Soon, I saw an important-looking fellow making his way to my plane with his entourage. He bore a striking resemblance to former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani.

“Is that who I think it is?” I asked the fellow next to me. “Yep,” he replied succinctly. Former Mayor Giuliani is shorter that I imagined, probably only 5’6. Television does that; the diminutive types can seem larger than life on the small screen.

After the usual recovery period from jet lag, I finally had a chance to reflect on our trip. Switzerland is a captivating idyll that stirs the soul: mesmerizing mountains beckoning you to a high country of alpine meadows, iridescent glaciers, crystal lakes and broad vistas.

Down below in the glacier-carved valleys, the charming villages and their historic old towns are framed against the captivating backdrop of the majestic Alps. For anyone who might be thinking about checking out the Swiss bliss, I would recommend it. Highly.

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