Switzerland: A Heaven On Earth
We recently visited the beautiful country of Switzerland. Enough adjectives have already been used to describe this heaven on earth. Instead of adding to that list, I will just provide a simple comparison – Here’s a place that combines the Best of the Best – German Engineering, French Finecrafts, English/American Banking & Finance and on top of all this, spectacular nature! During our one week trip, we visited Interlaken, Lucerne, Zurich and Davos. Many people had recommended that trains are the best way to see Switzerland. I concur. However, driving around is also great fun. We settled for a hybrid approach. Decided to the travel by train on the Zurich-Interlaken-Lucerne sectors, and rented a car for the remainder.
In this two part article, I will describe my observations from the trip.
Interlaken is situated at the foothills of the majestic Jungfrau Mountain (more on this later). We took a train from Zurich airport to Interlaken (with a changeover at Berne, the Swiss Capital). Interlaken is a small town with one main street (Höheweg) and 2 stations Interlaken West and Interlaken Ost (East). Most tourist hotels are located on this main street and are within walking distance from the stations. The Höheweg at times resembles an airport terminal with many tourists dragging their large suitcases. The street has many good souvenir shops, restaurants and cafes. We stayed at a nice, small family run hotel: Hotel Splendid. It was originally built in 1908 and served as military hospital during World War II (during WW II, Interlaken was an important center for the Swiss Army). A building across the street from our hotel was one of the oldest buildings in Interlaken(over 500 years old).
Interlaken reminded me of two distinct places in US – Yosemite Park and Madison, Wisconsin. Interlaken is surrounded by many tall cliffs and is situated in between two spectacular lakes: Lake Brienz and Lake Thun (hence the name ‘Inter’ Laken…). When we reached Interlaken, we saw literally dozens of para-gliders gliding down from these cliffs and landing in a park in the town center (something to try for sure … maybe on the next trip! ). The Jungfrau peak and surrounding Alpine mountain ranges are visible from the town on a clear day.
I had been warned that Interlaken might be a bit ‘too touristy’ but was pleasantly surprised. Maybe this was a good season to be there, and it was not very crowded. Noticed a lot fewer Indian tourists (I guess peak season is May/June) than many earlier visitors had reported…but couldn’t help notice a few prominent Indian restaurants. Amongst the non-EU tourists, I think that Indians represent the second largest group, after the Americans. I am sure the Swiss Tourism Industry is thankful to Bollywood 🙂
Majority of people in Switzerland speak German (the locals will point out that its ‘Swiss-German’…). Though given the tourist influx, English is reasonably well understood, compared to other European countries. The people we met were quite helpful and friendly.
One big realization (and probably the only negative one…) that hits you on your first day in Switzerland is that this place is ‘really’ expensive! I have a simple, unscientific cost of living indicator that I use across countries. It simply entails comparing the prices across popular restaurant chains (McDonalds, Starbucks, Burger Kings, etc.). Prices in Germany, Netherlands tend to be about 1.5 times of US, while those in Switzerland are two times as expensive (A basic Starbucks Coffee costs more than $4).
On our second day in Interlaken, we headed for the Jungfrau excursion.
Jungfrau is the tallest peak in Switzerland and amongst the tallest in the Alps. An amazing piece of engineering over 100 years ago – the Jungfraubahn (Railway), opened up this great mountain range to Alpine tourism. The Jungfrau Railway uses a cogwheel track for better traction on these steep gradients (max gradient is 25%).
To reach Jungfrau Hoch station (at around 11,000 feet), you need to change trains at 2 intermediate stops. There are two alternate routes, both with breathtaking scenery (strongly recommend trying both routes – one for going up, and the other one for coming down). You start at Interlaken Ost at around 1900 feet and ascend up over 9000 feet in 2.5 hours. The changes in the landscape are quite interesting as you gain altitude. From trees and green meadows, you start seeing snow at higher altitudes, and eventually are surrounded by glaciers. The last stretch from Kleine Sheidegg to Jungfrau Hoch passes through many tunnels, but with nice viewing galleries (windows) cutout through the tunnels at certain spots. The view of the glaciers is great…unfortunately we were there on a foggy day, with limited visibility. Jungfrau Hoch has been developed as a big tourist destination with multiple attractions and restaurants. A lift takes you few hundred feet up from the station, to a great open-air viewing gallery.
On our way up, we took the Interlaken Ost – Grindelwald – Kleine Sheidegg route. On the return, we took the Kleine Sheidegg – Lauterbrunnen – Interlaken Ost route. Train changes are required at Grindelwald, Kleine Sheidegg and Lauterbrunnen. The onward connections are synchronized (within 5-10 minutes), but I would recommend skipping a connection and spending 30 min – 1 hour at each of these picturesque stations on the way. Lauterbrunnen is also the starting point for a cable car ride up to Mt. Shilthorn (also referred to as the James Bond Mountain).
On our 3rd day in Interlaken, we boarded the train to Lucerne – The Golden Pass Panoramic Express. In the second blog post on Switzerland, I will write more about this wonderful train journey, and our stay in Lucerne, Davos and Zurich.
[Note: Thanks to my wife for taking all these wonderful photographs…many more coming up in the 2nd blog post]