Switzerland: More Than Just Cheese and Chocolate
Iceland. New Zealand. Switzerland. Land. Iceland. Switzerland. New Zealand. Which is the most beautiful place on earth? I don’t know…but I know it ends in “land.” Seriously, Switzerland was insane and life-changing and I don’t even know what to write because I’ve run out of adjectives. Among the most beautiful places I’ve ever been, it’s basically a toss-up between New Zealand, Iceland, and Switzerland…but the chocolate and cheese in Swiss town makes it very enticing to vote #1
Normally when we travel, I want to get from A to B as quickly as possible, but in this case, I am SO glad Caitlin insisted on the train. See, the flight from Salzburg to Zurich is only an hour or so, but factor in the airport to/from time, customs, pretty much being stripped at security, and so forth, and it really is more like 3 or 4. Caitlin found a train from Salzburg to Zurich that was about 5 hours, but the scenery was (supposed to be) unbelievable. It was only 21 Euros each, and even though it wouldn’t be as fast as a flight, it would be a nice change of pace and chance to see the beautiful countryside. Plus, we were able to buy groceries in Austria and take them with us (drinks mostly), which saved us a few bucks. But yeah, the train was amazing.
The Wi-Fi was perfect on the train, which is dumb except I had a bunch of work to do and knew the train would be the longest uninterrupted time I would have on the entire trip to work, so that was a big deal to me. We ended up leaving our flat in Salzburg at like 5am, which, if you know me, is like torture since I’ve planned my whole life around not waking up early, but I guess travel is the exception. It was POURING and I was drenched because I left my poncho packed in my bag (ugh) but as usual, the Salzburg bus system was amazing and got us to the main station very easily. From there, we found our train to Zurich and that was that, we were off to country 29 or 30 or whatever it was.
Lest I understate this: Oh my x. The scenery. The landscapes. The greenery! I’m not even going to try and describe the cool villages and farms we saw on the journey, but it was trillions of times better than a flight. Plus, I had a bunch of cold drinks in my backpack and we ate amazingly good cheese and bread and I got so much work done. It was just a really perfect journey, and the train was clean and quiet and just rad. Do it.
CAR RENTAL AT ZURICH AIRPORT
My only complaint (you know me, I have to complain about something all the time) was the fact that we still had to go to the airport to get our car. I tried to find a car near the HBF (main train station) and couldn’t pull it off for a decent price, so we paid about $6 each to get on a short train from the HBF to the Zurich airport. It’s very strange being at an airport without having a flight to catch, but whatever, we went to get our car, and after a short delay we were flooring it down the Swiss highway.
SWITZERLAND IS EXPENSIVE
New Zealand is expensive. Iceland is expensive. Switzerland is expensive. I guess if you’re one of the most beautiful places on this planet, it’s expensive. So just know that going in. While waiting for the car, I was curious just how expensive this place was, so I went into the airport McDonalds to check the prices, and the ghetto, mostly reconstituted raccoon tail burger that we get in America for $1 was €8.90. So yeah, Switzerland is expensive. Very expensive. Groceries, however, weren’t as bad as I was expecting. I was thinking a Diet Coke would be like $5 but it wasn’t much different than the rest of Germany. Just like Iceland, though, restaurants are crazy, so if you don’t want to spend your life savings, buy groceries.
LUCERNE OH MAN LUCERNE OH WOW LUCERNE
Zurich seemed OK (more on that later) but we just wanted to get to the good stuff so I was flooring it towards our place in Lucerne. Switzerland was more confusing to drive in than Germany or Croatia, I’m not fully sure why but it seems like streets just converge all over the place and there’s heaps of pedestrians and multi-lane roundabouts. It just wasn’t the most fun to drive there, particularly as I got to the narrow streets of Lucerne. Alas, we made it, it was only about 50 minutes from the Zurich airport to the aptly named Hotel Fox…(aptly named because I was there, duh).
HOTEL FOX: THE GOOD, BAD, UGLY
Hotel Fox was actually pretty sweet. The room was really nice (small, but we weren’t in Switzerland to look at a room) and the people were helpful. It sucked paying €15 per night to park, but it’s Switzerland and I guess it’s to be expected. The Wi-Fi was good and the location was good and we even got a Lucerne Pass which was supposed to get us discounts that we never found. Still, it being Switzerland, I feel like we got a decent deal. Our room (and most in the hotel) was right by a train, but we had earplugs so I didn’t even notice at night. They also have a lounge with a mini fridge, so all I had to do was take out someone’s 48 pack of lager and I had some cold Diet Coke and Red Bull the next morning…money!
All I knew about Lucerne was absolutely nothing. While we drove into the city, it didn’t look like anything too spectacular so I had no expectations. But, oh man, Lucerne!
We ditched our stuff, parked the car (it was covered and secure parking, which was nice and I guess it had better bloody be for €15 per night, right?) and walked towards town, having no idea what was there.
OK that’s not fully true. As usual, Caitlin had some idea of what was going on and had told me about a lake and a bridge and a lion carving. Sounded good to me, although I was just happy to be alive. The trip had been so good so far, I could have totally hated Switzerland (I didn’t) and the trip would have still been a massive success.
If you want a picturesque moment in Switzerland, at least to start with, walking up to Lake Lucerne is about as cool as it gets. You can see mountains and beautiful water and cool shops and their famous old bridge and a bunch of boats on Lake Lucerne. Plus, there’s a bunch of Swiss flags flying and it just looks awesome. It was really alive and bustling which made it fun to be surrounded by so many interesting people. We just stood there and looked at the lake and the swans and the ducks and suddenly I was much more excited for Switzerland than I had been.
I like art. Sometimes I wonder if I like it because I should like it, having been taught about something in school being good probably makes me think it’s good. Other times, I just like it because it looks or sounds cool. I knew nothing about the lion until Caitlin said, “Hey, there’s a lion carved into rock.” And that was my introduction to what we were about to see.
Now, just before walking up to the lion monument, I pulled it up online and read this on Wikipedia: “Mark Twain praised the sculpture of a mortally-wounded lion as “the most mournful and moving piece of stone in the world.” That was all I needed to know. Mournful stone? Count me in!
And seriously, whether or not I had read that quote from Twain, I would have loved this monument. It is absolutely incredible, and one of the most moving and powerful pieces of art I’ve ever seen.
I don’t expect that I can convey anything about it that you can’t read online, but it’s a lion about to die. I love animals, so maybe it struck me particularly hard, but man…it’s powerful. I read that it’s in memory of all the mercenary Swiss soldiers who died at the storming of the Tuileries, and since it involves the French Revolution which I’m fascinated by, it was an even bigger win for me. The lion has an arrow sticking out of it and is about to die and I’m not sure why or how but it just seems super lifelike, even humanlike.
The carving by itself is cool enough, but the fact that it’s carved into this massive steep wall and surrounded by water is even cooler. It’s just a phenomenal piece and one of the true hidden gems of things I’ve seen—i.e. things that aren’t crazy popular but are still incredible. And yes, the rumors are true: There is a shape of a pig around the carving, which I wasn’t sure if it was on purpose but yes, it was. There’s a silhouette of a pig surrounding the lion, supposedly carved there when the artist found out he wasn’t going to be paid. Crazy stuff!
One thing I read, about 5 minutes before leaving our hotel in Lucerne, was that we couldn’t miss the Kapellbrücke, Lucerne’s famous bridge. Lucerne is a very walkable city, so it was nice to just walk from one place to the next. Our Lucerne Pass that we got at the hotel (I think it’s just included when you check in because of all the taxes) did get us on some trains and buses, but it was so close we just ended up walking.
The Kapellbrücke is a cool old bridge with a bunch of cool old paintings inside. It’s interesting because it’s more like a tunnel since it’s all enclosed, and every few feet there are these cool paintings up above your head. I read that some were original and some were reproductions, because it apparently almost burned down in the 90s. It was a cool thing to see, and worth doing since we were so close, but not life changing or anything. But you want to know what was life changing?
SWISS CHOCOLATE IS NOT REAL… IT CAN’T BE
I like chocolate. We all like chocolate. Who doesn’t like chocolate? And I’ve been to the Cadbury factory in Dunedin New Zealand. I’ve eaten chocolate around the world, and I was at the point in my life where I thought all European chocolates were approximately the same. Like, all are great, nothing better than the next. I was so, so wrong.
The only thing we wanted to do that night was get authentic and freshly made chocolates, no matter the cost. We looked in a bunch of different shops and finally decided on Bachmann. Best decision of my wasted life!
Have you ever heard of analysis paralysis? It’s when a seller offers a customer too many options and they can’t decide and freeze up. That’s generally the case with Caitlin at any food place ever. She studies the menu like it’s the New Testament and by the time she’s ready to order I could have been finished with my meal. So Bachmann was not an easy place for her in that she (and I) wanted to eat all the chocolates and never leave and definitely not just choose a few. It was very, very hard to make these decisions, but somehow we endured and got a white chocolate crisp, a dusted truffle, a caramel chocolate, and a Bailey’s (something gross and minty) flavored one. Aside from the Bailey’s, they were the absolute best things I’ve ever eaten. We couldn’t even wait to get more than 3 steps outside the shop and ended up sitting on a curb as I was speechless. Like, seriously, I was in such ecstasy I couldn’t say anything, I just chewed and smiled and decided I was never leaving. The chocolates were small and expensive (4 one or two bite chocolates cost something like €10) but so worth it. Like, SO worth it. I would go back to Lucerne just for those.
That being done, I figured my purpose in life was fulfilled but Caitlin disagreed so I lived another day. We headed back to the hotel to prepare for the big day ahead.
DAY 2: INTER-FREAKIN-LAKEN AND LAUTERBRUNNEN
NOTE: Get Swiss Francs for this part, ideally in Lucerne or Zurich or somewhere other than Lauterbrunnen. You’ll see why, but the buses only take them and by the time we got there, the banks were about to close and were a total ripoff. More on that later. My short-term memory is worse than a goldfish but for some reason I remember insane amounts of mundane life experiences. One thing I remember that was helpful though is talking to my old boss who had been to more places than anyone I’ve ever met. He told me his favorite place on the planet was Interlaken, or somewhere nearby, and I made a mental note that I would go. Now, here I was…going!
The drive from Lucerne to Interlaken is about 2 hours. It’s actually quite a fun drive with heaps of turns and twists and you feel like you’re in a car commercial because it’s so pretty. It was foggy and slightly rainy, but there were hardly any cars on the road which was nice. As we pulled into the town of Interlaken it was amazing to see the lake and the little town built around it. Plus, with the fog and slightly rough lake it just looked cool.
We ended up driving into Lauterbrunnen, having no real plan (surprised?) and parked in the first lot we could find…it ended up being €14 but for Switzerland that’s probably a steal, so whatever. I was giddy and we started walking around this cool little town. From pretty much the second we walked out of the parking garage we could see insane mountains and peaks and waterfalls and green as far as the eye could see. And lots of cool cows wearing bells, of course.
Luckily, the first thing we saw (besides the grocery store in which I bought way too much cheese, chocolate, and Coke Zero) was a tourist office, which was one of many, and asked what the shuv we should do to maximize our time. The first thing she told us to do was explore the cool and large waterfall right next to us, Staubbach Falls.
The fact that a paved path goes right up to any waterfall is cool enough, but one like Staubbach is pretty rad to get to go up and behind and under. It was a pretty easy walk, a bit steep for a second but nothing too big. Because of the mist from the falls and the foggy day, the steps were a bit slick, and as you start to go into the mountainside it gets a bit sketchy with slippery stairs, slippery handrails, and low hanging rocks that came very close to knocking my skull off. I guess that’s the one perk of being short, right?
The falls are super beautiful and it seems like every waterfall in Switzerland has multiple levels so it looks like 3 or 4 falls. Funny enough though, the path behind the falls is a bit anticlimactic. It just kinda ends at a rock wall, no scenic viewpoint or anything. So it might be best to just appreciate Staubbach from afar or not to go up the entire trail, but whatever, it’s cool.
The next thing that sounded cool was Trümmelbach Falls, which the lady told us was a series of 10 waterfalls fed by a glacier. Say no more, I was there. Alas, we were also told they only took cash, so we had to run (OK, slowly slog) back to the main street to look for an open bank. And the banks were MASSIVE ripoffs, charging some chunk fee just for the exchange, then offering a terrible rate of exchange. We didn’t want to exchange much since we had been able to use a car everywhere else, but we should have exchanged a bit more BECAUSE…
Lauterbrunnen has some cool buses that connect all these great sites, but they are cash only. So yeah, we walked. The walk from Staubbach to Trümmelbach was close to 2 miles. It wasn’t bad or anything, and of course was gorgeous, but since this was the last few days of our trip, Caitlin and I were absolutely beat, so it seemed like more than 2 miles. Luckily, we had Swiss cheese (for real this time) and chocolate to keep us going.
And funny enough…yes, Trümmelbach requires cash, but nobody told us they take AMERICAN CASH! Seriously, they take Francs or Dollars. Very strange, and I was frustrated we got got on the exchange, but alas. It was 11 Francs each to get in, and you get to take a super fast cable car that goes right into a mountain and makes you feel like you’re going to hit your head the whole time, but it’s rad.
Once you get to the top, you get to just wing it. There’s signs pointing out which direction certain falls are, and it’s great to just get to go at your own pace to your own place. It’s amazing how bloody loud waterfalls can be when they’re inside a massive cave, and it’s cool to be able to see 10. Once again, the mist makes the walkways inside the cave and the handrails insanely slippery, but we somehow survived. Not all 10 were life-changing or anything, but it’s just one of those cool experiences. Like, I’m in Switzerland inside a mountain looking at 10 waterfalls that come from a glacier. That’s maximum cool.
GIMMELWALD AND MÜRREN: MY FAVORITE PLACE ON EARTH?
Here’s what you need to know about Gimmelwald…no cars go. As in, the Arcade Fire song. As in, you can’t drive there because there are no roads to get there. So dance and prance in the middle of the road, you won’t get mowed down unless it’s an old farmer on a tractor or four wheeler, which we did see.
Alas, I’m ahead of myself. From Trümmelbach, we walked to a cable car station, of which there are many in Lauderbrunnen. Google Maps was extremely helpful (thanks T-Mobile!) but we still had to wander around a couple times to find exactly where to head. Once again, the bus would have been nice if we had cash. We purchased tickets to Murren, which were 22 Francs each, and got stoked to see the real Alps.
Caitlin had read (I think from Rick Steeves) that Gimmelwald was phenomenal. I was just cool to do whatever, who cares, I’m in Switzerland. So we got off the tram at the Gimmelwald stop and…my goodness. Indescribable. Seriously though, I can’t describe it in terms where it won’t sound lame.
What did we do there? Wandered. What did we see there? Everything and nothing. What did we experience there? Life. It’s beyond beautiful. It’s nestled in all these mountains and hills, and we could see what felt like dozens of waterfalls, near and far, big and small. We could see several that had multiple levels. The streets are void of cars so it’s extremely quiet and laid back. We barely saw anyone at all, and there were infinitely more animals (goats, sheep, cows, a couple farm cats and dogs) than people, and pretty much the only sound we heard was the tinkling of cowbells. So amazing. I can’t really explain why we loved it so much, but it’s just so peaceful and beautiful and perfect. I really would have loved to stay there for a day or two. There was nothing we really did there, but we didn’t need to. It was perfect. I wish I could do it justice but I think it’s just one of those places (like everywhere, really) that you just have to see and be and experience to know what I’m talking about. Absolutely phenomenal.
We got back on the tram and continued to Mürren where we did more walking and talking and marveling and enjoying and living. The whole area is just ridiculous and seems more like a fantasy world than real life. It seems like a movie set, maybe because movies base their landscapes on Switzerland? I dunno, I don’t watch enough movies to know. But yeah, it ruled, and we were so bummed when we left. We caught the train back to Lauderbrunnen (another 22 Francs total), walked around town one last time, bought expensive cheese that was actually made in Lauderbrunnen, and sadly headed back to the car. It was one of the most scenic places and days of my entire life and this entire post has been futile in trying to describe it.
By the by, we did NOT take a cable car up to Jungfrau or Schilthorn, a fact that Caitlin was very disappointed about but I really wasn’t. Yeah, it’s crazy expensive, but whatever, we were there so why not? But at every tram station, there are a million cameras showing the different peaks and the day we were there, it was ALL cloud cover. Like, we couldn’t see anything but fog on the camera. Luckily for us, as we walked around Gimmelwald and Lauderbrunnen, the clouds periodically cleared so we could see some of the amazing huge peaks, but the trail cams showed nothing but clouds so we passed.
The last meaningful thing we did in Switzerland (no thanks to you, Zurich) was stop at Lake Brienz on the way home. It was bloody amazing. The town on the edge of the lake is cool and there was some cool looking fog and it was just gorgeous. We pulled over on some random “do not pull over here” road and got photos and walked around the lake. The drive back to Hotel Fox was pretty uneventful but beautiful nonetheless, and made better by all the cheese and chocolate we ate. Just like that, it was time for bed and our last stop of the trip was coming up:
Of all the places we’ve ever been, we’ve always at least enjoyed the cities, if not totally loved them…until Zurich. Now don’t get me wrong, I’m sure it’s a great place…but we made a grave mistake going from Lucerne to Zurich instead of back to Lauderbrunnen. We figured our choices were a couple hour drive from our hotel to Lauderbrunnen in the morning, then repeat that drive down to Zurich that afternoon/night, or we could decide we’d seen Lauderbrunnen and go see what Zurich was all about. I love exploring new cities so of course I insisted we go back to Zurich so we wouldn’t have to drive so much or backtrack. I was wrong.
It’s not that anything is wrong with Zurich or whatever, we just didn’t love it. So sue us. We checked into our hotel, which was kinda cool because it was just a big apartment-ish complex and we didn’t have to deal with any people at check-in or anything. The only bummer was that because nobody was there, we got in too early and couldn’t try and check in because it was all automated by time. Alas, whatever.
Parking in Zurich sucks. In fact, I’ll dedicate an entire section to it below. But it was probably the hardest city for us to find actual parking, and when we did, it was crazy expensive (like everything else in Switzerland). We ended up parking at a bill mall/grocery store combo, and when we realized we couldn’t park there for the night, the cool employees at the help desk validated our parking so we could keep the car there a bit longer, which was way cool. We milled around the grocery store, bought some amazing sugar-free 7up lemon something, and bought some good croissant hot dog crossover stuff. Funny enough, when Caitlin was somewhere in the store and I couldn’t find her, a grocery store employee came and asked if I needed something. I told her I was just looking for my wife and she said, “Can you please do that out of the store? If you already paid and are done shopping you need to leave.” Well alrighty then…don’t loiter in Swiss grocery stores I guess.
PARKING IN ZURICH SHOULD BE CONSIDERED A CRIME
One reason I created Jetset Wanderlife is I absolutely HATE HATE HATE HATE having to go to 1,000 different blogs and posts and websites to plan a trip. I would rather look at someone’s itinerary, pick and choose what I want to use, and fill in the blanks without 999 other blogs telling me so many other things. Well, parking in Zurich sucks, and I literally read 5 blogs that told me 5 different things. So here’s the spoiler: PARK IN A BLUE ZONE, BUT BUY A BLUE ZONE PARKING PASS FROM THE POLICE STATION BEFORE YOU DO….BUT ONLY IN CASH! THEN YOU ARE GOOD TO PARK FOR THE NIGHT. AND BLUE ZONES ARE SLIGHTLY MORE COMMON BECAUSE THEY ARE EXPENSIVE.
There, was that so hard? I think there’s a website you can use to buy the pass, but A: it’s in German and B: it requires you to print out the pass and I couldn’t find a place to do that. So I ended up running (literally) around Zurich as Caitlin waited in the car making sure we didn’t get towed. Surprisingly, none of the people I frantically stopped out and about had any idea about parking…must be a touristy thing. I also went to the post office, which I had read was a place you could get a parking pass. This is false. Just go WITH FRANCS to the police station and get a pass and park in the blue zone. That’s it, it shouldn’t be as hard as it was for us. End of story.
ZURICH CITY…MEH AGAIN
We thought Zurich was beautiful. The river is pretty. The clock at St. Peter’s Church is cool. The Charlemagne statue in the basement of Grossmünster is actually pretty cool and a bit creepy. It’s a pretty town in the sense that most places in Europe are. It was clear and clean and nice weather. All that being said, we just didn’t see or do anything that stood out to us. If we could do it again, we would have spent another day in the Interlaken region and ended in Zurich that night, just long enough to sleep and fly out the next day. I hope I’m wrong. I hope we missed amazing things and that Zurich is the best city ever. Please, someone, tell me what we missed!
…AND THAT’S A WRAP
I can’t really explain how gorgeous Switzerland is, so I’m not even going to try. You should go. We flew from Zurich to Amsterdam where we only had an hour layover, and from Amsterdam direct to SLC. Everything went perfectly. I’m past the point of trying to rank our trips or decide where this place fits in my pantheon of awesomeness, but it ruled. Everything ruled. The trip ruled. Everything still rules.