Sunday, July 13, 2014

A Blissfully Swiss Adventure

Switzerland is a fascinating combination of natural beauty and German engineering. Vast and numerous water bodies and plenty of greenery along with the majestic Swiss Alps make way for the most picturesque and pristine landscapes. Add to that some cable cars, cogwheel trains, and funicular trams to access every summit, high or low, and you have more attractions to check off your list at every destination than you can possibly cover, however long your stay. So, in short, rain or shine, you can't be a bored tourist there. During my short Swiss trip, I camped in Zurich and backpacked around armed with a Swiss Pass, which allows unlimited use of almost all forms of transport, including most trains, buses, and boats.  

Day 1: Zurich and Schloss Laufen
I walked around Altstadt (old town) Zurich along the banks of the Limmat river. The river originates from Lake Zurich, a giant lake adjoining the city. The key attractions in the area are the Grossmünster and the Fraumünster churches. The Zurich Hauptbahnhof, which translates to Main Railway Station, is conveniently located near this old town area as are many of Zurich's famous museums. After walking around the old town, I hopped on the train to Schloss Laufen, about an hour away from Zurich, to see the Rhine Falls.

Altstadt (old town) Zurich. Bridge across the Limmat river with a view of the Grossmünster church.

Limmat river bank

The Grossmünster, a Romanesque style church in Zurich

View of the Limmat river from a bridge

Rhine falls in Schloss Laufen, about an hour from Zurich

The Laufen castle gate
Chalet-style cuckoo clocks in the gift shop - very authentically Swiss

Day 2: Luzern
The city of Luzern (German) or Lucerne (French) is in the German-speaking part of Switzerland and is situated next to the gorgeous Lake Luzern. The Reuss river runs through this city. Mount Pilatus and Mount Rigi in the Swiss Alps, are easily accessible from the city. It was cloudy and drizzling for most of the time while I was in Luzern. Hoping the sun will come out later during the day, I decided to take a look around the city at a later time and quickly boarded the boat to Mount Pilatus. Despite the weather, the boat ride through Lake Luzern was very scenic. I took the cogwheel train to the top of Mount Pilatus. The Pilatus line supposedly has the steepest train track in the world. Legend has it that Pontius Pilate was buried on this mountain (hence its name). Also as per medieval lore, the mountain boasts its very own resident dragon. Hence the Mount Pilatus features a dragon logo and a fire-red dragon mascot named Pilu. The summit was shrouded in thick layers of haze. So there wasn't was much of a view. But the fog itself lent a mystic vibe to the train ride and the short climb to the viewing point afterward. I also walked along the Dragon Path, a trail with misty tunnels, which felt so charmingly Tolkienesque!! On the way down the mountain, I rode the cable car. To save time, I took a bus back to the main city instead of the boat. The city was crowded (with tourists) but quaint.  The Kapellbrücke or Chapel Bridge, a wooden footbridge across the River Reuss, was by far the most visited destination in the city! 

View of the Luzern city from a boat on Lake Luzern. It was a rainy and cloudy day. 
Boat ride on Lake Luzern toward Mount Pilatus. The Swiss Alps shrouded in the mist.

Beautiful chalets on the bank.
One charming little chalet.

Another boat on the lake.

At Mount Pilatus: Ready to board the red cogwheel train. This Pilatus line supposedly has the steepest train track in the world. Legend has it that Pontius Pilate was buried on this mountain (hence its name). Also as per medieval lore, the mountain boasts its very own resident dragon. Hence the logo!

The clouds and the rain imparted a certain mystical vibe to the train ride.

It was drizzling and windy at the summit. So there was no view per se. Just thick haze and clouds.

Despite the cold, I trudged up to the viewing station which had this charming little windmill.

I walked along the Dragon Path, a trail with misty tunnels, which felt so Tolkienesque!!

The descent was via cable car.

The Kapellbrücke or Chapel Bridge, a famous (and hyped) wooden footbridge across the Reuss river in Luzern.

The Reuss was teeming with waterfowl. This one's my favorite swan photo. 

Another view of Luzern's famous footbridge, the Kapellbrücke. 

Day 3: Bern and the Bernese Oberland
On day 3, I took the train to Interlaken, a town in the Bernese Oberland (German for Highlands) region of the Swiss Alps. On the way there, I changed trains at Bern, the Swiss capital. Thanks to some great travel advice from the Zurich tourist office, I randomly hopped off the train at Bern and made a quick visit to the Altstadt or old town area. My key interest was in taking a quick look at Einsteinhaus, past abode of the great scientist. I saw the Zytelogge, a medieval clock tower and the Zähringerbrunnen, statue of an armored bear, both Bernese landmarks, before hurrying back to catch the train to Interlaken. 
Interlaken is the key access point for a multitude of nearby scenic destinations in the Bernese Oberland area. This area is ideal for hikes and trekking. The most famous attraction there is the lofty Jungfrau mountain. Due to the dearth of time and a snow jacket, I decided to spend my day at Lauterbrunnen instead. The weather, although less wet than the previous day, continued to be dismal. I first went to the Trummelbach Falls. This is a unique waterfall with a series of ten cascades inside a mountain cave accessed through a hi-tech tunnel lift and a series of tunnel paths. I found the complex waterfall structure utterly fascinating. However, due to the limited viewing angles, the photos do not do it justice. I then boarded the train to Murren, a little village high up on a mountain. The views from Murren were breathtaking. 
On the way back to Zurich, I had planned to take the longer but scenic Interlaken-Luzern train trip instead of the shorter route back through Bern. That, I must say, was a train ride through heaven. As the clouds cleared away and the sunbeams touched the lake, the water took up a bright teal shade, and I wished the journey would never end. But the journey was interrupted sooner that I had imagined. I suddenly realized the train would make a stop at Meiringen. The town of Meiringen (where the meringue is said to have been first created) is home to the Reichenbach Falls. Holmes fans would know that this is the location where Conan Doyle tried to kill off his hero in the story "The Final Problem." Thanks to rebelling fans, he was later forced to resurrect Holmes. Reichenbach Falls has since then had a status boost thanks to the immortal detective. While it was in my original list of places to visit, I had struck it off due to the long journey to and from Interlaken. But upon discovering it was on my route back, I gleefully got off the train. Again, there was a funicular taking us to a location higher up where we had a better view of the falls. The place was full of interesting exhibits, including both photos and articles on Holmes' Reichenbach episode. The city of Meiringen features a recurring Sherlock Holmes theme. Thanks to my Swiss Pass, I had free access to their Sherlock Holmes museum, which, among other things, had a really neat model of Holmes' Baker Street apartment, carefully constructed using clues and details from Conan Doyle's works. 

Altstadt (old town) Bern, the Swiss capital. The ursine mascot of Bern is in the foreground and Bern's landmark clock tower is in the background.
Einsteinhaus or literally Einstein house, past abode of Einstein, now a museum. My unplanned halt at Bern was largely motivated by the proximity of this place to the station.
Closer view of Zähringerbrunnen, the armored bear.

The Zytglogge is the landmark clock tower in old town Bern.

At Interlaken, my chief destination was Lauterbrunnen. There I saw the Trummelbach falls. This is a unique waterfall with a series of 10 cascades inside a cave accessed through tunnels and a hi-tech tunnel lift.

One of the cascades. Top view from the trail.

The waterfall spiraling down through the crevices. (Depth/height perception might be a bit hard from this single image.)

The trail through the tunnel. The water is flowing through the crevice to the right.

The climb down

Train ride to Murren, a montane village in Bernese Oberland.

Chalets on the mountaintop in Murren.

The view from Murren.

Train ride through heaven. This is a scenic route connecting Interlaken to Luzern.

Reichenbach Falls: I randomly hopped off the train at Meiringen, with the intent to witness Reichenbach falls. This is the location where Conan Doyle tried to kill off his hero in the story "The Final Problem" before resurrecting him in the story "The Empty House." 

The city of Meiringen features a recurring Sherlock Holmes theme.

Day 4: Lugano and Bellinzona
Craving for some warmth and sun, I decided to visit Lugano on day 4. Lugano is a city in the Italian-speaking southern part of the Switzerland located in the wider Ticino area. The train ride from Zurich to Lugano was very scenic, running next to mountains and lakes. Unlike the German-speaking areas, where most people spoke some English, here I was repeatedly rescued by my broken French. The city of Lugano is located next to Lake Lugano (by now you see a trend!) and the Lugano Prealps mountains. There, I first explored the Parco Civico and then boarded a boat that makes a circular trip round the lake. I got off the boat at the stop Paradiso and took the funicular ride to the Monte San Salvatore summit. The summit offers a 360° panoramic view of the city, the lake and the mountains. 
Keeping my early morning return flight in mind, I decided to call it a day and head back to Zurich. But then I suddenly recalled that the inbound train to Lugano had stopped at Bellinzona, which, as per my research on the area, was home to three grand castles. Soon after I found myself making yet another unplanned stop to see one of the castles in Bellinzona. I visited the Castelgrande, which was at a walking distance from the station. From the Castelgrande I could see the other two castles, the Montebello and the Sasso Corbaro, at a distance. The castles were all very majestic and well-preseved. I made a quick trip to the archeological section of the castle museum before running to catch the next train back to Zurich.  Thus concluded my blissfully Swiss adventure!

Piazza della Riforma, Lugano. Lugano is in the Italian-speaking Ticino area in Switzerland. It was noticeably warmer and sunnier there.

View of Lake Lugano from Parco Civico.

The lovely Parco Civico.

Boat ride on Lake Lugano.

View from the boat.

Atop Monte San Salvatore. A panoramic view of the city from the summit.

Another view from Monte San Salvatore summit.

Bellinzona is known for its three castles. Due to time constraints, I could visit only one, the Castelgrande.

View of the other two castles from Castelgrande: the Montebello (closer) and the Sasso Corbaro (farther).

The castle rampart.

Trudging up the castle path.

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