Thursday, 18 October 2012

Week 3 - Switzerland

Lake Geneva
Hi all! Looks like I finally have a quieter day happening, so it's time for another travel update.

So, now I'm in Berlin, at John and Dai Meng's place. They're following the same pattern as everyone else and are attempting to spoil me with various outings, adventures and goodies, but right now it's time to rewind back to Switzerland, where I spent last week at my friend Anna's place.

Venice and Imperia were full of sunshine, but this sort of thing doesn't generally last (unless it is a Brisbane winter), and my time in Switzerland was a fairly rainy, overcast affair, for the most part. This didn't stop me form having a great week though.

Anna organised some great public transport passes, which allow you to travel the entire country all day for a fixed price. We spent the first day after I arrived touring the west and south of the country (which is very conveniently small compared to somewhere ridiculous like Australia).

We stopped off at Montreux and had some delicious crepes for lunch (seeing a pattern yet?), and then walked around on the pretty Lake Geneva shoreline for a while. There was no smoke – only some mist - on the water.

Bern
Then we train hopped to Berne (which I'm sure you all know is the capital of Switzerland) and had a little look around as the light disappeared. I really quite liked Berne, it has a nice feel and lots of interesting old architecture. All in all a great intro day to the country.

Bern at dusk
I spent the next couple of days relaxing and catching up on emails (and writing the last update). It's good to have these downtime days every so often when you travel otherwise it's easy to get burned out and cranky with everything. The weather was pretty lousy, but I did manage to get out of the house and look around Winterthur, taking a stroll through the main street, visiting a local photographic exhibition, and walking up the hill through a local park to (literally) smell the roses that grow up there.

On Wednesday it was time to head further out again, solo this time as Anna had to work. She did help me plan an excellent little adventure though; down south again, but this time into the Italian sector of the country (Montreux is in the French-speaking bit) - mainly because the weather sounded like it would be better there.

So, after an early start, various connecting trains, and some spectacular scenery, I made my way to Diavolezza, in the Alps (and not that far from St Moritz).

Pers Glacier from Diavolezza
The cable car took me up to about 3000m. It was still cloudy, but the fog lifted and I got a great view of the local glacier and mountains. I was pretty hungry by then, but decided to take a couple of quick pics, which was wise, because as soon as I went inside for lunch the fog rolled in and it snowed fairly heavily for the next 45 minutes or so.

After lunch (finished off with a delicious cafe con grappa) the fog was kind enough to lift for me again, so I went for a little walk and enjoyed the fresh snow, before I had to hop back on the cable car and commence my journey home via St Moritz (just to be different). All in all a great day, despite the weather.

Diavolezza Reflections (spot the dog)
On Thursday I took a shorter trip to Stein am Rheine, a touristy little village near the German border. The fellow in the burger place where I had lunch took a shine to me and I ended up with a free beer, probably just because he wanted to demonstrate the vast superiority of Swiss/German beer over Australian "piss-water" as he put it.

I have to agree. Compared to every single beer I have had over here, the likes of XXXX, VB, New and any of the other common cheaper beers are basically all shite. Luckily we can still get some decent beers in Oz, but we pay through the nose for them (alcohol is *much* cheaper in Europe – about a third of what it costs at home, generally speaking). Anyway, enough about beer for now - there will be more in my German update I'm sure.

Swiss Autumn Colours
I took in the Rheine falls quickly on the way home, and then had a nice relaxing day on Friday. We ate a lot of cheese and yummy things for dinner. This had become a pattern throughout my time there; earlier in the week, Anna had a friend over for dinner and we had a Swiss Raclette (basically melting various cheeses and then eating them with some potatoes and other bits and pieces). Sort of a perfect diet for me, as anyone who knows me well would understand. Cheese and wine for dinner? CAN DO.

On Saturday Anna was finally freed from work (something that the Swiss spend way to much time doing) and we headed out again to a nice "little" mountain spot called Rigi. It's a small hill that rises 1800m from the valleys and lakes around it. We rode the cogwheel train up there, and then took in the pretty scenery (including goats, see http://www.soundcloud.com/strepto42), had lunch, and walked rather speedily for a km or two to the cable car, which we promptly missed by about 30 seconds.

Swiss Autumn Shades
This wasn't so bad though, as the sun came out for pretty much the first time all week, and we were forced to sit in it for half an hour while we waited for the next one. Curses.

After that little interlude, we zipped down the mountain and took a ferry across the lake to Lucerne, an even more touristy town than Stein am Rheine. Anna had said it was a bit "meh" and I agree; I found Berne much nicer. I guess I'm just not one for overly touristy spots, unless they are exceptional (and then I prefer them without people).

And then that was it - the Swiss time was up and I headed to Berlin on Sunday. It was all a bit brief but I did get a nice feel for the country – a place I'd only visited small parts of in the past.

Three of the highest alpine peaks, all >4000m
Switzerland is really lovely overall. The scenery is spectacular just about everywhere. The food and wine are good, as you'd expect. Everything is pretty expensive though, and the Swiss themselves are an interesting bunch. Anna is fairly atypical, having spent far too much time in Australia (we met in Kununarra in 2005). In general, they're a fairly friendly, if somewhat reserved bunch. Only one person all week asked me where I was from, and in general the population seem to keep to themselves and concentrate on the important business of being Swiss (a terribly burdensome occupation from what I believe).
Traditional Mountain Fence

Still, they carry this burden well and run the country very cleanly and efficiently, in a low-key sort of way. Trains run on time – without exception – and even a small delay in transit to wait for another train to pass results in an apology over the loudspeaker.

Contrasts exist though – I saw more radical dress and hairstyles among some of the young people there than I have in a long time anywhere else.

Anna had picked up an amusing little book somewhere, called The Xenophobe's guide to the Swiss. I never quite finished reading it, but it did give me a few chuckles and a certain insight into Swiss mentality that often seems to be disturbingly accurate. Here's a quote:

"The diversity of the Swiss is apparent in the degree to which they worry. The German-speakers do little else. The French-speaking Swiss are great visionaries and philosophers with noble thoughts and global dreams. They worry that their Swiss-German compatriots do not share these dreams. The Italian-speaking Swiss are less interested in the solid values of work and have a terrible tendency not to worry nearly enough."

You can find it on Amazon at
http://www.amazon.com/Xenophobes-Guide-Swiss-Paul-Bilton/dp/1906042500

Switzerland is a place I'll definitely come back to some day, in a less wishy-washy season (ie full summer or full winter).

That's it for this week. Hopefully I haven't forgotten anything important. So much happens and goes on in your head when you travel that it can be hard to remember it all in one go. That's a large part of why I write these emails - they're as much for me as they are for you :)

Island mountains from Rigi
Thanks again Anna for having me to stay! Stay tuned next week for tales of Germans, bullet holes, zombies, and who knows what else...

Edit: The full set of pics from Switzerland are now up on flickr here:
http://www.flickr.com/photos/strepto42/sets/72157632268285656