Switzerland is unreal. It will constantly stop you in your tracks with sights that you can’t believe you are seeing. Its alpine valleys beg you to come into the country. The majestic Alps are amazing in so many ways. I get mesmerized every time I am there.
Because of its size it is an easy country to tour. Because of its mountain range it is a difficult country to get through. The train system runs with Germanic efficiency. Some of the train stations look like sets straight out of the movies.
In fact, the highest train station in Europe is in Switzerland in the Jungfrau Region of the Alps. It sits at 11,821 feet above sea level. I was there in the middle of July a number of years ago and the high temperature for the day was 32 degrees.
One of the first times I was in Switzerland I was driving in Zurich late in the evening. It was dark and it was summer, so it must have been after 11 at night. We were driving a van through a neighborhood, my wife, my son, and a great friend of ours, when I noticed something blocking the road.
When I first saw it, I thought maybe some drunk was stumbling in the street. As we got closer, I realized that it was police roadblock. There were about four or five police officers there. They had a car blocking the way. I pulled up and rolled down my window, trying to stay calm.
As I looked closer my calm evaporated and I almost panicked. Every officer was carrying an automatic rifle and they had their fingers on the trigger guards. An officer was on both sides of the van shining a flashlight into the van.
The officer on the driver’s side leaned down, his rifle pointing into the car. “Guten abend,” he began in Germany.
“I’m sorry, sir I don’t speak German. I am an American tourist.”
He switched to English. “Good evening, you are free to go. Have a nice night.”
I breathed out a sigh of relief and hurried away. I never did find out what they were looking for, even though it was clearly not us.
That was not the last time I was stopped in Switzerland, but it was the most exciting.
Switzerland is a mixture of cities, towns, and villages. Each of them is nice in its own way. Most of my time has been spent in the German portions of Switzerland, so, my first impression is that everything is orderly and clean. Cars are parked in their spaces and not on the sidewalk. The streets and sidewalks are clean. The air is fresh.
I want to look at two cities and a village. If you do not do anything else while you are in Switzerland, you need to take a train from Zurich to Innsbruck, Austria and ride through the alpine valleys. Grab a window seat and bring a camera.
Bern sits on the edge of the mountains, in fact, you don’t think you are elevated at all until you cross over one of the bridges over the glacial water river far below. Then you realize that anywhere else in the world we would call this the mountains.
This is the de facto capital of modern Switzerland. Likely founded in the 1100s Bern, 140,000 people strong, is a modern city that maintains the look of an ancient town.
Even though it is a big city with casinos and other attractions, the city center area has all the charm of a large village. With its amazing Zytglogge or Time Bell hanging over an archway that guards the city center. You will want to spend some time observing the clock, and it’s mini-glockenspiel and moving puppets, before you walk through the archway to the center. Watch out for the street cars in this area.
Entering the city center is always fun in European cities. They are commonly pedestrian only areas so you can relax as you walk along. There is plenty of space so that even on busy days you do not feel so crowded. Walk along the street, and even under the overhang if it is hot or rainy. This is the first covered shopping space in Europe and it extends for over four miles making it one of the longest covered shopping promenades on the Continent down the edges of the “road.” Again, watch out for the street cars.
There are many other sites to see here, but this gives you a taste for Bern. Make it your own by walking around and observe the people and the buildings. If you are a water person, take an afternoon and tube down the lazy river that splits the town.
Zurich is the banking center of the banking center of the world, Switzerland. It is a beautiful city nestled on the edges of Lake Zurich and has almost 500,000 inhabitants. The city was settled over 2,000 years ago, but do not let that stop you from coming. It is a modern city with a river running through and it is a joy to walk around the center of the city and take in the locals and the tourists.
There are streams to gaze down into from the pedestrian bridge near the train station.
Because of the river and the huge lake to which Zurich is attached, there is plenty of boating going on. The lake reaches out from Zurich into the plateau land of Switzerland. The train station is right near the center of town so getting around town on a train tour of Switzerland is easy enough. There are modern luxury stores for window shop, small cafes, and coffee shops for eating and relaxing. There are lovely tree lined streets for strolling.
Once we were flying back to the States out of Zurich and spent a couple of days there. The morning began with snow falling in late summer. Walking around we were treated to a makeshift museum display of a lot of the original works of Leonardo Da Vinci. For hours we wandered through looking at displays of his journals, protypes of inventions, his famous drawing of the human body. It was an amazing morning that happened accidentally because we were in Zurich.
Take a couple of days, explore, spend your time looking in windows and wondering into buildings, and see all the city has to offer.
Europe is a safe in the inner cities and this is one town that I highly recommend walking around at night. It lights up beautifully and there are many lovely views along the river and in the city center.
Zurich is a great place to reset, relax, and enjoy the atmosphere of a clean Germanic city that walks like a village. I always feel like I am home when I arrive in Zurich.
This is far and away my favorite village in all the world. It is nestled up against the Alps, siting at over four thousand feet in elevation. You can walk the entire city center in about 10 minutes. Nice little shops selling Swiss made goods, ski shops, clothing shops, and charming hotels for every budget taste line the quaint streets.
I first discovered Wengen by accident. We had driven down from Strasbourg, France in the Summer of ‘99 to spend the day in Switzerland. We started in Bern and were finishing the day in Interlaken.
As a precaution we had all brought along an overnight bag in case we found adventure. And find adventure we did. In the mid-afternoon the day John Kennedy, Jr.’s plane disappeared we were standing and staring at the mountains trying to decide whether to go back to France, or deeper into the mountains
At the time, we did not know that Kennedy’s plane was missing so we were enjoying a normal day. Or as normal a day as one can have when the boss is a triple A personality and sitting in Strasbourg, France with the potential to ruin your day at any moment.
We started off just wondering through Interlaken and then we were on the edge of town taking pictures back into the mountains. That was when I realized we were really only playing around the edges and it was time to get serious.
I looked at Dan Norman, our corporate pilot, who was with us and said, “I can have you eating dinner in the shadow of those snow-covered mountains tonight. What do you think?”
Never one to turn down an adventure, Dan was all in. We polled the rest of the group, got in our van and took off. About forty-five minutes later we were pulling into the car park for the train station at Lauterbrunnen. A beautiful village, but not the one calling us. We took a special train up another four thousand feet into Wengen. When we got to the train station we stepped out of the train, split up, and went looking for a hotel for the night. We needed two rooms and a free breakfast.
From the moment I stepped off the train in Wengen I was in love. This beautiful mountain village does not allow cars. Locals drive around in the rare electric golf cart. It is small enough that there is literally no reason to have a vehicle. We found a delightful little family run hotel on the edge of the valley, looking out at the Jungfrau Mountains and over Lauterbrunnen. It was almost impossible to step in from the balcony and not just stare, open-mouthed.
That night we had an incredible meal eating on the balcony looking at the Jungfrau. They served local beef and other meats cooked over an open flame in a buffet style. Amazing!
After dinner we strolled down the main street and window shopped. The fresh mountain air, at 4,100 or so feet, is cool and fresh, even in July. This is a hiking town in the warmer months, and it is the home of an annual World Cup Ski event every year. Either way, it is great to be in Wengen.
The next morning, we got up and headed up to the Jungfrau. On clear days this is one of the best train rides in the world. On an overcast day it is anticlimactic because you cannot see past the window of the train.
Along the way you ran into the most amazing sight. During the night we kept hearing the sounds of bells clanging in the distance. Suddenly, we came upon an alpine vista that explained the bells. It made this fantasy weekend even more of a fantasy. Cows grazing in the rich alpine grass on the side of mountains!
At almost 7,000 feet there is the town of Kleine Scheidigg. This is basically the place where two train tracks come together and there is a nice hotel, restaurant and general shop here. There is also the men playing the traditional Swiss horns. It is like stepping out into a Ricola commercial. Summer or winter folks are always milling about, shopping, eating, waiting on a train because this is the connection point for the Jungfrau railway to the Jungfraujoch, the highest train station in Europe.
To get to the Jungfraujoch you must travel on a train that runs through the mountain. This scenic tour takes you on the edge of the mountains looking back over Lauterbrunnen and the entire area opens up in front of you. Finally, you arrive at the highest train station in Europe and step out into the snowing domain of the Jungfrau.
You step off the train at 11,332 feet above sea level. Be ready to slow down as the air is extremely thin up here. We left with headaches. On this trip, as I have said, it was July and the high for the day on the top of Europe was 32 degrees. It was cold, but man what a time we had.
There is plenty to do here, and ice palace and an observatory, but we were content to look around, watch the summer skiers and head back down the mountain.
Later that day we returned to reality and drove back to Strasbourg, France where we were working for the summer.
Since that first trip I have returned three times. Every time is special, and I cannot wait to go back again.