Sunday, March 22, 2009

Trip to Switzerland - June 2005


Ever since I visited Geneva on an official trip in September 2001 ( 9/11 happened when I was in Geneva), I had a fascination of Switzerland as a country where everything looked beautiful. Being a mountain lover, I was keen to visit Jungfraujoch which was known as the Top of Europe. At last, I could finalise a short trip to Switzerland during mid- June 2005. Considering my budget, I restricted the itinerary to 6 nights to cover Interlaken, Jungfraujoch, Lucerne, Mount Pilatus and Geneva - a mix of destinations covering Swiss Alps, lakes and the historical towns. Having decided the places and the fact that June was the peak tourist season, I booked EURAIL tickets, Swiss Transfer Tickets and hotels at Interlaken, Lucerne and Geneva through Cox & Kings, one of the authorised travel companies in India for Rail Europe and Swiss Transfer Tickets.

Day-1 : To Zurich-Interlaken

A mid-night Swiss Air flight from Mumbai landed Zurich early morning on the schedule time. After picking up our check-in baggage and clearing immigration, we walked down to Zurich Airport railway station and validated the tickets for 07.43 a.m. Inter-city Express train to Interlaken-Ost (East) - our first destination. The double-decker train arrived on time and we boarded the one of the train compartments that was almost empty. Interlaken was a 2.20 hours journey from Zurich and the train reached Interlaken-Ost on schedule time at 10.00 a.m.


Interlaken-Ost railway station

Interlaken-Ost is the main railway station for changing trains to many alpine villages and also to Jungfraujoch - the top of Europe. The station looked more like a tourist venue than the a normal railway station. We went to a Tourist Office located inside the station building to enquire about the location of Hotel Weisses Kreuz where we had reservation and the next day's trip to Jungfraujoch. The lady at the counter gave me a tourist map of Interlaken after marking the direction of the hotel. After a 15 minutes walk on the main street in sunny but pleasant weather, we reached the hotel. The room was spacious and clean. I was pleasantly surprised to read the instruction pasted above the wash basin in Hindi in addition to English and other three national languages of Switzerland, to the effect that the water from wash basin tap was fit for drinking. So our Bollywood films have made Interlaken a famous place for Indian tourists!

After a bath and the change of clothes, we went for a walk on the main street towards Interlaken-Ost railway station. Apart from souvenir shops and pavement open restaurants, there were a couple of luxury hotels on the main street. At the centre of the town was a vast lush green meadow called Hochemattee. There are pavement at the edge the meadow for people to walk. A band was playing some music as we passed through the pavement.

Music 'concerts' at Hochemattee meadow

After lunch at an Indian restaurant, we continued our walking tour on the main street towards Interlaken-West railway station which was a town side. A leisure walk from one side to the other side took just 45 minutes. We realised that our hotel was much nearer to Interlaken-West station than the main Interlaken-Ost station. In the evening, we spent time in Hochemmatte meadow and watched para gliders landing on the meadow.


Interlaken's main street


A para glider landing at Hochemattee meadow

Interlaken in French means " between two lakes". It is located between Brienz and Thun lakes. It is a town with a village atmosphere where everything looks beautiful - houses, blue lakes, snow-capped mountains, meadows. It is an important base for many excursions, lake cruises and outdoor sports such as trekking, mountaineering, sailing, skiing, para-gliding, hang-gliding, sky diving etc. From the brochures I collected from the hotel, I could guess that one can easily spend a week in Interlaken making it a base for the various outdoor activities. Since our main purpose of visiting Interlaken was to travel on alpine trains and see Jungfrau - the top of Europe and also considering our budget and the time, we did not venture out for any other excursions.

Hochemattee meadow with snow-covered mountains

Day-2 : Interlaken-Jungfraujoch-Interlaken

Today was our day of the alpine train journey to Jungfraujoch. This involved changing the trains at two places - Lauterbrunnen and Kleine Scheidegg. Fortunately, the weather was clear and sunny which was one of the deciding factors whether or not to take the trip to Jungfraujoch. After the breakfast at our hotel's restaurant, we walked down to Interlaken-Ost railway station to catch the train to Lauterbrunnen.

Train Journey to Jungfraujoch - the experience of a life time.

After validating our Swiss Passes, we crossed over to the platform which was already crowded with tourists. Our experience of Mumbai suburban train journey came handy as we could manage to get window seats in the blue colour train to Lauterbrunnen (altitude: 798m). It took just 15 minutes to reach Lauterbrunnen.

Train from Lauterbrunnen at Kliene Scheidegg station

The green and yellow colour train to Kliene Scheidegg (2061m) was already on the other side of the platform. We rushed towards the train in waiting and again got the window seat. The one hour journey to Kliene Scheidegg was the most beautiful journey I had ever taken so far with incredible views - vast meadows, small villages, valleys and snow covered mountains with glaciers. We could see many walking trails from the train.

A pretty village view from train to Kliene

At Kliene Scheidegg, we had to again change to red and yellow strips train for Jungfraujoch. Some of the tourist who were travelling with us did not board the train to Jungfraujoch which came on the other side of the platform after few minutes. My guess was that they must have gone on trekking or on walking trips to the surrounding areas. The first 15 minutes journey up to Eigergletscher station was through vast meadows. The remaining 45 minutes journey was in the tunnel through the Eiger mountain.


Train to Jungfraujoch at Kliene Scheidegg station (2061m)

Eigerwand (2865m) was the first station in the tunnel where train stopped for 15 minutes to enable the tourists to get down from the train to have a panoramic view of the Alps glaciers through big windows carved out of the rocks. We saw one of the the glaciers which was very close from the viewing windows which looked stupendous.


Train at Eigerwand station (2865m) - the first tunnel station


Eigerwand station in the tunnel. Exit at left takes to the View Point

View of the glacier from Eigerwand tunnel cave windows

There was one more tunnel station - Eismeer (3160m) where train stopped for 5 minutes. It took about an hour from Kliene Scheidegg to reach Jungfraujoch (3454m) - the last station in the tunnel which is still the highest station in the world. At the end of the platform there were lifts which took us to Ice Palace and the Snow Plateau. There were lifts at the other end of the platform for visiting Sphinx ( Jungfrau Observation Tower) and shops, cafeteria and restaurants.

Jungfraujoch railway station (3454m) - the highest train station in the world

The Ice Palace

After coming out of the lift, the entrances to the Ice Palace and the Snow Plateau were on the right and left respectively. The Ice Palace was a man made cave with natural formation of ice on walls, ceiling and the ground. Some of the ice formations were several feet thick. Obviously, it was freezing cold as we entered the Ice Palace. It was a great experience for us to feel as if we were moving inside a big refrigerator! There were railings to take hand support as the ground ice was slippery. There were many sculptures made of solid ice including the one of Mickey Mouse which the children enjoyed the most.

Way to Ice Palace

Sculptures made from solid ice

Ice sculpture of Mickey Mouse in the background

The Plateau - the snow gateway

A gateway to the right of Ice Palace took us to the snow covered Plateau. This was the place from where one could see nothing but snow around. We were lucky that it was sunny with a clear blue sky but it was cold and windy day. If the weather was bad, the authorities would not have allowed us to go beyond the Ice Palace. We walked very slowly on the slippery snow as we did not carry sticks to take support.

Coming out of the ice gateway to Jungfrau snow plateau

View of Jungfrau snow plateau from entrance side

There were places marked on the by ropes indicating that these tracks were safe for walking. From the Plateau, there were spectacular view of the trinity of mountains - Eiger, Monch and Jungfrau looming over the Aletsch glacier which is the longest glacier in the Alps. Just in front of Mt. Monch was the Sphinx - the observation tower which was visible from the Plateau.

We on the Plateau with Sphinx in the background

Our next place of visit was the Sphinx Observatory (3570m), the highest view point on the Alps. A lift located at the extreme end of the railway platform took us to the Sphinx. Around the observatory, there was a platform made up of steel and iron grills where we could take 360 degree view. From the platform, Mt. Eiger (3970m), Mt. Monch (4107m) and Mt Jungfrau (4158m) can be seen from the close range. Tourists are not permitted to go inside the Sphinx as it is an office premise used by the scientists.


On the way to the Sphinx platform

Sphinx platform for 360 degree view. Mt.Monch in the background


1- View from Sphinx platform


2- View from Sphinx platform

From the Sphinx, we came down to have lunch in one of the restaurants located at the mid point between Plateau and Sphinx. We were pleasantly surprised to find the Bollywood Restaurant. The four walls of the restaurant were full of posters of Bollywood actors and movies. This was the place where one could have snow view from the windows while eating. At these altitude with tourist crowd, the lunch had to be very expensive.


Bollywood Restaurant where we had buffet lunch

After lunch, we walked through a tunnel to which led us to the base of the Aletsch glacier. We walked over the glacier for few meters but soon gave up as in the absence of crampon and sticks, it was difficult to walk on the slippery snow. There were options available here for activities like skiing, sledge dog rides and glacier crossing from one end to the other by sliding on the hanging ropes.


On to the glacier


Tunnel exit to the glacier

It was around 3.00 p.m, when we returned to Jungfraujoch station to catch the train for return journey to Interlaken. We boarded 3.15 p.m. train to Kliene Scheidegg. As the train came out of the long tunnel, the weather remained clear to our delight as we could clearly see villages in the valley from the train. After changing trains at Kliene Scheidegg and Lauterbrunnen, we reached Interlaken-Ost at around 5.00 p.m.


Valley view from the train window on way to Lauterbrunnen

The alpine train journey gave me glimpses of the trekking possibilities in around Jungfraujoch. Apart from many easy day-treks which can be undertaken from the Interlaken, there are number of treks originating from Lauterbrunnen and Kliene Scheidegg. There are many village resorts which provide staying options for trekkers. In case of any emergency, there are options of cogwheel railways and cable cars on some of the trekking routes. However, trekking at the higher altitude involving snow and glaciers may be of a technical nature. For instance, trekking Aletsch glacier would require equipments that are necessary for snow trekking.

Day-3 : To Lucerne

We boarded the 10.00 a.m. train at Interlaken-Ost for a two-hour journey to Lucerne (Luzern in German). On the way, the train halted at Brienz. The station was located at the bank of Brienz lake and one could walk to the other hand of the platform to catch ferry for villages in around the lake. The train passed through the villages located in the midst of meadows around Brienz lake.

Brienz lake by the side of Brienz railway station on way to Lucerne


View of the valley from the train to Lucerne


View of Brienz village from the train

Our train reached Lucerne on schedule time of 12 noon. The ultra modern Lucerne railway station was a large one with partially transparent roof. My guess was that it had more than 12 platforms. It was a bit of a surprise for me to note that the architecture of the station did not match with that of the medieval structures of Lucerne. Later I came to know that the 19th century train station was destroyed by a fire and the present station was constructed during late 1980s. However, the main portal of the old station which remained unaffected by the fire did give the impression of the station's past heritage. The Tourist Office was located at the west side inside the station.

View of Lucerne railway station building from the lake side


Road from the station skirting the Lucerne lake going towards old town

The lady at the tourist counter gave me the direction of NH Hotel where we had resevation. The hotel was located in the old town area which was about 15 minutes walk from the station. In fact, almost all the main hotels and tourist attractions in Lucerne were within the walkable distances from the railway station, the nearest being the Chapel Bridge (5 minutes).

After lunch, we strolled around the old town area which was full of medieval buildings. The town was situated between Reuss River and the lake front which lent beauty to the town. Later we walked on the Lucerne lake front towards railway station. It was a bit warm afternoon but the breeze coming through the lake side lent some coolness. The view across the lake surrounded by mountains with forest was spectacular. The quay located in front of the Lucerne railway station is the boarding point for boats going to towns located on the shores of the lake. We did not go for a boat ride as we had decided to visit Mount Pilatus the next day via the boat cruise through tha lake.


On the way to Chapel Bridge and Water Tower

On the Chapel Bridge. Note the paintings on the rafters of the ceiling

After crossing the road from the lake front, we reached the Chapel Bridge (Kapellbruecke in German). It is at this point that Lake Lucerne joins Ruess River. The wooden bridge is almost diagnol to the river. A walk through this bridge gave us the glimpses of the history of Lucerne through the paintings hanging on the rafters of the ceiling. On the right side of the bridge, a Water Tower (Wasserturm in German) made up of bricks was located. The Chapel Bridge with Water Tower is the most important trademark of Lucerne. There are hotels and open restaurants on the other side of the river which are great places for relaxations.



River side hotels and the open restaurants seen from Chapel Bridge

In the evening, we walked to the Lion Monument located in the old town area which was also an important landmark of Lucerne. A statue of dying lion carved out of a natural rock was built in 1820 in honour of all Swiss Guards who laid down their lives in the battle of Paris. A closure look at the lion statue gave an impression that the lion was in pain just before he was about to die. It was really a wonderful piece of art generating sadness and emotional upheaval amongst visitors - both for the lion and the swiss guards.

Lion Monument

We ended our walking tour at Kanchi Restaurant located in old town area. We had south Indian snacks but it was very expensive even by the local standard.

Day-4 : Exercusion To Mount Pilatus (2132m)

After breakfast at our hotel restaurant, we walked towards the Lucerne railway station where the quay was located for boat rides. Our Swiss Transfer Passes gave us the option of travelling to Mount Pilatus (2132m) by railways, boats, buses and cable cars/gondolas. We decided to have the experience of all the four modes of transport involved in execursion to Mount Pilatus. We boarded the boat bound for Alpnachstad village for catching cogwheel train to Pilatus Kulm. The passengers were moslty the tourist crowd going for Mount Pilatus. It was a 90-minute cruise in the Lucerne Lake passing through beautiful meadows on the one shore of the lake with equally beautiful houses and the medieval structures on the other shore of the lake forming the part of Lucerne town.

Boats at Lucerne quay leaving for nearby villages


One of the medieval bulidings on the shore of the lake in Lucerne


One more view of Lucerne from the lake

The boat ride revealed that the uneven shape of the Lucerne lake which gave different perspective as we moved along its shores. There was a solitary house (or castle) with a great location surrounded by lush green meadow sliding down from the hill side to the the lake shore. It was very romantic place indeed.


A solitary country house - a romantic location on the lake side


More houses on the lake side

We alighted at Alpnaschtad and from here it was a 5-minute walk to the railway station. I could see 2-3 trains on the platform with tracks in almost 45 degree gradient. The Pilatus railway is the world's steepest railway with on an average 48 degree gradient. After validating the tickets, we boarded the cogwheel train. Each cabin with open winodws had the capacity for 6 passengers. The cogwheel electric train moved in a slow speed and reached Pilatus Kulm (2070m) in about 45 minutes after travelling through boulder-ridden landscapes and 5 tunnels.

Alpnachstas railway station. The red cogwheel train on the right

A cogwheel train moving into a tunnel on way to Pilatus Kulm

Pilatus Kulm is located on a narrow mountain top where two hotels with restaurants and a viewing terrace are located. Black crows with their yellow peeks welcomed us. I guessed they were so much used to the tourists crowd here that they came closest to us expecting some eatables like nuts from us.


Viewing terrace. Hotel Bellevue in the background

Yellow peeked crows come closest to a tourist

A cog wheel train entering the Pilatus Kulm station

From the viewing terrace, there were 3 short trials leading to the top of mountains. We decided to attempt the one which went through the rock gallery - also called dragon path. The gallery was carved out of the rock in which paintings depecting the history and myth associated with Mount Pilatus was depicted. It is said that a ghost Pilatus, a Roman governor ultimately found a resting place here.

A steep climb to one of the mountain peaks

It was a steep trail of about 1 km through the rocks, boulders and the man-made steel staircases. In about 30 minutes we reached the mountain summit. It was a worthy effort as we could get 360 degree view of the magnificent Swiss Alps ranges, forests, meadow, lake and the Lucerne town.


Top of the mountain - our destination of the trail


Some time for rest and ........

some time for talk

Steel staircase for easy walk

At last on the top of the mountain
View from the summit
After spending some time on the summit, we walked back to Pilatus Kulm terrace. We had an buffet lunch at the restaurant of Hotel Pilatus Kulm. Though expensive, we had a good mix of Swiss and Maxican cuisines. It was time for the return journey and as decided earlier, we took the cable car from Pilatus Kulm to Frankunthie, changed over to the gondola rides to Kriens from where we reached Lucerne by a trolly bus. The return journey took about 40 minutes. It was a marvellous experience of travelling in all the modes of transport in our execursion to Mount Pilatus. The weather was perfect for mountain rendezvous. I wished I could have trekked down from Mount Pilatus to Alpnaschtad on a zigzag path as some were seen doing that.

Cable car coming from Kreins to Mount Pilatus

The evening in Lucerne was devoted for strolling around lake front and window shopping in the area close to Chapel Bridge. There was no question of any purchases as the things were expensive even in the European standard. Even a lowest costing swiss watch was way out of our budget.

Day-5 : Lucerne - Geneva
After breakfast, we checked out the hotel and as usual decided to walk to the Lucerne station with our trolley suitecases, this time on the opposite side of the lake front, for catching the first available train to Geneva, our last destination. Half way through our walk, a Swiss elderly couple came to us and the elderly man enquired in Hindi as to which part of India we belonged. I was not surprised about identifying us as Indian with my wife in saree with vermilion on her forehead. But what surprised me was he was speaking in good Hindi. I replied in Hindi saying that we belonged to Bombay. He immediately corrected me to say that it was not Bomaby any more but Mumbai. On my query, he revealed that he learnt Hindi during his assignment in embassy at New Delhi. As we walked towards station, the Swiss couple crossed over to the other side of the road. Later my wife told me that I did not take enough initiative in continuing the talk as she felt that elderly Swiss was interested in continuing the conversation. It was quite possible that after a long time, he got an opportunity to talk in Hindi which he did not want to miss.
We boarded 9.55 a.m. train to Geneva via Oltan-Bern-Lussane and reached Geneva (Gare de Cornavin) at around 1.00 p.m. It was a typical railway station with crowd, cafeteria, restaurants and shops. The railway station was located in the heart of Geneva and the Lac Leman (Geneva Lake), parks, shopping places, bus stand are all in the walkable distance from the station. There was a big underground shopping centre just outside the main exit from the station.
I was familiar with the areas around the station as I had spent five days here in 2001. We had no difficulty in locating the Hotel Drake where we had reservation. It was a 15 minute walk from the station in unusually hot afternoon and by the time we checked in the hotel, we were perspiring. Although the room was clean and neat, the absence of ceiling fan made us sweat. In Geneva one did not need fans as the weather was supposed to be pleasant even in summer. But in 2005, Geneva had experienced the hottest summer during the last 100 years! During our entire stay in Switzerland, there were not even the trace of summer rains which was unusual for the Alps region. After freshening up, we had quick meals at Mcdonald after which we went for a stroll on the left bank of the lake and spent some time in Jardin Anglais (English Garden). The breeze blowing from the lake side and the tree shades provided much needed relief from the heat.

On the lake promenade opposite Jardin Anglais (English Garden)

Near Jardine Anglais was the statue of two women standing arm-in-arm in a fond embrace. This was a national monument representing the merger of Geneva canton with Switzerland. There was a flower clock and a fountain in the garden but it appeared that the hot conditions had taken a toll of flowers and the fountain as well.

National Monument
We continued our walk over the Mont Blonc bridge and reached Brunswick Monument which was a mausoleum of Duke of Brunswick. He was a rich and he donated his money to the town with a condition that after his death, a mausoleum be built for him.
Brunswick Monument
After an early dinner, we returned to our hotel room which was still warm despite keeping all windows open. But the spectacular view of illuminated Jet d'Eau ( lake fountain) seen from our room compensated for our discomfort from the heat .
Day-6 : Geneva-Zurich
I got up to a pleasant morning weather but with summer sunlight, it gave me a feeling that I was late in getting up. After breakfast in the hotel restaurant, we walked towards the lake. The day was already becoming warm as we crossed the road to take a stroll on the lake promenade. The lake fountain Jet d'Eau was already in full force. What surprised me was that despite being the peak tourist season, there were hardly any tourist crowd on the lake front (see the picture below). Probably the heat condition could have discouraged the tourists from walking in the sun and instead preferred to go for watersports.

At Geneva lake. In the background is Jet d' Eau ( Lake fountain)

From the lake front, one gets a good view of the old town. The high range hotels are located on the lake front. Some of the international organisations like World Trade Organisation (WTO), Red Cross Society, and many UN organisations are located near the lake front. After walking for about 1 km, we moved towards parks which were adjunct to lake front. At least the tree shades made the walking in the park more pleasurable than on the lake front.

Sailing Boats in Geneva lake

After finishing our lunch at one of the restaurants located opposite Gare d' Cornavin, we did some shopping at the underground complex near the station and at the shops located near Notre Dame cathedral. Shops in Geneva also accept euros thus saving the cost of conversion into Swiss francs.

We boarded the 8.30 p.m. train to Zurich. On the way, it rained heavily for about 30 minutes accompanied by thunder and lightening affecting the train services for sometime. We reached Zurich at around 12 midnight (45 minutes late). We had to run for catching the last connecting train to Zurich airport. As we boarded the early morning Swiss Air flight to Mumbai, the memory of Swiss Alps, the lush green meadows, the medieval buildings and above all the friendly and helpful Swiss folks lingered in our mind.
Photos by the author.