Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Euro Chapter: Switzerland

It's been around 4 months since my Europe trip so I hope I can do justice to this post on the Switzerland part of the trip. In the first post I wrote about how to plan a trip to Europe in general and in the previous post I covered the Paris part of the trip. If you check the Swiss tour packages then they mainly focus on two places - Interlaken and Lucerne. We checked out all the places that we could visit including Zurich, Bern and Geneva however due to the lack of time (and money) we stuck to the touristy places. The other honest reason for selecting the places we visited was that unlike Paris, we wanted to have a relaxing vacation and not go all over the place (we were on our honeymoon, so you can understand).

Firstly let me go over the mode of transport. The cities are connected by Intercity Express trains which run every hour starting from early morning to late night depending on your route. The day trains do not need reservations and the tickets purchased are valid for one trip anytime throughout the day. Tickets can be bought at the station at the kiosk where you can pay using cash or card in both Euros or Swiss Francs. You do not need to buy tickets if you have the Swiss pass. If you have the Euro Pass then it is not valid on the local trains which connect major cities to smaller tourist attractions or cities. The mountain trains do not accept the Swiss or Euro pass but instead give you discounted fares. Inside the city you have buses and trams which accept these passes or pre purchased tickets through the kiosk. Most hotels in Switzerland give you local bus passes for traveling to/from the hotel so you can check with the hotel before you book.

Our itinerary was as follows:
May 5: Land in Zurich and Travel to Interlaken in the Intercity Train via Bern
May 6: Explore Interlaken
May 7: Travel to Lucerne in the Golden Panoramic Express train
May 8: Explore Lucerne
May 9: Travel to Zurich
May 10: Fly back to Bangalore via Paris in the morning.

While this looks like too much travel, it was not. The journey between the cities took between 1 to 2.5hrs. However the unpacking, packing and carrying luggage will take a toll. The swiss pass is expensive too. So if you have plans to spend more days in the city and explore local then choose the flexi pass to use on non-consecutive days.

Switzerland was a series of bad seating choices for us. To start with we read that the flight to Zurich would give us a good view of Alps from the top but guess what, we were on the wrong side of the plane so didn't see a thing. On landing we took the train from Zurich to Bern and then another train from Bern to Interlaken and there too the view was on the other side of the train :( However we did get some good view along the way :)

Make sure to pick up the free copy of train schedule guide at the station or at the hotel. The trains are prompt to the minute and are scheduled to give you 5-15mins of transit at the major stations to change trains. We booked a nice B&B by the stream near Interlaken West station. Interlaken has a huge lake that you can visit if you can make time.

The two major places in Interlaken are Mount Jungfrau & Trummelbach falls. We asked the B&B guy if we could do the falls first but we were told that it is gonna rain that afternoon which means snow on Jungfrau so he asked us to cover that first since visibility might get bad later. Mt Jungfrau is the top most view point in Europe and is not entirely covered by Swiss Pass. So if you have the Swiss Pass you can purchase a round trip ticket on the train or at the Kleine Scheidegg station where you need to change over from regular Swiss railways to the mountain train. From Kleine Scheidegg you have two routes to Jungfrau, one via Lauterbrunnen and other via Grindelwald. If you time your schedule accordingly then you can go up one way and return on the other.

We took the Wengen - Lauterbrunnen route on our way up to reach the top of Mt Jungfrau.

Here you have the Spinx observatory and a guided tour that lets you pass through Ice Tunnels, hike on the snow and view the Alps from the top most point in Europe.

The B&B guy was right, when we were done with the tour, the visibility was really bad. There is a food court and a bollywood cafe that serves Indian food We reached back to Kleine Scheidegg via Grindelwald. While the initial route was all snow, this route had a nice green cover :)

We planned to go to Trummelbach falls but sadly it closed by 5 so we could only see it from far.
With all the cold, we were not that hungry. So we took some snacks to our room from the nearby grocery store and prepared ready to eat Bisibelebath using the water heater in our room :) Oh and as a side note you might be tempted to buy snacks/drinks from the vending machines but the grocery stores have better stuff at 1/3rd the price.

The next morning we head out to Lucerne by the Golden Panoramic Express. The view is amazing on this route but as mentioned earlier we sat on the wrong side. We were near the doors so could walk to the door to get some good pics.

We arrived at Lucerne by noon and we had two options - visit one of the mountains or go around the city. Oh and we had booked an amazing hotel with a view.

On checking with the hotel reception they told that we should visit the city first and then the next day we could visit any of the mountains. So we spent the rest of day visiting places in the city. There is a Swiss Transport Museum which you can visit by paying extra. There is Chapel Bridge which is a wooden bridge over the Lake Lucerne.
There is also Nine Towers where you can walk on the wall and visit the top of the towers. Yeah it is quite a walk but with the cold winds blowing and the view of the lake it is worth it.

There are ferries that give you a tour of lake for 15 euros or the night cruise which servers dinner + tour of the lake for 60 Euros. If you have swiss pass then you can just take the ferry for free to one of the stops and return back to get the same panoramic view (which takes more time ofcourse). The crowd at Lucerne was almost entirely Indian. Could hear Hindi and Tamil wherever we went. We spent a lot of time by the pier and wondered if we should take the Indian dinner cruise but after looking at the usual desi crowd board the ferry we decided to head to the nearby Irish Pub and that was one of the best decisions we took in the trip :)
There are a bunch of museums in Lucerne which give you free entry with the Swiss Pass. Do check them out if you are interested. There are three mountains/hills that you can visit:
1) Mt Pilatus - Accessible by the local bus to foot of the hill and then by cog train/cable car.
2) Mt Rigi - By Ferry/Train to foot of the hill then to top by cable car/tram
3) Mt Titlis - By train to Engelberg and then cable car.

You can easily cover two of the three locations in a day assuming you start early. We woke up comfortably that day and had a nice royal breakfast.

After factoring the unpredictable weather which said the visibility might be low, we stuck to the nearest two places which were both covered in Swiss Pass.

We visited Mt Pilatus first. It was an amazing cable car ride up to the hill. While we thoroughly enjoyed the ride, there was nothing much to do on the top due to low visibility.

We head back to the city and took the ferry towards Mt Rigi. There are two stops that you can choose to get down to reach top of Rigi. The first one has a cable car to the top while second one is the tram. The cable car offers a nice view of the lake but it was closed for maintainance. So we took the tram and as always sat on the wrong side of the view *sigh*.

It was the same fate for us here. It was well past noon and the visibility was pretty bad so we decided to take the next train back. There is a train route back which takes longer than the ferry but we had time.

We were tired this day so we just had early dinner and walked by the lake to reach our hotel and watch the sunset from our room. 8 days had gone by in our trip. Our flight was at 8am from Zurich on day 10 so our day 9 was in Zurich. We had booked the hotel near airport so that we could check out a bit late and reach airport on time. The tram from Zurich train station to our hotel covered most of the city which looked pretty similar to the mix of Interlaken and Lucerne so we decided to laze around that day. The hotel we stayed it had a pretty little bistro which gave complimentary drinks to the hotel guests. So we had a nice meal and after a short nap we head to the nearby cafe and ended the day with a nice fine dinner. It was the most relaxing day of our entire trip. Lots of talking and we used this day to discuss our future travel plans :)

We left Zurich the next morning to Paris and this time we had selected seats in advance and got a glimpse of the Alps on the way back :)

We landed in Paris at 9am and our flight to Bangalore was at 10:30am. The immigration exit at Paris was crazy. There was no special counter for the short transit folks and after running like crazy at the airport we managed to reach our gate just before they closed the doors! That was some end to our trip!

Misc information:
> As I mentioned in the previous post, Swiss Francs is weaker than Euros but all shops do a one to one conversion so either convert all your euros to francs or swipe card wherever possible to save some money.
> You do not have to worry about food in Switzerland. Enough Indian places along with a whole range of cuisines most of them offering good veg food. But it is on the expensive side so if you are cost conscious and have brought some ready to eat stuff then this would be a good place to use it.
> As per rules except eateries, all shops shuts down on Sunday and also by 6pm each day. While you can shop for watches and swiss chocolates here, after conversion, the lower end watches might appear the same price as in India. Buying chocolates at Jungfrau worked out cheaper than the airport for us.
> The winter ends in April and Summer begins towards end of June. We missed out on a few thrill rides and trains/cable cars because they were yet to open for summer. But going in May got us cheaper tickets, cheaper hotels and lesser crowd.
> Lucerne is a city where as Interlaken is a laid back small town. Zurich is a larger city but the place where we stayed was outskirts so it was like the old town that they show in movies.
> Hotels we stayed in:
Interlaken - Sunny B&B
Lucerne - Hotel Royal
Zurich - Hotel Landhus

> My friend Patterson had visited Switzerland couple of months before and he told us all about the places and visa process which helped us plan the trip better :)

You might also be interested to read: Leh trip planning, Planning EuroTrip, Paris


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