Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Idyllic Switzerland

I am now quickly approaching the 3-month mark for my stay in Graz. Amazingly enough, it has been exactly that--my stay in Graz. When I was a study abroad student, I travelled outside of Graz about once a month....this go around, I've been quite content to stay put. I've had a good while to settle in here, and now the travel bug is biting once again.

So when I heard that a friend of mine was going to be in Switzerland for a business trip, I jumped at the chance for a weekend getaway. I'd been to Switzerland once before in February 2004, and I remember being deeply impressed by the amazing landscapes and spectacular Alps that the country has to offer. With this in mind, we decided to meet up and see exactly that. As I was researching the trip online, I found a particular mountain not too far from Lucerne where visitors could ride a rotating gondola up to the summit and see a glacier park and glacier cave. The glacier cave was really the thing that tipped the scales, and this was exactly where we decided to go.

As most of my travels go, this one was not without a dramatic start--this time involving illegal entry into the country of Switzerland! As a standing offer, there are really cheap night trains that run from Graz to Zurich. I discovered the day before my trip that a girl from my small group was also going on the same train, so we decided to meet up and travel together. She had a seat, and I was in a sleeping car, so as the train took off I sat in the free seat next to her and chatted for awhile. When the conductor came around to check the tickets, he looked at mine and told me I was in the wrong seat. We told him that I was just back there visiting with her for awhile, and without anything further, he moved on. However, as I was sitting in the wrong seat, he did not validate my ticket. Around midnight I decided to head back to my sleeping car. By the time I got there, it was pitch black and everyone in the car was already asleep. My bed was the top bunk in a stack of 3, and as I tried to climb up, I discovered that someone had placed a large and rather heavy suitcase on the bed. Struggling to bring it down in the dark and not make too much noise, I pulled it from the bunk and plunked it down on the floor. I struggled up the ladder and onto the top bunk, taking extra care not to accidentally step on the other passengers, and then realized that I had to make the bed in the dark. I was making quite a racket and struggling with the sheets when the guy in the top bunk across from me turned on his light and indicated that I should do the same....there was a light! I thanked him, got my act together, and settled in for a night of bumpy rest (i.e., no sleep). In the morning, the conductor woman appeared at the door with the passengers' tickets and passports she had collected the night before. (Note: Switzerland is NOT in the EU. In keeping with the whole neutrality thing, they are autonomous and--it would appear--rather proud of their independent economy as well. Therefore, passports are needed when crossing the border into Switzerland.) She redistributed the passports and then looked up in shock at my bunk and asked, "Who are you and what are you doing here?!" I apologized and explained to her that I was visiting with a friend in the car up front when they came around last night, so she hadn't collected my ticket or my passport; then I offered to get them out and show them to her right away. She gave me an exasperasted look and said that now it was too late for that. She didn't need to see it anymore. And, on top of all that, she didn't know I was there, so I wouldn't get any breakfast! As she went away the Light Guy on the bunk across from me offered me his breakfast. I declined, but he insisted he wasn't going to eat it, so I should. So I accepted the bootleg breakfast. A few minutes later the conductor lady came back, and in a nicer but still somewhat exasperated tone said, "Well I could get you some coffee or tea. Do you want a coffee or tea?" Thanking her, I said that a coffee would be very nice. When we arrived in Zurich, I met my friend on the platform and explained to her my illegal entry into Switzerland--no passport check, no validation of my ticket...technically I wasn't even there!

When we arrived in Zurich on Friday hostel, we found the hostel and dropped off my stuff. The hostel was delightfully close to the train station in the trendy pedestrian area, but it was also located three flights up a twisty wooden staircase above a restaurant that smelled like dirty dishwater. Being the cheapest hostel in Zurich, I couldn't really complain. We then went out for a Swiss breakfast of granola, fruit and cheese, and then my friend from Graz went on her way. Not long thereafter, my friend Ed arrived in Zurich. It was about lunchtime by the time he got there, so the first thing we did was go to the grocery store and buy bread, cheese, and mineral water--this was to become our staple food for the weekend, eating out in a restaurant only for dinner. After sampling the first of our Swiss bread and cheese, the reception at the stinky hostel was closed. We then decided to visit the Landesmuseum, a museum for Swiss history and culture. This museum was in an old castle-y looking building, complete with turrets. By the time we'd walked through ancient Swiss history to the present, the museum was about to close. Ready to leave, we started following the exit signs...however, every exit sign led to a closed door or in circles to other exit signs that led nowhere! After awhile, it became almost a game to see if we could, indeed, find the exit. By this time we had been (literally) directed in circles, to locked doors, cordoned-off staircases and the like--and we were too far in to even consider asking for directions! Gradually I got the sense that there was a security guard up there somewhere, staring at his CCTV screens and laughing at the hapless American tourists running around in circles in search of the exit. Finally, after passing a particular security guard for the 4th or 5th time, she asked us if we were looking for anything in particular. Conceding defeat, I said we were trying to find the exit. She escorted us out of the museum, but I can say rather confidently that we would NOT have arrived at the same exit door she showed us!

After checking in to the hostel, we decided to go out and explore the city of Zurich. Ed had seen free bicycles advertised near the train station and suggested we take out a couple of bikes. This never, ever would have occurred to me, since a) it was winter, and b) it was nighttime. But it seemed like a fun idea, so we decided to "rent" them for a returnable deposit of 20 Swiss Francs and Ed's passport. When we took out the bikes, I figured we'd take them for a spin around Lake Zurich like every other tourist; however, Ed suggested we bike up. Biking uphill, again, never would have occurred to me. But Zurich--as a city surrounded by hills--was sure to be a pretty sight from atop the hills. I hadn't actually been on a bike since my century ride in June 2005, so getting up the little hills of Zurich was a bit embarrassing and involved me dismounting and walking my bike...twice! But by the time we made it to the top, it was worth it--the city was sparkling with lights, and it was a wonderful view.

The next morning, we boarded a train for Engelberg, a tiny town (or what German-speakers would indubitably call a "village") about 50 minutes outside of Lucerne. Engelberg was tiny and quaint--exactly what you would expect a Swiss village nestled in the mountains to be. From there, we found the gondola that would take us up to the summit of Mt. Titlis. We boarded the gondola among tourists and skiiers alike, since apparently there are also ski runs down this particular mountain. Halfway up the mountain, you transfer from a regular gondola to the world's only rotating gondola. On the [tightly-packed] rotating gondola, you then continue the journey up the mountain to the summit. We started to get excited as we passed outcroppings of glacier--chunks of the mountain that were clearly ice, not rock. By the time we got to the summit, we (along with the 30 other people packed into the gondola) were itching to get out and check out this glacier for ourselves. Once on the summit, I couldn't help but think to myself in wonder, "I'm on a Swiss Alp." It was just as before--the mountains in that area are majestic and spectacular and dramatic and breathtaking in a way that I can't properly describe and that the pictures cannot really do justice. We stayed out there as long as our not-yet-frostbitten fingers would allow, and then went down to check out the glacier cave, or ice grotto. Carved into the glacier on the mountain and lit with colored lights, the glacier cave was definitely a very cool highlight. I'd never been into an ice cave before, but it was both cosy (gemütlich) and fascinating. It was particularly difficult to stop taking pictures in the ice grotto. When we came back out, it was snowing and there was zero visibility on the mountaintop. Grateful for being one step ahead of the weather, we headed back down the mountain. By the time we arrived back in Engelberg, the cheese factory (in an old monastery) that we wanted to visit was closed, so we headed back to Lucerne.

Lucerne, by comparison, seemed a lot like Zurich. By the time we had explored the ins and outs of Lucerne, it was much harder to distinguish the two cities in our heads. Lucerne, though smaller and quainter, held the same perfect Swiss I'm-a-beautiful-city-on-a-beautiful-lake-surrounded-by-mountains feel that Zurich did. That evening, we ate an amazingly yummy dinner in a nice little restaurant (that called themselves a "wine cave") by the wooden bridge. I particularly wanted to get some Spätzli (spaetzle), and the Spätzli I ordered was the best I'd had. Likewise, Ed got the wild boar (intriguing, huh?) that was also very tasty. Coupled with some wine and an apple torte for dessert, it was inarguably the best meal of the trip. Sunday morning, we walked through town and got to see in the daylight what we had explored the night before. I had been to Lucerne for one day in 2004, but it was so rainy and gray that I couldn't tell that it was also surrounded by mountains! Sunday morning, the mountains had a blue haze that matched the water of Lake Lucerne, and again the descriptor that came to mind was simply "idyllic."

Sunday morning we went back to Zurich, where our first stop was the Coffee Museum. For only 5 Swiss Francs, you get to see the coffee museum AND drink as much coffee as you can! For some, this would be considered paradise. The exhibits at the coffee museum were quite interesting and interactive--over the history of coffee, the coffee-making process, coffee's role in society and social interaction, coffee in fine art, and the marketing of coffee. It was a small museum, but totally worth seeing. For the rest of the evening, we ambled around town, wandering aimlessly from one church or historic building to another. On our last stop into the Grossmünster church, they were preparing to hold a public singing event for the first Sunday of advent. Intrigued by the opportunity to sing Swiss Christmas carols, we came back when the carol singing was to begin. A choir director stood up front with the choir but directed us, the audience, in how to sing the songs. He took his job very seriously, making us practice certain lines over and over again until we got it right and then instructing how the songs should be sung and when. There were a couple songs in the program that were in Swiss German--which is really like it's own language. However, I found it very difficult to sing along with these songs because I was giggling so hard at the Swiss German! We left the church after a particularly unfamiliar version of "O Come, O Come, Emmanuel" in which the verses were completely different than the verses I've ever sung, and went out for a last hearty Swiss dinner. We chose a restaurant in a building from the 1400s, which boasted its own sausage menu and a generous mix of locals and tourists alike. Taking advantage of the sausage menu and local beer list, I filled up before my train ride back to Graz.

The trip back to Graz was not nearly as exciting (or illegal) as the trip there. But coming away from this 3-day weekend in Switzerland, we had to agree--the best overall word to describe everything we saw was indeed IDYLLIC. The landscape was idyllic. The cities were idyllic. Even the swans were idyllic! It was the perfect long weekend getaway from Graz, and the first of what I hope will be many more exciting travels. (The next of which will be my trip to Australia for Chrismas/New Year's/Birthday, so stay tuned!!)

**The idyllic photos of Switzerland can be found on the Flickr link on the righthand column.... :)

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