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Trip review: Stunning Switzerland

Trip review: Stunning Switzerland

Breathtaking vistas, snow-capped mountains and gushing waterfalls! Switzerland is a country of extremes. Sixteen expats discovered the remarkable virtues of this small, land-locked country during a nine-day trip this summer.

What images do you conjure up when you think about Switzerland? Alpine vistas, army knives, banking, chocolate and luxury watches? Switzerland is so much more! It’s a study in contrasts, from snow-capped mountaintops to green valleys blooming with colourful summer flowers. There are medieval buildings, centuries-old wooden bridges, artistic modern structures and steel suspension bridges hanging over deep gorges.  Discover our adventures with a day-by-day rundown of the most incredible Expat Trip of the year!

Freiburg Cathedral is an impressive example of Gothic architecture. | © Deborah M. Bernstein

DAY 1 – A STOP IN THE BLACK FOREST

It was a gray and cloudy morning when we departed from Brussels, heading to Freiburg, Germany, a lively university town in the heart of the Black Forest. There was a lot to see during our short stop, and skies cleared for most of our visit.

Tourists and locals flocked to Münsterplatz where shops, restaurants and picturesque buildings beckon. | © Deborah M. Bernstein

 

Freiburg is a picture-perfect destination for history lovers. | © Deborah M. Bernstein

 

Freiburg’s historic Old Town is a visual paradise with narrow, cobblestone streets and historic buildings decked out with bright flowers on colourful facades. The city also features lovely landscaped parks and gardens.

Most beautiful spire on Earth

Towering over Münsterplatz is the town’s landmark cathedral. Its 116-meter west tower has been described as “the most beautiful spire on Earth” by art historian Jacob Burckhardt. Its open lattice structure, a first for Gothic architecture, served as a model for churches that followed. Construction of the cathedral took more than 300 years, and it was worth the wait. It is stunning!  

We had a few hours to explore Freiburg and do a little shopping before the rain picked up again. I picked a few small jars of tasty regional honey before we headed to our hotel for the evening., the Wyndham Donaueschingen, a comfortable hotel in the Black Forest region where we enjoyed a buffet dinner and German beers before retiring for the night.

We looked forward to what the next day would bring!

DAY 2 – ZURICH

Zurich is a collection of narrow, winding cobblestone lanes with pastel-colored buildings along the Limmat River. This northern Switzerland city is probably best known for banking, but it’s a great place to visit if you are in Europe and offers a wonderful jumping-off point for day trips in the region. | © Deborah M. Bernstein

 

On Saturday, we took off for the second day of our grand tour. We left Germany, driving through valleys ablaze with fields of sunflowers and hay ready for harvest. Today’s destination:  Zurich, Switzerland’s biggest city. En route, we stopped at Rheinfälle, Europe’s largest waterfall. The falls were formed in the Ice Age, approximately 14,000 to 17,000 years ago! Incredible, isn’t it?

 

The power of the Rheinfalle is unmistakable and was easy to feel as our boat rolled across the river on our 30-minute boat ride. | © Deborah M. Bernstein

Armed with umbrellas and raincoats to battle the rain, most of us opted for a 30-minute boat trip on the Rhine, marveling at the nearly 23-metre-tall and 150-metre-wide falls teeming above. The power of the water was mind-boggling. It crashed down to the rocks at a rate of approximately 600 square metres per second. Afterward, we snacked by the falls. enjoying delicious treats like chai tea and authentic Indian samosas. Then, it was back to the bus for a rainy drive to Zurich.

Arriving in Zurich

Zurich was an ideal, centrally located city for our exciting day trips. We checked into the Dorint Hotel Zurich Airport, which would be home for the next few nights. After settling in, our coach took us to the heart of the city and dropped us off for a group walk through the historic streets.

 

Peterkirsche was built in the 9th century and revised in the 13th. Its tower is the highest in the city. Built in the 9th century, its white-stoned tower is the highest in the city. | © Deborah M. Bernstein

 

We crossed the river and walked down the stone roads to Peterskirsche, a Romanesque church constructed on the site of a former temple dedicated to Jupiter. The church, built in the 9th century and revised in the 13th, sits on the banks of the Lindenhof River.  It played a pivotal role in controlling forest fires during the Middle Ages, thanks to the vantage point provided. The Romanesque-Gothic tower has four giant clocks, which are purported to be the largest in Europe. The minute hand alone measures nearly 4 metres long. It also has a 6,000-kilo bell that rings across the city every 15 minutes.

We walked along narrow, cobblestone roads to explore the city. | © Deborah M. Bernstein

 

After our sightseeing walk, we scattered to select a restaurant for dinner. Options seemed to capture just about every type of cuisine imaginable. After dinner, we bought our tram tickets and took the convenient public transport directly back to the hotel, an easy commute of about 20 minutes. We couldn’t wait to see what was coming up on day three!

 

Public transportation in Zurich is reasonably priced, and it’s easy to navigate. | © Deborah M. Bernstein

DAY 3 – ST. GALLEN, APPENZELL, EBENALP AND MORE

I still couldn’t believe we were here in Switzerland, exploring this enchanting country firsthand. And we were off on another incredible adventure taking us to Lake Zürich and the surrounding area.

Switzerland is a study in colors and patterns, like this example on a building in Appenzell. | © Deborah M. Bernstein

 

Another UNESCO World Heritage Site

Today, we drove to  St. Gallen, a UNESCO World Heritage Site renowned for the Convent of St. Gall and a Baroque cathedral. UNESCO calls the Convent of St. Gall “a perfect example of a great Carolingian monastery” that was “from the 8th century to its secularisation in 1805, one of the most important in Europe.” It’s easy to see why.

In St. Gallen, we stopped to look at a model of the abbey before entering. | © Deborah M. Bernstein

 

As a lover of books, I was excited about going to the world-famous monastic library, but I had no idea just how impressive it really was. My jaw literally dropped when I walked into the oversized room with opulent ceiling paintings, ancient books towering two stories high, a magnificent globe that predates the knowledge of America’s and Australia’s existence, rococo architectural design features and highly polished wooden surfaces and floors. It was a “WOW” moment!

 

The Abbey Library was positively breathtaking. We weren’t allowed to take photos inside the library, but we were could take selfies in front of the background painting by the front entrance. | © Deborah M. Bernstein

 

Staff instructed us to take off our shoes and don gray, soft-fabric slippers so we wouldn’t scratch the parquet floors below our feet.  Yes, this place was special. The Abbey Library, called the Seelenapotheke (healing place of the soul) dates back to the 8th century, and you’ll feel like you’ve traveled back in time. You can almost see the ancient monks studying here.

 

We learned about the history of monastic life and eras past through a number of fascinating exhibitions.

Interesting Exhibitions

The Abbey also offered two interesting exhibitions. In the Vaulted Cellar, “Gallus and his Abbey” transports visitors through 1,400 years of cultural history with original manuscripts and objects dealing with architecture, art, language, music and writing. There are some fascinating bookbinding techniques featured, including the magnificently bound Evangelium Longum, created around 895 AD by St. Gall monk and artist Tuotilo.

St. Gallus chapel | © Deborah M. Bernstein

 

A second exhibition featured a 12-minute movie about a fictional journey of a young boy who is taken from his family home and lives out his life in the monastery. At the conclusion, we were treated to a 20-second view of the original St. Gall Abbey plan on parchment, called “the most important architectural drawing of the Middle Ages.” We only got a quick glimpse of it in the darkened room as it was raised from a covered tray below. Overexposure to light could damage it, so we understood.

 

St. Gallen Cathedral is part of the Abbey of St. Gall and has been the cathedral of the Diocese of St. Gallen since 1847. | © Deborah M. Bernstein

 

The skies had turned blue during our visit. Returning to our bus, we walked through the picturesque town with its brightly painted row houses dating back as far as the 16th century and returned to our luxury bus. We didn’t think we could find anything more amazing today, but we were wrong. We were about to discover one of the most amazing cafes on Earth! Definitely a “don’t miss it” venue!

Gasthaus Aescher-Wildkirchli seems to be precariously positioned on a steep mountain ledge with incredible views from every direction. | © Deborah M. Bernstein


Welcome to Ebenalp

Forget Starbucks. If you want a cup of coffee or beer that you’ll never forget, you have to make the trek to Gasthaus Aescher-Wildkirchli in Ebenalp. It was a unique discovery, high above the clouds. The wooden structure seems to be sculpted into the craggy mountains.

 

To get to this unusual venue, you have to take a cable car before hiking down to the cafe. | © Deborah M. Bernstein

 

We ascended the mountain in a cable car. Then, we walked along the stone path past dozens of paragliders who were jumping off the mountain for an incredible ride over breathtaking Swiss scenery. Happy Swiss cows with different toned mountain bells feasted below. There was even a chicken along the way.

Cows graze on the mountains as paraglider take off just feet away. |  © Deborah M. Bernstein

 

The trek took about 20 minutes, not including photo stops along the way. We walked through a small cave and alongside a mountain church carved into the rocks, arriving at the stone path where the cafe stood, precariously balanced at the bottom of a 100-metre-high vertical ledge. Picnic tables with umbrellas looked out over the mountains on a balcony outside the restaurant. What a view!

The walk to the cafe is about 20 minutes downhill. | © Deborah M. Bernstein

 

Since the cafe was busy, we had lunch inside the rustic, wooden structure, enjoying beers and some traditional Swiss soups and foods. We just wished the walk to the cafe was uphill and the return, downhill. But, no. We had a tougher trek back up the hill, kicking up small stones along the way and stopping at one of the benches for a quick breather and more photographs. Still, it was worth it.

Worn out, but content, we set off for our next stop, the lovely town of Appenzell.

Appenzell is special. Colourful buildings dot the streets in this village close to St. Gallen. | © Deborah M. Bernstein

Idyllic Appenzell

Appenzell is an idyllic village in northeastern Switzerland known for its colourful houses and whimsical building designs, like a brightly painted building with elves on the roof. That’s something I haven’t seen before. The most artistic- looking buildings seemed to be on Hauptgasse, the village’s main street. We discovered half-timbered homes, quaint gardens and lots of artwork adorning buildings adorned with art. We even saw some of those world-renowned Swiss cows sitting in gardens in town.

There aren’t many places you can find elves atop buildings, but in Appenzell it’s part of the charm. | © Deborah M. Bernstein

 

We also found the historic village square (Landsgemeindeplatz), quaint shops featuring local crafts and products, and interesting churches with a pedigree dating back centuries. A Catholic church dedicated to St. Maurice sits on a site first mentioned in 1071, and an Evangelical Protestant church sits nearby across from a flower-filled cemetery surrounded by hills.

Cows roam in yards and gardens, basking in the sun. They are part of the community here. | © Deborah M. Bernstein

 

We said goodbye to the cows and returned to our bus, parked alongside the river and across from Brauerei Locher Ag, a family-owned brewery with five generations of experience. Their specialty beers have been earning recognition around the world. Unfortunately, we missed sampling the beers this trip and continued our adventure with a drive back to our Zurich hotel.

The TITLIS Rotair cable car rotates its way up the summit of Mt. Titlis giving you dramatic, 360-degree views. | © Deborah M. Bernstein

 

DAY 4 – ENGELBERG, MT. TITLIS AND LUCERNE

Switzerland is magical! There’s no question about that.  Today, we drove through the idyllic Swiss countryside for about two hours, gazing through oversized, panoramic windows as we traveled from Zurich to Engelberg. Blue skies, green valleys and the snow-capped Alps surrounded us. We were ready for a day in the mountains.

High Times

Once in Engelberg, we jumped off the bus and headed to the first of two cable cars to ascend Titlis, the highest summit of the mountain range north of the Susten Pass. We climbed aboard the TITLIS Xpress, which took us to the mountain’s intermediate station. The views of the mountains, lakes and glaciers below were breathtaking.

The cable car up Mt. Titlis provided titillating views. | © Deborah M. Bernstein

 

Here, we transferred to another an aerial adventure. Yes, our next mode of travel was unique: the world’s first revolving cable car. We circled our way up to the snow-covered summit amid cries of “oooh” and “aaaaah.” It took about five minutes to ascend to the summit station at 3,020 metres above sea level! When we arrived, we were astounded by the natural beauty of the Alps, and the variety of activities.

There was so much to do here: restaurants, the Glacier Cave and, of course, the Titlis Cliff Walk. This steel suspension bridge is the highest suspension bridge in Europe.  This is NOT the best place for someone with a fear of heights. It’s been called the scariest bridge in the world. It’s less than a metre wide and about 98 meters long, and it wobbles as you walk along.

The Titlis Cliff Walk is not for the faint of heart. | © Deborah M. Bernstein

 

Fear not! With cables that you can hold onto on each side of the bridge, you will feel safe and secure as you amble along and gasp at the beauty of the snow-capped mountains and glaciers.

A Winter Wonderland

On a clear day, you can see all the way to Italy! Of course, this calls for many photographs.

We took plenty of photographs from atop Europe’s highest suspension bridge. | © Deborah M. Bernstein

 

Once we climbed down from the bridge, we wandered over to the Titlis Ice Flyer, an open-air chairlift that takes you over the snow-covered mountain for more incredible views.  We quietly coasted over the mountain with its steep, craggy cliffs and vibrant blue lakes below.

The Titlis Cliff Flyer lets you skim over the mountain in a six-seat open-air chair glider. | © Deborah M. Bernstein

 

Then, we were off to relive our childhood at snow park Trübsee. Have you ever seen grown-ups laughing hysterically? We jumped into rubber tire innertubes for an action-packed and fun-filled ride down the mountain! Whoosh! We flew down the hill, giggling along the way. I felt like I was 10 years old again.

 

Flying down the mountain, we swirled around and up the snowbanks before landing at the bottom of the hill. So much fun! | © Deborah M. Bernstein

Cruising to Lucerne

Before we knew it, it was time to head back down the mountain. Ah, but day’s adventures were not over! A stop in Stanstaad was next as we boarded a boat for a relaxing cruise across Lake Lucerne, or Vierwaldstättersee as it is called in German.

We travelled to Stanstaad to catch our boat to Lucerne. | © Deborah M. Bernstein

 

Once in Lucerne, we wandered through the cobblestone streets and across the world-famous Chapel Bridge (Kapellbrücke), a covered wooden footbridge bridge built in the 14th century. The bridge and its octagonal water tower are one of Switzerland’s biggest tourist attractions. During the summer, thousands of brightly coloured flowers adorn the structure.

 

Lucerne’s Chapel Bridge is the world’s oldest surviving timber truss bridge. | © Deborah M. Bernstein

Look Up!

What is even more interesting in the 17th century triangular paintings between the timber trusses. The paintings by Hans Heinrich Wägmann depict life in Lucerne. Sadly, a 1993 fire destroyed a third of the 147 paintings. It’s so ironic when you think the Peterkirsche tower is just minutes away and served as a fire tower to prevent such tragedies. While most paintings were lost in the blaze, 30 were restored. You’ll see them above your head as you walk along the bridge.

 

Look up to see the centuries-old paintings depicting life in Lucerne. | © Deborah M. Bernstein

 

For wonderful photographs of the city, you don’t have to look further than the covered bridges. | © Deborah M. Bernstein

 

Further down the river, the 16th-century Speuerbrucke also features macabre interior paintings. Forty-five of the original “Totentanz” paintings by Kaspar Meglinger hover overhead between the bridge’s trusses. Totentanz, or Danse Macabre, is an eerie homage to death, showing that it is always around us. It was a bit creepy, but it was interesting.

Finishing our walk around the historic, old city, we enjoyed Lucerne like the locals. We relaxed along the River Reuss, joining the hoards of people enjoying beverages at one of the many local cafes. Then, it was time to return to the bus and head to our hotel for the night.

 

There are dozen of upscale cafes and restaurant spanning the promenade along the River Reuss. | © Deborah M. Bernstein

 

How would our week continue? With more mountains, discoveries of Swiss craftmanship and some awe-inspiring cable car and a hair-raising funicular ride straight up the side of a mountain! Five more days of fun. Hurray!

We enjoyed a brief walk around Brunnen, a quiet town on Lake Lucerne. | © Deborah M. Bernstein

Day 5 – Brunnen, Aaerschlucht, Susten Pass, Gelmer and Fiesch

Today, we left Zurich for Brunnen, a small resort town on Lake Lucerne with a Victorinox store and museum. It was another chance to discover what makes Switzerland so fascinating: the craftsmanship of watches, knives and mechanical equipment. Switzerland sets the benchmark for craftsmanship.

I’d seen those little red Swiss army knives since I was a child, but never realized just how intricate they are. We watched one being made firsthand. Victorinox also makes some interesting cutting implements and even luggage. I’d never seen a kiwi/tomato peeler, so I picked one up for a friend who is an avid cook. It’s easy to blow your budget in this museum shop.

Glimpses across the lake

Brunnen is one of the official sites for a Grand Tour of Switzerland sign, designed to promote tourism. Through the opening, you can get glimpses of Lake Lucerne and, on foggy days,  the mist-covered mountains.

Grand Tour of Switzerland signs dot the country, letting tourists know where some of the nation’s best photo stops are located and providing the perfect frame for your photographic memories.. | © Deborah M. Bernstein

 

Wandering through the town, we took photographs, collected souvenirs and bought some snacks for the trip. With Switzerland’s August 1 National Day looming, many buildings were adorned with Swiss flags.  There was a sense of pride in this community and throughout the country.

We saw lots of Swiss flags in towns and on homes  throughout the country as people readied for National Day . | © Deborah M. Bernstein

Travel to the Susten Pass

Back on the bus! We had hoped to travel directly to the Susten Pass, but a road closure caused a change in plans. Luckily, our disappointment was short-lived as our rock star driver Erwin found another route to take us there. While it took longer, it still gave us an opportunity to see the  Pass and discover the amazing roads with hairpin turns and dramatic mountain views. We zig-zagged up the mountain and through the clouds. Last year’s group was lucky to visit it on a sunny day. We’ll just have to return another time. Perhaps on the Expat Club 2020 Switzerland trip.

It was mind-boggling to see all the spins and turns you needed to make as you zig-zagged your way up to the Susten Pass. | © Deborah M. Bernstein

 

While it was disappointing that the usual stellar views from the Pass were obstructed by fog, we still got a sense of the majesty of this magical place. The mist provided a mystical feel to the site, and small patches of snow still covered the ground, surrounded by summer flowers. Guess we can’t have perfect weather every day.

 

We saw an odd combination of flowers and snow on our visit to the misty Susten Pass. | © Deborah M. Bernstein

A Gorgeous Gorge

The Swiss mountains are breathtakingly beautiful — and surprising. Today, we traveled to Aareschlucht, an ancient gorge carved between the mountains by the power of the Aare River.  A 40-minute walk on a wooden bridge that hugged the side of the mountain  took us through the gorge.  Limestone walls towered above us as we walked along a wooden bridge that hugged the side of the mountain. As the opening narrowed, we even passed through some caves.

Steep, jagged rock faces flank the river, which roars through the cavern.  Signs along the way shared details on this natural wonder, explaining phenomenen like a  glacier mil. It’s a spiral cavity formed by melting water or crevasses in the ice that can be 20 metres in diameter and hundreds of metres deep! In the Ice Age, the Aaer glacier was 900 metres deep!

 

Aareschlucht Gorge was carved by water rushing between the limestone ridges. | © Deborah M. Bernstein

 

We walked along a wooden plank bridge and through caves dripping with water at Aaerschlucht Gorge. | © Deborah M. Bernstein

 

Fun fact: In the 1940s, there was a military installation built into the caverns here. It included a dormitory for 185 officers and soldiers, electric lighting, a heating system, flushing toilets, offices, recreation areas and dining rooms. Interestingly, it was never used.

Discovering Gelmer  

Slipping back into the luxurious leather seats of our coach, we headed off to Gelmer for a little adrenaline rush. It was time to ride the world’s second steepest funicular with an inclination of up to 106%. Gulp! To get there, we crossed a swaying suspension bridge that hung 70 meters above the Handeck gorge and waterfall. Definitely not a journey for the faint-hearted or those with a significant fear of heights. Surprisingly, it wasn’t as terrifying as I thought it would be.

 

To get to Gelmerbahn  funicular station, you can take a suspension bridge that sways 70  metres over the Handeck Gorge. | © Deborah M. Bernstein

The funicular was built in 1926 to transport construction materials for the hydroelectric power station at Gelmer Lake. In 2001, it opened to the public and has been a popular tourist attraction ever since.

It was hard to believe that we were just about to board a train that shoots straight up the side of a mountain. | © Deborah M. Bernstein

We’ve Got a Ticket to Ride

We filled the 24-seat train quickly, and with our backs facing the mountain, we charged up the steep incline with our hearts pounding. Thanks, Edgar, for booking this fabulous attraction!

We walked along the stone paths, viewing the messages and names left in stones below the bridge. | © Deborah M. Bernstein

 

Once we reached the summit, we were in for another treat. Gelmer Lake is beautiful – from the clear turquoise waters to the rustic stone buildings to the majestic, misty mountain views.

Who knew a hydroelectric power dam could be so beautiful? .  | © Deborah M. Bernstein

Finally, to Feisch

Before we knew it, it was time to head back down the mountain and move on to our next destination: Fiesch. But not before a brief stop at a marmot preserve where we were lucky enough to see a couple nibbling on greens in the fog.

We saw marmots along the road and had a chance to see them even closer in a special preserve area.  | © Deborah M. Bernstein

An hour later, we arrived in the tiny Alpine village where we would spend the night in a quaint hotel run by a Dutch couple. We checked into The Berg Hotel Derby, a three-star hotel with beautiful panoramic views around. It was just a few minutes from Flesch’s small town centre and the Eggishorn cable car.

The waters were so clear as they rushed through the tiny village of Fiesch. We saw marmots along the road and had a chance to see them even closer in a special preserve area. | © Deborah M. Bernstein

 

We unpacked and walked into town, viewing the lovely local church and traditional Alpine homes scattered across the green hills. After dining on local cuisine, such as fondue and raclette, we walked back to our hotel.

Traditional Swiss homes could be seen along the mountain. It was easy to imagine what they would look like dusted in snow. | © Deborah M. Bernstein

 

Fiesch is a tiny village with a quaint church on the hillside. | © Deborah M. Bernstein

 

After dining on local cuisine, such as fondue and raclette, we walked back to our hotel. Listening to the raging river below with a starry sky above, we retired for the night.  Clear skies? A good omen for day 6!

Day 6 – Eggishorn, Gornergrat and Zermatt

Centuries ago, shepherds used to call their cows with the musical tones of the alphorn, a three-meter-long, wooden, woodwind instrument. The alphorn also called people to evening prayers. While those traditions have died out, there has been a revival of the trumpet-like instrument, as we saw on Swiss National Day.

The alphorn was traditionally used by shepherds to call their cows. | © Deborah M. Bernstein

 

In fact, two alpine horn musicians trumpeted out songs to welcome us to the Fiesch cable car station for our journey to Eggishorn where we would see the greatest glacier in the Alps.

 

A map at the Fiesch train station demonstrated the vastness of the Aletsch glacier. | © Deborah M. Bernstein

 

Our cable car carried us up from Fiesch to Eggishorn over lush green hills and evergreen trees. | © Deborah M. Bernstein

The Great Glacier

Sit behind the Grand Tour of Switzerland sign for a great memento: a photo with the Matterhorn behind you.

Soaring 2869 metres into the air, Eggishorn certainly is a majestic mountain with jaw-dropping, panoramic views. From our vantage point, we could see the full breadth of the Great Aletsch Glacier and the high mountain peaks of the Eiger, Finsteraarhorn (4,274 meters), the Jungfrau, the Mischabel group with the Dom (4,545 meters), the Mönch, the Wannenhorn, the Weisshorn (4,506 meters), and, of course, the Matterhorn.

 

A map at the Fiesch cable car station demonstrated the vastness of the Great Aletsch glacier.

 

While the Matterhorn is Switzerland’s most famous mountain, it isn’t it’s tallest. That honor goes to Dufourspitze (Monte Rosa), which rises 4,634 metres from the ground.  The Matterhorn, which overlooks Zermatt (our next stop) is the 10th highest mountain in Switzerland and one of 48 Swiss peaks over 4,000 metres tall.

 

A roomy cable car takes you up to the summit overlooking the Great Aletsch Glacier. | © Deborah M. Bernstein

 

At the summit, there is a meditation area where you can ground yourself and even put a lucky stone on one of the posts. Tradition says that if you leave a stone here, you will return from the mountaintop free of worries. You can even buy a lucky stone at the Bergbahnen cableway company and Infocenter.

 

Leave your fears and worries behind at Eggishorn. | © Deborah M. Bernstein

 

Breathing in the fresh, cool mountain air and relaxing on benches with mind-boggling views made this stop extra special. Now, for the drive to southern Switzerland.

 

Enjoy a hot coffee or warm apple strudel as you relax on fur-covered wooden benches at Mt. Eggishorn. | © Deborah M. Bernstein

Switzerland’s Winter Wonderland

We were off to Zermatt, Switzerland’s world-famous ski destination. Tourists, hikers and outdoors enthusiasts flood the streets in the summer, all strolling along through the quaint streets or along the rushing river that runs through the car-free town. You can discover brown wooden chalets that date back centuries and little winding alleys leading to fascinating shops or cafes.

While cars are not allowed in Zermatt, you can always take a horse and buggy ride.

 

We checked into our hotels: the Perren Superior and the Chemin, both exquisite three-star hotels along the roaring river with excellent views of the Matterhorn.

Going to Gornergrat

Our adventures in Zermatt started with a ride on a brightly-colored orange train to Gornergrat, bounding up the mountain past lush green valleys, waterfalls and mountain peaks. It’s the highest open-air railway in Europe and offers panoramic windows for great views.

The train runs regularly between Zermatt and Gornergrat. | © Deborah M. Bernstein

 

Once on top, we walked along the paths, once again reveling in the amazing views and the beauty of nature. With no evening schedule planned, we had time to spend here to explore.

 

Gornergrat views are exquisite. | © Deborah M. Bernstein

 

Some of us opted to hike down the mountain from Gornergrat, walking down to one of the stations below. We had to keep an eye out for the bikers, though.

 

The walk down the mountain was scenic and exhilarating. | © Deborah M. Bernstein

 

Bikers blasted downhill on their mountain bikes. | © Deborah M. Bernstein

 

Whether returning to our hotel by train or foot, we all had an incredible day with so many sights and adventures. The evening was capped off with a fireworks display, in celebration of Swiss National Day. Local communities throughout the nation had informal and formal fireworks displays. Happy National Day, Switzerland.

 

We had a bird’s eye view of the fireworks display, watching them as they were shot off from an adjoining hill. | © Deborah M. Bernstein

Day 7 – Zermatt and Helicopters

Into every life, a little rain must fall. For Expat Club travellers, the rain came on Friday. We had hoped to travel up to Kleiner Matterhorn, a mountain peak soaring 3,883 metres above sea level. It’s the highest place in Europe that can be reached by a cable car. A few hearty souls made the trip. They described as exhilarating, even though temperatures were below zero. Most of us just curled up, relaxed or explored Zermatt in the rain.

 

We got up close to the Air Zermatt rescue helicopters at the company’s Zermatt headquarters. | © Deborah M. Bernstein

World-class rescue

The day wasn’t a total washout. In the afternoon, a handful of us walked up to Air Zermatt’s local headquarters. We sauntered onto the oversized elevator, large enough for an ambulance, and headed to the roof where we got a closer look at the airline’s operation.

To get to Air Zermatt’s headquarters, you have to take a giant elevator to the roof. | © Deborah M. Bernstein

 

Air Zermatt is the gold standard for aerial search and rescue, and we got a first-hand view of their rescue helicopters. One of the brave paramedics introduced us to their equipment and explained their work. The afternoon of our visit, the team was waiting for the skies to clear so they could head up the mountain to rescue two stranded hikers. It was surprising to learn that the pilots run an average of five rescue missions a day. They could be car accidents, lost hikers or ski accident victims.

 

Splints, body supports and medication for just about every emergency imaginable are part of the gear in an Air Zermatt rescue helicopter. | © Deborah M. Bernstein

 

Air Zermatt is the gold standard for aerial search and rescue, and we got a first-hand view of the rescue helicopters. One of the team’s paramedics introduced us to their equipment and explained their perilous work. The afternoon of our visit, the team was waiting for the skies to clear so they could head up the mountain to rescue two stranded hikers.

 

The kids on the trip loved getting a chance to sit in an actual rescue helicopter. | © Deborah M. Bernstein

 

Air Zermatt not only flies rescue missions. They also fly tourists on sightseeing trips through the Alps and offer educational services. There is even an air taxi service.A few group members enjoyed a 30-minute flight. While they were in the air, the emergency team jumped into action for a mountain rescue.

Speaking of video, check out Air Zermatt on Netflix.

We had a free evening and another good night’s sleep before leaving on Saturday for the next leg of our trip.

Day 8 – Montreux, Gruyères and Bern

American comedian Larry David said, “Switzerland is a place where they don’t like to fight, so they get people to do their fighting for them while they ski and eat chocolate.” The only fighting we experienced was the internal struggle on whether to splurge on the cheese or chocolade! We did a little of both.

 

It was a perfect day for a stroll on Montreux’s main promenade. | © Deborah M. Bernstein

Magical Montreux

Saturday was a triple treat for us with stops in three Swiss cities. Our first break was in the popular resort town on Lake Geneva: Montreux, home to the world-renowned summer jazz festival. The city has a surprising Mediterranean feel with its palm trees and flower-lined promenade.

Beautiful gardens, lakeside cafes and Belle Epoque buildings make Montreux extra special. | © Deborah M. Bernstein

 

A statue in Montreux pays homage to Queen lead singer Freddie Mercury. His life was depicted in the recent hit film”Bohemian Rhapsody.”  | © Deborah M. Bernstein

 

Our time here was quite short, so we quickly walked through a Saturday market, pausing to grab a coffee or ice cream and take photos of the statue of the late Freddie Mercury, lead singer of the rock group Queen. As we drove out of town, we wistfully watched as beautiful Belle Époque buildings and trendy shops appeared outside our windows. Note to self: return to Montreux.

Say Cheese

As we headed back toward Brussels, we had a lunch stop in Gruyères. Can you say cheese?   ©Deborah M. Bernstein

 

Less than an hour away from Montreux lies one of Switzerland’s most romantic retreats, and it was our lunch stop! We first saw the walled medieval fortress of Gruyères from miles away. It was imposing sitting atop a hill in the Alpine foothills.  We walked up a steep hill enjoying the views over the verdant hills surrounding the fortress.

 

This charming medieval village in the upper valley of the Saane River is a favorite for tourists. | © Deborah M. Bernstein

Passing through the gates, we realized we’d stumbled upon what could have been a Hollywood movie set with a stunning fountain and picturesque buildings dating back centuries. There are no cars here, just pedestrians rambling along cobblestone walkways.

Tourists walk uphill to get to this romantic retreat. | © Deborah M. Bernstein

 

Gruyères is flooded with tourists during the summer, especially on weekends. We struggled to find a restaurant with free seats. We finally managed to find a table on a restaurant terrace overlooking gardens. Of course, we consumed some Gruyères cheese. Yummy!

Before we knew it, it was time to head downhill and return to the bus.

Bern, baby, Bern

Our next destination was less than an hour away, Switzerland’s capital city of Bern. This captivating city lies along the Aare River, a popular recreation spot for locals. You’ll find them boating, kayaking and even floating down the river in floating oversized tires.

Red-tiled historic buildings sit along the turquoise waters of the  Aare River. UNESCO declared swimming in the river an official activity on its list of Swiss traditions. | © Deborah M. Bernstein

 

Bern city has its roots in the 12th century and is meticulously maintained, which may have helped the Old Town earn recognition as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The medieval Aldstadt (old town) is intriguing with its red-tiled roofs, narrow streets, and six kilometres of covered arcades. There’s so much to discover. You’ll find restaurants and shops in converted cellars that you reach by going through slanted storm doors leading to stone steps. There are also many restaurants, stores and souvenir shops. Of course, since “Bern” is my nickname, I had to pick up a t-shirt and town with the city’s name.

 

Don’t miss the Zytglogge located in a former city gate. It rings on the hour. | © Deborah M. Bernstein

A former city gate chimes on the hour

One Old Town standout is the 13th-century Zytglogge, formerly a city gate. This clock tower draws crowds every hour. We were lucky to arrive just before 16.00 and joined those standing in front of the tower to listen to the clock chime and watch the mechanical figures move. Then we walked through the town, stopping to photograph some of the quirky Renaissance-era fountains. We strolled toward the river past the Neo-Renaissance Bundeshaus (Federal Palace) and Parliament Square, a popular gathering place for all ages and the site of a weekly market.

Parliament Square is a popular gathering spot for locals and a great place for photos. | © Deborah M. Bernstein

As our time here came to an end, we walked back to the bus, which was parked near Bern Animal Park. We had an opportunity to see two of the brown bears that live in the 6,000-square-meter park where they can climb, fish and play to their heart’s delight. They even have their own swimming pool that runs parallel to the River Aare. You can say they have more than the “bear” essentials.

You can view the bears from the bridge above the Aare River. | © Deborah M. Bernstein

 

After visits to three fascinating cities, we were ready for a little rest and relaxation as we headed across the border into France for the last night of the trip at the Best Western Hôtel Au Cheval Blanc. Balderheim, here we come.

Day 9 – Baldersheim to Brussels, via Metz

All good things must come to an end, and our remarkable week was over. We discovered new destinations, sampled new foods and ascended to new heights. But most of all, we made new friends. They came to Belgium from Bulgaria, China, Croatia, Czech Republic, Estonia, France, Holland, India, Italy, Romania and the United States.

After our last French croissants at Le Cheval Blanc, we boarded our luxury Royal Class bus one final time. It was time to leave the Alsace region to return to Brussels.


Mesmerizing Metz

We broke up the long ride home with a stop in Metz, France. The city lies 43 kilometres from the Schengen tri-point where the borders of France, Germany and Luxembourg meet.

The 12th-century Saint Étienne Cathedral, known as Metz Cathedral, is said to be the third tallest in France.

 

Metz is best known for its lovely gardens and its spectacular, high-ceilinged Gothic Cathedral. One of the tallest in Europe, the cathedral’s 42-metre stone ceiling vaults soar over your head. They are complemented by spectacular stained glass windows, many by renowned artists. In fact, the cathedral is reputed to have more stained glass than any other in the world!

 

The stained glass windows inside Metz Cathedral were awe-inspiring.

 

There was more to see! We walked by the “grandest covered market in France.” The market is closed on Sundays, but the restaurants aren’t. We ended up at Place Saint-Louis, a medieval square with Renaissance-era homes and dramatic arches, an ideal spot for a quick lunch. There was a long row of restaurants to meet just about every gastronomic interest. Of course, some of us had to sample the local cuisine: quiche lorraine. Here’s a little fun fact: The dish dates back to the 1600s and was first made with Emmenthaler cheese.

 

Le Temple Neuf sits on a small island near the city promenades.

 

After lunch, we headed back to the bus, strolling along the promenade past another church, Le Temple Neuf, a dark grey sandstone Protestant church on the small island of Petit-Saulcy. Tourist boats cruised below on the Moselle and Seille rivers as we bid adieu to France, but not before passing a whimsical art installation of a man’s head floating in the river.

 

Quirky is how I’d describe this light-hearted art installation in the river by the old town.

Back to Brussels

Panoramic views from the Great Aletsch Glacier.

 

So, with seats reclined and eyes closed, we reminisced about the amazing nine-day trip that took us through Belgium, France, Germany and Switzerland.   

Several hours later, we arrived at Schuman saying goodbye to our new friends and looking forward to the next Expat Club adventure. Farewell, Switzerland — and Germany and France.

 

Switzerland trip

In 2020 we are going back to Switzerland at the end of July and beginning of August. If you are interested in this trip, visit the specific page and pre-reserve your spot. Pre-reservation can be done for free and you are not obliged. It will give us the opportunity to gauge how many people are interested in this trip and contact them whenever we have more information available.

Click here ⋙ 

 

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