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From the Rhône to the Rhine: Lake Thun day trip

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I had adopted the same strategy in Bern that I had in Zürich. Airbnb's within walking distance of the old town were horrifically expensive and I would have had to pay for overnight garage parking as well. Instead we stayed in a rather bland building in a fairly empty area close to the northern suburb of Zollikofen. Our apartment was quite dated but the rear balcony looked out over a beautiful patchwork of vegetable fields. The owners had taken advantage of this by setting up a dining table in their back garden which seemed like it would be a very atmospheric place to have a home-cooked dinner. This probably made it easier to ignore the busy road and the bus stop which were directly adjacent to the front door.

My plan for the day was to take some quick rides on the toboggan at the top of Gurten hill and then speed off to our day trip to Lake Thun. With an early enough jump we could make it to Grindelwald for a true close-up Alpine experience. We had a light snack at the Airbnb instead of a full breakfast and drove to Gurten. Just before we reached the parking garage we saw a colorful oversized skull suspended in a courtyard close to the road. After parking we walked back and found a concrete lot filled with large, quirky sculptures but no sign of activity. There seemed to be some kind of restaurant behind the courtyard but it was closed so we just spent a few minutes checking out all the weird items that were on the premises.

At the Gurten funicular the ticket agent told me that the toboggan didn't open until eleven. This was quite a painful development because it meant we would lose another precious hour of our day if we decided to wait. In the end we decided there were probably other things to do at the top of the hill to fill up the time. There was in fact a track with some cute little motorized bumper cars but the kids were really too big for them and only rode a couple of times. They spent more time playing with an intricate ball track that propelled plastic balls through a series of mechanisms that could be controlled by wheels and levers on the outside. I'd seen things like it before in Children's Museums but never anything of quite this size and complexity. Later I learned the inspiration for the sculpture was the creations of Swiss artist Jean Tinguely.

Eleven o'clock finally rolled around and we headed over to the toboggan but when we arrived there seemed to be some kind of staff training going on. I watched for about ten minutes and then used my phrasebook German to ask if they were open. The answer was that they didn't open until one o'clock. Ouch. Waiting another two hours was out of the question so we gathered our disappointed kids and took the funicular back down to the base. Now we would be getting started on our day trip three hours late for nothing and Grindelwald was likely out of the question. It was no great tragedy since I had already mentally assigned the Alpine region of Switzerland to a future trip when the kids were older and better able to appreciate the scenery. I also had high hopes for Thun and wanted to be able to explore the town at leisure instead of having to rush onward to another destination.

It only took us a half hour to reach Thun and I immediately took a liking to the place. The main road led us directly to the old town which was lined with classic Swiss buildings whose ground floors were occupied by countless restaurants and boutiques. A beautiful castle with four turrets loomed above us on its hilltop perch in the center of the old town.

Since we had basically skipped breakfast finding a solid meal was the first order of business. Fortunately we'd parked just outside an Italian restaurant named Beau Rivage with great ratings and we had an excellent lunch on their back patio overlooking the River Aare. We felt an immediate connection with this unheralded river town that I had only investigated after discovering it on the map and we were excited to explore it thoroughly.

The old town is just a kilometer inland from where the Aare reemerges from Lake Thun. Thun is an ancient city of strategic importance that was an administrative center for the Romans and later the Burgundians, and the beauty of the old town reflects centuries of investment and expansion by its occupiers. After lunch we walked to the narrow river island via the Untere Schleuse covered wooden bridge, which was at least the equal in beauty to the much more famous Chapel Bridge in Lucerne. Underneath the bridge there was a low dam with a central gap that directed the water very forcefully into the center of the channel. Here some enterprising surfers had tied ropes to the bridge which they held onto in order to surf the turbulent flow that emerged from the dam. It seemed quite difficult and the surfers were thrown downstream very forcefully when they eventually lost their footing.

The river island was somewhat of a disappointment. The one street that traversed the eel-shaped island was lined with greyish, modern buildings that housed boring stores and generic restaurants. We quickly returned to the east bank of the Aare to be reassured by the atmospheric old street of Obere Hauptgasse and the spacious, colorful Rathausplatz. The picturesque castle was now immediately above us, an irresistible temptation.

We ascended the hill via a steep staircase that led to a flat summit with walled cobblestone alleys. Up close the castle was even more like a page out of a story book. Thun Castle was built in stages from the 12th to the 15th century by a succession of Swiss noble families. We were able to enter the courtyard and enjoy its medieval character without having to waste time and money on a tour of the interior.

From the alleys and green spaces around the castle we were able to enjoy beautiful views of the old town and the Aare. Everything we had expected but hadn’t found in Lucerne was here in Thun, a truly magical city that is almost unknown to most travelers. The best part was that we had it almost all to ourselves on this sunny Monday morning while the tourists were congregating in more celebrated locales.

Twenty more minutes of driving along the southern side of the lake brought us to Spiez, a rustic and hilly town where everything of interest to travelers is concentrated on a small promontory that shelters the harbor. Between the greenish-blue water of the lake and the densely vegetated hillside across the harbor I felt almost as though we had been transported to the Caribbean. The dense clouds obscuring a mountain peak in the distance gave me strong recollections of Martinique and Nicaragua. Of course all we had to do was turn around for the unmistakable architecture of old Europe to return us to reality.

We ascended a series of stairs and sloping paths to reach Spiez Castle, parts of which date back to the 10th century, and the neighboring castle church. The castle had been kept in immaculate condition and the grounds were carefully manicured. Gardens and balconies at the top of the hill provided stunning views over the lake.

On the opposite side of the castle from where we had entered Mei Ling discovered a grove of cherry trees and we guiltily harvested some samples from the branches we could reach. I still had Oberhofen Castle on my itinerary but it was closed on Mondays and I wasn't sure how much we would be able to see of the exterior under those circumstances. In the end we decided we had seen enough castles and we would return to Bern in time to ride the toboggan before it closed.

Back at Gurten we went through the whole process once again with buying tickets for the funicular and riding to the top. This time there were no unpleasant surprises and we found the toboggan open for business with just a few other customers. I bought a package of three rides for each of us and even Mei Ling agreed to give it a try. It was rather similar to the toboggan we had ridden the previous day at Pilatus, not as fast or thrilling as the typical American mountain coaster but also without the concern that one might flip out of the track entirely. With the toboggan mission now complete we proceeded onward to the old town of Bern.

Posted by zzlangerhans 18:41 Archived in Switzerland Tagged road_trip family family_travel travel_blog thun tony_friedman family_travel_blog zollikofen gurten gurtenbahn spiez

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