A Travellerspoint blog

From the Rhône to the Rhine: Lake Geneva

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One thing I'd never known about Lake Geneva was that in France it is known as Lac Léman. Perhaps that's something to do with nationalism as Geneva is a Swiss city and most of the southern shoreline belongs to France. I never got to find out what they call the lake in Geneva. Regardless of the name it is one of the iconic lakes of Switzerland and has been a haunt of celebrities from the English Romantic poets to contemporary rock stars and Hollywood actors. It had been an easy decision for us to take the longer eastern route around the lake rather than drive directly from Lausanne to Geneva. An added benefit of the longer route was that Airbnb's on the French shoreline were half the price of those in Geneva.

Regretfully I allowed the vehicle GPS to select our initial route and it brought us down a boring inland highway towards Vevey so that we were denied any view of the lake. Eventually I realized my mistake and switched to a handcrafted coastal route on Google Maps which was much more pleasant. The blue lake was covered with fine ripples that gave it a glassy texture and we could see that the entire eastern coastline was ringed by low mountains.

Vevey is a popular stop on the route around Lake Geneva. It's part of a long built-up coastal area that also includes Montreux, and it has an old town and several museums. Having lingered so long in central Lausanne we were behind schedule and our main priority was finding a place to have lunch before the window of opportunity closed. We parked and raced through the town to the shoreline where most of the highly recommended restaurants were concentrated. Although some restaurants had already closed there was a string of crowded bistros right on the lakeside promenade and we chose one called Ze Fork. We had to wait about twenty minutes for a table but we were able to enjoy some cold refreshments and bask in the breeze that was coming off the lake. It seemed the restaurant took its name from the giant fork sculpture just offshore that marked the presence of the Alimentarium food museum. The food was expensive but much better than I had expected given the touristy location, a good preview of sophisticated French cuisine.

After lunch we spent a little time enjoying the promenade. People were taking advantage of recreational activities such as paddleboats and sunbathing but our schedule was way too tight for anything like that. I had kept the Alimentarium in reserve in case we found ourselves with time to kill but by the time we had completed lunch it was clear that we would have to push directly onward to our next stop. Our last stop on the promenade was the bronze statue of Charlie Chaplin, who spent the last twenty-five years of his life in Vevey.

Vevey has a small but atmospheric old town set back a block from the water. It only took us about fifteen minutes to wander through the small network of cobblestone streets and window shop at a variety of interesting little stores. The buildings that lined the streets had colorful pastel facades, wrought iron grills, and white shutters similar to those of La Cité in Lausanne.

Time constraints forced us to pass through the iconic town of Montreux without stopping. Montreux is best known for its annual jazz festival and for its association with the rock band Queen but from the highway the town blended in with the rest of the lakeside conurbation that had begun in Vevey. The main event of the afternoon was our visit to Château de Chillon, possibly the most famous castle in all of Switzerland. The castle is built on a rocky island just off the shore of Lake Geneva that was once accessed by a drawbridge but is now connected to the mainland by a concrete platform. The building was extensively restored in the late 19th century and presents as a prototypical romantic medieval castle, although the best views with a mountainous backdrop can only be obtained from the lake.

Despite having been relatively unimpressed by the interior of Château de Gruyères the previous day we bought tickets for the interior and found it quite worthwhile. The stone walls had a much older feel than the other Swiss castles we had seen and the structure of the interior was more intricate and mysterious. In the depths of the castle we found the dungeon that housed the famous prisoner of Chillon, François Bonivard, for six dreary years. In the early 19th century the English Romantic poet Lord Byron toured the castle and was inspired to write the poem "The Prisoner of Chillon" based on Bonivard's story. When the Bernese eventually captured the castle and freed Bonivard the lord of the castle fled by boat via a back door that exited the very dungeon where Bonivard had been imprisoned.

From the keep we had an excellent view over beautiful Lake Geneva. Next to the castle was a small courtyard and garden from which we got the best perspective of the entirety of the castle that could be obtained from land. The steep slopes that rose upward from the shore reminded me of Iceland, although these were much more densely vegetated.

From the castle we continued our drive around the lake and soon crossed the border into France, an exciting moment. We passed through a succession of small lakeside resort towns such as Lugrin and Évian-les-Bains before arriving at our destination of Thonon-les-Bains. Our Airbnb was the upper floor of a cute house on an alley just outside the old town. The house belonged to an older married couple who insisted on welcoming us personally, as is typical in France. I was pleased to find they didn't speak a word of English but of course that also meant I had to rise to the challenge of communicating exclusively in French. I did my best to absorb a series of complicated instructions regarding such matters as the opening and closing of the driveway gate and then collected the family together for our first foray into a French town on this journey.

Posted by zzlangerhans 20:48 Archived in Switzerland Tagged road_trip family chillon family_travel vevey travel_blog tony_friedman family_travel_blog Comments (0)

From the Rhône to the Rhine: Lausanne

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Lausanne was the first place where we needed to meet our Airbnb host. Our preference is automated check-in since it often disrupts our plans to have to be at the Airbnb at a fixed time to meet a host. Having to curtail a visit to an interesting town because of the obligation to be at the next Airbnb at a specific time can be quite annoying. In most of the world Airbnb hosts have gone to lockboxes and keypads but in Europe there are still many holdouts, although it's gotten much better since the early days. I suppose the hosts feel a greater sense of security if they meet their guests in person.

Now that we were firmly in the French section of Switzerland I was looking forward to practicing my rusty French. Overcoming a language barrier is an enjoyable part of travel for me but it can be stressful when the language is largely unfamiliar. Most of my efforts to speak German in Zürich and Bern had been met with responses in English. Likewise, my efforts to speak in French with our North African host went nowhere when his English proved to be better than my French. The Airbnb was a pleasant if sterile ground floor apartment in a modern development well north of the city.

Since we had less than twenty-four hours there was no time to waste. We drove directly to the Ouchy neighborhood for our first look at legendary Lake Geneva. Ouchy was once a lakeside village in its own right before it was swallowed up by Lausanne's expansion. We began our exploration at the landmark Chateau d'Ouchy, a luxury hotel built at the site of a demolished medieval castle in the late 19th century. The stone tower is the only remnant of the previous caste.

On the lakeward side of the hotel is a small park in which a clock marks the time on a grassy slope. There's a resemblance to the famous floral clock of Geneva but during our visit there were no flowers in sight. The landscaping is likely too expensive to maintain outside of special occasions. At the ferry port there was a beautiful metal sculpture called Ouverture au Monde. The intersecting curved metal lattices evoked the reflections of the sun on the surface of the lake.

On the breakwater that protects the harbor stands an enormous semicircular weather vane called Éole. The semicircle moves depending on the direction of the wind. Four monoliths on the shore have matching semicircular notches and the one that completes the circle with the vane identifies the prevailing wind. On the promenade near the monoliths giant chessboards provide a popular past-time for the locals.

Ouchy and the promenade had given us plenty to see but we didn't feel like hanging around for dinner. As we drove to the center of Lausanne we once again ran into a road closure. We were starting to realize that this was probably going to happen in every city in Switzerland. This time there was no road work, just a police car blocking the main north-south artery through town. The next few streets over were blocked as well as though the police didn't want anyone to get into the center at all. Finally we just drove west for about a mile before reactivating the GPS which finally brought us to our target. Place de la Palud is the center of the historic old town, taking its name from the marshy terrain at the base of the Cité hill where the original settlement of Lausanne was located. The middle of the small square is dominated by the Fountain of Justice, which contains a central pedestal topped by a colorful figurine of a woman brandishing a sword. The statue is a copy of the original which is currently housed in a museum. We had a good dinner on the patio of Le Grütli, one of the many restaurants in the pedestrian streets that emanate from the square. The four and five story apartment buildings of the old town made the narrow cobblestone alleys feel like canyons. From the main road at the top of the hill we could hear the chanting of women's voices in synchrony and our waiter informed us there was a large procession related to women's rights taking place that night. The heavy police presence blocking the roads to the center was finally explained.

Wednesday and Saturday are the market days in the center of Lausanne. We returned to Place de la Palud in the morning and found a much different atmosphere to the previous night. Stalls laden with fruit and vegetables lined the cobblestone streets. The ubiquitous currants were particularly impressive as were the glowing cherry tomatoes and a variety of the most desirable wild mushrooms. We combined some purchases with the sandwiches prepared at a sidewalk cafe and watched the city come to life around us.

Once we'd made a couple of passes through the market we walked through the rest of the pedestrianized center to the Quartier du Flon, a former warehouse area that has been transformed into a small shopping and entertainment district. The cafes and boutiques were rather empty in the morning and of course the bars were closed so there wasn't very much to see. We would have been better off exploring the Flon on the previous evening.

We went back to the center to climb the Escaliers du Marché, the antiquated covered staircase that leads to the top of La Cité. A row of colorful and elegant townhouses ascended the hill adjacent to the stairs. At the top a pedestrian tunnel passes under the main road and emerges at the foot of the Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Lausanne. As with many of Switzerland's cathedrals, Notre Dame was converted into a Protestant church after the Reformation and much of the internal adornment was removed or destroyed by the Bernese. The massiveness of the structure is emphasized by the tight space the cathedral occupies at the summit of La Cité. From the walls around the square we could see the southern part of the city all the way to Ouchy and Lake Geneva.

Between La Cité and Flon we had passed a beautiful food market in the basement of the Globus department store. Before leaving the center we decided to take a closer look and found a remarkable layout of gourmet edibles. The store was nearly empty and the staff inside rushed to give us concierge service. They were very proud of the array of tropical fruits which was impressive for Switzerland but the prices were eye-watering and the offerings weren't as exotic to us as they may have been to the locals. We were more interested in the bakery and the cheese counter and regretted we had already filled our stomachs at the market earlier. We made a mental note to check for a similar store in Geneva the next day.

It's hard to compare cities but we had found Lausanne to be even more atmospheric and authentic than Bern. We could easily have spent another day exploring the maze of pedestrian streets in La Cité without feeling like the majority of people around us were other tourists. Unlike the old towns of Zurich and Bern, the center of Lausanne felt alive and occupied rather than something that had been preserved. Nevertheless our itinerary was locked in and we had no choice but to depart. We had one final stop in Lausanne before heading east around Lake Geneva. The Sauvabelin Tower is an unusual structure that occupies a small hill in the city park of the same name. Although the wooden tower looks almost medieval it was constructed just twenty years ago. After a couple of false starts we located the short trail from the parking area that led to the tower. After ascending the thirty-five meter wooden tower by a wide spiral staircase we found an observation deck with views over the entire metropolitan area of Lausanne and the hills on the opposite side of the lake. I imagine on a clear day one could have seen as far as the Alps.

Posted by zzlangerhans 11:52 Archived in Switzerland Tagged road_trip family family_travel travel_blog lake_geneva tony_friedman family_travel_blog Comments (0)

From the Rhône to the Rhine: Bern and Gruyères

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The city of Bern originated in the 12th century as a castle fortress at the tip of a peninsula created by a sharp bend in the river Aare. The goal of its powerful builder, the Duke of Zähringen, was to control that strategic section of the river from a high vantage point. Over the next few centuries Bern expanded both its city borders and its sphere of influence, becoming a major regional power broker along with the Burgundians and the Hapsburgs. As the city grew outward the peninsula remained largely unchanged as the center of government and trade. The concentration of the interesting sights of the city in such a small area made the prospect of exploring Bern in a short period of time less overwhelming.

We parked near the casino on the south side of the peninsula and began our tour with a stroll halfway across Kirchenfeld Bridge. From the elevated span we could see the Aare all the way to the beginning of the curve around the peninsula as well as our first view of Bern's famous cathedral. It was a tantalizing preview of the delightful walk we would have through the old town.

Bern Minster is the tallest cathedral in Switzerland and towers over the rest of the old town. The Gothic belltower once had the dubious distinction of attracting a large number of suicidal individuals to throw themselves into the cobblestone square below, much to the consternation of pedestrians. This phenomenon has largely abated since the construction of a suicide barrier in 1998 but a sign is still prominently displayed indicating that solitary visitors will be denied entrance to the tower.

Even at an ambling place it only took us ten or fifteen minutes to reach the Nydegg neighborhood at the end of the peninsula. The dining scene was slow on a Monday evening but there were still plenty of full tables on the cobblestone streets outside the restaurants. We were pleasantly surprised by the atmospheric porticos that hid the storefronts behind arches of white limestone. Up to this point we had remained on the high ground of the old town but as we reached the end the streets began to slope downward and we soon found ourselves in Matte, a crescent-shaped neighborhood at the level of the river. This flood-prone strip was once a working-class neighborhood but in modern times it has been revitalized into a popular residential and commercial area. We walked out onto the Lower Gate Bridge for a more intimate look at the Aare and an orderly residential neighborhood that occupied the hillside on the other bank of the river.

The final order of business for the evening was locating a restaurant for dinner, not a trivial task on a Monday evening. The best option in the old town among the minority of restaurants that was open was a tapas place. We walked back towards the center along a different avenue which rewarded us with new sights such as a fountain with an incongruous metal staircase leading to a pedestal. I imagine the idea is for the pedestrian to become the statue atop the fountain, although at first it appeared to be encouraging a suicidal dive into shallow water.

The tapas restaurant was located at Rathausplatz which adjoined some of the most beautiful buildings we had seen in Bern. One was the medieval Town Hall fronted by an impressive double staircase and another was the impeccable neo-Gothic Church of St. Peter and Paul. We couldn't have asked for a better atmosphere as we ate at one of the sidewalk tables. The tapas was excellent although the limited Monday menu meant we had to double up on some of the dishes.

Towards the end of our meal I took the kids on a short walk to see the Zytglogge while Mei Ling waited for the check. This former guard tower has a large conventional clock and below it an astrological clock and a mechanism of figurines that move every time the clock strikes the hour. Of course there wasn't much point in visiting the clock except on the hour, which was the reason for our early departure from the restaurant. The tower and the clock faces were beautiful but the activity when the clock struck nine was disappointing. A couple of pieces moved in time with the chime but the carousel of figurines at the bottom never budged. It wasn't much compared to what I'd seen on previous trips to Munich and Prague.

When we were ready to drive back home we encountered what would be a recurrent issue throughout the road trip. One of the major streets in the old town was closed and both the car GPS and Google Maps insisted on routing us back through it no matter which direction we turned. Eventually I had to drive in the wrong direction for about five minutes before Google Maps relented and provided us with an alternative route back to Zollikofen.

I was particularly excited about the markets in Bern because according to my research they filled nearly every street in the center of the old town on Tuesdays and Fridays. On Tuesday morning we packed up and drove back to the center. The closest market to the casino parking lot was at Bundesplatz, which was filled with stalls offering produce similar to the markets we had visited in Zürich. Behind us was the regal Bundeshaus, the seat of the Swiss parliament. We stocked up on fruit as usual and then wandered through a series of stalls around Bärenplatz. The majority of vendors were offering products we had already grown used to such as cured meats, cheeses, and bread. We allowed ourselves to be convinced to buy some expensive game sausages again st our better judgment. One of the most interesting stalls had a large variety of salad greens in a series of bins. Some of them were quite colorful and spicy and we couldn't resist stuffing a bag with an assortment.

There were supposed to be more markets in the cobblestone streets around Bern Minster so we crossed over the tram line on Kornhausplatz that marks the beginning of the peninsula, pausing to admire a gigantic golden foot that has been installed on the front steps of the Stadttheater. It was a remarkable sculpture with every crease of a flexed foot faithfully replicated and a space underneath the arch where one could crouch to imagine the feeling of being crushed like an ant. Across the street was a small park where four bronze bears guarded a statue of local medieval hero Rudolf von Erlach. Bears have been the mascot of Bern since the age of the Zähringens and urban legend holds that the name of the city is derived from Bären, bear in German. The city has kept captive bears intermittently since the 16th century. Originally they were in pits in Bärenplatz although they are now housed much more humanely in a park on the other side of the Aare.

We were disappointed to find no markets whatsoever on the peninsula despite roaming through every arcade and alley in the small area. Perhaps Tuesday is the lesser of the two market days or perhaps the entire scene had contracted due to aftereffects of the epidemic. The market in the center had been decent but not spectacular so it was an unsatisfying ending to a highly anticipated morning. On the southern side of Bern Minster there was a sunny park where mothers played with their toddlers and men played animated boules matches on the gravel.

We still hadn't eaten most of the food we'd bought at the market and the obvious place to picnic was the Rosengarten across the river. This time we crossed the Aare on the elevated Nydegg Bridge from which we could see the Lower Gate Bridge from the previous evening far below us. The parallel existences of the upper and lower levels of the city on either side of the river reminded me of Porto, although on a much smaller scale.

The Rosengarten is more than just another city park. The former cemetery has been a major gathering and recreation area for the citizens of Bern for over a hundred years. For us a major draw was the opportunity to see the entire old town from a high vantage point in order to appreciate our explorations of the last two days from a new perspective. A cobblestone path led up the hillside from the town to the park with progressively more awe-inspiring views of the peninsula nestled within the sharp bend in the Aare. It was easy to see why the Zähringens had been drawn to this uniquely defensible location to begin building their domain. Partway up the path a bronze statue of Einstein seated on a bench allows visitors the opportunity to pose with him with the old town in the background. Although Einstein lived in Bern for only eight years this was arguably the most important period of his career. It was during that time that Einstein was transformed from an academic nonentity working at a patent office to one of the most celebrated young physicists in Europe.
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Once we reached the park Mei Ling resourcefully collected some scattered chairs and a small table and we set to work laying out our purchases from the market. Since we had mostly been buying on impulse it wasn't a very well-composed breakfast but we had built up prodigious appetites during our walk. I alternated mouthfuls of raw greens and bites of gamey sausage as we attempted to corral the kids from the playground long enough to provide them enough nourishment until our next stop. We found that the pea pods were occasionally colonized with wriggling larvae but the remaining peas were so sweet that we brushed the infested ones to the side and ate the remainder.

I timed our return to the parking garage so that we would pass by Zytglogge at noon, thinking that the mechanical display might be more impressive at that hour. I underestimated our walking time a little so we had to run the last block as the clock was beginning to chime. This time there was more to see as the carousel of figurines rotated and the jester at the top rang his bells but is was still rather unimpressive. The crowd was much larger this time and there was a sense of anticlimax as people kept filming with their phones at the end of the display, expecting that there would be more to the show. I stitched our two visits to the clock together in a video for purposes of comparison.

The road to Lausanne took us through lush green valleys dotted with idyllic Swiss towns. Every town had its own small church. Jagged hilltops always obscured the horizon and the skies were streaked with the contrails of small planes. We took a detour from the highway to visit the medieval town of Gruyères, a place that has very little to do with contemporary life in Switzerland. The old town occupies the top of a hill whose sides are largely covered by parking lots for visitors. From the parking area we could see the modern villages where people went about their regular daily routines with minimal disturbance from the tourists who flocked to the medieval city.

The town consists of a single wide cobblestone pedestrian street with a solid line of picturesque hotels and restaurants on either side. There appeared to be some residential apartments above the restaurants but probably only enough to house their owners and perhaps some people who worked in the town. One thing I noticed immediately is that while the town was certainly beautiful it did not look old. Everything from the cobblestones to the buildings looked as though it could have been constructed within the last twenty years, albeit in an older style. There were no crumbling stone buildings as one might see in the medieval villages of Italy or France but rather immaculate plaster facades with relatively modern windows and shutters. I had a strong sense of Epcot Syndrome, my term for places which exist only to create an artificial atmosphere for tourists but are no more authentic than the country pavilions at Disney World. The preponderance of storefronts displaying arrays of souvenirs and knickknacks did nothing to dispel this impression. I decided to put aside the illusion that I was in a place that was medieval or historic and focused on the charm of the town and the views of the green hills that surrounded us.

The pedestrian street ends at the 13th century Château de Gruyères. After skipping the interiors of the castles in Thun and Spiez we decided to finally check if we were missing anything. We spent about an hour touring the castle although I'd have to say we weren't sophisticated enough about period furniture and decorations to really appreciate our visit. Some of the panoramas from the upper level were quite impressive, including a pleasingly geometric garden with a chain of rocky hills in the background.

The old town is also close to a chocolate factory and a cheese factory that manufactures the famous Gruyère cheese. We avoided these since I got strong vibes of tourist trap from the reviews and we were too late to see the daily cheesemaking activities. It was a far better choice to make an early arrival in Lausanne as we would only have one day to explore this heralded city. On the way out of town we once again came to a complete road closure where we could see some workers resurfacing the asphalt. We reversed course but no matter which directions we turned the GPS kept trying to direct us back to the closure. Eventually I pulled over and blew up Google Maps to the max, eventually identifying a detour that would take us back to the main road a short distance downstream of the spot where our progress had been halted. The entrance to the detour was a turn I would never have considered taking if I didn't have the map. It looked like the driveway to a farm house and I wondered if I was being led astray. Sure enough the one lane road continued past the farmhouse and intersected with another which eventually dropped us just a hundred yards down from the opposite side of the road closure. I had never driven in Europe before the advent of the internet so I can't imagine what that must have been like, but I'm sure that without Google Maps every road closure we encountered would have been a nightmare of frustration.

Posted by zzlangerhans 00:21 Archived in Switzerland Tagged road_trip family family_travel travel_blog tony_friedman family_travel_blog Comments (0)

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 Comments (0)

From the Rhône to the Rhine: Lucerne

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On Sunday morning there was no mercy for jetlag. We needed to get an early jump on the road to Lucerne if we wanted to complete the Mount Pilatus circuit and see the old town before proceeding onward to Bern. Cleo and Ian did OK after being rousted from their beds and didn't even go back to sleep on the half hour ride to Lucerne. Beginning the road trip itself provided a whole new sense of exhilaration beyond the thrill of being back in Europe. We were really on our way now and those dozens of cities unknown to us were soon to be experienced in reality.

We parked in a garage close to the lake and the old town on the north bank of the Reuss. There were several garages closer to the ferry but we were planning to end the day in the old town anyway so we chose to take the scenic walk across the Seebrücke in the morning. Although not the largest lake within Switzerland, Lake Lucerne is the most well-known due to its often-photographed setting among the foothills of the Alps. Lucerne is the star attraction of the settlements that surround the lake but there are also numerous charming villages and historic castles along the shore. From the bridge we could see a line of classic Germanic apartment buildings along the shoreline interrupted by the twin belltowers of the Church of St. Leodegar. On the inland side of the bridge was the famous covered Chapel Bridge. The limited view of the lake gave little hint of its numerous large interconnected basins.

We were beginning the Golden Tour with the ferry ride to Alpnachstad so we bought the combined tickets at the pier. We didn't have Swiss Travel Passes so we had a lay out an impressive amount of money for the five of us. The views of the lake and the shoreline went a long way to justifying the high ticket price. The rolling landscape was dotted with chalets and beautiful churches with Pilatus dominating the horizon to the west. The ride was longer than I expected and at one point we began to head east along the main basin, in the opposite direction from Alpnachstad. I flagged down a steward anxiously and he informed me that we were indeed on the right ferry, that we it was a small detour to make a scheduled stop. Surely enough we soon docked and the ferry reversed course afterward. At Alpnachstad we grabbed a quick lunch at the station before joining the line for the rack railway to the top of Pilatus.

The vehicle that carried us up the side of Pilatus can be called either a cog railway or a rack railway, depending on whether one focuses on the cogwheels on the car or the rack on the ground that the cogs mesh with. This mechanism allows the car to ascend the track at a much steeper grade than would be possible for a typical railroad with smooth wheels and track. The Pilatus Railway is in fact the steepest rack railway in the world and at first glance it's hard to understand why it doesn't simply fall down the side of the mountain. The line has been in continuous operation for over a century so I didn't worry too much about the mechanism suddenly failing for the first time during our ascent. The best view was of the side of the mountain where we could see intrepid hikers making their way up the slope via switchbacks. Once at the top we followed a short path to the winding, vertiginous staircase to the viewpoint at Esel which is the second highest point on Pilatus. Some choose to take the longer and more adventurous hike to Tomlishorn, the highest peak, where one has a chance of seeing wild ibexes but we were on a tight schedule and weren't really in the mood to challenge ourselves. From Esel we could see most of Lake Lucerne which allowed us to appreciate its unusual, irregular topography. On the west side of the lake the city of Lucerne and its suburbs looked like a vast metropolis although I knew there couldn't be more than a hundred thousand people living there. The rest of the shoreline was largely mountainous although humans had carved out settlements along the shoreline and in small valleys between the peaks. To the south we could see a jagged line of snowcapped Alpine peaks. A legend on the platform purported to identify them by name but I was unable to match the peaks to the diagram. Recognizable names such as Matterhorn and Mont Blanc were not listed as they were far to the southwest and invisible from our location. There were paragliders here as well and from the whoops of excitement emanating from them it was clear that these were tandem operations for hire. Ian expressed some interest but I'm not sure I'm ready to see him suspended in the sky dependent on a sheet of synthetic fabric to keep him alive.

The next stage of the Golden Tour was the cable car ride down from Pilatus to the town of Kriens. I hadn't realized it in advance but there are actually two cable cars with a connection at a spot called Fräkmüntegg halfway down. When we disembarked I saw that there was a toboggan track that I hadn't been aware of and figured we would probably still have enough time for the old town if we spent an hour at this mid-station. We had a stiff uphill walk to the departure point and then almost a half hour wait before we finally arrived at the front of the line. Cleo and Ian were able to go by themselves but Spenser had to go in tandem with me due to his age, much to his disgust. The long ride down was suitably thrilling for the kids but my favorite part was the view of the hillside and the lake as we were towed backwards up to the starting point. The only thing that would have made it better would have been a toboggan track that went all the way down to Kriens, although I'm not sure how Mei Ling would have felt about that.

From the cable car station in Kriens it was a surprisingly long and poorly-signed walk to the bus stop where we eventually caught the bus back to the modern part of Lucerne south of the Reuss. The iconic sight of the city is the Chapel Bridge which is actually a reconstruction of a medieval covered bridge that was destroyed by fire in 1993. It's probably inaccurate to look at the current bridge as inauthentic, considering that the wooden bridge had to be restored and repaired so many times over the centuries that it was unlikely that much of the original wood used in the construction of the bridge remained even before the fire. Sadly most of the painted triangular panels that decorated the trusses of the bridge were destroyed, although a few were restored and returned to the rebuilt bridge. The adjacent stone water tower predates the bridge by a hundred years and survived the fire, although it was damaged and underwent extensive renovation.

From the bridge Lucerne's Altstadt looks very promising with the busy promenade along the Reuss lined with cafes and a row of distinguished hotels behind them. After passing that first street we were somewhat disappointed to find a much smaller old town than the one in Zürich with substantially less atmosphere. Perhaps the near-deserted streets on a Sunday evening had something to do with it but the rows of generic clothing and jewelry boutiques gave me the sense that no one really lived in that part of the city. There were a couple of attractive squares and colorfully-painted buildings but overall there wasn't much to capture our interest as we made our way to the medieval city walls atop Musegg hill. This proved to be a fairly interesting place to wander for an hour between the towers spaced along the wall. At the kids behest we ascended all the way to the top of the Zytturm clock tower for views of the city and of course Pilatus in the background. The mechanism of the enormous clock was on full display as well.

By the time we had returned to Altstadt we were in danger of missing dinner completely if we didn't eat before driving onward to Bern. Since most restaurants were closed on Sunday I had no choice but to accede to Mei Ling's request that we eat at a Thai restaurant she had spotted on the way to the wall. It was a cramped and stuffy little place with mediocre and inauthentic food, despite the usual positive online reviews. Mei Ling had to repeat our order four or five times to our waitress, who also seemed to be the owner, before she repeated it back correctly and then it still came out wrong. I hoped the lousy meal would mean fewer Asian restaurants on the road trip but I was already tired of sausages and tiny forty franc steaks myself. At least we could anticipate better food in France before returning to the Germanic offerings in the Netherlands and Rheinland.

In the end I was happy I had chosen not to spend a night in Lucerne. It had only taken us a couple of hours to see everything we wanted in the town and I wasn't particularly taken with the place. In fact it was much more what I expected Zürich to be like than Zürich actually was. I'm sure an outdoorsy person could find a different mountain in the area to hike up every day but when we're in Europe our focus is more on the cities, the food, and the culture. We embarked on our one hour drive to Bern looking forward to an early start on a brand new city.

Posted by zzlangerhans 13:18 Archived in Switzerland Tagged pilatus road_trip family_travel chapel_bridge tony_friedman family_travel_blog Comments (1)

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