Friday, September 13, 2013

on Switzerland

When you're out of blogging ideas, reach into your email bag, I say. Here's a lengthy email I just sent to a friend in China who may find herself touring through Europe in the coming months. She wanted my thoughts on Switzerland, since she remembered that I'd lived there, so here's what I wrote (edited for style, clarity, and privacy):

Yes, I lived in Switzerland for nearly a whole calendar year during my junior year in college: roughly late summer 1989 to late spring 1990. 1989 was the year the Berlin Wall came down (I went to Berlin with some classmates a week after that happened; it was an incredible, unforgettable experience).

I didn't drive while I was in Switzerland, however, so it's going to be up to you guys to figure out the Swiss autoroutes. I understand, though, that Swiss folks can drive crazily fast, so watch out on those serpentine mountain roads.

I lived in the town of Fribourg (Freiburg in German), which you should definitely visit. Fribourg is a Catholic enclave in mostly Protestant Switzerland, and it sits right on the linguistic border between the French-speakers (les Suisses romands) and the German-speakers (les Suisses allemands); the signs are usually in two languages. Fribourg's cathedral is a sight to see (I never climbed its tower, but I hear that that's possible). The town is tailor-made for walking and hiking; I'd take advantage of all the various Wanderwege (walking/hiking paths) that are veined throughout both the town and the rest of the country (the paths are so comprehensive that you could conceivably hike across the entire country). Last I checked, Fribourg had a budding Turkish community, which means Turkish restaurants. Döner kebab is one of my absolute favorite fast foods; there used to be an awesome place—probably no longer there—on the edge of town, that served amazing döner on fantastic black-sesame Turkish bread with fresh, crunchy jalapeños and red chili sauce. God, that was good.

[NB: Expect Swiss prices to reflect Switzerland's sense of its place in the universe, i.e., shit's gonna be expensive. The Swiss might accept euros, but they haven't integrated monetarily with the rest of the EU, so you'll probably need Swiss francs to get around more easily.]

If you walk out the eastern edge of Fribourg and go uphill, you'll cross two bridges: the lower one is the Pont de Zähringen (Zähringerbrücke); the higher one, if you keep walking uphill, is the Pont du Gottéron (Götteron-Brücke). The Pont de Zähringen has a set of stairs that will lead you down, down to the level of the local river (la Sarine). Follow the river until you go under the Pont du Gottéron, and you'll find yourself in the amazing Gorges du Gottéron, a steep-sided, crooked, forested valley with a neighborhood that runs a bit haphazardly along its length, and that enjoys sunlight for only a small fraction of the day. It's like something out of a movie, and unbelievably gorgeous (especially in the winter, when the valley is bedecked with enormous, cathedral-like columns of ice). If you keep walking through that neighborhood, you'll eventually run out of houses and find yourself on a set of switchback trails that lead up, up, up to the top of the gorge. Follow the yellow Wanderweg signs back to Fribourg proper, and remember where you parked your car.

I could go on and on about stuff to see just in Fribourg (the smallish university campus, for example, where you can eat for cheap at the Mensa), but Switzerland has a ton of other cities worth visiting. Geneva is sprawling and beautiful, a clean and civilized answer to Paris. Go in the summertime and see the awesome, 1800s-era Jet d'eau, the huge jet of water that rises a couple hundred feet in the air and is visible from a great distance. Travel along the coast of Lac Léman (Lake Geneva) to Lausanne, which mostly sits on a steep mountain slope and is known as a college town. (You can also water-ski on Lake Geneva.) Keep following the coast until you reach Montreux, home of the famous international jazz festival. I imagine there's jazz there all year round; I've never been to Montreux, but it's on my list of Swiss cities to visit.

The city of Bâle (Basel) is close to both France and Germany; it's a popular tourist destination with an easy-to-use tramway system. Definitely a nice town to walk around in. If you're looking for cheap accommodations, there's a tourism office at the train station. Just watch out for the Gypsies. They beg. (They're worse in France, but they do show up in Switzerland.)

Lucerne (Luzern) is a great city to visit as well; take the cable-car ride up Mount Pilatus during the warm season, just so you can be freaked out by how cold it is up top (bring a coat)! I know very little about Zürich, but my glimpse of it was intriguing. I know a lot more about Berne (Bern), the capital, which I visited on many occasions, even though I never went to see Einstein's place. Berne is a good place for strolling and restaurants, and it's got a fairly famous clock in the middle of downtown. You can cross the main part of the city in a short time if you start at the Hauptbahnhof (main train station) and walk toward la fosse aux ours (Bärengraben), the bear pit (the name "Bern" is derived from an old German word for "bear[s]"; the city was named after the first animal that the Duke of Zähringen, a hunter, caught). Feed the bears; watch them swim around in a stone pool and maybe even poop in it.

The one travel destination that makes me cry is Interlaken. God, that place is beautiful. Unfortunately, it's become a huge tourist trap (there's even a Hooters there), but the eternal scenery is too transcendently awe-inspiring for me ever to be distracted by the petty human endeavors—however tacky they may be—happening in the valley. I'd definitely spend a few clear, sunny days just drinking Interlaken in. You can find any number of hiking paths leading up the mountainsides and affording you a magnificent view of both lakes (inter + laken = "between lakes"), Lac Brienz (Brienzersee) to the east of the city and Lac Thun (Thunersee) to the west. You can probably camp for free on almost any patch of ground, although Interlaken does have plenty of paying Campingplätze if you prefer to be sure you're camping legally. I've hiked the entire perimeter of Lac Brienz twice. It's doable over two days. Don't know much about the Lac Thun side.

On both lakes, it's possible to take a ferry-boat trip. Buy a Rundfahrt (round-trip) ticket and the entire trip will take a couple hours. Food on the boats will be minuscule in size and overpriced. The boat makes several stops at the small towns on the lake; with a Rundfahrt ticket, you can get off at any town, wander around, then take the next boat that swings by so you can continue your route back to where you started.

One warning about Interlaken: it's inside a huge mountain valley, which means that any inclement weather that comes by will be funneled into that narrow space and magnified in force. In other words, when it rains, it really rains. When it gets windy, it's really windy. Well, you've been all over the world, so I'm sure you have enough horse sense to figure out the relationship between mountains and weather.

But definitely visit Interlaken. It's a place that'll put your smallness in perspective. And it really is so beautiful: when the lake is smooth on a windless day, and the mountains are reflected off its surface... just wow—especially if you've hiked partway up a mountainside and can look down into the valley from your vantage. Oh, yes: while you're there, be sure to hike up and behind the Giessbach ("ghee-ess-bach"; in Swiss German, each vowel is pronounced separately, as in Hawaiian) Falls. I think the ferry on Lake Brienz stops at the foot of the falls, and you'll have to switchback up to the metal bridge (one of the bridges?) that goes behind the falls. Reach out and drink the water. It's pure, clean mountain runoff—melted snow from the mountaintop. Perfectly potable.

Switzerland is great for the athletic. It's got plenty of seasonal sports and martial arts to keep you busy. It's also something of a foodie destination (mainly Geneva and other major cities), and it definitely has a very Teutonic drinking culture. In fact, even the French-speaking (suisse romand) and Italian-speaking (tessinois, suisse italien) parts of the country are heavily influenced by Germanic culture. You'll see the influence especially in the architecture.

Swiss people are polite enough, but you may already be aware of their reputation for xenophobia. Because the Swiss can be somewhat reserved (unless you meet them while they're partying), making friends can be a bit difficult, but once you've made a Swiss friend, you've got a friend for life. The Swiss are very conscious of the fact they they've got it good: their country is clean and beautiful, and blessed with many natural resources. They prize their political neutrality (which didn't stop their businesses from occasionally helping Hitler, alas), and they've got a bit of the same "Hermit Kingdom" mentality that Koreans—also a mountain people—do. And like Korea, Switzerland is a place with many tucked-away sights to see, treasures hiding in dark corners all over the land. I hope you make plenty of interesting discoveries while you're there, and not just the typical touristy ones.

OK... that was a massive brain dump and I'm empty now. I could go on and on about Switzerland, but I think you've got the resources to make your own discoveries. Oh, but one more thing: Internet is hellishly expensive there, and the service sucks, as it does in most of Europe. Do your best to pin down some cheap, efficient Internet solutions before you find yourselves in country.

Had I gone on, I'd have told my correspondent about the delights of eating cheaply in Switzerland: it is possible to get along on a tight budget while there, at least as far as food is concerned. I'd have talked about Landjaeger sausage, the classic Swiss hiking food; I'd have raved about fondue and raclette and Rösti and thick, Germanic bread; and I'd certainly have sung the praises of Swiss chocolate. One of the sad ironies of my year in Switzerland is that I was living in the skiing capital of the world, but I never once went skiing. Really, I could go on and on about Switzerland, but I think, Dear Reader, that you've had an eyeful for today.



Elisson said...

I've been to Switzerland a few times, having spent time in Zurich, Geneva, and Zug, and your observations brought back some pleasant memories.

The food is excellent, and the people are just as you describe. A couple of unexpected treats: Zuger kirschwasser is the best I've ever had, and Swiss chocolate - the kind you actually get in Switzerland - is amazingly, ridiculously good. (Those folks didn't get their reputation as master chocolatiers for nothing.)

Kevin Kim said...

I've never tried the Kirschwasser and have never been to Zug. If I had a billion dollars, though, I'd definitely set up a part-time residence in Switzerland—Interlaken, probably, despite the constant danger of flooding.

I'm glad you enjoyed your time there. Like you, I enjoyed the chocolate. I ate everything from the low-rent stuff (still delish) to the high-rent stuff.

Bratfink said...

Heh heh heh, you said "Rundfahrt."