Switzerland 2016: Part 1

I love flying. It severs the umbilical cord from our 3G-centric lives like nothing else can. I delightfully bury my nose in any scrap of reading material I find, often unearthing the randomest facts. For example, I learnt that Craig David is Southampton-born from a magazine I picked up while boarding EasyJet Flight 5117 from London Gatwick to Zurich.

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Excited by this trivia, I suddenly wanted to play Seven Days for myself, as though to celebrate my newly found, albeit loose connection with one of the most famous pop artists of the late 90s. The delayed aircraft was racing to take off, making me hyperventilate over my serious disregard of the safety regulations as I hit ‘Buy Song’ on iTunes. Unleashing the full extent of my mental powers against the engines of the Airbus A320, I successfully willed the download to completion.  Professor Xavier would have been proud! Finally sitting back and relaxing to Craig’s rendezvous,  I wished I could buy Seven Days of annual leave as easily as a finger tap. Alas, 3 days minus two hours of flight delays were all we had to celebrate one of the last long weekends of 2016.

Think Switzerland, and a deluge of fancy things spring to my mind – cheese, chocolate, snowy mountains, fancy watches and…well, Bollywood songs. The Indian film industry has singlehandedly transformed the Swiss Alps into THE most sought after honeymoon destination for its fans. The romantic allure of wrapping up in your lover’s arms across a blazing fireplace overlooking the panoramic view of snow-capped mountains is second to none, especially if you grew up watching these wintry images under creaking ceiling fans failing miserably against the wrath of Asian summers. With a strong enough imagination, it wasn’t difficult to feel the cool touch of the snow on one’s sunburnt skin or the silkiness of the vibrant saris whose skimpiness never seemed to be a problem for the swooning actresses. I imagined film crew hovering with hot chocolate and woolen bed linen just outside the camera angle, ready to bury the poor women as soon as the director screamed ‘Cut!’ But me, I have an active imagination. For most people, the images were convincing, and romantic, and the pinnacle of honeymoon nirvana. My maiden voyage to Switzerland in 2014 had only concentrated on the French part of the country. Despite being a stunningly beautiful city, Geneva left me wanting for a close-up feel and view of what epitomized the touchstone of any Swiss vacay – the Alpine mountains. It was time to get closer to that goal and, in quintessential Bollywood lingo, complete meri aadhuri kahani.

Was the landing into Zurich as charming as Geneva’s? We never found out, as the delayed flight denied us a daytime view of the city. Husband’s Schengen visa would not scan at Immigration – two Swiss officers poured over our Bangladeshi Passports muttering fervently in…German? For all we knew, it could have been any of the four languages spoken in Switzerland – quite impressive for such a small country! Much ado later, the officers returned our passports, mumbling apologetically about some glitch in their system and letting us through.  Uncle S greeted us with a bear hug at Arrivals, whisking us off to his beautiful apartment where the rest of my in-laws were waiting with a home made feast of grilled cheese and meats. The Husband was catching up with his half Swiss, half Bengali cousins after 8 long years and one couldn’t ask for a better reunion meal than Raclette!

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Raclette is essentially melted cheese, served over boiled potatoes with lots of ground black pepper, accompanied by small pickled onions and gherkins. The name comes from the French verb ‘raceler’, to scrape, because of the way the melted cheese is scraped off the block. (Source: Internet. Photo: My first Raclette meal in Geneval).

 Next morning, six of us set off on an ambitious cross country excursion in Uncle J’s spacious  car. First stop in the itinerary was the Rhine Falls (Rheinfall in German), the largest plain waterfall in Europe, located north of Zurich along the Swiss-German border.

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Schloss Laufen, the castle that guards the entrance to the falls, opened up to a courtyard where we had to scan our tickets to get access to the walkways and stairs leading into the viewing platforms.

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The lower we descended, the closer we got to the falls, until we were staring it in the face, deafened by its force and sprayed with escaping mist. I have never seen a natural phenomenon quite so unique.  The only reference I had was ubiquitous photos of the Niagara Falls posted by my friends on social media but they hadn’t quite prepared me for such an intimate experience. One can really feel the strength and power of the gushing water in the closest point accessible at the Rheinfall via a small, cave like space where the raging cascade is only a (very) stretched hand away.

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As we stood admiring the thunderous (almost murderous) waters, a rainbow made a surprise appearance over the calmer edge of the falls, much like a unicorn coming to life. It was quite exciting standing taller than a rainbow!

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It is possible to ride a boat to the foot of the falls and climb up to the tip of the rock that juts out in the middle but being pressed for time, we decided to skip this. Outside Schloss Laufen, we bought ice-cream from a small Movenpick cart, some of us indulging in fancy flavours such as yoghurt and apricot sorbet while others opted for the more predictable chocolate and pistachios. I have grown up with Movenpick ice-cream in Dhaka – it’s an old-school hang out spot for Bengali youngsters. Slurping on their ice-cream on Swiss soil brought back many happy memories of yesteryears.

Next stop in the itinerary was Rigi Mountain. We drove south from Rhine Falls, past Zurich and towards Lucerne. According to our local guides, Rigi offers the most famous Mountain View in the country, enhanced by the surrounding waters of lakes Lucerne, Zug, and Lauerz.

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We boarded a cogwheel train from Arth-Goldau located on the southern shore of Zug Lake.

IMG_9160.JPGHerds of sheep and goats sped past us, grazing serenely outside neat houses tucked against gorgeous mountainous backdrops, reminding me of my favourite cartoon Heidi.

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We almost found Heidi too, along with her friend Peter, as two cute kids selling gingerbread caught our attention outside one of the train stops. Aunty J bought one each for our six people group and the train driver felt obliged to get one too.

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As we shot further up, a pink coloured hotel winked at us, its front yard decked out with open parasols offering the perfect hideout from busy urban lives. We saw waterfalls trickling down rocky cliffs and giant trees climbing up to the clouds. The snow-peaked Alps loomed large, stunning even the locals in the group. The train pulled up at Rigi Staffel (1604m) where we took our time to enjoy the spectacular views, take photos and envy the paragliders. Aunty J proposed the idea of hiking the remaining distance instead of waiting for the connecting train. Neither the Husband nor I are hiking material but discovering more majestic views of the beautiful landscape was enough motivation to get going.

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As we ascended the trail, the snowy Alps appeared larger and clearer in the distance. Weak rays of sunlight were breaking through the clouds, casting a filter over the mountains that Instagram would have given up all the money in its banks to own. Luckily the overall visibility was quite good and our eyes went into overdrive trying to focus on the details camera lenses failed to pick up. The tinkling of cowbells from some unseen source in the mountains added the perfect background score to our adventure. We passed little toddlers confidently making their way up and down the hiking route and the shame spurred us to stay on course despite sweaty backs and panting breaths. Uncle S and Aunt J, experienced hikers who had conquered Rigi by foot, soon outstripped the youngsters. It didn’t help that every few steps we discovered yet another breath-taking angle of the Alps, prompting us to fetch our cameras and phones. Some patches of snow scattered here and there looked out of place, as though someone had edited something undesirable out on Word Paint. According to Aunty J, it doesnt snow in Switzerland like it used to.

The Swiss locals in our group suddenly jumped and pointed out a scattering of vibrant purple flowers growing in small patches on the ground and on some overhanging rocks. The Enzian flower is an indigenous inhabitant of the Alps that is sadly rapidly dwindling in sight.

When we finally reached the top of Rigi (1798m), the most stunning panorama greeted us. To our left, sunlit tops of ice capped mountain peaks glistened with heavenly clarity. Directly infront, a sheet of orange sunlight hung in mid-air like a life-size painting. To our right, a dark veil of weather was steadily coming in, at once both beautiful and terrifying. Ominous grey clouds were lowering themselves on rugged peaks like Dementors, locking the mountains in a deathly kiss.

Once we were satisfied with our photo collection, we stopped for a refreshment break at the Rigi Kulm Hotel. Located at a vantage point, the hotel offers some of the best views from the Queen of the Mountains. As we munched on nut cakes (a Heidi favourite!) Uncle S pointed out Rigi’s brother Pilatus in the distance, its peak barely discernible amidst the roiling grey clouds that had now begun to growl and rumble.

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As the world to our right got swallowed up in darkness, the sun-drenched world to the left remained unclouded and bright. It was like gazing into two different planets.

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 You haven’t seen Fifty Shades of Grey till you watch the weather snuffing out light from these mighty mountains.

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We caught the first few drops of rain as we packed up and made our way to catch the return train back to Arth-Goldau. The rain poured in thunderous torrents, literally taking the world by storm. The landscape was less visible on the way down yet as charming as ever through the raindrop-specked windows. Trapped in a train with the pitter-pattering rain all around us, the ride itself felt like an exotic adventure, a completely different kind of experience from the ride uphill.

The weather was much calmer back in Zurich. It was Friday night and the city was abuzz with weekend enthusiasm. Zurich has the Geneva vibe in a bigger, livelier, more happening scale. On our hunt for dinner we crossed Bahnhofstrasse, the main downtown shopping area, known as the most expensive shopping street in the world.  Despite having walked down Bond Street and Oxford Street more times than I can count, Bahnhofstrasse stood out for me in its display of extravagant brand labels, most notably it’s string of watch vendors, the world’s best, no less.

We walked across a bridge over the Limmat River, stopping to admire the collection of love padlocks locked on its railings.

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We managed to find seats at an Italian restaurant called Tre Cucine. I was so impressed by the authenticity of the chicken and asparagus pasta that I hardly envied the delicious looking pizza the Husband had ordered. The pasta sauce consistency was something I have only dreamt of thus far. They certainly don’t make Italian like this in the UK. If pasta tasted so good on this side of the border, I tremble with excitement imagining the real deal on the Italian side!

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After dinner we headed over to Zurich central station, called Hauptbahnhof aka HB. It’s odd for me to not be using public transport first thing in a new city. Central stations serving big cities like Zurich are designed to impress but HB goes beyond that. While Amsterdam Centraal had wooed me with its Neo-Gothic architecture, HB wowed with its slick sheen of newness. What sets it apart from its Dutch counterpart is its deceiving façade as a grand shopping mall that multitasks as a national hangout spot and train station all within the same space, making it so much more than just a transport hub.

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Some queer and inspirational art adds to HB’s unique character. As we climbed an escalator up to what seemed like the main hallway, a red neon spiral with blue numbers and flying animals came into view, hung where I would expect platform information at Paddington or Euston. Cousin L explained that the neon spiral was inspired by the famous mathematical Fibonacci sequence. Across the hall the Guardian Angel hung unmissably from the ceiling, a voluptuous, dark blue bodied figure designed by the French-Swiss artist Niki de Saint Phalle as a gift on the station’s 150th anniversary. A clock to our left served as an important meeting place for commuters and non-commuters alike.

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Sourced from Internet

Balancing out the fancy art and expensive looking shops were regular booths like ‘Kkiosk’, ‘Buffet Express’ and ‘Segafredo Espresso’ selling coffee, savouries and munchies for the busy travellers and regular crowds. Smoking inside the station was completely OK and I couldn’t help but wonder whether UK was the only European country offended by such a thing.

While most of our first day had been spent admiring the rustic charms of Central Switzerland, the evening went by observing Zurich’s night life. The cousins offered random nuggets of local info and lingo, from coke-addicted Swiss bankers abusing drugs to keep up with their demanding day jobs to interesting adjectives like ‘basic’, reserved for predictable (read boring) girls.

After some drinks and shisha, we paid 5 francs to catch a tram back to Uncle S’s. Just like the Netherlands, travel tickets in Switzerland cover all modes of transport including train, bus, tram, lake ferry and even mountain cable car. It was amazing how the entire day had gone by without the need for Google Maps. Local knowledge and assistance had maximised the experience of our first day and in a country that emerges topmost on Business Insider’s list of the most expensive countries for travel, it made a big difference to our budget.

Outside the bus stop I found a local Swiss phenomenon that, for some reason, amuses me endlessly, (I even mention this is in my Netherlands blog post.) Pregnancy strips and condoms in vending machines! The Swiss clearly like to be prepared for all eventualities of life.

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Only 24 hours in, Husband and I had ticked more spots on the Swiss map than we had dared to bucket list for a 2.5 day long trip. Gotta love family! 🙂

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