Erlebnisse: the experiences, positive or negative, that we feel most deeply, and through which we truly live
It’s pretty late in the night and we are exhausted-tired from an eventful first day. But this was only the beginning! Agenda for next morning was to explore further afield, driving south towards the Italian part of Switzerland called Ticino. Three hours away from Zurich, this little pocket of ice-cream cone shaped land fits the Swiss-Italy border like a seamless jigsaw puzzle piece. The black and bold border divide is harder to find as you delve deeper into this melting pot of two very beautiful cultures, inspiring an awe that can be best described in italics, as we would soon find out.
Despite hitting the bed at 2:30 am, we were up by 6:30 and out by 8 like obedient school-going children after a disobedient school night. On our way we passed Rigi, today shrouded by clouds hanging even lower than the day before. The omnipresent Alps in the background glistened brighter and crisper in the early morning daylight.
We made a brief stop on the shores of Lake Lucerne to check out Brunnen from a distance. With both a lake view and a mountain view, Brunnen is a popular Swiss resort whose aesthetic charm and historical background makes it a national favourite. The city is linked with the famous William Tell, a name that crept up several times during our short stay. Tell is a legendary hero who freed the Swiss from an Austrian tyrant in the 13th century. There is no concrete historical evidence to prove Tell’s existence, yet his name and story is cherished in every corner of the country.
We continued further south through the Gotthard Pass, making a second, longer stop outside a service station for a spot of breakfast. Aunty J had packed us a bumper picnic menu – beef and turkey sandwich with thick slabs of egg and cheese. I was quite taken by the simplistic genius of her egg cutter which created achingly perfect egg slices to go with the meat. Uncle S preferred his sandwiches with even slabs of boiled eggs sprinkled with generous amounts of Aromat, a Knorr seasoning that seems to be a staple item in the Swiss pantry. Being the ever-eager, ingredient-sourcing cook, I made a mental note to buy some on my way back to England.
The rain caught us towards the end of our delicious meal and we ended up sipping on tear soaked tea which, as anyone who has had a similar experiences can vouch, tastes all the more fantastic. At 1536ft, this was the real ‘high tea’ experience, far above sipping Early Grey from rose-patterned china cups at the Ritz. The loo in the service station cost us 1 franc each but the vouchers were redeemable from the station shop. I was impressed. If you insert a 20p coin into a turnstile in a service station in the UK, it’s equivalent to flushing your biological waste down the toilet – it’s as good as gone.
Aunty J picked up some miscellaneous bits and bobs from the store while I took the opportunity to sniff around, as I do. A big Toblerone bar hung temptingly from the ceiling in the centre, right above the queue, as though to offer a final reminder. You sure you aint missing something ma Cherie?
Energies renewed by the filling breakfast, Uncle S hit the gas once more. It’s amazing how smooth the roads are up in the mountains. Despite the growing number of hours behind the wheel, Uncle S was completely at ease. Switzerland is renowned for its road engineering, having forged tunnels and motorways through mighty mountains that set and broke world records. The Gotthard Base Tunnel, inaugurated shortly after our return from the country, is the longest and deepest rail tunnel in the world.
A month ago we had travelled through the Netherlands, a country defined by the flatness of its land as significantly as Bangladesh. Switzerland stood tall at the other end of the spectrum – the country had much more to offer on the vertical axis than the horizontal one. Driving down the mountain-ringed Gotthard pass was like watching some kind of advanced 3D film – it didn’t seem real. We had to keep craning our necks to catch the majestic splendour speeding past us, wheeling our heads every which way to peep into the nooks and crannies of the voluptuous mountains.
It’s easy to see why Switzerland enjoys such high credentials as a Bollywood utopia. You want a romantic hideout engulfed by natural beauty of the highest order? This is it. You can’t help but wonder, and almost believe, that the Creator had spent a lot of time, and a lot more love, in making this corner of the world, if not the most! He had baked Switzerland like a multi-tiered cake, filling each moist layer with heavenly details – forest, lakes, mountains, waterfalls and charming coastlines. Humans in turn have embraced this surreal land, nurturing nature with love and devotion by spinning their lives around it in an intricate cocoon. Even in the most remote areas we found chalets and farm houses nestled harmoniously in forested valleys.
Uncle S slowed down as we neared the Gotthard tunnel. The cars have to be released into the tunnel in controlled batches and so we had to wait for our turn. Along our journey we enjoyed music as diverse as the scenery, from old Bollywood favourites to French and German classics. When we finally arrived at our destination, we made our first stop in the largest town in Ticino called Lugano. No sooner had we reached than we busied ourselves with crepes and gelato which seemed to be the most natural thing to do in this part of the country.
We then hopped onto a speedboat and bobbed across the watery border separating Switzerland from Italy. Once on firmer land, we walked around the beautiful town, stopping to drink from one of the many publics fountains dotted across Switzerland – one of the rare inexpensive delights of an otherwise expensive country. The sun was at its afternoon peak and the coolness of the Alpine water, coupled with the novelty of drinking straight up from a fountain, made it taste like some exotic cocktail at a fancy rooftop bar.
Next stop in Ticino was Ascona aka ‘almost Italy’. People speak the language here and the landscape looks it down to a tee. Beautiful multi-coloured buildings adorn charming alleyways which opens up to the lake promenade, dotted with short and stocky plane trees and open air cafes.
Lake Maggiore is the second largest lake in Italy and the largest in southern Switzerland. The lake and its shoreline are divided between the Italian regions of Piedmont and Lombardy and the Swiss canton of Ticino.
The beautiful Mediterranean climate and laid-back atmosphere of Ascona attracts hundreds of tourists every year, especially during summer time. In fact, for most Swiss nationals, Ascona offers the quickest holiday getaway. You are almost in Italy while never leaving the country!
Hungry for lunch, we settled in one of the many busy restaurants by the lake. I was obliged to order the only ‘fishy’ item on the menu – prawn jambalaya. I struggle to settle for anything other than seafood every time I am near the sea. Seafood always tastes so much more when sourced fresh. Ever since I have started cooking, my appreciation for fresh and high quality ingredients have blossomed into a genuine (read expensive) obsession.
The heat reduced shortly after lunch and the lake promenade scene settled into an afternoon lull. We lazily strolled along the coast, soaking up the buzz and beauty of Ascona. Lots were happening around us, particularly a Harley Davidson parade that was clearly stealing the show. I briefly sat on a bench by Lake Maggiore, gazing into Italy in the distance, the cool tingle of sea breeze gently dissipating the heat off my bones. There’s no other feeling that comes close to being one with nature.
The journey back to Zurich was long so we had to leave shortly after lunch. While walking back I couldn’t resist drinking from the omnipresent fountains. As though viewing and photographing the Alps wasn’t enough, I had to imbibe myself with its heavenliness too.
We decided to take a slightly different way back to Zurich via San Bernardino, a route that would take us right through the heart of the mountains. We had to keep our eyes peeled at all times. Every second of lapse in attention meant missing out on something exciting. For a journey that was over 3 hours each way, this is saying something. We kept dozing in an out of the intoxicating mixture of tiredness and excitement, each time awakening to some new wonder, sometimes the most unexpected of sights. In the middle of nowhere we saw a tiny control tower and a tinier plane taking off into the mountains. Churches perched on top of cliffs and ruins of a castle/monastery in odd, remote locations seemed straight out of a James Bond movie set. Just as impressive as the views was the internet connection. Even in the most remote locations it was strong and hardly dropped and if it did, picked up pretty quickly.
We stopped for a bit of leg stretch at a service station perched higher up in the mountains than our picnic spot earlier in the day. It was impossible to distinguish between the clouds and mountain peaks in the distance, both playing a perpetual hide and seek game. The water from the fountain tasted even purer. There was a kiosk selling coffees and munchies where I spotted a big sticker of Heidi. Excited, I dug around in the souvenir shop and discovered some paraphernalia not commonly found in the cities. I immediately swapped up some fridge magnets for myself and a fellow hardcore Heidi fan, my Momma. Even Aunty J discovered something of a specialty in the kiosk, a fruit studded Swiss cake that weighed like a brick.
As we climbed back into the car, Aunt J took over the wheels, giving Uncle S the opportunity to rest his crimson heels. She was the ultimate tourist guide, dropping nuggets of information that made the journey all the more wonderful. Aunt J could tell valleys and mountains apart – they all looked the same to me! I could never have made landmarks out of mountains but it seemed to be the most natural thing for her. She pointed out a tiny stream that followed us around. Along the way, the transformation of the stream was astonishing as it broadened into fuller capacity to eventually become River Rhine. We made one last stop in Marche Heidiland, a famous rest stop offering weary tourists a large variety of foods and squeaky clean loos. At the entrance was a model of Heidi’s home in the mountains, complete with her grazing goats.
Once back in Zurich, we strolled over to the old town, stopping to enjoy a panoramic view of the city from a vantage point atop Lindenhof hill.
From the old town we walked over to Paradeplatz Square, glittering with the most expensive watches on ostentatious display from shop windows. Even though I wanted to walk on towards Lake Zurich, rain and tiredness forced us to return home. After all, as Cousin L proudly proclaimed, Zurich was the only city in Switzerland with both a sea and a lake. We took a tram to HB and then a train towards home, finally getting a bus. Dinner was a homemade stir fried affair of leftover marinated meat from our welcome feast.
There were less than 24 hours left of our Swiss adventure. The itinerary was much more relaxed given our evening flight. We drove to the capital city of Bern to visit Cousin S, who happens to be my namesake. Cousin S is doing an apprenticeship with a farm where she grooms and looks after horses. She lives in a really cosy house in West Bern, which reminded me of the family home I visited with my friend in St Cergue near Geneva. The common and beautiful thing about both homes was their intimate locations, so blissfully surrounded by nature, a far cry from our urban neighbourhoods.
We filled up the big kitchen quite comfortably. Most of the family got busy lending a hand to Cousin S. The lunch menu consisted of pesto pasta, grilled lamb, chotpoti, stuffed mushrooms, salad, baked chicken and more. I made a beeline for the fireplace, sipping on peach tea, eyeing the loaf of home made bread resting seductively on the kitchen shelf. Cousin S gave me a thick pair of green socks to wear which she later gifted to me, obscenely satisfying my obsessive sock fetish.
It was a shame we couldn’t linger too long after lunch. We had to return to Zurich in good time to catch our flight back to England. After nearly three days of non-stop fun, goodbye was inevitably hard. Soon we were on the other side of security at Zurich Flughafen, waving madly with promises of a reunion in the near future.
If you have travelled elsewhere in Europe, you know that Switzerland is as clean as it gets. This was certainly reflected in the spotlessly gleaming airport terminals. We bought some cheese and chocolate from the airport Migros (Swiss Tesco). The best chocolate in Switzerland can be found in Sprüngli but they don’t come cheap so we settled for regular Swiss brands. Even the Migros quality is so fine that it didn’t really matter. To keep up with the tradition of buying a book from every country I visit, I snapped up a copy of Heidi and a short novel penned by a Swiss author.
As I reflected on our travels on the journey home, I realized wanderlust was well and truly embedded in my brain. I wanted to travel to places far and wide and write stories about them. Perhaps the most lasting thought in my mind was the idea that people could live so close to nature. Wrapped up in concrete jungles with 9-5 jobs, it’s impossible to realize how estranged our urban lives are from the purifying forces of nature.
Switzerland might be an expensive country but the best part of it – its natural beauty – is fortunately free for all. I highly recommend touring this beautiful country by road. One cannot truly experience the full breadth of its magic by hopping through one or two cities. The magic is not limited to famous tourist spots and resorts but tucked inside stunning green landscapes and towering mountains standing tall and proud in every corner.
If Mother Earth had a favourite child, it would definitely be Switzerland.