September 03, 2012

Swiss Diary

Growing up in India, it was impossible to escape visions of misty green mountains and flowing chiffon sarees that are the cultural ambassadors of Switzerland thanks to Yash Chopra & co. Would it not then be sacrilege to live so close by and not pay Switzerland a visit? As I explained this fact to my husband, he did what any long-suffering married man would do. He handed me his credit card, blocked 5 vacation days on his calendar, and went back to work. It takes ages to get your man to this level of give-uppyness, but ladies, you must persevere.

Off to Switzerland we went then, on a train so sleek and fast that it has often swept the eyelashes off my anatomy when it has whooshed pass my platform at small stations in Amsterdam. Never able to sit peacefully in one place, I managed to find unreserved seats right behind the driver, and get a cockpit view of the journey through Germany.  As I type this paragraph, I realize that writing about the next eight days will take me reams and reams of virtual paper, so I’m just going to write a helpful article for any of you planning to undertake a Swiss odyssey.

Where to stay: Look at the map of Switzerland. It’s a fairly big country. Now zoom out and look at the map of Germany. THAT is a really big country. When in Switzerland, just stay wherever you find affordable (good luck!) and comfortable accommodation. We had booked ourselves into a number of different cities, but in hindsight, seven nights in Basel or Bern would have been more or less the same. If you’re staying at hotels that are a notch below your usual standards, make sure to include a night at an Etap hotel, which makes everything else feel miles better. A big thumbs up to the YMCA hostel in Basel, which has clean and comfortable en suite rooms, an affordable breakfast, and access to a sparkling communal kitchen, which brings us to the next point:

What to eat: Euro notes or, if you want a colourful meal, Swiss Francs. About 6 hours into your Swiss visit, you will realize that you cannot win the battle against food bills. When McDonalds is twice as expensive as back home, and back home is a fairly expensive Western European country, then you know you’re in trouble. Fortunately, two gigantic supermarket chains: Coop and Migros have stores almost everywhere, and if you go in the summers, you’ll find that spending under 20 francs on yogurt, salads, fresh fruit and some cheese and bread for two makes for a very satisfactory compromise, at least once a day. Sit down for a hot meal, and you either lose no less than twice that sum, or you ingest good old McDonalds, (I bet the 100% recyclable burger boxes come back as coffins for the patrons). Of course our vegetarianism means that we go prepared to just eat our own socks if needed when we travel through Europe, and things might be different for you.

How to go about: As soon as you land in Switzerland, throw your bags in the hotel, eat the Toblerone on your pillow, grab something cold to drink before you get a heat stroke (Yash Chopra, I want my money back! I got sunburn and rashes in "misty" Switzerland) and head to the ticket counter at the station, and get your Swiss Pass. One magical ticket to all the trains, buses, trams and boats for the rest of your trip. It’s not cheap by any standard, and you’d probably not spend that much money if you just did what you came to Switzerland thinking you’ll do, but when you’re on a train with your Swiss map spread in your lap, and you see a darling little station that you just MUST hop out at and explore, and you can guess with a little common sense how you will find an alternate route back, then the Swiss Pass lets you do just that! The map that comes along with the pass is your best friend. We took a total of 21 train rides within Switzerland, about 5 boat rides and a cable car ride as well. Would we have done as much without the pass? Never!

What places to visit: That’s something we can all safely agree to disagree about. Of all the places we managed to visit, Bern was my favorite walk-through city, Zurich my favorite overnight halt, and the hike down from Lake Trübsee to Engelberg my favorite scenic bit. The best thing about Switzerland is that if you find yourself travelling to a tourist trap that’s a big letdown, you can go visit something cute or surreal or sublime that is always just half an hour away! We ran from Interlaaken within an hour, and took refuge in a small lakeside town till our train back showed up, with our grocery store yogurt to keep us company.

Trains: The Swiss Pass says on the back that we’re in a country where transport runs on time. They are not exaggerating. It’s only because the Swiss are a peaceful and non-violent nation that half-severed bodies who did not board their posteriors at 9:00 sharp are not seen regularly on trains. Also, every train has unique character and charm, and the ones with pull-down windows can con you into thinking trains are something you stick your head out of. I was pulled back into the coach by the husband’s aghast look and an approaching electric pole that almost gave me a new hairstyle. The Glacier Express was beautiful despite the dismal lack of glaciers in the summer, and though civilized folk will tell you otherwise, it is quite ok to carry your own sandwiches on board and refuse the criminally expensive three-course meal everyone else chooses to have on board.

What to carry/buy: Carry a camera with a decent memory card and a reliable battery, and everything you need to charge it up and take hundreds more pictures the next day. There are some kooky safety plugs in many hotels that do not let you use even European plugs, but you can get convertors from the hotel. And whatever else you might need, because Switzerland is not a great place to be buying clothes and essential supplies from. In fact, unless you have cow-bell dementia from too much Shahrukh Khanning, you needn’t buy anything except some chocolates for folks back home. Buy coffee at Starbucks once or twice a day, and four francs will get you a visit to the loo, a drink of water, a laxative (can’t call that sludge coffee, I’m afraid), and 20 minutes of Internet time to download the map of whatever city you’re in.  

And finally: The famous sights are so full of tourists that you’d think the roads of India and China would be empty all summer. To avoid rib-cage fracture and the frustration that comes from the vague sense of unreachable aloo parathas or sambhar cooking somewhere nearby, study the itineraries of tour companies online. Note down the 10-odd places in Switzerland on their  “must-see” list. Don’t see any of them.


வல்லிசிம்ஹன் said...

You live in Amsterdam?
well our son lives in Swiss.Th esame Basel you have written abt:)
I love Basel. and its Church bells.
We visit our son's family every two years.Since we live in India my views will be diff:)

But I would not like to live there for more than 3 months!! But I like your write up. It is true in so many ways. Swiss is expensive. I f you know how to survive like the train pass nothing to it.
Maybe the next trip I would love to come to Amsterdam to feel the difference. A real good sum up of Switzerland.!!!!!!congrats.

dipali said...

Such fun, Inky! Sound advice, methinks.

Muthukumar speaks said...

Are you planning to become brand ambassador for some holiday spot which clearly not Swiss... Tnz for the eye opener... I will never ever plan to go out of Tamilnadu... Ooty, Kodaikanal here I come...