Switzerland - Beyond Cheese Fondue
Updated: Nov 3, 2022
SWITZERLAND: Beyond Cheese Fondue by Paula G. Cullison (Summer 2022)
I first visited Switzerland in 1963, as part of a 3-month student European tour group; we visited 12 countries. I was determined to return one day. Upon graduating from college in 1965, I was awarded an AIESEC traineeship to work in Zurich. My international travels continued over the years and I have visited 50 countries. It took a while, but I returned to Switzerland in 2004 with our daughter, Pamela. We explored much of Switzerland and hiked in the Bernese Oberland. This summer I returned with my husband, Tim. This is an account of our magical month-long adventure.
Switzerland is well known for its cheese, chocolate, watches, machinery and pharmaceuticals, as well as the popular children’s classic, Heidi. Our goal was to immerse ourselves and experience the French, German and Italian faces of Switzerland. It was a fun filled trip from beginning to end.
Our trip began on a happy note, as we were able to secure free R/T frequent flyer seats on the United Polaris First Class flight via Chicago. Traveling with only carry-on luggage, something I have been doing for the past 15 years, made a huge difference. For our trip of 33 nights, I booked 10 hotels – always with breakfast, rooms with a view and balcony. Sipping morning coffee and gazing at the fabulous mountains and lakes, while sitting on the balcony, was priceless – a most enjoyable way to begin the day.
United Nations Headquarters in Geneva, photography by Paula G. Cullison
Switzerland is a country with an international persona. Home to a population of over 8,740,472 and comprised of 26 cantons (like counties), Switzerand has several major languages which reflect its population: Swiss German at 65%, French at 18%, Italian at10%, and Romansh at.5%. It’s a multilingual country with a literacy rate of 99% where students also study English.
The majority of the population resides in several cities with Zurich, as the financial center, while Geneva is home to numerous United Nations headquarters. Bern, the Capital, is the government center. Basel hosts an annual international Art festival, while smaller cities like Lugano host international film festivals and other events.
Switzerland’s natural beauty continues to attract a host of visitors from numerous countries. They are enticed by its picturesque villages, gorgeous lakes, and famous mountains. The Eiger (Ogre), Jungfrau (Young Maiden), and Monch (Monk) are located in the Bernese Oberland near Grindelwald, while the Matterhorn, is close to Zermatt. All offer breath taking classic picture-perfect scenes. We were over-joyed to have experienced their grandeur.
A long-time neutral country, Switzerland has focused on building and maintaining a strong infrastructure. The on-time trains, buses and trams are an indication of a well-functioning public transit system. The cable cars (gondolas), suspended in mid-air, are a testament to Swiss ingenuity. Reaching these incredible heights was so much fun.
Lake Geneva, photography by Paula G. Cullison
We began our adventure in Geneva (population of 627,000) with 6 nights that included 2 boat rides on the Lake, a visit to the Botanical Gardens, the United Nations complex, and a full day to Vevey, the site of the Charlie Chaplin estate - now a museum. When London-born Chaplin was blacklisted in 1948 during the McCarthy era, after having lived in the US for 40 years, he and his family found refuge in Switzerland. As a long- time Chaplin fan, being on his estate in Vevey was a very special treat for me.
While in Geneva, we took the bus and visited Anncey, France, a charming historic village located in the Rhone Alps region. With its picturesque cobblestone streets and winding canals, Anncey is known as the ‘Venice of the Alps’.
Our next stop required two changes of trains, as we headed south to spend 7 nights in Grindelwald. With minutes to make the connections, we ran. Fortunately, the train stations now have ramps, thus, making the move from platform to platform much easier.
Grindelwald is the heart of the Bernese Oberland region. Our hotel was close to the Grindelwald Terminal. From there, cable cars departed for Jungfrau, Mannlichen, and Wengen, while the trains headed for Interlaken and surrounding cities. Starting the day by viewing the sunrise on Mt. Eiger was breathtaking.
Switzerland now offers a plethora of travel passes … somewhat mind boggling. It takes a concerted amount of time and effort to select the combination which best suits the traveler. After much deliberation and analysis, I bought the Top of Europe Jungfrau 5-day Passes, as well as the Swiss Half Fare Rail Passes; and then downloaded the Swiss Rail SBB Mobile App which was very user friendly.
Returning to the Jungfrau was such an awesome experience. Speak about hitting the heights! Majestic at 11,362 feet, the Jungfrau is awe inspiring. For a desert dweller, being in the midst of so much snow was captivating. Sensational is a good word to describe it. We spent the entire day enjoying every moment: the views were spectacular; the landscape was awe-inspiring and the air was fresh. The smiling faces of visitors from many different countries gave us a sense of well-being and hope for the future.
One day, we took the cable car to Mannlichen, another high point at 7,000 feet and where we first encountered the famous contented Swiss cows. No wonder the yogurt is so creamy and delicious. It is said that the Swiss know where the cows have grazed by the taste of the cheese. No pens for these cows! They are so passive and obviously bask in all the attention from the tourists. After a few hours of enjoying the scene, we rode the cable car (gondola) to charming Wengen, a pedestrian friendly village. From there, we took the train for our first of three visits to Interlaken, a Sister City of Scottsdale Arizona, which has a population of 5,600 inhabitants. To our amazement, there was an open grassy field for paragliders right in the center of the city. Fascinated, we sat and watched for hours. Tempting as it was to test it out, we decided against it.
We took the cable car to Grindelwald First (pronounced fearst) and then decide to hike to Bachalpsee. It was a bit of a challenge, as we hiked up-hill for an hour on a fairly hot and sunny day. The wonderful reward was spectacular scenery and a major encounter with the Swiss cows. I took many photos – one of which I plan to include in my solo photography exhibit: Have Passport – Will Travel set for April 2023 @ Herberger Gallery in Phoenix, Arizona.
Reichenbach Falls in Meiringen, photography by Paula G. Cullison
On the day we visited Lauterbrunnen, it rained for a short while - only one of two days of brief rain showers during our trip. Lauterbrunnen is resplendent with 72 waterfalls; Staubbach Falls at 900’ is the largest and most powerful in the region. Fascinated by waterfalls, we headed for Meiringen which was made famous when Sherlock Holmes fell to his death at Reichenbach Falls. A cogwheel train ride got us near the top. Climbing another 200 plus steps put us at the top of the falls. It was as awesome as when I visited in 2004. The power and the sound of the roaring falls are definitely long remembered. Meiringen is also known as the home of the meringue, which was created there by an Italian chef in 1720. Since then, these delicious treats have been enjoyed by many.
The next day we made another stop in Interlaken and took the cable car up to the top ofthe city known as Harder Klum. The views from there of Lake Thun and Lake Brienz were spectacular. Later that day, we opted for the Lotschberg steamboat ride on Lake Brienz. We were treated to a relaxing trip with views of the surrounding mountains and villages. Later that day, we stopped to visit the Japanese Friendship Garden, a gift from the Interlaken Sister City of Otsu, Japan.
Swiss National Holiday: Alpenhorn Music - Interlaken photography by Paula G. Cullison
On August 1st the Swiss National Holiday, we decided to return to Interlaken. We learned from the locals that the festivities and parade would be one of the best in the Bernese Oberland region. They were correct. We arrived at about 11am to enjoy words of welcome, Alpenhorn music, along with free beer, pretzels and lemonade. The parade, which started a few hours later, consisted of marching bands, plenty of decorated cows, adults and children carrying yoked cowbells, farmers, residents in folk costumes, as well as flag bearers in traditional dress. We followed the parade to the Alt Stadt (Old Town) where the festivities continued. Because of global warming and the dryness of the area, fireworks were not allowed.
Matterhorn - view from our balcony in Zermatt, photograph by Paula G. Cullison
Next stop for us was Zermatt, another hugely popular area for serious hikers and tourists alike. We took two major trips via cable cars: Matterhorn Gornergrat and Klein Matterhorn with its ice palace filled with incredible ice sculptures. From there we saw the highest mountains in Switzerland, France, and Italy. It was breathtaking! At the Matterhorn Museum in Zermatt, we learned of President Theodore Roosevelt’s summiting the Matterhorn (14,692’) in 1881, while on his honeymoon – no less! Nearby was a cemetery dedicated to those climbers who died trying to reach the summit; sadly, many were in their twenties.
Swiss Alps - Gornergrat Matterhorn, photography by Paula G. Cullison
We continued our adventure with a ride on the Glacier Express. The glass domed train allowed for a panoramic journey from Zermatt to Chur. During the 8-hour ride we continued to marvel at the natural beauty of Switzerland. One can never tire of gazing upon Mother Nature’s gifts: blue skies, majestic mountains, leafy trees, river valleys, green fields, floral treasures and birds in flight. Our journey ended in Chur where we spent the night. Having arrived mid- afternoon and not having to leave until the next afternoon, we had time to explore this charming town. As it happened, the next day was the weekly Saturday Flea Market, held in the pedestrian-friendly section of the old city.
We then took the Bernina Express, another glass domed train ride through more of this gorgeous country. For the next 6 hours, the Bernina took us through 55 tunnels and over 196 bridges to Tirano, Italy. This quiet town had a unique charm of its own. We enjoyed the respite, as we slowly meandered through its cobblestoned streets, to the cathedral square and through the old section. Tirano is located right across the border in Italy. Having an opportunity to speak Italian was a bonus for me. Next up was the Bernina bus ride to Lugano where our hotel roomwith a balcony and view of the lake awaited us.
Lago di Lugano, photography by Paula G. Cullison
During our 3 nights stay, we took two boat rides on Lago di Lugano: one to Morcote and the other to Gandria, both built on fairly steep hillsides. In town, we visited the Lugano Art and Culture Center, enjoyed the city’s investment in public art and spent a good amount of time walking along the lake.
Chapel Bridge in Lucerene, photography by Paula G. Cullison
Our home for the next 3 nights was Lucerne, a city with a population of 82,000, known for its historic Chapel Bridge, Lion Monument, beautiful lake, and gateway to Mt Pilatus. At 7,000 feet, Pilatus offered splendid panoramic views. The trip up and back involved a combination of cogwheel train, cable car, gondola and boat ride. When we arrived at the top, we were entertained by an Alpenhorn trio. What a nice surprise! To summit, there was a steep staircase with handrail and a directional sign which noted distances to various international cities. The next day we visited the two major art museums: Kunstmuseum of Lucene (featuring David Hockney) and the Rosengrat (featuring Picasso and friends).
The journey continued with our next stop at Zurich for 3 nights. One of Switzerland’s largest cities, Zurich has a population of 1,420,000. I had forgotten about the annual Street Parade onto which an additional 750,000 young people descended. The event seemed to have brought all of them to the Zurich Bahnhof train station as we arrived. It was like being at the NYC Times Square subway station during rush hour.
Zurich Banhof Train Station Guardian Angel sculpture by Niki de Saint Phalle, photography by Paula G. Cullison
We were literally swept away in a sea of humanity. As a temporary escape from the crowd, we placed our luggage in a large locker, under the watchful eye of the huge Guardian Angel sculpture (36 feet / 1.3 tons) by Niki de Saint Phalle. We headed for Uetliberg (the Top of Zurich) where we had a great view of the city below and its lovely lake. Curious about the Street Parade, we decided to walk down Bahnhofstrasse with the masses. The city closed off the street and set up four stages for music groups. It was touted as the ‘World’s Largest Techno Party’ attracting the 20-somethings, and we were caught in the middle. Managing to make our way to the water, we took a leisurely boat ride on Lake Zurich (Zurichsee). However, we then had to walk against the crowd, as we made our way back towards the train station. Crazy – for sure, but an experience to remember.
Two days later, Zurich was back to normal and the Bahnhof train station seemed deserted, by comparison. We visited the Kunsthaus Museum and the Landes Swiss National Museum and walked through the Niederdorf which is the pedestrian-only old section of the city. Zurich has plenty to offer tourists and residents alike.
Grossmunster Church in Zurich, photography by Paula G. Cullison
A visit to the Grossmunster and Fraumunster (stained glass windows by Marc Chagall) churches was a nice break. The following day, we headed to the Rheinfalls and visited Stein am Rhei. Formed about 15,000 years ago during the Ice Age, the Rheinfalls are powerful as they cascade at 2,000 feet per second. Our boat ride brought us up close to the falls. Their magnificence was very impressive. Later, a 30-minute train ride brought us to the well-preserved town of Stein am Rhein with its historic cobble-stoned streets and artistically painted buildings.
Colmar, France - Little Venice, photography by Paula G. Cullison
Being so close to the border with France, we decided to spend some time in Colmar and Strasbourg. Our 3 nights in Colmar (room with a view and balcony) enabled us to visit the charming Alsace villages of Ribeauville, Riquewhir and Equisheim, best known for their wine. While in Colmar, we walked the cobblestone streets, encountered an archeologic dig at St Martin’s Church, visited the Little Venice section along the canal, the museum estate of Augustine Bartholdi (famed designer of the Statue of Liberty), and the Underlinden Museum of Art, a 13th Century Monastery, which has an impressive collection.
Strasbourg, France Notre Dame Cathedral, photography by Paula G. Cullison
Strasbourg, with a population of 270,000, is capital of the Alsace region of France and home to the very impressive Notre Dame Cathedral. It houses numerous stained-glass windows and an astronomical clock, which at 18 meters high (60’) is one of the largest in the world. We also visited the Rohan Palace of Fine Art located across the square; we walked through the Petite France section, and took a leisurely boat ride on and through the canal waterway system where we also passed the Parliament and European Union buildings.
Astronomical Clock Strasbourg, France, photography by Paula G. Cullison
We took the train from Strasbourg (with a change in Basel) to the Zurich airport for our last night. To purchase these tickets, I needed the assistance of a train agent, as I was having difficulty with the ticket machine. The agent only spoke French and Italian. We conversed in Italian and shared a few laughs. Mission accomplished! Throughout this journey, we found people to be most helpful. The trains were always on time.
Restaurant Sign - Colmar, France, photography by Paula G. Cullison
As for the food: breakfast buffets at the hotels were sumptuous – consisting of eggs, bacon, cold cuts which always included prosciutto, sausages, cheese assortment, fresh fruit salad, yogurt, several fruit juices, a coffee machine (which dispensed six different types including cappuccino), croissants, rolls and crusty breads, a variety of jams, butter, vegetables; some offered omelettes to order, pancakes, and crepes. With breakfast under our belts, we usually skipped lunch and opted for an early 6pm dinner. For an afternoon treat, we did not have to look far to find an Italian gelato cart or shop. The big decision was focused on choosing the flavor and the number of scoops.
Farm to Table - Market Day in Switzerland, photography by Paula Cullison
The fresh farm to table dinner offerings were varied. The larger cities have a nice selection of international restaurants from which to choose. Of course, we had the traditional cheese fondue several times. Italian food is very popular in Switzerland. Most restaurants offered a pasta and or ravioli dish; many offered pizza. Even the Ethiopian restaurant in Lugano offered it; we ordered traditional Ethiopian dishes. We also ate at Thai, Chinese and Turkish restaurants. Salads are served either with a house dressing or olive oil and vinegar for you to use. Google was our search engine when we got hungry. The noted Michelin star restaurants all required reservations which were difficult to obtain on short notice. It seemed that the tour groups have a lock on them. All restaurants had menus in English, and there was no problem in finding a good meal. Beer was always served cold; wine pours tended to be small.
Our trip was certainly reflective of the title from the Dr Seuss book: Oh the Places You’ll go – Oh the People You’ll meet. We met people from 15 countries, most of whom spoke English. As I wrote this article, I recalled some of them: the backpacking university student from Hamburg who needed time to reflect on her life, the young social worker from Cologne who is dedicating her life to helping children with emotional problems, the professional woman from Hong Kong who recently emigrated to Paris, the Dutch couple who invited us to stay in their home in Holland, the retired Swiss high school teacher of Latin and Greek who at 85 hikes Mt Pilatus several times a week, and the female diplomat from Korea who lives in Geneva. We also met Taiwanese girlfriends on holiday who were overjoyed to learn of the Phoenix Sister City pairing with Taipei, a young Swiss woman on the train who invited me to join her hiking group, the university student from Fribourg who was accompanying his grandparents on a day trip to visit Chaplin’s World, the American couple living in Germany who plan to retire in Austria, the scout troop and leader from Portugal who included me in their photo probably because I mentioned that I enjoyed visiting their country, the family from Ankara who were happy to know that I had visited Turkey, the couple from County Meath, Ireland who were on their honeymoon. We will always remember the sisters from Indiana who wondered about my photographing so many cows, the two couples from Norway who enjoyed my stories of travels there, the student from Russia who was studying for her Master’s degree in English, the family from France who were on a camping vacation, the two women from the Cameroons whom I met at the Geneva train station and who were surprised that I knew about the women’s bank there, and then there was the 103 year old man whom we met on a walk in Tirano. He was a living example of what good food, clean air, exercise, and camaraderie can do for longevity. We all shared a wonderful moment in time. It’s definitely a small world after all.
©Paula G. Cullison 2022