Mary Lou Gazdik, of Fox World Travel’s Green Bay Office, recently had the opportunity to tour Switzerland by train. Hear all about her enchanting experience and her review of touring by train with Cosmos.
I was so excited when I found out that I had the opportunity to travel to Switzerland. This spectacular country was recently voted the most scenic area in the world. My only experience with Switzerland had been a brief stop in Basel prior to embarking on a river cruise a few years ago.
My choices were many and I did seek out suggestions but in the end, Cosmos had the trip that sounded perfect to me. The trip was all throughout Switzerland on train with one brief visit over the border into Italy to spend a few hours in Tirano. I had traveled by train previously in Europe but this trip was all on Swiss trains renowned for being on time all the time. Precision in travel just like their famous watches is a source of pride in this geographically small, yet very wealthy country.
As you can imagine flying business class is just as good as it gets! Champagne, wine and spirits, first courses, main courses, cheese from the cantons of Geneva and more, Desserts that wowed me and of course Swiss chocolates in all varieties served with over the top service and real linen and real silverware in my own pod that completely reclines. It even had a massage feature which was so relaxing!
I arrived rested. I had booked the Novotel West hotel in Zurich, which had a great breakfast, nice size rooms, a friendly and helpful front desk staff and speedy internet. The location turned out to be great with options of a 20 minute walk to the city center or 2 blocks to a tram type system that cost 8.50 Swiss Francs for 24 hours. Walking was my choice for most of the time since we were then able to discover many out of the way cafes and see the layout of the town. It was at one time a walled city and now hosts both the old and new. It has been a commerce center as early as the 12th century. Trade Guilds were established for the laborers here and they did well until the French Revolution. Artists and writers had their own movement here and among the most famous was James Joyce who spent years working on Ulysses and A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.
I did book two tours prior to the trip. The first one was a city tour and the second was a trip out of the city to experience Rheinfalls. The Rheinfall is 492 feet wide and drops 82 feet in a series of three dramatic leaps. There are about 9 different trips that you can do once you arrive. Ours was a boat ride up to middle ground between the falls and climbing of steep steps for a view and photos. Switzerland had experienced a very wet July. It had rained every day in July. Needless to say, the falls were raging when we arrived on August 7th.
Once the tour ended, we began to explore the most famous area for shopping, known as the Bahnhofstrass. The highlight for me was the Fraumunster church which has stained glass windows designed by the famous Russian born artist, Marc Chagall. I would suggest that if you have a chance to check them out online…or better yet, if you have the change to visit Zurich, do add it to your list of must see places. I went there twice, since once was not enough. St. Peter’s church is very old and has the largest clock faces in Europe. I also liked the Grossmunster church because we could climb to the very top of one of its two steeples and enjoy a beautiful view of Lake Zurich and the city as far as the eye could see. We did take advantage of the tram system which, to our surprise, also works for boat trips along the shores of Lake Zurich. All along there are small villages that you can stop at, public and private beaches to enjoy, great restaurants and more. We took one of the longer three hour trips and most of that time we interacted with a Swiss gentleman who was so happy to help educate us about the area and he was thrilled to practice his English. One other highlight was the botanical garden which was a short tram ride from town. George Clooney, President Clinton and other people with big bucks stay at a huge luxury hotel with towering turrets and timbered balconies. In case you decide to stay, it is called the Dolder Grand Hotel and grand it is!!
Cities on tour:
Our first train trip was on a double decker train from the main train station to Lucerne- first class all the way. The scenery was outstanding and when we arrived it was a mere three blocks to our hotel, the Luzernhof.
This was the one hotel that was not popular with the group of 21. While the location was excellent, it did not have air conditioning and we could have used it, it was in a very noisy location because of street noise and church bells all night long. We did not have to handle our luggage for the entire trip, other than making sure our suitcases were out at the scheduled times, which was wonderful. Each time, they were delivered to our rooms shortly after we arrived in our rooms.
Our tours in this area included a boat ride which was excellent and a city walking tour. We then had free time to explore the covered bridges, the medieval town and much more. We toured the Jesuit church and spent some time in the Rosengart Museum because our tour director mentioned that they had more than 30 Picassos.
I am a fan of the Rick Steves’ PBS shows and knew the Lion of Lucerne was a must see plus the vintage paintings inside the covered bridges from the Middle Ages. Both were worthwhile and there are so many other tours that can be booked nearby. The mountain range has funicular opportunities, hiking, biking, water activities and more.
Most of the group also did the optional dinner excursion to the Stadtkeller Swiss Folklore Restaurant that evening. WOW! What a fantastic experience. It offered an excellent meal plus wine or beer (large mug) in addition to a wonderful array of musical displays. Most of the night was interactive and since our group was the closest to the stage, we were blowing the alp horns, learning to yodel and dancing on stage. I would recommend it for any clients wanting to experience a typical Swiss meal that is very tasty plus fun entertainment.
Lucerne to Interlaken/ Jungfrau Mountains/Montreaux
We took the Lucerne Interlaken Express and cross the Brunigh Pass for a stop in Interlaken. Here, we had an optional excursion on a bright sunny day to view the Jungrau Mountains. After watching about a hundred people parasailing down the mountain, I have added that to my list of fun things to do. We took a funicular to the top and spent hours viewing from our glass extension out over the edge. The excursion also included a delicious meal of pork chops, French fries, salad, fresh vegetables and wine or beer. The Britnee Pass along the way was 5,600 feet high and we were swiveling every which way to take in the waterfalls, the chalets, the towns, the beauty. We then traveled on to the town of Lausanne.
Our hotel in Lausanne was the Palmiers which was a fine hotel but we arrived later in the evening, so it did not afford us much time to take in the sights here. Lausanne is the headquarters of the Olympics and has a Gothic architectural cathedral that was built in the 12th century.
We were close to Montreau which was the first stop on our agenda for the next day. I think the cost of lodging was too expensive in Montreau so we stayed nearby instead. This was our first overcast day but it did not deter our sightseeing of Montreau. This is a city I could call home…it is known as the capital of the Swiss Riviera. The waterfront is thick with magnolias, cypress and palm trees and the famous statue of no other than Freddy Mercury. He is honored at the local casino along with Queen, of course. It was a hidden gem; small but packed with great stuff! You can mix two Queen Songs in the mixing room where Queen recorded their albums. There is a room displaying the chronology of the albums recorded at Montreaux with original Freddie costumes, drum kit from Live Aid.
The other highlight was Chateaux de Chillon. I loved this picturesque 12th century castle built on Roman foundations by Duke Peter of Savoy. It was a state prison and you may have read the famous poem by Lord Byron “The Prisoner of Chillon” who visited and was moved by the plight of Francois Bonivard who spent six years chained to a pillar in the dungeon…
This was the highlight of the trip for me, but that is relative, because the entire experience was over the top!
Imagine a place without cars in an Alpine village, with iconic peaks in plain view, flower boxes and country slopes for hiking, the smell of wood burning, the roar of a silt river and food choices galore! I arrived via the Glacier Express to this peaceful, panoramic town of Zermaat. We were greeted by the manager who walked us up the hill to the Tschugge hotel. It only has 30 huge rooms with balconies overlooking the village and toward the mountains surrounding it. Peace and tranquility or high octane hiking and climbing are options for all. We took the Gornergrat Bahn to an altitude of 10,266 feet. There are stops along the way for those that wish to hike and explore glaciers and lakes. My goal was to get to the top to see the Matterhorn since the skies were opening to sunshine in Zermaat for the first time in 10 days. The views were postcard perfect and the temperatures also. The area at the summit has a variety of photo opts, dining, exploring and my favorite, sitting on a rock and taking in the beauty all around me! The snowcapped Matterhorn with its peculiar snaggletooth shape was visible for the entire time we were up at the top of the world. It rises to 14,685 feet and was climbed for the first time by Edward Whymper on July 14th in 1865. The other climbers who were tied together did not fare as well as the ropes snapped four of the climbers fell nearly 4000 feet. When I was out walking around town, I saw the church yard behind the village church that has many failed mountaineers.
Today’s adventure via rail was the Bernina Pass and, in my opinion, one of the most breathtaking! The highest Alpine railway crosses bridges and viaducts. The portion from Chur to St Moritz is part of the Glacier Express route and as it heads toward Italy, there are hillside castles, glaciers and icy blue lakes. Our itinerary allowed for a wonderful 5 hour stop in Tirano to enjoy some pizza and red wine along the main street with mountains as our backdrop and a buzz of local activity all around.
Our hotel, the Baeren (Bear in English) was very close to Celerina where the first bobsled races took place. I saw some pictures from the 1928 Olympics showing the hotel in the background.
Today St Moritz is home to the rich and famous that enjoy the 300 days of sunshine in the heart of the Engadin Valley and Graubunden Valley. Ever since the Middle Ages, people have come to St Moritz for the mineral springs. The turquoise color of the lake is so beautiful.
One highlight for me was not your typical tourist event. As we arrived at the train station a very familiar aroma came my way…to my surprise they were grilling the biggest brats I have ever seen and putting them on the smallest possible bun. Even at 9 am, it was something I could not pass up. WOW, what a delicious treat.
My travel to Switzerland was memorable in so many ways. The country is beautiful beyond anything a picture can capture. Traveling by train provided an experience for interaction with others or peaceful panoramic window gazing for hours. This unique country offers charming cities, people and food galore. When I first started planning this trip, I considered flying into Zurich and then exploring more of northern Italy and possibly Germany. I am so glad I found the Cosmos Scenic Switzerland by Train. Cosmos did a wonderful job and I would recommend them based on my experiences. The guide was very knowledgeable, organized and went out of his way to make sure we were well taken care of throughout our trip.