Last week we shared our favorite tricks and tips to travel while working with your current schedule. That post mentioned that a few years ago we had used our Thanksgiving break to visit Switzerland and Spain. In the ten days we were away, we were able to visit a handful of cities and packed in as much site seeing as we could. This made for a busy but wonderful trip for us. Below we have shared our travel log and itinerary for the first part of our exploration through beautiful Switzerland.
Somethings to note before you read… First, we planned to be moving around quite a bit during this trip. To do so, we purchased the Swiss Travel Pass. The price may seem expensive upfront, but ended up in our favor. The pass also allowed for flexible travel plans and admission to several locations were also included with the purchase of the pass. And second, knowing that we wouldn’t have a home base through most of the trip, we packed everything we needed into two personal item sized backpacks. It made for extremely lightweight travel which was appreciated because at the time I was in my first trimester of pregnancy with Rosalie. We will be posting about how and what we packed in a couple weeks.
Day 1 and 2: Traveling to and through Geneva
Except for a small hiccup during our transportation to the airport, everything went smoothly as we traveled from Minneapolis, Minnesota to Geneva, Switzerland. Neither of us slept much on the plane, but upon arrival in the morning, we didn’t want to trade sleep for exploring. The beauty of traveling in the off season allowed us to check into our room, freshen up, and repack what we needed for exploring, all while it was only mid-morning. While this may not always be the case, most hotels offer a baggage hold.
Our first destination was to visit Saint Pierre Cathedral. The main portion of the Cathedral is free to walk around and bask in the beauty of the stained glass windows, John Calvin’s chair, and the articulate woodwork. The real highlight for us was climbing up to the top of the towers, which did cost 5 Swiss Francs each. From up top, we were able to spy the Jete D’Eau fountain in Lake Geneva, many other churches and cathedrals, and a general view of the city in which we had just arrived.
After the Cathedral, we needed to change our money into Swiss Francs (CHF), and get something to eat. As we wandered around trying to find a bank, we jaunted past the high end shopping areas, beautiful fountains, and of course, lots of patisseries. I took enough French while at university that I was able to have a basic understanding of what people were saying, street signs, and to our best advantage, order food. After having a broken conversation with a girl in a particularly delicious looking patisserie, we munched on quiche, jambon et pain, and pain aux chocolate. It may have been that we were just so exhausted and hungry to think anything else, but we thought it tasted heavenly!
The day was going by much too quickly, and we had to run to get to the United Nations complex for the last tour of the day. We made it with a minute to spare, and jumped right into our tour group. It was interesting to be led through the rooms and hear about the history of the UN, and certain world decisions that had been made there. The tour was completely worth it, and I would recommend it to everyone. The only unfortunate part of our tour is that we had been awake for close to 30 hours by that point and were completely exhausted. There were more than a few moments where we had to keep nudging each other to stay awake. Thankfully, the UN was our last stop for the day. That allowed us to get some dinner, a shower, and get some well needed sleep.
Day 3: On the Road in Search of Castles
Around 3:00 am Kyle and I rolled over in bed wide awake, and neither of us could get back to sleep. At that point, we decided we might as well get a good start on our day. We got ready for the day, packed our backpacks, and headed to the station for the first train out of Geneva.
The train took us along the banks of a misty Lake Geneva. The sun was just starting to rise, revealing the snow capped mountains on the other side of the lake and vineyards and farms blanketing the hills. It was a beautiful view to take in while eating the pastries we had picked up at a patisserie the train station. About an hour into the train ride we got off at the colorful but still sleeping town of Montreux, then caught a bus just a walk down from the train station to take us almost the rest of the way to our destination.
Chillon Castle sits on the edge of Lake Geneva, it’s stereotypical castle shape perfectly silhouetted against the jagged mountains behind it. It felt like we were stepping back in time as we wandered through with our tour group. First stop was into the dungeons, were we learned that some recognizable names had found inspiration here. The poet Lord Byron wrote The Prisoner of Chillon based on the story he was told of a man chained to a pillar for 6 years. He even left a his mark on one of the “seven pillars of Gothic mould”. It was also not surprising to hear that Alexander Dumas and Victor Hugo gained inspiration for their literature through Chillon’s dungeons.
The dungeons were dark, ominous, and eerie, but the rest of the castle presented large rooms filled with intricately painted decor, massive fireplaces, iron-plated windows, and beautiful wood and stone work. When the tour continued to the outdoors and into the towers, we were amazed to learn that this castle actually began as a Roman outpost built on what appears to be a stone island, about 20 feet out on the lake. Its strategic placement led for it to be developed into a fort, then a small castle around 1005 AD. During the next 6 centuries, it was taken over and developed on many times until it reached its current height and magnitude.
Explorer Tip: If you are interested in visiting Chillon Castle, it is free with the Swiss Rail Pass (which we purchased because we were going to be on public transportation so often). To save money, you can also download an audio-guide app on your phone which costs much less than the audio-guide you would purchase there. Honestly, we liked it so much, we would have paid full price for everything just to visit, but it’s nice to know there are less expensive options.
We tried to time our trip back to the train station as best we could but ended up missing our train by about ten seconds because we went to the wrong side of the platform first. However, that turned out to be in our favor because Montreux had come alive and was bustling with people. It also allowed us to get our first taste of a European Christmas market. As we walked through the market, I munched on a banana and chocolate crepe and Kyle had vin chaude maison. This is a traditional Swiss dish that starts with pickles, onions, and boiled potatoes. Then a large wheel of cheese is placed under a heater. As soon as it gets bubbly and melted, it is scraped over the vegetables. Delicious!
Making sure to leave enough time to get on our next train, we soon found ourselves riding up into the mountains to Gruyeres. We were on a quest to find another castle there, but were pleased to see such beautiful surroundings as we rose higher on the slopes. Not realizing there were multiple train stations near Gruyeres, we jumped off one stop too soon and ended up having to walk along the highway for about two miles. This gave us the first glimpse of the Castle of Gruyeres, standing proudly at the highest point in the valley.
By the time we hiked up to the Castle of Gruyeres, we had taken in the exterior and were ready to explore inside. This castle was owned by a series of Dukes starting in the 11th century, though much has been added on throughout the following centuries. We absolutely loved the faux-tapestry paintings in the dining hall, stained glass windows, and other relics that were displayed through the museum. I especially enjoyed learning the story of a group of female villagers who protected the castle from siege by lighting the horns of their goats on fire and set them running loose down the hill towards the attackers.
We had heard that any stop to the Castle of Gruyeres needed to be followed by a treat at Le Chalet. This quaint restaurant, located just next to the castle, housed many specialties, including framboises avec creme (raspberries with cream). The cream was so thick that it coated the raspberries and balanced out the tartness. It was so rich we could barely finish one helping between the two of us. But we couldn’t stay long. Night had fallen, and we needed to get to the next train station, which turned out to be only a half mile down the hill from the castle. From there, we rode a series of trains and a bus to make it to our next location, in Bern.
Explorer Tip: There are three main languages spoken in Switzerland; French, German, and Italian. Up until this point, we had been in the French area, but in Bern we had stepped into German. While we tried to speak as much of the local language as we could, we were very grateful that most people we conversed with also spoke English. Do your best to speak the local language, but know that in many circumstances, you will still be able to communicate.
Day 4: A Beautiful Day in Bern
Even before we came on this trip, Switzerland held a special place in my heart. Many of my ancestors on my mother’s side are Swiss; mostly from Bern and Zurich. I knew that my visit to Bern would be a special time for me to connect to that part in my heritage, and was thrilled to explore where they may have walked and lived. Because of this, Kyle and I wanted to be able to see as much of the city as possible during the day we stayed there. We found the best way to do this was through a free walking tour.
We met on a corner near the train station for a 2 1/2 hour tour. According to our guide, records of settlements in this area date all the way back to 300 – 200 BC, however, 1191 AD is a more commonly known date of when a city first came into existence. The center of the development took place on a plateau in the peninsula of land shaped by the River Aare, thus creating a natural barrier on three sides of the city. The fourth side was protected by a wall to fortress the main city. Throughout the passing of time and expansion of the city, the wall was expanded further out from the peninsula. That area remained Old Bern, and the more recently developed land, New Bern.
Our guide walked the group by the Federal Palace, National Bank and then down into the lower area of the city along the River Aare. In medieval times, this is where the poor lived, as the area was prone to flooding. We were also told stories of a secret language known as “Miter English”, which was really nothing of the sort but confused the soldiers and aristocracy. After another climb up to the top of the plateau, we were greeted by Cathedral at Munsterplatz, a beautiful cathedral and surrounding park built in the 15th Century.
My favorite part of the tour came near the end as we were approaching the archaic astronomical clock, which was once a part of the original Old Bern gate. Each hour the clock puts on a show; different parts of the clock rotate, a rooster sounds, and a bell is rung to mark the hour. Considering the technology of the 13th Century when this was built, by medieval standards, it is pretty astonishing. Kyle and I also got a good chuckle out of a centuries old tradition. Apparently, Bernese boys cannot call themselves a man unless they urinate on the side of the clock tower. This tradition continues today, but thankfully, there is now a urinal and a stall to prevent any indecency problems that would most certainly arise.
Feeling like we had gotten an excellent look at Bern, we stopped for an early dinner, then walked back to our hotel, picked up our packs, and then caught a series of buses and trains to take us to our next destination, Interlaken. We had just walked through a beautiful day, but what we didn’t know then is how much the next day was going to heighten our senses and love of Switzerland.
Explorer Tip: In Bern, as it is with many European cities, most restaurants close between meals. Most meals in Switzerland cost at least 30 Swiss Francs, so budget for that expense if you plan to eat out each meal. We tried to lessen this expense by picking up portable food at a market and through finding hotels/hostels that served breakfast. Bread, cheese, fruit, and chocolate were constantly stored in the pockets of our bags. Also, Don’t waste your money on bottled water. The numerous fountains in Switzerland have drinking water that rivals what you purchase at a store.
Day 5: Up to New Heights
We arrived at Hotel Rossli late at night, so when we woke up the next morning we were greeted by the charming streets of Interlaken and the towering Alps. Our plan was to get into the mountains, so we didn’t linger long. Soon we were on a train up into the canyon town of Lauterbrunnen. From there we caught a gondola and one final train to take us to the mountain town of Murren. All of these modes of transportation are included in the Swiss Travel Pass we mentioned above.
Murren was quiet and quaint in the off season, so we followed the yellow diamond signs with the word Wanderweg (translates to trail). For the next four hours, we wandered trail after trail. Some were steep and muddy, some covered in snow, but we didn’t mind either because we were in the most incredible looking mountains that we have ever seen. Click here to see more hiking trails in this area.
When we got hungry, we started on our way back down. Along the way, we happened to walk through the part of the mountain filled with little farms and livestock. While we had been hiking, there always seemed to be cowbells tinkling in the distance, making the hills seem almost magical. At first we thought they were all the way down in the base of the canyon. As it turns out, the were just a short ways down our hiking trail. Even now, when I think of hiking there, my memory hears that echoing chime of bells in connection with the view.
After a quick lunch at Skyline Shop and Bar, which offered amazing views of the canyon, we headed back down the way we came up. On our way out, we stopped in Lauterbrunnen to visit the towering Trummelbach Falls before heading to the train station. Missing our train by a minute, with the next one not departing for another hour, we decided to take a little detour and take another train to up to and down from Wengen. Though on the other side of the canyon, it was included with our Swiss Pass and we had time to kill, so we jumped on, merely to check out the scenery.
Back near our hotel, our evening plans included indulging in classic Swiss cheese fondu at Restaurant Chalet and a chocolate show at Schuh. Unfortunately, The downside of only using a backpack to carry your stuff means that you run out of clothes pretty quickly. We had planned it this way because we knew Hotel Rossli had a washer and dryer available. The rest of the night was spent washing and repacking. We didn’t mind, though. This day had definitely been the highlight of our trip, as as amazing as it had been, we were exhausted.
The next morning we woke up to the sound of rain, which meant our plans of going into the mountains again were not going to happen. Instead, we enjoyed a hearty breakfast at our hotel and then took to the streets of Interlaken and Unterseen. With the mist hovering just above the top of the buildings, it almost felt like we were walking through a fairy tale village. That is, until it started pouring rain.
Speiz and Thun
Since this day was all about improvising, our next move was to take a train along the South of Lake Thun. We figured we would at least be able to see Switzerland from the train without getting too wet. It turned out to be a great day of site seeing. In Spiez, we had a window of no rain to walk down to Spiez Castle
, before jumping on another train.
At that point we decided to go on a quest. We had an address for my great great grandma’s house and we were hoping to find it before leaving the area. According to my phone, it was within a twenty minute train ride from Spiez, on the outskirts of Thun. We arrived in Thun, ready to go find it, but ended up going on a wild goose chase. The directions were faulty, leading us down a beautiful, but ultimately wrong route. In the end, we didn’t end up finding the house, but we did end up finding another castle, and enjoyed the tight winding streets and architecture of Thun. After a day of wandering and exploring, we welcomed the final relaxing train ride to our final Switzerland destination, Zurich.
Zurich Christmas Market
It was our last day in Switzerland, and we were determined to soak in as much of the city as we could. Having heard so much about it, we couldn’t leave Zurich without visiting the famous Zurich Christmas Market. Located in the Zurich Main Station, it looked more like a small Christmas village rather than a center of transit. While there were treats in abundance, our favorite part was looking at the handiwork from craftsmen from all over Europe.
Wanting to see as much of Zurich as possible, we set out on another free walking tour. Starting at Fraumunster Church, founded around 853 AD, we wound through the narrow streets to other sites like Grossmunster Cathedral, built in the 12th century, and Saint Peter Church, with the largest church clock in Europe. Among the famous landmarks were frescos and fountains, cobblestone streets and cafes with fur lined dining chairs. It was easy to get caught up in the charm and history.
During our tour, the guide had pointed out a building that supposedly had the “best hot chocolate ever”! With that description, how could we not go sample some? Not only was the hot chocolate at Conditorei Schober
the best I’ve ever had, the building itself was one of the most exquisitely decorated I’ve seen. I’m a sucker for fancy aesthetics.
I will always look back on our time in Switzerland with a smile on my face. Everything about it was beautiful and memorable. The scenery is captivating, the architecture so full of history, and the food definitely left us with a good taste in our mouth. Sadly, our time in Switzerland had to come to a close, but the trip wasn’t over yet! Our next stop, Spain. Check back next week for the travel log of our time in Spain as well as how we celebrated Thanksgiving in Barcelona.