Switzerland Spring 2013
Thursday 16 May 22 2013
Our taxi arrived at 10am, whisking us to Luton airport, though with the North Circular and M1 there is always the worry that it will be a slow crawl rather than a fast journey. However, we were lucky and traffic was fairly light.
At the airport we went straight Special Assistance, which I’d pre-booked for my 80 year-old mum. They were very good and it meant we could bypass all the queues, mum didn’t get so exhausted and we could proceed faster. I was also very glad I’d booked the train in advance as it saved us hassle in Zurich. Changing trains at Zurich Hauptbahnhof wasn’t too bad and at Bellinscona very easy. Mum kept trying to help me with the luggage but I stood firm, refusing to let her.
On the train we sat next to an elderly woman travelling to Lugano. She was originally from Austria and chatted to us (well mum mostly as my German isn’t up to much more than getting the gist of a conversation.)
The scenery on route was breathtaking. Mountains, lakes, clear rivers and tumbling waterfalls with stone cottages, wooden chalets and quaint churches perched on the sides of verdant slopes.
We arrived in Locarno at 8pm Swiss time, having travelled for almost 12 hours, only having eaten a light breakfast and a sandwich at Luton. So as soon as we’d checked in and said hello to my sister and her husband we went to find something to eat. Portions were huge and neither mum nor myself could finish a plateful, though it was very tasty. A large beer was most welcome.
The hotel was basic but comfortable and I was pleased tg see my room had a bath and there was even a kettle. However, I did suffer internet withdrawal. My 3G would be well used in the next five days.
Friday 17 May
Our first day started with a grey morning with mountains shrouded in cloud. By seven o’clock there had already been a thunderstorm. After a continental breakfast of croissants, rolls, fruit juice and tea we sat in the very pleasant little lounge on the second floor of the hotel, chatting, reading and hoping the thick rainclouds hiding the would dissipate. We gave up waiting and caught a bus into Locarno for lunch, wandering round the shops. Luckily they were located in a covered arcade and we spent a pleasant time window shopping. Mum fancied asparagus for lunch so we found a restaurant that offered asparagus risotto, which she enjoyed. After lunch we caught another bus to Ascona and walked by the lake. With such a long winter, Spring was noticeably late, blossom on just on the trees and flowers not in their usual abundance. The lake was calm and clear, the mountains covered in low cloud but it didn’t deter us. We stopped in a cafe for coffee, as mum needed a rest, before returning to the hotel, via Migros supermarket for supplies for supper – cuppa soup, gruyere cheese, salad, fruit and the brezels we’d bought in Locarno. These were eaten comfortably in the lounge.
Saturday 18 May
Surprise, surprise…another grey, cloud-laden, rain-soaked morning. The clouds lifted at around 7am so I took advantage and walked down to the lake and then through town to the tiny castle. The morning light, peeping between the clouds above the mountains, created a very dramatic effect, which wasn’t easy to capture on camera. After taking pictures of the castle, I found my way through narrow cobbled streets of the old town, where the smell of fresh bread in the baker’s made my mouth water.
After breakfast, we decided to catch a train from Locarno to Domodossola, in Italy. This special, scenic train climbs high into the mountains, crossing the border into Italy at Camedo before reaching its highest point, S. Maria Maggiore. The deep gorge was breathtakingly beautiful – a cold, clear, fast flowing river with steep waterfalls tumbling from sheer crevices. Each side was covered in mature trees interspersed with sleepy villages, where shuttered modern chalets sat next to traditional stone and slate-roofed dwellings. it was just a shame that heavy rain splattered the windows, spoiling my photographs.
It took two hours to reach Domodossola and the rain was still fell. We found the market, our hotel manager had mentioned. As he warned, the town wasn’t very pretty or interesting and we struggled to find somewhere to eat, ending up in a tiny cafe where we had pizza and tepid tea in small cups.
Then we returned to the train for the return journey, which was just as awesome a second time. We thought it must be quite something to see in winter all covered in snow. Back in Locarno we had dinner and then returned to our hotel. Mum went by bus, while my sister, her husband and I walked back in the rain.
Sunday 19 May
The rain saga continued, with mountains were still hidden behind a thick mist. This was becoming an unwelcome pattern for our holiday. At breakfast, we decided to take a train to Lugano, the southernmost town in Switzerland. So, well wrapped in waterproofs and umbrellas, we walked down the hill to the station. The train journey was uninspiring as nothing much could be seen out of the windows except for thick, leaden clouds and rain. However as we reached Lugano, a few patches of blue gradually made their presence felt. From the station we caught the funicular railway down to the lake, enjoying rare sunshine as we walked down to the water’s edge through the sleepy Sunday town, where nothing was open.
The very sheer mountains that flanked the Logarno end of the long lake, felt quite dark and threatening, not nearly as delightful as Locarno’s gentler slopes. We didn’t stay long but decided to find somewhere for lunch, ending up in a pleasant restaurant. I had pasta, my sister, risotto, mum had gnoochi and my brother in law, pizza.
After lunch, the rain started again so we returned to the station and caught a train to Bellinzona, known for its castles built on mountainous granite. We went to a cafe for coffee where instead of a wall, there was a window looking onto the slate coloured ancient rocks. Then it was time to catch the train back to our hotel. By the time we reached Locarno, the sun was making a weak effort to chase away clouds, so we found a cafe enjoying the warmth for a while before walking along the lake and dropping mum at the bus stop. My sister and I walked back to the hotel, both of us feeling the need for a bit of exercise. Supper was cuppa soup, rolls and cheese eaten in the little lounge at our hotel.
Monday 20 May
We didn’t realise today was a bank holiday in Switzerland, which meant that most of the shops were shut and buses into the centre of Locarno only ran every half an hour. However, despite mist covered mountains, we decided to take the funicular railway and cable car up to the top of Mt Cardada. There was a very nice restaurant where the cable car stopped and we left mum in the warmth with a cup of coffee, while my sister, brother in law and I went on a hike to the peak. The view over lake Maggiore, as we climbed the mountainside in the cable car, was spectacular but unfortunately I didn’t take any photographs, thinking I’d do so on the way down. As we walked to the top, the weather worsened and by the time we were halfway to the top, thick cloud obscured the view and we could see nothing of the view. There didn’t seem much point continuing so we returned to the restaurant where mum was chatting to an American in Switzerland on business and dressed for summer weather.
After thawing out over a hot cup of tea, we went back down into Locarno, had lunch and then returned to the hotel where I read my book until supper, which was cuppa soup and bread. Later my sister, brother in law and I went into town to explore the night life. Sadly there wasn’t any. The place was dead as a ghost town. No one seemed to drink in the evening. Bars and cafes were deserted. We had one wine each, then returned to the hotel, disappointed at the lack of vibe especially as it was our last night in Locarno.
Tuesday 21 May
I woke this morning to skies heavy with rain clouds. After finishing my packing I went down to breakfast around. Swiss Trails were due to take us to Montreux at 10am, which gave me just enough time (I thought) to nip to the shops for a few supplies to keep me going. The driver, however, arrived a bit early, luckily I was pretty much ready to leave; We all piled into the minibus and began the four hour journey to Montreux, taking the same route as we’d travelled the other day by train – from Locarno to Domodossola. Going by road gave us a different perspective of the mountains. Crossing the Simplon pass was a shock as we drove into a snow storm and deep snow covering the mountains and roads.
The journey was long and it was good to finally stretch our stiff muscles when we arrived at Montreux. After checking in we caught a bus down to the lake, strolled along the water’s edge, past quirky sculptures using old bikes, tires and even a beaten-up Ford Fiesta. A friend had mentioned the statue of Freddy Mercury and I was pleased to be able to take pictures of it to show him.
Wednesday 22 May
Despite more rain, we were up early to catch the chocolate train, which left Montreux just before nine. We boarded the aged first class train and it was like stepping back in time to wood panelled carriages and soft upholstered seats with much more space than any seat today. As mum said…room for those hooped dresses.
As the train set off, we were treated to coffee/tea and chocolate croissants. Our first stop was to the cheese factory at Gruyere. Walking in, we were given a small pack each with samples of cheese and then led up to the factory. Phone handsets were available giving a commentary on what we were seeing. The process of producing cheese from milk was fascinating, especially the way, once the cheese had been pressed, the whey was squeezed out and the cheese turned every so often. What I hadn’t realised is that the cheese is submerged in a salt bath and it is that which gives the distinctive gruyere taste. From the factory we were taken by bus to the old Gruyere village; with quaint cobbled streets and a castle at the top of the hill. The castle was very different to ones I’ve seen at home and to me had a very Tudor/Shakespearian feel with some interesting, modern artwork on the walls. Lunch was fondu at a restaurant in the village. At 1.50pm we were transported by bus to the Caillier chocolate factory. I liked the way we were taken through the origins and history of chocolate and the factory, though I would have like to have seen more of the operational side of chocolate making – the process of moving from bean to chocolate bar. Finally we were taken to a room laid out with tray after tray of chocolate. All for us to taste though, dare I admit…too much at once. It got to a point where I couldn’t eat any more and was more than ready for a cup of tea. The day passed very quickly and all too soon it was time to board the train back to Montreux.
My brother-in-law and I went on a quick shopping trip to stock up on wine and food for the evening. Having been stung by the hotel’s ridiculous wine prices the night before, we weren’t going to make the same mistake again. Still full from lunch and dessert, all I could manage for supper was a cuppa soup and a bit of fruit. Half a bottle of red wine, however, slid down my throat with no trouble at all.
Thursday 23 May
Today Swiss Trails drove us back to Zurich, to the Hotel Neufeld at Goldbrunnen Platz where I stayed with my mum and my daughters when we came to Switzerland in 2010. After settling in to our rooms, we took the tram into the centre of town. Decisions on where to eat are never easy and we ummed and ahhed until mum pointed out the HILTL which I remembered fondly as the Veggie, having been there with my grandmother when I was younger. Inside, we filled our plates from the substantial buffet, being careful not to heap too much on as payment is by weight. So much choice of food, hot dishes as well as salads…and so delicious, all vegetarian, which suited us nicely.
After eating, my sister and her husband went shopping while mum and I walked through the old city, along the Renweg, over the Limmat and down to Bellevue, stopping to shelter from the rain in Starbucks. Then we went to the coop where I bought some kitchen knives. Mum was tired so we caught the tram back to the hotel, had tea, followed by another enjoyable drinking session with my brother in law.
Friday 24 May
As usual, I was awake before dawn, when it was too dark to notice the grey, rainy skies. I went to breakfast at 6.30am to spend a last hour with my sister and brother in law who were catching an early plane back to London. The goodbyes were a bit emotional as I won’t see them again before they fly back to New Zealand.
When mum went down for breakfast, I joined her, resisting the temptation for a second plate of food and just ordered another cup of tea. We decided to spend the morning at an out-of- town shopping mall, which meant taking two trams. This proved no problems as the transport system in Zurich runs very efficiently and frequently. In the coop, I bought kirsch and wine and once we’d had enough window shopping, caught a different tram into the centre to have lunch at the Veggie, which once again was most enjoyable.
In the afternoon, we visited mum’s old school friend, then went back into town to find some books to bring her when we visit again tomorrow. More shopping followed unil mum was tired and we returned to the hotel for an evening chilling in front of the television, mostly American programmes dubbed into German, French or Italian.
Saturday 25 May
In the morning we returned to visit mum’s schoolfriend and spent a couple of hours with her before emotional farewells as mum knew she wouldn’t see her friend again. Coming to Switzerland this time was exhausting and she won’t return.
After lunch at the HILTL and a rest back at the hotel, we took the tram to visit mum’s cousin’s wife. Mum spent three hours with her, chatting away in French. The visit was more relaxed and a two way conversation than the morning visit. It was hard to believe that her cousin’s wife was over 90. She still had the same elegance, I remembered from my childhood, though smaller, frailer. However her mind was still sharp and alert and her conversation interesting and stimulating.
After another emotional farewell, we returned to the hotel for tea and spent the evening relaxing in mum’s room, reading.
Sunday 26 May
Our last day in Switzerland. We booked the transport to the airport, then headed into town for some shopping before having lunch. Then began the long journey home, not helped by being abandoned by special assistance at Luton airport and segregated in a cordoned off area waiting for someone to come and push mum’s wheelchair through passport control, baggage reclaim and customs. The delay meant an extra cost on the taxi and mum was exhausted by the time we reached home. She fell asleep, clutching her cup of tea.