Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Falling in love with Lakes and Mountains on a Swiss Summer Adventure

Here we are, a mixed bunch of British journalists, five of us seasoned travellers aged over 50 with a bottomless supply of well-honed travel tales to trade and two enthusiastic, bright young women in their 20s, savvy with languages and online smarts. We flew out of UK airports on effortless one-hour Swiss flights followed by an easy two-hour train ride from Zurich on our Swiss Flexi Passes to Luzern, the heartland of glorious Switzerland, all set for a carefully designed five day tour organised by Thomson Lakes and Mountains.  

Our mission is to experience the picturesque lake and mountain region in the gentle summer months, when the majestic mountains are lush and verdant and dotted with bell-clanging cows. The locals joke with the tourists: “Why do Swiss cows wear bells? Because they haven’t got horns!” 

The destination, famous for winter skiing when the snow-draped peaks are over-run with neon-clad skiers, is now transformed to a lake-centric playground in mid-July. Summertime and the living is easy.

Lake Lucern is 38 kilometers long, 250 meters deep in parts and the fifth largest lake in Switzerland. Tiny Switzerland with a population of eight million and landmass of just 350 kms by 220 kms is landlocked by Germany to the north, Austria to the east, France to the west and Italy to the south, cradled lovingly by mountains and laced with tranquil lakes that feed the human psyche’s need for reassuring views of water.

After a pleasant night at Hotel Waldstatterhof, it’s Wednesday and Day One of sightseeing with the focus on nature’s spectacular beauty. If the metaphor for Lake Lucern is a jewel, in summer this precious stone is jade. The opaque milky green depths are so mesmerising, so still and serene the throng of tourists on board the sturdy paddle steamer with the captain aloft on his trusty perch, exude a sense that all is well with the world as we chug along absorbing the panorama of all-encompassing, snow-capped mountains and quaint villages that dot the shoreline.

We are blessed with perfect weather, although when we dock at Vitznau and take the dainty cogwheel train up to Mount Rigi, the cloud cover obscures views of the mountains but we don’t mind because lunch draws us inside to the Restaurant Hotel Rigi-Kulm. After an appetising main meal we discover that the child-like joy of delicate Swiss icecream!

And then, another Swiss custom, not exactly an action sport, but a sedate activity ideal for older travellers; an exquisite float in the warm baths of the Mineralbad & Spa Rigi Kaltbad. Us girls don our swimsuits and enter the gentle embrace of the clear water and wade around trying the different massaging jets and then glide outside to sit in the soothing pool on top of the world gazing at the surrounding mountains; a sneak preview of Heaven! 
Feeling refreshed we head down the mountain in our bright red cogwheel train, enjoying the ineffable scenery, and then another jaunty boat ride in the breeze.

Dragging our luggage through the busy streets we move to the Ambassador and are warmly welcomed by hotelier Ferdinand who also runs the superb Lapin restaurant where that evening we devour gourmet delights. The master chef is happy to oblige with a special vegetarian meal for me, and exquisite seafood for my fellow diners and a sampling of unique local wines.

Almost Missed the Boat

Well maybe it was the wine that muddled my brain because before bed I put away my watch in my jewelry bag in the bathroom and next morning I’m relying on my iphone, which is still on UK time, one hour behind! So when I waft downstairs for breakfast the rest of the group is ready to set off! Startled by my mistake I quickly attack the buffet and taking my last swig of coffee, I watch in dismay through the window as my group vanishes around the corner. Young Jennifer, our tour leader, comes to my rescue and we charge off after them. But when we reach the bridge I look across at the waiting boat and realise with a groan I’ve forgotten my ticket, neatly tucked away in my suitcase!

Now only recently I started jogging classes at the fitness club back home in Kent so Jennifer and I sprint through the crowded streets back to the hotel. I grab my ticket and we sprint to the boat and jump aboard just as it’s pulling out! We literally almost missed the boat by seconds! With my heart thumping and struggling to breathe, we give each other a high five. So this is my own little taste of ‘extreme’ sports. My jogging coach will be so proud!       

After the drama, our intrepid group settles in for the cheerful cruise to Bechenreid. There’s only one way up the mountain to Klewenalp; in a cableway capsule, pressed close and cosy like commuters in the London Tube.

To my delight we meet impressive young Australian woman Rachel who speaks fluent German in her role as Communications Manager with Ricola. As fellow Aussies we swap stories about ‘back home’ before Rachel gives us an informative talk about the company that makes herbal drops for the world! We see sample garden beds of the 13 herbs that go into their natural products and learn that around 100 mountain farmers grow the organic herbs for Ricola in a generational business that has flourished for 80 years.

At the friendly restaurant on Klewenalp, we are treated to a hearty traditional lunch of cheesy macaroni with potato, topped with fried onions and served with apple sauce! It’s a Swiss favourite on freezing days when your body needs a carb load to beat the cold! Luckily I’m wearing stretchy pants! And of course this mountain of mountain food is followed by a massive serve of chocolate, caramel and hazelnut ice cream! Bang goes the diet! 

We all loosen our belts on the boat ride back to our hotel and freshen up before our next attraction, a leisurely tour of Lucern.

Enchanting Lucern

On this balmy afternoon with the soft sun setting across the glistening lake and a soothingbreeze caressing my bare arms, I am discovering the delights of this historical city, as our little group strolls around the cobbled streets with our charming Swiss guide Hanny, whose clear blue eyes and cheerful smile exude pride in her pristine city.  “Yes the citizens of Lucern are very happy!” she chimes, as we pause to enjoy an orchestral concert in full swing. What’s not to love about an idyllic collision of rich culture, natural beauty and a high standard of living!

Camera-snapping, ice cream-slurping tourists jostle with masses of regal white swans waddling on the water’s edge. Migrating from across Europe, they too are visiting Lucern for the summer!

Hanny, representing Lucern Tourism with true finesse, shows us the modern Culture and Convention Centre built over water channels and a dramatic fountain, one of 225 that grace the elegant city. The harbour is alive with the hustle and bustle of colourful boats, docking to unleash swarms of sun-kissed sightseers.

Historic buildings along the river form a bold skyline as we head towards the imposing 14th century Wasserturn Water Tower and the renowned chapel bridge adorned with flower baskets. 

We visit the exquisite Jesuit church, built in the 16th century in the Baroque style as a tribute to St Xavier. The towering painted timber panels look like peachy marble. The wistful ceiling paintings and ornate columns are awe-inspiring.
As we wander around the magical Old City with fresco-painted buildings, we become aware that Lucern is not your usual stressful, frenetic, traffic-dodging urban jungle. The quiet streets are free of cars. Relaxed pedestrians stroll and cyclists zip along amongst horse-drawn carriages.

Hanny tells us this German-speaking city is also a thriving hub of traditional festivals, concerts, museums and art galleries that draw culture-lovers like bees to a honey pot.

That evening we dine alfresco in a leafy garden restaurant, eating loads of salad (to balance our macaroni lunch) as we soak up the atmosphere of lovely Lucern. 

Interlopers in Interlaken

Come Friday it’s time to leave Lucern and take a smooth and efficient Golden Pass Panoramic train journey to Interlaken, a township sandwiched between Lake Thun and Lake Brienz at the foot of Mount Eiger, Monch and famous Jungfrau, the tallest peak in the Bernese Alps.

We meet our knowledgeable guide Martin in the foyer of Hotel Interlaken and check in. Wow! I have a spacious luxurious room! Dragging myself away from the enticing sofa, I join the group to set out in the late afternoon.

Martin knows the region like the back of his hand and leads us through the cosmopolitan town, a mecca for thrill-seekers. Gazing skyward we spot dozens of floating figures of intrepid para-gliders. How about bungee jumping, rock climbing, white water rafting?

Here in Interlaken, all levels of fitness and ages are catered for with a range of activities to suit everyone from adrenalin junkies who leap off mountains and drift on air currents suspended by archs of flimsy fabric to plodding tourists like me, whose tastes are more earthbound!

At Hardenbahn station we pile in the funicular, along with loads of excited parents and
children, and glide up to the lookout at the summit of Harder Kulm. The lofty vantage point gives us magnificent views, a vibrant palette of lakes and valleys and the majestic Jungfrau massif, making picture-postcard memories.

Tourists can forget about cars because in central Switzerland the favoured modes of transport include a range of fascinating boats, cheerful old-style and sleek, modern trains and cable cars and funiculars that propel curious humans up and down the steep slopes.

That evening we meet lovely young Meret from Interlaken Tourism who joins us for a gourmet dinner at Hotel Interlaken and we learn about her charmed life in this picturesque paradise. Meret has designed our intriguing itinerary for the next two days so it’s wise to retire early to be fresh for the action!

For something really unusual, Martin takes us to the Jobin woodcarving workshop in Brienz and Flavius, the owner of the family business dating back to 1835, leads a tour of the beautiful sculptures and exquisite Swiss handicrafts. The detailed works of animals, human forms and historic figures are truly captivating.

As an added treat, Flavius has laid out a workbench with little wooden cows for us to paint! Now I haven’t done anything remotely crafty since embarrassing flops in the high school art room so I was a little daunted. But I quickly become engrossed in the hands-on experience along with my fellow journalists who also throw inhibitions to the wind and paint up a storm! 

Clutching our little hand-painted cows we stroll around the idyllic lake surrounded by opulent chalets and watch real artists at work wielding chainsaws on life-size wooded sculptures. 

Taking a bus, we travel to the next attraction, the Ballenberg Open-air Museum, which draws visitors from across Switzerland and Europe and far-flung countries to see 250 native animals and more than 100 centuries-old buildings and gardens set on 163 acres.

After another scrumptious Swiss lunch of massive proportions, our host Dario takes us for an enchanting horse-drawn carriage ride taking us back in time. Our driver Evan clearly adores his horses as he gives them affectionate kisses on the snout!

We stop at the homemade chocolate shop; a perfect opportunity to buy gifts to take home! Swiss chocolate is as smooth as silk and as irresistible as Swiss ice cream and cheese made from the contented cows that graze the alpine meadows. 

A nostalgic funicular takes us up the ferny mountain to Giessbach to view the gushing Three Waterfalls and onward to the elegant Grandhotel Giessbach where our host shows us through the opulent dining rooms with heavenly views. Unsurprisingly this stunning mountaintop venue is a popular choice for lavish weddings.

Some of the more hardy members of our group opt for a strenuous hike while the rest, including me, return down the mountain in the funicular followed by a restful boat trip to rendezvous at the outdoor Restaurant De Luc, specialising of course in the freshest fish for my companions and a generous serve of veggies for me!  A brass band assembles at the lake’s edge and strikes up a rousing medley entertaining the throng of revellers!

What an amazing day, jam-packed full of wonders and delights! We wander through the peaceful fishing village of Iseltwald to catch a bus to our hotel and collapse into sweet dreams. 

On the final morning of our glorious visit, Martin takes us skyward in the prettiest red cogwheel railway train to Schynige Platte to view the Alpine Gardens with 600 species of native plants and gaze across the glorious Swiss Alps. I am humming the tune to Edelweiss and tempted to burst into The Hills Are Alive With the Sound of Music and dance like Julie Andrews across the lush mountaintops. These giddy scenes set your heart racing with sheer exhilaration and you know you have experienced something truly magical. 

For more photos see my facebook album Switzerland Summertime Delights!

Thomson Lakes (www.thomsonlakes.co.uk; 0871 230 8181) offers 7 nights half board at the 3* Hotel de la Paix in Lucerne from £889 per person. Price includes flights from Heathrow to Zurich and train transfers. Regional airports are available at a supplement from £20 (Birmingham) and £40 (Manchester).

A week’s half board at the 4* Hotel Interlaken costs from £725 per person.

For more information on Switzerland, please visit www.myswitzerland.com and www.swiss.com

Lucerne – www.luzern.com
Interlaken – www.interlakentourism.ch

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