Swiss Travel You Can Bank On
By Kira Albin
THE UNPARALLELED, UNUSUAL UNTOUR
I tried to get lost in Switzerland, but it was almost impossible. Everywhere I went, signs marked where I could go next, which direction to take, the distance and time to get there, and the altitude. Red signs denoted bicycle paths, yellow ones, walking trails, and on occasion, green signs, illustrated with a cheerful, chubby snowman, indicated sledding tracks.
Cow bells, however, not snowflakes, were the trademark of my summertime visit to the land of cheese and chocolate. I was based in Lungern, a canton of 2,000 people in the northern range of the Swiss Alps-my first step into the Switzerland of red-shingle chalets dotting lush green hillsides tucked into the folds of a string of mountains. Like many villages in the area, Lungern abuts a sparkling turquoise-colored lake that serves as both recreation and energy source. At the lakeside end of this sloping town, a red cable car lifts you straight up from the valley floor 2,687 feet, gliding precariously over pine trees and grazing cows to deposit you gently on the mountain top. On the southwest side of town sits a 100-year-old New Gothic stone church, modeled after the French cathedral at Lourdes. The stately landmark chimes out the hours with Swiss precision.
The train from Zurich airport slid into the Lungern station on a warm, sunny afternoon after a three-hour journey. My landlady met me with a handcart to transport my luggage, and led me, jetlagged and groggy, to her two-level home just five minutes away. In my cool, downstairs apartment, the refrigerator and cupboards were stocked with fresh milk, local cheese, a slab of creamy butter, two eggs, a loaf of bread, homemade jam, and a tin of coffee, all prearranged by Idyll Ltd. in Media, Pennsylvania, as part of their Swiss Untour Package.
An Untour, as the name implies, is not a tour at all but a minimalist package with maximum benefits, consisting of air transportation, apartment-style accommodations in the home of a Swiss resident, a Swiss Rail Pass, and instruction in the ins and outs of the unparalleled transportation system. Two booklets, specific to the area surrounding your residence, provide information about nearby towns and cities, day-trip opportunities, and detailed hiking and biking suggestions. Local staff members lead several optional organized activities during the two-week stay and assist in solving any problems.
Untour aims to satisfy a guest's specific requirements. Accommodations range from small apartments to large chalets with many bedrooms, bathrooms, dining areas, sitting areas, and fully equipped modern kitchens. On my trip, a family of 13, normally scattered throughout the United States, were housed together for a two-week reunion. Because kids under 16 stay free, families find the Swiss Untour attractive during the summer months. The number of alumni who return year after year attest to Untour's popularity. Well over half of the travelers in my group were repeat customers. Many seek the familiarity of the same town, same apartment, and same landlord for their return trips. Untour's flexibility encourages independence. A few days into your stay, after learning the basics of the transportation system, you hop on and off trains, take boat trips and bus rides, connect to gondolas and cable cars like a native. You follow your itinerary, on your time, unaccompanied, and you won't get lost. You can't get lost in Switzerland.
I attempted this feat on my second full day, a national holiday celebrating Switzerland's independence. The 9:42 train arrived, at precisely at 9:42, and I knew for sure, now, that I was in Switzerland. The first leg of my journey was on the Brünig Railway, a narrow-gauge train which traverses the steep Brünig Pass. Clicking along through the cool pine forest, I spotted three small, tawny Reh deer nibbling grass along the tree line. Each turn of the tracks revealed rustic barns, freshly cut pasture land, and a few lone chalets. No rusting tractors, discarded tires, dilapidated trailers, or sagging metal fences spoiled the view. It was pristine. I grew giddy with the pleasure of perfection.
My first transfer was in Meiringen, larger and busier than Lungern. The town is a bowl, into which at least six major waterfalls spill, and the starting point for many of the alpine hikes and bus trips listed in the Untours guidebooks. Just a mile away you can walk through a slippery canyon to view the Aareschluct waterfall as it plunges into a dramatic gorge. More famous, however, is the Reichenbach, the waterfall where Arthur Conan Doyle staged the final solution to the ongoing feud between Sherlock Holmes and his archenemy Moriarty. A cliffside fisticuff sent them tumbling down the falls where they both perished, though Holmes was eventually resuscitated after English fans grew distraught by the hero's death.
In Meiringen, the bus station was adjacent to the train station. In the few instances where they aren't situated together, signs guide you. I made an uneventful transfer to a mountain-bound bus, and we wound our way in the rain up the narrow road, the driver announcing our presence with a honk of his tri-tonal horn. The weather killed all chances for a view of snowcapped mountains, but it only heightened the excitement of our first cow spotting. We had reached the alpine meadows where cows graze on grass studded with edible gemstones in a rainbow of colors. The wildflowers are considered precious, the Swiss claim they are what makes their cheese special. The cows move in an upwards migration, devouring one pasture after the next, in pursuit of fresh flower power.
From the milk of these cows, cheese is made for 100 consecutive days in summer. In what appear to be primitive wooden huts dotting the landscape, Alpenlers (cheesemakers) use modern technology to process cheese from the daily milk supply. I witnessed this juxtaposition of tradition and high-tech innovation in everything from cheese huts and bathrooms to mountaintop chair lifts.
The bus made a 20-minute stop at a pine-paneled restaurant with a brick floor and fireplace, and riders clambered out for mugs of coffee and hot chocolate. On this drizzly day, the bus was virtually empty except for a few young, strapping Swiss couples bedecked in bright mountain gear. But when the sun shines the hills are alive with hikers. A national pastime, hiking is easy to enjoy because Switzerland has one of the most extensive, clearly posted, and well-maintained networks of hiking trails in the world. And the ubiquity of restaurants in even the most remote locations practically eliminates the need for carrying food. A good Swiss chocolate bar will suffice.
I breezed through two towns that many people consider their primary destination: Grindelwald and Interlaken, scenic, quaint, and filled with tourists. Postcard and trinket shops abound. Interlaken, the larger of the two, offers expensive fun on the "strip"-a one-mile boulevard of hotels, night clubs, and trendy shops. With a beautiful lake on either side (Interlaken means between lakes), it's a prime location from which to launch a boat trip. I decided to try Brienzer See (Lake Brienz), because it would take me toward Lungern.
I expected the transfer from train to boat to confuse me and to include a walk across town, but the station and dock were side by side. Had I consulted my three-inch-thick transportation timetable before leaving that morning, I would have seen the footnotes specifying the minimum time between connections and the distance in meters from landing piers to railway stations. I soon found myself gliding through the glacial-green waters of Switzerland's deepest lake, past swans, mallards, and white-faced teal ducks, forest groves, and cliffside waterfalls, while enjoying a tasty lunch of goulash and mixed salad along the way.
I disembarked at Brienz, Switzerland's woodcarving capital. Everywhere craft shops sold miniature cows, chalets, trains, and other Swiss figures. The local tourist office can even arrange a visit to the woodcarving school where a visitor can carve his own souvenir. Timbered chalets, built with untreated wood, line narrow streets. Flower boxes filled with geraniums and begonias burst with brilliant colors at every window sill. In celebration of Independence Day, houses were strung with small Swiss flags, and shop windows displayed the day's special emblem, a daisy with the Swiss flag superimposed onto one of the petals.
Festivities began well after dark. Back in Lungern by then, I followed a small stream of revelers headed for the local park. Many children carried paper lanterns glowing with the Swiss flag. Undaunted by the drizzle, families sat talking and laughing with plates of grilled sausages and cups of beer under a large, white, open-sided canopy. A trio played Swiss folk music while toddlers twirled sparklers, and firecrackers streaked the sky. Far up on the hillside on the opposite side of the lake the cross motif of the Swiss flag blazed brightly in the night.
After I trudged back up the hill to my apartment, a Swiss flag candle, that my landlady placed outside my door greeted me with its cheerful flicker. I drifted off to sleep under a 6-inch-thick down quilt (featherdecke) listening to the whistle and bang of firecrackers and the church bell chiming softly in the distance.
On sunny days I hiked. Trails ranged from wide, paved level paths attractive to both ends of the age range, to steep, narrow, ridge walks with mud and loose scree, for those physically fit and unafraid of open heights. Cheerful, yellow signs, marked "Wanderweg" (hiking path) indicated a well-maintained path with no dangers. "Bergwegs" are more rugged and less well-maintained mountain paths, marked by a red-striped sign, rock, or tree. Average walking times between points are also listed but do not take into account how many minutes the hiker will spend gazing at the scenery, sniffing wildflowers, and petting cows. Traipsing through Swiss alpine meadows during the cows' grazing months is akin to walking through an orchestra pit. Cow bells clank and chime rhythmically, filling the air with a sonorous mountain melody.
One Sunday I caught a cable car lift to Männlicken, a 7,687-foot mountain. On the sun-warmed deck of a large restaurant, I savored a hazelnut-paste-filled croissant (nussgipfeli) and a cup of hot chocolate to the strains of yodeling from indoors where small groups performed in traditional costume.
At this restaurant begins a flat-paved trail popular with parents and their toddlers as well as grandparents with their wanderstöcke (walking sticks). The spectacular scenery includes three of Switzerland's famous snow-covered peaks-the Eiger (the ogre), the Mönch (the monk), and the Jungfrau (the virgin)-showing views of their northern faces. While the three often team together on postcards, few realize the nature of their relationship: the monk separates the ogre from the virgin. This scenic path requires no strenuous walking as both trail head and trail end are accessible by lift.
Even amid a tide of walkers, I found strolling in the shadows of Alps magical. And when my mood required it, I easily escaped the beaten path to find solitude and greater challenge on adjoining trails. The end of the walk found me at another outdoor café in the car-free village of Wengen. While sipping beer in the fresh mountain air, I understood an important feature of Switzerland.
You do not have to go to great lengths to find the Switzerland of your dreams. You might find it peering out the turret window of a medieval castle, shopping in cosmopolitan Luzern, or taking your family to a reenactment of the William Tell pageant, complete with 250 amateur actors and live animals. Undoubtedly, you will discover the delicacy of alpenler cheese, fresh flaky pastries, and the chocolate that makes Switzerland such a sweet place to visit. Wherever you want to go, a train will take you there and a sign will guide your steps. And if you ever get lost on a hiking trail, you will soon find yourself in a restaurant.
The Swiss Untour is offered by Idyll, Ltd., P.O. Box 405, Media, PA 19063; 610-565-5242. E-mail: email@example.com. Web site: www.untours.com.
Cost: $1,646-$1,776 per person, based on a 2-person occupancy.
Price includes: two-week apartment occupancy, round-trip air fare on Swissair from New York or Boston, and ground transportation. Support services include planning booklets and travel guides, accompaniment from airport to apartment, several escorted cultural trips, and a farewell Swiss dinner party.
Untour packages are also available in Austria, Belgium, Holland, France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Prague/ Budapest/ Vienna combination, and Vietnam.
Similar programs, offered by Home At First, include The Celtic Detour in Scotland, Ireland, Wales, and England, and the New Zealand Detour. To book a Detour package, call Home At First at 800-5-CELTIC.