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Switzerland - Wow!

We spent the last two and a half weeks of September in Switzerland. Fantastic vacation! Switzerland has a lot going for it – spectacular mountains, gorgeous lakes, medieval cities and towns, good food, and great trains. We used a Swiss pass, which covered almost every type of transportation we took, and we could jump on and off the trains as we pleased.

I planned the entire trip using Rick Steves’ guide to Switzerland, supplemented with a few hints from the Travel Forum. I usually consult multiple guides, but I was running low on time and Rick’s guide covered more than I could see in 2+ weeks. So I went with it.

I will do a separate post for each place we went.

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Paris – We flew into Paris because it’s the only non-stop flight from Pittsburgh to Europe. Plus we love Paris. But we didn’t love it so much the day we got there. We bought tickets for the RER and sat on the train for about 15 minutes hearing rumors there was an accident on the line. Soon there was an announcement: “This train is not taking any passengers. Make sure you have all your luggage.” That’s it – no explanation, no suggestions on what to do or how to get a refund. Not wanting to pay for a cab on top of the train tickets, we decided to take the Roissy bus. We waited over an hour with a huge crowd of people and watched Roissy bus after Roissy bus drive by. We went to Information and were told, “Those buses did not stop because they were not supposed to.” So helpful. We finally got on a bus – and got a seat! – and it took two hours to get to the Opera. At this point, I realized I left my map at home. Our hotel was on a tiny little street in the St. Germain area that is not on many maps. What followed was a comedy of errors, and we arrived at our hotel after an hour or so of walking. My husband elected to take a nap, but I had fallen asleep on the bus, so I took a long walk around Paris and brought back sandwiches for dinner.

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Bern – The next morning we caught a train to Bern via Basel. We arrived mid-afternoon, and I took a bus out to the Paul Klee Center while my husband napped. Klee is one of my favorite artists, so I was really excited to see the museum, but I was pretty disappointed. Not many paintings and drawing were displayed, and the ones that were (a collection of architectural works) were not that thrilling. I got off the bus early on the way back and walked around Bern, which I loved. Beautiful city and fun to window shop. After an okay pizza dinner, we walked up to the terraces above the bear pits and enjoyed the views.

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Day Trip to Murten - The next day we discovered all the trains to Murten were cancelled, so we took a bus and train to get to Murten. (Tip for CDG airport information desk – you could learn a lot by visiting the information desk at the Bern train station, which is actually helpful.)

Murten made a perfect day trip. Cute medieval town, attractive castle, pretty flowers, and wonderful views from the ramparts of the roofs and chimney caps that looked like little bird houses. We strolled down to the lake and enjoyed watching the sailboats. Back in town, we got ice cream cones, then headed back to Bern. We ended the day with a delicious dinner – cheese fondue for me, raclette for my husband! The next morning we spent some time in the market then took a nice walk along the river before departing for Vevey on Lake Geneva.

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Vevey – We caught a train to Lausanne around noon. Near the end, we went through a tunnel, then came out to a spectacular view of vineyards stretching down to Lake Geneva with mountains on the other side of the lake. It truly was breathtaking. We switched to a short train to Vevey. Thanks to Anita from Long Beach who recommended Vevey in a post on the Travel Forum. Great suggestion! Vevey is a small, pretty town on the lake and seemed much more relaxed than Lausanne or Montreux. The promenade along the lake is idyllic. I found an apartment at a B&B that worked out well for us. Consequently, we saved some money by getting most of our food at a nearby bakery. After settling in our apartment, we walked around the town and along the lake. Sunset on the lake was spectacular!

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Day Trip to Chateau de Chillon and Gruyeres - The next morning we took a short train to Villenieve, which is the stop past Chateau de Chillon (whoops). We took a lovely walk back along the lake to the castle, which has a gorgeous setting on the lake. I fell madly in love with Lake Geneva – the blue water, blue mountains and blue skies – it’s utterly serene and peaceful. The castle is one of the neatest ones I’ve seen – it seemed much bigger inside than it looked from the outside. Definitely worth going inside. From there we walked to Montreux and enjoyed all the beautiful flowers along the lake. We had lunch at a bakery in Montreux, then caught a train (two of them, actually) to Gruyeres. The scenery on the trains was beautiful – it looked just like Heidi country to me. Gruyeres is a cute town, though pretty touristy. You have to walk up a fairly steep hill to get there, buy you are rewarded with pretty views when you get there. The castle is not as neat as Chateau de Chillon, but it was still interesting. At the other end of town, we followed a sign to the “Superior Terraces.” We sat down and for about 20 minutes and enjoyed a stunning view of the castle and a church with mountains in the background. It was magical.

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Day Trip to Lausanne – The next day we took a short train ride to Lausanne. Vineyards seemed to cover every square inch of the hills along the way. Being somewhat of an Olympics junkie, I wanted to see the Olympic Museum. It was a nice change of pace, and the museum was attractive. It had some interesting artifacts – torches, medals, etc. – but I would have liked to see more “real” Olympic stuff. I was not that thrilled to see a swimsuit “like the one” that Mark Spitz wore when he won all those medals in Mexico City. I want to see the actual suit. Also, I couldn’t read any of the tiny labels on the floor without bending down, which got to be pretty annoying. Still, I was glad we went.

Next, we took the metro to the old town and walked around for a while. For whatever reason, Lausanne did not really grab me, but we had a delicious lunch in a restaurant we just happened onto. After lunch, I had hoped to train/walk through some of the nearby villages and vineyards, but it was quite hot, and we knew we would wilt under the sun. (We both hate hot weather.) So we returned to Vevey, and I took a long walk (sticking mostly to shade), while my husband napped. For the third night in a row, I had French bread and wine for dinner and totally loved it. We capped it off with a walk along the lake as the sun set. Just beautiful!

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Zermatt – This was the day our good fortune with the weather changed. The forecast for Zermatt was iffy, and I was thinking that maybe I shouldn’t have sprung for a room with a view of the Matterhorn. I had actually debated about going to Zermatt at all because it’s a bit out of the way, and we could only spare two nights, which meant we might not even see the Matterhorn given Zermatt’s unpredictable weather. But we decided to take a chance because the Matterhorn is the iconic image of Switzerland, and this was most likely our only trip to Switzerland (just too expensive to do more than once).

Despite light rain, it was a beautiful train ride. We arrived in Zermatt to cloudy skies – and no Matterhorn. Zermatt is super-touristy, but I was actually charmed by the chalet-style hotels and condos and surrounding mountains. Our hotel was fantastic (Hotel Julen Superior) – very cute and Swiss, bordering on kitschy. Our room was attractive and spacious – all natural knotty pine. We had a delicious dinner in the cozy basement restaurant. This was the day that Scotland was voting on independence, and we met a guy from Scotland at the bar (who was against independence and must have gone to bed happy). When we got back to our room, there just slightly obscured by clouds was the Matterhorn!

We woke up at 6:00 a.m. to see a clear view of the Matterhorn from our bed! Our gamble had paid off. The forecast was for cloudy skies, so we had to decide if we should chance a trip up to Kleine Matterhorn. After breakfast, the skies were still clear, and we were feeling lucky, so we decided to give it a try. I asked the woman at the cable car station how the views were at the top. “We’re trying to decide if it’s worth going,” I told her. She acted like it was the stupidest question she ever heard. “It’s supposed to be cloudy,” she said snippily. I snarled (to myself) and bought the tickets. It was pretty cloudy on the way up, but you could see the mountains and rocky soil. It was interesting and fun. By the third cable car, all we could see was white fog. But it was still fun. Hey Jude was playing in the cable car, and everyone (from many different nations) sang along. It was less fun when we got to the top. It was freezing cold and windy and we were pelted with ice chips as we climbed to the steps to the viewing platform, which provided no views that day. We traveled back down the mountain with members of the Swiss and Slovenian national ski teams who had presumably been skiing. After a cup of tea in our room, we walked around the town, shopped a little, and got sandwiches for dinner. Then we walked along the river for an hour or so, the Matterhorn partially visible. It wasn’t exactly the day of our dreams, but we had seen the Matterhorn in all its stunning glory, so we were satisfied.

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Murren – I warned my husband that we would be taking six different transportation vehicles to get to Murren that day – five trains and one cable car. “But trust me,” I said, “It won’t be a big deal.” It wasn’t. We never waited more than ten minutes between rides, and we never had to rush to catch a train. The entire trip took just 3½ hours. The skies were blue and we saw mountains that weren’t visible on the way into Zermatt. A later train went along a beautiful lake. The views on the cable car were fabulous. We stayed at Hotel Eiger, right across from the train station. This was a splurge for us, definitely worth it. When we walked into our room and saw the view, our jaws just dropped. Oh my gosh, was it gorgeous! We totally adored Murren. We took a walk around the town, and saw hardly any people – quite a change from Zermatt. It started to rain, so we went back to our room and sat on the balcony. The rain stopped, and the biggest, brightest rainbow I ever saw came out. Actually, there were two of them. Just wow! Everyone said it was one of the best ones they ever had. We had rosti for dinner at Hotel Alpina (good food, great views) and took another walk. Again, we saw hardly any people. I was really happy we would be here for four nights.

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Lauterbrunnen and Trummelbach Falls – We woke to cloudy skies and rain. Good day for Trummelbach Falls, I thought. We took the cable car down to Steckleberg and walked to the Falls. By now, it had stopped raining. The falls, which are inside the mountain, were really neat. It was sunny now, so we walked to Lauterbrunnen, which is a nice enough town, but I would never choose to stay here over being up in the mountains. Back in Murren, we had apple strudel with vanilla ice cream and hot vanilla sauce on Hotel Alpina’s patio. Yum. After a nap for my husband (are you noticing a pattern here?), we had dinner at Hotel Alpina again. I had bread soaked in wine covered with tomatoes and melted cheese – yum again.

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Getting Lost on a Hike – It was cloudy in the morning, so we decided to do the North Face trail with a detour to Gimmelwald; 2-3 hours and relatively easy. That was the plan anyway. There is, I learned, a reason why they tell you to take water and a good map and let someone know where you are going when you set out on a hike. But I disregarded this advice because this was a short and easy walk on a well-marked trail. Not well marked enough for us, apparently – somehow we missed a sign along the way, and wow, did we go way out of our way. We crossed a stream and climbed up and up and up. I kept saying to my husband, this can’t be right – this is supposed to be an easy hike. But it was pretty awesome. It was cloudy, but periodically the clouds would part and the views were absolutely spectacular. We walked along a ledge with cliffs on both sides and a rope to hold onto. The only bad thing is that it was very muddy from the rain and quite slippery, so very slow going. It was a particularly long slog going downhill.

We thought for sure we would be arriving at Gimmelwald any minute as we had been walking for well over four hours now. We had seen signs for it, but with no time or distances provided. Finally we came to a sign that indicated Gimmelwald was 1¾ hour away. What??!! We were pretty tired by this point, and we just stared at each other before trudging on. The only happy note is that the clouds cleared for good, and from this point on, the views were fantastic. Also, we came upon a herd of cows being driven somewhere, so we leaped up to the top of a small mound and were surrounded as 50-60 cows passed by. Very entertaining.

We made it to the Gimmelwald at 4:55 and saw a sign in German that said (we thought) the last cable car was at 4:30. At this point we had been hiking for nearly seven hours with no stops and no water and the thought of walking another 45 minutes or so up to Murren seemed unbearable. I looked at my husband and said stoically, “I am going to use the bathroom and when I come out, we will start walking.” When I came out, we noticed people coming to the station, so we thought maybe there’s another cable car coming. Sure enough one came along, and it was going up! That may have been the happiest moment of our trip. In retrospect we realized the sign must have said the ticket window closes at 4:30.

We were rather hungry and thirsty, so after a short rest in our room we had an early dinner at Hotel Alpina and tried to figure out from the map where we had gone wrong. We realized we were quite lucky really – we didn’t get hydrated or hurt, and most of the hike was fabulous. It felt like an adventure! We also learned a lesson.

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Schilthorn – The next day was completely clear – time to do our cable car ride to the top of a mountain. We decided on Schilthorn over the Jungfraujoch because it was faster and easier to get to from Murren, and my husband loves James Bond. This was a fun trip – the views were really spectacular. We stopped at the new viewing platform in Birg on the way down. The platform juts out over the valley, and I was surprised I was able walk on it, as I am usually freaked out by glass platforms at high spots. In the afternoon, we did a little shopping in Murren, and I bought a cute Heidi dress for my new granddaughter. What choice did I have – her name is Heidi! We then walked to Grutschalp and took the train back, followed by a nice dinner at the cozy Hotel Blumenthal.

Our final morning in Murren, we took one more walk and saw some cows being driven by a family down to Gimmelwald. I wished so much we had one more day to do the Mannliche-Klein Scheidegg hike. Maybe we’ll find a way to work this into a future vacation.

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Lucerne – If Lucerne had been the first stop on our trip, I probably would have loved it. But it was our last stop in Switzerland, and I didn’t fall in love. Partly it was the weather, which was overcast, and partly it just couldn’t compare to Murren. It seemed so big and noisy and crowded. I walked around the old town for a couple of hours while my husband napped, and it was nice. I brought back sandwiches for dinner and then we walked to the Lion Monument, which we loved. We walked along the walls and up the clock tower and enjoyed the views before turning in for the night.

Despite the fact that it was foggy the next morning, we decided to take a boat to Vitznau and train to Mount Rigi since it was free with the Swiss pass. I’m sure it would have been awesome on a sunny day, but it was freezing cold and you couldn’t see anything when we were at the top. We were facing a long wait for the next train down, so we decided to walk down to the cable car. It started to clear up, so we actually had a nice walk, although visibility was limited. We bought sandwiches for dinner and ate them at our hotel, then duplicated our walk of the night before.

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Paris – We returned to Paris for our last two nights, thinking this would give us more time to enjoy Paris. I was still dreaming of Murren, but was determined to make the best of it. We were helped by the fact that we stayed at Hotel de Lutece on Ile St. Louis, something I’d dreamed about doing since our first trip to Paris five years ago. It was very charming, although the room was predictably tiny, and staying here lived up to my expectations. We got takeout crepes for dinner and took a long walk to the Eiffel Tower and back at night.

After croissants and pain au chocolat from the nearby bakery and fromage blanc from the little grocery (thought it was yogurt, but what a happy mistake!), we headed to Notre Dame to go up to the towers, another Paris dream that I had yet to fulfill. I said I’d only do it if there was short line, but my husband convinced me to suck it up and go for it since this is the #1 thing I wanted to do. We didn’t get there until 10:30, and we waited in line for over an hour, but it was in the shade on a cool day and did not seem bad at all – totally worth it. The skies were perfectly blue, the views were terrific, and I loved seeing the gargoyles up close. Next we walked to the Carnavalet Museum, which was nice and interesting and free. My husband went back to the room (yes, to take a nap), and I walked around the Marais and did some Christmas shopping on Ile St. Louis, and of course got an ice cream cone. We had sandwiches in our room for dinner, then walked to one of the bridges and waved to the people on the boats as they passed under the bridge. They all waved back, and it was enormously fun.

Fortunately, our trip back to the airport was faster and easier than our trip into Paris on the first day, and everything went smoothly on the way home. It was definitely one of our best vacations.

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What a wonderful trip report! Wow! I loved Switzerland as well, and enjoyed the walk from Truemmelback back to Stechelberg. Your hiking was an adventure wasn't it!

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Thanks for posting your report. Maybe I'll follow your good example, and post a report of my September Switzerland trip too!

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Please do, Harold. I love to read other people's impressions of places I have been. And thanks, Pam. Definitely an adventure!

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i love reading everyone's report! Looking forward to Switzerland on our 21 day tour.....so the temps in Sept were ok for hiking? Since we'll be there in April we'll have to play it by ear regarding the hiking!

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Thanks for the great report, Carroll! I've bookmarked it since I think my next European adventure may be to Switzerland. Getting lost on a hike can be very scary, I know. I'm glad it turned out well. You're definitely a trooper for being willing to hike all the way back after a restroom break! Very informative, thanks again.

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Loved how you wrote your trip report, Caroll! So easy to read and sounds amazing.

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We had 3 nights in Switzerland in 2010 (this was our crazy whirlwind trip) - 1 night in Spiez (to visit Murren), 1 in Bern and 1 in Zurich (before flying back to London). I fell in love with the mountains and Murren and haven't gotten back yet, but it is on my bucket list for sure. (I always say - Venice was my fav city, but after only spending 3 nights in Switzerland, it was my favourite country...OK, it's tied with Italy). Love the report...

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Carroll, thank you so much for your detailed and enjoyable trip report. I'm planning to be in some of those places in June and I've made some notes, especially the Chateau de Chillon.

You wrote: I had bread soaked in wine covered with tomatoes and melted cheese Was this on the menu? What was it called. It sounds so good.

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I spent 5 nights in Luzern in early September and loved it. Unfortunately I didn't make it to Murren. I am sure I would have loved that too. And yes, Switzerland was very expensive!!!

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What a great, excitement building report! We will be there in the Fall on an RS trip! You helped me picture it AND made me hungry at the same time! Thanks!

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Thanks, everyone. Chani, I sm sorry I did not record what that dish was called, but it was on the menu. I hope you - and everyone else headed to Switzerland this year - likes it as much as I did.

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What a fun read! Makes me want to hop on a plane...thanks for taking the time!

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Carroll:

Enjoyed reading your trip report. Will revisit to re-read it more carefully.

Harold:

Maybe I'll follow your good example, and post a report of my September
Switzerland trip too!

Is that the trip you referred to in your response on my thread? If so, please do post!!

Thanks!

Porcupyn

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I always recommend to people who are destined for "Interlaken" to bypass it and head on up into the high alpine villages of Wengen and Murren. For some reason there are lots and lots of tourists who have the impression that Interlaken is in the Swiss Alps.

To all those travelers who STILL think Interlaken is in the Swiss Alps I hope they read Carroll's report of Mürren. There's no place in the world like Mürren with its unbelievable eye-popping scenery! Skip Interlaken and just use it as a transportation hub. You'll be glad you did.

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Thanks for sharing your experience, Carroll. It was interesting reading (your reference to your husband's napping was quite amusing). I'm glad your trip was in September, because I've been curious how Switzerland might be like at that time of the year.

And Tim, thanks for your tip about Interlaken vs. Murren.

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Harold, I would like for you to share your experience of your September Switzerland trip too! Thanks!