Bade bade deshon mein, yaise chote chote batein hote rahte hain - ever since this untranslatable gibberish was spoken on the silver screen, Switzerland has been on the bucket list of every South Asian, let alone Indians. One thing or other had kept us busy during the second fortnight of September all these years, the only window where the weather in the country is a bit more predictable than the stock market. It was in 2018 that we finally decided that life can wait, while Switzerland, with its glaciers melting at an alarming rate, cannot. There are more people in Mumbai voter list than entire Switzerland and we had to dodge every one of them to get to the airport to catch the red-eye to Zurich, the only direct hop from anywhere in India to anywhere in Switzerland. After pretending to doze off in seats which were positively claustrophobic by even the lowly air travel standards, we landed in Zurich bone-tired and groggy to the point of being incoherent. So we did what every normal middle aged people would do - take the express to Bern, drop the bags at the station and get right down to sightseeing.
Bern is an enigma. It somehow manages to serve as the capital of one of the richest countries on the planet whilst retaining the charm of a quintessential European small town. Since this is Switzerland, it is only fair that the first thing we see is a clock and the town has a big and a famous one - Zytglogge that has been telling what time it is since 1405. If, on the other hand, you want to know what time is, then you have to read one of the papers published by the city's most famous resident, Albert Einstein. A short walk from the clock is where he lived and where, in 1905, he produced an array of four papers that shook the science world - Photoelectric Effect, Brownian Motion, Mass-Energy Equivalence and Special Relativity, all explained in that one astonishing year. Climbing up to the tiny room where these Annus Mirabilis papers were written was the most goosebumpy of travel experiences we have ever had. If you want a layman's understanding of these concepts, head to the History Museum where the floor dedicated to Einstein does a decent job of it, and if that leaves you with more questions, then you have no choice but to plough through the Theoretical Minimum series by Susskind. In between these secular jaunts, we squeezed in a visit to the city's Munster climbing the 350 odd steps to the top of the tallest tower in Switzerland for some vertigo inducing dizzying views. We aren't the "easily satiated with views" types. We still needed to check out the classic city panorama from the Rose Garden and in order to pre-empt any revolt from our legs, we took the bus up and down from the garden. Thankfully by now, we had covered almost all of what the city had to offer. We can now use up (what is left of) our energy to get to our night halt - Wengen, deep in Berner Oberland.
Berner Oberland, the beating heart of the Swiss Alps, is where the poetic superlatives surrender without a fight in front of the sheer majesty of the indescribable natural beauty. But to actually see and experience it, one needs providence: nature is usually shy in these parts draping herself with thick sheets of clouds most of the time. Pouring over 200 years of climate data and finding the one week where it has statistically rained the least, all came a cropper when dark clouds hung over us the following morning. Pessimist in me had foreseen this eventuality and had budgeted three days for the region. So we could easily afford to lose the first to the weather. We headed down to the lakes - there are two of these at the base of the mountain range, Lake Brienz and Lake Thun with the touristy Interlaken straddling between them. We first traversed Brienz to get to the town of Meiringen on the other side, home to the 250 m tall Reichenbach Falls, famous since 1893 as the site chosen by Arthur Conan Doyle to kill Sherlock Holmes. In the afternoon, we traversed Lake Thun to get to the namesake town of Thun, famous for its fairy tale castle, also named Thun. Had we known names are such scarce a commodity here, we could have gotten them a few from India. The castle was built in the 1180s and changed hands a few times before it firmly settled in the hands of the Bernese from the late 14th century. The views of the picturesque town and the Oberland beyond from the castle keep were quite breathtaking, to say the least.
The following morning we woke up to a thick fog blanketing Wengen and the swagger of having extra days to spare slowly gave way to despair. The front desk, probably used to seeing such panic attacks, gestured us to head up before even the thought of asking them for suggestions crossed our minds. "Up" means only one thing in this region - to take the Jungfraubahn up to the Jungfraujoch or the pass that lies between Jungfrau and Monch. Jungfrau, Monch and Eiger are the holy trinity, the three highest peaks of the region standing side by side, and the sight of the triplet being highlight of any trip to the region. The rail line, truly a masterpiece in engineering, tunnels through the solid granite of Monch and Eiger to get to the 3454 m high pass, the highest point you can get to on a rail anywhere in Europe. Within minutes of leaving Wengen, we climbed out of the clouds and the top was far above it. The sight of a sea of snow-capped peaks towering over a blanket of cloud was indescribably breathtaking. The advantage of staying up in Wengen is that by the time the news of the clear skies reaches down at the valley and the train loads of tourists arrive on top, you are already back from your trip. The disadvantage is that we now need to figure out what to do with the rest of our day, which, in this region, is a problem of plenty. A fellow traveler came to our rescue and chose Schynige Platte among the myriad options facing us. It is a high plateau, reached by a slow train, commanding sweeping views of the entire Jungfrau range and down till the lakes. Since we had an early morning start, we had enough time to get there and back and do an one hour loop enjoying the majestic Alpine views.
It was the time for the bad cop to turn up the following morning. The weather was to take a turn for the worse from the late forenoon. We tried to beat it by rushing to the top of Mt. Schilthorn, yet another near 3000 m peak that you can get to without breaking a sweat. A relay of train, trolley, cable car and a ski lift whisks one to the top and we thankfully got whisked there before the weather changed for the worse. On the way down, with no deadline to meet, we could linger around in the wonderful Alpine villages we so heartlessly breezed past on the way up. Murren, sitting on a ledge with a stride stopping view of the Jungfrau range and Lauterbrunnen, sitting in arguably the prettiest valley on the planet were both stuff of the dreams. In the afternoon, we headed to Grindelwald, another village sitting in a verdant Alpine valley and an yet another with a cable car access to a high point - First, to give its name. The trip, especially the vertigo inducing Cliff Walk, was well worth the effort despite the ugly grey skies covering up the peaks. That is the last you would hear me bitching about the weather on this travelogue because it cleared for good the following morning.
Our Spartan travel style where we share a single carry-on bag between us for all our clothing really paid off today. By the by, the other carry-on is my camera bag with assortments of camera equipment half of which I have no idea how to use and I lug it solely due to my unscientific belief that heavier camera bags lead to better photographs. Sorry, I am digressing. Back on track - the light luggage helped us hop three lines with nonchalant ease to get to Kandersteg where we could shove the luggage into a left-luggage box and head (ie take a cable car) up to Lake Oeschinen. The picture perfect high Alpine lake was gleaming in sunshine and quite a sight when we reached there. After a quick lunch, we hopped two more trains to get to Zermatt, our home for the next two nights. Zermatt, for the uninitiated, is the town famous for its drop dead gorgeous views of the most dramatic of the mountain peaks - the Matterhorn. The peak stands isolated from the majority of the peaks in the region and, with an uncanny resemblance to the Sorting Hat of Hogwarts, it is one of the most photogenic peaks on the planet. Late afternoons aren't generally the best of times to view it, but since most of it was visible we decided to head up the Gornergrat, the tallest mountain rail view station in Eruope after the Jungfraujoch, to take a closer look. The sun was setting behind Matterhorn which gave us a good view of the Monte Rosa massif at the opposite end which is home to the country's highest peak - Dufourspitze.
What do you do when presented with a glorious day in Zermatt and you have already done the Gornergrat? The Matterhorn Glacier Paradise was constructed just to solve such existential questions. A series of cable cars, last of which is the continent's highest altitude one, took us up to a dizzying head spinning 3883 m with a heart stopping view of 14 massive glaciers and 38 four-thousanders. The way down also conveniently connects to the marquee Matterhorn Glacier Trail, an one-way 7 km 3 hour hike between cable car stations, taking you tantalisingly close past the base of the Matterhorn. And if that isn't a mouthwatering prospect, there is a lake enroute with a postcard perfect reflections of the peak. We were done with our circuit by early afternoon giving us plenty of time to roam around the lovely pedestrian friendly town centre of Zermatt.
Three more trains, two tight connections and oodles of praise for our travel-light lifestyle brought us to Lucerne, the jewel among the Swiss cities. It has the absolute perfect mix of everything - an old town filled with gorgeous frescoed buildings, a lake surrounded by a ring of mountains, a river lined with pastel coloured buildings and traversed by two stunning covered bridges, ramparts and medieval towers overlooking the city offering sweeping views and finally, what Mark Twain dubbed as the most moving piece of rock in the world - the Lion Monument. Dropping our bags at our hotel, which overlooked one of the historic plazas, we got right into it. The long list of sights are actually quite tightly packed and we could easily soak it all in and knock it all off in an afternoon and a bit. Spending the evening watching the sun set on the Reuss and lights come on around it finally moved from our bucket list to the most-cherished-travel-experiences list.
Among the mountains that surround Lucerne there are several that offer great views and are pot belly friendly i.e. their summits accessible by cable car/trams. Four of these - Pilatus, Titlis, Rigi and Stanserhorn - are quite famous and only two is possible to cover in a long day. Picking which two, if you only have a day to spare, is the most difficult travel decision and half of the Internet is filled with people passionately arguing for their favourite pair. But thanks to who we are, the two picked themselves for us. First had to be Titlis - the pilgrimage every Indian must take. Kashi is for the Hindus, Amritsar for the Sikhs, but Titlis transcends all religions and castes. It is not because it boasts the closest view of the Alpine peaks or because it houses the world's only rotating cable car or houses a 100 m long swing bridge swinging a kilometer above solid ground - it is because, on the very top, it houses the SRK-Kajol cutout. When I look back at the most embarrassing picture of our lives - posing next to the cardboard cutouts - I cannot help remarking that we spent CHF 100 per head to do something that we could have done for free in Bandra. The second peak had to be Pilatus - the pilgrimage every mechanical engineer must take and we both are. The Pilatusbahn that climbs to the top is the steepest cog wheeled railway in the world negotiating a 48% grade. It was made possible by one of the most ingenious engineering solution - a double opposing horizontal cog wheel to prevent the trolley from jumping out of the racks. Just being able to make that journey in our lifetimes was worth the effort of getting to the top, the view of Lucerne, the city as well as the lake, was just the proverbial icing.
On the final day of our trip, we headed to the country's financial capital - Zurich. It does not offer a lot for the casual tourist. The old town and its three famous churches - St Peter Church, boasting the largest clock in Europe, Fraumunster, boasting the famous Chagall stained glass series and Grossmunster, boasting the bird's eye view of the city from its tower, could all be covered in a couple of hours. That was perfect as we had to meet friends for the rest of the afternoon. I was meeting my schoolmate 25 years after we last parted and my hostel mate close enough never to have lost touch. We rarely meet friends on our trip and it was quite refreshing ending a trip on a high spending an evening among familiar faces in a foreign land.
As it always happens, trip never really ends until the return journey. Ignoring my grandmother's advice to always consult the Panchangam before planning a trip was to bite us in the behind. We landed in Mumbai on the eve of the Visarjan. Lalbaugcha Raja spoiled our great plan of overnighting in Mumbai and taking a leisurely drive back to Pune. We had to instead leave Mumbai under the cover of darkness before the fans of the Raja woke up and started blocking off the exits.
Click here for more photos from the Berner Oberland.
Click here for more photos from the cities: Bern, Lucerne and Zurich.
Click here for more photos from Zermatt, Pilatus and Titlis.