Wednesday, September 23, 2020

Switzerland – A Wanderer’s Delight

Swiss jodel group performing at a folk festival, Mannlichen, Switzerland. Photos by Vickie Kelber

Swiss jodel group performing at a folk festival, Mannlichen, Switzerland. Photos by Vickie Kelber

Ever since the 1800s, when the Brits discovered its wonders, wandering in Switzerland has been a traveler’s delight. Although we have been to Switzerland about a dozen times, it had been the same number of years since our last trip. Going to Switzerland, for us, has always felt like going home and we were curious to see if much had changed. We found that, although there were some changes after twelve years, thankfully, much was the same.

We rented an apartment for the month of June in Meiringen, a place where we had spent a month back in the 90s. Meiringen is not our favorite Swiss town but, located between Luzern (Lucerne) and Interlaken, it is a good location for excursions with its easy access to the  Berner Oberland and mountains such as the Eiger and Jungfrau. Meiringen itself is the starting point for some spectacular hikes. Meiringen has two claims to fame: It is reportedly where meringues were “invented,” and it is home to Reichenbach Falls, the location of fictional character Sherlock Holmes’ presumed demise.

One of the changes we found was in our apartment. We had an American-style coffee maker. What a disappointment! It had taken me so long to master European-style coffee machines and to enjoy the rich, dark brew they produce. Swiss apartments have always been rather modest. Now we had a full size refrigerator, washer, dryer, dish washer, microwave with grill (which I had no idea how to use), granite countertops, satellite TV, and WIFI. Although the Swiss are reserved, private people, everyone on the street greeted me with a “morga” or “grüssa.” Gruetzi is the traditional Swiss greeting,

Even the cows enjoy folkloric traditions.

Even the cows enjoy folkloric traditions.

but in local dialect, it is grüssa.

Confederation Helvetica is the “official” name for Switzerland; it’s country code is CH. The four official languages are German, French, Italian, and Romansch–the last spoken by less than 1% of the citizens. In the German section, the residents speak Swiss German dialects among themselves but all can speak standard German and all signs are written in standard German.

Switzerland is a neutral country that hasn’t been involved in an armed conflict since the 1800s, but has a strong defense system. All Swiss men must serve in the military a few weeks each year through age thirty-four; military service is voluntary for women. Tunnels and bridges are built with charges that can be used in case of invasion. Although many have been dismantled, there is an extensive fortification system built underground and into mountains; and building codes require bomb shelters.

As much as I loathe stereotyping, the Swiss do tend to be well organized, punctual, thrifty and have a good standard of living with a high per capita income. There is a respect for rules and independence.  The Swiss are so orderly that even their rivers run in a straight line! Dependent on water as a major source of energy, there have been numerous “correction” programs to improve their hydrology.

Outside of the major cities, there is a strong respect for preserving traditional Switzerland – the land of Heidi. Trachten groups, whose members dress in traditional costume at various festivals throughout the year, are active and the participants include both seniors and many young people. Yodel (jodel)  groups perform local concerts. Yodeling is not what is typically portrayed in our

Swiss Children, Katerina and Fabio Juan  with Sherlock Homes in front of the English Church, Meiringen.

Swiss Children, Katerina and Fabio Juan with Sherlock Homes in front of the English Church, Meiringen.

country/western interpretation of it. Rather, it is usually a male chorus and one or more very melodic female voice(s). Alp horns  and flag twirling are part of the Swiss folkloric tradition, as is decorating cows with flowers and large bells. We attended a trachtenfest in Schwyz with thousands participating in a four-hour parade. At one point, my husband jokingly commented that he didn’t know there were that many people in Switzerland!

Switzerland is not just cheese, chocolates, and cows. Reportedly, there are more museums per capita there than in any other country.

The Swiss transportation infrastructure is one of the things that makes travel a pleasure. There is a comprehensive network of trains, buses, ships, and trams all timed to coordinate with each other. When you arrive at a station, there are announcements repeated in English that tell you what is at the stop and, if you have to change for a particular attraction or connection, the track numbers for connections. Schedules are easily located at all stations or you can go to any ticket counter and they will print you a detailed schedule, including track numbers, for your desired destination.

A Swiss Rail Pass is a great “deal.” It provides unlimited travel on trains, buses, ships, city transportation systems, and a few mountain trams. For other mountain railways/trams, it qualifies for a 50% discount.  Additionally, there is free entry into 450 museums throughout the country.

Some things are uniquely Swiss. Not having to handle luggage until arriving at our final destination is one of them. My husband used to joke that the Fly Rail Baggage program was why we kept returning. It’s a joke with

Hiking among the clouds and wildflowers in Switzerland.

Hiking among the clouds and wildflowers in Switzerland.

much truth. We checked our luggage in at Miami airport and did not have to touch it again until we arrived in Meiringen. The day before we left for the US, we took our luggage to the train station in Interlaken and were able to check it through to Miami airport. Since 9/11, that is a service only available consistently if you fly Swiss International Air Lines.

“Wandering,” or walking/hiking mountain trails is very popular in Switzerland. The mountain transportation systems give access to glorious alpine vistas for even limited walkers. Along most walks are mountain restaurants serving a variety of food and beverage. The most pressing problem on these walks is which way to point the camera; everywhere you look there is an incredible view.

One change we looked for were signs of economic recession, both locally and globally. The unemployment rate in Switzerland, less than 1% in the 1990s, is now 3.9%. As a cost-savings measure, many of the very small train stations are now unmanned.  Except in Zermatt, Japanese tourists, once ubiquitous, are being replaced by travelers from the emerging Asian economies such as India.

People say that Switzerland is expensive. Having a high standard of living, things do cost a lot. However, we did not find prices too out of line from metropolitan prices (including Naples) here in the states. Some prices were higher, some equivalents were lower. At first appearance, menu prices seemed high, but when one considers that the listed price includes tax and tip (except for a small rounding up of the bill), they were not that out of line. Switzerland is not part of the EU and its currency is the Swiss franc.

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