The Alps are pretty cool. Even in Tirano, the feel of this mountain town is very different from that of the rest of Italy. I had about an hour and a half to explore, so I roamed through the centre of town and out towards the gates that mark the end of town and the beginning of mountain paths. This is a land of farmers and tourism is just an extra bonus. It’s still beautiful though, with a clear river running down from Alpine meadows, shadowed by peaks mostly covered with forests. Hidden down narrow lanes are signs of farm equipment, and across the river one can glimpse long rows of grapevines.
I returned from these wanderings with a little time left and stopped in a cafe for some very basic sustenance: a ham and cheese sandwich and some mineral water. It was expensive but not crazily so, and I managed to catch up on some messages while I was at it. This helped me save the rations—grapes, crisps and water—that I’d bought for the train. Which, when the time came, I headed down to and boarded, finding myself seated opposite an older gentleman, splitting four seats and a curving panoramic window between us.
What to say of the journey on the Bernina Express? Photos will describe it far better than I can. The first part, the climb from Tirano, takes place amid meadows and forests at first and includes the famous loop, where the train goes around a circular viaduct in order to gain a lot of height in a short distance. The higher you go, the more impressive the views get, as the valley drops away beneath you and the train starts to switchback along the valley wall. There are towns and villages, shingle-roofed covered passages, and soon you get your view of the first glacier on the route, with a vivid turquoise lake at its foot.
Up past the restaurant at Alp Crum, the landscape becomes more obviously mountainous and less green. Here there are fewer roads but more paths by which Alpine hikers can cross the mountains. In the Bernina Pass itself, the white lake and the black lake dominate the look of the place, with another glacier feeding them both. This is the point where the Danube watershed meets that of the Po: follow one and you’ll come to the Adriatic, follow the other and you’ll (eventually) come to the Black Sea.
On the other side of the pass, the downhill run begins. Past Diavolezza, you get a glimpse of the largest glacier yet, more distant than those that have come before. We were fortunate enough to have enjoyed a lot of sun until this point, and while the clouds were gathering in, there was still plenty of light by which to see rushing streams, the growing greenness of Alpine meadows and the curving roads beneath us. Another great valley stretched ahead, this one leading us down into Switzerland.
First of all though, there was the Landwasser Viaduct to cross and the old, high bridges to glimpse as the train picked up steam. Down closer to the Rhine, there were castles perched on high rocks, and sunset-lit mountains, their peaks wreathed in wisps of cloud. Soon enough, we were at our destination of Chur.
It was here that my travelling companion, who I’d spent the preceding hours chatting to (his name was Carl), offered to give me a lift. He and his wife were staying in Vaduz, and he’d just spent the day taking the Bernina Express in both directions. I accepted happily and after about half an hour on the solid Swiss roads, we crossed the Rhine into Liechtenstein.
I had just enough time to check into the very nice but very expensive Landhaus am Gliesse, and to shower and generally clean up (lovely power shower too) before heading out to find the place where I’d said I would meet Carl and his wife Mary for dinner. This restaurant, above a Movenpick ice cream store, was cheaper than most in Liechtenstein and not too shabby on the food front. I enjoyed a pizza as I spent a lovely evening chatting with Carl and Mary about traveling, rugby, golf and California. Eventually though, the food and the drinks were all done, and it was time to head back to our hotels. We said our farewells and I was off to have one of the nicest sleeps that I’d had on this trip.
The next morning, the sun woke me at 6am, as did the insistent ringing of the Cathedral bells from up the road. My initial plan had been to stay in Liechtenstein for two days as a sort of rest stop, but two things militated against this. First of all, Liechtenstein is expensive, with a room in the Landhaus costing three times as much as the cheapest lodgings on my trip. Secondly, Liechtenstein is tiny. Trapped between the Rhine and the mountains, I was able to see most of Vaduz in the few hours I spent there, from climbing up to Schloss Vaduz, still occupied by the royal family, to walking out to the football stadium by the Rhine. Sadly, the mountains were covered in clouds as I walked around, spoiling the view a bit, but I did drop into the Kunsthouse art museum, which provided a brief but interesting run through art trends, mostly of the modern variety.
A brief viewing of a trailer of pumpkins aside, I was soon ready to go, and timed my run well. I picked up my backpack from the Landhaus, which I’d already checked out of, then walked a few minutes down the road to the bus stop, where a bus arrived a few minutes later to pick me up. That took me to Sargans Bahnhof, across the border, where I arrived half an hour later. It was the work of a few minutes to buy a ticket, buy some snacks for myself, and head to the platform, and a few minutes later the train arrived. Although a bit grubby on the outside, it was neat and comfortable on the inside.
Most of the ride to Zurich seemed to involve passing by lakes. First, one where the far shore was dominated by mountains that came right down to the water’s edge, then another, longer one with gentler slopes on the far side. This latter one, I think, was the Zurichsee, which terminates at its northern end in the city of Zurich. This was where the train dropped me after about an hour of travelling, depositing me in the spacious Zurich Hauptbahnhof at around 2pm.
Some wandering around sunny Zurich and getting a little lost eventually led me to Hotel Otter, over the Wurst House bar. I was a little too early to check in, but I was able to drop my backpack before heading out again. For food, I looked to the nearby Noon Lebanese restaurant, but they weren’t open yet. So I just wandered, finding myself eventually at the Grossmunster church, which had one of its two towers open to the public. Never one to miss an opportunity to climb something, I paid my Chf4 and ascended, enjoying as my reward some seriously gorgeous views over Zurich in the sunshine.
I explored the entire place, including its crypt, as thoroughly as I could, then headed back out into the open air. Heading across the river and into town, I passed by a carousel near the Rathaus and some Roman relics before hitting the main shopping district. Here the Apple Store was a friendly face, allowing me to check my mail, but given that an hour or so had passed, it was time to head back to Hotel Otter and check in. This I managed to do, but when I returned to Noon to eat, they were only serving takeout. Since I wanted somewhere to sit down, I passed. Instead, I made my way to the nearby Sternen Grill, where I had an over-priced, but tasty, bratwurst and chips. At a Movenpick a few doors down, I added on some ice cream that wasn’t a patch on good Italian gelato.
The rest of the evening saw me heading back into the centre of Zurich and from there turning my steps west, out across the Sihl river and onwards past cinemas and a city that was rapidly turning its thoughts towards sleep. By the time I turned back, my own thoughts were similar, and though I spotted some shops that looked worth returning to, for the most part I just aimed back towards Hotel Otter, where my bed awaited (after a pint of Bier Paul 10 in the Wurst House below).
The next morning saw some of the inevitable negotiation and delay that happens when six people are sharing two showers and two toilets. Eventually I was cleaned and dressed and headed downstairs for a pleasant breakfast of crusty bread with butter, meats, cheese and a multi-coloured egg. Plus a yogurt for fun. This was a day I hadn’t expected to have (having gained a day from my early exit from Liechtenstein), so I wasn’t sure what to do, but one obvious option presented itself. I headed to Bellevue and bought a 24-hour travel card.
The first thing I did with this was to walk to the docks and jump on the first boat that presented itself. Fortunately it was only doing a 1hr30 loop around the northern half of the Zurichsee, so amid the chill morning breeze and under the cloudy sky, I cleared my head for awhile. Helping me in this process was another boat traveller, a nurse who was enjoying a morning break before going to work with her spinal surgeon husband in the afternoon. She pointed out hotels and interesting houses until the chill forced her inside, but my phone’s battery died halfway through the trip, and as I didn’t have my charging cable, I didn’t get any pictures.
As a result, when the ship docked, I headed back to Hotel Otter to plug into my backup battery. (Swiss plugs being unique and me not having an adaptor.) Once I was technologically enabled, I headed out again, finding that in the interim the sun had done its work and cleared away a few of the clouds. I stopped by the Fraumunster and the Peterskirche across the river, the former having an interesting crypt and the latter attractive in its Protestant plainness. However, I knew what I wanted to do with the first part of the afternoon, and it wasn’t looking at churches.
In pursuit of this, I headed southwest with as solid a stride as I could manage. Not long after I crossed the Sihl, the road started to trend uphill, and by the time I’d gone too far, it was getting pretty steep. My goal, you see, was the Uetliberg mountain that looms over Zurich from the west, and this was the most direct way to get there. Soon I was walking through paths that switchbacked up the slope, pausing only to drink from chilly water fountains. It was far from easy, but it was fun and satisfying, even when the very peak of the mountain proved to be guarded by long steps.
At the very top, the reward was to be able to climb to the top of the tower that surmounted the peak and enjoy some excellent panoramic views across Zurich and the surrounding countryside. The view was a little hazy, but by this time the sun was truly out and the clouds a memory. Once I’d drunk my fill of the views, I continued along the path, this time downhill towards the station for the S10 tram. Along the way, I enjoyed the fun “Planetenweg,” which showed the sun and planets to scale along the path, and bought myself a Cornetto and a Mars Bar at the station.
The S10, when it arrived, brought me all the way down the hill to Zurich HB. Which was pretty handy, as the next stop on my list was right next door: the Landesmuseum. I headed there through the shopping district below the station, and got in for free thanks to my travel pass. After stowing my bag in locker 007 (because you would too, wouldn’t you?), I ventured in. The first of the three exhibits I saw was “The Renaissance in Europe,” which was an excellently laid out multimedia exhibit full of fascinating facts that told the story of the Renaissance from 1400 to 1600. Next up was “Swiss Archaeology,” which took a deeper view into time and was full of fascinating artefacts from all across the alpine nation. It didn’t tell as clear a story as the first exhibit but was still well worth a look. The last and oldest exhibit was “Swiss History,” which had plenty of information but wasn’t quite as well organised as the first two. Luckily, I wanted to know more about this very subject, and the exhibit was quite clear, if sometimes reluctantly so, about the problems that sometimes attended Swiss democracy, isolationism and neutrality.
When I emerged from this history deep dive, it was around 6pm, but I wasn’t quite done yet. I headed across the river and grabbed a 6 tram, which took me up the winding streets to the Zurich zoo. This was sadly closed, but there was a bonus next door: the FIFA world headquarters, where a battalion of linesmen were being put through their paces. I watched that for a little bit, then headed back down the hill.
This eastern side of Zurich was evidently the most affluent part of the city, given the houses that I passed, and sunset slowly came on as I wound my way through some of the nicest parts of the city.
By the time that I reached town, it was fully dark, and I was in need of dinner and of a drink. In search of a relatively cheap form of either, I made a big loop around town, hoping that I might find something unexpected, or even something that I already knew about that might prove acceptable. However, it wasn’t to be. Having been failed one last time by Noon (this time they’d just closed), I went a few doors down and grabbed a burger in b.good. Given that this was more or less across the road from Hotel Otter, I wasn’t exactly stretching my horizons, but I enjoyed it, and it did make it easier for me to slouch back into the Wurst Bar for another pint before sleep.
Well, I say sleep. Thanks to the dorm’s two new inhabitants and their persistent but low-volume snoring, it wasn’t all that easy to catch some zzzs, but I managed it in the end. Negotiating bathroom order the following morning was easier than it had been the day before, and the breakfast was just as nice. So this time I was in pretty good form setting out.
In the few hours I had available to me after checking out, I thought of visiting the Kunstmuseum, but it turned out that it didn’t open until 10am, and thus my 24hr pass couldn’t help me. I did have a good look at Rodin’s “Gates of Hell,” which cast the Thinker as Lucifer (or perhaps vice versa), but I wasn’t going to hang around. I headed back across the head of the lake and through a farmers’ market, then proceeded to get thoroughly lost before eventually following the Sihl back to Zurich HB, where I picked up my pre-booked tickets for Luxembourg later that day.
Did I mention that it was my birthday? Well, it was, and courtesy of the Apple Store and other wifi outlets, I was able to reply to various well wishers. Lacking anything better to do, I returned to the Kunstmuseum, only to balk at the price given the time I had left to me, and instead picked up my backpack from Hotel Otter and headed out for Zurich HB.
On the way, I did some gift shopping too, first at a space-themed boutique, then at Max Chocolatier (Sprungli Cafe having failed me), then at another Sprungli Cafe later on. When I got to Zurich HB, I still had some time left, so I sat down outside the Landesmuseum and got caught up on my notes. That done, I grabbed some food and used up what remained of my Swiss Francs on snacks and such. By this time, my TGV had shown up at platform 14, so I climbed on and grabbed my seat beside a guy who hogged the charging port all the way to Mulhouse.
Which is why I’m writing this on the train from Mulhouse to Luxembourg, by way of Colmar and Strasbourg. We left behind the latter of those stations awhile ago, and as the sun sinks, the fields of corn are stretching out on either side, with forests between them. I had to usurp someone to claim my seat, setting off a chain reaction of resettlement, but everyone has either moved on or got comfortable since then, and I’m now ready to join them. I really ought to write the blogpost that corresponds to this entry, but I’m not feeling it at the moment. Later.