Bern, Montreux and the Golden Pass Classic Express

Friday, November 15, 2013

From freezing Gornergrat to frying pan Rome;
From travelling on EuroStar First Class to foot board of an EuroCity train; 
From waking up before daybreak to capture the Venetian sunrise to entering the Zermatt Mountaineer's Cemetery at midnight to bow down to those who lost lives while climbing the Matterhorn; 
From classy hotels to mountain chalets to youth hostels to sleeping on straws in a farm - Done it All! 

Day 2, 28th October 2013: I don’t know if it was Jet Lag or the Appenzeller Cheese or the Salmon Sashimi, but whatever it was, it forced me to cancel my Jungfraujoch plans and stay indoors and made me a firm believer of 'sparing a day for acclimatization'. It was only after 1:00 p.m. that I found the strength to step out. It was time for some solo exploration. But where? I thought. I had time only till sundown, as everything in most of Switzerland - shops or places of interest - close after sunset, and for that only 5 hours were left. I decided on not deciding, activated my 4 days Swiss Flexi Pass and left for Zurich HB.

At Zurich HB, I stood wondering in front of the display board. There were trains leaving for Geneva, Bern, Lucern, Basel, St. Gallen and Zug. Out of all these, only Bern fitted both my interest and the hours of day left to see a city; so that’s the train I got onto. I was in Bern in less than an hour’s time.

Again the navigator came handy, thanks to technology. I knew I hardly had the time to explore the entire city, but I also knew that The Federal Palace of Switzerland or Bundeshaus was just 15 minutes walk from the station. I took a left after coming out of the station and walked past the Holy Church of Ghost and through Marktgasse, a shopping street lined with attractive stores of brands like Swatch, Swarovski, Espirit, Globus, The Body Shop and various other jewellery, cosmetics and perfume shops. The shops on both side of the cobblestone road were within arcaded walkways. I walked till a sandstone tower called the Kafigturm built as a gate house. I went through the gate and till the Zytglogge clock tower. The clock on the tower is animatronic and tells month, day, sign of the zodiac and phase of the moon, along with time. All these are part of the Old City of Bern – an UNESCO cultural World Heritage Site. From there I took an about turn, came back till Kafigturm, took a left from there and landed on Barenplatz.
Top Left :Zytglogge; Top Right: Kafigturm; Bottom Left: Barenplatz; Bottom Right: Marktgasse
Barenplatz is filled with various cafes and restaurants and from there l could see Bundesplatz at the end of the street. I could also see the display of fountains as I walked towards Bundeshaus. But as soon as I reached Bundesplatz, the fountain show stopped. It confused me as I was not aware of the time gap between two shows. Nonetheless I entered Bundeshaus through its western wing and walked to its southern side from where you can see the turquoise colored Aare river, the part of the city across the river and the Alps beyond. There is also a life size chess board at the back of the Parliament building.

I came out through the eastern wing and walked around the square counting the fountain nozzles, fully aware that the fountains may start again anytime. There were 26 in total. These 26 fountains represent 26 Swiss cantons.

And just as I had suspected a long jet of water squirted out of a nozzle 2-3 meters off from where I was standing. It sprayed high into the air and fell back to the square with a huge splash. Now here is the fun fact – you can’t predict the choreography of the fountains. You can never be sure from which nozzle the jet of water is about to be shot up next and in which direction – yeah, they dance! And it is a challenge to pass from one end to the other without getting wet and many – kids or adults - love to play this game there and some just prefer an open-air shower. I went for the game and came out of the other end dry and I thought – Damn! I had been too careful.

I got so engrossed with the fountains that it made me miss the last entry to Einsteinhaus (The house of Einstein) which closes at 5 p.m. It had started to grow dark and the fountain started looking more attractive with lighting effects giving it a Wow factor.

Top Left and Bottom left: Bundeshaus; Top Right: View of Bern city & Aare river; 
Bottom middle: Bundeshaus western wing; Bottom right: Bundeshaus at night 
I sat at one of the open cafes at the southern end of Barrenplatz with a mug of beer and kept admiring the dancing fountain. Sigh... they were beautiful. At 6 p.m., I made my way back to Bern station. I was back in Zurich by 7:30 p.m., all excited to tell Pritha about my first solo adventure.

Day 3, 29th October 2013: Bern did one good thing to me – It killed my ‘Fear of Unknown’. I am now confident that I can travel solo anywhere in this world (my own country might be an exception though). My plan for this day included a cross country solo trip from Zurich to Lausanne to Montreux and back, via Zweisimmen and Interlaken. Before leaving for Zurich HB, I made pancakes for breakfast and topped it with melted Swiss chocolates (I can see that your mouth is watering ).

I was using my second day on my Swiss Flexi Pass. I got onto a train that was scheduled to leave from Zurich HB for Lausanne at 9:32 a.m.. I met with an amazing sight as the train started nearing Lausanne around 11:30. My train was passing through the Lavaux region – an UNESCO World Heritage Site. I could see miles of terraced vineyards on the shores of Lake Geneva. It made me crave for some white wine. 

Lavaux Vineyards
My connecting train from Lausanne to Montreux was within 5 minutes and it made me feel sad as I couldn’t even step out of the station to explore this beautiful lake city. I reached Montreux at 12:05. The Golden Pass Classic Express was scheduled to depart at 1:44 p.m. So I had 1 hour 40 minutes in hand. I boarded the 12:31 train to Veytoux Chillon, the nearest station to the Chateau De Chillon. I found myself standing at the almost deserted Veytoux station within 3 minutes. The station was closer to the lake and the road was on higher grounds and the castle was apparently 5 minutes walk away. But I couldn’t see the castle from where I was standing. And then as luck had it, I spotted a confused looking old American lady. I asked her if she was searching for the castle to which she said yes. And then she said “Better two than one… Let’s search for it together”. I laughed at myself thinking I had been afraid of unknown people. We soon spotted a steep set of stairs connecting the station to the road. We took a right when we reached the top and kept walking for few minutes. And there it was – Chateau De Chillon - right on the shores of Lake Geneva. 

I entered the castle after paying 12 francs entrance fee. Inside the castle there were courtyards, great halls and grand bedrooms, that were once the residence of the Counts of Savoy. One of the oldest and the grandest bedroom is the Camera Domini where the Duke of Savoy lived. The bedrooms have large windows that overlooks Lake Geneva. And then there are the underground prisons which had once held François Bonnivard captive. Lord Byron's poem The Prisoner of Chillon was inspired by him.

Chateau de Chillon Exterior
Chateau de Chillon Interior 
By 1:30 p.m. I was back at Montreux station. The Golden Pass Classic Express was waiting on the platform. It looked like an old era train and just as the name suggested - classic. The interiors of the train are plush and done in the Belle Époque style. My seat was reserved, but it seemed to me like they had reserved the entire coach for me, as it had just me and my server when the train started from Montreux at 1:44 p.m.. 

My coach in Golden Pass Classic
From Montreux, the train prepared to cut across Switzerland in a diagonal manner. This region was the Swiss Riveira - the french speaking part of Switzerland. And that reflected in the architecture and the landscape. We again passed the Lavaux vineyards and private estates. We soon left the Rhone Valley and palm lined Lake Geneva behind and started ascending the mountains. At one point, we passed through the village of Les Avants - a Swiss winter resort. Soon came the Jaman tunnel and that's how the coach looked while it ran through the long tunnel. 

We passed several other tunnels on the way and at one point passed a huge barn that had the inscription "La Gruyère vous salue", i.e. "You salute the Gruyère". Gruyères is a nearby town which is famous for it's cheese. But after our cheese misadventure in Appenzell, I felt really scared every time someone said cheese. The train soon passed through Montbovon station. If you are ever keen on trying Gruyère cheese, you can always get down at Montbovon and take a train to Gruyères. We passed many green pastures and hills. We passed Swiss cows grazing on the meadows. We passed through Château-d'Œx, which becomes a hot air ballooning destination every January. 

Top Left: Rolling green hills; Top Right: A farm near Montbovon; 
Bottom left: Cattle grazing on pastures; Bottom Right: Barn welcoming to Gruyeres 
We soon left the Swiss Riviera and entered the German speaking part of the country. And that we realized as we enter Rougemont - a picture perfect village with German styled wooden chalets. 

Now here comes a region which I can totally dedicate to SRK's DDLJ. And why not? After all, that was one movie that had defined romance for us in those days. 

  • So just before entering the station, we pass by the Rougemont Church of St. Nikolas - the "beautiful church" from DDLJ. Though I believe the interiors shown in the movie are from a church of Montbovon. 
Rougemont (You can see the DDLJ church in the bottom right picture)
  • The train soon passes by the picturesque town of Saanen - Remember the song Tujhe Dekha To...?? Well, most of the Europe scenes of DDLJ were shot in and around Saanen district, not to forget the Saanen bridge in particular. 
  • The train soon reaches Gstaad, a favourite skiing destination for the celebrities - And also where most of Zara sa jhoom lun main was shot. 
We soon pass through Schönried and Saanenmoser, all these a part of the Simmental Valley where you will see lush green pastures of the Bernese Oberland with peacefully grazing Swiss cattle. 

Top Left: Simmental Valley; Top Right: Saanen; Bottom left: Gstaad; Bottom Right: Saanenmoser 
We soon enter the chalet filled village of Zweisimmen where my classic journey ends. I had indeed traveled like a Queen in this Belle Époque style train. The setting would have been more perfect had I been dressed in a Victorian gown and a hat.

At Zweisimmen station, I met another friendly stranger. This time a young American girl called Danielle - another solo traveler who approached me, requesting to click a picture of hers. She had been travelling in another coach of the Golden Pass Classic Express. We boarded the train to Interlaken together. It was supposed to be the Golden Pass Panoramic Express, though the windows didn't feel much panoramic, nor did the seats swiveled. At one point we thought may be we had boarded the wrong train. But it was going to Interlaken nonetheless. The train passed through Spiez and the banks of Lake Thun, before dropping us at Interlaken Ost at 4:49 p.m..

My phone was on low battery so with no navigator help, I walked out of the station and started walking straight on a street called Allmendstrasse. When I couldn't find anything of much interest on that route, except for a vast green field, I took an about turn, came back to Interlaken Ost and took a left. Luck had it and I landed right on Hoheweg - Interlaken's main shopping street. I crossed many restaurants, hotels and souvenir shops. I saw a Japanese garden near Hotel Interlaken. 

Top Left: Allmendstrasse; Top Right: Interlaken Ost station; 
Bottom Left: Coop Supermarket; Bottom Middle: Japanese Garden; Bottom Right: Hoheweg 
By the time I reached Hohematte, it had started to grow dark and very cold. The clouds were covering the nearby mountains and there was no chance of even spotting the Jungfraujoch from there. So after buying a souvenir cow bell from a nearby shop, I started walking back towards Interlaken Ost. Halfway to the station, it started raining. I wasn't carrying an umbrella and getting wet in the drizzle din't seem like a bad idea. I was soon proved wrong by my own shivering. I felt a little warm as I entered the station. The station looked gloomy. I was the only one waiting in that deserted station for the train to Bern. And for the first time during the day, I felt a little insecure, rather scared. 

Later when I boarded the train to Bern unscathed, I realized that we have grown so accustomed with the feeling of being insecure in our own country that the same voice keeps cropping up everywhere. I changed train at Bern and reached Zurich HB by 8:30 p.m.. From there to Altstetten and from Altstetten to Mientalstrasse, took hardly 30 minutes.

For three days, I had been returning to Pritha's place at Zurich every night. But it was now time to pack for the overnight parts of the trip. We were travelling to Zermatt to see the Matterhorn and then... To Italy... 

Sites that helped - (Swiss Federal Railways),

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