From Utopia to Bel Paese - Traveling Switzerland and Italy

Monday, November 04, 2013

It all started with one of my very good friend getting an onsite assignment at Zurich. And on her insistence, I decided to let go off all inhibitions and booked my flight to Zurich. I was travelling international for the first time. And I was traveling solo!

Over the next few weeks, I researched day and night about Switzerland, its train system and places I could to explore; and in the end found something unique that piqued my interest - 'Schlaf im Stroh’!  It literally translates into 'Sleep in Straw'. To promote Agro tourism, 150 farming families across Switzerland welcome travelers who are willing to experience rural Switzerland by living life their way.  We chose Appenzell's Brülisauer family.

Day 1, October 27th 2013, Sunday:
I flew by Swiss Air from Mumbai and landed in Zurich at 06:15 a.m. (CET). Two hours from Zurich, the village of Appenzell is closer to the Austria and Germany border. Enroute we witnessed rolling green hills, so green that it looked photoshopped. Regula Brülisauer picked us up from the station as promised and drove us to her farm - Strohgade. Our cottage was right next to her house and the barn and overlooked miles of rolling hills and the Sitter River meandering through the meadows. There were sleeping bags laid on the straws considering the cold weather. We soon threw our bags on the straw and went exploring. There were miles to explore - beautiful miles.

There were Swiss cows grazing all around and they filled the air with the melodious chimes of their bells. Back at the cottage, we found bread, cheese, cold cut meat and wine nicely laid up on the table. The whole setting reminded us of Enid Blyton's Famous Five where the five would go backpacking around the country, cycling through meadows and staying in barns of farming families at nights. The wine was stronger than what I mostly have in India - this I realized next morning when jet lag woke me up at 4:30 a.m. I was nicely tucked inside a sleeping bag on the straws. I had vague memories of going on a night stroll towards the Sitter River, dancing on the wooden bridge and then almost plunging into the river. 

Day 2, October 28th 2013, Monday: 
Regula served us with an amazing breakfast. It was simple, yet perfect - bread, butter, marmalade, coffee and an amazing view of Alpstein. Once the rather inexpensive bills were cleared, she dropped up back at Appenzell station.

It was a weekday and my friend had office, so it was time for my life’s first solo travel. At Zurich HB, I stood wondering in front of the display board. I was using a 4 days Swiss Flexi Pass. 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. Once in Bern, the navigator came handy, thanks to technology. I walked past the Holy Church of Ghost and through Marktgasse, a shopping street lined with attractive brand stores. I saw Kafigturm – a sandstone tower built as a gate, the animatronic Zytglogge clock tower and Bundesplatz – the Federal Palace of Switzerland and its display of 26 dancing fountains that represent 26 Swiss cantons. I sat for a while at one of the open cafes at the adjoining street Barrenplatz with a mug of beer before heading back to Zurich.

Day 3, October 29th 2013, Tuesday: 
Bern did one good thing to me – It killed the ‘Fear of Unknown’. The day’s plan included a cross country solo trip from Zurich to Lausanne to Montreux and back, via Zweisimmen and Interlaken.

As my train neared Lausanne, it passed through the Lavaux region – an UNESCO World Heritage Site for its miles of terraced vineyards on the shores of Lake Geneva. From Lausanne I traveled to Montreux. I had 1 hour 40 minutes in hand before the departure of the Golden Pass Classic Express on which I had reserved a seat. I boarded a train to Veytoux Chillon, the nearest station to the Chateau De Chillon and was soon at this small castle on the shores of Lake Geneva. Once the residence of the Counts of Savoy, it had inspired Lord Byron to write the poem The Prisoner of Chillon.

Back at Montreux station, the Golden Pass Classic Express waiting on the platform, 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. 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, the Rhone Valley, the palm lined Lake Geneva. It passed through one Swiss village after another - Les Avants, Montbovon, Château-d'Oex, and soon left the Swiss Riviera and entered Rougemont - a picture perfect village with German styled wooden chalets. Then came Saanen and Gstaad. I call these three the DDLJ zone. Then came 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. 

My classic journey ended at the chalet filled village of Zweisimmen. From there I boarded a train to Interlaken Ost. At Interlaken I walked along Hoheweg - Interlaken's main shopping street, and indulged in some street shopping before heading back to Zurich. 

Day 4, October 30th 2013, Wednesday: 
I was using the 3rd day on my Swiss Flexi Pass to travel to Zermatt. During the last leg of the journey till Visp, the train passes through the Lotschberg Base Tunnel - World's longest land tunnel. From Visp, Brig-Visp-Zermatt-Bahn (BVZ), a metre gauge train takes you till Zermatt. Zermatt, a car free town, is the combination of cozy chalets and glorious mountains.

The hotels and houses here are more of mountain chalets made of dark chocolate colored wood. I had booked a chalet room in Hotel Weisshorn. The hotel was very close to the Church of St. Mauritius. On its side, it has the glass domed Matterhorn Museum and if you venture behind the church, you will see the Zermatt Mountaineer's Cemetery. Many mountaineers who had lost their lives while trying to conquer the Matterhorn are buried here.

My solo travel ended as my friend joined me at the Zermatt GGB station minutes before the scheduled departure of the Gornergrat Bahn - the highest open air railway of Europe. Thanks to my Swiss Flexi Pass, I got 50% discount on the ticket, which is otherwise very expensive. From Zermatt GGB it climbs almost 10 kilometers ascending upto the Gornergrat railway station which is at a height of 3090 meters above sea level. The track was extremely steep. Within minutes we passed from green meadows to rocky ridges to the realms of snow. The temperature at the snow covered Gornergrat was -7 degree Celsius. From there we saw a range of majestic mountains. Two most worth mentioning are the Matterhorn and the Monte Rosa.

Of the one hour that we were at Gornergrat, we spent most of the time doing Matterhorn photography, sometimes squeezing ourselves in the frame. As per a local saying, those who see the Matterhorn will become successful and wealthy. We did feel wealthy in experience. The sun had started to set and its light on the snowy peaks gave them an orange glow. Standing at that altitude, I thought of those mountaineer's graves that I had seen in Zermatt.

Later our hunt for a good food joint helped us in some night time exploration of Zermatt. Post dinner, we once again entered the cemetery. It looked different at night with candles placed near the headstones in small red glasses. We stood there for sometime in silence to pay respect to those who lost their lives while climbing the Matterhorn. I would have loved to stay longer at Zermatt but we had got to know from a last moment research that the Vatican Museum remains closed on All Saint's day. And that meant we were to leave for Rome as early as possible on the next day – the day of Halloween. 

Day 5, October 31st 2013, Thursday: 
The change of country was evident - in the landscape and the houses we passed. Italy was quite evidently a financially less developed country than Switzerland, which is the closest comparison to an Utopian nation. Utopia... A society that is close to perfection. 

The train passed by Lake Como minutes before reaching Milan. The EuroStar tickets from Milan to Rome didn't guarantee seats, so after boarding the train we tried our luck twice, but on both tries someone soon came and claimed the seats as reserved. We had earlier seen two Italian men sitting on the foot board of the train. It was a 5 hour journey and with no option left, we grabbed two foot boards near the train's washroom.

Rome felt as hot as a frying pan with our woolen layers still on. Our Bed & Breakfast Santa Bibiana was few minutes’ walk from Roma Termini. We had pre-booked the 3 p.m. entry slot of the Vatican Museum - the last entry of the day. We took the metro from the nearest stop Vittorio Emanuele and got off at Ottaviano San Pietro. From Ottaviano, we walked to Vatican City - the smallest State of the world. 

The Vatican Museum displays some of the most renowned masterpieces of High Renaissance art. We saw the statue of Hermes, Sleeping Ariadne, the Gallery of Maps, Raphael's Rooms with Raphael's frescoes and the Sistine Chapel. The chapel felt like a masterpiece of Michelangelo with its spectacular ceiling and The Last Judgement on the altar wall.

Next on the list was St. Peter's Basilica - the center of the Christian world. It was undoubtedly the most lavishly gilded church that I have seen in my life. We spotted two Swiss guards in their orange-blue-red uniform at the exit. 

After spending some time at St. Peter’s Square and indulging in some street shopping right outside the Vatican gates, we headed for Colosseum. We wanted to see it at night for capturing some dark hour shot of the glowing monument. That was our last stop before calling it a day.
Day 6, November 1st 2013, Friday: 
We again traveled to Colosseum - this time to actually enter it. After a long wait in the ticket queue, we bought joint entry tickets for Colosseum and the Roman Forum. When we finally stepped inside this Wonder of the World, I couldn't help but think "Colosseum - Check!!!"

From Colosseum, we walked to the adjoining Roman Forum - the ruins of the seat of the Roman Empire. We even spotted a fresh excavation going on. Quite evidently the ruins still have a lot to reveal. From Colosseo metro station, we boarded a metro to Spagna, from where most other points of interest of Rome are within a walking distance. Our first stop was Trevi Fountain, apparently a wish granting fountain which granted only one wish - if your coin tossed with your right hand over the left shoulder drops in its water - you get to return to Rome. It was an easy feat to achieve.

From Trevi, a 15 minutes’ walk led us to the magnificent Pantheon which was closed for All Saint's day. We walked for few minutes toward the west of Pantheon to reach Piazza Navona, a large square with the Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi (Fountain of Four Rivers) at its center. Built by Bernini, the fountain depicts four rivers of the four continents - Danube for Europe, Ganges for Asia, Nile for Africa and Rio de la Plata for the Americas.

Trevi Fountain
Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi (Ganges in view)
I loved Rome's cobble stoned streets with fountains and cozy cafes tucked away at every corner. After Piazza Navona, we hunted for the best possible way to reach Santa Bibiana, as we had a flight to Venice in few hours. We zeroed in on a bus to Colosseo. From Colosseo we took a train to Vittorio Emanuele via Termini.

A whirlwind travel to Venice followed. After picking up our luggage from Santa Bibiana, we boarded the Leonardo Express from Roma Termini which dropped us at Fiumicino airport. Our EasyJet flight landed at Venice Marco Polo airport at 8:50 p.m. An ACTV Line-5 bus from the airport dropped us at Piazzale Roma. We purchased two 24 hours Vaporetto passes and boarded the No. 2 Vaporetto from there. The 30 minutes boat trip finally ended when we got off at a stop called Zittele at the Giudecca island. We had booked 2 beds at the Generator Hostel located on that island. We were dead tired when we finally hit our bunk bed that night.
Day 7, November 2nd 2013, Saturday:
Keen on capturing the Venetian sunrise, we woke up just before day break, grabbed the camera and stepped out of the hostel. The Guidecca island being just across Piazza San Marco, made it an easy spot to capture a sunrise over the San Marco. We checked out after breakfast. I have always hated hostels in India, but I can vouch for these hostels meant for travelers spread all over Europe. They are great place to live in if you are on a tight budget and if you intend to meet new people.

Vaporetto no. 4.1 took us down the canal and we were soon at San Marco. Piazza San Marco with the Bell Tower and the Doge’s palace was heavily crowded. Another turn off was that the square was flooded with water at many places due to acqua alta, with people walking around in plastic rain boots. The crowd, the water and the fact that we have had our fair share of church trips at Rome made us give the Basilica a skip; and with that we skipped entering Doge's Palace too.

The hidden lanes, the small canal bridges, gondoliers rowing their gondolas through narrow canals singing sweet barcarole - For me that was real Venice and to find that we travelled to Murano. Murano, a small island considered as a part of Venice, has rows of colorful houses, each house in different shades. It is also famous for Murano glass, which is made in its glass blowing factories, its very own glass museum and numerous shops selling things made of Murano glass. There we found the real feel of Venice - we walked aimlessly through the alley ways, along the many canals, crossing small canal bridges, we sat in a trattoria by the canal, sipping wine and sighing at the beauty surrounding us.

After Murano, we traveled to Rialto market. It was nearing sunset and we were at the best place to witness it - Rialto Bridge. Both sides of the Grand Canal near the Rialto Bridge are lined with open-air restaurants and cozy cafes. We chose one of the canal side restaurant and ordered pizza, pasta and wine. The experience of dining by the canal was quintessentially Venetian; where else could we experience such bliss otherwise.  

We boarded the EuroCity to Milan from Venezia Santa Lucia railway station and reached the Italian fashion capital around eight at night. We had booked a room at Hotel Palazzo Delle Stelline, which was right next to the Santa Maria Delle Grazie church. The church - a UNESCO World Heritage site - houses Leonardo's The Last Supper, something you get to see only if you book the tickets months in advance, which we didn't! We met three Italian friends of ours for dinner, who had studied with us as exchange students during MBA. A pizza dinner was followed by drinks at a pub, walking in the chilly rain and hanging out at their apartment till late night. When they dropped us back at our hotel, it was almost 3 a.m.
Day 8, November 3rd 2013, Sunday: 
We were meeting our friends again at Piazza del Duomo. Duomo, the Milan Cathedral had us spellbound. It was a massive Gothic church built with white marbles.

We spent some time at the adjoining Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II - a shopping mall that looked more like a palace and had brands of the likes of Prada and Louise Vuitton.

Italy is a fusion of history, culture, art and passion. It is rightly called Bel Paese – a beautiful country! At La Rinascente - a restaurant overlooking the Duomo, we spent an hour or so before rushing to Milano Centrale for our train back to Zurich. We traveled Eurostar First class till Brig, not by choice, but because the second class tickets were sold out. We changed trains at Brig and reached Zurich just before sunset. From Brig to Zurich, I used my 4th day of Swiss Flexi Pass.

In my quest to explore Switzerland and Italy, I had ignored the city I had chosen as my base. With just a night left before my flight back to India, all we could do was to visit Lake Zurich and walk around Zurich's cobbestoned old town. I could see the Grossmünster and Fraumünster, two churches on either side of river Limmat, wonderfully lit at night.

We had donur kebab at a Turkish joint and drinks at the Oliver Twist pub, before heading back to my friend’s place.

It had been a crazy trip!!!
From freezing Gornergrat to frying pan Rome;
From travelling on EuroStar First Class to foot board of a 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! 
It was a trip that engulfed all!! Until next time Europe…

I flew back to Mumbai the next day by Swiss Air.

Sites that helped -, (Swiss Air), (Swiss Federal Railways),
Recommended Places to Stay - 
Strohgade (Sleep in Straw, Appenzell, Switzerland)
Hotel Weisshorn (Chalet type cabin, Zermatt, Switzerland)
Santa Bibiana (Bed & Breakfast, Rome, Italy)
Generator Hostel (Hostel, Venice, Italy)
Hotel Palazzo Delle Stelline (3-Star Hotel, Milan, Italy)
Recommended Food - Rosti (Swiss), Apfelstrudel (German dessert), Italian Pizza, Hot Chocolate (at La Rinascente, Milan), Donur Kebab (Turkish).
For detailed accounts of the trip -
Day 1 at Appenzell (Switzerland Country Side).
Day 2 & Day 3 Bern, Lausanne, Montreux & Golden Pass Classic Express (via Montbovon, Rougemont, Saanen, Gstaad, Interlaken)
Day 4 at Zermatt, Switzerland
Day 5 & Day 6 at Rome, Italy
Day 7, 8 & 9 at Venice, Milan and Back to Zurich

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  1. Wow...lovely post ....wish I too had a friend with an onsite assignment ;)

    Have been dreaming to visit switzerland from eons, let see when it happens. And Sleep in Straw is interesting to enjoy the country side :)