My Swiss Sojourn - by Anurag Sharma
If there were an iota of truth about rebirth, I would have forced myself to believe that my current life is a re-incarnation of my previous one as a Swiss national when I lived amidst the gorgeous alpine villages where nature is at the zenith of immaculate beauty. Switzerland - Alps, Pine trees, lush green meadows, lakes, waterfalls the very thought of all these sends volumes of adrenaline down my nervous system and has always been my cherished dreamland..... So I decided to witness the pristine beauty myself and captivate my imagination into indelible memories.
It was the early morning of 26th September 2008 when I set out with my wife Rimjhim and daughters Anushree and Anika to explore Switzerland – inarguably the most beautiful place on earth. The excitement to get there sooner eclipsed the pain of getting up at midnight at our home in Northampton and start for London Luton airport at the ungodly hour of 2 am. Getting up early mornings has otherwise been my most dreaded nightmare!!
An early morning flight at 6:30 saw us land in Geneva at 9:15 local time. Although aware of the fact that Geneva is still away from the Alps, we could not hold our excitement on touching our feet on Switzerland – a country which we had heard so much in Bollywood movies
Having quickly dealt with the formalities including buying Swiss Pass, storing the luggage in self help lockers and buying tickets for the city tour, we boarded the bus which took us around the city of Geneva which included an excursion around the International part of the city aptly called ‘the nations’.
The most exciting part was however the one hour boating in the Geneva Lake which took us around the picturesque banks of the lake and to some of the most beautiful outskirts of the city. The flawless water in the lake provides an awesome beauty as the world’s highest fountain erupts from somewhere in the middle and stamps its authority over the tiny canoes and yatches nearby.
Never undermining the beauty of the city of Geneva, we were in utmost hurry to get to the Alps as soon as possible and that prompted us take an evening train to the eternally beautiful city of Interlaken. Interlaken as the name suggests is perfectly ensconced between two lakes entwined by the river Aare.
On emerging out of the Interlaken West station in the pitch of darkness, we were pointed out by my elder daughter Anushree towards an unusually big star in the sky. We later realized that it was a light glowing up there in one of the houses in a towering mountain at a stone’s throw distance from us. That was enough to give us a trailer of what heights we were to witness in the next three days. Tired as we were, we took no time in checking into the hotel and retiring to bed with sweet dreams of Titlis that was to be our destination the next day.
Early morning on 27/09 we were on our way to Engelberg. The train journey from Interlaken Ost to Hergiswill and then Hergiswill to Engelberg takes you through some of the most mesmerising beauty that you could ever long for on the earth. The shadow of the lofty mountains in the untouched waters in the lake of Brienz coupled with the lush green meadows that stretched as far as eyes can see was an amazing view and I vouch to pay my lifetime earning to spend one full week just being there and adoring the eternal beauty. There was in fact much more to it than met the eyes as we were behind glasses of the train’s windows and had to bear with the reflection of the lightings within the train. As the train whizzed through the serpentine tracks meandering across the lush green valleys and meadows, I was involuntarily taken away by my thoughts to the world of fairy tales and I dreamt of owning one of those small cuckoo-clock like cottages and settling in the lap of nature for the rest of my life. However, that was not to be and reality struck me when our train reached Engelberg. Not sure but the name should have come from the word ‘Angels’ as the place looked like an abode for angels.
The cable car to starting point to the top of Titlis is a 10 mins walk from the Engelberg station. It was like a home away from India when we wre pleasantly surprised to find a tea shop selling vadas, pakauris and Indian ‘chai’. The journey to the top of Mt. Titlis consists of 3 stages- the first two are in family size cable cars and the last one is a big rotair car which introduces you to the snow clad peaks for the first time. Our journey in the first two cable cars was quite adventurous. The only sound breaking the eerie silence was the cowbells ringing down below from the herd of cows feeding on the meadows down below. This was indeed music to the ears and was a complete reversal of an ambience from the brouhaha that one has to bear with in big cities. As mentioned before, the last leg of the journey upward was a marvel in Engineering and asserted the superiority of mankind over the rugged mountains as we progressed our way vertically upwards so close to the snow covered peaks that my daughter mistook it for a gigantic vanilla ice-cream that she can grab easily. To add to the wonder it was a bright sunny day and thus a clear view of the distant mountains as far as the horizon where the snow on the mountains and the clouds below us seems to kiss each other. I simply loved it !!
Arriving at the top of Titlis (10,000 Feet ) was a unique experience as the very first slap of the fresh chilly air invigorated us and charged us back again after the exhaustion after carrying the pushchair and pram over the changes at various stages of the height to the top. It was all snow everywhere and for a moment we found ourselves engulfed in a white blanket suspended in space as the clouds below us appeared to be no different. While the kids got involved in building snow-man and curiously on looking at the tourists of various hues and races, I and my wife had quick sessions of photographs and videography. When we came back to the place were we had parked the pushchairs, we were greeted by a group of 10-15 Chinese boys and girls who had surrounded my younger daughter Anika (9 months old). They were apparently more impressed with the sight of a small baby all alone in the midst of snow at the top of Titlis waving and passing smiles at them than by the natural beauty around. Ah, that’s innocence at its best!!
Another attraction at the top of titlis is the ice cave. It was a moment of pride as an Indian to have found the option of playing the Indian national anthem in the cave. ‘India’ was one of the just 5-6 options that have to be pressed to listen to the music of interest. We went through the ice cave with the sound of ‘Jana Mana Gana’ ranting the air that made me nostalgic for a moment!! India features top among the Swiss tourism offices because of the vast number of visitors and Bollywood has played a great role in promoting Switzerland among India tourists and this respect to Indian nationals is a reciprocal action from the Swiss Govt.
We wanted to stay there for hours together but time would not permit us and we were soon down through the same route of the rotair and the lovely journey by the cable cars. Back in Engelberg we missed the train by a minute and had top wait for another hour for a train to Luzern. That however turned out to be a boon in disguise as it was about dusk and we strolled around in the picturesque town. The town’s location I the valley with the sylvan surroundings and lofty snowy mountains in the background is an absolutely stunning beauty. The houses looked like emerging out from a picture postcard and a magnified version of the cuckoo clock that I have at home with the cuckoo’s voice replaced by the wind chimes which has become a nostalgic trademark outside every Swiss house.
We boarded the 6:45 pm train to Luzern and arrived at 7:45 pm. ‘Luzern by night’ was not what we had planned but thanks to the captivating beauty atop Titlis, we were late in our agenda. However as we strolled by the lakeside we could witness the reflection of the lights in the lakes and it was a very pleasant sight. Chapel bridge adorned with flowers bedecked on each side is an awesome place to visit.
Luzern is one of the prime towns on the lake Luzern. However, there are places situated on the banks of the lake like staans which have some of the most beautiful viewpoints in Switzerland. Our journey back to Interlaken west was not very comfortable as because of the delay in the day’s plan we had to change at 2 places, Olten and Bern to reach Interlaken by Late Saturday night. Fatigued and exhausted we were quickly in bed to get up for the epitome of our journey, the trip to Jungfrau!!
Having learnt from the previous day’s delay we were fairly quick on Sunday morning and were out of our hotel by 9 am. We took the next train to Interlaken Ost which is just 5 mins away on the other end of the town. At Interlaken Ost station, we had to rush to catch the next train. It is very common to find people rushing around on the Swiss railway stations. The timetables are so strictly followed that you have good chances of missing a train even if you are only fractions of a second late. But the good part is that if you have forgotten setting time in your wristwatch, you can comfortably do so by matching the time of the trains’ arrivals and departures. Swiss train typically called SBB CFF FFS are the best train system in the world, not only because they take you to the summit of Jungfrau, also because they are well maintained and are very much passenger friendly. Interlaken to Kliene-Shideg which s the pen-ultimate station before Jungfrau is a circuitous route where you can go by one route and come back by the other to make the most of your trip and not miss an iota of beauty in this region. The trains around Jungfrau region are mountain trains and the Swiss pass holds only as good as qualifying you for a 25% discount. We took the train to the peak Jungfraujoch, the top most point of Alps and also the whole of Europe. While going up, we took the route Interlaken-Grindelwald- Kleine Scheidegg–Jungfrau and on return the other route Jungfrau- Kleine Scheidegg-Wengen-Lauterbrunnen-Interlaken. The first station to change train was Grindelwald – an astonishing beauty in itself !! The railway station looks like a private house nestled in the hills all around. As you progress from Grindelwald to Kleine Scheidegg, you witness the peaks of Eiger and Monch and I for one could not help expressing my enthusiasm aloud and getting up every now and then to click pictures. My co-passengers might have been annoyed at that and I apologize to them in case they read this article ever in their lives.
The third and last leg of the journey is a unique example of the vision of a great man which turned the dreams of millions to set foot on Jugfrau into a reality. Yes the railway tracks are laid right inside the mountains and that too at an upward slope as inclined as 45 degrees at times. It is a half an hour (approx 15Kms of rail tracks) journey inside the mountains and then you emerge atop Jungfrau – the topmost point of Europe (11, 533 feet). There are two stations midway which provide platforms for some excellent mountain watching but the time provided is a bit too less as you’ve to get back in the train in 5 mins. To keep you entertaining during this time, there are in-train screens playing documentaries about Jungfrau. It was marvellous to find tracks, tunnels and stations at a height of 11000 feet. That’s Switzerland for you!! The temperature at the top of Jungfrau was freezing – just a little above 1 degree celcius although it was a bright sunny day. We first made our way towards the Plateau which is an open area and you can walk on snow right up to some glamorous rocks and get yourself photographed with the icy valley in the background as if you are floating very high up in the air all by yourself. But beware!! It can be dangerous in case you slip and fall down. There is a Swiss flag atop the plateau asserting the nation’s engineering capability that has conquered the heights of Jungfrau. The Sphinx is a more popular site atop the Jungfrau peak. For those bored of walking on the snow, it is a welcome place as you walk on iron railings which are erected on the mountains. Form the height you are at the Sphinx, you can clearly see the adventure enthusiasts queuing up and heading for their skiing destinations although they appear like ants from the top.
There is an ice Palace too which is made up entirely of ice. Yes, even the floor and if you are not careful enough, you might have a great fall and hurt yourself as ice can be harder than rock at times !! On the brighter side of it, the palace has a gamut of animal/bird structures and my daughter had the added advantage of being able to see Micky Mouse! You can find eagles, penguins, teddy bears etc all made of ice.
We soon realized that in our enthusiasm we actually had remained without eating anything after leaving the hotel – a gap of around 6 hours!!. Although there was a Bollywood restaurant again to welcome us and give us a tinge of Indian food but we were late again as it closes by 2:45 pm. Indian food at the top of Europe!! Sounds interesting, But you’ve to visit it to experience the fun and we missed it !! Nevertheless, we had lunch at another self service restaurant and envisaged our journey downwards.
As planned, we took the other route from Kleine Scheidegg. The intermediate station was Lauterbrunnen and the attraction was the famous waterfalls there. For those of you interested in waterfalls, this small town and the adjoining mountains has 72 waterfalls and the biggest one is a merely 10 mins walk from the railway station. We walked past the main road of the town and reached the base of the waterfalls in 10-15 minutes. It was a quite place and the sound of the water falling over the rocks was enchanting, more so after the daylong rushing around. We decided to lie there quietly for 15 minutes and listen to nothing but the sound of the falls. An amazing experience indeed!! As dusk turned into darkness, it was the time for an end that to day’s romance with the nature and we boarded a 6:30 pm train back to Interlaken Ost. We did have some time that evening at Interlaken and we went out for some local shopping. Cowbells, Swiss chocolates, Magnets with Swiss flags engraved were some of the items that I managed to escape with as my wife had more extensive plans !! On a serious note, Swiss mementos are worth buying as they remain as memories of this impeccable beautiful land and one would feel proud to be associated with the place through these memoirs.
The next morning we had an additional task of packing back our baggage as we had to check out from the hotel to fly back later that night. Having quickly dealt with breakfast and settling the bills we exchanged goodwill and adieus with our hostess Ursula and set off for a train to Zurich via Bern. Bern, although the capital of the country has little to offer to tourists as against Geneva and Zurich which are the two largest cities of the country. Yet, being the capital it is the seat of Swiss Parliament and other Government bodies. As our train progresses towards Zurich HB, all of us were left emotional of having to part with Berner Oberland, the heart of the Swiss Alpine region and the most popular canton of all.
At Zurich, we changed train to Schauffhausen which was 50 mins train journey. The most unfortunate part of the so far pleasant journey was that we were misinformed on the route to reach the Rhine falls. So although there was a rail station very close to the falls itself, which we later realized and made use of while returning, we got down at a small pace called Neuhaussen and started on a walk which we were told was 10 mins only. However eventually it turned out to be a good 40 mins walk form the railway station. However, the grandeur of the falls itself and the mighty power of the water falling in such a broad horizon provided a spectacular view and that was enough to make us forgive ourselves for the ignorance. The Rhine falls are the biggest falls in Europe and second only to the Niagara Falls in its magnificence. We clicked some quick photographs. There were steps to actually go down very near the falls but we were constrained by the luggage we were carrying. Luckily on our way back we discovered the railway station Scholls Laufen which is a stone’s throw away from the falls and we took the next train to Schauffhaussena and then to Zurich.
Zurich to Geneva was a two stage journey with a change at Olten. On our way to Geneva, we could only wish to be back again in Switzerland, especially to Berner Oberland area which comprises the town of Interlaken and the mountains. I was instantly taken down the memory lanes to the last 4 days – we had been speechless, dumbstruck all through and it looked like as we had just got up from our deep slumber and sweet dreams full of mountains, dark cottages and alpine flora. Yes , it is impossible to describe the beauty in words..this attempt of mine is merely to pen down my experience…but it does require visiting the place to see and witness the beauty for yourself !!
Back in Geneva we boarded the 21:55 flight to London Luton. Having arrived at Luton at 10:40, we were soon on our way back to Northampton back to business as usual but enriched with memories of the wonderland we had just been through.