Enough of you asked for it in response to our Disneyland Paris Half Marathon Report that I figured I’d put together a single trip report recap post of our adventures after we left France. It’s probably not actually a 3-hour finale, but since it’s impossible to measure words in units of time, let’s just call it that. (Three hours or 4,000 words; either way, too long.) Most of this is going to be rather cursory, with the goal that I’ll do full posts over on TravelCaffeine.com. Now, let’s pick up where we left off with part 9 of the report…
…Although we were thoroughly soaked by the rain, we had already checked out of our hotel, so our options were limited in terms of getting dry. I changed socks and shirt, before we jumped in the car for the ~6 hour drive to Lake Geneva, Switzerland.
We were staying at the Fairmont Le Montreux Palace that night, which is every bit as fancy as it sounds. Keep in mind, we were all wet from the rain and dressed as if we had just run a Half Marathon because, well, we had. Also keep in mind that the car we were driving had been where we had spent a lot of time in the days leading up to our stay at Disneyland Paris. By this point, it was looking very worse for wear, having accrued a variety of junk over the course of the trip.
So, we pulled up to the Fairmont and got out, looking disheveled, with garbage basically overflowing from the car, as a swarm of valets dressed in suits tried to assist us. Things got no better in the lobby, as literally every other guest was dressed in suit or cocktail attire. (Apparently there was some government security conference being held at the hotel.)
This was all pretty embarrassing in the moment, but it’s kind of amusing in retrospect. It was easy to feel the eyes and judgmental stares falling upon us (what, have they never seen a very important Disney blogger in the flesh?!), but it’s not like we’d ever see those people again.
The next morning, like most patrons of the Fairmont, I got up early to take a 9-mile jog before presenting at the security summit and writing a thesis on the Swiss financial sector. Actually, we had breakfast, wandered around town, and then toured Chillon Castle.
We visited a lot of castles, chateaux, and cathedrals, and this ranked as one of my favorites. It probably didn’t hurt that one of the rooms was dedicated to medieval toilet humor (I’m not even kidding), but even setting that aside, there was a lot to see and explore here. Highly recommended.
That night, we inexplicably found ourselves in Zermatt, for reasons I’ve already described in our “Third Man on the Matterhorn” post over on TravelCaffeine. Even though this was not part of our original itinerary, I was really glad we ended up here. Seeing the real-life Matterhorn was pretty awesome, and Zermatt is a neat village.
Following Zermatt, we headed to Interlaken. Our precise location was Gasthof Schoenegg, a charming bed & breakfast in Ringgenberg. Breakfast came to be a big deal throughout our travels in Europe, and this was one of the weaker breakfasts of the trip. Still a nice hotel, though.
The first night in this area, we decided to head to Oberhofen Castle on Lake Thun for sunset. We didn’t have the time to get into the mountains, and we’re sure that one of the villages–most of which are surrounded by mountains–would be a good option.
Oberhofen Castle is pretty, and somewhat like Chillon Castle. One thing that I could not get past was the modern cafe, complete with floor-to-ceiling glass windows that had been built into the castle. (I used flower bokeh in the foreground to obscure it, but you can still kind of see it.) In a country that is so respecting of its history, how does this happen?!
I did some research, assuming it was controversial in Switzerland for a Swiss heritage site to be desecrated like this, but couldn’t find anything (at least, nothing in English). I did find construction photos, so I know this was added around 2010, but that’s it. I also know Oberhofen Castle is privately owned, but I strongly suspect there are heritage site restrictions even on private property. My only guess is that the building into which the cafe was added is not technically part of Oberhofen Castle, but rather, the greater castle complex.
Whatever the case may be, it was a poor decision.
The next morning, Mark and I got up early to head into Lauterbrunnen for sunrise. One of the castles down on Interlaken probably would’ve been a better option, but Lauterbrunnen was so unique that it was worth playing the (worse) odds for what could be a more interesting shot. Especially on this trip, which was otherwise pretty heavy on castles.
This turned out to be a messy and frustrating wild goose chase. There was a cool-looking church in town, plus beautiful mountains, waterfalls, a stream, and more. Basically, all the trappings of a good photo. However, it was nearly impossible to compose all of this in a single photo without cutting something out or including something ugly.
It was like a scene that looks really good viewed dynamically as you move around in person, but one that just doesn’t translate to a single photo. We kept moving around, trying to find the perfect spot, but we never could. In the process, my shoes and jeans got soaked.
A buzzword in travel is “planned spontaneity.” While a lot of buzzwords are fluff, I buy into this one. It’s exactly what it sounds like, and despite writing a blog that offers pretty precise advice, I skew towards building my own itineraries with a mix of precision (I want to be in X location at exactly X time because the sunrise/sunset/full moon will be exactly…) and spontaneity. I find this to be healthy mix that allows for seeing touristy highlights, but also getting lost, exploring the true essence of a location, and stumbling upon hidden gems.
This was demonstrated that day in Switzerland. We were literally just driving around looking at stuff, trying to figure out where we were going to go next. We couldn’t come up with a good plan on the fly, so we decided to pull into a random parking lot to regroup. Then, this happened:
I still have no idea why the lady in Lederhosen was leading cattle to the parking lot (based on what we could glean from interactions, maybe it was an auction?), but it was amazing to watch unfold.
Throughout our time in Switzerland, we saw a ton of cows. They are literally everywhere, all outfitted with those huge bells. Whenever you go anywhere, you hear the melodious sound of cow bells. That might sound like it could get annoying, but it actually had a really calming effect.
Circling back to the point of this little tangent about planned spontaneity, whatever we were watching with these cows ended up being one of the highlights of the trip. Given that we are both originally from the Midwest–places where there are no shortage of cows–that might seem silly.
It was part of a unique, unplanned experience, though. There was something captivating and truly special about standing there, watching a cow auction(?) with the Swiss Alps as a backdrop. I’m perfectly aware of how ridiculous that sounds as I write it, but for us, a big part of travel is the little moments that for some reason stick with you, and this was one of them.
In any event, that’s a lot of text to devote to cows, so let’s moooooove on. (Now you’re left with a nagging question: did I really care that much about seeing cows, or was this all an elaborate ruse for that mooooovelous pun? 😉 )
Outside of that, pretty much our entire day was reserved for taking a train/gondola/cable car to the top of one of the mountains. We had done some research into this prior to the trip, but decided to hold off on a definitive decision until arriving in Switzerland.
Our top option (and probably anyone’s top option) was Jungfrau. This is billed as the “Top of Europe” and is the most expensive ticket. As we were not eligible for any discounts, a roundtrip ticket would’ve cost the 2 of us a combined $300. Schilthorn (the “James Bond Mountain”) was less expensive, but still over $200, I believe.
There was also concern with both destinations that neither option would be a full day’s worth of entertainment. For that much money, we wanted more than just a glorified observation deck. For what it’s worth, all of these routes would’ve been considerably cheaper with some sort of Swiss Rail Pass or the Jungfrau Travel Pass, but we didn’t have a need for either since we rented a car. Something to keep in mind if you’re debating rental v. rail when planning a trip to Europe.
Ultimately, we opted for Grindelwald-First, which was still above $100 combined, but that was about as cheap of an option (short of spending the entire day hiking up) we could get, and there was a hike that Mark had previously done and recommended there.
This turned out to be exactly what we wanted, and the experience was perfect. The cable car ride was long and beautiful, offering stunning views down the mountain. We hiked out to Bachalpsee–actually, it wasn’t so much of a hike as a lovely stroll through an alpine wonderland.
After about an hour or so, we arrived at the twin lakes of Bachalpsee, and made our way around the perimeter of those. Everything was picturesque and serene. We stayed out here as long as we could, and had to rush back a bit so we didn’t miss the last gondola back down the mountain. It was a great way to afternoon, and we left with no regrets as to the cost of the gondola.
Once back in Grindelwald, we had fondue for dinner, and then enjoyed a stunning sunset. (Sorry, forgot to edit a photo of that.) Weather-wise, the trip was what most people would consider good (in that we had very little rain and generally mild temperatures), but it was pretty weak in terms of sunrise and sunsets. Oh well, the sky did deliver on a couple of occasions when it counted, and you can’t win ’em all.
There are a few stray observations that struck me about Switzerland. First, prices. Without question, Switzerland is the most expensive place I’ve ever visited. It has a reputation for being expensive, but we underestimated just how inflated the prices would be. In unexpected ways–such as the cheapest meal at a McDonald’s costing $15 instead of $4–plan to spend more in Switzerland than you would anywhere else.
To avoid overpaying for food, we found the best options to be having a huge hotel breakfast, and then going to grocery stores (there are “Coop” stores all over, offering high quality food at–by comparison–reasonable prices) for the remainder of meals. If you’re trying to do ‘Switzerland on a dime’ you definitely should do thorough research prior to traveling.
For a lot of visitors to Switzerland, this probably isn’t an issue, as it has a reputation for being a destination for the affluent. Which brings me to my next random observation…there were a lot of tourists walking around using hiking poles and decked out in brand new performance outerwear. I’m not a fan of hiking poles, but I understand that they can serve a purpose for some people. However, they do not serve a purpose when you’re walking around a town.
It gave me a chuckle because these Swiss tourist towns clearly knew their audience, and luxury outdoor brands like Mammut, Arc’teryx, and Montbell were all over the place. Literally, multiple shops in every village. Note to affluent travelers: just because you take a one-off trip to a place where mountains are visible doesn’t mean you need a fancy selection of mountaineering goods.
Finally, one of the things I found most fascinating during our visit is the juxtaposition between the outward and inward ‘faces’ of Switzerland. Many towns present as quaint and relatively spartan, but behind/beyond that the country is one of the world’s most innovative and its economic/institutional strength is admirable. It’s pretty wild going from a village reminiscent of a bygone era to seeing an advanced KUKA arm casually used to pick up scooters.
Like anywhere, Switzerland has its own quirks, and while you can read a near-infinite amount about any destination, you learn a lot by the experience of actually being there. We liked Switzerland quite a bit and would love to go back, but the cost will definitely keep us away for a while. If anything, the visit made me even more eager to travel to Switzerland’s Nordic neighbors to its (technically, Germany’s) north. Ok, time for Germany on Page 2…
And with that, we head to our next stop on Page 2: Germany and the real-life Sleeping Beauty Castle…