The challenges of travel continue, even if many people state that we are now in a time of endemic (rather than pandemic) Covid.
The news had been full of the problems at airports over the Easter holidays. Some airlines were struggling with a lack of staff, due to illness and the fact that many people had been laid off during the lockdowns and positions were therefore unfilled.
I had been due to fly to Zurich on a flight at 12.30pm. Last week, an email advised that this had been cancelled. A link took me to the website, and I was able to rebook but on a 9.30am flight. So I booked a hotel room and an extra night’s parking (as it’s around 90 minutes to drive from my home to Heathrow on a good day).
My attempts to work out the requirements to enter Switzerland had only confused me. I fully expected to present some sort of Covid paperwork. According to the Swiss government’s website, as my two Astra Zeneca shots were over 270 days ago, I was considered unvaccinated and wouldn’t be allowed to enter as a vaccinated person. I was relying on entering through my ‘Covid Recovered’ certificate (I’d had a very mild version of Covid in March, confirmed by a PCR test), which would grant me entry. However, according to a Swiss tourism website, my vaccination/recovered status didn’t matter, all entry restrictions had been removed. At least all websites agreed that I didn’t have to fill out any sort of passenger locator form nor take a lateral flow or PCR test.
I had been able to book in on-line for my flight. At the airport, I showed the boarding pass and passport to a BA member of staff, and I was waved through to bag drop. For the first time in the UK, I dealt with a bag drop which did not involve fellow human being. I loaded my suitcase on to the machine (at 19kg, far below the limit of 23kg), printed out the tag, applied it myself, and watched the bag disappear.
So, I had two and a half hours to go through security and find the boarding gate. So much for worrying about paperwork and airport chaos.
The flight left late, but still arrived early at Zurich. The guard at immigration merely glanced at my passport before stamping it, never asked me for any Covid paperwork. I collected my suitcase and a few minutes later I was greeting the reason I’d flown to Switzerland, namely to see my friend, Sonja. We’d met years ago during my holiday in New Zealand. We’ve travelled together since then, and she’s visited me in England several times. Finally I was visiting her.
We took the train to Zurich, placed my suitcase into a locker, and explored the city. The sun was out, and it was pleasantly warm.
Sonja, who had worked in Zurich for a number of years, acted as tour guide. We walked down Bahnhofstrasse, an elegant street lined with designer goods shops. I was perturbed to see so many advertisements in English, particularly as I’m fluent in German and wanted to use my other language. Sonja and I spoke in a mixture of English and German as we walked along, neither of us tempted to spend a fortune on a watch or clothing.
We had a coffee and cake break in Springli’s, a rather famous café in Zurich. I took a deep breath whilst paying the bill, reminding myself that Switzerland is known for being expensive so I shouldn’t complain at a coffee and piece of cake costing around £11.00 per person.
Our walk took us along the river and to the lake. Swans and ducks were making the most of the wide space. I was coming to terms with crossing the roads, looking out for trams and electronic scooters as well as cars. Sonja pointed out that most cars were either grey or black. Very few were coloured (red, blue, yellow, etc). She said it was a trend she’d noticed over the past two years.
Two churches were next on our tour, namely the Frauenminster and the Marianminster. Both, when originally built, had been Roman Catholic. At the Reformation, Zwingli had turned them into Protestant churches. The sanctuaries (where the altar would have been for Mass) were stripped and made into another worship space. Most of the decorations were removed from the walls and any statues of saints taken down.
We had to pay an entrance fee for the Fraumünster, which surprised Sonja (‘You have to pay to go into a church?’ I explained that this was not unusual, but somewhat controversial, for cathedrals in the UK). The highlight of this church are the Marc Chagall windows, very bright and complex. The leaflet provided by the church explained which window represented whom. I could easily see which was for Moses (horses and chariots gave that away) but I puzzled over the one for ‘Elias’ (whom Sonja assured me was Elijah, not Elisha). We also visited the crypt, which had remains of the much earlier churches erected on the site.
The Grossmünster (no entrance fee) had intriguing windows as well. Those in what would have been the sanctuary (when the church was Catholic) are by Augusto Giacometti. It’s said that the German-Swiss Reformation started in this church, as it was where Huldrych Zwingli served from 1519 to 1531.
Our walk took us through the old part of the city, the narrow streets for pedestrians only. The shops here were more unusual, small ones specialising in coffee, books, toys, etc. At the other end, we caught a tram up to the top of city. We passed a set of allotments, the gardens rather beautiful and holding small buildings (grander than sheds). Sonja explained that people often spent their weekends living on the allotments.
Our walk led us through woods and then up to a luxury hotel, The Dolder Grand. The original hotel looked like a castle. The modern additions were less pleasing to the eye. We admired the views over the city and lake before catching the cog down to Zurich. A bus brought us back to the train station, where we collected my suitcase before catching the train to Lucerne.
At Lucerne, it was a twenty minute bus journey to Emmenbruke, the town in which Sonja lives. A ten minute walk up from the station brought us to her lovely, three-bedroomed flat. I admired the nearby mountains as I pulled my case behind me. I grew up in California, with a mountain views from my bedroom window. I do miss mountains.
We had a pleasant evening. I’d remembered that Sonja loves baked beans, and had brought several cans from England. We put the world to rights, bemoaning the many Covid restrictions, particularly the ones which had made little sense. She also showed me family photos, including the announcement of her birth. Her parents had a double barrelled surname, whereas she only carries her father’s name. Sonja explained that, under Swiss law at the time, a couple hyphenated their last names when they married, with the father’s listed first. However, also by Swiss law at the time, the children only had their father’s surname. This law changed in 2013, which no longer permits the double names. Women can now either keep their own name, take on the man’s, or he can take on the woman’s last name.
The weather forecast showed bright blue skies, so we decided it was a day for the mountains. Rainy day options were put on hold.
Sonja held an annual travel pass which covered all public transport. What she had obtained for me were five all day travel tickets. Each local area, she explained, offers a limited daily number of these on a ‘first come, first served’ basis for those who live in the area. The cost for the five tickets came to 160 Swiss Francs, and we agreed that I would work off my debt by paying for her expenses during my stay.
We caught the train to Lucerne, and then a ship across the lake. Morning clouds lifted as the ship took us to various stops. Swans and ducks kept their distance, and we passed various smaller boats as we sailed across the wide water. The mountains came into view, tops still gleaming with white snow.
At Rigi we disembarked and walked the short distance to the cog railway. The original track had been laid down a hundred years ago, and I admired the engineering as well as the views as we headed higher and higher up the mountainside. Views of the forest and the glimpses of lake were occasionally obscured by fog as we chugged through cloud. The amounts of snow increased the higher we went, clinging to areas of shade and on rooftops. Flowers were also out, the daffodils in particular still going strong.
We disembarked at the top station. I was glad to be wearing my lightweight hiking boots as we climbed up to the top. A viewing area allowed us to take in the panorama of the Lake Lucerne on one side and the mountains on the other. We had a clear view of the distant Matterhorn.
The wind was cold, and I pulled on my gloves. Once we walked back down again, the sunshine warmed us up again. We found a sheltered bench to eat our sandwiches. My boots were quite muddy, and I desecrated a nearby snowbank cleaning them off.
We had time for a drink (I had a small bottle of local red ale). Chaffinches approached us rather boldly and told us off for not having any food to share with them. This did give me the opportunity to expand my German vocabulary by looking up their name on my iPhone translation app. ‘Buchfink’ it appears, which doesn’t sound very flattering.
We took a cog railway down different route, which provided a change of views. Houses of farmers clung to the hillside, and we saw a cows and flocks of sheep. A few waterfalls teased me about not packing my tripod, although of course it there would have been no point using it on a moving train.
Sonja had hoped that we’d catch a bus back to Lucerne, as this would hug the road around Lake Lucerne and give us good views. The information at the bus station was confusing, so we took the train instead.
Once in Lucerne, we took a seat outside a coffee shop and ingested some caffeine. I admired a pair of ducks in the water nearby, certain that I’d seen the same species in England.
We reported to the train station at 5pm, where we met Sonja’s friend Elisabeth. Sonja explained to Elisabeth that they should use High German, rather than the local Swiss dialect, so I’d be able to follow the conversation. This mostly worked, although I still find the Swiss accent more difficult to understand than the Northern German I’m used to.
The three of us took the train to Stans, a town of 7000 people which hosts a music festival every spring. This was the first time since 2019. Usually all the artists perform under a large tent, but for 2022 local buildings were being used instead so either you chose just one performance or moved between them.
We took our seats in a room with a small stage. I calculated there were around 150 of us in the audience. What we hadn’t quite realised was that this was the opening of the festival. A half hour of interviews and speeches followed, all in the local Swiss dialect, so I understood about one word in ten.
The group took the stage. They were from Italy, and the speaker rotated through her various languages, including English, before deciding that French (as she spoke no German) would be the best for the audience. Sonja translated the introductions to the various musical pieces for me. The music itself, consisting of a stringed instrument, rattles, and tambourine, was the backdrop to some glorious singing by the three women. Very energetic folk-song like stuff, which led us to clapping and foot stomping. Of course I didn’t understand a word of it, but that didn’t matter.
Much to our joy, after the group had finished their performance (it was supposed to be an hour but they gave us 90 minutes), the chairs were cleared away and food and drink was brought out. We snacked on tortilla chips, rather nice pieces of salami, bread, falafel, meatballs, and learned to avoid the watery and tasteless hummus. I had two small glasses of local white wine, the first semi-sweet, the second dry, both delicious.
By now it was 9pm. We walked out into the twilight and made short tour through the town to admire the old buildings. Several food carts were in the square, but we’d had our fill at the reception. Then we went down to the train station to catch the fast train back to Lucerne. Sonja and I then boarded the bus back to her neighbourhood, yawning quite regularly at each other. Once in her flat, we brushed our teeth and went straight to bed.
We set out on a warm and sunny day, not a single cloud to be seen. This time we travelled by train and Postbus. Sonja explained that the Postbus was owned and operated by the Swiss postal service, delivering both people and post to various areas. The bus was small but chugged bravely up the steep mountain road. It also offered free wifi!
Our destination was Bürgenstock. When we stepped out at the hotel complex, we had views of what many would consider a typical Swiss scene, namely steep valleys with farms and cows. Each cow worn a bell, and the deep chimes blended with the bird song.
We felt distinctly underdressed as we entered the posh hotel to use their facilities. The Bürgenstock Hotel and Resort was built in 1873 to take advantage of the views over Lake Lucerne and the nearby mountains. The paths were developed for the guests, but are now open to any visitor.
The panoramic path hugged the mountainside. The height gain was gradual and offered views of the lake through the trees. We were in the shade for the majority of the time, but warm enough from exertion and lack of wind. Small flowers, ivy, and moss clung to the slopes but we saw no birds or wildlife.
After about an hour we reached the Hammetschwand lift. The 153 metre tall elevator shaft was first opened in 1905, and is the highest exterior lift in Europe. The cost was 15 Swiss francs per person to take it to the top, but we agreed it would be a fun thing to do. So we bought tickets, boarded the small lift, and a minute later we were at the summit, emerging into sunshine.
Rather sensibly the summit had picnic tables, a café, and toilets. We ate our picnic lunch whilst admiring the views, including back to Rigi, the tall weather station making it easy to see where we’d been standing the day before. Although there was some wind, it was still very warm.
After lunch we bought drinks from the café. Sonja had a tea, whereas I marked the fact I was on holiday by having a beer. It was a local lager, very refreshing. A chaffinch made his way around the tables.
We took the shorter path back down to the hotel complex. This was steeper, mostly on soil rather than a built up path with gravel. We walked through forest, going through gates as fences had been erected to keep cows out. Thirty minutes later we were back to the hotel area. A small group of heifers grazed near the grounds, none of them yet wearing a bell. I wondered at what age a cow gains her musical instrument. Is there a ceremony? Does this make a heifer feel she’s all grown up and it’s time to get a job and leave home?
Sonja recommended that we take the bus back down and then use the train to take us to Hergiswil. We visited a supermarket before heading to Hergiswil Glassworks, where lockers allowed us to drop off our backpacks and shopping.
Hergiswill Glassworks was founded in 1817, and for some time was the major employer in the town. We paid for a visit to the museum, and Sonja requested that the narration be in English. The museum was nothing like I’d expected. First we had an illustrated history of glass making in Egypt and Europe, different panels lighting up to make us move along. Then we walked through various displays of the glasswork’s history, large rooms created to show how the factory, offices, and storehouses would have looked. Doors opened automatically so we could move to the next section, shutting behind us after a few minutes.
Various parts of the history struck me. The narration explained how little the workers were paid, but of course they had little option for other employment. During World War II, the factory produced storage jars. The Swiss had to be self-sufficient as food imports were affected by the war, so preserving what they grew, in days before freezers, was vital.
The end of the museum tour led to today’s factory floor. We watched as the men heated glass in the furnaces before bringing it over for others to work it. Even from the viewing platform we could feel the heat.
We visited some displays of past and current creations. The factory currently produces only clear glass, no colouring, mostly kitchenware but also baubles and glass animals of various sizes. After playing in the interactive children’s area (using glass to create music, trying to spot which wineglass was imperfect, placing our hands on a glass bowl to make the liquid held inside heat up and move up a pipe), we walked across the road to the shop selling factory seconds. There were a few items which tempted me, but not at the prices offered.
We collected our backpacks and took the train to Lucerne and then to Sonja’s neighbourhood. Her flat is one of fourteen in the block, and once a year the residents gather together for a meeting to discuss and vote on common issues. She went to the meeting, and her request for permission to put glass windows into her larger balcony was approved.
Drinks and nibbles were offered afterwards, and with the residents’ permission Sonja brought me down to join them. We sat in the garden of a ground floor flat. I conversed with people in High German, to which they adhered when we were one to one. When we all settled around a table, drinking wine and eating crisps, the group reverted to the local Swiss dialect. However, I felt I was beginning to pick up on it, and understood a bit more than previously. I guess if I moved to Switzerland (not that I have any intention of doing so) I would be able to adapt.
Dinner was what Sonja called a BBQ. We plugged a small electronic hot plate into the electricity socket in the balcony, added oil, and cooked sausages, corn on the cob, mushrooms, and sliced red peppers. The sun had just set and there was a brief alpenglow on the nearby mountains, just visible from our seats. We remained outside until after dark.
Another sunny and warm day. We first walked into the local town centre to buy groceries, returning to the flat to unpack them and to prepare ourselves for the day. Our destination was Lucerne, and Sonja thought it would be fun to go down on two of her e-vehicles rather than public transport. She would ride her electric bicycle, and I would use her electric moped.
I haven’t ridden any form of bike for decades, and I must admit that I was a bit nervous. But I reminded myself that I’d recently survived a ride on a disgruntled camel (in Egypt) so surely I could risk riding a moped in Switzerland.
The apartment building has a shared storage space for bikes of all kinds. We pulled out the vehicles, and Sonja showed me the controls and lent me a helmet. I did a few test runs in the area around the outbuildings, slowly finding my balance.
We set off, and my first challenge was a narrow gravel path. Most of our journey was on dedicated cycle paths, and I found that I was okay on straight stretches. Turns were more difficult, and any barriers meant stopping the moped and pushing it through.
We halted at a train station to enquire at the ticket counter about the cheapest way for me to travel to Basel and to Bellinzona, our planned destinations for Sunday and Monday. Sonja had tried to purchase some more of the cut price tickets, but these had all been taken (she had an app on her phone which showed how many were available and on which dates). So I had to pay full price, which came to 180 Swiss francs for the two trips. I swallowed hard and said to Sonja, ‘I don’t know which frightens me more, the trip on the moped or paying for Swiss train tickets.’
The cycle path took us along the river, and a small lizard dashed across, managing to avoid my wheels. We parked the vehicles in the old town, locked up the helmets, and started our walk.
Lucerne is a Catholic part of Switzerland. We walked along the river and visited two churches, Franziskanerkirche (dedicated to St Francis) and Jesuitenkirche (the Jesuit church). The interiors were very different to the Protestant churches of a few days before. In Franziskanerkirche, paintings depicted the Stations of the Cross. A statue of St Francis watched from the square outside. I explained to Sonja that St Francis was the patron saint of animals.
I recognized that the second church was Jesuit from the ceiling paintings. Both St Ignatius and St Xavier featured in the artwork high over our heads. Statues rested in wall alcoves. I was quite taken by the baptismal font, which rested on three carvings of fishes.
We walked across the wooden Chapel Bridge. A fire in 1993 sadly destroyed some of the ancient paintings, but many remained intact to provide a history of Switzerland and Christendom. The bridge offered a small shop selling gin from a specialist distillery, an interesting contrast to the religious theme.
After a picnic, sitting on a bench admiring the views across the lake to the mountains, we walked along the shoreline. Trees cast welcome shade, and we passed public gardens and statues which we tried to interpret. I wondered if the two of a man and a horse, which looked Greek/Roman to me, could be of Alexander the Great and his horse Bucephalus. It did amuse me that the artist had felt the need to give the otherwise nude man a literal fig leaf.
Thirty minutes later, we arrived at the Verkehrshaus der Schweiz (Swiss Transport Museum). Again a deep breath as I paid 30 Swiss francs to enter. Sonja had a museum card which offered either free or half price entry to museums.
The museum houses a number of exhibitions in large buildings leading off from an expansive outdoor area. My priority was the train collection. A large number of steam engines, trams, and carriages, all with displays in four languages (German, French, Italian, and excellent English), gave me delight. A video display provided the history of the cog railways which had taken us up and back on our day at Rigi. The mountain is on the border of two different cantons, so two different railway companies each built a track up to the top of the mountain. Only many years later did they come to share the travel space.
We ventured out and stopped for a rest and an ice cream. Next we went into the aerospace exhibition. A collection of old cars greeted us at the entrance. Sonja pointed out that all of them had the necessary tax disks, dated 2021, so that they could be used on the motorways. In other words, all of the cars were still fully operational.
Various small planes hung from the ceiling. I was pleased to see the original capsule and spacesuit of Felix Baumgartner, the Austrian man who in 2012 skyjumped from a helium balloon 39 kilometres above Earth. I remember the event and hadn’t realised that this museum held these items. An interactive video allowed us to pretend that we were in the capsule.
Stairs led to more displays and the opportunity to look at the planes from a higher level. Another section covered the space race, both from the USA and the Soviet Union side. One panel held the types of food taken by astronauts and cosmonauts. The English noted dryly that, although alcohol was not permitted, often vodka still found its way on to the International Space Station.
We made our way out, visiting the toilets prior to our walk back. A small backpack had been left in my stall. I took it out with me, and a woman with three children (from her age, I’d assume her to be their grandmother) told me in German, ‘That’s ours.’ Panicked that she might think I was planning to steal it, I responded in English, ‘I was gong to take it to the information desk.’ She switched to English and thanked me, adding, ‘She is always leaving it behind somewhere.’
The day had cooled a little, making our return walk more pleasant. We visited the Löwendenkmal. I had thought this to be a statue, not realising that the lion had been carved out of a rock face. The Danish artist Bertel Thorvaldsen designed the sculpture and it was inaugurated in 1831. The lion commemorates the thousand Swiss guardsmen who protected King Louis XVI of France when revolutionaries stormed the King’s residence. Most of the guards died in the attack, and one of the group who happened to be in Lucerne on home leave wanted to mark their sacrifice.
Sonja provided a tour of the old town. I admired the guildhouses at Weinmarkt Square, but also regretted the fact that well known, international brands filled the shops. I would have preferred to find small, independent stores, but I guess the rental prices are beyond those sorts of establishments.
Back at our parking spaces, I pumped up my courage and climbed on to the moped. As I’d told Sonja in the morning, I would shout out for her if I got into trouble. Actually, I think she would equally have stopped if she’d heard me scream in pain. I managed a bit better in the morning, even taking a couple of turns. However, I misjudged one, and had to shout out as I fought to avoid running into a fence. Both moped and rider survived, although it did drive up my adrenaline level.
I was rather relieved when we arrived back at the flats and we could put the vehicles away. Sonja organises games evenings for local friends, and one was in the diary for tonight. As she cooked a meal (risotto), I caught up on emails and absentmindedly downed a bowl of hummus chips which she had put out for everyone to share. Oops!
Three women arrived around 6.30pm. Elisabeth, with whom we’d gone to Stans, was first, then two others. We shared the meal and a glass of red wine before Sonja pulled out a game ‘The Hare and the Hedgehog’. Everything was in German, of course, but as the game was designed for children I had no problems following the rules. I also enjoyed an evening communicating only in High German, although occasionally people lapsed into Swiss German. In case anyone needs to know, I came in third in one game, and second for the other.
The guests left at 10am, and I helped Sonja clear up. Her small dishwasher swallowed up an impressive number of plates and glasses, and we hand washed the rest.
Rain fell overnight, freshening the air and leaving clouds hugging the mountains. We took a ninety minute train ride to Brunig. The journey took us through the countryside, the train climbing to give us views of the farms, valleys, and lakes.
Up in the mountains, we left the train for a bus which took us to Ballenburg Outdoor Museum. Buildings from around Switzerland have been brought to this location and erected in clusters reflecting the differing styles found across the country.
Much to our surprise, for a Saturday morning which proved to be mostly sunny, there were very few other visitors. We admired buildings both inside and outside with very little competition. Craftspeople offered demonstrations on cheesemaking, woodcarving, pottery, and smoking meat (the sausages hung in the ceiling of the house). Chickens wandered the site, and pens held goats, sheep, and cows. The setting was beautiful, in a mixture of grass and woodland, with the mountains a constant backdrop.
Lunch was bratwurst from a small takeaway van. I was disappointed not to be offered any sauerkraut, but Sonja shuddered at the idea of putting it on a wurst. ‘That’s a German thing,’ she told me.
After several happy hours, we exited the site and caught bus and train to Bern. I was thrilled to see the Reichenbach Falls, the site of Sherlock Holmes’ fight with Moriarty.
Rain hit whilst we were on public transport, and threatened as we walked through the city and met up with a friend of Sonja’s. In a rooftop bar, we stayed under shelter as rain thrummed on the umbrellas. I enjoyed a small bottle of a local dark beer whilst we chatted.
We walked through the old town, which I found grand rather than lovely. A colonnade ran past the shops on both sides of the road, offering protection from sun and rain.
At the Berner Münster we first admired the carving of the Last Judgement on the central portal. Inside, I was confronted by the first ‘no photos’ sign. I obediently kept camera in bag (but took a couple with iPhone). A choir was performing in the upper level, by the organ.
On to the Bundesplatz and the Bundesrat, the Parliament building for Switzerland. A celebration for rescue dogs was taking place in the square outside. I was amazed at all the different breeds and sizes, as I’d expected rescue dogs to always be large and German Shepherd or Bernese Mountain Dog. All dogs appeared to be well behaved, patiently standing by their owners.
A walk across a bridge brought us to the bears, the symbol of the city. Legend states that in the 12th century, Berchtold V, the Duke of Zähringen and the founder of Bern, decided to go hunting. He decided that he would name the city after the first animal he found, which was a bear. In 1513, the first live bear was captured and placed in a pit. Today, the bears can use a tunnel to wander a much larger park, 6000 square metres, built along the river bank. We spotted one male from the bridge, walking back and forth.
‘Now we go up a little hill for the view,’ Sonja told me. For someone like her, who likes to gallop up alps on her holidays, the slope was nothing. I stopped a couple of times to catch my breath. Rain started to fall again as I took several photos of the view over the old town.
A bus carried us back to the train station and we started our journey home. In effect, our trains took us on a circular route from Lucerne, so we had different views on the way back.
The day was not yet over. One of the women who had come on Friday evening was offering an all day open house to celebrate her birthday, new job, and new flat. We caught the bus and walked up to her apartment complex, admiring some farmhouses on the way. There we had calzone pizza (handmade in a small pizza oven). The others chatted mostly in Swiss German.
Sonja made the guests laugh about a comment I’d made. Every spring Lucerne hosts the ‘Luga’, a festival which features exhibitions of all sorts of products, food and otherwise. The video advertisements however had people come on screen and dance in excitement. ‘So Luga is a dance festival,’ I’d said to Sonja, which amused her.
An early rise, 6am for me, a bit later for Sonja. Our train journey started at 7.20am for our ninety minute trip to Basel. Fog covered the countryside and hid the hills. We had time, once at the city, to eat a soft pretzel and enjoy a cup of coffee before catching the tram to the river.
Sonja had booked two tickets for us to take a boat ride on the Rhine. At 10am the ship headed off, rather underoccupied. We didn’t complain, as this meant there was little competition for the lounge chairs at the back of the ship. Sonja fetched herself a cup of tea, and I decided to be very naughty and have a bottle of the local beer.
We spent two hours on the ship. The voyage first took us down river, towards the docks, which looked underused. We did see a number of Rhine cruise ships. The clouds broke and bright sunshine gleamed on the industrial buildings.
The ship took us back to our starting point, and we gained a few more passengers. Now we headed up river, passing through the old part of the city. We admired the grand buildings, the bridges, and the Basler Münster. I was delighted when Sonja pointed out a church dedicated to St Alban, as the church which I currently serve has a patron saint by the same name.
We passed small buildings which Sonja told me were fishing houses. Large nets suspended from metal arms hung to one side. The sound of bagpipes filled the air at one point, a man in a Scottish kilt playing near the riverbank.
At the dam, the ship turned around. As we headed back to our starting point, we saw a May Day march passing over one of the bridges. The red banners gleamed in the sunlight, most of them bearing the Communist star.
After disembarking, we navigated the public transport to take us to the Tinguely Museum. We walked down to the riverside to enjoy our picnic lunch, sharing out bread with a pair of mallard ducks. The sun was out in force and we both made sure we wore our hats when walking around.
Afterwards we visited the museum, which houses the work of Jean Tinguely. I’d heard of him in the past and knew vaguely that he’d built kinetic art out of found objects, often scrap metal. The first two artworks, and the largest in the museum, are powered up every thirty minutes or so. Metal clashes against metal, curtains twitch, other parts circle or move. Visitors are allowed to climb on to the largest one, ‘Grosse Meta-Maxi-Maxi-Utopia’. It was fun to actually enter a piece of art.
Many of his smaller works were also on display. In order to preserve them, these pieces can only be operated so many times a day. So we were able to press the power button to witness some in action, but not others.
Tinguely might be most famous for ‘Homage to New York’, which he built in the sculpture garden of the Museum of Modern Art in New York. The twenty-seven feet tall, twenty-three feet wide sculpture was built out of metal, bicycle parts, motors, a go-cart, a bathtub, and a piano. On March 18, 1960, it was set into motion in front of an invited audience. An explosion was meant to destroy it at the end of the evening, however twenty-seven minutes into the premiere, it caught fire and burnt down. We watched a video about the creation, and destruction, of this piece of art.
The last display we visited was called ‘Mengele-Totentanz’ (Dance of Death). These sculptures, built from what was left after fire destroyed his neighbour’s house in 1986, were collected in a rather dark room. I admired rather than liked the collection of metal and skulls, and hoped I wouldn’t have nightmares as a result.
We exited back into sunshine. Sonja was taking pity on me and we again used public transport. As I’d told her, ‘I think I’m wearing out my legs from all this walking. I’m becoming shorter!’ We did walk the last section to the Basler Münster, visiting the cloisters and taking in the views before going inside.
We walked along the streets and bought ice creams. I was delighted to spot a red squirrel, which surprised Sonja, as that’s what she’s used to seeing. I explained to her that grey squirrels, brought over from the USA, have taken over much of the UK.
Several tram rides showed us other aspects of the city. One tram took us to the border with France, where we had to step out whilst the tram made a circle and picked us up to return to the city. We sat near one woman whose face was terribly sunburned. As Sonja said, ‘It hurts just to look at her.’
After purchasing some snacks, we boarded our train back to Lucerne. Problems with the engine meant we left fifteen minutes late, which annoyed Sonja. However, the driver managed to make up the time, and we arrived as scheduled in Lucerne. The morning’s fog was gone, and I was intrigued as we passed through the flat area of Switzerland. This is where most of the arable agriculture takes place.
At Lucerne, I laughed at the English used over the train’s speakers. ‘We bid you to leave the train.’ Yes, it’s correct, but I can’t remember the last time I heard an English speaker use ‘bid’.
Back at the flat, we enjoyed the last of the sunshine whilst sitting in the balcony. Our evening meal was cheese fondue. Sonja explained that fondue was the way poor people fed themselves. Bread was used in the German speaking parts of Switzerland, and potatoes in the French. We used cheese specially made for fondue, and dipped in both bread and cooked potatoes.
Dawn revealed a clear morning, with only a few very high clouds. Our destination today was Bellinzona, in the Italian speaking area of Switzerland. Normally we could have taken a train direct from Lucerne to Bellinzona, but due to the ongoing rail works we had to change several times. I simply followed Sonja, who had an app on her phone to direct us.
Just before Bellinzona, we went through the Gotthard Base Tunnel. The world’s longest railway tunnel, it was opened on 1 June 2016 and is just over 57 kilometres long. The journey through the tunnel took around twenty minutes.
On the other side, I immediately felt as if I were in a different country. The older houses were built of brick and stone, not wood, and in a style which definitely felt Italian. Around ten percent of the passengers wore facemasks, something we’d not seen during our other travels, no doubt influenced by Italy’s continued insistence that masks had to be worn on public transport. Our train’s final destination was Milan.
We disembarked in Bellinzona and stopped for a coffee. All the signs were in Italian, and the waitress and Sonja conversed in that language.
The main reason to visit Bellinzona is the three castles which stretch up the hillside. These three, Castelgrande, Montebello and Sasso Corbaro, were declared an UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2000.
We took a small bus to the first and highest castle, Sasso Corbaro. It was now noon, and schoolchildren filled the vehicle, happily chatting away in Italian. Sonja explained that they were going home for lunch, and would be returning to school afterwards. As the bus strained up the steep and narrow roads, I was grateful that we had decided not to try to walk up instead.
There was still a walk up to the castle from the bus stop, and Sonja took us on the scenic route, namely stone steps up the hillside. At the ticket office, the man switched to English for us as I bought what I thought was a combination ticket to all three castles. (Sonja had free entry with her museum card). I also purchased a Swiss Army knife, the handle of which had been etched with images of the three castles.
Sasso Corbaro is the smallest of the three. Inside was an exhibition about Michelangelo and his artwork. We sat in chairs and wore virtual reality visors to watch a tour of his sculptures, laid out in an Italian square. Virtual reality offerings can sometimes make me feel queasy, but I managed.
We enjoyed our picnic lunch sitting outside on a crop of rock, overlooking the castle and the views down to the city. Although the bus could have taken us down, we’d decided to walk. Views of the other two castles and the beautiful yellow church of Saint Sebastiano Church, as well as the lovely weather, made for a delightful stroll. We were on the road to start with, but a path to the second castle branched off and took us away from traffic. I admired the gardens built into the steep hillside, as well as the small vineyards which dotted the area.
At the second castle, Montebello, we reported to the ‘box office’ (as it was called in English). There we discovered that I’d only been sold a ticket for the first castle, despite what we’d said about wanting a combination ticket for all three. The woman told us not to worry. She gave me some form of discount on the combination ticket which meant that I wasn’t out of pocket.
Montebello was the largest of the three castles, with walls which stretch down into the city. It’s protected by two drawbridges. The interior had an exhibit about the ages of humanity, starting with hunters/gatherers and going through the Stone Age, Bronze Age, Iron Age, etc. Explanations were in Italian only. We breezed through before going back outside to walk on the ramparts and enjoy the views. A wind helped to lift some of the heat from the sun.
The last castle, Castelgrande, was accessed from within the city. We walked down into the main square and bought Italian ice cream. As we sat on a bench to eat our snack, we engaged in people watching. Sonja noted that the tourists wore t-shirts and shorts, but the locals were still using coats and trousers.
We walked through the narrow streets, admiring painted decorations on the tall buildings. At the base of Castelgrande, which towered over us, I was relieved to discover that a lift was available. We were quickly taken up to the grounds.
There was no one to check my ticket, nor any clear sign to a ‘box office’. As I remarked to Sonja, I could have probably visited both the second and third castle without paying. But we agreed that wasn’t the point, and the money also helped to preserve the buildings.
We climbed up one tower, our shoes clunking against the metal panels. The last section was a very tight spiral which caught at our backpacks. I was slightly out of breath by the time we emerged at the top, but the views over the city and nearby mountains was worth it.
Once back down into the city again, we walked to a section of castle wall which still existed alongside buildings and roads. At a small square we took seats in a café and ordered drinks. Sonja had a coffee, and on my behalf she ordered ‘a local beer’. This turned out to have 2% hemp as part of the ingredients—marijuana! I can’t say that I felt any differently after drinking the small bottle than I would after just having regular beer.
We dropped into the tourist information centre on our way back to the train station, where I purchased a bottle of local wine (white wine, made with merlot grapes) for taking back to the U.K . We caught our train and navigated the two changes required, helping out a couple of Oklahoma along the way. They’d expected a direct train to Lucerne, and didn’t have the app on the phone to enable them to navigate the necessary changes.
After popping into a local shop to buy supplies, we headed to the flat and our last evening together. Dinner was taken on the balcony, and we toasted a nice holiday with glasses of prosecco.
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