At home while away
“You live in Aspen, and yet you come on your vacation to Switzerland?” asked the front desk attendant at the Hotel Baur au Lac in Zurich on a dreary, hot, pre-dawn summer Sunday morning as I was checking in. “You must like the mountains very much.”
I smiled and took my room key, making note of how insightful the Swiss must be. My wife and I were here to begin a two-week trip to some of Switzerland’s top ski resorts to gauge how they are both different and similar to our home in the Roaring Fork Valley. The summer sojourn seemed like a great getaway without leaving the mountains, because, as our host had noted, we like mountains very much.
Though we were far from the Roaring Fork Valley, the very first thing to appear on our television screen was a memory from home. Not more than 48 hours earlier, we had been sitting on the lawn outside the Aspen Music Tent, listening to the Festival Orchestra conducted by David Zinman. As we unpacked and prepared for a well-deserved nap, we were treated to a series of videos touting “the return of David Zinman to Zurich.”
It turns out that Zinman is also the conductor of the Tonhalle Orchestra Zurich. Each year, following his Aspen summer stay, Zinman returns to Switzerland to conduct one of Europe’s premier orchestras in the ornate and acoustically renowned Tonhalle Zurich concert hall, which opened in 1895. It seems Zinman is a mountain lover as well.
Once rested, we headed out to see the city. Zurich is renowned as one of the world’s “most livable cities.” It sits hard by the banks of the Zurichsee, a large mountain lake with pristine waters in the shadow of the Swiss Alps, which punctuate the shoreline to the south and east. On this summer Sunday, the lakefront was packed with sunbathers, swimmers and sailors who were beating the intense heat that had been hanging on for weeks.
Taking the “when in Rome” philosophy to heart, we donned bathing suits and headed for the park at the side of the lake. The atmosphere was festive as we took a refreshing swim in the 75-degree water, under a fountain shooting a plume of water high into the air over the lake. Frankly, we had not anticipated such a nautical theme in this land-locked city, but given the heat it was a welcome surprise.
Following our swim, we returned to the Baur au Lac’s private park, which sits directly across from the lakefront and adjacent to the Limmat River, which, in turn, divides the city and provides a multitude of recreational opportunities. The park is filled with trees gathered from around the world, all growing in perfect harmony in the superb Swiss climate.
The hotel, which first opened in 1844, has a reputation, because of its proximity to the concert hall, of being the place where musicians and artists stay when visiting Zurich. Guests have included Richard Wagner ” who, accompanied by his father-in-law Franz Liszt, debuted the first act of his opera “Die Walküre” in the bar ” to Artur Rubinstein, Zubin Mehta and, more recently, Elton John. Artists who have stayed at and created pieces for the hotel include Marc Chagall, Joan Miro and Fernando Botero.
And then there are those guests who stay at the Baur au Lac when they come to visit their money at the city’s famed private banking concerns. But that’s another story.
We decided, at the invitation of the hotel, to try the elegant Le Pavillon Room for dinner. This stately but airy room sits on the banks of a canal that flows past the Baur au Lac, separating the hotel from the Tonhalle concert hall. With the late sun setting over the city, we were content but still a touch jet-lagged as we dined fresh perch from the lake and sipped a Swiss chardonnay,
The next day, the city was a different place with the bustle of a workday evident. We began our exploration with a visit to the oldest part of the city, which was founded by the Romans. Today, the “Old Town” is filled with contemporary art galleries, upscale clothing stores and trendy restaurants. The feeling is young, while the architecture is centuries old.
In contrast, across the river, the downtown section is home to banks, agricultural conglomerates, the soccer governing body FIFA and, of course, physicians. Zurich is recognized for its advanced health care, and people from around the world come for sophisticated treatments. This section of the city is also home to the Bahnhofstrauss, a residential boulevard that is reputed to have some of the world’s most expensive real estate.
Zurich, with just 350,000 full-time residents, has more than 50 museums, including the Kunsthalle Zurich, which exhibits internationally significant contemporary artists. The city has become a haven for artists and boasts an emerging arts district in a section of town called Zurich West, formerly a gritty industrial zone.
That evening, over dinner at Zunfthaus Zur Zimmerleuten, a charming restaurant located in a former “guild house,” we dined on Schnitzel and rösti potatoes paired with a Swiss pinot noir and marveled at how safe, friendly and welcoming Zurich was. In fact, we could have stayed for the summer in this gateway city to the Alps.
But the mountains beckoned, and the next morning we took a train to Interlaken, about four hours southwest, on the ultraefficient, ultracomfortable Swiss Railway system. The train trip itself was a highlight, first skirting the lakeside, which was ringed by small towns with sloped, hillside streets and small-craft marinas. Life indeed looked good in the Zurich suburbs.
Our arrival in Interlaken was heralded by a flotilla of hang gliders and paragliders. Obviously, it was not for us ” it’s a daily occurrence ” but the spectacle was amazing, as it seemed hundreds of fliers were hurtling off the steep, extremely tall mountains above the city, which divides the Thunz and Brienz lakes.
Interlaken is the heart of the Bernese Oberland, one of the most charming and typically Swiss regions. It has been a tourist destination for climbers and skiers for more than 100 years, but lately the focus has been on newer adventure sports. In fact, one entire section of this town of 5,200 full-time residents is filled with hostels and bed and breakfasts that cater to adventure tourists from around the world.
The mountains and rivers allow ample opportunity not just for flying, but also for bungee jumping, canyoning, rafting, ice climbing, kite surfing and more. The vibe is active and outdoorsy in the youthful section of the city. The Outdoor Games is a summer fixture in Interlaken, featuring teams of six that participate in mountain biking, kayaking, rock climbing, paragliding and, of course, base jumping. Turn up the adrenaline.
The original reason for Interlaken’s popularity, though, lies in its location at the base of the Jungfrau mountain region and its proximity to the triumvirate of the Jungfrau, Monch and Eiger massif. These mountains tower over the town and provide breathtaking views to the city below.
Each September, a marathon is held that starts in Interlaken and winds its way up the Lauterbrunnen Valley to the ski resort of Wengen and then to the tiny outpost of Kleine Scheidegg, a distance of 26.2 miles with a climb of more than 5,000 feet on unpaved hiking trails and paths. This year the race will be run September 8, and you can still join the other 4,000 hearty souls expected to take the challenge.
Our home in Interlaken was the stately Hotel Victoria-Jungfrau, the choice of discerning tourists since opening in 1865. While it has undergone many renovations over the years, our room in a new wing represented the best of the new Victoria. It was open, airy and very modern, with hardwood floors, plasma televisions and sleek but plush furnishings. It was a sharp contrast to the hotel’s 19th-century façade but comforting nonetheless (as was the sensational, thoroughly modern Victoria-Jungfrau Spa).
We were told that Swiss tennis star Roger Federer is a frequent guest in the hotel. And, from another world entirely, our stay was preceded by Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. It seems Big Ben is of Swiss descent and had been invited by the president of Switzerland to tour the country in celebration of prominent foreigners with Swiss roots.
Ben fell in love in Interlaken. No, not with a Swiss miss but with the Bernese mountain dogs. These lovable pups are indigenous to the region and are found everywhere. Seems that there are strict rules for exportation, but, with a special exemption from the Swiss president’s office, Ben was able to get a new pal to take back to Pittsburgh.
Dinner at the hotel was like a fairy tale, as we sat on the terrace of La Pastateca under the spell of the Jungfrau towering over town. A storm had roared through at about 7 p.m., leaving in its wake a series of soft clouds that lit up first pink, then orange, and then a fiery red just under the white-capped peak that basked in the afterglow. We sipped the local brew, a wheat beer from the Jungfrau brewery, and vowed we would return to this place.
Up early the next day, we were surprised to see a flotilla of tourist buses in front of the hotel. A great number of Indian tourists have discovered and fallen hard for the charms of the Bernese Oberland, and Interlaken is their host city. Evidently each April, during the holiday period in India, an influx of Indians comes to town, to the extent that reservations in hotels and restaurants (which, by the way, all include menus written in Hindi) are nearly impossible to come by.
On this day the destination for us, and our fellow travelers from India, was the Jungfraujoch, or the “Top of Europe.” The extraordinary journey takes two hours by train. We departed from the Interlaken Ost station shortly after dawn, while the Lauterbrunnen Valley was still in morning shadows.
As we climbed ever higher, first along the banks of the river and then into the resort town of Lauterbrunnen, the sun slowly rose, shining bright over the deep gorge. We then changed trains and rode a series of switchbacks up the sides of the deep chasm to Wengen and then beyond to Kleine Scheidegg.
The views are unbelievable, with the city of Interlaken in the distance and the blue waters of the lakes below. We looked down on Lauterbrunnen and Wengen, both famous for hosting World Cup ski races that attract crowds of up to 100,000 people. Ahead are the three peaks ” rocky, dynamic and split by tongues of massive white glaciers.
In Kleine Scheidegg, we again changed trains. Kleine Scheidegg is really just a station with an old hotel and a restaurant. It is the departure point for climbers who are tackling the feared Eiger and the other peaks in the region. If you saw Clint Eastwood’s “The Eiger Sanction,” you may recognize the buildings.
The final train to the Jungfraujoch is a cogwheel railway that takes passengers through a four-and-a-half-mile, single-track tunnel constructed between 1896 and 1912 in what surely was one of the world’s great engineering feats. It winds upwards, cut through the rock of the Eiger and Monch. At two points during the journey, the train stops and you can exit to study the vertical walls of the massive mountains through windows cut out of the rocks. It is an unparalleled experience.
Once at the top, you’ll find an observation station, where you feel as though you are literally on top of the world, gazing at glaciers and, in the distance, Germany to the east and France to the west. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Jungfraujoch is one of those places you must visit, but be advised the crowds are thick and it’s difficult to get out on your own.
The restaurant atop the station is called “Bollywood,” after the Indian film industry. We were told that one reason for the popularity of this region for Indians is that recently many Bollywood films have been shot in the Bernese Oberland, since the Kashmir Mountains became too dangerous for filmmakers due to the civil unrest in the region.
It’s a strange, strange world.
Our trip down took us around another route into Grindelwald, a quintessential Swiss mountain town. While Zurich and Interlaken had been beautiful, this small town, in a vibrantly green valley with quaint white chalets, was more in keeping with the trip we had anticipated. We couldn’t wait.
(Next week, we’ll revisit our time in Grindelwald, then continue on to Zermatt and St. Moritz.)
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