A stopover in Switzerland: 4 things to do in Zurich, Lucerne and around
I had really been looking forward to the trip to Switzerland this summer. It was only going to be for a few days staying with a friend in Lucerne but we had plenty planned and I was being sent pictures of the beautiful sunshine, blue skies, mountains and lakes everyday in the lead-up to the trip, which only served to increase my excitement.
The journey itself couldn’t have been easier, I flew from London Luton into Zurich on a quick and cheap EasyJet flight. My friend met me on arrival, but the airport is very well-connected with the rail network, so when I headed home again I took the train straight from Lucerne to Zurich Airport. I had been teasing my friend about wanting to see alpine forests, cows with huge cowbells, and people yodeling – imagine then my surprise when the metro linking the terminal to the main airport actually showed simulations, complete with sounds, of all of these things! A delightful welcome to Switzerland indeed, which would make even the most weary traveller smile!
Unfortunately the weather from the photographs was a little shy in reality, and we only had a couple of afternoons of sun, and plenty of rain – European summertime at it’s best! We tried not to let this ruin our plans though and I feel I still managed to experience the best of this region of Switzerland:
1. The Swiss Alps up close and personal
If you go to Switzerland and do not get up and close to these stunning peaks, then you have truly missed out on the magic of the country. We had planned to do a hike up Rigi, one of the three mountains surrounding Lucerne – a track that would be reached by a combination of cable car, mini train and boat – however the pouring rain made this seem much less desirable, so we had to abandon our plans and instead set out for a more extensive road trip. We took the whole day driving a circular route from Lucerne all around William Tell countryside in Uri, with brief stops to admire the monuments to the Swiss national hero, and this was where I felt I saw the real Switzerland. The rain was intermittent as we ascended to towns and villages above the clouds, along a series of winding roads, flanked by the snow-capped peaks, majestic waterfalls and a selection of kaserei (small farm shops selling home-made cheeses). Of course it wouldn’t have been right to drive on past without supporting the local community, so we stopped to buy (and try!) plenty of the different cheeses, yoghurts and chocolate to break up the journey. Then imagine my delight at the highest point, amid the billowing cloud, as we rounded a corner to find a whole herd of cows wandering the mountainside, and it was only when I got out to take some pictures that I then heard it – the sound of all of the enormous cowbells ringing as each animal bent its head to graze… It’s the simplest things!
2. Get into the spirit!
Helping locals to celebrate can be one of the most significant cultural experiences you can have in any country – no matter what the celebration is for. I just missed the Zurich Street Parade (the most attended street parade in Europe since Berlin’s Love Parade) as this was the day I was leaving, it did mean however that I took a crammed train to Zurich Airport, stopping in the city centre to offload hordes of teenagers in fancy dress, drinking and keen to talk about the chaos they were going to create in the city. Whilst this doesn’t sound like the ideal train journey, my new companions made for great entertainment and their excitement was contagious.
On the other end of the scale, on one very surreal evening, I did get to indulge in some traditional festivities with the local townspeople in the tiny toy town of Sarnen, set in the mountains around Lucerne. My friend and I had been sat enjoying a home-made fondue with her parents, when they started taking about the live TV game show on in the background. The location was not too far from where we were, and in a moment of spontaneity, they urged us to rush out there and catch the end of the show – which we did, and what an experience it was!! The town’s central square was lit up like a Christmas tree, and every inch of the cobbles was covered with long benches, each getting more crammed the closer it got to the focal centre.We pushed past the many cameras and straining faces to get a glimpse of the ‘action’, only to discover that all the excitement was essentially for a televised game of Jass (a national card game!) Four towns were competing and judging by the numbers, every resident had turned out in support – and believe it or not, they’d brought their cowbells with them and were not hesitant about using them in encouragement! Although the red faces and enthusiastic cheers may have been more as a result of the extra strong coffee/schnapps mixes being served with traditional bratwurst from stalls around the square!! The evening closed with a visit from the winner of the German Pop Idol, who sang an obviously popular number with an accompanying pyrotechnic show – a distinctly different evening!
3. Exploring the heritage of old towns
When most people think of Zurich, they think of a cosmopolitan city, great for shopping, dining and the arts, and whilst this is certainly true, this is not the only attraction of the popular tourist stop. The old towns of both Zurich and Lucerne are beautiful places to while away some time, with stunning architecture provided by impressive structures and beautiful designs and details inside and out. In case of rain limiting the wandering, as kept happening to us, there are plenty of atmospheric old pit stops to lure you in for some of the famed Swiss chocolates and pastries, I can highly recommend Schober tearoom in Zurich and the renowned Sprungli for their famous Luxemburgerli (also available at the airport and great as gifts). If you have greater ground to cover, do as the locals do and get yourself a bike, the towns have a very sophisticated and safe system for cyclists, and electric bikes can be hired here if you need the extra push to get up those hills!
4. Lakes of luxury
One of the distinguishing features of this area and the key cities we visited are the vast lakes that stretch between towns and mountains. Lucerne hugs the banks of Lake Lucerne, and thankfully my final day dawned with brilliant sunshine, enabling us to head out onto the water on the family boat. This is a fantastic way to see the local landscape in one beautiful 360 and there are so many excellent restaurants and bars lakeside that can be reached with ease by boat. Many ferries go between the different towns and mountains, in addition to the sight-seeing tours, and kayaks and canoes can also be hired from very spots for those who like to be a little closer to the action.
Lucerne was the ideal spot for a short break to Switzerland, with all the attractions of a large town, but nearer to the countryside and with more of a rural feel, closer to the mountains and the Switzerland that I had been imagining. My only fear about going for longer is the damage it will do to my waistline, with so many delicious carb-loaded dishes, including my favourite Zuri geschnetzeltes (recipe here) with the omnipresent rosti, alplermagronen (recipe here), cheese fondue and bratwurst, plus all the sweet treats on offer!!