Courtesy Zurich Tourism
For three long days, I felt sorry for my Switzerland hosts. It was late summer, and a heavy cloud cover had settled in across the Bernese Oberland, dulling our views and casting a shadow over what could have been a mesmerizing trip. Because I’ve been in this country when its alpine beauty is overwhelming, I wanted that for this group, too.
Mirko Cappodanno of Switzerland Tourism had invited me to join a group of American and Brazilian tour operators on a trip that celebrated the 100th anniversary of the Jungfrau Railway. The Jungfrau is one of three mountains that dominate this region; the other two are the Monch and the Eiger. They stand side by side, sentinels guarding a remote corner of the earth.
“I have one place left on this tour,” Cappodanno had told me. “I know it’s short notice, but I know how much you enjoy Switzerland. You are welcome to join us.”
I signed on.
Zurich Pleads its Case
We began our trip in Zurich at its iconic Dolder Grand Hotel. Completed in 1899, the resort overlooks the city and features privately owned art, including works by Andy Warhol, Salvador Dali and even Sylvester Stallone. Its ornate grounds feature sculptures and metalwork, tying the entire complex together with a thread of artistic drama.
The Dolder Grand has a 43,000-square-foot spa and a wonderful little nine-hole golf course that is limited to walkers.
We spent an afternoon and morning seeing Zurich, a city that works hard to overcome its reputation as a stodgy financial center.
“What do you think of when you hear Zurich?” asked Esther Grob of Zurich Tourism at dinner that evening.
“Modern,” “financial,” “business” were the replies.
“We want visitors to see our charm, our beauty, our energy, not just our business side,” she said. “We want visitors to Switzerland to save a couple of days for Zurich because there is a lot to enjoy here. There are more than 50 museums in Zurich — a town of 500,000. That’s comparable to Paris or London on a per capita basis.”
The city’s beauty rivals that of London and Paris. Lake Zurich dissects the downtown and adds a relaxed, bench-lined waterfront to the urban core. High above on one shore are historic fortifications that date to the 17th century.
“This is the highest point in Old Town; this wall includes fortifications dating to Roman times,” said our guide, Ursula Casanova. “Old Town Zurich features 13th-century cobblestone streets. This is a typical Protestant city, reformed from Catholicism. It features plain exteriors and ornate interiors.”
We stopped at Conditorei, the oldest coffeehouse in Zurich, which was established in 1874. Before that date, guilds prevented importing coffee or ingredients for beer into the city.
We gathered for a drink at a bar, where we tried in vain to hoist ourselves through the ceiling beams to drink a glass of wine. By tradition, to do so means you can add your name to the hundreds that have been etched into the bar’s walls.
The next morning, Casanova pulled us into the police station, an austere building that came alive upon entry.
“Between world wars, Alberto Giacometti came and painted these fresco walls in the flower hall,” she said. “This was an orphanage.” She repeated her mantra from the previous day. “From the outside, very plain. Inside, very ornate.”
A Lunch-Hour Swim
On the train to Interlaken, I spoke with Linda Miller of Avanti Travel in Portland, Oregon, about her impressions thus far.
“I’m having sticker shock,” she said. “The challenge for Switzerland is pricing. The good new is that the Swiss Pass is a great option for saving some money here.
“I just took back Switzerland, Poland and Hungary for my company. I’m checking room nights while we’re here. Zurich has a reputation as a financial center, but there’s more there,” she said. “I came in early and went to a theater festival that was so much fun.
“Lucerne is our No. 1 booked city here,” she said. “It’s pastoral and scenic, but Zurich has a grittiness that I like. I talked to a local woman who goes swimming in the lake on her lunch hour. I like that. People come to Switzerland for the train experience and the hospitality. It’s a soft landing for new travelers compared to other parts of Europe,” said Miller.
Upon our arrival in Interlaken, Anna Newcomb of Interlaken Tourism greeted us at the Metropole Hotel. By this time, the cloud cover was impenetrable.
“Welcome to the gateway to the Jungfrau,” she said. “We are a summer and winter destination. Many stay here; others stay in Wengen or Grindelwald. The Swiss traditions are all here: cheese, cows, chocolate. And it’s easy to get here by train from Zurich through Bern.
“Yes, with six minutes to change trains,” said Adrien Genier, our Switzerland Tourism host, laughing. We all laughed, too, because he was right. We had had to run to make our connection in Bern just hours earlier.