Western Switzerland by Rail
June 5-9, 2013
Dan and I were expecting a couple of friends of ours to come and visit for a while in June. Their requests were simple: cheese, castles and wine. They pretty much wanted what we already had at our fingertips, but we decided that they should see more. We set up a loose plan to take the train south and meander around for a while, checking out some of the more famous Swiss landmarks along the way.
We started out by taking the train towards Gruyère for some (of course) Gruyère cheese, as well as the castle that we’d heard about and as a bonus, the HR Giger Museum. We arrived in the nearby town of Bulle just in time for the tourist information booth to close for lunch. Instead, we walked around the corner and reserved a couple of rooms at the Hôtel du Cheval Blanc, the first hotel that we saw. It was a good choice, as the rooms were clean and comfortable and we were close to the hub of activity. After we dropped off our gear we walked around and checked out what the town had to offer until we found a promising lunch stop. By the time we finished lunch the tourist information office was open and we stopped by again. We told the employee there what we were looking for and she handed us a single pamphlet – this was going to be easy!
We caught the train to Gruyère, walked up a nice winding path and passed under the ancient stone gate of the walled town. It was a place that time had forgotten, but that was probably due to the number of tourists that hadn’t forgotten about it. It was a quaint town with cobbled pedestrian-friendly streets and bubbling fountains. We passed all of this and went first to the HR Giger Museum. I found it odd that this museum was located here, but hey! I guess everything has to call “someplace” home, right?
The museum was pretty good. There were a lot of items on display, and the fact that it was housed in a building that pre-dated the art by probably a good 400 years made it interesting to explore from room to room. After seeing a considerable amount of bizarre images we took a 180 degree turn in the art world and went up the street to the Château de Gruyères, a castle who’s history has been recorded as far back as the 11th century. The building was in remarkable condition, which I discovered later was only because it had been rebuilt mostly within the last 100 years. I found that while the castle looked great, it felt like it lacked any solid character or charm. We walked through the rooms and displays but were quite content to head back into the streets of Gruyère and visit the HR Giger Bar. It was conveniently located across the street from the museum and mostly empty when we walked through the door. We sat down at a table in the corner and each had a drink, by the end of which we realized that while the interior was artfully done, it was a not a place that we would want to linger. It didn’t feel like it had any purpose other than to feed off of the popularity of its big brother museum.
HR Giger Museum
HR Giger Bar
We walked down the hill and caught the train back to Bulle. It was getting late and it was time to eat again. We found the Restaurant La Cabriolle and took our seats in the back corner. I wanted a good steak and the menu promised one. But it also had something else that I’d been wanting to try: horse. Craig and I agreed to order one of each and split what we got. That way we were assured at least half of a good meal if we didn’t like the horse meat. Our meals arrived on wooden trays with a super-heated slate seated into a portion of it. The meat had been placed on this slate moments before reaching us, so it was up to us to cook it to our preferred doneness. Craig and I shared our meat portions and I have to say, I was hard-pressed to choose between the beef and the horse – they were both wonderfully tender and tasty!
Our hotel in Bulle
The view from our window
Lunch in Bulle
The next morning we packed up and caught the train to Lake Geneva and Montreux, the “Rivera of Switzerland”. We were fortunate again with fantastic weather that really brought out the Mediterranean feel of this coastal town. We followed the lakeside pathway all the way to Château de Chillon, a incredibly well-maintained (and authentic!) historic castle. It was almost too much information to take in all at once and by the time we had finished the self-guided tour, we were beat. We took a bus back to the train station, picked up some sandwiches for the ride and headed for Martigny. We were unimpressed with our whistle-stop tour of this town and after a tasty gelatto, we hopped back on the train for the town of Sion.
Sion. This town surprised me with its lively outdoor restaurant scene, extensive old town and towering castles. We headed immediately to a wine tasting shop in the heart of the old town, where I stood guard over our stuff while the guys went inside to explore what the region had to offer. Sometimes it isn’t so much fun being the one who doesn’t drink. Eventually they came back outside and I left to go find a hotel. Our only recommended hotel ended up having no vacancies, but they recommended the Hotel du Rhone, where we found two rooms on the top floor, giving us all great views.
View from our room
Living roof below our room
It was late in the day and time for dinner. We found a small out-of-the-way restaurant (Café du marché) and hopefully amused out waitress with the attempts of French (Dan and Aaron have passable French, while Craig and I took over when we returned to the German-speaking areas). Here Craig ordered frog legs and I got to try one. They were “ok”, meaning that they were like tiny little chicken wings without a lot of flavor. I was content with my local perch dish.
The next morning we got up early to catch to the train to Zermatt, as the weather is always best in the morning and there was rain forecasted for the afternoon. The train between Sion and Visp is through a very scenic valley with vineyards terraced up the southern slopes to our side. It wasn’t long before we reached Visp, changed trains and were headed up to Zermatt.
I have never seen a bluer sky than at the top of Zermatt. The Matterhorn was clearly visible and a good breeze kept the sun from getting too warm. I took what seemed like a hundred photos of the famous peak and surrounding mountains, not wanting to miss yet another great shot. Digital cameras have spoiled me.
We took a cable car all the way to the top of the mountains and had a good look around. There weren’t too many other tourists around and the breeze was light at the top. We had been warned that the -5C at the top might be too cold for our choice of clothing (shorts) but it really didn’t feel that bad.
This guy was testing some ropes from the viewing platform
The Matterhorn from the top
Climbers heading to Breithorn
Clouds moving in from Italy
We finally had enough of the bright sunlit snow and took the cable car most of the way down. Like we did on our trip in 2010, we got off at the Furi stop to hike the rest of the way down to the town of Zermatt. Except this time the weather was even better.
And then Dan led us off the trail we’d taken before to try something new. It was a lot more walking but it had great views which was its own reward.
Back in Zermatt
The weather had held for our time up the mountain, much to my surprise, and it was a pleasant ride back down to the valley. We had left all of our things in Sion, planning on staying there another night. It was late by the time we got in to Sion but we found a great place to eat at the far end of old town. We sat outside, enjoying the continued comfortable temperatures and light breeze. Afterwards, we took a walk to the top of one of the local hills to explore one of the ruins we could see from the town.
*missing photos from Dan’s camera*
The next morning we caught a train back to Visp and then to Speiz, Interlacken, and finally Lauterbrunnen. We were in the Land of Waterfalls, with over 72 waterfalls located along the valley floor. The Hotel Oberland won our business for the night, which was a great choice. The people there were very friendly and the accommodations and food were both outstanding. We had Rösti for lunch, sitting on the front porch while watching tourists walk by with cameras around their necks.
View from the hotel room
The weather was still good, although it really did look like the clouds were going to move in that afternoon. We took a train up the mountain to Kleinen Scheidegg, the stop just before you can grab a cable car to the top of the Jungfrau. Dan and Aaron had decided that they wanted a more strenuous hike than Craig and I were up for, so they headed off into the snow while Craig and I started our hike down towards Wengen.
Five minutes and they’re already lost…
The clouds were coming in!
Craig and I reached the next train stop and it took it down to the town of Wengen, where we found chocolate and ice cream to enjoy while we took in the scenery.
Lauterbrunnen in the valley below Wengen
We all met up in Lauterbrunnen, each enjoying our respective hikes. We caught up over some drinks at our hotel and then tried a restaurant down the street. I had a delightful meal of mini cordon bleus on risotto and our waitress was delightful. In fact, all of our waitresses were cheerful and fun to work with throughout our entire trip.
The next morning was our day to leave for Basel, but we weren’t ready to go back just yet. There was a 3-4km hike along the valley with views of many waterfalls which we wanted to take before getting back on the train. The weather had officially turned for the worse but wasn’t yet “bad”. We had light sprinkles and bouts of sunshine throughout the morning.
Ladas parked at one of the farmhouses in the valley
The wildflowers were in amazing display with all sorts of colors showing. There were a surprising number of pinks and purples among the more typical yellows and whites.
We had lunch