Swiss Oberland Untour, Summer of 2004 - Chapter 1
by Marlene & Frank Hench, Petaluma, CA
Chapter 1:1. Arrive Zurich, Switzerland
2. Gwatt and Thun Area
3. Orientation, Spiez and Interlaken West:
Monday, July 12: Left California and Tuesday, July 13: Arrive in Zurich:Frank and I were flying from San Francisco and had to arrive in Zurich a day early because of some flight restrictions for our cities. We flew SF to LA by American; then took Swiss Air from LA to Zurich. Swiss Air was a good airline to fly with. Also arriving the day ahead of time was great. We reached Zurich 4PM, were taken to Hotel Allegra in Zurich by hotel shuttle bus, had time to explore the hotel area, have dinner, and a good night sleep. I mention the dinner because it was excellent and our first taste of Swiss food. We both had Veal Zurich style with Rostis and a glass of Swiss red wine. The veal was very thin and tender covered with a type of mushroom sauce. This was our very first taste of Rosti which is a Swiss potato dish. The potatoes are coarsely grated and cooked with Swiss cheese. Similar to American hash browns but with a Swiss flair. I've never been a fan of veal but had to admit this dinner was excellent. The Hotel Allegra was also a good choice, nice neighborhood, very clean and modern, with easy transportation to/ from airport by their free shuttle bus. Sleep came easy and was very comfortable.
Wednesday, July 14: "Off to Thun and Gwatt"We and other Untourists met at 8:15 AM for the Shuttle Bus ride back to Zurich Airport. We would be meeting Idyll's escorts at the airport and then going to the train station together. We located the meeting place for Untourists, and since there was plenty of time we went to an airport café right next to it and had some breakfast.
By now more Untourists had gathered, and one of Idylls' escorts took a few of us to the travel agency office to have our Swiss passes validated. We were in the Swiss Oberland Group. The Heartland Group also meeting was there. Everyone seemed so friendly. Our Untours escort was Susanne who had a delightful smile. She led the group of us outside to the bahnhof (train station). We boarded the train in a Second Class car. We had purchased the First Class Swiss Pass in our package, but today we would ride with the group. (Hint: If you can afford to upgrade to First Class when making reservations, do it. The seats on the trains were very comfortable, we never had to fight for seats on crowded summer trains, and we were able to sit on the top level of any boat.)
The train apparently was an express rather than a local from Zurich to Bern, so time went very quickly. When the train arrived in Bern Susanne and some of the Idyllers left us. They would have to take another train to get to their towns while we just stayed on the train to Thun. After what seemed like a very short ride, we got off at the Thun station. We were directed to an area where we would claim our luggage. It was here that Frau Susi Bartlome, our landlady, met us with a big smile. From the first moment we met her, we knew that this was a person we would never forget. For thirteen years we and our children had been involved with a French-American student exchange program. Many times we, holding welcome signs, had met the students as they deplaned at San Francisco airport. Today, I think we felt the same way as they did and very appreciative of the friendly smile.
Susi assisted us with our suitcases. Our apartment (Bartlome) was located in Gwatt, a suburb of Thun, which was only about 10-15 min ride. Along the way, Susi was kind enough to show us the town including a very old Church near The Shadau. She and her husband Rene had been married in that church. She pointed out several restaurants in the area that they particularly enjoyed on evenings out, as well as, the best place to buy freshly baked bread. We passed our apartment because Susi wanted to show us the location of the bus stops. Our stops were known as "Camping" because there was a nearby campground. Across the street from Ahornweg, the little gravel lane where the Bartlome apartment was located, was a small Mom and Pop grocery store. That was very convenient.
Having had the town tour, we now arrived at the Bartlome apartment. Their home was very old but well kept. The yard and garden area were very inviting and we were told to feel free to enjoy it.
Our apartment was located on the third floor with the main entrance being shared with the Bartlomes. Because of this, we were extra careful to always make sure the front door was locked behind us. We loved the apartment. It was cozy yet big enough for the two of us to be quite comfortable. Just outside the door to our apartment, Susi showed us a wooden cabinet that was full of linens if we were in need of more during our stay. As we entered the apartment there was a hallway with a coat rack and an efficient closet for our clothes.
To the left was the bathroom that was very narrow but sufficed well for our needs. It had a shower stall with a glass door. The next door on the left entered the kitchen taht was equipped well for anyone who planned on cooking. It also had a small table and chairs. Off of the kitchen was the bedroom. It was small with two twin beds pushed together. The beds were quite comfortable and cozy with their down quilts.
The hallway ended with the doorway to the living room. There were two comfortable chairs there along with a couple small tables. There was a TV that we frankly never had much time to turn on. The windows in the living room, bedroom and kitchen were shuttered so we could leave the shutters closed at night and still get fresh air. The views from each window were great. On clear days we could see the Blumisalps, and also the Monch. What a wonderful way to wake up, looking out the window at the Swiss Alps.
After our apartment tour and instructions from Susi on things like garbage collection and what to do if we had any laundry, we were suddenly on our own. We quickly unpacked our suitcases. It was early and there was much to explore.
By now we were hungry and took Susi's recommendation of the restaurant at the campground. It was located right by Lake Thun (Thunersee). There were many locals there and we enjoyed people watching as we ate. Susi's recommendation proved to be a good one.
After such a good lunch, we were ready for some serious exploring. There was a path called the Strandbad Wanderweg that ran from Gwatt to Thun so we decided to follow it for a bit. The wanderweg (or path) ran along Lake Thun for a distance. What beautiful views of the lake and the Swiss Alps. Pretty soon the path left the lake and we found ourselves on some back streets of Thun then recognized the Church that Susi had shown us earlier that day. It was one of the older churches dating back to the 1100s.
On the same street was a path leading to The Shadau. We thought at first that this was the Thun Castle but were told the next day that it was a type of Castle or Chateau but not the famous Schloss Thun. Still it was very impressive and beautiful. It's location was right there on the Thunersee with gorgeous views.
As we walked around the grounds, we noticed that there was a restaurant in The Shadau. It definitely was the place to spend our first dinner in Thun. The tables were elegantly set with china, silver, and crystal. A glass of French Champagne was definitely a fitting start for dinner. As we sat sipping our champagne, we watched the sun set behind the Eiger, The Monch, and The Jungfrau. What more could we ask for? Our 36th wedding anniversary had been just a couple weeks earlier and, we hadn't been able to celebrate it with a nice dinner. We decided that this was worth the wait! The dinner was as extraordinary as the view.
Following dinner, we discovered that our bus stopped right across the street from the church. So we walked to the bus, rode back to Gwatt and slept in our new home for the first night.
(Hint: When boarding a bus or train, if the door does not open automatically, look for a big button near the door and press it to open the door. When getting off the bus, if you are getting off the back of the bus, press the button near the door to open it. When getting on a bus, you may board from the back of the bus. Seldom did the bus driver ever ask to see our Swiss Pass. Trains and boats always had someone come by to check our Swiss Pass.)
Thursday, July 15: "Orientation Day & Spiez"We arose and looked out our windows at the awesome view of the clear blue skies over the Swiss Alps. What a perfect day. We knew it was one of those rare days in Switzerland where there was little cloud cover; and we so wished that we could make the trip to the Jungfrau or Matterhorn. But, alas, we needed to go to orientation. We had no idea how to read the humongous train and bus schedule books to get anywhere. Yes, today was Orientation Day in Spiez, a chance to meet other Untourists, and learn the ins and outs of life here in Switzerland. (Hint: don't miss it!)
We ate breakfast in our kitchen. Idyll, thru Susi, had provided a few staples in the kitchen to get us started. This included a loaf of wonderful Swiss bread, a package of butter, some cheese, a jar of jelly, and a small bag of ground coffee.
Susi Bartlome had told us how to get to Spiez yesterday, so we headed out with our day backpacks, cameras, and oh yes, the humongous schedule books that we were told were absolute necessities for Orientation Day. (Hint...leave yours in the apartment... for the couple minutes we used them, we were forced to lug them around with us all day.)
At the "Camping" bus stop headed to Spiez, a couple from California joined us. They were staying in the Bieri house next to us. The short bus ride to Spiez was easy but we should have gotten off at the Spiez Dorf stop instead of the Bahnhof stop. It was a long walk downhill but proved to be a lovely one with beautiful views of the Thunersee and the Spiez Castle. Finally we reached the Gemeindezentrum Lotschberg (city center). We knew we had found it because there was a smiling Beatrice (Swiss contact) standing out front to direct us to the building.
Orientation was quite helpful. Beatrice instructed the newcomers to Switzerland in how to read the train and bus schedule books. (Hint: purchase an Oberland train schedule book in a bahnhof, Thun or Spiez. They are small and easy to carry with you for spur of the moment changes.) Susanne also explained a few day trips that were being organized by Idyll for anyone interested. We decided that we had to at least participate in two of them, one being a trip to the cheese makers, and the other being the farewell dinner party. We had a break for lunch. The restaurant was located right next to the meeting room...convenient! We especially enjoyed the time at lunch to meet the other travelers and establish a relationship with Susanne and Beatrice. We left the orientation group and headed off on our own to explore the town of Spiez. It was a beautiful town located right there on the Thunersee. We spotted the yellow wanderweg (path) signs giving direction and approximate walking time to the Spiez Castle and to the Schiffstation (boat dock). As we continued past the castle, we soon reached the Thunersee. We were just on time to board the "Bubenberg", one of several ships that cruise back and forth on Lake Thun each day. What a great day for a boat ride...warm breeze, sunshine, and clear views of the towns and the Alps. The water had a clear azure color. The ship darted diagonally across the lake like tracing the tops of mountains as it made its stops at various towns along the way. While absorbing the beauty of Lake Thun, we sipped on a beer and a coke. We decided that we would ride as far as Interlaken West then get off and explore some new territory.
There was so much to absorb in Interlaken West, its architecture, its flowers, its many unique shops, and its quaintness. Here we found the typical "tourist traps" selling their souvenirs alongside true craft shops selling things like the famous Swiss cuckoo clocks. One of the most interesting was a wood carving shop that we went into. His carvings were shown in various stages and one that particularly caught our interest was a pharmacist statue that he was working on. He had been commissioned by an older pharmacist to carve the statue from a photo. The likeness was uncanny. Down another street we would find a store selling embroidered table scarves and tablecloths. Outside the bookstore were German versions of popular titles in the States like "Star Wars" and novels by Dean Koontz. Here we also found our first store selling the real Swiss Army Knives. Not the knock offs but the real Victorinox knives. Never realized that there were so many versions of them.
Further down the streets Frank spotted the store that he just had to go into...a Pharmacy. If you take a Pharmacist on a trip anywhere, he will eventually end up in another Pharmacy somewhere. Now Frank's independent Pharmacy in California is more of an Apothecary type shop than the typical chain store Pharmacies, and his store does a lot of compounding of specialty drugs. He was extremely interested in seeing what the Swiss Pharmacies were like. The store was very professional looking and the wooden carved shelves behind the counter looked right out of an old Pharmacy History Book. Other than medications, it seemed that the only thing they sold out front were fragrances and perfumes. We decided to wait for a moment when the Pharmacist was available since Frank had some questions. A young gentleman in his white smock appeared, seemed genuinely happy to meet an American Pharmacist, and was so gracious to show us around. He and Frank had much to discuss about their various practices. Like Frank's store, his also did much compounding of prescriptions and what seemed like a small apothecary store extended far back and onto other levels where the labs were located.
From here we were off again exploring the town. There were places to see and far too many pictures to take! Oh did I mention that I was armed with a digital camera and took 5,000 pictures on our 2-week trip. Yes, you heard right! I admit it, I am a photo freak
We noticed a cute outdoor café that advertised Cheese Fondue. That's all we needed to see. We have always been a fan of fondue and it was dinnertime. So we had a leisurely authentic cheese fondue dinner with wine and salad. Yum! It was here at dinner that I made my very first doggie friend. The Swiss love their dogs and take them everywhere with them even paying a child's fare to ride on some of the transportation modes. Along the way, I discovered that the best way to talk to locals was to admire their dogs. When I would see a dog walking his master along the street, I would smile and say in a very friendly tone "Hello" translated into Swiss "Hal-lo". The person would usually stop when they heard me say that and I would say it again looking right at the dog but with more accent on the "Hal" than "lo". We would then try to communicate with our few German words and their broken English. Sometimes I would ask if they minded if I took a picture of their dog. That always seemed to please them. The great wonders of a digital camera because I could show them the results right away...ah, immediate gratification. It became such fun that I think I ended up with about 20 or more dog pictures during our Swiss trip.
We walked for hours through Interlaken West, and into Interlaken Ost along the way. Of course, we had no clue of this at the time. We were too busy enjoying the scenery. The sky continued to be blue and clear which made for a glorious site of the Alps near sundown. The pure white of the snow and glaciers glowed with a pinky orange tint above the dark shadows of the mountains in the foreground.
After such a fun filled day, we took the train to Thun and the bus to Gwatt. Once home we started planning our next day. If the weather held, we would try to get to the Jungfrau. Frank pulled out the schedule books and started planning the time co-ordination for the next day's transportation. This is something that we found worked well and made a habit of doing every night before bed.
(Hint: Before you arrive in Switzerland, do some homework of places to go. There are Swiss maps on the Internet and in books. Have an idea of towns to go thru and start with towns close to your destination and the time you would like to arrive and work backwards with the schedule to see the time to leave. For most trips this worked well.)
(Recommendation: Purchase the book "Swiss Bernese Oberland: A Travel Guide with Specific Trips to the Mountains, Lakes and Villages" by Philip Alspach, Loretta Alspach Available on Amazon.com It was the most helpful book that we purchased.)