Delightful day trips from centrally placed Bern

If people will go all the way to Italy to take a cooking course or to England to learn rush-weaving, then someone in the tourist business should start dispatching planeloads to Switzerland for the study of those indigenous Swiss products, efficiency and punctuality. That may not sound like a colorful sort of holiday, but if you're accustomed to subway breakdowns, canceled commuter trains, or freeway jams, a week in clockwork country is bound to thrill the senses.

Another magnet is the ever-improving performance of the dollar against the Swiss franc, a ratio that until recently was keeping tourists away in droves. In the February a dollar would get you almost two francs, well up from the 1.43 exchange in the rock-bottom days of late 1978. While this is not guaranteed to start a stampede to Swissair, the 30 percent improvement of the dollar (that's total, since back in 1978) make Switzerland, never a budget traveler's dream, at least more of reality in 1981.

If you wish to add economy to your efficiency-punctuality tour this year, the director of the Swiss National Tourist Office in New York, Helmut Klee, a man who is guardedly pleased with the dollar-franc situation, has two tips: Buy a Swiss Holiday Card and set yourself up in central Switzerland for a week's sorties to all corners of the vestpocket land. Mr. Klee, a droll Swiss from St. Gallen, tapped away at his desktop, computer and figured that the holiday card costs only about $7 a day (or $104, second-class, for 15 days). It can be used on all models -- trains, lake steamers, postal buses -- and counts for reductions on cog railroads and aerial cablecars.

It is a bargain, of course, only if used repeatedly, and that is Mr. Klee's advice for a sensible, economical itinerary: Take a number of full-day or half-day excursions out of a centrally placed city like Bern. Riffling through his Swiss hotel guide (available along with many other travel aids from the tourist office at 608 5th Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10020), he found a likely place of lodging not in Bern but a short commute away in the village of Stettlen. The Hotel Stettlen is a three-star hotel with $30 double rooms, continental breakfast included. To stay in downtown Bern at a three-star would cost two closer to $45.

We spread a map before us, and Mr. Klee drew a series of arrows indicating day trips from Stettlen that no energetic traveler should miss. He drew a long arrow southward to Zermatt, lofty home of the Matterhorn, and when I questioned the distance of such a day trip he said: "It is no problem. From top to bottom and east to west, it is never more than four hours by train in Switzerland."

Next day he would go east from Stettlen/Bern through the heart of the Alps, a train-bus voyage over the Three Passes --Grimselpass, Furkapass, and Sustenpass. "Another day I would go to Lucerne, the prettiest city we have in Switzerland, and the fourth day I would go west to Gstaad -- well, it is fashionable in winter, but in spring and summer I would go right through to Montreux. Here you can see the Castle of Chillon and of course Lake Geneva. On the fifth day I would go all the way to the end of the lake, to Geneva -- the most outspoken French city, the city of Calvin, the European headquarters of the UN."

Two half-day junkets he suggested were to Murten, just west of Bern, "one of our medieval cities which is still surrounded by a stone wall," and to Neuchatel for a lake steamer ride to Biel, and back to Bern by train. Not that bern itself should be overlooked. "Bern is nearly 800 years old," said Helmut Klee. "It is our capital, but it still has the charm of a small city of 140,000 inhabitants and there is a very pleasant square mile in the inner city, a place with fountains and arcades, which are nice over your head when it rains."

Obviously the key to the Klee tour is the speed, frequency, and timeliness of Swiss trains. "If you are 30 seconds too late to the station, forget to run," he said. "The train will be gone."

Our trip was over, and yet for Mr. Klee the best part was still ahead. If you fly in and out of Zurich, he said, rising to his feet for emphasis, you will get to use the new pride of Swiss transport, the rail station beneath the airport. "How beautiful it works. Wherever you get on the train in Switzerland on the last morning --supposing it is Bern -- you will be given your airplane seat assignment and have your bags checked all the way to the States."

Now he was thumbing through a railroad timetable. "Here, there is a train from Bern to Zurich at 9:32 in the morning, arrives Zurich at 11:17, and there is a flight at noon, so you go right to the gate at the Zurich airport above the train station with no worries about a seat or your baggage. Even if you are down in St. Mortiz, you can leave at 7 a.m. the day of your flight and be on the noon plane."

Of course these linkups are not accidental. Trains from all over Switzerland are meant to connect with flights from Zurich's new rail and air hub. Helmut Klee said the train traffic in and out of Zurich airport station coincides with three daily flying peaks -- 8 a.m., noon, and 5 p.m. All intercontinental flights are ticketed to leave during the noon rush.

All in all, I told him, his suggested itinerary sounded a bit ambitious. But no doubt it can be done. It says so right there in the schedules on Helmut Klee's desk.

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