Traveling the boats, buses, trains, of Switzerland with 13-year-old Geoffrey
Ducati, Yamaha, Boxer, Velos Motas, and Cilo are probably not on the list of tourist attractions you'll pick up from the Swiss National Tourist Board, but they were tops on a list compiled by 13-year-old Geoffrey. Those names and five others represent mopeds and motorcycles that seemed destined to be the highlight of a month of travel in Switzerland. Thankfully, as memories settle, the Alps took precedence.
I had borrowed Geoffrey, my nephew, and arranged for a linkup at Interlaken with his 20-year-old brother, John, who was spending a summer month roaming all over Europe. John had his Eurailpass, that multinational rail ticket, purchased prior to arrival in Europe, that allows for a specified amount of time of hopping on and off any trains, an assortment of lakeboats, and some buses. Geoff and I had the Swiss counterpart, known as the Swiss Holiday Card and available in 4-day, 7-day, 15-day, and 1-month versions. It was our key to spontenous, carefree travel.
With the one all-inclusive travel ticket, Switzerland became a man-sized amusement park. We walked -- to burn off his energy and build up mine -- from station stops, boat landings, and bus depots to castles, to unique museums (geared to intriguing 13-year-olds), through medieval villages, and to historic sights.
We sampled unusual foods and sometimes settled for spaghetti (a staple for small restaurants all over Switzerland). We went on mountain hikes, first with a guide and then, having mastered the challenge and having been overwhelmed by the experience, on our own.
My role as guide and teacher lapsed into the role of student, as we shared the pedaling of a boat on the Zurichsee, laughed about ringing the bell on the Zurich trams (a schoolboy trick told to Geoff by a Swiss friend of mine), and climbed over rocks and rills on mountain paths.
Mealtime was a challenge for a peanut-butter kid. After the first few days, acknowledging that to get anything, one first had to ask for the Karte,m Geoff recognized a few edible items, and learned how to order them in both German and French. He gamely sampled soft drinks -- such as Grapillon, Rivella, and Orangesaft, and quenched his thirst with Henniez or Passugger, two Swiss bottled waters that we carried with us on day excursions.
We both accepted intervals of foraging in local markets, and snacks of Swiss chocolate, as crucial to sustaining selves. Sparing the budget was a bonus of planned picnics.
Language is no problem, in a country where everything "works" and the system is Swiss-wide, even when the language changes from French to German to Italian to the domestic Schweizerdeutsch.
Best of all, the cost comes in at reasonable levels when you stay at Swiss country inns in small villages, with rooms that may lack modern comforts, but have a historic ambience. Although all rooms had a sink, many did not have a private bathroom. Facilities were a few steps down the hall. Room rates figured to about $20 a night for bed and breakfast for the two of us.
Our goal was to see the "real" Switzerland and that included climbing out of the usual tourist troughs. My previous travels in search of Swiss inns were synthesized to share "the best" with Geoff and John. The Krone in Trogen provided a perfect perch for walks in the meadow-filled mountains of the Appenzell region in eastern Switzerland. The Hirschen in Matten, a village on the outskirts of better known Interlaken, proved ideal as a base for our day journey up the Jungfrau (which we could see from the inn's front steps), and the Auberge du Raisin at Cully, on the shores of Lac Leman, provided a comfortable small village based for our day exploring the medieval part of Geneva as well as for a sprint through and around the Chateau de Chillon, immortalized by Byron's poem that will become part of Geoffrey's English courses at some future date.
Never underestimate the power of the Swiss transportation system -- for entertainment. A full day aboard a lakeboat, gliding around Lac Leman (for arrival at Chateau Chillon as well as at Geneva), was punctuated with snacks and countless games of gin rummy played according to our own rules since neither of us knew -- or cared -- about the authentic ones.
Trains -- small cars on cog rails to go up the Jungfrau, trolleylike cars that parallel the road to climb up from St. Gallen up to Trogen, and sleek, modern compartments on the longer routes -- offered intriguing experiences. Station benches vied with luggage carts as resting spots as we roamed around the country in search of our own Switzerland, secure with the knowledge that the Swiss Holiday Card in our pockets provided the key to an ever-increasing list of exciting opportunities when our interest was satiated with where we were.
High on the list for both of us (and for all three, when John joined us), were -- and still are:
1. A few days hiking out of Saas Fee, with a guide for the first days (and rented hiking boots easily acquired at a local Schuhhausm ).
2. A long day hiking out of Zermatt, with the awesome Matterhorn in clear view from many angles.
3. Lakeboats, especially the paddle-wheelers that ply the lake at Luzern, better known to Americans as Lucerne. Luzern's railroad station with the transport museum that is a "must" for everyone intrigued by trains, planes, and postal buses in all sizes, shapes, and vintages.
4. Train rides, especially a long day on the Glacier Express, from Zermatt to Chur, climbing and curving around the Alps.
5. Swiss folk customs, witnessed in "canned" fashion at the tourist-conscious Kindli restaurant in Zurich, and on the spot, for real, at a country fair in one of the villages.
6. Sharing, with equal enthusiasm but for different reasons and from varying perspectives, the experience of Switzerland and the ready, easy hospitality of the Swiss