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Swiss Alps visit reveals grand views, quiet moments, 'Top of Europe'

LUCERNE, Switzerland — It is nearly 9 p.m. and the sky still clings to daytime in this romantic city on the shore of Lake Lucerne. While we eat creamy veal and mushrooms with crispy potatoes at the Old Swiss House, an impressive thundershower sweeps through, cooling the air and making already clean streets and sidewalks even more pristine.

Walking off dinner and dessert seems like a good idea. The famous Löwendenkmal — Lion Monument — is just a "two-minute walk" away. We are dubious, having spent nearly a week following Swiss guides more accustomed to inclines than we Floridians over hill and dale (and up and down stairs). Ten-minute walks were more like 20, with stops to gawk at snow-covered mountaintops and centuries-old buildings. And for some of us, to catch our breath.

But guide Sibylle is correct, and in just a few steps, the Löwendenkmal rises above us, expressive and regal. The nearly 200-year-old monument carved from a cliff commemorates Swiss guards killed in Paris during the French Revolution. But this is no triumphant memorial. The lion does not roar in victory. He is dying, and in his last moments reminding all who visit about the human price of war.

Mark Twain once called the monument "the most mournful and moving piece of stone in the world." In the twilight, with just a faint reflection on the pond that separates lion from visitors, it seems even more solemn. Small bats swoop and dive in front of us. The foliage rustles slightly. The air is damp.

I return the next day in full sunlight, which brings plenty of camera-toting tourists and lifts the sadness a bit. I am still thinking of Twain and his 1880 book A Tramp Abroad. He contemplated the lion in this spot, too. But I feel bad for Twain. No iPad to document the visit via Facebook, and likely no Swiss rail pass to hurry him back to Zurich and then to the States.

Then again, maybe time for thoughtful introspection is better.

A direct connection

I was on the inaugural Edelweiss Air nonstop flight from Tampa to Zurich on May 25, traveling with a group of writers and photographers from the Tampa Bay area. Our jam-packed itinerary was put together by Switzerland Tourism with the intent of showing us the highlights within short train rides from the country's largest city. Tourism officials kept us on the move. Somehow, they must have known that left to our own devices we might have sat at sidewalk cafes the entire time. Another cappuccino, please.

With comfortable walking shoes, we explored Fribourg and the medieval village of Gruyeres (Cheese! Chocolate!), Interlaken, the Jungfrau, plus Lucerne and nearby Mount Pilatus. We spent two nights in each location, getting acquainted with what has to be one of the world's best public transportation systems. We traveled by all manner of trains, plus buses, boats and funiculars, which hauled us up impossibly steep hills when our feet protested.

Most of our young guides had no cars. With a super-punctual train system that gets them nearly anywhere they need to go, and buses to fill in the gaps, they need not worry about the price of gas, which is nearly $6 a gallon. One thing to keep in mind about the train system: When the schedule says departure time is 9:13 a.m., believe it. Swiss timing isn't just for fancy watches.

In our short time in Switzerland, we sampled visual splendors and culinary specialties. Among the highlights were fondue at the Fleur de Lys restaurant in Gruyeres, which has the most entertaining toilet we'd ever seen (more on that later), and a terrace luncheon at the Hotel Art Deco Montana in Lucerne. The food was wonderful, but the view of glittery Lake Lucerne ringed by snow-capped mountains was better.

Mountains are Switzerland's thing. Everywhere you look there is another one — taller, snowier and showier than the last. But the grandest of all is the Jungfrau.

And we went right to the top.

The 'Top of Europe'

"I love my mountains," says guide Sandra, who is 50-something and as pixieish as a garden gnome. (And we see plenty of those through the windows of the trains. Plus, happy cows with bells around their necks.) She tells us how people get emotional (and also light-headed from the altitude) when they see the Jungfrau blanketed in snow at closer to eye level.

In the busy season, Sandra brings groups to what's often called the "Top of Europe," the Jungfraujoch (the expanse between the Jungfrau and Mönch mountains in the Bernese Alps where the visitor center and Europe's highest-altitude railway station sit), three times a week from the tourist town of Interlaken, a good base for lots of outdoor adventures, including biking and hiking. The top of the mountain is 13,642 feet; Interlaken just 1,860.

We spy the craggy bits of the Jungfrau from the wide meadow in the center of Interlaken. It doesn't seem that far away, but the journey takes 2 ½ hours via three trains. The last one is a cogwheel train that travels in tunnels through the Eiger and Mönch mountains. The air changes from warm to frigid as we get closer. Sandra calls it "fresh." In the valley, it's shorts weather. On the mountain, a down jacket isn't too much.

And when we finally see the peak, I get teary.

The grandness of the landscape is overwhelming. In some places, you are above the clouds. The view is clear for minutes at a time, then a cotton candy mist surrounds the mountains, and in a cosmic way you are part of the weather. The soupy sky gives way moments later, and the whipped cream peaks are clear again.

I hear someone singing The Hills Are Alive from The Sound of Music, and that snaps me out of my reflective mood. That's Austria, not Switzerland, buddy, but the song fits nevertheless, though now it's stuck on an endless loop in my brain. (I don't tell anyone, but I've been mentally warbling Edelweiss ever since I boarded the plane in Tampa.)

The beauty of the Jungfraujoch comes with lots of tourist trappings, including a crowded ice cave with kitschy carvings. There are gift shops and restaurants, including the Bollywood Café that caters to Indian tourists, of whom there are many in April and May. Oh, and you can buy expensive Swiss watches at the Top of Europe. The Rolexes and Tag Heuers are too rich for my blood. I envision a T-shirt that says "My Mom went to the Jungfrau and all I got was a melted snowball."

I bring memories back in my head and camera.

A little downtime

In the few moments we get to relax, we find respite in taverns, pubs and a crazy little bar in the Hotel du Nord in Interlaken. We dubbed it the "cozy bar" — gemütlichkeit in the local German — because we have to walk sideways to squeeze past other patrons and onto stools. We have bedtime drinks here two nights in row, pantomiming orders to the bartender who understands not a lick of English, French or Spanish, all languages that we use successfully in other spots. Switzerland is a multilingual country, and knowing a few words in these languages, plus German or Italian, serves you well. Nearly everyone we talk to speaks some English, many of them quite a bit.

In the "cozy bar" we learn that the Swiss may have impeccable timing, but they don't know much about Florida college loyalty. American license plates decorate two narrow walls and include a University of Florida tag. Someone has stuck a Florida State Seminole sticker on the gator's belly. Inside the belly would be more like it.

The unlikely reunion of the Gator and Seminole tickles us nearly as much as the auto-sanitizing toilet at the Fleur de Lys. Once you stand up, the seat rotates 360-degrees through a sanitizing mist, changing shapes as it moves. Maybe it was the jet lag, but we giggle and imagine an entertaining website: toiletsofeurope.com.

By week's end, we are acclimated to the time zone and less likely to find laughs in the bathroom. On our last night in Switzerland, we go upscale, joining the jazz society in our hotel.

On Thursday nights at the Hotel Art Deco Montana in Lucerne, locals gather in the Louis Bar to listen to live jazz. On the drink menu is a Montana Russian: Kahlúa, milk and Malibu rum. I want it without the coconut rum, which seems too tropical for the Alps, but the bartender has difficulty understanding me. I tweak it in primitive German spoken with a lousy accent: "Eine Kahlua und Milch, bitte. Drei Eis." I want three ice cubes . . . not the usual one. The drink appears perfectly correct for 12 Swiss francs (about $13), a kingly sum but delicious nonetheless.

Tomorrow, the nonstop flight returns to Tampa. But tonight I know that Lake Lucerne is below, and the Alps are beyond the water, and I will see it all from my balcony when I awake in the morning. And just down the hill in the old town is that sad lion.

Maybe it's the cocktail talking, but like Twain, I feel a bit like I've tramped abroad, albeit on a schedule that runs like clockwork. How very Swiss.

Janet K. Keeler can be reached at jkeeler@tampay.com or (727) 893-8586.

. IF YOU GO

A Switzerland sampler

GETTING THERE

Edelweiss Air flies nonstop from Tampa to Zurich every Friday. The airline will launch a Tuesday flight as well on July 3 for the summer, then scale back to one again for winter. The flight leaves at 7:05 p.m. and arrives in Switzerland at 10:15 a.m. local time the next day. The return flight leaves Zurich about 1 p.m. and arrives in Tampa at roughly 5:20 p.m. (Switzerland is six hours ahead of Eastern time.) It's a 9 1/2-hour flight, which shortens the trip travel time by as much as five hours from flights for which you need to change planes and have lengthy layovers. Plus, coming through customs in Tampa is less stressful than in busier airports. A round-trip ticket in July is about $1,350 for a coach seat, which is comparable to other airlines flying to Zurich, including US Airways and Delta. An economy saver round-trip fare in early November currently is $1,167. There is no fee for the first checked bag. After you book a flight, you select seats, and there are fees for premium seats with extra legroom or in exit rows.

Zurich is in Central Europe, and from there it's about four hours by train to Munich or Milan, Italy, and about six hours to Paris. Within Switzerland, Lucerne is an hour by train, and Geneva is about three hours away.

GETTING AROUND

The Swiss operate one of the best public transportation systems in the world. The trains are clean and punctual. You can see a lot from the window of a train.

If you are traveling only in Switzerland, a Swiss Pass lets you ride unlimited trains, plus it's good for bus and boat travel. It also provides a 50 percent discount on gondolas, funiculars and mountain trains, plus includes free entry to lots of museums as well as discounts at other sites. An eight-day, first-class Swiss Pass is about $665. For more information, go to swiss-pass.ch.

WHERE TO STAY

I was part of a press contingent that took the first flight from Tampa on May 25. Our itinerary and accommodations were arranged by Switzerland Tourism, and the Times paid a press rate. Most of the train stations have tourist information if you're the type of traveler who wants to book accommodations on the fly. You'll find youth hostels, luxury hotels and everything in between. If you prefer to plan in advance, go to myswitzerland.com for listings and tripadvisor.com for more advice and reviews by other travelers.

In the medieval town of Fribourg, we stayed at Au Parc Hotel, a business hotel away from the old town but right on a convenient bus line. Front desk employees are extremely helpful. Single rooms start at $160 and doubles start at $215. For more information, go to auparc-hotel.ch.

In Interlaken, our base was the Hotel du Nord, a perfect location, though a tad noisy, on the city's main street. The train station is about a 10-minute level walk so it was easy to roll our suitcases there at the end of our stay. Across the street is a wide meadow where paragliders land, as well as a great Swiss army knife store. (They personalize knives for free.) Single rooms start at $170 and doubles start at $200. For more information, go to swissdreamshotels.com.

In Lucerne, we stayed at the Hotel Art Deco Montana, which sits high on a hill, connected to the street below by a steep (and free) funicular. If you can, get a room overlooking Lake Lucerne and the snow-covered Alps. Single rooms start at $203 and doubles start at $301, with prices varying during the season. For more information, go to hotel-montana.ch.

OTHER PARTICULARS

Switzerland has a population of about
7.8 million and is roughly the size of Vermont and New Hampshire combined. It is multilingual, and depending on where you are, the locals will speak German, French, Swiss-German, Italian and/or English. Most people speak enough English so that it's easy for monolingual Americans to get by. If you speak a bit of French or German, you'll be in even better shape, especially in small villages.

Switzerland is not in the European Union so it does not use the euro. The monetary unit is the Swiss franc, of which the lowest bill is 10 CHF. There are 5, 2 and 1 CHF coins, plus smaller denominations. The exchange rate at the Zurich airport was about 89 cents U.S. to the Swiss franc. You'll do better at a Swiss bank, at 93 cents.

Edelweiss is the unofficial national flower of Switzerland, though good luck seeing one even in spring, when blooms are popping up everywhere. Its season is fleeting in the Swiss Alps.

Janet K. Keeler

Swiss Alps visit reveals grand views, quiet moments, 'Top of Europe' 06/15/12 [Last modified: Saturday, June 16, 2012 10:36pm]

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