We, my family of two adults and four teens, begin our Swiss adventure in Lucerne, a lakeside city of 80,000. Its iconic Chapel Bridge stretches diagonally across the Reuss River and, in summer, is draped on both sides with a continuous splash of bright pink, red and yellow blooms. Our family of two adults and four teens strolls along the 14th Century bridge soon after our arrival from the US, occasionally remembering to appreciate the triangular paintings at intervals overhead, telling the story of Lucerne’s history. But alas teenagers (and husbands) are more interested in the gelato stores visible on the far shore.
After satisfying our sweet tooths (teeth?), we climb atop the left-most tower of the 14th Century Musegg wall, which provides a sweeping view of the compact city. Part of that view is dark clouds heading our way. Just as the skies open, a bus returns us to our HomeAway rental. Joining us for the ride are several beautiful dogs. Welcomed nearly everywhere in Switzerland, we encounter dogs in most stores, some restaurants, on buses and trains. For dog-lovers, it makes the country even more heavenly – and that’s before we have cheese or chocolate. “I could live here,” I say, petting a nearby dog. “But only in the summer.” “That would be pretty much this month,” says my husband.
The following morning, a train and gondola ride whisk us to the peak of Mount Pilatus. Hiking its Flower Trail, each tiny clump of ground cover is labelled with the flower’s German name. My youngest, at seventeen, reads each sign aloud in her not-at-all-German accent. German words are long, by the way, and the hike takes an extra half-hour for the commentary. Surely the flowers appreciate the acknowledgement, as they struggle so mightily to maintain a foothold (roothold) in the craggy earth. Failing to find the “Echo Spot” so lauded in guidebooks, we entertain our fellow hikers by yelling “echo” every hundred yards or so. No luck. Unless you count the verbal responses of the other teenagers, which are mostly “Echo,” except when they aren’t.
A hidden gem in Lucerne is the Mirror Maze located at the back of Glacier Garden near the Dying Lion Monument. Created in 1896 for the Swiss National Exhibition in Geneva, the maze consists of 90 mirrors set at right angles, leading participants on a disorienting, if hilarious, journey. We have the attraction to ourselves that day, perhaps our “Echo” reputation precedes us, and the kids attempt to surprise one another, more often jumping into another mirror than their quarry. I’ve not laughed so hard in quite some time. The amount of window cleaner that place must consume…
Our next stop is Wengen, not “wenjun”, but Vengen, or so I am corrected innumerable times by my culturally sensitive (or perhaps just hypercritical) companions. However it’s pronounced, the small village perched high above Lauterbrunnen is a window onto the most beautiful vistas I’ve ever seen. “Glacier National Park on steroids” is not far from the truth. The views from virtually anywhere in town are literally breathtaking. And not just because of the altitude and slope of the city streets. Photographs cannot hope to capture the humbling immensity of the alps, the shifting colors of the cliffs as the sun tracks across the sky, the shadows traveling the valley floor, putting structures alternately in highlight and relief.
The first afternoon we explore, ending up on a trail out of town. Moments later we come upon an open green field overlooking the valley and alps beyond. For an hour we simply sit, in awe, take photos, break out in song (“The Hills are Alive”, of course, and honestly it’s more of a solo), take more photos, and absorb nature at its most incredible.
Below, in the Valley of the 72 Waterfalls, Trummelbach Falls is unique, cutting caverns into the bedrock. Perfect for a rainy day, the falls are viewed from platforms within the mountain, 20,000 liters (5300 gallons) per minute of fresh snow- and glacier-melt create a thunderous clamor. The spray soaks everything, apparently “water-proof” doesn’t imply mist-proof.
One morning we take a gondola ride from the center of town for the Mannlichen to Klein Scheidigg hike. Following the fairly level and well-traveled trail leads us toward the triad of alps: Eiger, Monch, and Jungfrau. The hike is accompanied by the music of hundreds of cowbells clanging across the valleys. As a visitor, I found the tolling musical and lovely. Not sure about the cows, or sheep.
Upon our return in glorious weather, and knowing future days were predicted to be less clear, we move up our para-gliding reservation. I had been surprised, weeks earlier, when my acrophobic husband agreed to the adventure. “If it’s the most awesome thing to do, we should do it,” he said. I may have led him a wee bit.
Hurrying to the train to meet our guides, my husband observes tiny colored dots circling way above. “That’s not what we’re planning to do, is it?” Uh oh. But he is a champ – quiet, a bit withdrawn, and he does threaten to kill me if we die – but a champ nonetheless. Safely on the ground, the kids apologize to his guide…no flipping upside-down, no gut-wrenching spins, no roller-coaster swings, and the shortest ride of the bunch. All agree it was an extraordinary, once-in-a-lifetime experience, the latter quite literally for one of us.
Another day is reserved for canyoning. Bussed to Grimsel Canyon, we don wet suits and safety gear, then proceed to rappel down cliffs, leap off rocks – big, high rocks – into frigid water, float down rapids, slide down waterfalls, and drop, intentionally, from a zip line. You might wonder why my husband allows me to plan our trips… The trip is professional and safe, but not likely to be duplicated in the insurance-limiting States.
One evening’s hike takes us to a cabin buried in the woods where we are greeted by Tino and his daughter. As he prepares our dinner by candlelight on a wood stove – there is no electricity – he regales us with stories of old Switzerland, of the loggers who originally built the cabin, of the virtues of fondue vs raclette, of his own technique for making cheese from the milk of musical cows we might have hiked by that afternoon. He grew up in Wengen, which had changed little in half a century. Perhaps that explains why his teenage daughter was only visiting.
We end our journey in Zermatt, famous for the Matterhorn, the crooked peak emblazoned on millions of Toblerone bars at fundraising events near you. The owner of our AirBnb is a delightful Australian immigrant who takes great pride in her adopted homeland where she raised two daughters. Though the weather is less cooperative, the sites are still incredible, though not quite so awe-inspiring as Wengen. The lush landscape is replaced by more of a moonscape – minimal vegetation on grey sand and rock. At Klein Matterhorn skiers pass in full gear, in August, in the Northern hemisphere. Despite being in reasonable shape…for Florida…hiking at nearly 13,000 thousand feet reminds me why blood doping exists.
On the way back to Zurich we spend several hours in the nation’s capital, Bern. There are three sightseeing goals here: the Zytglockenturm, a 16th Century clock that had a (purportedly) wonderful show on the hour. Must have been on a different hour. The Bern bears – cute, but kind of sad in their pit. And anything Einstein. Bern is where he developed his Theory of Relativity, while working as a patent clerk. A museum has wonderful exhibits about his life and work. His apartment is another attraction, but research suggested going inside was not worth the entrance fee. Instead, we took photos from outside. A helpful sign above the entrance reads, EinsteinHaus, which we translated without the guidebook for a change. But what made the location especially interesting was the adjacent coffee shop. Its name, in a similarly large font: Schmuck Café. A perfect photo opportunity with carefully aligned children. You can go: SBB mobile app for train schedules. Research the train pass options. SwissPass is wonderful, but doesn’t cover everything.
About the contributor: Tammy Euliano is a Professor of Anesethesiology at the University of Florida College of Medicine. She enjoys her dogs, reading, writing, and traveling with family.