HOME AT FIRST's
SPECTACULAR LODGING LOCATIONS
Experience Life in Switzerland
SWITZERLAND IS MUCH MORE THAN AN
ALPINE PLAYGROUND, BUT NEVER LESS.
WITH A CENTRALLY LOCATED SWISS APARTMENT OF YOUR OWN, YOU CAN READILY
EXPLORE YOUR SWISS HOME REGION OF GREAT NATURAL BEAUTY AND CULTURAL INTEREST.
THERE WILL BE CHOCOLATE-BOX VILLAGES TO DISCOVER, AND — MOST PLACES —
MOUNTAIN-RIMMED LAKES TO CRUISE, CITIES WITH SUPERLATIVE SHOPPING AND IMPORTANT
MUSEUMS. THERE WILL BE SCENIC TRAIN RIDES, AND EVEN MORE SCENIC POSTAL BUS
RIDES. AND THEN THERE WILL BE THE HEART-FLUTTERING AERIAL CABLE CARS SWINGING
SUSPENDED AMONG THE SNOWCAPS. THE ALPS WILL BE A FOCUS: FOR HIKING, FOR CYCLING,
FOR CLIMBING ON FOOT OR BY CABLEWAY, BUT ALWAYS FOR GAWKING, FROM THE TRAIN, THE
BUS, THE BOAT, OR FROM THE COMFORT OF YOUR OWN SWISS VACATION APARTMENT, BOOTS
ON OR OFF.
SAMPLER OF THINGS TO SEE AND DO
Switzerland is, among other things, home to more of the world's great
train rides than anywhere else. Some, like the Glacier Express, are
famous. Others, like the Centovalli, less so. Of all the great train
rides of Switzerland, only the Bernina Express between Thusis and Tirano
— and especially that portion of the line from Pontresina across the
Bernina Pass steeply down to the line's end at Tirano, Italy, has earned
World Heritage Site status. The Bernina Line has our vote as
Switzerland's top rail journey, too. We bet you'll agree.
GET UP A HEAD OF STEAM —
BRIENZER ROTHORN STEAM LOCOMOTIVE PUSHES
TWO CARS TOWARD THE SUMMIT.
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Then there are train rides that go nowhere, slowly building the
spectacle until you finally understand why they built this crazy
railway. Switzerland has more than a few of these that lead from
someplace low to someplace very high, and very open. Our favorite is the
Brienzer Rothorn Bahn, a railway that uses green tea kettles to push
red, open-windowed passenger cars steeply up past unconcerned cows to
the lofty knife ridge just below the summit of the Brienzer Rothorn. The
views are grand. Of course there is a restaurant at the top. But the
ride is the thing, building anticipation like a great suspense film
before rewarding you with a climactic view of the alpine summits of the
TAKE A CRUISE —
LAKE BRIENZ BELOW THE BRIENZER
ROTHORN EAST OF INTERLAKEN.
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If the steamer up the Brienzer Rothorn is all about suspense surrounded
by pastoral beauty, the cruise across Lake Brienz — at the base of the
Brienzer Rothorn mountain — is all about relaxed tranquility surround by
nature's majesty. Neatly, the boat ride ends at the chalet town of
Brienz just across the street from the station platforms where the
curiously slanted steam locomotives of the Brienzer Rothorn Bahn pant
TAKE A CHANCE —
THE OPEN, LIGHT FUNICULAR BETWEEN THE GELMERSEE AND HANDEGG.
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Switzerland is often unfairly characterized as a theme park disguised as
a nation. Stereotypes, however, must come from somewhere. We nominate
the private — but open to the public — power company funicular railway
between Handegg near the Grimsel Pass and the water power dam at
Gelmersee as a ride to make Disney or Six Flags jealous. Not so much the
ride up to the lake. It's the roller coaster ride back down the hill that will make you lose
your fear of flying forever.
TAKE THE BUS —
TO SAN CARLO, END OF
LINE 62.333 AT THE ALPINE END OF TICINO'S REMOTE BAVONA VALLEY.
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In Switzerland, where trains and boats don't go, other forms of
transportation probably do. Wherever there is a mailbox, the post office
must deliver and collect mail. Many mailboxes are found at the ends of
remote valleys, often beautiful locations far from crowded resorts and
tourist meccas. The roads to and from these mailboxes are sometimes
torturous and dramatic. The biggest vehicles that travel these rural
byways probably belong to the Swiss Post, the nation's second largest
employer, which operates more than 850 bus routes over more than 7,300
route miles in Switzerland and neighboring countries. Postage stamps
alone do not pay for the postal bus service. Passengers — often
including children on their way to/from school — use the postal buses
for adventurous scenic rides full of local color to places. As part of
Switzerland's fully integrated transportation network, postal buses
typically interchange passengers with trains, boats, and cable cars they
meet along their routes.
Cable cars of all sorts — from ground-hugging funiculars to gigantic
aerial cable cars that hang hundreds of feet over the ground — go places
unreachable by train, boat, or postal bus. In winter, of course, these
conveyances carry skiers to the top of their runs, and largely run empty
back down again. But in summer, these lifts — including small gondolas
like the long Grindelwald–Männlichen line passing in front of the Eiger,
above — carry walkers and gawkers to high points, and, much of the time
back down again. What had started as a seasonal operation is now nearly
as popular in summer as in winter, and a wonderfully easy and scenic way
of scaling the Alps.
TAKE A BREAK —
TAKE IN THE VIEW — THE BERNINA ALPS
FROM FUORCLA SURLEJ.
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The Alps are fit for athletes of all ages, genders, and abilities. And,
while many alpine sports are serious competitions, hiking at altitude
need not be one of them. For one, the comprehensive Swiss transportation
network enables reliable, frequent, convenient, and safe access to many
of high alpine places which are logical start and end points for walking
among the peaks and the clouds. For two, Swiss trails are graded,
maintained, and marked with blazes and signs that often include altitude
and march-time information to the next transportation point. The above
seat lets hikers take in one of Switzerland's best views — the Bernina
Alps at the south end of the Roseg Valley on the border with Italy.
Reaching this seat requires walking about 90-120 minutes (for walkers of
reasonable fitness) and an altitude change of about 391m (1,283': 565'
down followed by 718'up). Start point: Station Murtèl on the aerial
cable way from Surlej to Corvatsch. At Station Murtèl, you simply follow
the signs pointing the trail to Fuorcla Surlej (Surlej Pass), the saddle
between Piz Surlej and Piz Corvatsch. There at the pass is a Berghaus,
which sells food and drink and has a grand view of the Bernina Alps. If
you bring your own picnic, you can sit on the natural rock outcropping
in front of the Berghaus and enjoy the view for free, as above. And how
do you get to the Corvatsch aerial cable way valley station at the town
of Surlej? Take the bus from the main street of Pontresina. It goes
hourly and takes 43 minutes without changing buses. How to get back
home? Reverse your journey and have a great view of the Albula Alps over
St. Moritz as you head back to Station Murtèl. Or, if you want more
hiking, follow the trail down from the Berghaus into the Roseg Valley,
then the valley path that becomes a road leading back into Pontresina.
4-6 more hours, depending upon how many breaks you take.
Taking the bus or the train or a boat or a lift to get to the trailhead
is often part of the fun of hiking. But in four of six Home At First
Swiss destinations — Kandersteg, Zermatt, Pontresina, and Mürren — it is
possible to start your hike by walking out the front door of your
vacation home. As for what to bring along — you don't need more than a
day pack stocked with sun and rain protection, a change of shirts, a
jacket or windbreaker, some blister ointment and bandages, a picnic with
fruit, sandwich, and chocolate, and one or two liters of water or tea.
Depending upon your route and your stamina, you may want to bring hiking
poles. Good boots? Always appropriate — but break them in before coming
to Switzerland so you won't need to use the blister ointment and
bandages. About that food and water you'll carry with you. As long as
you are hiking below vegetation line and above the active cow/goat/sheep
pastureland, you will be able to fill your water bottles from streams.
Otherwise, when you encounter water troughs in pastureland that are fed
with open, running water from a spigot, a pipe, or a hose, you can fill
your bottles with fresh, cold, delicious alpine spring water. See a sign
posted at the trough? Don't read German, French, Italian, or Romansch?
Don't take a chance. There will be more troughs without signs someplace
not too far ahead.
WALK THE DOG —
BLAUHERD ABOVE ZERMATT
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The fact is, you see few animals in the Alps — wild or domesticated —
other than grazing cows, sheep, and goats. Up in the heights, it is
possible to hear and occasionally see chamois, ibex, marmots, and —
rarely — a fox. Dogs — except those used for attending livestock — are
almost as rare as foxes. In active pastureland, dogs must be on leads to
be sure they do not disturb the herds and flocks. Plus, dogs are not
generally welcome in hotels and vacation apartments, so few tourists
bring along their pets. So this sighting of a non-working dog
without a leash on the trail ahead of his owners is quite unusual. Even
here at The Mutterhorn. (Sorry...)
More and more extreme attractions have been popping up across "theme
park Switzerland". Many regions offer via ferrata,
klettersteigs, canyoning, bungy jumping, white water rafting, forest
ropeways, climbing walls, zip lines, and other artificial, pulse-raising
adventures. We have seen the young people line up with fistfuls of money
to test their nerve. While we wish we were younger, we remain quite
satisfied with the physical challenges of alpine walking, and excited
enough by some of the postal bus routes and cable car rides we have
taken to and from the trailhead. For those who want the thrill of open
heights while communing with the Eiger North Face, there's a fairly new
Cliff Walk at the First gondola station high above Grindelwald in the
Bernese Oberland. Ride up on the gondola; walk the Cliff Walk to the
plank; take a selfie or two; have a snack at the terrace restaurant;
line down at 50mph to Schreckfield, the next lower station; take the gondola down
from Schreckfield to
the next station, Bort; rent a trottibike scooter at Bort and descend
steeply to Grindelwald. Similar experiences are available throughout
Switzerland. If a good squirt of adrenaline builds your appetite, you
can readily get your daily dose in the Swiss Alps.
Switzerland is perhaps the world's oldest continuous democracy, tracing
the beginnings of its confederation to a meadow above Lake Luzern in
1291 when three central Swiss states swore allegiance one-to-another for
mutual defense and mutual trade. Over the year the Swiss Confederation
of small states grew. At first German-speaking states joined, and
Switzerland remained principally German-speaking until Napoleonic times,
when a new wave of states — called cantons in Switzerland — joined
Switzerland seeking safety, security, mutual defense, and mutual trade
just like the first cantons. The large eastern canton of Graubünden, and
several French-speaking southwestern cantons, plus the Italian-Swiss
canton of Ticino all officially joined Switzerland in the early decades
of the 19th century. Switzerland wasn't always a peaceful, neutral
nation. Before the creation of the Helvetic Republic at the start of the
19th century, turbulence and warfare was common among the Swiss cantons.
Three medieval castles in Bellinzona, Ticino, mark the centuries when
Italian-Switzerland was a sought-after prize by the armies of Italy,
France, and the old Swiss Confederation. So important a crossroads
Bellinzona — where three valleys meet at the southern foot of the
Gotthard Pass — that its three castles have been recognized as a World
CHASE RAINBOWS —
VIA BORGO, ASCONA
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Climbing mountains. Climbing castle walls. Climbing in and out of
trains, boats, buses, and cable cars. Is Switzerland all about climbing?
It's often said that the Swiss live in a vertical world. But that's not
completely true. The horizontal can be as interesting — if not as
heart-racing — as the vertical. Take Ascona, as an example. There are
lovely walks through town that lead to surprising discoveries that may
take your breath away without leaving you breathless. Walk the
promenades along Lake Maggiore in Ascona and Munusio by Locarno. Stroll
the main streets of Zermatt, Kandersteg, Pontresina, and Mürren,
especially early in the morning to buy fresh bread and pastries at the
bakery, or in the evening after a filling supper, or on a rainy day
when going into the mountains isn't such a good plan. There are rainbows
in town, too.
The Swiss do it, too. They stop for a light meal or snack around 4PM.
(They call it "Z'vieri", the four o'clock coffee break.) Mostly, they
don't drink tea. Their coffee is outstanding. Their beer is even better.
And their white wine is crisp, cold, and refreshing. Their light
afternoon meal can be anything from dessert pastries to sandwiches to
dried meat slices and crumbly curls of flavorful mountain cheese. It's
easy to find a place to stop for "Z'vieri" along the trail, in the
dining car, in villages, cities, towns, and, most economically, on your
vacation apartment's balcony or patio terrace. En Guetä! Bon appétit!
Buon appetito! Bien appetit!
Switzerland after dark can be, well,
pretty dark. Especially in small alpine villages and towns. Alpine
people tend to hit the hay early, so they can get up early to cut
the hay. But in Ascona, Locarno, Zermatt, Pontresina, Kandersteg, and —
as shown here — even in the small village of Mürren, evenings come with
opportunities. Restaurants stay busy and cozy until well after dark.
There are often special performances available, too, including Swiss
music and dancing performed by groups wearing the traditional costumes
of their home regions. These evenings are fun social events attended by
local folk and visitors, who sit together at long tables and exchange
greetings and conversation between performances. It's fun to get to know
the Swiss at a relaxed, social gathering. The Swiss show that getting to
know us is fun, too. And sometimes the concert hall can be as much a
treat for the eyes as it is for the ears.