To take a train across Switzerland—with a backpack—wasn’t exactly on our bucket list, yet that was exactly what we did last July.
Now we know why experiencing Switzerland, from its drizzly land weather and sunlight-drenched village fields to its cool mountain air or the freezing cold in the glacier, should be on anyone’s bucket list. It gives you a good sample of the natural flavors the earth has to offer—and a good insight into what you can enjoy if man doesn’t trample them.
As the world knows, the Swiss do things efficiently, properly and promptly. We could set our watch on the train schedule of a people who live by the minutiae of life. It was not a minor achievement that we never missed our train; the best way to do Switzerland is by train.
It is an exaggeration to say we traveled on our backpacks; we just had our backpacks for our itinerant needs as we lugged our luggage from one destination to another, train platform to platform.
It was our colleague, Lifestyle Asia editor in chief Anna Sobrepeña, who arranged this ambitious itinerary with the Swiss Ambassador Ivo Seiber, and who tagged us along.
From Zurich with its lovely weather, its old part of town and easy trams, we took the train—our first on this trip—to Lucerne.
It was a smooth ride, and whatever anxiety we had vanished as soon as we stepped out of the Lucerne train station and glimpsed far ahead the centuries-old Chapel Bridge (circa 1300), a wood structure lined with colorful blossoms, arching over the Reuss river. (Since the Middle Ages, Lucerne has been known as the city of bridges.)
Unfolding before us was one of the most photographed scenes in the world. It looked as pretty and idyllic as it did in postcards—the calm blue water reflecting the blue skies, the late spring blooms providing the bursts of red, orange and yellow, the ancient wood of the bridges serving as imposing reminders of history.
This was the Lucerne that greeted us, and suddenly, Anna and I felt like we were teens again whose limbs could carry us through the length and breadth of this ancient city of churches, palaces and squares. That feeling was correct—partly.
Lucerne is a city known for its bridges, built as fortifications centuries ago and are now probably among the best promenade spots in the world.
Hotels, churches, restaurants, culture attractions and marketplaces line the riverbanks. To experience all these lifestyle structures, one can walk, walk and walk. And that we did, impeded only by the occasional drizzle.
Dragging our luggage from the train station on to the riverbank promenade, across the Chapel Bridge, and finally to our Hotel des Balances, was a long process not because of the distance, but because we simply had to stop every few steps to snap the scenery.
There were many tourists—Lucerne gets about one million overnight stays and is visited by five million day guests a year—yet the view remains romantic and serene.
The Chapel Bridge, the oldest preserved wooden bridge in Europe, has a series of 17th-century paintings of the old Swiss life. A good part of the bridge was destroyed by fire in 1993, but it reopened in 1994 with many of the paintings recopied.
The Jesuit Church caught our eye instantly from the balcony of our hotel, because of its dome towers shaped like onion bulbs. It is said to be the first Baroque church in Switzerland.
One can spend the day exploring the bridges, the historic walls, the squares of this scenic city, dine in the cafés along the riverbank, or rise early to buy the fresh produce laid out on the street markets.
Evening cloaked the city in another disguise, as the endless strings of light created a melancholic sight in the darkness.
On our first day, we took the steamer boat and sailed on Lake Lucerne—a bucket-list experience for anyone.
The lakeside view was breathtaking. Rolling past us were the green mountains and hills, with houses both quaint and small and palatial dotting them. Lucerne sits on the foothills of the Alps.
The Lake Lucerne cruise was long enough to let us relax, enjoy a good fine-cuisine meal, and have many Instagram and Facebook moments.
The next day let us experience the mountains—more than that, the glaciers. Excursions to the Alps are a staple of a Switzerland trip. People ride Europe’s oldest mountain railway all the way up to Mount Rigi or the world’s steepest cogwheel train to the top of Mount Pilatus.
Instead of those, we went to Mount Titlis because our host thought we wanted to have fun and games on a glacier. In fact, we did—after conquering our fear of the unknown.
We took a train to the idyllic mountain community of Engelberg (population 4,000), founded in 1120 by the Benedictine monks. “Engelberg” means “angel mountain,” and one indeed felt protected by the angel up there, 1,800 meters above sea level.
Engelberg was a quiet community of what used to be farmlands, until tourism became a source of viability as much as agriculture was.
From here, we hopped on a revolving aerial cable car, the Rotair, to the top of Mount Titlis. The higher we went, the ascent felt exhilarating as columns and columns of pine trees descended behind us. In a few seconds, the green landscape receded completely, replaced with a white universe of snow.
At 3,000 meters above sea level, Mount Titlis is the highest accessible peak in Lucerne. It has the first revolving cable car in the world. In this snow-covered mountain are restaurants offering various cuisines, from Swiss to Italian.
It was a unique experience to dine in a Swiss chalet while looking out onto the glacier and taking in the alpine view. Could there really be a world such as this?
This trip to the glacier is certainly for the family. There are snow slides, rowing and kick-scooters. We did the snow slides and kick-scooters—with our tour guide, a nice guy, doing all the work. All we had to do was sit and scream as we glided down the glacier. (The glacier trip has skilled and amiable guides.)
In our nonwinter trainers, not even snow boots, we hobbled in the snow, walked as far as our feet could manage. We went inside a glacier cave, which felt like a surreal movie scene, its glittering white ice walls cast in a somnolent blue light. We were right inside the glacier.
We did the Titlis Cliff Walk on Europe’s highest suspension bridge (3,041 meters altitude) in the summit—and took a selfie there.
But the ultimate selfie was on the Ice Flyer glacier chair lift. We were strapped on the open chair, lifted up and glided over the glacier. This was even better than and far different from being up on the mountain. We never paraglided in Boracay for we were too scared; now we were sailing above the glacier.
They say that at 3,239 meters above sea level—that’s even higher than where we were in Mount Titlis—one could greet the sunrise and see most of Swtizerland. We didn’t have to go that far up.
Where we were, we felt on top of the world—in our neon green trainers. A bright world, indeed.
www.luzern.com, Tel. +41(0)412271717; www.titlis.ch
The author is on Twitter (ThelmaSSanJuan) and Instagram (thelmasiosonsanjuan).