What is about travelling by train that incites the romantic in all of us? Maybe it’s because it is one of the least hectic methods of travel with some of the best views and one of the most efficient ways to traverse a country and take in the highlights of each city that you stop by.
Switzerland is one of those countries that train travel should come naturally. Within a week, you can cover Bern, move around three cities on the edge of Lac Leman (Lake Geneva), saw two glaciers, headed back north to Interlaken and Lucerne, all by train, before heading back to Zurich.
There’s a Bernese saying that goes, “Switzerland has watches but Bern has the time.” The words ring true, especially for many of us who live in capital cities like Singapore or Kuala Lumpur and sport Swiss-movement watches on our arms. The laid-back nature of the Bernese and cobblestone city centre are far from the makings of a capital, yet Bern is the capital of Switzerland and a UNESCO World Heritage Site as well.
The Old Town of Bern is a great introduction to Switzerland that will quickly get travellers acquainted with this laid-back lifestyle. Take in a full view of the city from the Rose Garden that blooms 223 rose varieties in spring for unrivalled views of Bern. Framed by the Aare River, the medieval town has a 6km-arcade of sandstone facades punctuated by Renaissance stone fountains topped with colourful effigies (from which pure and potable spring water flows from). While Bern has an exceptional public transport system, itis best to explore the city on foot to uncover the city’s secrets, such as the many vaulted cellars that line the streets. Used in the middle ages to keep goods at a cool temperature in summer and winter, many of the vaulted cellars have now been converted into shops, cafes and even galleries, giving visitors a whole new world to explore underground.
Travelling on foot will also bring you to prominent landmarks in Bern. As Bern is the seat of Switzerland’s government, a visit to the Federal Palace of Switzerland (Houses of Parliament) is a must in the world’s oldest neutral country. An outstanding symbol of politics to all nations, Bern’s take on governance is to allow visitors to see focal points of the buildings, and follow the debates from public galleries when parliament is sitting and even organise a meeting with a member of their choice.
While the Federal Palace of Switzerland is an important piece of architecture to the Swiss, the Cathedral of Bern (Das Berner Munster) and Bern Clock Tower (Zytglogge) hold much more significance to the local Bernese. The Cathedral of Bern is Switzerland’s largest ecclesiastic building done in a Late Gothic style. Over the main portal is the depiction of the Christian belief of the Last Judgement where the righteous are separated from the wicked. This diorama watches over parishioners who walk in through the front door — a reminder of the fate that be falls mankind in time to come.
As for the Clock Tower, visitors can view the ornate astronomical clock with its parade of bears and dancing jester on the outside or take a secret tour into the clock’s tower to see the intricate mechanics of the clock. Pendulums swing, and gears and cogs click second by second mechanically in the top room of the tower. This impressive mechanism is said to have been in motion since it was built some 800 years ago — a precedent to the now famous and reliable Swiss movement perhaps.
It is said that theoretic al-physicist Albert Einstein was inspired by the Clock Tower in May 1905. The brilliant scientist had imagined a streetcar moving away from the tower at the speed of light and it was then that he had his breakthrough moment that helped outline his paper on the ‘special theory of relativity’ in six weeks. His scientific discoveries are what help modern day scientists understand our world today. For the casual couch scientist, head to the Bern Historical Museum, which has an extensive exhibition devoted to Einstein’s personal life and his theory of general relativity broken down into simplified video explanations.
From Bern, we head south towards Lausanne, but not before making a quick stop at Broc-Fabrique, home of Maison Cailler, the oldest brand of Swiss chocolate still in existence. Even before our train pulls up to the station, the strong smell of cocoa beans roasting hits us and our mouths start to water at the thoi ‘gilt of trying one of Switzerland’s most established brands of chocolate. It doesn’t take much effort to use our noses as guides to find the all-white maison with a calligraphic Cailler brandished at the top. The museum/factory has self-guided tours that take visitors on a spectacular journey from bean to bar through specially designed rooms with special effects that tell the history of chocolate-making, how Cailler brought this art to Switzerland and a shortened factory walkthrough of making a simple piece of Cailler milk chocolate. The tour then culminates in a sample room where visitors can taste test various chocolates, pralines and bonbons produced right at Maison Cailler. Fulfil souvenir requirements for friends and family back home by stocking up on Cailler chocolate products in the gift shop or, indulge in a rich and frothy hot or ice cold chocolate beverage with a pastry at the cafe.
With chocolate-filled bellies, we continue on to Lausanne, the first of three cities we visit that are located along the shores of Lac Leman. Lausanne is famous two things: for being the final resting place of Coco Chanel (she’s buried in Cimetiere duBois-de-Vaux), and for being the Olympic Capital of the world. Lausanne was chosen as the headquarters of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) by Baron Pierre de Coubertin for its peaceful surroundings in 1915. Today, it is where the President of the IOC resides and where The Olympic Museum is located.
For anyone who wants an in-depth study on the Olympics, from its beginnings in Greece to the most currently held games in Rio de Janeiro, The Olympic Museum is to be visited. It is possible to spend a whole afternoon walking around the 3,000m2 interactive exhibits that showcase the things like the first Olympic flag, how the games are chosen and the various lanterns and torches that carry the Olympic flame from Olympus itself to the host country of the games, as well as significant events in the Olympics’ history, and even sports memorabilia from medallists in the games. It is worth it to hire a guide just to learn more details about the Olympics in general and to find hidden gems within the exhibits.
After a day in Lausanne, we move on towards Riederalp for a taste of the Swiss alps. Getting to Riederalp requires making a stop in Morel first to take the cableway up to the ski resorts. Along the way, however, many choose to make a detour at Vevey first, the second city of this leg of the tour that faces Lac Leman. Its lakeside promenade makes for a perfect post-lunch stroll, where bronze statues of sea nymphs riding sea horses arise from the water of the lake. There are other notable statues as well, such as the Giant Fork that sticks out of the lake and the statue of Charlie Chaplin facing the waters.
Charlie Chaplin, the iconic English comedian of the silent film era, spent his last years in Vevey in Manoir de Ban, which was recently converted into a museum just in 2016. The museum retraces the life of the cinematographic genius, while the adjoining studio immerses visitors into the world of silent film. Those with extra time on their hands can even stay to walk around the expansive park where the manoir is built on. The 10-acre estate is a slice of nature that has unobstructed views of Lake Geneva and the alps all year round.
It isn’t enough to just look at the alp s in Switzerland, being at the Swiss alps itself is just as integral to the experience of visiting Switzerland. We take a short train ride from Vevey to Morel where the cableway station is located to easily get to Art Furrer Hotels in Riederalp Mitte, a ski resort. Mid to late winter is the best time to visit Riederalp as this is when snowfall is the thickest and the ski slopes are in full swing. The piste slopes are great for skiers and snowboarders and the surrounding bunny hills near the cafes are perfect for novice snow sport enthusiasts or those who just want a couple of exhilarating rides on a small snow sledge.
Riederalp is also the gateway to viewing the Aletsch Glacier, which is the largest glacier in the alps. The striking glacier can be fully taken in from the viewing point just a short walk away from Moosfluh Station near the ski resort. Look out for the Matterhorn on the way up to the glacier. The peak made famous by Tobelerone chocolates is also clearly visible on the walk over.